7 November 2015
Interview and Photography by M. Selim Yavuz
I had the great opportunity to talk to Undersmile mid-day, half-drunk at Damnation Festival 2015 at Leeds University Student’s Union building after their gig. They were kind enough to come to the interview as the band. I had a great time chatting with them, and they gave a great performance at Damnation Festival. More on the gig and more performance shots in the festival review! If you haven’t checked Undersmile out yet, go do it now! They released a new album this April, Anhedonia via Blackbow Records. Here’s the gist of what we talked!
Olly Corona-Brown, bass
Taz Corona-Crown, guitars and vocals
Tom McKibbin, drums
Hel Sterne, guitars and vocals
Thank you very much for the concert. You opened the Electric Amphetamine stage. How was it you think? How was the experience?
Hel: It was great, wasn’t it? We could hear really well, and that’s always a bonus because that means…
Tom: You can hear!
Hel: The room was full of energy.
Taz: It was really full. It was a quite nice surprise. We were expecting one or possibly two.
Tom: I managed to break my snare in the first song, and I had to do two songs with a broken snare.
Taz: When something happens, we don’t know how to do banter, so we just stand there.
Hel: ‘Two men walk into a bar’, that’s as far as I go.
Tom: Yeah, we’re going to have to stand here in silence.
Taz: Olly can actually do jokes, so next time… Apart from the broken snare, it was good.
Tom: I thought it sounded good with a broken snare.
Taz: Often we play and you just can’t hear anything, you can’t hear your amp.
Olly: It was great too, everyone [the technical crew] helped. It’s not like a bar gig.
Tom: It was quite stress-free. It was nice to play here.
Taz: We wanted to, for a while, so it’s fun.
Have you given concerts in the North before?
Tom: Leeds is probably the city we played the most up North. We have a lot of friends here like Wizard’s Beard and various others.
Taz: We always enjoy playing in the North. There’s a good scene.
Tom: Really dedicated.
Hel: We did have to wake up at 6.30 this morning, which we didn’t like with pouring rain all the way.
I know Anhedonia was released fairly recently, but is there anything new in the works?
Tom: We are putting together another album for our other band Coma Wall, so the songs are all written, we are just going to start demoing them, sort of hopefully next week.
Taz: Yep, that’s sort of taking precedent at the moment, because we released an album [with Undersmile] fairly recently, as for Coma Wall, we’ve been waiting to release an album since nearly Hel and I started writing songs together really, nearly 10 years ago.
Hel: Yeah, it was a long time ago. We were sidetracked with Undersmile, and then we just kept saying we have to get this music out, and it’s just going to wait and wait, and now it’s just gotten to a point where it just needs to… We need an album.
Taz: We have focused on Undersmile for quite a long time, haven’t we? So we are ready to do something different for a short amount of time, but we’ve already got plans [for Undersmile], but they’re secret!
Tom: There’s something cool going on next year.
Taz: And then also for future recordings, we’ve got a devious plan!
Hel: I don’t remember that one.
Taz: I’ll tell you later.
Tom: So Coma Wall is definitely next.
Hel: Oh, I remember now.
Taz: Yeah, it’s good. We’re writing a lot of acoustic, sort of murder ballads and things.
Are you doing a tour right now for Anhedonia?
Taz: We’re just doing a few gigs at the moment. But next we’ll hopefully do something more.
Tom: Yeah, we’ve got a gig in two weeks [21st November, The Arena, Rainbow Venues w/ Conan, The Wounded Kings, Slabdragger, and Torpor] in Birmingham, which is a memorial gig for our friend Paul from Grimpen Mire who passed away. And we’re playing New Year’s eve in London [31 December, The Unicorn, w/ Monarch, Birushanah, Ghold, and Torpor].
Taz: We’re looking to both really.
Hel: Because generally New Year’s Eve sucks.
Taz: We just sit at home and cry.
Tom: But hopefully next year, we’ll try and go to Europe. It’s just we’ve never been before, so that’ll be good.
Hel: We enjoy the hospitality of Europe. When we did Roadburn, it was just great. We got the taste for it then.
You played two sets in Roadburn, right? How was that? That must be exhausting!
