Formed in 2009 by guitarist/vocalists Hel Sterne and Taz Corona-Brown, darkened sludge four-piece Undersmile make their most thoroughly doomed impression yet with their first full-length, Narwhal. The record — released through Future Noise — follows a preparatory split last year with fellow British act Caretaker and 2010′s debut EP, A Sea of Dead Snakes, and continues Undersmile‘s fascination with the sea and with lumbering, droning riffs, Sterne and Corona-Brown both contributing weighted melodies atop the anchoring rhythms of bassist Olly Corona-Brown and drummer Tom McKibbin.
What most stands the band out, though — apart perhaps from its ’90s-style dual female leads — is the album’s density of atmosphere. With lyrics quite literally derived from nightmares, Undersmile concoct an oppressive feel throughout the extended pieces that make up the extended whole of Narwhal (review here), which more or less maxes out the CD format at over 79 minutes. And in all that time, they don’t let up. Even shorter interludes like “Cortege” and the closer “Qaanaaq” moan with the undulating malevolence of the sea, Hel and Taz splitting the writing duties between them but nonetheless creating a work of near-frightening cohesion.
As The Obelisk’s UK special week continues, it’s my pleasure to present the following interview, for which both Hel and Taz provided insights as to the band’s origins, writing processes, the recording of Narwhal – which was helmed by Jimmy “Evil” Hetherington and mastered by none other than Billy Anderson – the striking and bleak cover art by Tony Roberts and much more. In a thriving British scene, Undersmile deliver massive tones, suffocating ambience and dreary moods. They even hint at an acoustic side-project toward the end, so something to watch out for too as Undersmile begins to look forward from Narwhal to the open waters before them.
Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions:
1. Take me through the origins of the band. How was it that you guys all came together and decided to work together? Did the four of you know at first that you’d have both Taz and Hel sing, or did it just work out that way when you started jamming?
Hel: Taz and I started jamming together on acoustic guitars back in 2006 before we knew Tom or Olly. Neither of us consider ourselves singers and initially didn’t want to sing, after a while we jammed with a few other girls (bass and vox) but it just didn’t gel. At the same time, neither of us wanted the responsibility of being the singer, so eventually we gave in and both did it. Olly (Taz‘s partner, now husband) joined us on bass soon after and following that we got a friend in to play drums for us; at that time our sound was much more grungey. After a year he left due to musical differences and was replaced by his friend, Tom (now my fiancé). Olly and Tom both really helped to bring the gnarly low end and slow pace we had been searching for and this is when we really began to sound like we had always intended.
Taz: Hel moved into the building where I was living in 2006 and we discovered we both played guitar and wrote songs. We had a mutual love for bands like Babes in Toyland and L7 as well as everything from classical music to atonal drone. We started out playing a blend of melancholy acoustic guitar and grungy electric dirges. We never intended to sing at all, it just sort of happened and we found our voices worked best when combined (we genuinely can’t bear the sound of one of our voices without the other!). In 2009, my husband, Olly joined us on bass with Hel‘s fiance, Tom joining not too long after. Once we started performing live, we quickly realised that we derived most enjoyment from playing our slowest, heaviest songs and since then it’s been an evolution into the discordant, droning cacophony you hear now…
2. How did the songwriting process work for Narwhal? The album balances its heaviness and ambience so well. Were the songs just built around the riffs? Were you conscious of keeping the mood consistent throughout? At what point did you realize just how much material you were working with?
Taz: With the exception of two of the shorter pieces – “Qaanaaq” which was written by Olly and “Funayurei” which Tom wrote – the songs on Narwhal are written by either Hel or myself. We wrote four songs each for the album. Songwriting for us isn’t so much a conscious thing but we have a similar ear for discordance and disharmony and all viewed Narwhal as an entire piece rather than individual tracks. Tempering the claustrophobia of the longer songs with the shorter interludes though was a deliberate decision to create contrast and add to the sense of disorientation. The writing process for us tends to be that me or Hel will write a song individually then come together to add guitar and vocal harmonies to one another’s track. We then take the songs to band practise where Olly and Tom add their bass and drums and that is the point when the songs really evolve. We’re definitely all at our happiest when working on new material together in the studio. It’s a pure pleasure!
Hel: Taz and I wrote all the tracks on Narwhal, with the exception of “Funayurei” (Tom) and “Qaanaaq” (Olly). The way we work is that whoever is credited for the lyrics gets credited for writing the actual song itself. But there’s no set formula as to “how” songs are written; I might wake up with a riff in my head, a vocal melody, or most often from a nightmare and have some lyrics that came from it — we’re both very similar in that respect. We both suffer terribly with nightmares and sometimes sleep paralysis, but it’s nice to be able to use something so horrible as a creative fuel.
Usually Taz or I will write the full song and then show it to each other, then we work on the harmonies together. When the song is how we want it we bring it to practise and show the boys, they add drums and bass, making it sound massive and I’ll normally add some lead. We always have too much material but we didn’t realise immediately that we would end up having to cut some out (simply because it wouldn’t fit on the CD). At the mastering stage there was a bit of a hoo-har as we kept sending the files back and forward to Billy Anderson, each time cutting a bit more off (sometimes milliseconds at a time) as it wouldn’t fit on an 80-minute disc (a time limit we’d never considered, until near the end I didn’t even know there was a limit, durr!).
