Underwater. People drown Underwater, don’t they? It’s easy to drown in their sea of lush electronics, crafty beats, and Melissa Mileski’s amazing voice. Composed of Jeremy Wilkins (keyboards, guitar), Melissa Mileski (vocals), Alec Irvin (drums), and Matthew Jeanes (keyboards) Underwater takes the new-wave pop idiom, cuts it to ribbons, and brings it to the ’90s. I spoke to Jeremy about Atlanta, electronic music, record labels and their new remix disc, RED .
You’ve been playing some shows recently in the Atlanta area. How have they been going?
Jeremy Wilkins : Shows in Atlanta are very unpredictable. Atlanta in general, seems very fickle. We have a small, loyal following who are at nearly all of the shows, but beyond that it’s pretty random. We have shows that are packed, like our Echo Lounge RED release party, and then shows where we play to about 20 people, like last night at Smith’s Olde Bar. Our crowd seems to avoid certain clubs, as I guess we should also. Aside from the numerical amount of people in attendance, the audience, whoever they may be, seem to always be rather enthusiastic. Our merchandise sales are usually quite nice, if that is any indication of how things are going. We think our performances are improving.
Knowing that the live arena isn’t the best for subtle atmospherics, how does your sound translate live?
We don’t usually play the album versions of the songs. We do remixes and alternate versions. I guess that some are even more subtle, though. We’ve tried different formats, and I think we’ve got something that works now. We’re currently a four piece: I play keyboards, guitar and bass, Melissa sings and plays guitar, Matthew plays keyboards and runs the background tracks, and Alec play acoustic and electronic drums. I think that people appreciate the fact that we don’t sound like every other loud rock band and that you really have to pay attention sometimes. Our songs are about certain emotions, and I think that if we can find a way to bring that across to the audience, whether it means playing the original version of the song or turning the whole thing inside out and into a bunch of fucking noise, then we accomplish the goal. It’s really about translating a feeling, rather than translating our record, we got real bored with that, real fast.
How has the reception to RED been?
We’ve sold enough to be happy with it. I personally have been given a pretty good response, but I haven’t seen any press reviews yet. It’s something I really like and I’m interested in what people think of it, but I realize that a lot of the single isn’t us. It’s a bunch of really talented people doing their interpretations of Underwater. I’m really happy when people tell me that they can listen to the whole thing without getting bored, because I can’t do that with most remix singles. But, for the most part, when people give us praise for it, I really just want to turn that around and thank all the people who did the mixes and even Matt, who was the one who really pushed to put it all together.
With the exceptions of yourselves and Chris Vrenna, I don’t recognize any of the RED remixers. Could you give any info on who these folks are?
Track 1 is remixed by Underwater Research and Design, which is basically myself and/or Matthew, in this case both. Track 2 (“TED”) is remixed by Sub-Terra X. The guy’s name is Ted. He’s a friend of mine that used to be in a band called Elliot Wave here in Atlanta. He DJ’s and writes house type music. I always thought he was cool because he ran his keyboard through a distortion pedal. Tracks 4 and 5 are remixed by Timothy. He’s another local guy. He gave me a CD as I walked out of the restroom at MJQ one night and said that he was interested in remixing us. Since then, we’ve become friends. Him and Matt have done a few things together. I don’t know too much about what he’s done in the past, but these two tracks are our favorites on the disk.
Track 6 is remixed by Fascia. They are a local group in Atlanta, more of an artist collective than a band; they were signed to Clockwise Records, but moved to World Domination recently. They do multimedia, film and music. Since this remix was done they have changed their line-up pretty extensively and I haven’t heard anything new yet. Track 7 (“getting away”) is a remix of “everything you’re dragging” done by LARVAE. LARVAE is Matthew’s dark, paranoid, drum-n-bass side project. They also incorporate film, slides and video as part of their show. LARVAE has toured with Underwater a few times, and I’m listening to them right now. Track 8 is remixed by Chris Vrenna, obviously. I’m assuming that you know who he is. He’s a great guy. He used to be in Nine Inch Nails, but he is not a fucking rock star. He produced our record and we hung out with him for a month. We heard a lot of stories. His new project is called Tweaker. Hopefully he’ll finish the record someday, because the stuff he sent us sounded really good.
Track 9 (glacial mix) is remixed by John Prpich. John lives in Chicago, where he is medical school. He used to be in a band with Matt called Allison With One, but they broke up a while back. John’s real good at long ambient mood pieces. I really wanted this to be the last track. I don’t think that having the original version on the disk serves much of a purpose. Anyone agree? My roommate does.
Now that electronic music has “broken” do you see any changes in the musical community you operate in? Where do you see electronic music farther down the road?
