Waiting to submerge
Living the real life in underwater's sub:marine
Underwater is an electronic band. "Those are not necessarily words that go together well," says underwater keyboardist Matthew Jeanes. "At least not in most people's minds." But then underwater is not everyone's idea of an electronic band.
Jeanes, on break from working in the group's Decatur studio, says that when electronica hit big, the percieved notion was that it was all about computers and digital manipulations. "People thought, 'We can do something just as good as the Crystal Method.' And you probably can," he says. "But what's the point of having 12 Crystal Methods?"
Underwater singer and lyricist Melissa Mileski agrees. "It's easy to sound good like that," she says. "It's much harder to do it as a real band. And we are a real band."
Underwater — which just released its latest CD, this is not a film, on its own sub:marine label - was originally formed four years ago by Florida natives Jeremy Wilkins and Mileski. Initially a side-project to their previous band, Rosewater Elizabeth, underwater has undergone a flood of changes in its short existence and now includes Jeanes as well as keyboardist Deborah Lutz and drummer Alec Irvin. Yet the musicians' constant goal has been to make real music, even in the arena of manufactured sounds.
"There's an audience for a couple of people taking some pre-determined loops and punching up a chord structure on their sequencer," Jeanes says. "But where's the band in that? Where's the human element?"
Underwater, however, see themselves in the tradition of groups that used synthesizers and electronic elements, but were essentially live pop bands. "That's what's really different about us," Mileski explains. "We all come from a new wave background. The first electronic music we were exposed to was through song-oriented bands like New Order, OMD, Depeche Mode."
With that model in place, the band's manifesto remains simple, says Wilkins. "Number one: we are about songs. Number two: we are not about making people happy. Our music isn't happy dance music. We make very unhappy music."
While on the surface, the music of this is not a film does in fact convey melancholy and isolation, in person, the band hardly comes across as morose. "We're incredibly realistic people," Mileski qualifies. "So maybe that's why we sound a little sad."
Even the music, it seems, reveals layers of levity underneath. While hardly a comedy album, lighthearted touches lay amid the chilly keyboards, angular guitars and often sensual vocals. "The whole idea [on the album] is that the life we are living is not a film, it's real," Wilkins explains. "It's not about wallowing in pity all the time, there's a balance in all that we do. To me, there's a lot of humor in this album."
As an example, Jeanes offers the album's track "melc," named after one of the Spice Girls (though Mileski points out that the song is not actually about her). Still, Jeanes admits it wouldn't ring true for underwater to record a "Shiny Happy People" song. Portions of the album were inspired by disturbing events in the personal lives of band members. While heartbreak can sound achingly beautiful in underwater's hands, it can be tough stuff to dance to. "I've seen people dance to maybe two measures of our songs and then stop," Mileski says.
For a group with at least one foot in the world of electronica, creating music that doesn't get people on the dancefloor is a risky proposition, leaving underwater in a purgatory somewhere between moody, ambient trip-hop and doleful indie rock. "It makes it hard to find a niche, but we don't care, really," Mileski says.
That underwater's new album is being released on sub:marine, however, forces the group to consider genres a bit more than they'd like, in order to market their product. "If we send this album to a magazine that covers electronic and computer music," Mileski explains, "they say, 'Oh, it's a rock band that has keyboards.' And the rock magazines say, 'This is electronica with guitars.'"
This month the band begins arranging distribution for the new album, as well as doing radio promotion, planning a regional tour, setting up several remixes and working on a number of side projects. All that, plus their real-life activities of jobs, school and families. Underwater has set ambitious goals for 2001. "When we resurface next year," Jeanes says, "sub:marine's gonna be a battleship."
This is not a film, underwater's second album, is available now from www.submarinerecords.com.