This is definitely our Purple Rain…
Including subjects such as the band, their formation and sound, their new album Anhedonia, and those damned Oxford stereotypes, MR’s Paul Castles talks to Tom and Hel of Sludge/Doom quartet Undersmile…
I’m really enjoying your latest album Anhedonia which I reviewed recently (here). It’s been getting some great coverage. You must be excited and pleased about that?
Tom: Thanks for the very illustrative review – sometimes the Oxford stereotypes are worryingly true to life! We’re really pleased with the feedback on the album so far – we put a lot of work into the writing, editing and recording of the songs so hopefully that will show when people finally get to hear the whole thing. In a lot of ways the album is a bit of a departure from our previous sound so we’re glad that people are seeing it as a progression rather than some weird tangent!
Hel: We have a lot of international support which has grown over the years, some five years later we never take that for granted and regularly catch up with our fans. We know they will be interested in this release but with it taking on, perhaps a new leaning, we hope it will be inspiring to more of an audience too.
Was the approach in anyway different with this record than some of your earlier material?
Tom: Definitely – we spent more time rehearsing the songs before recording the album for one thing, and in the process we edited the songs down a lot more and cut out some of the sections that we might have just left in in the past. Also, we wanted a much more natural, “live” sounding album which is why werecorded it with Chris Fielding at Skyhammer Studio. As for the songs themselves, we didn’t just want to hit people over the heads with distortion the whole time.
Hel: The addition of cellos, clean guitar and more melodic vox is something we’ve focused on a lot in our other band, Coma Wall, for which Taz and I started writing for back in 2006 (soon after making friends the year before). So although this style seems new for us, it’s actually one we began before Undersmile. We’d always said that we would have cello in any music we did so it was a pleasure to work with the talented and beautiful Joanna Quail.
What does Anhedonia refer to and what’s all that purple all over the sleeve – It’s not a subliminal tribute to Prince is it?
Tom: Anhedonia is a condition in which people are unable to experience pleasure – it’s a word that we liked the sound of and it resonates with some of the lyrical themes and the musical tone of the album which is quite sombre and contemplative. The purple is quite a cold colour too and the image is quite ambiguous which we like. This is definitely our Purple Rain.
Hel: I didn’t like the name at all when Olly first suggested it but it grew on me and I love it now because it fits perfectly. With the purple album cover, it just seems to suggest a deep sickness or malcontent to me. It had to be done. (We’re not telling what the subject matter is, you have to guess and no, it’s not a close up of a cupcake!)
Do you feel your sound has changed in any way since you first started performing together?
Tom: Yes, hugely – when Undersmile started we were quite grungey and sludgey, like Bleach-era Nirvana, but then we started getting compared to doom bands that we’d never heard of or listened to and that kind of introduced us to the whole doom scene. I think we’ve tried to change up our sound on all six releases so far. This new album interpolates some of our other influences, like Low, Nick Cave, Codeine and Slint, which works quite well with our existing sound.
Hel: It’s definitely morphed. We were likened to some bands we’d never heard of at the time and since looking into them realised we really liked them, Grief being one of them. But back from A Sea of Dead Snakes era we actually have a ton of other grunge songs which we’ve never released. Maybe one day, it seems hellishly fast though in comparison.
Can you tell us a little about your background, and how you all came together?
Tom: Taz and Hel have been playing guitar together since 2006, but Undersmile formed in 2009 when the girls were joined by Olly on bass and then I joined in 2010 after the original drummer Snake asked me to replace him half way through recording our first EP. I was a big fan of the band anyway and went to most of their gigs so knew their songs inside out and was more than happy to step in to finish the EP and take things from there.
Hel: And that worked out well as I wanted Tom for my very own collection.
You played with some great doom bands such as Slabdragger and Serpent Venom at a special all-dayer in Manchester earlier this month. Do you feel you’re part of a vibrant UK doom movement at the moment?
Tom: That was an incredible gig and as well as those guys we got to play with Bismuth and the mighty Slomatics which is always fun! The doom scene is definitely pretty amazing in the UK and we’re pleased to have our place in it. There’s also a lot of derivative stuff coming out which is a shame when there are so many interesting places you can take this kind of music.
Hel: It’s been a pleasure to have met so many interesting and varied bands over the years, there are some real characters on the scene and we love getting chance to watch our friend’s bands. Mostly all our favourite bands are on the underground anyway, with some exceptions but there is a high standard coming out of the UK scene.
You’re playing the prestigious Roadburn Festival in Holland for the first time this year. You must be looking forward to that?
Tom: We still have to pinch ourselves from time to time because it’s an absolute honour to be playing one of the greatest music festivals in the world, and not with just one band but with two (our acoustic band Coma Wall are also playing). It’s going to be a great weekend.
Hel: We always said one day we would play Roadburn (in a very optimistic way) but the stars did align and we are very humbled to have been invited. Those guys make an incredible contribution to keeping live music alive and it shows when the audience is flying in from countries all around the world just to experience it. We’re looking forward to catching up with Coltsblood another band also prevalent in the scene right now.
What other tour plans are in the pipeline for 2015, UK and overseas?
Tom: After Roadburn we’re playing a festival in Leeds called No Fun Intended with the incredible Noothgrush who will be making their UK debut. We’re then playing an album launch show in Camden with our friends Dead Existence and Space Witch before playing a hometown show in Oxford with (hopefully) Earthmass and a solo musician named D. Gwalia.
Hel: We’re very much looking forward to playing with the mighty Noothgrush, they are really lovely guys.
I saw you made the cover of the local Oxford music magazine Nightshift this month. Have you had much support from your local area and have you built up a good local fanbase?
Hel: Hmm, we don’t really feel that Oxford is the place for us, in truth. I don’t think we’re their thing so we’ve always played further a field in London, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham where the scene is far more vibrant for our genres. Oxford sound men have a habit of trying to turn us down. It doesn’t work.
Tom: There are loads of great heavy bands in Oxford, and there’s a strong technical metal scene too, but there’s not a huge amount of slow, doom bands so it’s hard to get a scene going or to build a community of people you can rely to show up to local gigs. Oxford is spoiled in a way by having such an amazing, diverse music scene – it means that there’s always so much choice when it comes to picking which gigs you want to go to.
Finally, are you able to match the intensity and moodiness of your studio work on stage, and is performing live something that Undersmile enjoy?
Hel: Minus the cello of course, we’re able to create MORE of an atmosphere live as live energy is tangible whereas studio can be disjointed as you’re not all playing at the same time. This time there were considerably less effects and no production unlike Narwhal, so this enabled us to stay true to our live sound.
Thanks again for taking time out for this interview. Do you have any closing words for our readers?
Tom: Thanks for reading this, and hopefully see some of you at our upcoming gigs. Follow us on Facebook and on Twitter @Undersmileband.