Los Angeles musician undrgrndman is a genre-bending storyteller & multi-instrumentalist with a unique take on music; creating a story and sound for each individual track he releases. Each song is written, arranged, composed, produced, and performed by undrgrndman alone. We recently chatted to this innovative new artist.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s the story behind undrgrndman and how would you describe your sound?
The name undrgrndman was inspired by a lesser-known Dostoevsky book, “Notes from Underground”–mainly, just the idea of an isolated character, passing judgments on the goings-on of the world above from the safety of his basement below. I liked the idea of creating a character to express whatever mental ramblings I might want to express–from the conscious mind to the subconscious, the rational to the irrational. I’ve found that this somewhat literary approach to music allows me great freedom as an artist. I’m not bound by my own personal identity, yet I’m not hiding. We are all simultaneously capable of the most beautiful and the most horrific of things–in thought, if not in practice. undrgrndman provides me with a broad palette from which to work.
My sound reflects this approach: I place a strong emphasis on storytelling. For the most part, I start with synths–at my core, I’m a synth player. But I play multiple instruments so that I can select the right tool in order to tell a story in the most authentic way (so, for example, I can decide whether a song needs to be more keyboard, bass, guitar, or vocal driven). The one constant throughout my music, however, is that I strive to be raw and unapologetic, with a strong reliance on improvisation and live playing. I want the listener to feel the song.
What motivates you and inspires your music, aesthetic and vibe?
Honestly, I’m not exactly certain what motivates me to make music. Certainly, several artists whose music I love have inspired me over the years–but even that doesn’t fully explain it, because I feel equally inspired and influenced by those artists whose music I do not like. As for where the drive comes from, at the risk of sounding obnoxious, I suppose that from my earliest memories, I always knew that I could and would play music. Even before owning my first instrument, music made sense to me. I heard the music…I just needed the tools.
As for my approach (the emphasis I place on storytelling, playing multiple instruments, and perhaps feeling the need to tell the story myself), for that I will credit a handful of major influences. A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, the industry actually recognized and nurtured such artists. Lennon/McCartney, Stevie, Nina, Prince, Trent…they were/are giants. How could you not look up to them? I realize that I’m somewhat of an outlier by following that model, but things go in phases. We’re due for a return.
You’ve been part of the live Parliament/Funkadelic experience – what was that like?
Playing with those guys was like being continuously thrown in the deep end–you better swim. It’s as close to a true improvisational experience as one could imagine. I learned a great deal about myself, both as an individual and as a musician, and I learned to trust in my instincts. Every musician should be so lucky. I’m forever grateful for the lessons I learned–in particular, from the late, great Ray Davis, the always funky “Shady” Grady Thomas, and the incomparable Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins. To this day, I place more emphasis on feel than technique, and I embrace the happy accidents.
Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your latest track, Long Way Away (1984)?
There were many inspirations: the current political environment in the US, Orwell’s “1984”, and my own childhood memories…
Here’s how I describe the story:
The main character is stuck in a mundane existence, and enveloped in a cloud of oppressive pessimism (expressed musically as much as lyrically). Yet he’s struggling with a vague remembrance of better days (of blue skies). Politically, the song is a critique of tactics used to obscure the past (to cloud our remembrance of better times)–to limit expectations, and diminish hope. “1984” simultaneously references the better days of past, and the dystopia described in Orwell’s “1984”, which suddenly feels all too familiar…
Do you think your music fits into any specific genre or scene and does that matter to you? I hear everything from early house to Jacques Brel going on in your music!
I suppose it doesn’t really matter to me. Rather than trying to align to a specific genre, I focus on telling a story in the most authentic way. My new album includes songs that might be considered electronic, rock, soul, funk…possibly even one that could be considered country. Still, it would be a fair classification (considering the heavy emphasis on synths) to call it some variation of electronic. Perhaps there needs to be a new genre? Electro Soul? I don’t know. I’m open to suggestions.
You might have been onto something when you mentioned a mixture of early house and Jacques Brel. That’s a really interesting observation. I wouldn’t necessarily say that was purposeful on my part, but with regard to early house, I likely share similar influences, and with regard to Jacques Brel, I imagine that our approach is the same. (side note: I coincidentally wrote a song called “Ne me quittez pas, je vous prie” when I was a young teen. It was before I became familiar with Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas”, and obviously before my French was any good…hence my use of the formal!)
What’s up next for undrgrndman? Any upcoming gigs? Is there new music on the horizon? Other projects?
Well, I always have new music on the horizon…
“Long Way Away (1984)” is the first release from my upcoming album, titled “Riot”.
While my last album, “Thou Shalt”, tells the story of an individual character’s personal journey (a man coming to grips with himself), “Riot” is a critical examination of society as a whole. It’s resistance music–about coming to grips with our place in society, and our obligation to respond when our natural rights are infringed upon.
As for other projects: I recently turned my last album, “Thou Shalt”, into an ebook, of sorts, that I hope conveys the message behind the music in an interesting new format. (You can read it on my website here).
I plan to do the same with “Riot” next.