Tanukichan is the project of Bay Area musician Hannah van Loon, who grew up performing classical music and playing the violin, keys, bass, and guitar. After experimenting with bluegrass and jazz and joining the San Francisco indie-pop band Trails and Ways, van Loon started focusing on her own music and was introduced to Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bear, who helped flesh out her demos and continues to serve as her main collaborator. Bear produced Tanukichan’s debut EP Radiolove, which came out in 2016 via his own Company Records, as well as the 2018 full-length Sundays. Last week, Tanukichan returned with a new album, GIZMO, which retains some of the subtle warmth of its predecessor but trades its hazy nostalgia for something weightier and more dynamic, pulling together elements of shoegaze, psychedelia, and even nu metal. Van Loon’s hushed, breathy vocals float up against instrumentation that can feel heady and overwhelming yet satisfyingly hooky, finding intriguing ways to assimilate into her surroundings. Even amidst towering levels of distortion that threaten to drown out her voice, the “peace of mind” she sings of on the closing track, ‘Mr. Rain’, doesn’t seem so out of reach – if anything, it sounds like closing a storm into one’s fist.
We caught up with Tanukichan’s Hannah van Loon for our Artist Spotlight series to talk about her musical journey, the making of GIZMO, collaborating with Chaz Bear, and more.
I was wondering if you could start by talking about the kind of music you grew up with and around, because I read that some of those formative influences ended up informing the fun, uplifting nature you wanted GIZMO to inhabit.
Well, I think there’s mostly one band – I listened to Incubus a lot in middle school or high school. All that stuff is starting to trend again now, which is really interesting, but a couple of years ago I was really getting back into it. They have super positive lyrics but angsty guitar playing, kind of complicated drums. That was a big inspiration.
What memories do you associate with that whole era of music?
Oh man, just like being a teenager and sitting on the couch and listening to it on headphones over and over again with a CD player, those kinds of old-school memories. I feel like it was cringy for a while – like, I was on tour and I would put on Incubus and the rest of my band would put on their headphones. [laughs] I could see why, but I love it though.
How would you describe yourself as a teenager who was just getting into music?
I would say I was pretty oblivious. I hadn’t even listened to that much music. I grew up mostly on classical music, so for me, just listening to even Incubus was like a huge step. I was pretty sheltered growing up. My parents were very conservative, and even though I lived in San Francisco, I grew up in the city, I was still super sheltered and really oblivious about a lot of stuff. And musically, I was really deep in it with classical music. My older brother is a classical musician now still. I was definitely really into music, but my exposure was very limited to certain things. I listened to a little bit of pop through my friends, but not very much. Some anime theme songs and stuff.
Was there an abrupt transition from being invested in classical music to opening up to these different sounds?
I don’t think it was really abrupt, it was maybe gradual. I used to not like music with lyrics so much, or if I listened to music, I just wouldn’t really hear the lyrics, I would hear everything else. I can remember that as sort of an adjustment. It was interesting because I never listened to them before – it was always melodies and dynamics and stuff like that. But I think there was a point where I realized that I had to kind of move on. Maybe I still felt like I didn’t want to let go of the violin, I had invested so much, but that’s not where my heart was anymore. I didn’t start playing guitar in a band until after college.
How did your relationship to music change when you started playing and especially writing your own songs?
It was always really personal, and I think it was just figuring out how to write lyrics and what songwriting was. I used to improvise a lot so I kind of had that already, but just starting to learn to write was big, figuring out pop and musical references and genres and styles, and where you want to fit in and what you think is cool. That was all a big learning process, and I don’t think you’re ever done learning that kind of stuff. Just figuring out what feels like me.
Was there a specific moment where you felt like you found where you could maybe fit in?
I think that would be the first EP I did as Tanukichan. I had actually written a bunch of stuff before that, but I wanted to make something that I really liked personally. And that EP is the first thing that I felt like I really liked and would be able to like stand behind it. Some of the stuff before that, I never want anyone to hear that ever. [laughs]
It wasn’t just about honing in a certain sound and feeling more confident over time, but also experimenting with different styles.
Yeah, and a big part of it was, I playing guitar in this other pop band. That was fun and it was going pretty well, but it was already its own style. I would kind of contribute to it, help out and maybe write a little, but it wasn’t really my vision. So I finally left and put together a band started writing some songs. Honestly, I feel like Chaz [Bear] had a lot to do with the sound, too, pushing it in a kind of ‘90s direction. At first, I was writing songs and had sort of an idea, but not really a super strong idea of where I wanted it to go. We could play the song and it was maybe more straightforward, but I think Chaz pushed it in a more shoegaze, psychedelic direction, which is really cool.
What was it about the possibilities of shoegaze or dreamy music that made you feel like it’s something you want to keep diving into?
I think a big part of it is just my voice, what I have to work with, and also the feeling of the writing, where it’s coming from. I’m not a trained singer or anything like that, so I just had to work with what I had. I figured out this sound sounds like what I want to get across with the tools that I have. The contrast makes it feel really good, where it’s like soft vocals but there’s still a lot of attitude in the guitars. And for GIZMO, that was a big part of it. I was definitely inspired by a lot of nu metal, and those vocals are way different than mine, they’re like half-rapping and shouting and singing really like. I was inspired by that, but I had to write these songs in a way that I could sort of take that but use it for my own voice.
