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Bruce Tunkel of Red House

By Gary Wien

Red House was formed by a bunch of guys in Union County in the early 80s.  They became one of the most popular bands along the Jersey Shore and one of the leaders of the alternative scene taking place in clubs like the Green Parrot and the FastLane.

Success came quickly for Red House after the release of an independent record in 1987.  The band found themselves on the cover of the College Music Journal (CMJ), an unheard of feat for an unsigned band.  Record companies were soon bidding against each other to be the one to sign them. Red House ultimately signed with SBK and released a CD featuring the alternative hit “I Said A Prayer.”

Unfortunately, problems with the label surfaced after the band’s first tour.  A second record was recorded but never released.  The band ultimately called it quits and headed their separate ways.  I was able to conduct phone interviews with all four of the original band members of Red House, a band that always deserved a better fate.

In the beginning Red House was originally called Toys, right?

Uh, yeah.  Wow! You’re sneaky with this research, Gary.  That was a pretty short-lived name.  When we first got together we started off playing covers, although I think that lasted a couple of gigs.  And we were called Toys for a very short amount of time and then I guess it became Red House at some point.

Was this your first band?

No, I think we all were in different bands in high school and stuff.  I think basically the short story is we met through mutual friends.  I used to play in a band with Ron prior to Red House, a high school band that we were in with some other guys.  And Bob and Tony playing in another band in their town.  I think Bob and I met, through somebody else, and we started playing for a short amount of time.  And then that fell apart and then we decided, well we each know these other guys, and that was kind of the genesis of it.

Do you remember where you played your first show?

Yeah, I think the first place we ever played at was a place in Elizabeth.  I think it was called the Rock Lounge.  It was a pretty scary place.

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Now, what was it like after your self-released album and before the national release - trying to get the crowds at the Shore to accept an alternative sound? Did you have trouble getting gigs?

Well, it was never really hard to get a gig.  It was probably hard to get a good gig.  But there were a handful of places to play.  When we first started playing around doing originals we would just read the Aquarian find out where other bands were playing, send tapes and all that stuff.  And then it kind of evolved after we did the self released album, There is a Window, and that started getting airplay on WHTG at the time.  Right around the same time we started playing at the Parrot.  I guess through the airplay and whatever and we just started drawing pretty good crowds at the Green Parrot. 

There was a period of time where whenever we played there we’d sell out the Parrot, so that was very cool.  It didn’t necessary translate to other places, which was weird because, even at the same time, if we’d go play at the Pony it would be like a different crowd entirely.

Right, even though it’s almost right up the road.

Yeah, it’s weird.  I think it probably had something to do with us and probably something to do with that the Parrot was becoming a little bit of a scene.

I guess you guys were together a couple of years, probably 4-5 years, before you released There is A Window.

That sounds about right.  I believe we pressed, 1,000-2,000 of the records.  

It was recorded in your parents’ basement, right?

The indie record, yes.  I’m very into home recording.  And since the SBK thing, I’ve recorded all my stuff in my basement.  It’s hard to find now.  There aren’t that many and really we never intended to sell them.  The whole idea was we’ll make this record and we’ll send it around and people will take us seriously.  It was that kind of thing and oddly enough it did kind of work. 

I mean, there’s certainly a lot of luck that goes into that kind of stuff too.  But what happened was that when we put the record out we sent it to a lot of radio stations and a few, notably WHTG, picked up on it and they were playing it a lot.  And so we kind of got a bit of a following down at the Parrot and the next thing you know there gets to be a little buzz about it.  We actually had a period of time where the record companies were calling us.

And you guys were the first indie to land on the cover of the College Music Journal (CMJ).

Right, and that, I think what happened at the record companies was people were like, “Who the hell is this?  What is this band?”

How come I don’t know these guys...

Right, exactly.  So, it was weird for a period of time.  I’d come home from work everyday and there’d be a message from somebody at Capitol or whatever label.  And then there was a long period of time where we kind of went back and forth with talking with a few different labels, but that was very cool, you know.  It worked out well for us.

