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The best kept secret in music

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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 re - Ink 19


Try to define the genre "synth-pop." The word is almost as vague as "ambient," though not as pointless as "IDM." The earliest synth-pop reference points were early 80's bands like the Human League, OMD, and Depeche Mode, who were considered new wave at the time. As synthesizers became more affordable, other patterns sprung from the same hardware, spawning techno, house, and jungle. But in the emphasis on dance, the pop sensibility was largely lost.
The old-school synth-pop sound has survived since the 1980's, and currently enjoys a resurgence of popularity thanks to bands like Wolfsheim and Faith Assembly. There's also another strain that owes more to industrial music, matching progressive trance melodies with pounding, four-on-the-floor beats and urgent vocals. In Germany they call this EBM, known to English speakers as Electronic Body Music-- another useless term.

Underwater describe themselves as an electronic pop band. Vocalist Melissa Mileski and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Wilkins formed the band out of the ashes of Tampa, Florida's ethereal project Rosewater Elizabeth. They added Matthew Jeanes and Alec Irvin, signed to Risk Records, and got NIN-collaborator Chris Vrenna to co-produce their debut album. I Could Lose was a solid effort, though a bit electronic-by-numbers. It garnered little attention, and afterwards, they left their label, started sub:marine records, and recorded This is Not a Film.

The first track, "Lightyears from Home," announces its immediacy with the band's most obvious asset, Mileski's voice: a sweet vibrato rises from the gravelly depths of her throat, singing, "We will be covered in this material of flags/ That fly high on memorial of the days when we felt distant from our own land." It's a song about reluctance in the face of duty, and she's accompanied by a crisp, militaristic beat and slow-burning guitars. Because you've been conditioned by cold, bass-heavy blues, you think "trip-hop," but there's no jones for jazz here. The bass deepens during the second track, "Slide," and the pace quickens, propelled aloft by eerie keyboard drafts, as Mileski asks, "When will we grow?" Most of the vocals on "I Could Lose" floated in phantom abstraction, as if they were completed over already-written rhythm tracks; here, they're part of the music, bobbing and weaving with the flow, morose but inflected with a faint pop-funk.

"Canada" breaks through the gloom, delivering bruising beats that would raise the eyebrows of Scorn's Mick Harris. As the album progresses, you wonder when they're going to falter. The somber organ tones of "E" become wrapped in a thin, spidery guitar line, only to be surrounded by layers of electronic beats and doused in feedback. The four musicians have found the balance essential to subtle pop songcraft, adding and subtracting each element in a harmony so Zen-like you barely notice. Headphone listening is rewarding; the sounds that fill each track are drawn from a variety of sources-- both acoustic and electronic-- avoiding laptop monotony. One of the album's most heartfelt moments comes during "Melc," after Mileski admits that she has "given the tools to build around me/ Laying the brick/ Laying the brick façade."

To be really successful at synth-pop you need not only an earnest vocalist but clever lyrics, otherwise your musings sound like grade school diary drivel. Underwater mostly shun sentimental pap, but inevitably pop music leads to pop sentiment ("At night I feel inbetween.../ Always, I never know what i need.../ Always"). "A Selfish Girl" echoes the trip-hop torch-song "Sub:space" from the first album; they both share a syrupy keyboard pitch that's a little too consciously crafted. It's not that Underwater shouldn't be allowed sweet moments; it's just that this leaves the listener unprepared for the eight-minute static hum of "I'll Say Your Name." Likewise, "Silver" opens like a Portishead jam outtake, until chorus lines intrude. One fallacy committed by groups with a Great Voice is filling every verse with lyrics; when Morrissey finally shut up, the Smiths recorded the winsome "Oscillate Wildly."

The brooding nature of these last few songs don't detract from the album as a whole. Underwater has sidestepped pretension to create an album for cloudy days and rainy nights, filled with all those classic, bereaved emotions: longing, regret, blame, trust, betrayal. You'll play it again and again, until the title of the album becomes a question.


-Christopher Dare - Pitchfork Media


Despite the band's protestations, This is not a Film is a richly cinematic album brimming with lush trip-hop wrapped in a dark gothic overcoat. The natural entry point into the band's sound is Melissa Mileski's voice. Mileski sings with a throaty alto. Her sound often contains a dispirited sense of collapse which invokes a languid torch singer in a post-modern cabaret. With her lyrics barely enunciated, the words themselves take a backseat to her enthralling series of moans and sustained cries.