I don’t think Underwater has very much to do with the current electronic music scene. I also think that electronic music is in the same place it’s been for probably two decades now. Yeah, there has been a big fuss over techno and groups like Fatboy Slim — who sucks — and the Chemical Brothers — who are a rock-n-roll band in disguise — and whoever, but nobody called it the breakthrough of electronic music when all the hits of the ’80s were basically electronic pop songs. The Cars, Depeche Mode, Herbie Hancock, Marrs, Flock of Seagulls, and fucking Gary Neuman…all that shit was keyboards, and that’s just the silly shit I can think of off the top of my head. Who didn’t use a keyboard in the ’80s? Now, people seem more accepting of instrumental music if anything. That’s where the big change is, but even that was represented in the ’80s by that Herbie Hancock song and “Pump Up the Volume” by Marrs — which happens to be on 4AD, for anyone who didn’t know. Anyway, nobody seems to get that trip hop is just hip-hop and new wave. And if anything, though we don’t consider ourselves trip hop either, that’s who we have the most in common with. Melissa and I started Underwater as a side project, to write simple ’80s pop songs like our heroes, Depeche Mode, New Order, the Eurythmics, etc. Fortunately, we finally broke up our old band and Underwater became our main project, so we started mixing more current influences with our ’80s fascination. We always wanted to be a new wave band, not a techno, trip hop, or drum-n-bass group. I wish people would recognize that keyboards and samplers existed before 1990, and weren’t some “underground-thing”.
As for the future of electronic music… I couldn’t care less. Whenever I hear commercial radio, it still sounds like lame rock bands. They all cut their hair and became “alternative,” but it’s the same pointless shit. So, I don’t think we’re going to hear Bows, or Bowery Electric, or Autechre on the radio anytime soon. As for us, we’re using guitars again. Why not? We’ve never, in this band or the last, fit into any great movement. We’re just trying to write better songs…melodies and lyrics. The current electronic scene seems to have given up on that part.
Is a record for Underwater a whole record or a collection of singles? Is an Underwater album intended to transcend the sum of its parts, or is it just a collection of really good songs?
This is a damn good question, as the flow and continuity of a record is incredibly important to this band. We tried to make I Could Lose as clear and concise as possible. We don’t want to put out collections of songs, the records should mean more as a whole. Unfortunately, the songs on I Could Lose were written over the span of four years, some predated Underwater. We recorded 15 songs, but only put 10 onto the album because we wanted the songs that made sense together. Of course, we have regrets now and wish some things had been done differently and some songs left off, these things happen whenever you create something under a time constraint. The record we are currently working on has all been written within the last year, and mostly in the last four or five months. It is a much more complete “piece” than the first record. I actually sat down at one point and made a list of what I wanted the new album to be about, that was a starting point.
In the end, the music we make is simply a documentary on our lives and the world around us, an attempt to reach through the barriers that we all have, and unfortunately, hold dear. My favorite records have always seemed like complete stories, not collections of unrelated songs. It’s funny that you mention collections of singles…I don’t think we’ve ever written a single. Whenever we’ve been close, we’ve tarnished it somehow…we’re good at shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to commercial success.
Why do you say that?
Initially, in Rosewater Elizabeth, we did things like refuse to put choruses in our songs. Now, we are in the habit, especially with the new stuff, of writing extremely catchy pop songs, but burying them in twisted noises. The better songwriters we become, the less interested in commercial success we become. I want to respected a hell of a lot more than I want to be wealthy. Um, oh yeah, we wouldn’t sell our souls to the devil called Risk Records. We told them to piss off and purposely got ourselves dropped rather than take band pictures facing the camera and letting them decide what we should sound like and which songs should be on the record. Most people consider making a conscious effort to get out of a record deal, whatever deal it may be, when other bands are looking for anything that they can get, “shooting yourself in the foot.” We consider it cleansing.
Are you looking to put out music on other labels, or are you going to continue to self-release things?
We are currently trying to record our second record here, at our home studio. The song style is different enough to try a different approach to recording. We also have all the time we want to get it right. We do hope to find a label to release it. We just want a smaller, more artistically focused label. Risk is small, but they aren’t about releasing music that they love. We want to find someone who understands the ideals behind our music. Someone, who will work with us, not give us a big check and ask us to shut up. I want to sign to a label that is just as respected for their choice of bands as their bands are respected for their music. If labels like that aren’t into Underwater, than I guess we’ll keep putting our music ourselves. We seem to making about the same amount of money either way, at least on our own we only have ourselves to blame if we fail.
Any final words?
That is pretty anti-climactic. All I ask is that you be nice. I have been very frank with you, and hope, as always, that I don’t come off as a crazed lunatic asshole. Underwater is a very serious band, but we have a sense of humor. The problem is that nobody gets it. That’s really sad. To me “this world’s against me” is about the funniest song title in the world, but I think most people just think we’re trying to compete with Morrissey… maybe we are, I find him quite amusing.