Slowly spreading across the UK underground scene, Oxford four-piece Undersmile have been captivating us for five years now with their devastatingly heavy backing and haunting vocals.
Having released their split with alter ego Coma Wall just a few months earlier, we couldn’t resist catching up with the band to chat about everything from the musical beginnings of Tapeworm Surprise and Miscreant and the Coconuts, to their recent adventures recreating the sound of angry wasps.
Let’s start at the beginning, how did you guys get together?
Taz and Hel started playing music together in 2006, before Undersmile formed in 2009 when Olly joined on bass and Tom joined on drums in 2010 during the recording of A Sea of Dead Snakes.
Did you have any idea of the kind of thing you wanted to do when you started, or was it something that just came together?
When Undersmile started we were definitely more inspired by grunge and sludge. As we progressively got slower and more downtuned people who used to like us started to actively dislike us. We then started to get noticed by people in the UK doom and stoner scene and we felt like we’d found a lot of like-minded bands who we have enjoyed playing with ever since. Our sound has definitely evolved over time but we don’t feel like we’re on a linear path – we like to try different things and to not be boxed in by genres or people’s expectations.
What is the music scene in Oxford like?
The music scene in Oxford is actually very good – there’s an obscene amount of bands and talented musicians in the city, but unfortunately there aren’t many bands of our ilk playing music there anymore. There is a strong metal scene here but we’re not really part of it as it tends to be catered more towards thrash and prog metal. Sadly the promoters who used to support our kind of music (such as the Desert Storm-affiliated Buried in Smoke Promotions) have had to pare down the number of gigs they put on due to apathy in the city which is a shame as it used to be home to some excellent heavy bands.
You’ve been going a few years now. Has your attitude today changed from when you first started?
Tom: Yes, because we’ve got a lot more experience of how things work and how to get things done, having made some errors in the process. But the thing that hasn’t changed is that we still really enjoy what we do – writing, recording and playing live music. We’ve made many friends and played with some amazing bands along the way so we’re grateful for that.
Hel: Long may it continue.
There’s a lot of grunge influence in your music. Was music a big part of your childhood?
Hel: Music was actually disallowed in my household up until the age of 21…
Tom: My childhood was dictated entirely by my Dad’s record collection so it was an unholy combination of the Beach Boys, Clannad and the original soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. Luckily we got MTV when I was about 10 so I discovered Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins and all manner of grungey goodness and things got considerably better from there.
Taz: I was very lucky to grow up with a muso dad and a mum who is really open-minded about music too. So my sisters and I grew up to everything from Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave to Frank Zappa and John Zorn. As well as loads of inspirational female singers like Polly Harvey, Tori Amos and Bjork. My older sister is a Celine Dion fan though so I’m not sure what happened there, a strange form of rebellion perhaps?
Olly: My parents were big fans of 80s pop music and had lots of compilation albums so that’s what I grew up listening to. I got into bands like Sonic Youth, Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins when I was a teenager.
How did you all get into playing your instrument? Did you all start young or did you decide to get into making music later?
Tom: I started learning guitar when I was 10 and started playing drums out of necessity a few years later because no-one else I knew could play them.
Hel: I got a crap electric guitar when I was 14 and got a copy of Babes In Toyland’s Fontanelle. Me and my friends used to practice Nirvana, Green Day and Hole in the music rooms at school.
Taz: I played cello and piano growing up but actually started learning guitar rather late around 17 or 18 (which explains why I’m so shit!)
Olly: I started learning bass when I was 14 and started playing in shit bands soon after.
Tell us about the music leading up to Undersmile? Where you in other bands? Where did the playing begin?
We’ve all been in other bands before, although nothing that we’ve put as much time and effort into as Undersmile, and almost certainly nothing anyone outside of our hometowns would have heard of. Bands such as Tapeworm Surprise, Loose Promises, and, lest we forget, Miscreant and the Coconuts.
The girls in the band have an interesting style. How do you go about choosing outfits for the videos/pictures/shows?
Hel: Taz and I narrow it down as follows: “what are we wearing tonight – red, white or black?” “Red?” “Yeah, OK”. Generally what we wear on stage isn’t too dissimilar to what we wear on a day to day basis, although we have a few special frocks that we save for special occasions like video shoots and big gigs etc. We hate all our clothes now though, and we want a new wardrobe apiece!
Coma Wall contains the same members but is acoustic, although it does sound different there’s definitely still distinct Undersmile vibes running through it. Why did you decide to release this under a different name?
