It’s no secret that the second full-length album, ‘Anhedonia’, from Oxford doom quartet Undersmile, has got me in a bit of a spin. So, in order to delve deeper into it’s world, I fired off some questions to drummer Tom McKibbin and vocalist/guitarist Hel Sterne.
AN: First of all, congratulations on new album ‘Anhedonia’. The sound is quite refined and often mellow, did the writing and recording process differ from previous releases?
Tom: Thank you! The writing process was kind of different in as much as some of the songs and sections on the album pre-date the songs on our last album Narwhal, and some of them were brand new. I think the songs came naturally to Hel and Taz, they didn’t set out to do anything differently this time round, they’re constantly writing and their style and interests have evolved organically as the band has gone along. The recording process was very different this time as we recorded it all in four days, and mixed it in one epic 16 hour session. Our collaborators Lee Riley (fx) and Jo Quail (cello) did their sections remotely – it was really exciting hearing their parts slot into the gaps that we’d left for them, it made the album whole.
Hel: Some of these songs were written years before Narwhal (and developed during and after the writing of its release). The actual writing process didn’t differ hugely, only a shift in emotional mindset when getting them down. It can be heavy going to get into the creative flow when the subject is quite dark as you have to be sure you can shake it off after and not be swallowed by it. The recording process was far preferable in that we got all the music tracks down in four days unlike Narwhal which was done over months on end.
T: A few people have mentioned that in reviews and we can definitely see where they’re coming from, but the truth is: not really. Hel and Taz just both seemed to be in the frame of mind to write songs that were a bit more solemn and sombre, plus we worked out ways to make them more dynamically varied than some of our previous releases. We are in the early stages of getting the Coma Wall album together and it’s quite different from Undersmile – expect murder ballads!
H: In as much as Coma Wall pre dates Undersmile, there is a lot of clean on Anhedonia but we didn’t have Coma Wall in mind while writing – we rarely have any briefs (haha) we just tend to write whatever and then go from there.
AN: What are the background voices that appear mid-way through ‘Sky Burial’, and how do they relate to the song?
T: That’s someone who performs the sky burial ritual discussing how he mentally prepares for the job at hand. Sky burials tend to be performed at very high altitudes and in this particular village this guy is one of the few non-Buddhists so he ended up being the only person who could really cut up the bodies for the vultures. Sucks to be him!
AN: (muso question) What tunings do Undersmile use? There are tracks on ‘Anhedonia’ where the bass sounds very…erm..”slack”!
T: We’re not as downtuned as some of our friends’ bands (Conan take things to the extreme!) – we use drop C. We have gotten lower since we first started and may go lower again in future.
AN: How has the album been received so far?
Hel: I’d say that we have received the most positive feedback from Anhdonia to date.
T: We’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response the album has received so far. We thought people might consider it a bit of a departure due to the amount of clean guitars and cello, but thankfully most people can see the progression we’ve made whilst keeping that core Undersmile sound.
Hel: You name it, we’ve had it. Although none of us are anhedonists (to my knowledge).
T: It just resonated with some of the lyrical themes and the overall tone of the album. Some of us have suffered with depression over the years so there’s a certain similarity to anhedonia.
AN: You’ve just played the Roadburn Festival, how was that?
Hel: People at Roadburn are serious about music and the atmosphere was alight with a sense of camaraderie and community. No wonder it’s reached the legendary status it’s famous for.
T: Yeah, it was everything we’d hoped and been told it would be and a whole lot more. We were honoured to have been invited to play and we’re still coming down because it was such an incredible experience. The crew are so professional and helpful, and the festival organisers really take care of the bands. But most of all, the people are all there to have a good time and listen to great music and that creates the best atmosphere.
AN: Has the new material gone down well live?
Hel: Many people have said that it’s their favourite release so far and we’re enjoying hearing the different perspectives on it.
AN: Will the cello make an appearance at live shows?
Hel: If Jo was free (she’s just come back from a solo tour in Australia) we would love to have her join us, the addition of cello suits both bands.
T: We would love to get Jo Quail to play some of her cello parts with us live as we feel that her contributions are really beautiful. Perhaps for a few one-off shows it might be possible. We recently played our first Coma Wall gig with a cellist (our friend Tom Greenway) and it really filled out the sound.
AN: When it comes to the vocals at live shows, is there a kind of telepathy between Taz and Hel?
Hel: There is (and has always been) telepathy between Taz and I. We develop our harmonies together on our own. One example of our link; one late night I couldn’t sleep for hours and ended up writing poetry, on this occasion is was something about a moth falling from the ceiling and fluttering on my face. When I saw Taz the next day she told me about her dream of a moth swirling down onto her face (while she was explaining the dream I took my poem of folded up paper and unwrapped it and read it to her.) We have these kinds of things frequently.
AN: How tricky is it to maintain a slow tempo live, and do you notice yourselves speeding up the material?
T: The tempo is almost completely down to the drummer, so it’s in the drummer’s hands to keep things at the right tempo, even if the guitarist brings in a song too fast or too slow. Fortunately, after years of doom drumming, the inclination to speed up evaporates and it’s instinctual to keep things slow.
Hel: Sometimes it’s guitars or bass that start of a track so we all have to keep ourselves in check with that one, generally we’re fine to play very slowly with no issue but at some gigs, nervous excitement makes you speed up a bit.
AN: Undersmile could well be the musical equivalent of that scene in ‘Ghostbusters’, with the ghost in the library!!! If you could score a movie (past or present), what would it be?
Hel: Writing a score is one of my all-time dreams, it would be amazing to write something to a Studio Ghibli film, I’ve already written something with that in mind after being inspired by the childhood memory in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind when she communicates with the Aums.
AN: I’ve seen a few intriguing snap shots for a new video, can you shed any more light on this?
Hel: We’ve been working with our Director, M. Arthur Wickson on the track ‘Song of Stones’ and after this we’re going to go straight onto working on a video for ‘Sky Burial’ so we’re looking forward to having something to show in the next few days.
AN: What does 2015 have in store for Undersmile?
T: In November it’ll be the fifth anniversary of our first EP A Sea of Dead Snakes so we’re contemplating doing something for that – maybe a few gigs and a vinyl reissue if there’s enough interest.
Hel: And then it will definitely be time for Coma Wall to have some time, where we intend to home record an album and just go from there. Some of these songs have been waiting years and we feel it’s something we need to do.
AN: The new album (in my opinion) is currently neck and neck with Therapy?’s ‘Disquiet’ as my album of the year so far. Please state your case for why ‘Anhedonia’ should win out…
T: Haha, well there’s no good way of answering this question without sounding like a bit of an arsehole! What I will say is we’re really pleased with how the album turned out and if you consider it to be up there with the likes of Therapy? then that’s a big honour and we thank you! (Although I have heard that the guys in Therapy like to kick small dogs, so…)
Hel: How are you able to come up with such questions? …I…oh…
(Interview by Stuart Carroll)