Although they have worked with outside producers in the past (most notably Chris Vrenna, who has also worked with Die Warzau and Nine Inch Nails), the band requires no assistance with their sophomore full-length. They possess a seasoned instinct for creating mood and tension in a song. Take "Melc" as an example: the track opens with a minute of quiet chiming, which provides a contemplative foundation upon which the eventual subdued rhythm track can dance. Then Mileski's voice comes in -- a quiet croon that twists itself around the drums. When an additional keyboard melody enters, this pushes the tension up a notch. After the chorus, this new line leaves, but the drum pattern begins to mutate, adding spare fills which heighten the sense of anticipation. By the time the song reaches its second chorus, a soft, distorted guitar joins the mix as a snare gets added to the drum pattern. All of these elements combine to create a climax of serious release, despite bringing only a modest crescendo in volume. As the best songwriters will tell you, it doesn't have to be loud to be heavy. This is a lesson Underwater learned in a big way.

Other tracks reach similar moments of transcendence. The opening "Lightyears from Home" finds Mileski's vocals lilting like Gry Bagxien, who has recently worked with F. M. Einheit. Her double-tracked vocals on "Gun Metal", one desperate and wailing, the other quiet and hidden, easily send shivers down the spine. The rest of the band -- Alec Irvin, Jeremy Wilkins, and Matthew Jeanes -- serves primarily to give Mileski room to work her charms, but this does not mean that they are bit players. The consistent, intelligent restraint shown in the choices they make is critical to this equation. They understand how two extra notes or a quiet octave shift can add volumes to the stories the songs tell. And trust me, these are stories you'll want to hear again ain again. - Splendid-E Zine


Electronic pop would not be an inaccurate description of the Atlanta-based band Underwater. Their second full-length offering, This is Not a Film, is packed with nicely programmed electronic soundscapes, shaped by melodic hooks galore, and driven by the beautiful voice of Melissa Mileski.

However, it would be unfair to consign this album purely to the (somewhat libelous) categorization of 'pop,' electronic or not. This music is simply far too well-crafted to sit comfortably alongside schlock. Underwater seem to borrow from a variety of influences, most noticeably trip-hop and, to a lesser degree, ethereal/shoegazer rock, but they manage to ingest, mutate and assimilate (apologies for the impromptu industrial lyrics) them into a concoction that is all their own.

One additional qualifier I would have to add to my description of This is Not a Film is paradoxical. Mileski's voice flows gently against the ear, with seemingly minimal effort on her part, quite like a cool breeze, and yet still retains a deep underlying strength and soulfulness. This soulful strength becomes a bit more blatant at certain points however, particularly during Melc, and the album's opener 1000 Light Years from Home. However, my point is that, even during the deepest moments of melancholy and pain (and there are quite a few exhibits of such emotional content), there is still no loss of this 'gentle' touch which permeates the entire album.

Likewise the rhythms and melodies of Jeremy Wilkins are not without such beautiful contradictions either. The instrumentation, composed of various electronically generated noises, synth patches, percussion and the occasional guitar (which is only sometimes easily recognizable as being such) is fairly minimal and bleak, or so it seems at first glance. Closer scrutiny reveals the underlying lush complexity contained within. Thus, the perfect backdrop for the vocals to play upon is provided; the music does not compete with or drown them (and Underwater, being the band that it is, would do well not to dampen the effectiveness of such a great asset). However it still manages to stand as an independent piece of well-designed sonic architecture, and demonstrates this ability quite often during the numerous interludes between more vocal sections.

I will note, however, that exclusive fans of hard trance and/or the warm and familiar throb of 'doof/doof/doof' from the dancefloor may want to steer clear of this one. There are a few moderately upbeat moments on this album, but none that I would consider proper background for any type of intense aerobic workout (with the possible exception of sex). However, I would invite any to allow Underwater a chance to demonstrate that beauty need not be glaringly blatant, and that power need not be applied via sledgehammer. - Legends Magazine


I was intrigued by the idea of this show. The Star Bar is best known for their Elvis Vault, nickel jukebox, and annual Bubbapalooza, whereas Atlanta's Underwater are a long-time fixture on the southeast trance scene. Wondering if the mixture would be like oil and water or oil and vinegar, I thought I'd give it a shot.
First up were the Little Bobby Taylors, a versatile band whose looks deceive. Though dressed the part of yer typical Americana indie band, they're not the usual Star Bar country punk; they cover a pretty wide ground somewhere between the Band and Julee Cruse. When guitarist/songwriter Faith Kleppinger sings, the music goes all dark and throaty. At other times, it takes off or grooves out. Percussionist (with a capital "P") Jon Hill is a multi-talented one-man horn section, jumping on the harmonica, tambourine, trumpet and probably anything else to ensure this band's sound is anything but little.
During the set, Faith announced that they couldn't wait for Underwater because, "they're dreamy... and we're nightmarish." I disagree -- the Little Bobby Taylors are just as dreamy, but it's just a different kind of dream.