What about the feeling part of it?
There’s some angst and depression sort of turning inwards kind of feeling, but not in like a forceful way – it’s not super subdued, it’s definitely kinda in your face, a little like getting overwhelmed by it. I don’t always want to write songs like this, I don’t necessarily try to write songs like this, but there’s just moments where I feel down or something and those are the moments that I end up funneling into music for some reason. That kind of feeling resonates with me a lot listening to shoegaze. It’s like a release – maybe some kind of pent-up feeling, and you let these huge sounds and a beat just wash over you.
One of the themes the album revolves around is escape, and I’m curious how the idea of escapism interacts with the process of making music that’s meant to be cathartic and fun. Do you feel like escape encompasses these qualities?
I think it totally encompasses it. In some ways, when you can have a song that’s sad or angry and you can kind of encapsulate it but then make it fun, it’s almost like you let it go. It becomes something that is no longer angry – you somehow can tap into those feelings, but it does kind of feel like an escape, because now you’re in this other place that’s fun. It’s like a way to accept or revile in it, and then you’re like, “Oh, cool, I feel better now.” Music is a weird way of making something that’s really sad, or happy, just really beautiful.
Can you think of an example from this album where it really felt like you’re letting go of some heavy feeling?
Maybe the one that would stand out is ‘Mr. Rain’.
How did you decide that song should be the closer?
It sort of felt right. I always wanted it to be this really big, epic song, and it’s also the longest song on the album. And then we added these strings, and it just felt good to end with this slow bang.
How do you feel like your collaborative relationship with Chaz Bear developed over the making of this album?
I think maybe it was different in the fact that I knew a little more what I wanted this album to sound. Sundays we finished really fast – I wrote it for a long time, and then we got in the studio and worked on it a bunch, and that happened sort of quickly. I think I didn’t have as much of an idea of where I wanted it to end up exactly. And then this one we just worked on it a little more gradually, and we would talk a little. I was like, “I’m kinda feeling this kind of direction,” and he’s like, “I’m down. Let’s go there.” We just kind of took it slowly, so we would just meet for a day or two and work on stuff, and then couple of months later we’d meet up again. I like working with him because I feel like we just an agree on what is working and what isn’t working, and we don’t really have to talk about it or go back and forth. We just sort of let it go, and at a certain point it’s like, “Oh, this sounds cool.”
The album takes its name from the dog you adopted in 2020, who sadly passed away before the album was completed. Can you talk about the moment when the title GIZMO felt right?
I was trying to find an album title for a while. I always kind of thought maybe I would call it Escape, but that just didn’t seem that interesting. I was playing around song ideas and that didn’t feel right. It was just in the back of my mind, like, “What about GIZMO?” And everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s a great album name.” And then it all kind of made sense afterwards. He wasn’t there, but he was there with me when I was writing the album, and it all just fell into place.
Did it put a new perspective on the new songs?
Yeah, totally, because I wasn’t really planning on that. With the cover, too – just visually, like the nu metal thing, having this pit bull barking through a chain link fence, it kind of fits the bill. [laughs] It’s definitely different than the more dreamy aesthetic that I had for the other album. And escape, too, thinking about it after the fact – it’s like, GIZMO “escaped,” in a way, where he’s not here anymore.
What was his personality like?
He was super goofy and kind of pushy, but super sweet. He was a big dog, he was like 90 pounds, but he was super soft. My housemate at the time adopted this tiny little puppy like, this little dachshund mix, and they were best friends and it was so cute. He was like my best bud, he was always there. And he loved to cuddle. He loved to swim – he would just swim in the ocean waves and stuff. [laughs] It was pretty awesome.
By channeling the anxieties and fears that went into the album, do you feel closer to this spirit of positivity the album strives toward?
I think so, actually. Part of it was obviously just coming more out of the pandemic and resurfacing from lockdown, having friends and shows again, which has also happened over time. But also, finishing the album and accomplishing what I wanted to do is a big release, too, where it’s like: you have this thing in mind, and you put a lot of time and effort into it, and it’s always on your mind, just chipping away at it all the time. And then it’s done, and you let it go, and it feels a little more lighthearted. So I think I am actually in that more fun, positive place. And now there’s shows and tours, and that’s work, too, but also it’s a really fun thing to do. You just get to play songs and be loud and hang out with a bunch of people.
You’ve said that one of the big changes with this album was the realization that you want to have more fun in the creative process. What does practicing that look like to you now?
I’ve been writing recently with some other friends. Usually I at least write all the lyrics and the melody myself, and I think for me lyrics tend to be a little bit harder, where I have this melody and the idea and that feels really natural and easy, and I’m stuck on a verse for a long time. That can feel like a little bit of a slog, but I’ve been working with a friend who’s a lyricist recently and just not trying to worry about it. It’s like, you know what, it’s cool, I don’t have to do it all. It’s fun to just be a little freer with it and see where stuff goes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Tanukichan’s GIZMO is out now via Company Records.