Taz: It was!
Tom: It was all in day as well.
Hel: We were knackered before we even left, god knows when, like four in the morning. We drove to Calais, and then over, and then Holland, and we got there, played Coma Wall, got lost and just wandered around for a while. We had six hours in between [sets]. I had a nap and I drooled on myself to the extend of ‘I can’t wear this dress’ and then I was just ‘I’m going to have wear it, oh nevermind!’. It was disgusting!
Tom: It was actually fantastic.
Hel: It was really good, but before we went on, who was it…
Taz: I can’t remember who it was.
Olly: Black Anvil!
Hel: Black Anvil played and the whole stage was just covered in blood. The microphones they stunk. We thought it might be fake, it was not. It was pig’s blood or chicken’s blood or something.
Taz: The sound man said: ‘don’t touch these microphones! It’s disgusting!’
All: Yeah, apart from that it was great.
Taz: Such an honour for us to play there! There’s no better honour really, they were lovely to work with.
Tom: It would be great to get a call to come back.
Taz: Yeah! Any time! We’ll make ourselves available!
Back to Anhedonia, I think the new album is much cleaner in terms of sound, was that a conscious choice? Are you going more towards a low rock or post-metal style?
Taz: It’s really hard to say whether something’s conscious or not, because we write, me and Hel mostly, in a subconscious way, so things evolve but not in a conscious way. We don’t sit down and have a band meeting about it and say we’re going to this style. It’s kind of beyond that.
Hel: Yeah, we don’t sit down and say ‘Right, now we’re going to write this or that’. We just write them and because we’ve known each other for so long, we’re on this kind of… We have psychic thing going on. We know what each other is thinking, and so we just do it.
Taz: We’ve never done that in this band, that’s why you can hear change with each album, because we don’t set ourselves a framework to work in.
Hel: And then Tom and Olly, they just intuitively know what we’re doing as well. We don’t tell them, they just do it.
Taz: All of us just fall into our own little role in our band.
Tom: We try not to repeat ourselves, so this was a nice change to have the more dynamic sound. The next thing we might do; I don’t know what it’ll be. We’ve got a couple of ideas. We’re just trying to change it up.
Olly: You want to do things differently you know. You don’t want to keep repeating, playing the same album couple of times.
Tom: And people have followed us through the change, which was cool.
Olly: But the tone of it [Anhedonia], I wouldn’t say is very different.
Taz: You can still tell it’s us I think, Narwhal was like an onslaught of noise, and maybe we just naturally arrived to a point where we wanted to step that back a bit.
Hel: And I think what happened was when we did Anhedonia, people said ‘you’re going the Coma Wall thing’ but Coma Wall came first anyway, so we were already creating that music, we just decided to use it more and that was quite liberating as well after Narwhal.
Taz: I enjoy playing things with a shift of dynamics, I enjoy the quiet and then… And I suppose as well, we are all kind of huge fans of 90s grunge bands, there’s always going to be that element. We got compared to some of our absolute heroes for this album, which was an honour.
Tom: You get compared to bands like Mogwai…
Taz: You can’t even imagine that in your dream really, so that wasn’t the intention.
Hel: I only started listening to Mogwai after we were likened to them, and I was like ‘Oh my god, they’re amazing! I really like this’. It was a huge honour.
Taz: Yeah, it was not a conscious thing, if anything we were channelling other bands like Harvey Milk, and things like that. Codeine as well.
Olly: Pet Shop Boys.
Taz: Olly always likes to tell Pet Shop Boys.
Tom: Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Huey Lewis and the News.
Hel: It’s the underpinning really. It’s very subtle.
Taz: If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t exist. If it wasn’t for them, no one would exist.
This is a hard question, but I like asking it anyway. How would you rate Anhedonia amongst your own work?
Olly: I think it’s the best.
Tom: I think it’s the best.
Taz: I think it’s the best. It sounds such an asshole thing to say but it’s the one where I am actually like: ‘I think we did quite well’.
Hel: I think there’s a reason for that. This was the one time we decided we were going to not do all these others, because you know we love doing collaborations and stuff, and we were asked to do something for Cvlt Nation with Black Flag. We decided that we have to just focus for once.
