Sometimes life can have some serendipitous moments that are truly unexpected yet ultimately rewarding. When I was randomly contacted out of the blue on Facebook by Hel from Undersmile little did I suspect that it would lead me to a truly great band. I had heard the name Undersmile in passing but in the sea of band names that you hear on a daily basis paid it no mind. When I finally heard the band’s debut EP “A Sea Of Dead Snakes” I was utterly captivated and blown away. Rarely have I heard a band play doom/sludge with such a truly dark and menacing vibe and utter conviction. I decided to throw some questions over to the band to see what makes them tick.
Let’s get the mindless questions out of the way first. You will be a new name to many people so with that in mind can you please give us a brief history…when you formed, where you’re from, what you’ve released so far, who’s in the band…blah blah blah?
Taz and Hel met in 2005 and started writing music together. Undersmile itself wasn’t formed until 2009 when Olly and Tom joined the band in the lovely and historical market town of Witney, nestled betwixt the City of Oxford and the Cotswold Hills. Ahhh. We have, thus far released our first EP ‘A Sea Of Dead Snakes’ on Blindsight Records and are currently halfway through recording our first full length album with Jimmy Evil.
You’ve told me that you’ve been compared to Electric Wizard, I don’t really see it myself but I can hear a heavy Melvins influence (always good in my book), maybe a touch of St Vitus but also some 90’s female grunge in the vocals like Babes In Toyland, Hole, L7…etc. Am I wide of the mark? Who would you claim as your influences?
With the exception of St. Vitus (as we haven’t heard of them yet) (What, you’ve not heard St Vitus!!! Ollie) we are influenced by all of the above, especially Melvins, well done! 🙂 Other diverse influences include Harvey Milk, Pissed Jeans, Eyehategod, Swans, Boris, Eagle Twin, Nick Cave, Neutral Milk Hotel, Joy Division, Miranda Sex Garden, Leonard Cohen.
I believe I know what your name means…and I love it, but rather than tell people myself I’d really like you guys to explain it, please feel free to be as graphic as you like.
Ahem! *Undersmile have gone all coy and start shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot* Why, ’tis a lady’s front-bottom, of course!
I don’t really like to bring up the subject of image but Taz and Hel do have a very distinct image that is far removed from the usual denim and leather a lot of females in doom tend to favour, having more in common with the vintage style adopted by Courtney Love in her heyday and Kat Bjelland from Babes In Toyland. Is this a natural extension of your personalities or a conscious decision to set the band apart from the rest of the herd? You both look similar and, from the photos I’ve seen, are hard to tell apart onstage, do you co-ordinate your outfits for gigs? Have you encountered any prejudice by being such obviously feminine women in a largely male dominated genre?
Olly and Tommy get together mid-week and over a cream tea, to discuss our outfits for coming gigs. They give us options, so it’s not like we’re forced into wearing certain clothes, although they do favour cream lace so sometimes those options are limited. We quite like the fact that sometimes when we arrive at gigs, guys stereotype us as groupies or some kind of pop-grunge band, only to be quite alarmed when we strike the first chord. It’s hard not to thrive off the looks of dismay when we don’t start singing in high pitched voices and shimmying round the stage.
You’ve barely been going for 2 years yet the Undersmile sound is so fully formed already it’s scary to think how you’re going to progress. What is your writing process and how easy have you found it to adopt the dual vocals as, for me, they’re a real defining point of your sound?
Since starting to write and sing together back in ’06 we have always naturally adopted a dual vocal style, neither of us had aspirations to be singers and if anything shied away from singing. Nowadays we consider our vocals as one voice and find it extremely weird when we have to record vocals separately. The writing process tends to be that Taz or Hel writes a song and then the rest of the band adds their parts to it and this is usually the time when the song evolves into what you hear in our live performances.
Having chatted to Hel on Facebook and having found her to be wonderfully friendly and endearingly crazy I’m intrigued to know how you come to play such dark, oppressive music and what sort of things inspire titles such as “Teutonic Dyslexia”, “Instrumenstrual” and “Crab People”? Who writes the lyrics and what on earth do you write about?
Hel and Taz write the lyrics to all the songs individually, in a cupboard, in secrecy and in the dead of night. On the new album ‘Narwhal’, coming out later this year, the girls wrote the lyrics for three songs each (as that was all that would fit on the cd.) In general, the common lyrical themes of Undersmile are derived from nightmares, claustrophobia, anxiety. We are both quite fascinated by the sea and also by the night sky which is apparent in our lyric writing.
You’ve already managed to blag a support slot with Weedeater and Zoroaster in London and you have a support coming up with Buzz*oven so you’re definitely catching the attention of the right people. What would be your dream line-up to play on?
It would be awesome to play with Harvey Milk, Melvins, Eyehategod, Boris and Pissed Jeans.
