The Inspired Confusion And Unique Weirdness Of underscores

underscores standing by trees and water

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underscores’ 2023 album Wallsocket is like trying seaweed ice cream

“This is weird,” I say, as I take a second bite. 

“Yeah, I don’t know about this,” I say, as I finish the bowl. 

It’s something I have experienced before, but never in this way. Never with this pairing.

And I can’t seem to get enough of it.

I don’t try to claim to be someone who has heard it all, but the feeling of inspired confusion in the light of something genuinely unique does feel foreign to me — I’ve forgotten that music can really surprise you. Who the hell pairs hyperpop with Americana? I was reminded that some people are making genre combos that I couldn’t actually imagine being good

On a national scale, Australians aren’t known for their unorthodox taste in music. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a significant number of listeners who crave something different. Thoughtful bodies of work sewn with intention and generous offerings of creativity are rewarded with loyalty and deep interest by fans, if it can find them. People want music that matters, music that isn’t trying to game the algorithm by putting all its tricks into a 15-second loopable chorus. 

After marinating in the weirdness of underscores’ Wallsocket, her music seems to fit the bill. And if you’re looking for a new niche interest, then you might be excited to learn that she’ll be in Australia soon as part of VIVID Live. Ahead of the show, I had the chance to chat to underscores over Zoom.

My first question? What does our vibrant and lush faraway landscape evoke to someone from overseas? I’d hoped she wouldn’t bring up spiders or something like tha – 

“I’ve heard about how all the animals are just kind of on hardmode,” she said.

I suppose we could be known for worse.

Is underscores Hyperpop? What Is Hyperpop?

Listening to an artist’s top five tracks usually skims the surface of what makes them great. While many of underscores’ top tracks are indeed some of my favourites from the new album, they all capture a common dimension of a sound whose shifting geometry is more like a Rubik’s Cube. It’s volatile and it’s feral, and it’s totally intoxicating, but is it sustainable for a lengthy body of work? It was a welcome surprise to really feel the spectrum of volume within this album. 

Wallsocket isn’t shy about exploring both ends of the compression dial, with its textured and almost unsettling moments of quiet. How can ‘Locals (Girls like us)’, a song whose intense sidechaining rattled everything in my room, exist alongside the quiet breath of ‘Horror movie soundtrack’? I had to double check I hadn’t accidentally queued up Sigur Rós. underscores doesn’t seem intimidated by silence, which contributes to the album’s story-like feeling. 

So what genre is this really? Is it hyperpop? Is mania the cornerstone of what makes something hyperpop? underscores disagrees. “Hyperpop is everything,” she says. “You can just do whatever you want, and we’ll call it hyperpop anyway. I think that’s really cool! What other genre can you really do that with? If you do rock or something, you have to have a band, you have to play guitar, you know? I feel being in this kind of genre where you can do anything you want is really cool. It can be really freeing.” 

If you’re someone who wants to turn it up, would this kind of all-encompassing music be of interest? You want to hear everything. The full spectrum. But are you willing to let that include uncomfortable self-reflection? Or worse, harmonica? 

“My music can be kind of jarring”, underscores admits, “and not everyone’s cup of tea.”

I don’t believe true artistry is a rushed process. The best musical journeys require patience from the listener. That being said, underscores does not beg for your indulgence. She’s enticing you with the unknown. It’s this relationship with the listener that I find really intriguing. This coy dance of pretending you’re not desperate for approval, while also showcasing a cool indifference, subscribing to an ‘iykyk’ kind of exclusivity. That’s what it feels like listening to underscores — wondering if you’ll be invited into the cool kids club, then realising everyone is just excited that you’re here. “I think hyperpop was always like the weird kids club,” she says. “I definitely think when it was popping off, everyone was just trying to preserve the history of it, and make sure that no one got left out of the conversation, that really contributed to the scene. That ethos was super important.”

Circumstantial Americanism

Something that feels really evident about Wallsocket is its bold Americanism. ‘Shoot to kill, kill your darlings’ is the best example of this. It has this candid exploration of military-hooked teens who give their bodies to the cause while the twinkly steel guitar fills the space with its hillbilly personality. It may be easy for Australian Millennials and Gen Zers to dismiss the guns discussion as clear cut and binary without acknowledging that this obsession runs culturally deeper than it does here. Despite the violence, despite the carnage, despite the obviousness of it all, gun culture is more pervasive in America. For some, going to the gun range is just like any other activity. 

And then in early July, I took a trip to the gun range, yeah

I hit the paper man right in the eye

I can’t say I don’t get the hype” 

It’s a multifaceted, and complicated discussion that we’re not going to have right here, and while we may not understand it, underscores acknowledges this cultural touchstone while giving a space for criticism that does land closer to her personal beliefs.

“I was very anti-America for a long time, and I still am in a lot of ways,” she says. “But it is gorgeous. The past three or four years getting to travel more in the different states has just been beautiful, like, we kind of got every biome here. A lot of the mundane parts, especially I think, are the most beautiful. So maybe that’s kind of a takeaway — you could find a lot of beauty in mundane things. I was still very conscious of being like, if I’m going to do this romanticising America album, I still need to be a little bit critical of it. There’s still a lot of things that are not right. Not everything can be this beautiful romantic thing or whatever.”

I found this sincerity really refreshing. underscores captured a holistic America. “I grew up in California, but for this album, it was kind of set in rural Michigan,” she says. “That’s not something I grew up in, but I feel there’s an almost ubiquity to America, you’ll meet people from all across the country and just be like, ‘Oh we kind of had the same childhood and you live in a completely different state’.” This is a side of America that we don’t always see, and to experience it to the beat of a Mad Max hoedown feels pretty iconic.

I find that an onslaught of high-octane industrial soundscapes can end up being a little fatiguing on the ears after a while, but to balance out the chaos with the simplicity of historic American instruments like bluesy steel guitars and harmonica is a partnership I was not expecting. ‘Duhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’ in particular has this apathetic sadness that culminates in the saddest instrument known to man — the harmonica. Nothing says hopelessness like the lonely whistles of a sad harmonica. 

Embrace The Experience

This album doesn’t worship America, but it does showcase it as a real place with real broken people traversing each beautiful biome. Sonically, it’s all shades of unexpected and addictive. So taste the sea-weed ice cream. Listen to the twang of a steel guitar between the industrial clangs of a song about losing your childhood innocence. Listen to Wallsocket, and join me for VIVID at the barricade as we stand together, a legion of final girls, feral and hysterical, but entirely of sound mind. 

underscores is set to perform at Sydney’s Machine Hall on June 5th as part of the VIVID Sydney festival. You can learn more here.

Ella Sterland is a musician and writer. Her musical projects are Dreaming Soda and Bares, and you can find her celebrating female and non-binary musicians on her platform ‘Record the Resonance’. 

Image: Supplied