Red House did a lot of showcase gigs.  What were those like?

Umm, they were always a little bit of a drag because I guess, especially at the time, it was hard to be as natural in performing as you would normally be.  It was like a gig, we did a number of those at CBGBs, usually going to the city.  And you’d get people in there and they’d go away with whatever opinion they had of it.  So it eventually came down to a couple of labels who got to the point where they were interested enough in wanting to do something.  And then we stupidly signed with SBK.

How did you guys decide to sign with them?

I guess the gist of it was that SBK wanted to do a deal and there was a smaller label, it’s alluding me which one - it’s an indie label that was pretty known at the time - but we just thought, in hindsight probably the wrong way, that okay SBK is going to have more money to get behind us and we’ll be able to do more with them.  So that was kind of the line of thought.

You guys met one of your first managers at the Green Parrot.

Yeah, this guy, Rich Stanley, who ironically I just saw the other day actually.  He was involved in running the club and over time he started helping us out and eventually became our manager.  I think he was involved with booking the bands and stuff.

What was it like shooting the video for “I Said A Prayer?”

It was cool.  A little weird too. It all kind of happened very fast.  We went out to Los Angeles to shoot the video. We shot it with, the guy’s name is going to allude me but he had done a video for Michael Penn that we had all liked -

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No Myth?

Right.  I remember that video was on at the time we were recording our album, and we were all into that video.  We’re like we want to get that guy.  And so, that was fun.  It was a long, one-day shoot and then we flew back like the next day. It was kind of weird, but it was a lot of fun.  I mean, a lot of the things individually that we got to do as part of the SBK thing were a lot of fun although the whole overall experience really wasn’t that great, you know.

It was must be nice to tell your friends that you’re on MTV.

Oh, yeah, that was awesome.

I remember you guys got some pretty good reviews.  I remember seeing something in Billboard Magazine, I think.

Yeah, I have all the clippings.

Well, it’s got to make you feel good, I mean, most of the clippings I remember really talked about you being a songwriter.

Yeah, that was definitely gratifying.  It was very satisfying to see.  Yeah, we got a lot of good press, which was nice.  And it felt good because we felt that we really did try hard to do something of quality, so that was very cool.

What was the first tour like?

Umm, the tour was really kind of shitty.  It was kind of like we were doing a combination of promotional tour kind of stuff where we’d go and visit radio stations and play a song at the station on acoustic guitar or whatever and then we would do shows in clubs and things.  So again, it varied a lot.  We’d go to one town and play for nobody and another town would be great. 

But we were kind of all fighting at the time.  Like no one was really getting along and I think we were getting on each other’s nerves.  It’s no fun being in the car for a thousand miles with people that are pissed off at each other.

What broke first? The deal with SBK or the band?

Umm, the SBK thing ended before the band did although not by far apart.  I think the nutshell version of what happened with the band was SBK was kind of pushing us with we don’t hear the hit song kind of thing.  This was when we were getting material together for what would have been our second album.  And that kind of pissed us off a lot and we really weren’t willing to do what they wanted as far as creating whatever they thought was going to be this hit sound or something. 

So, anyway, we just ended up doing a round of demos and things with them.  I think that a lot of the stuff is good, which will be unheard, I guess.

So the unreleased demos... did any of that stuff make it on to a Bruce Tunkel CD?

Not directly.  I think I did use maybe a couple of songs here and there that I liked or reworked them.  I’ve since made CDs for the guys in the band.  We have all the stuff archived and it’s fun to listen to.  We’ll see, it might be interesting to make it available for charity.

What was it like when you made your first solo record?

That was kind of a weird time for me.  Actually, I started working on stuff while I was still in the band.  I guess the band hadn’t split up at the point when I started working on it.  I think what I was trying to do at the time was rediscover why I liked music.  The SBK thing really left a bad taste in my mouth.  I wanted to just get back to basics to use a cliche.