Having heard a couple of tracks from your forthcoming album it seems your sound is becoming increasingly intense, discordant and downright terrifying, how do you plan to develop your sound further in the future?
We agree that the album is definitely intense, this wasn’t a conscious decision, more something that came out naturally in the writing process. There is a lot more screaming on ‘Narwhal’ which is fun and therapeutic for us to play live. In the future we’re just planning to keep working in a similar way and see what’s lurking in the collective Undersmile psyche.
You’ll probably admit yourselves that your music isn’t the most radio friendly or easy listening, what has the general reaction been like to your stuff so far?
We’ve had a good reaction from people in the Sludge/Doom/Stoner scene which has been a pleasant surprise as we always assumed from the start that people wouldn’t get our sound. We’ve been lucky enough to play with bands such as Weedeater, Zoroaster and Desert Storm which means our music is being heard by fans of the right genre. When we started out we were stuck on lots of eclectic bills and played to crowds of horrified Indie kids. We have cleared many venues and even got unplugged at one local gig, this was one of our all-time favourite gigs. Strangely enough, our song “Crab People” got played on the BBC Oxford Introducing in its entirety – it was very bizarre.
Despite being monstrously heavy I almost felt there was a bit of a horror soundtrack vibe to your sound, is this an influence on you guys? If you could provide the soundtrack to a horror film which one would you choose?
We are too afraid to watch horror films. We’re definitely inspired by the psychological horror of directors like David Lynch, Werner Herzog and early David Cronenberg. A film that we would have loved to provide a soundtrack for would be Mulholland Drive. There are several video games we’d mention, such as Resident Evil, Zelda and Final Fantasy, you cannot know the underlying terrors!
Every band complains about their home town and how shit it is for gigs…etc. How is Oxford? You have some great bands there like Domes of Silence and Desert Storm already so how is the scene shaping up?
We really appreciate how lucky we are to be involved in the Oxford music scene, there is a wealth of talented bands and musicians and the music scene is interesting and diverse. We’ve come to know and love some Oxford bands on the doom/stoner/sludge/heavy scene, such as Desert Storm, Komrad, Agness Pike, Beard of Zeuss, Caravan of Whores, Ivy’s Itch, Taste My Eyes and the dearly departed Sextodecimo. As well as bands from other genres; The Rock of Travolta, Smilex, Von Braun, Tamara and The Martyrs and Samuel Zasada.
You have a split coming up with Caretaker. How did this come about and who will be releasing it?
We were approached by Umair Chaudhry (ex – Xmas Lights) who runs the net label ‘Blindsight Records’ and he asked us if we’d come and do some recording with him as part of a series of splits he’s doing over the summer. These are going to include two exclusive tracks which won’t be available anywhere else. The splits are featuring Caretaker/Undersmile and Silent Front/ Ivy’s Itch. We’re really excited to have the opportunity to work alongside Caretaker, they are a phenomenal math-core band from Winchester and their contribution to the EP is sounding huge.
We’ve mentioned the album recording, what are the plans for that. Will this be on Blindsight records as with the “A Sea Of Dead Snakes” EP, self released or are there any other labels having a good sniff round? In an ideal world which label would you like to release it?
‘Narwhal’ will be released on ‘Blindsight Records’ later on in the year and we can’t wait to get it out there. In an ideal world we wouldn’t be adverse to, sayyy, Southern Lord Records releasing our album! 🙂
This is a crap question but I like it as it gives a little insight into the interviewee’s fevered mind. You’re stuck on a desert island with a battery powered CD player and a huge stock of batteries (go with me on this, I’m trying to pre-empt any smart arse questions!!!). What 5 albums do you choose to have with you to make your time more bearable?
Hel: Eyehategod ‘Dopesick’
Taz: Harvey Milk ‘A Small Turn Of Human Kindness’
Olly: Spiritualized ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’
Tommy: Red Hot Chili Peppers ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’
Undersmile as a whole would very much like to listen to Pissed Jeans ‘King Of Jeans’ under a coconut tree.
Who is the biggest twat in your band?
We are four quarters of one giant super-twat!
So apart from the album and the Caretaker split, what are Undersmile’s plans for the future?
We would LOVE to go on tour around Europe with some gnarly bands…any offers?
This is your chance to say anything you want no matter how random…go for it.
One in ten Icelanders is a published author! (There, we’ve said it!)
Melvins should get an honourable mention on Question 14, as we had far too many bands to mention. In fact, it’s painful how many great artists we had to miss out.
So there you have it, they’re doom but not as we know it (They’ve never even heard St Vitus!!!) and offering a new twist on a long established musical style. They’re terrifying yet approachable, intense and inspiring. I suggest you check these guys out as, ultimately it may turn out that you need them more than they need you.
More info on Undersmile at: www.myspace.com/undersmile
Interviewed by: Ollie Stygall