Make Way For Makeunder: Great Headless Blank

The buzz is growing around Oakland-based experimental indie band Makeunder. With the recent release of their EP titled “Great Headless Blank“, and after a small article posted by NPR, Makeunder’s eclectic sounds and raw emotions are beginning to seep into the collective consciousness of the musically inclined, and rightly so. Makeunder’s music provides a candid perspective on life’s realities in a detached world of computer screens and cell phones. The birth of this project, as lead singer and songwriter Hamilton Ulmer explains, came about largely as the result of an intense period of family tragedy ending with the death of his father and the cleaning out of his childhood home in San Antonio, Texas. It was there, during a five day stretch in which only a violin, a family trumpet, and a laptop microphone were used,  that Ulmer unloaded five songs that would go on to become Makeunder’s debut EP. With Radiate Satellite, Ulmer successfully crafted a style reminiscent of the Dirty Projectors, which draws on diverse influences, from traditional world, to Earth Wind and Fire, to Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. Three years since it’s conception and enough time to heal, Makeunder is back with an even bigger and more curious sound than ever with Great Headless Blank. An insightful and intelligent man indeed, I recently got the chance to ask Hamilton a few questions…

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So it sounds like you came from an artistic background. Was there anything in particular that made your childhood Atypical? 

Sure, well I can’t speak for kid’s in other socio-economic strata, but my parents moved to this middle class neighborhood in San Antonio, and they were these two sort of hick artists from northern California who did not belong. This is Southwest Texas, there weren’t a lot of people like them, and they were extremely committed to their art. So, my childhood we were encouraged to paint our walls, we were encouraged to pursue weird ideas, and also I think my parents, even though they didn’t vocalize it, I think they always hoped their children would become artists like them. Kind of like a lot of parents have hopes for their children’s careers. I don’t think they’d ever admit it though…

Interesting, so coming from your childhood, how exactly did your musical style develop throughout the years?

For me, I don’t really see my music as pursuing something different than what I’d always done. I feel like what I make is really sort of within my own musical world. Which even though my music might not sound very traditional, It feels very natural to me. And that’s just because I have kind of a weird musical background. Growing up my parents loved Marvin Gaye, they loved Earth Wind and Fire, they loved Stevie Wonder. For a while my parents were obsessed with African drumming. There was a period they became obsessed with Australian Aboriginal music. And then, when I was around twelve years old I heard Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring for the first time, and that completely convinced me I wanted to become a classical composer. So, I studied music rally intensely from about the ages of 12 to 18 right before I left for college.

So when you moved to the Bay Area, was there anything in particular that drew you there?

I think it was more just life circumstances. My parents didn’t make a lot of money, so I figured I desperately needed to get a job somehow. So, I did what a lot of people from my school did, which is get into tech. But I think it was sort of hard to fight that sort of primal call to be an artist that my parents had demonstrated to me.

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So I guess you weren’t really planning on becoming a musician?

I kind of decided on being a musician at a really young age. So when I went to college, I always wondered if I would get back into music, or if it was just a matter of time before I jumped careers completely. Also, I wasn’t sure if I had missed the boat, because I had spent my early twenties studying and doing other things. Of course, I don’t think there’s ever any bad time to get back into art. I mean, if you want to be an artist, you’re committing to doing that for the rest of your life, regardless of your age.

Good answer! Was it hard to find the performing cast when that time came?

Yeah it was really hard. When I got back into music I hardly knew anyone at all. I think my ability to write music is a lot stronger than my ability to find people that were like minded. It’s a whole other skill set to find, I think, and learn how to work with other musicians. You’re gonna have to learn their language basically.

How about theme wise? Do you think you’ve moved on from the overall character of your previous EP? 

I think I had come to terms with a really difficult year before I had even begun recording the EP. And I think I needed to. The songs that I had wrote during that period were really sort of morose. It felt too somber, I didn’t really want that to be the memory that I had crafted from that period. Because even when there’s so much grief and tragedy, there’s so many more complicated emotions that come with that sort of experience. And I wanted to tackle that musically.

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So I guess it’s looking at things in a different light…

Yeah, and one of the things about Radiate Satellite is I had never wrote about personal experiences like that. So for me, I think that was a gateway into telling personal stories through songs, and pretty much all of the songs from Great Headless Blank are like that.

Interesting. So you talk a lot about death. What do you think should be the aim of life while you are alive? 

*Laughs I probably have an overly simplistic view about what life should be about. I think you should put out really good work, and be good to the people in your life. Some people I think focus on one thing over the other. But if you had to pick just one of those two you should probably be good to people *laughs. 

Definitely, I think we all need a little bit more of that… What do you think is the role of the artist or musician to society?

I recently read something… Do you know who E.O. Wilson is? Well, he was this Biologist, and this incredible writer. And he said something that really resonated with me. That “story telling doesn’t just accentuate the human experience; story telling IS the human experience.” It is sort of what motivates our species. I think it’s the one thing that truly separates us from other creatures.

Awesome. So are you going on tour anytime soon?

Yeah we’re locking down the rest of our tour for the fall, and the rest will be done in February. Everything’s kind of shifting under our feet right now because of the whole NPR thing. That’s one thing that I didn’t think would ever happen.

Well who knows whats next after that..

Honestly, yeah. But literally know one  knows… *laughs

Time will tell what the future holds for this band, but before that time comes, the beasts suggest you take a listen to Makeunder’s Great Headless Blank, and appreciate the realness while you can.