The story of The Never, a band of North Carolina country boys with a cause, is nearly as compelling as the 50-page book that accompanies their debut album, Antarctica. Inspired by the lullabies of their childhood, these earnest musicians began planning their ambitious vision years before it emerged in 2006 as an illustrated storybook and a politically conscious concept album. They now tour the country in a bus fueled entirely by vegetable oil and play live shows that are more like theater than somber indie rock.
“All of us had Winnie the Pooh storybook records as kids, and they were really important to us. It was something that inspired us,” said drummer Jonny Tunnell. “We really wanted to have a great record, that was our main focus. But the story and the music help each other out; it all came together at the same time.”
Jonny and his brother Joah Tunell joined forces with Noah Smith and Ari Picker to form The Never (named after a book by physicist Stephen Hawking) about four years ago. And even though the concept behind Antarctica had been brewing in the minds of Smith and Picker prior to their fateful meeting, it took some time before all the pieces came together.
“This was Noah’s first attempt at writing and his first oil paintings of any kind. But he really impressed all of us,” Tunnell said. “While we where in the studio he brought in a lot of the paintings that he had already done and we looked at those and built layers of music around them. Our producers then did a great job of capturing those visuals on record.”
The story that Smith developed revolves around Paul, a young boy who by chance comes across a nuclear bomb. Without knowing what he has, Paul decides to return the object to its rightful owner, and the subsequent journey sends him on a monumental adventure. The story avoids obvious anti-war clichÇs and aims for a broader message about the “colors of life.”
“We’re kind of into anything that’s going to better our society without hurting what we’ve already got,” Tunnell said. “There are tons of resources out there that aren’t being used, and that upsets us.”
The band’s environmental concerns stretch far beyond what they put into their gas tank, and traces of their message can be found throughout the album. The song titles follow the cycles of the seasons, moving from the green of summer to the despair of winter.
“All four of us grew up out in the country without electricity and running water. We really grew up off the land,” Tunnell said. “Noah used to get water out of a well as a kid. Now, 20 years later, you can’t do that because the water is so polluted. There’s something really wrong with that.”
But, it’s their ability to find hope in the barren cold of Antarctica that makes the finale of the album something special. The aura surrounding The Never is ultimately one of optimism, and this can be seen forcefully in the connection between the storybook and the music.
“The last page of the book brings out the idea fairly well. The bomb that is falling on the city is stopped,” Tunnell said. “The people realize: This is a really cool place we have. Let’s not mess it up.”
The amount of time and energy put into this project further reveals a hopeful belief in the power of art to spark change. And more specifically, Antarctica can be seen as a concerted effort to save the album as a form, in an increasingly single-based music industry.
“The Internet is doing ridiculous things for music right now, things five years ago I never would have thought were possible, especially for independent bands,” Tunnel said. “But if a group isn’t good enough to make seven or nine good songs, then chances are I’m not going to like them anyway. It’s important that we not forget the feeling of having something in your hands that is really cool.”
Catch the ecologically friendly indie rock of The Never along with Robots Counterfeiting Money, Watery Domestic and Nick Africano Monday, Feb. 26th at the Iron Post in Urbana.