Dumb Lunch's Contrarian Hip Hop Noisemaking May Work To Their advantage

Knoxville's New Wave: Dumb Lunch, Fine Peduncle, Yung Life

The first thing you notice when you walk into the Dumb Lunch house in Fourth and Gill is a wave of sound—a warm, unsteady pulse of electronic distortion from a wah-wah pedal—humming from the band's rehearsal space, a large front room just off the main hallway with tall ceilings, wood-panelled walls, and a boarded-up fireplace.

"We've been keeping a lot of white noise around just so we can get used to it," says the band's frontman and unofficial spokesperson, who goes simply by the initials D.L. "I think we're going to put it in the songs that we play and embrace the whole lo-fi, noisy aspect of it."

The floor in the rehearsal room is stuffed full of battered, mostly second-hand musical instruments: a mix-and-match drum kit in one corner, an old synthesizer in another, amps and speakers stacked up against the wall, various electronic components scattered around, and all of it connected by a haphazard, criss-crossing network of cords, wires, and duct tape.

The chaos of the room matches the band's music, which is making a transition from the dark, psychedelic hip-hop found on the 2011 albums Royal Blunts and Everywhere We Go It Sounds Like and the fractious, grating noise explosions of their live performances into a new, harder-to-categorize direction.

Dumb Lunch grew out of a series of casual jam sessions among D.L. and the group's other two original members, who go by the name NDN, and Chris What? (Saxophone player Daniel joined in late 2011.) The trio started recording their live jam sessions onto cassette, and then those cassettes became their primary instruments. In performance and on the two albums, Chris and NDN matched up tapes to provide woozy, head-tripping beats while D.L. rapped about butt jokes and drugs. It seemed almost like a parody, particularly when D.L. wore his purple cape and novelty crown, but the experience was too harrowing to be funny.

In performance, Dumb Lunch's stumbling beats take on a darker aspect, as the music collapses into a vortex of noise, volume, and 21st-century underground shock theater. It would all seem nihilistic if not for its obvious performance value, and the distance between the band onstage—D.L.'s cape and crown, the flashing strobe lights, the Iggy Pop-style writhing and contorting—and its members' generally quiet and thoughtful real-life personalities. D.L. describes the band's next project, however, as a complete turnaround—one that will require a woodshedding period for the group to fully come to terms with.

"We're trying to work on a new record and its different from what we've been doing, so we're not playing shows for a while," he says. "Right now we're kind of moving on from the whole hip-hop thing. I think we're going to start working on a project that we've talked about for a while that we're calling Music to Hike To. It's going to be different sounds and movements, and it's probably going to be really long, and mostly instrumental." (The title is literal, D.L. says: "It's specifically for people to hike to.")

That sounds soothing, like the white noise that gently throbs in the background of the band's practice space—ambient noise suited for contemplation and reflection. But the group hasn't quite completed that transition yet. Their current rehearsals and recording sessions are like their live shows: noisy and unpredictable. Drum machine beats and stuttering bass lines collide with the industrial cracks of an amplified flashlight, and D.L.'s strangled, effects-choked howls and scraping, scratching slide guitar rush forward alongside squealing shards of saxophone.

"I found out if I use the metal slide with it I can pretty much make any sound I want with it, from steel-pan sounds to fists-against-the wall sounds," D.L. says of his new favorite instrument. "I don't really know how to play it like most people play it, so I'm not even trying to do that.... In terms of a slide guitar, it's not very good. But in terms of what I'm doing it's perfect."

If anything ties together the band's existing work and its ambition, it is a commitment not just to analog technology but to the cassette tape in particular. All four of the band members are in their early to mid-20s, so they grew up in the digital era, after cassettes had already seemingly passed into oblivion. But a limited resurgence in tapes has started to emerge in the last few years; like the enduring presence of vinyl, limited-edition, low-budget cassette releases are seen as a rebuke to the sound and ever-present convenience of digital music.

"It's physical for me," NDN says of Dumb Lunch's analog preferences. "I like doing things with my hands, and I like having something to hold onto."

Both Royal Blunts and Everywhere We Go were released on tape, but "released" doesn't quite do justice to the band's hands-on, DIY approach. There was no mass production involved; each cassette copy was dubbed by hand, most of them onto tapes that had been used before. (Both albums were also released on CD and are available for download at dumblunch.bandcamp.com. "We'd prefer not to," D.L. says of the digital releases. "But I understand that most people probably wont even listen to it if we don't.")

In some ways, the whole Dumb Lunch project seems specifically designed not to be listened to; from its conceptual rigor and often harsh sounds to its limited web presence and outdated technological approach, the band's efforts (aside from the free downloads) seem calculated to keep Dumb Lunch as far underground as possible. D.L. reflects this contrarian attitude when asked about the artists who have influenced him.

"I feel like not listening to music is my influence," D.L. says. "I'm so sick of listening to music, even the bands I like. Most of the time I just don't listen to anything, because I'm thinking of things in my head. Most of the time I don't really listen to anything."