Taz: We always do so many projects.
Hel: It’s hard to focus, and we are always very busy. So this time we were able to focus and we took our time on it.
Taz: We normally have to go in the studio we are like still writing that last song, whereas this time we knew them inside out before.
Tom: We booked the studio time six months in advance, so we knew we had six months to be completely ready, and we were.
Hel: And this is the first ever, isn’t it?
Taz: The only time!
Hel: That’s why we are so pleased with this album.
Taz: We haven’t recorded like [4 days in a row] before too. We went to Skyhammer four days.
Olly: Chris Fielding recorded it. He’s amazing. He notices stuff you don’t even realise like intonation. He has a great ear.
Taz: He overrode our tuners.
Olly: We mixed in 16 hours, one 16-hour session.
Hel: I got auditory hallucinations, I kept hearing seagulls.
Taz: No one should have to listen to us for 16 hours! That’s fair on anyone! I think one day at Skyhammer you [Hel] and I played guitar for like 12 hours, and that was definitely pushing boundaries of what’s acceptable. After a while, you don’t know what you’re doing anymore.
Hel: Taz got pissed off and kicked a door!
Tom: We’ve all kicked a door in our time.
Taz: There were all these chickens and rabbits there as well, which made things all a bit easier.
Olly: And you’re spending your own money as well, it’s not like the label’s going to pay for you.
Tom: You’ve got to work hard!
Taz: Chris was working until 3 in the morning without complaining.
Tom: To answer your question, Anhedonia is our best album!
The line that ends Anhedonia is ‘I don’t feel anything really’, which sounds quite appropriate. Who writes the lyrics, is it collaborative?
Taz: Hel and I write them. Yes. Yea… I can’t really. If you ever want to make us shut up, just ask us about our lyrics.
Olly: They’re quite personal, aren’t they?
Taz: I kind of feel like almost sometimes, we don’t know where they come from, and perhaps afterwards you might read them and just go ‘Oh that was about that’ but you didn’t even know [when you were writing], just comes out in a stream of consciousness. Sometimes, it’s just a feeling, sometimes it’s about something.
Hel: Sometimes they are, but sometimes they are just coming out. And also we’ve had things in the past, they come through dreams as well. Like you go into different brain wavelengths, so a lot of stuff comes from there. We’re like pen and paper besides the bed, because that’s when you just got to get it done immediately. There were where I had like whole orchestral sounds, but I didn’t even have a clue how to transcribe that. And then being like ‘you’ve lost that piece of music’.
Taz: It’s like you’re humming a tune to your phone at 3am. It’s still better than nothing. You have that melody in your head. It doesn’t leave you alone until you’ve recorded it basically.
Hel: So we quite often feel busy by having to do these daily, mother-y chores, and work and this and that, and you’ve got a riff in your head, and you go like ‘right, now I’ve got to go to work!’, and you’re like ‘no! Fuck off! I’ve got to get this down!’.
Taz: Sometimes it could be a subtle melody change that you never remember again. It’s heartbreaking! One note out of place, and it’s gone you know.
Hel: It is a personal thing to us. Sometimes it means something, sometimes it doesn’t mean something. But we often don’t go into it knowing what it is or isn’t. It is whatever you want it to be basically.
Taz: It’s so personal, it’s hard to talk about. Some of those on that album are particularly personal, and I think there might be another reason why it’s stuck in people’s minds. We’ve been through various different things, families and friends. It comes out I guess. It’s hard to talk about.
Hel: It’s a natural thing, it’s not demons and satan, and this and that. It’s more human.
Taz: It’s more just personal experience. But thank you for asking about them, they are very important to us. It’s just quite hard to articulate.
How do you see your videos?
Hel: We like aesthetically pleasing things in general…
Taz: Or haunting in some way.
Hel: And we like to create stuff between us, which sometimes is difficult because when we work with particular people, they also have their ideas. Yes, but we want to do it, we know what we want. So it can be difficult sometimes.
Taz: Anything to do with art and music is going to be like that. You’ve got an artist with a vision and a musician with a vision.