3. How did you come to adopt the nautical theme? Even the split with Caretaker had a track called “Anchor,” and of course both the album and A Sea of Dead Snakes touch on water as well. What is it about the ocean that appeals to the band, and how do you see it playing into Undersmile’s sound? Is it something you see yourselves keeping to over future releases, at least in part?
Hel: Funnily enough, I wrote “Anchor” on the same day Taz wrote “Teutonic Dyselxia” from A Sea of Dead Snakes, which it was initially intended to be for, but we ran out of time in the end. We then later swapped a few tracks around that we had lined up for Narwhal and used them for the split. “Anchor” and “Big Wow” were then replaced (on Narwhal) by “Myra” and “The Unthinkable” because they had more of the feel we were going for. We did this because we were asked to do the split with Caretaker via Blindsight Records, midway through arranging the album. As a band, we’re all intrigued by the sea and everything it symbolises; it’s such a huge unknowable element, beautiful, terrifying and all-consuming. We like to try to tap into the feeling of our nightmares (which are often of the sea, or water) and that’s where a lot of our inspiration comes from. In saying that, it hasn’t really been an intentionally thing at all, maybe we have a subconscious fixation, now you come to mention it! ;)
Taz: The sea is a huge source of inspiration for us and I’m certain it will continue to be so in the future. There is a hypnotic monotony to the ocean which I think is apparent in our music and lyrics. There’s a theory that, as a species, we’re fascinated by the sea because it is symbolic of our own mortality; the breaking of the wave representing the moment of death. I’m intrigued, also, by the contrasting characteristics of the ocean itself, being transient yet constant.
4. Tell me about the recording process for Narwhal? How long were you in the studio with Jimmy Hetherington, and what was the studio situation like? Where was the album actually recorded?
Hel: We recorded the drums and bass at Studio 101 with Martin Newton and Jimmy and from there we did the rest at Jimmy‘s. We had loads of fun working with Jimmy, it was a friendly and relaxed environment and he knew what we were going for. Jimmy added elements of his own in the post production that we all thought suited the album perfectly and were really pleased with his contributions to the overall sound.
Taz: We were recording and mixing with Jimmy for almost a year altogether. After a couple of short bursts in the studio to get the bass and drums down, we would go to Jimmy‘s place once a week to add guitar, vocals and varying degrees of filthy noise! The drums and bass were recorded at our friend Martin Newton‘s recording studio, Studio 101 and the rest was done from Jimmy‘s studio at his home in Oxford. I was actually pregnant at the time so there was a tangible sense of urgency in the studio situation as we were working to a pretty inflexible and inevitable deadline!
5. Tony Roberts’ art seems to fit the music and the atmosphere of the album perfectly. How did you end up working with him, and how did that process go? Was there discussion back and forth of ideas, or did he get the music and just work from that? How involved were you in nailing down the finished design?
Taz: We all greatly admire Tony‘s artwork and I think I’m right in saying that we just messaged him to see if he’d be up for doing the album and he agreed. We were all confident that Tony would be able to capture Narwhal‘s atmosphere perfectly and he certainly did. There was a little messaging back and forth but it really wasn’t necessary as Tony sensed the mood of the album immediately. My favourite element is the sea serpent which can be seen emerging from the depths on the inner sleeve, we’ve used it for our latest t-shirt design and it works incredibly well as an individual piece, also.
Hel: We were very involved in the design itself as we all had a clear idea of what we wanted for Narwhal. Tom came across his artwork initially after seeing the cover he’d done for Conan‘s first album, Horseback Battle Hammer. We then looked into it and all agreed we loved his style, at which point we contacted him and asked if he would be up for it. We always liked the idea of a ship sinking and a big sky, and Tony added some elements such as the beautifully drawn waves and the sea serpent on the inside cover (which were our favourite parts). He was a pleasure to work with.
6. Any upcoming shows or releases you want to plug, or other closing words you want to mention?
Hel: We have two shows coming up this year in particular, which are both in the land of Birmingham. 13th October at Scruffy Murphy’s with Diesel King, Ishmael and Burden of the Noose, then on 17th November at The Asylum, an all-dayer with Cultura Tres (our friends from Venezuela), Grimpen Mire, Slabdragger, Bastard of the Skies and more.
Taz: We are currently working on a secret (shhhhh) project which should be announced very soon. I can say we’re thoroughly enjoying working on it and that I think it’s going to surprise some people… Our next show is on October the 13th in Birmingham where we shall be reunited with our beloved friends and fellow noise-mongers, Ishmael. If you haven’t checked them out you really ought to stop reading this and do it right. Now.
Hel: We’d also like to mention that we have an acoustic side-project (much like the one Taz and I started back in the old days). We played at the Black Heart in London and supported Dylan Carlson on his solo tour and we’re currently working on a few things at the moment in that vein, but we’re not allowed to say too much just yet so watch this space for some announcements coming soon!