It’s not glamorous, but it’s true: The modern music industry is largely tethered to what’s dubbed “research,” steady feeds of real-time data from streaming services and social media platforms that labels believe will predict the next star. But interest in underscores, a 21-year-old singer-songwriter-producer, was driven more by old-fashioned word-of-mouth. When they released fishmonger last March, it generated waves of interest in seemingly disparate corners of the music industry, like a rock thrown into a serene lake.
Lido, a Norwegian producer with a long list of high-profile credits that includes Halsey, Mariah Carey, and Jaden Smith, was instantly taken with the album. He sent fishmonger to his manager, Jackson Perry, who in turn sent the album to his colleague, Dorothy Caccavale. Lido was gushing about underscores: “‘They have this insane production style. I need to meet this kid.'”
Daniel Awad, who manages Oliver Tree and Whethan, among others, was similarly obsessed with fishmonger. “It was the only thing I was listening to,” he says, to the point where he started to drum up enthusiasm among others as well. He reached out to Blink-182’s Travis Barker. “I hit up Travis like, ‘I gotta show you something crazy,'” Awad recalls. “I sent fishmonger. I got an immediate reaction — he just loved it.”
It took Glaive, the 17-year-old wunderkind behind tuneful battering rams like “dnd,” only slightly longer to fall for underscores’ album. “I listened to it first like, this is a little too much for my brain,” Glaive remembers. When he returned to the album, his opinion changed dramatically. “I was so wrong,” he says happily. “This is so good.”
Many artists would give an arm and a leg for this kind of enthusiastic reception. But underscores was temporarily paralyzed. “After I finished fishmonger, I didn’t make music for five months — I didn’t know what to do,” they say. “In those months, I had my first brush with a feeling of existential dread. I got super into trying to put that apocalyptic setting into whatever the music was.” They finally “broke the dry spell” with “Everybody’s Dead!”, which sounds like nu-new-wave suffering from drum-and-bass jitters and trying to fix the problem with a liberal dose of steroids. They released the video for the track on Wednesday.
underscores is speaking over Zoom from Bushwick, Brooklyn, but they grew up in San Francisco, where they gradually replaced their parents’ Bebel Gilberto and Rush albums with pop juggernauts (Madonna, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake) before encountering the music of Skrillex and cannonballing into the world of dubstep.
“Dubstep is really hard to make,” underscores explains. “It’s the most rocket science music can get — ‘how did you synthesize that sound’? As a kid who really loved numbers, I think that really appealed to me, sitting down and trying to crack a sound for hours.”
When they fell in with a like-minded group of artists on SoundCloud, underscores started to think about constructing songs in more complex, unpredictable ways, designing their own mad-libs rather than penciling in someone else’s. “Dubstep is almost a template you have to fill in the blanks for,” they say. “But in this scene at the time there were people doing one minute songs, or maybe there was only one drop, or maybe there were all these movements or tempo changes.”
This virtual community thrived on playful one-upmanship. “The ethos was: Let’s make producer porn,” underscores says. When they released a song, the goal was to make friends’ jaws slacken, and maybe turn their complexions lime-green with envy. “All my friends are gonna spam the comments like, ‘what the fuck is going on?! I’m deleting [the production program] Ableton today!'” underscores says.
This type of unabashed enthusiasm comes easily to them; underscores generously, and winningly, heaps praise on musicians they admire, an unusual quality in an egocentric, zero-sum-game industry. Pink Pantheress? “When I first heard that I was like, ‘this is perfect music.'” (A fishmonger highlight includes “Where did you fall,” which borrows from U.K. Garage in a way that might appeal to Pink Pantheress.)
“Bitch, I’m Madonna”? “It’s an anomaly of a song, I can’t even believe it exists” — underscores delivers this line in an awestruck tone, like there are few privileges greater than existing during the same period as the 2015 Madonna-Nicki Minaj collaboration.
On 8485, who collaborated on the bleepy, shattering fishmonger track “Your favorite sidekick:” “It was very hard to reach out to 8485 because I thought she was a larger than life person. She’s someone I really admire in the scene.”
Though they have been putting out music as underscores for close to a decade, the modern iteration of the project started in 2018 with the collection skin purifying treatment. “I started to want to put lyrics on songs,” they say, even as the production still shared some of the seething, crashing, nails-on-sheet-metal qualities of the electronic music they loved to make. “I came up like, production is everything,” underscores says. “At this point, I’m trying to focus on songwriting more on a lyric or melody level.”
It didn’t take long for this version of underscores to turn heads — again thanks to word of mouth. “My friend showed me ‘Moniker’ [from 2019’s we never got strawberry cake] in the car the first time I heard them, and I was just blown away, I had never heard anything like it before,” says brakence, a potent-voiced, window-rattling songwriter signed to Columbia Records. “The pitched-up, whispery, yet raw vocal made me feel like I was inside their head, thinking their thoughts. They have this way of taking super opposing musical ideas that you would think would clash and unapologetically putting them together in a way that works perfectly.”
Perhaps this because underscores is precise about process — “very methodical,” says Caccavale, who now manages them along with Jackson Perry. underscores had hardly played the guitar before making it a key instrument on fishmonger. “I’d run out of production tricks at the time, and I didn’t like the voicings I was playing on keys,” they say. “I don’t know anything about guitar or how to play it. So one of the prerequisites for that project was every song had to have guitar on it.”
With boneyard aka fearmonger, released last month, they did not allow themselves to even open a production program until a kernel of a song was firmly developed. “If there was enough of the song in my head, I would open Ableton and try to make it,” underscores says. “If I failed, I would abandon the file and start again. It was a super anal, type-A way of making music.”
The resulting seven tracks are often jabbing and visceral. “Girls and boys,” which romps at piss-off-the-neighbors volume and cut-the-breaks speed, opens with a memorable snub — “My doctor asked me if you were to die for/But you’re not even someone I would lie for” — while “Tongue in cheek,” co-produced by underscores fan Travis Barker, is a flash-flood of guitar and drums. “Gunk” starts like an electrical fire before downshifting to coffee-house balladry. underscores enlisted brakence to help produce “Loansharks” with the goal of bringing the jolt of dubstep back to pop music.
Then there’s “Everybody’s Dead!”, which compresses the energy of a bar-room brawl into a laserbeam. “In big-room house there used to be this thing called the Pryda snare that happened every eight bars in every song around 2013,” underscores explains. “I want people to hear that. And the talking in the intro and outro of that song is a super old recording of Skrillex before he started making dubstep.”
Looking back, underscores calls the lyrics to “Everybody’s Dead!” scattershot — “word vomity,” eschewing “a concrete story.” But the video “more effectively gets across the feeling” they were trying to convey through the music. “There’s something grotesque about a lot of the visuals that I really like and captured that impending doom feeling,” underscores continues. “Close ups of bodies that make me uncomfortable, because you zoom in so much that you’re effectively dismembering it, taking it out of context.”
What about the feeling of existential dread that kickstarted the track? “Sometimes I wake up like, the world is ending,” underscores acknowledges. “Then I get coffee and go about my day and shit.”