Makeunder Announces New Album, Plus Shares First Single PROMETHEAN HEAT
Oakland-based alt-pop composer, Makeunder (aka Hamilton Ulmer) announces the release of his forthcoming album, Pale Cicada, due out June 28 on Good Eye Records. He shares the first single, "Promethean Heat," which is now streaming on Talkhouse with an essay by album collaborator, Nate Brenner of Tune-Yards. Brenner writes:
"When I listen to "Promethean Heat," I think of how a dream feels when it's happening. The opening bass line sounds like an insane ride on the back of a giant hungry snake through a dark forest that is somehow also the desert from Beetlejuice. You're quickly heading deeper into an unknown territory and, just as it starts to feel familiar, you realize you're not on a snake anymore - you're sitting in a motorcycle sidecar. You look over your left shoulder and notice that Prince is driving. You and Prince pull up to the chorus, where a trio of witches appear out of nowhere chanting a dissonant chord. "Tell no one," Prince sings to you. What is happening? The song somehow feels so comfortable and familiar but also insanely impossible, like Igor Stravinsky and Trent Reznor arguing about a call in last night's basketball game at a company BBQ." Check out the single here!
Ulmer, describing the song, says:
"About a month before my dad passed from lung cancer, I was sitting in a room alone with him, a breathing tube in his nose, gaunt and hairless from radiation therapy, when he announced to me unprovoked: "I once had sex in the woods with a stranger I just met." Maybe he had been keeping this small, unremarkable story to himself for decades, and out of desperation - or perhaps as a way of tying up the loose ends of life as one does - saw the right moment to tell someone before the story slid into the crematorium with his body. He didn't offer any other details, but I nonetheless wrote "Promethean Heat" to honor his impulse to tell me, inventing a story about some ancient magical sex ritual among the redwoods of Northern California, the place where my father spent his lost years before he met my mother. There's this monstrous bass line and chaotic drum part I had envisioned for it almost immediately, with chanting and horns and guitars dancing around it. I found it hard to separate the story I had invented from the image of him attached to all those beeping and whirring hospice machines. I think that's why "Promethean Heat" has a mechanical feel to it, as if the vines and moss of the forest had grown into the machinery that had been keeping him alive."
The upcoming album, Pale Cicada, will be Ulmer's fist studio album. As always, the music is autobiographical, and heavy on storytelling. It's an ornate wall of sound, with a touch of genius that makes it otherworldly and nods to the experimental greats who came before, such as David Bryne and Brian Eno. It's no wonder NPR's Bob Boilen called the last release "One of the most outstanding and challenging new bits of music I've heard." This new album carries on that tradition of challenge, and there's also consistency in a key component of Makeunder: the artwork. This is especially dear to the project, as Ulmer's parents are both artists. Gabriel Schama has done ever all of the album covers for the project, including this LP. Each cover showcases a model, headless, and exploding in color. Like his music, the foundation is rooted but the possibilities for interpretation are bright, bold and boundless.
NPR Music's Bob Boilen described Makeunder's 2015 EP Great Headless Blank as "one of the most outstanding and challenging new bits of music I've heard this year." That year, he'd also end up arranging the strings for country artist Cam's 2015 platinum / Grammy-nominated single "Burning House". It's since led to Hamilton collaborating with producers out of Nashville and Los Angeles as a string arranger. These successes, however, would not come without a host of informative personal tragedies.
In December 2010, Hamilton's brother got into a horrific motorcycle accident, and just a few months later, his maternal grandfather died. At the memorial, Hamilton discovered his father had lung cancer. Soon after, his paternal grandfather died, and his own father passed away months later.
It was during that period that he penned Makeunder's debut EP, Radiate Satellite: an eclectic, orchestral project comprised of stories he heard about his late grandfather at his memorial. The EP was recorded on a laptop microphone with instruments he had inherited from his grandfather while cleaning out his parents' house while his dad was recovering from cancer. Radiate, Satellite illustrated his approach of processing trauma by making music, which wasn't something Hamilton had initially set out to do. In 2015, he released the Great Headless Blank EP, a project full of tragedy, recounting the lead-up and aftermath of Hamilton's father dying.
On his forthcoming LP, Pale Cicada, Hamilton tells the story of his family's move from Humboldt County, California, a haven for hippies that were escaping San Francisco in the 1970s, to San Antonio, Texas. Transitioning from a wooded, rural, alternative community in Humboldt, to a loud, humid, conservative working-class city like San Antonio was a culture shock. Hamilton's family never quite fit in - his father in particular, an eccentric and emotionally closed-off artist, struggled to find his way in the world, even to his death.
Something happens when you lose a parent when you're not a full person - you have these major life moments and this person isn't there for you. It's difficult," he says of the experience. On Pale Cicada, he tries to answer some of those questions through his own inference, channeling how he imagines his father struggled and felt. While the theatrical, funk-tinged "In Between My Dead-End Jobs" pays homage to both Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" and other big clav funk tunes, it sets the tone for the record, recalling the feelings of Hamilton's years as a teen watching his parents struggle to make ends meet. "In between my dead-end jobs/What do I do/If I lose every reason/And I can't make it through," Hamilton sings in a dizzying chorus with a sharp Stevie Wonder lilt.
Hamilton also recounts one of the more bizarre moments he had with his dad before his passing. A month before he died, in a morphine-addled haze, his father dug deep and confessed something out of nowhere: that he once had sex in the woods with a total stranger. Hamilton evolved that conversation into "Promethean Heat," a rich sonic landscape of anxious claps and horns coupled with a recorded bassline from Tune-Yards' Nate Brenner. As the most stripped-down track on the record, "Another Ruse" compartmentalizes the angst of knowing how his father, a lifelong smoker, would probably die before his time. "I always knew he'd die young, and it would feel really unresolved for me," he says.
On a writing retreat with Cam, Hamilton penned "I'm Still Living Wrongly," conjuring the country ethos of Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. After hearing a gamut of country songs written by Cam and her team, Hamilton was inspired to write one of his own. The song reflects on an aspect of his father's longing for California, meditating on the idea of leaving a place you love, moving far away and wondering if you're ever going to return.
Although he spends a fair amount of time recalling the past, Hamilton takes time to commemorate his present on Pale Cicada. "Ringing Chord" highlights Hamilton's smoldering vocals and an eerie gospel-chorus.The avant-garde ballad was inspired by a an elderly Jewish woman at her granddaughter's wedding dancing the hora with wedding guests while The B-52's "Love Shack" played in the background. Despite the seemingly joyous sentiment of the song, it relates back to the album's overall theme of alienation and wanting to belong: "Maybe I haven't found / My people yet / Ayahuasca in / The desert with a stranger I just met."
While Pale Cicada is ultimately about growing up in a place where you don't belong, struggling through it, and ultimately surviving, Hamilton has come to see that struggle through a broader political lens. It's really why he wrote "In Between My Dead-End Jobs" in the first place: he began to see his stories reflected as a larger narrative in the U.S. "I want to give people an escape from the anxiety and grind of their daily lives - at least for a little bit," he says. And with a project like Makeunder that's too big and too loud to ignore: Hamilton has done just that, crafting his own alternative to the routine of day-to-day life.
Photo credit: Ginger Fierstein