Makin Waves with Bruce Tunkel: ‘Tougher Answers’

Bruce Tunkel has created some New Jersey’s best original music for more than three decades. At first it was with The Red House, whose success with the 1986 self-produced/released There Is a Window that led to a deal with SBK Records and MTV play for “I Said a Prayer,” the single from their 1989 self-titled LP. 

When SBK turned out to be less of a good home for The Red House than hoped, Bruce went solo, self-producing and releasing 10 LPs, the latest of which, sixtyandthensome, may be his best. But then, I said that about the dual release of his last studio album, 2020’s Us, and a coinciding political-minded EP, American Patriot. While Bruce may be getting older, he’s also getting even better as a singer, songwriter, musician, and producer.

On “I’m Slowing Down,” the centerpiece of his new album, Bruce contemplates relevance in the face of aging. The line, “You become invisible once your story’s been told,” makes it one of the most powerful local songs of the year. Far from irrelevant, Bruce also frequently works with singer-songwriters Mark Bodino, James Deely, and Sam Tunkel, his teenage son, whose talent makes him wonder who really is the best songwriter in his house.

I chatted with Bruce about sixtyandthensome, future plans, his rich music history, and his 62nd birthday on November 18.

How old will you be on November 18?

My body will be 62 years old. Mentally, I’d estimate I’m around 18 [Laughs].

Who is on sixtyandthensome with you?

Some friends and family graciously contributed to the record, including Jim Devaney, Jenna Dickson, P.K. Lavengood, Mark Nuzzi, Rebeca and Byron Qualls, and Rob Tanico, along with my sons, Max and Sam. The cover photo was done by my friend Glenn Wasserman. Everyone involved brought it to a higher level than I could have done myself.

Who is ‘The Everything Boy’?

It’s me albeit with cartoonish embellishment. I was thinking about dealing with high expectations and the repercussions of that.

Do “All I Gotta Do” and/or “Easy Way Out” relate to your music career or something else?

I suppose “All I Gotta Do” touches on my music career but is really more about struggling with addictions of some sort. Addictions can be anything – substances, activities, ways of thinking. It’s tough to break. Maybe impossible.

“Easy Way Out” is about facing life’s struggles, perhaps not being able to deal with them, but also not giving up or deciding to check out.

I love the way “Wishing Well Wishes” has a double meaning with wishing well as the adjective and wishes as the subject in one and wishing as the verb, well as the adverb, and wishes again as the subject in the other. Who are these wishes for and why?

That phrase just kind of felt good. ‘I’m wishing you well wishes,’ like that. That song was mostly written very quickly after talking about relationships with a friend, although I did add some lyrics around a year later to finish it. Perhaps it’s a platonic love song.

Who is ‘Katherine from Heaven’ and why did you write a song about her?

Katherine is a conflation of two different stories 40 years apart. One was my own experience as an awkward teen, staring at a girl all night at a party, too scared to approach or talk to her. The other was based on an experience Sam had regarding a girl he saw working at a store in the mall and trying to connect with her. I suspect we’ve all got a Katherine in our past.

My favorite on sixtyandthensome is “I’m Slowing Down,” especially the line, “You become invisible once your story’s been told.” I’m sure a lot of aging fans, friends, and family relate to that, including me, but in the wake of releasing two LPs and three EPs – plus recording and producing several artists in the past three years – how and why does that relate to you? What inspired you to write that song, especially that line?

Growing older is so hard for many reasons; physical ones, obviously, but I think it’s more difficult to deal with the realization that you are becoming irrelevant. Is there a place for me here anymore, and does anyone care? Tough questions with tougher answers.

What and where are ‘Hotel Sandalwood’ and ‘Thompson’s Pond,’ and what made you want to write about them? 

‘Hotel Sandalwood’ is one of those songs that I had no idea what it was about while I was writing it. Some songs kind of tell you what they about instead of the other way around. I think it might be a place you go to at the moment of your death. But you have to ask the song.

‘Thompson’s Pond’ was based on a place you’d go as a child, a land of make believe where you could be anything. As we get older, we tend to lose belief in magic and our dreams. Can we recapture that?

What new material are you working on?

Since the sixtyandthensome released, I’ve been recharging creatively and I feel like I am ready to start working on new things. I’m always writing, but I find that I like to wait for something to come into focus a bit and provide inspiration to develop it. I like to try different approaches to writing with each project. It doesn’t necessarily translate to different end results, but that keeps things interesting for me as a creative artist.

Has Israel’s war with Hamas inspired any new songs?

I did recently finish a song called ‘The Coning of the End.’ This was another song that told me what it was about and some of the world conflict theme is definitely in there. Perhaps I’ll release it as a one off.

Bruce & Sam / Courtesy of Bruce Tunkel

Did you record and produce your son Sam’s three-song EP he released in March? If so, what was it like working with him? 

Sam recorded and produced his EP, although I helped him here and there with some technical things. I’d make suggestions when he played me things and he pretty much blew them off [Laughs]. He’s got a strong artistic vision, and that’s good!

What is Sam up to musically now and in the near future?

He’s working on recording a large set of songs, which are excellent, but he’s super busy with school, choir, and performing in musicals, so his pace is a bit slower than he would like. Honestly, I’m super impressed with his writing, and he’s far beyond where I was at his age. I’m not sure who the best songwriter living in my house is.

Do you have any other children involved in music?

My son Max is quite talented, as well, but he didn’t really catch the music bug like Sam did. He plays piano, guitar, and drums, too, so I hope he gets back into it.

Your The Red House mate Tony Stives recently released two albums in as many years. Have you heard them?

Of course! Tony is a great musician, writer, and producer, and he’s done some great work on these releases.

When was the last time the four original members of The Red House performed or recorded together?

We recorded and released a two-song EP in 2013. This was after we did a reunion show, and John Noll invited us to his studio to record a track called “Inside My House.”

“Coal Grey Town” was recorded at my place so we’d have a B-side, though, and it was a blast to do music again with the guys. We picked two songs we had that we never got to release. A fitting coda, I think.

Courtesy of Bruce Tunkel

Any plans for another Red House reunion?

I’d guess no.

After The Red House broke up, how did you make a full time living, and are you still in that field?

I went back to computer programming stuff, and I still do some of that.

What is the name of your studio and where is it?

It’s quite modest, just in my house. I call it ‘Beanland.’

Whose music have you recently recorded and produced and who will you be working with in the near future?

I don’t have too much time for this lately, but I do regularly work with Mark Bodino and his band Broken Darling. We’ve produced a nice set of music together; I still love working with my pal James Deely. JD is still doing great music, and I love being a small part of it.

Where will you be performing in the coming months?

I don’t really do much performing anymore. I kind of miss it, and I kind of don’t, too.

Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?

I’ll just say thank you Bob for taking the time to talk with me. And to everyone else, please support the arts, and help, respect and love one another in the short time we have here together.