Back in May, Wayne Simmons reviewed Undersmile's quite terrific A Sea of Dead Snakes. As a result I bought myself a copy, and it is well worth every penny. Now he's back with an interview with the doomy quartet from Oxfordshire, England. Read on, after the break, for the full interview!
Interview by Wayne Simmons
Sometimes, the doom scene can sound a little, well, stale. Sure, Sabbathian riffs and all that 70s throwback stuff is fine and dandy but when that’s all you’ve got going on, things can start to get a little samey. Thank the gods for Undersmile, then, a 4-piece dirge outfit from Oxford. Although lumped in with the sludge and funeral doom crowd, there’s a lot more pouring into their song writing. And, sure, their sound may have a nostalgic quality, but it’s not to the 70s we’re looking...
Bassist Olly: ‘As a band, we're quite esoteric with our listening habits. Taz and Hel initially bonded over a mutual love of grunge - bands like Babes in Toyland, Nirvana and L7 and definitely some Riot Grrl in there too! The early Undersmile sound was grungy and fuzzy but after a stint of local gigs we realised we preferred playing our slower, more discordant and doomier songs. Collectively we listen to anything from Leonard Cohen to Harvey Milk, via Neil Young, 40 Watt Sun and a healthy slab of old-school hip hop.’
All which might explain the originality of the band’s sound. 2010’s debut, A SEA OF DEAD SNAKES, is the kind of EP that makes you sit up and listen. There’s a strong melody throughout, but always with a plaintive or even horrific edge. And it’s this unsettling vibe, more than anything else, which carries forward into subsequent releases, such as 2012’s NARWHAL or 2013’s WOOD & WIRE.
‘We like to think the evolution of the Undersmile sound has been organic’ Olly continues. ‘We have always tried to ignore outside influences and as a result each release has been slightly differing in terms of production and themes. With the Wood & wire split for example, we wanted a more lo-fi and 'live' sound than Narwhal which had a huge and claustrophobic feel. Some of the eventual sound also depends on production and ideas we and producers have in the studio.’
Probably the most striking ingredient to Undersmile’s output is the dual female vocal and guitar provided by Taz and Hel; discordant harmonies crying out from within the dirge of down-tuned, minor-key riffing.
Olly agrees: ‘Taz and Hel are the principal song-writers of the band. They bring the riffs and lyrics to practice and we all work together on arrangement and structure.’
In other words, Taz and Hel are the foundation upon which Undersmile is built. Of course, some folks aren’t ready to accept that:
‘We do seem to get a certain amount of reviews where the main topic revolves around what we’re wearing,’ Taz and Hel quip. Admittedly, it’s something that’s becoming less of an issue, metal as a genre seeing more female-fronted bands. ‘The doom/sludge scene has been really supportive and on the whole gender doesn't appear to be an issue, especially amongst the bands we've toured and played with. There are definitely some extremely talented and inspirational female musicians in the doom/sludge genre and hopefully there will be even more in the future.’
Such as Tanya from Bismuth, a killer new band with whom Undersmile is recording a split EP. And yet again, for this release, their sound continues to evolve.
Olly again: ‘With the Coma Wall EP, we knew we wanted 3 tracks to fit on the Undersmile side, so our challenge was to write shorter songs. On the new Bismuth split we went the other way and have written a looong track. We all contributed riffs and Hel and Taz wrote the lyrics and vocals. Having edited ourselves heavily for Wood and Wire we wanted to write something particularly slow, drone-y and sludgy.’
With Taz and Olly expecting their second baby around Halloween (how doom is that?), Undersmile is currently on hiatus. But plans are already afoot for more touring early 2014. Balancing work and family commitments around a band is difficult at the best of times, but when the band’s made up of two couples, things can get even trickier. Like, who’s going to babysit when both Mummy and Daddy are off rocking?
‘Being two couples, and also very close friends, means that we're all understanding of each other’s needs when it comes to family/work/study schedules,’ Olly says. ‘On the other hand, as you mentioned, being two couples presents obvious logistical problems when we're gigging, traveling and recording.’
Of course, where there’s a will, there’s a way…
‘We have great support from our families and friends when it comes to babysitting duties. We've even toured with children and grandparents in tow!’
Find Undersmile online at facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Undersmile), bandcamp (http://undersmile.bandcamp.com/) and Big Cartel (http://undersmile.bigcartel.com/)