Hel and Taz originally started writing acoustic dirges together. These songs were put on hold when Undersmile became a full-time thing. We always wanted to revisit these songs and write new ones and when Lee from Shaman Recordings asked us to release a half electric, half acoustic record (the Wood & Wire EP) it seemed like the perfect outlet. Although both bands feature the same members and the music shares a similar atmosphere they are two separate projects. Keeping them separate allows us to concentrate our efforts better when working on new song ideas.
Will we be seeing more Coma Wall/Undersmile splits in future or is Coma Wall going to get more album or EP releases?
Taz: Definitely an album or EP will be next for Coma Wall. We’re very excited to be working on lots of new material at the moment and looking forward to recording and releasing it in the next year or so.
You released a video for Soil last year. Can you take us through some of the inspiration behind the video?
Taz: The video was directed by our friend and collaborator Mark Arthur Wickson who directed our previous video for the song ‘Milk’ and it was devised by ourselves and Mark. We were working to a loose narrative but mainly we just wanted to express a general sense of unease, paranoia and conspiracy. We filmed part of the video in a beautiful country church in front of the stained glass window, some in the light of a huge bonfire and, contrastingly, we used a lot of stark imagery such as bare trees and snow.
The video is really nicely done, and I read he did the video for Milk too. How did you come to work with the director M. Arthur Wickson?
Thank you! Taz and Mark actually used to work together and as a keen film maker, he has been documenting Undersmile since our very first gigs and even before that at our practises. We are all very good friends so when the time came to make a video, Mark was the natural choice. It helps to work with a director who we are all at ease with and being friends definitely makes the process more fun!
With so many doom style bands becoming popular recently that contain female members (Devil’s Blood, Blood Ceremony, Windhand to name a few), do you still feel that people underestimate you as a band for containing female members?
It’s a hard question because we receive loads of support from the doom/sludge scene overall but there will always be those individuals who either underestimate or trivialise us based on our gender or, conversely, those who like us simply for being a band containing female members. As women who write our own material and play instruments that is obviously equally offensive. We have had experiences when playing live where other bands on the bill have sniggered at us before we’ve played and then actively apologised once we’ve performed our set saying things like ‘oh, we thought you were just going to be some riot grrl band but you’re the heaviest band on the bill’ etc… etc… Obviously we then have to tell them to bog right off…!
Some people seem to have very strong opinions on your music! What are some of your favourite comments you’ve ever received about your music?
Taz: Haha, quite a few spring to mind! One reviewer, who we frequently quote, described us as ‘unforgivable and sledgehammer’ (all one sentence!) We’ve had ‘How dare you to call this shit a metal’ posted on our facebook page…. ‘Why don’t you all crawl into your graves and die?’ Ummmm, ‘you sound like two angry wasps who’ve been trapped in a jar’. The list goes on….
How does the writing process for Undersmile happen?
Olly: Hel and Taz write the lion’s share of the songs. We usually come to rehearsal with riffs, lyrics and structure and we all jam it out until it becomes a song. On Narwhal we each contributed shorter or instrumental songs. On Wood & Wire, Tom and I contributed a song each to the Undersmile side, with the girls providing the lyrics. WIth Coma Wall, it’s pretty much the same.
Could you take us through your equipment list?
At the moment Hel uses a black Gibson SG through a Marshall DSL100H and vintage Marshall cab. Taz uses a black Gibson SG through a Peavey Valveking vk100. Olly plays a Peavey bxp bass with a Big Muff Bass Pi pedal and a Peavey Firebass 700. Tom uses a custom Capelle drum kit, including a Capelle Turbo 24″ x 34″ Bass Drum with Zildjian and Paiste cymbals.
Can you tell us about some of the high points so far for the band?
Coma Wall had the honour of playing with the legendary Dylan Carlson, which was a definite high point for all of us, as well as a support slot for 40 Watt Sun on one of their extremely rare live appearances. As Undersmile we loved playing with Weedeater and Monarch as well as some excellent festivals – Hammerfest, Seven Churches, Desertfest. We’ve been lucky to play with some awesome bands and have made some good friends as a result.
From humble beginnings listening to the Beach Boys and 90s grunge, Undersmile have shaped themselves out to be one of the most unique and exciting bands about on the UK doom scene today. Be sure to catch these guys on one of their UK appearances, you may just get hooked in their spell.
Find the band at: https://www.facebook.com/Undersmile
Interview by Caitlin Smith