Grown from the core of ex-Floridians Rosewater Elizabeth (songwriter Jeremy Wilkins and vocalist Melissa Mileski), Underwater also includes live drummer Alec Irvin and programmer/keyboardist Matthew Jeanes. Their latest CD, I Could Lose , has just been released on Risk Records. Recorded in L.A. with Chris Vrenna (Nine Inch Nails, Hole, Smashing Pumpkins) producing, this is not a heavy or "industrial" record, but it's not sterile electronica, either. It's stark and spacey, like the soundtrack to a sadly dark film set 50 or 60 years in the future. In fact, if there were any justice in the world, "sub:space" might have been on the soundtrack to Titanic instead of that Celine Dion crap.
While the bands were changing the stage, the trenchcoat crowd appeared, and the room filled up pretty well for a weeknight. Underwater's set began with a slowly-building wave of sound and white noise. Also starting gradually, soon Mileski's powerful and lovely voice soared to float above the rising music. Without her, many of the songs would qualify as "background music" a la Brian Eno, but with her they command attention. Tendons and muscles stood out from her neck, in case you didn't notice how much she was putting into the performance.
The samples, programming and live performance all blended well to play off of each other, reflecting the closeness of the band members. During "Red," Mileski sang over a sampled background of her own voice, adding to the richly layered live sound. All the songs came off well (except for one sampler mishap, throwing a machine-gun drumbeat in the middle of an otherwise quiet song), even within the Elvis-tinged walls of the Star Bar.
Underwater has described themselves as an "electronic pop band" -- I'd say it's closer to an ethereal experimental trippy floaty dreamy trance art pop sound, with feeling. If you don't know what that means, then go see them for yourself. - Ink 19


Discography

‘this night has opened my eyes’ - 1996
compilation track from "cover star" {a tribute to the smiths}

‘i could lose’ - 1998
debut full length on risk records {briefly re-issued by sub:marine} note* track 2 "the music" still gets substantial airplay in france and switzerland*

RED. - 1999
remix single on sub:marine

EP1 - 1999
alternate versions of 5 songs from ICL on sub:marine

EP2 - 1999
remixes of 5 songs from ICL on sub:marine

‘where is my mind?’ - 1999
compilation track from "pixies fuckin’ die" {a tribute to the pixies} on lifelike records

‘henry’s ghost’ - 2000
compilation track from "henry’s ghost" on sub:marine

‘the way you breathe’ & 'wasted' - 2000
compilation tracks on the 2000 sub:marine sampler

'this is not a film' - 2000
full length cd on sub:marine {first 100 copies packaged with bonus disc featuring 4 b-sides}

EP3 - 2001
atlernate versions of 5 songs from FILM on sub:marine

Photos

Feeling a bit camera shy

Bio

underwater began as a side project. jeremy and melissa were touring for the second rosewater elizabeth record when they decided to start a more electronic based project upon returning home. they recorded demos for 7 songs before rosewater elizabeth quite abruptly imploded in january 1997, leaving underwater to takeover and even fullfill remaining live show commitments. underwater did more than just fullfill an obligation...they soared far beyond their previous band.

within 6 months underwater had built a fan base in atlanta, ga and gained a drummer, alec irvin. the group continued to record demos and tapes were sent to matthew jeanes, in florida, who worked on remixes and additional instrumentation before sending tracks back to jeremy. songs would build over months of writing, arranging, remixing and re-arranging. by early 1998 underwater had developed a sound that got them signed to risk records in los angeles.

underwater flew to LA to record with chris vrenna (nine inch nails/tweaker) in may 1998. the record was recorded very smoothly as the band and producer got along very well. unfortunately, the same could not be said of the band and the record label. so, after ‘i could lose’ had it’s scattered and uncertain release (october 1998 in atlanta and early 1999 for the rest of the country), the band was released from it’s contract already loaded with a remix single and new EP prepped for release on matt and jeremy’s budding sub:marine records.

over the next 2 years underwater released several recordings on sub:marine including the hugely successful, RED. single and their, at least artistically, greatest success, ‘this is not a film’. still, due to various health problems within the band and personal commitments outside of the band, in the summer of 2001 underwater decided to pack up the studio and go seperate ways. matt focused on the label and his LARVAE project. jeremy and alec tried several bizarro electro and pseudo rock projects which received confused looks from underwater fans before jeremy moved to los angeles in 2003 and began playing as allegra gellar. melissa started gertrude ross with her new husband and produced a gorgeous demo with jeremy despite having moved to ahseville, nc.

now, in 2006, jeremy and melissa have announced that they will be working together again. there is no time frame and no specific plan, but new underwater music is being made. they will be looking back to their roots. they will be sending tracks back and forth around the country...los angeles...asheville...atlanta.