The (Re)Debut of the Underhill Family Orchestra (INTERVIEW)

The Chick-fil-A in downtown Mobile, Alabama is flushed with starving artists this afternoon, taking their lunch break from the Southeastern Theatre Conference, a meat market for aspiring stage professionals that descends on the Azalea City each spring.

Last year, during a similarly maddening lunch rush, two Chick-fil-A employees walked out in the middle of their shifts, which is an event that may repeat itself today: a little past twelve, the famed southern eatery is so backed up that even if you mobile ordered—like Steven Laney did—there’s still another fifteen minute wait after arriving at the restaurant.

But for someone who was bartending until 4:30 in the morning, Steven Laney is surprisingly patient. A theatre major in college, and thus, a veteran of the service industry, he’s well-acquainted with the way these two worlds collide, and lets the tension between hungry patrons and overwhelmed staff pass him by like an idle wind, as he waits for his sandwich in the Alabama heat.

Plus, it’s the eve of his band’s debut album, so right now, frustration is far away.

Bearded and thirty with shoulder length hair pulled back into a ponytail when he’s not on stage, Laney is one of the people responsible for shepherding the Underhill Family Orchestra from their formation in 2010 to Tell Me That You Love Me, the band’s first release since signing to Skate Mountain Records in February; another is Joelle Rosen, a sweet, vintage, red-haired vocalist, who founded the band with Laney while in their early 20’s. Over the last decade, the two have been present for all the changes typical of a part-time, working-class, local, music outfit, having navigated stops and starts, stylistic pivots, an extended hiatus, a transition from weekend-hobby to full-time passion, and a host of lineup changes that saw the Underhill Family Orchestra move from its three founding members in its earliest incarnation to as many as nine within their first calendar year together. More recently, though, the band’s roster has settled, and now, Laney and Rosen are flanked by guitarist and mandolin player Ben Cook, drummer Roy Durand, and bassist Joe Grove.

Which, for all intents and purposes, is where the band’s story begins.

Despite nearly a decade of on-and-off music making, it’s difficult to find anything substantial on the internet about the Underhill Family Orchestra before Skate Mountain, which is initially perplexing (especially if you’re tasked with writing a story about the Underhill Family Orchestra). But there is an explanation: after the current lineup fell into place about the three years ago, and the band’s members fully committed to one another—and after “the right person saw them,” and the band signed with Skate Mountain—the Underhill Family Orchestra chose to strike their previous records from the internet, and present this version of themselves to the world: the older, wiser, settled Underhill Family Orchestra, who had survived their years in flux, and come out on the other side with a firm understanding of their identity.

So while not technically a debut album (there are two previous Underhill records, which now only exist in physical copies), Tell Me That You Love Me is the band’s singular offering on Spotify, which makes it their debut, “as far as 99% of people are concerned.”

“In retrospect, those old records felt like a breeding ground for this album,” Laney says. “When we struck everything off of media, it didn’t hurt because we knew we were making this record.”

“It’s like getting a brand new start,” Rosen echoes. “It was like, ‘This is our time to do this. Let’s really make a debut album for the world.’ This isn’t just playing in your hometown. It’s a full-time job, and it’s different than being in a band that plays shows here and there. We asked, ‘Do we want to bring this to everybody?’ And the answer was yes. We have a mission and a purpose.”

Mission and purpose come into sharp focus on Tell Me That You Love Me, a dynamic record that harnesses the self-assuredness of an outfit with Underhill’s experience, yet pounds with a newcomer’s fluid passion: on “Oak Holler,” for instance, Laney and Rosen declare their intentions, as their textured harmonies collide with Southern rock licks and Big Easy trombones, the two chanting, “Oh, we’re gonna make it,” in a style that sounds like the Delta’s answer to Of Monsters and Men.

However, “making it” entails more than a record deal for the Underhill Family Orchestra: it extends to culture, community, and the concept of family itself—hopefully, to quitting bartending jobs to pursue music in the way they’ve always intended.

But the path to those loftier goals begins with infectious, eclectic music, produced by a group of Alabama noisemakers with a diminutive internet presence.

