“Has it really been a year?” the San Francisco-based indie rock band Carpool Tunnel asks in its newest single, “Empty Faces.” The questioning line was recorded sometime last fall, but the song didn’t release until Dec. 3 of this year — and it now feels heavier than anyone could have anticipated in a pre-pandemic world.
For lead guitarist Brad Kearsley, lead vocalist and guitarist Ben Koppenjan, drummer Danny Stauffer and bassist Spencer Layne, this single marks a celebratory milestone: “Empty Faces” is Carpool Tunnel’s first song released under its shiny new label, Pure Noise Records. Having signed in July and announced the big transition on the day the single broke, the band is feeling ever grateful and ready to see where this new step will lead them.
“The things that we want to do, we feel like we can just actually do now, as before it was this giant mountain we had to climb,” Kearsley said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “And it still is a mountain we have to climb, but it’s becoming a lot clearer at the end of the tunnel.”
Quarantine restrictions have temporarily limited some of what’s to come — tours, album release celebrations and festival circuits — but in the meantime, the band has been tapping into its creative potential and adapting to fresh songwriting and production methods.
“We write music all for the same reason,” Koppenjan said, “and that’s partly as a therapeutic reason, but also we all have the same vision of (creating) music for people that understand the way that we’re feeling.”
Now, Carpool Tunnel is reaching more listeners than ever due to Pure Noise’s promotion and some good old-fashioned online virality. After posting a live rendition of the “Drake & Josh” theme song “I Found a Way” on TikTok, the band saw its monthly listener count rise by about 10,000, and the video currently sits at more than 220,000 views.
Although the group’s sound is a departure from the typical Pure Noise artist, the band members have been following the record label — which was originally founded in Berkeley — closely since their teenage years, taking inspiration from local Pure Noise bands and even the East Bay’s own Green Day frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong.
On Jan. 11, Armstrong surprised the crowd at a Carpool Tunnel show in Oakland’s The Golden Bull, simultaneously giving the band a surreal experience of its own. “In the middle of playing our song ‘Impressions,’ I looked to the left and (Armstrong) was standing there just watching us,” Kearsley said. “I was just like ‘Holy f— … OK, now really don’t screw up.’ ”
But it wasn’t always packed crowds and star-studded lineups. The band went through its fair share of 10-hour drives and late nights, sometimes out of state, only to be met by a three-person audience and the venue owners.
“There is something to gain from everything,” Kearsley said. “Whether we meet one person at the venue that likes us and now has that personal connection or we see something that’s like ‘Wow, that was crazy. Good thing we went on this trip’ — whatever it is, we try to make something out of everything. … Nothing is a waste, it’s life experience and band experience.”
The band is gearing up for its debut full-length release, appropriately titled Bloom, next year. Recorded in October 2019, the streamable LP is meant to capture the essence of a live Carpool Tunnel concert. The record’s release will mark another first for the band, but longtime fans can rest assured that they have probably already heard most of Bloom performed live at past shows.
Bloom doesn’t have an announced release date yet, but the band is already hoping to have its sophomore album recorded sometime toward the beginning of next year.
“Now that we’ve had all this time to not play shows and be at the same house for like four months together and write all these new songs, I think it gave us a lot more clarity in terms of what we really want to create and what we really want to do as a band,” Koppenjan said.
After living together, evolving internal communication as a band and facing personal growth as individuals, Carpool Tunnel has opened hefty doors into a new era of songwriting, performance and opportunity — postponed tours or not.
“Our taste has obviously changed in three years, but our purpose of the band is the same,” Kearsley said. “We want to spread love and good energy and create music that helps people live through their life and give them an experience that they can benefit from, and that’s kind of been the goal from the start.”