“We’re not twee, we’re just drawn that way.” So sayeth Matt Harnish, guitarist of the trio known as Bunnygrunt. Comprised of Harnish, drummer Karen Ried, and newest member and bassist Lauren Trull, Bunnygrunt recently reappeared on the St. Louis music scene after a several-year absence with a compilation CD and several live gigs in the last few months. A national debut at the Athens, Georgia, PopFest (August 4–7) at the legendary 40 Watt Club further cemented their return.
A flurry of activity around Bunnygrunt began last fall, prompting the reunion and reenergized faith in the band’s tenacity. Harnish and Ried decided to release a compilation of older tracks and rarities, In the Valley of Lonesome Phil, on Harnish’s own label, the Bert Dax Cavalcade of Stars. On the heels of that decision came the news that a Bunnygrunt song, “Seasons Freaklings,” would be included in the Billy Bob Thornton movie Bad Santa. Trull, who had recently gotten together with Harnish to explore the possibility of joining the band, officially became their third member to play a gig at the house party celebrating the movie’s St. Louis release. “We thought, if Lauren is playing the Bunnygrunt songs, then we may as well play a Bunnygrunt show,” Harnish says. “And so we played the show, and as practices were going, we thought, wow, this is going along really well. We should start writing some songs. The weird part was we had already decided to re-form before we heard about that [Bad Santa]. It was like, well, all the fates are aligned; we should probably do a full-on reunion.”
But is Bunnygrunt twee? Twee or, alternately, cuddlecore, has opposing definitions, based mostly on whether the reader likes or dislikes the music. On the one hand, we have this rather positive definition: twee combines the defiance of punk with the simplicity and innocence of the earliest rock’n’roll. On the other hand, not so much: twee (British baby talk for “sweet”) is saccharine or knowingly cute.
As can happen as musical genres evolve, twee has perhaps lost its original, DIY energy and become a conglomeration of the lowest common denominators of the bands identifying themselves as such. “The definition of twee that I like includes bands like the Television Personalities or the Cannanes and things like that,” says Harnish. “The thing I hate about the twee definition is that it got perverted somewhat, in that it became this thing that people were proud that they were incompetent and they were playing beneath their abilities and they were trying to be cutesy. It really was this thing where people were playing despite their incompetence not because of it and they were always trying to get better. We never played below our abilities; we always played as good as we could, and we do that now, and we are always trying to get better, and we are getting better, and we are not trying to be cute or inept. You’d see these kids with these total $1,000 guitars and these Marshall stacks, and they were playing them, and you could tell that they could shred, but they were playing all sloppy and playing the chords wrong and things like that. And that was just bullshit, and I hated it.”
Ried became equally unhappy with the trend. “It’s like they were trying to empower themselves by sitting on the ground and pounding on their instruments instead of actually learning chords. That was very frustrating.”
Here we have the conundrum facing Bunnygrunt. The PopFest, sponsored by Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records, is, at its heart, a paean to all things twee, and Bunnygrunt is uncomfortable fitting into that particular box these days. Having evolved personally and musically beyond the painfully self-aware and deliberately inept nature of many bands identified as twee, the members of Bunnygrunt are happiest with their amps cranked and distortion pedals engaged. How have old Bunnygrunt fans reacted to the “new” Bunnygrunt? “I think we kind of blow their minds because they’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is not what I expected this to be. This is crazy and loud and distorted,’” says Trull.
According to the AllMusic web site, Bunnygrunt earned the daunting title of the “World’s Cutest Band.” And no less than Ira Robbins, former editor of Trouser Press, has referred to the band as “musically adorable and not at all coy.” However, it turns out it’s hard to be a rocker when everyone wants to fawn and coo over your cute shirt.
“It totally bummed me out because I would try really hard to be a rock band and still do what we do, but I just don’t write rock songs,” laments Ried. “So I’d be trying really hard to rock, and people would say, ‘You’re twee!’ I’d be like, ‘I’m trying really hard to rock!’” Harnish chimes in, twee voice activated, “‘You’re just so cute and inept!’” “Yeah, but it was like, this is where I’m at, I’m trying really hard,” Ried finishes.
Bunnygrunt continues to try hard: they’re currently planning routes for weekend road trips to spread the word that the band is back and ready to rock the cardigans and horn-rims right off those twee kids. “The plan is, after we’ve made our formal re-debut in Athens, is to do some weekend jaunts around the Midwest, then start beginning the cycle all over again. We have new songs, new connections, and old connections too. And old songs,” says Harnish.
Trull, a Bunnygrunt devotee since she was 16, is living the ultimate dream of the fan. “If I had known being in a band was this awesome and great and wonderful before, then I would have been in eight other bands before this,” Trull says. “It was really intimidating coming into this because Matt and Karen have known each other for so long, and here I am this girl who is eight years younger than they are. They have this history. But I have history with them too now.”
Perhaps Bunnygrunt really is the world’s cutest band.