Hel: We still got a clear vision of what we want, so it sometimes makes it a bit difficult.
Taz: We all love film and they [Undersmile music videos] are quite inspired by film and visual arts.
Tom: And we all grew up watching MTV and all the 90s music videos, so the idea of doing one is great.
Taz: We’re secretly living our rock star dreams!
Hel & Tom: We are!
Tom: Our friend Mark Wickson has basically all the Undersmile videos. He has got a good vision and he’s good at editing. We leave it at his hands, we give him ideas and what we’d like to do. There’s usually a vague storyline, maybe not so much in the last one as such.
Taz: Yeah, the last one was a shift really.
Tom: It’s just a fun way to put songs out there and draw attention to the album.
Are you planning for another video for this album?
Taz: We are planning one.
Hel: As we speak!
Taz: We’re not in it, we can tell you that. It is a nice change!
Tom: If there had been a screen behind us today, we would have shown some footage of it. We didn’t get it finished in time, but hopefully it won’t be too much time.
Taz: It’s nearly done I think. It’s being edited at the moment.
Tom: It’s for one of the Anhedonia songs.
Taz: After that, we might do more.
Hel: We do enjoy doing it, but it just takes so long. And the whole thing is quite torturous. But there are lots of things we want to do. We [Hel and Tom] have got a daughter, she just keeps a stock still face, and she wants to be in one of the videos.
There’s also quite a big shift in the artwork you used for Anhedonia.
Tom: When we were looking at our artwork from before, they’ve always been animated or drawn.
Hel: We got tired of that.
Tom: Yeah, and that takes quite a long time as well. You have to wait for the artist to draw stuff. Then we just saw this photo Taz’s dad had taken, he’s a really good photographer Pierre Corona, and we just thought that…
Taz: We just fell in love with it. It presented sort of confusion.
Tom: Yeah, it’s confusion, it’s quite cold, it’s quite abstract, and then we all agreed on that image. There was another image we wanted to get but we couldn’t get the rights to use it. So hopefully, we’ll be able use that for something in the future.
Taz: It was funny how we fell in love with too, we all just had the same idea at a similar time. I said: ‘quick! Take it off from Facebook Dad! We want that!’
Tom: Then we contacted our friend Jack Burley who’s in the band Earthmass. He’s a really good designer and he does really good layouts for loads of bands. So we kind of just left in his hands, and he came up with this quite cool look. It was quite minimal that we quite liked, and it was quite mysterious as well. And the way he did the broken up fonts with lots of space between letters, it really worked well.
Taz: It suited the album well. Because the album is different than we’ve done before. Then I guess we wanted it to be visually different. I think it captures it quite well. We thought it captures the title and the subject matter quite well.
Hel: Yeah, definitely, and the colour as well. It went well with the heaviness, when I say heaviness, I mean the emotional heaviness rather than metal heaviness. It’s like this thing in your lungs, it just sticks there. I don’t how to explain it really.
Taz: There’s a lot of sadness on that album.
Hel: It’s kind of a grieving feeling that lingers. That’s that colour I think. Purple.
Taz: Purple and gray.
How do you see Coma Wall? I’ve mainly seen it referred to as your side project, but how do you categorise it?
Taz: That’s a really hard question!
Tom: It’s kind of been forced to being a side project, hasn’t it? Because we had a lot of Undersmile things to do, but you guys [Hel and Taz] have been doing this from…
Taz: It predates Undersmile.
Hel: They’re both our babies, aren’t they? We started working on both from the beginning.
Taz: And we quite enjoy working on it.
Hel: It’s only a kind of side project like you [Tom] said, because we have other things to do, but we like it just as much. And we will put more effort into it now, because Undersmile has had a lot attention, and now it’s time for Coma Wall.
Taz: I think that any time you have a heavy band, and then you have an acoustic band, people will always see it as the side project, because it’s not that heavy.
Hel: And it’s less known as well.
Taz: But to us, we’re working just as hard on those songs as we would on Undersmile songs, and honing them at the moment. I guess it’s a side project, because Undersmile has taken the forefront, but not emotionally to us, we enjoy it just as much, put as much into it. We put a lot into it! Blood, sweat, and tears!