There were certain things when you’re in a band that function as a democracy, which is always how Red House worked.  There tends to be compromise and sometimes that compromise works to the benefit of the music and sometimes it doesn’t.  And so, this was like a chance where it was like I can do whatever I want kind of thing.  But it was fun. 

I was living in Cranford at the time and it was recorded in my apartment there. It was fun.  I like methodically worked on it and got the songs together and recorded them.  That was mostly done by myself.  A few people played on a few tracks but otherwise it was a very indulgent thing. But, the whole point was just to get back to this is why I like to play music.  I’m not doing it for any other purpose.  I’m not trying to sell it to anybody.  I just want to write songs and play them.

Was it definitely much better doing that independently than with the pressures of a label?

Yeah, because, at that time, I probably still had some aims in thinking about it.  I certainly did play that stuff, when it was done, for some people at record companies.  But ever since that time I’ve never really pursued that seriously any more.

What is it like now playing with all the original Red House guys in the studio?

Well, I’m trying to finish up this project that I’m working on now.  It’s taken a lot longer than I thought, for a variety of reasons, but I’m pretty much recording with everyone I’ve ever recorded with before.  So all the Red House guys and all of the guys I’ve played with since Red House are on it.  I guess the final product will have 15 tracks on it.

What do you have in store for the future? Are you just having fun writing the songs?

Yeah, pretty much that’s where my head’s at with it.  I’ve got kids now, and I don’t see myself going on the road at all.  I have a regular job and all that.  And that’s fine, you know.  If I’m in a writing mode, I try to write.  It’s not really on a schedule.  When I’m really in a writing mode I try to write all the time.  But it’s a little different than it used to be.

You definitely sound like you’ve had pretty bad experiences with record companies.  If a label approached you, what would you do?

I guess I would just say that it would take a lot to make me interested in something like that.  It’s a lot of hard work to make it in music.  And guys that have gotten there, including us at the time, and lots of other guys... if you talk to anybody I’m sure they would tell you.  It’s a lot of work.  And you have to work.  It’s a level of commitment that a lot of people don’t understand.  It really requires it to be your top priority.  And so, at this point I’m really not up for that kind of commitment.  I mean, I still will create music and do it, but as far as getting involved with the music business it’s just a whole other thing.

Would you like to be more known as a songwriter? Have others cover your songs?

Well, that would be great.  It’s not something I’ve really pursued.  It’s probably something I will pursue at some point.  Right now, I want to get the current project done.  It’s definitely something I’ve thought about that I’d maybe like to shop some of the songs around.  Maybe for a publishing kind of thing.  But again, it’s premature now.  I haven’t really thought about it.  And, to be honest, I’m probably content to just do it for my own enjoyment now.  I mean, I like people to hear it and I like to play gigs occasionally, which I do, not that often anymore, but I’ll do it. 

I’m somewhat cynical about the music business now.  In fact, not just somewhat, I’m extremely cynical about it.  But, I still enjoy playing it a lot.  I love to write music.  So, that’s what I do.  I enjoy what I do a lot.

Is it strange when you find yourself linked to the Jersey Shore?

Umm, no, I think it’s very cool.  I’m a big Springsteen fan and it’s a great tradition of Shore music.  There’s a lot of cool people that we’ve met over the years that play and still do.  I like feeling part of that community as much as I am.  It’s very cool.  I like the whole lineage.  There’s nothing weird about it. I think it’s a good thing, you know.

Do you find it special to play shows in Asbury?

Yeah, but it’s hard to say why.  It probably is just the tradition of what’s come before.  It’s the same with Yankee Stadium and baseball.  On one hand it’s just a place where they play baseball and the other it’s the history that goes along with it.  You’re aware of it when you’re involved there.  And so it does make it a little more special.

From the book Beyond The Palace by Gary Wien

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

originally published: 01/26/2012

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