Upon a first listen, the Underhill Family Orchestra seems like one of the great, undiscovered festival bands—a group who can be enjoyed without the burden of background or familiarity. Spinning on an axis of catchy, stomp-and-holler folk influenced by Southern rock and progressive pop, the band is full of call-and-response and five-part harmonies, playing like some combination of the Lone Bellow, Skinny Lister, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. But even with as wide of a net as that casts, it’s probably more narrow of a comparison than the Underhills would like—or would joke about—as within the group, there’s a bit of a game made of explaining their style: Rosen likes to say “It’s music you can dance or cry to, or both at the same time,” while Laney prefers, “a mix between Fleetwood Mac and Fleet Foxes.” One review likened the group to The Muppets house band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, which Rosen says is “Steven’s dream,” before Steven goes on to say, “If you like Chicago or Noah Gunderson, you’ll like our music,” a sentiment he later balances out by comparing his band to the fickle, Mobile weather.

“If you don’t like it, just wait around a second. It’s going to change.”

The evidence of that oft-used, hokey joke is present throughout Tell Me That You Love Me, with songs like their bouncing, soulful first single, “When The Trumpet Sounds,” which is reminiscent of a leaner version of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. But there are along songs like “Wooden Hymnal in C,” a nearly-acapella Southern spiritual, as well as “Silverhill Church Girl,” which is likely the album’s standout track: what begins as a sweetly sung reel with a warbling, whistled solo, the song changes tones midstream, as Laney’s half-picked acoustic is overtaken by Ben Cook’s electric guitar, the sound growing into an arena-filling anthem with huge refrains and the infinite drums that have served the Lumineers so well over the last half-decade. But beyond that, the album melts down unexpected styles, taking mid-song asides that include field hollers, Second Line Jazz, ragtime pianos, and a recording of Rosen’s grandmother, talking about the death of her husband. Discreetly recorded at her kitchen table while the band was staying with her after a show, the story begins on “When the Trumpet Sounds,” but doesn’t conclude until “Holy Roller,” as the album’s first single gets a second-life on its eight-minute finale.

While it may sound like an overwhelming mix, it works, giving them a feel distinct from the live experience that the band has long prided itself on.

“Our music is interesting to watch and to listen to,” Rosen says. “It’s loud and rambunctious, then it’s soft and heartfelt. When people see us perform, they’re like ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting that. Let’s see what they  do next.’ We try not to be super expected. We work really hard to keep it interesting.”

“Not everything has to be 1-4-5 with a bridge,” Laney says. “It can be fairly strange and still be accessible and still be pop. Our music is not, by any means, technically sound. I don’t believe in the express use of music theory to make music…If people stopped thinking about how to make everything perfect and just went for it, the world would be a better place.”

Clearly, the Underhill Family Orchestra feels no pressure to exist within the imaginary confines of genre, and if the group wants to be defined by anything, it’s not their sound, but the culture they’ve been able to create: it’s the idea of community, the idea of family, which applies indiscriminately to everyone from frontman to newest fan.

Most emblematic of this idea, beyond the band’s name, is face paint, a visible representation of togetherness, which was introduced to the Orchestra in 2011. After playing together for a year, Laney decided to pursue a theater program in Germany, which led to what was then the Underhills’ “last show.” After a few weeks, however, Laney longed for his musical brotherhood in Mobile, and returned to pick up where the band had left off. Following that hiatus, the group decided to start wearing face paint on stage as a symbol of unity, of commitment to one another, which not only became a trademark look, but stood for a larger ethos that was best explained by Ben Cook in a 2012 interview, when he told Southern Rambler, “You go into a crowd of people you don’t know, but if five other people are wearing face paint, at least you have five people you can relate to. You have family there.”

Quickly, the face paint spilled off stage to fans old and new, who wanted part of the unity that the band in front of them was hoping standing for.

“We make people part of it. Everyone’s part of the family,” Rosen says.

“I want everyone to feel at home,” Laney continues. “We harp so much on the ‘family’ aspect of the band because once you’re in, you’re in. Once you’re in on the show, once you start talking to us, guess what? You’re family now. You’re stuck with us.” (Over the course of our interview, this proves true: after Laney and Rosen say that the conversation allows me entry into the Underhill Family, I begin to refer to myself as “Cousin Billy,” which they not only don’t object to, but encourage.)

However, face paint is easily applied, and if the Underhills did not mean what they say or live up to the spirit they stand for, audiences would sniff it out quickly, as disingenuity is more apparent on stage than anywhere else.

But that’s not the case, and the reason the group has been able to carve out a loyal, growing group of fans across the southeast is because of an apparent authenticity, delivered with self-belief, not self-seriousness.

“Our idea of a show is putting on a vest, maybe a tie, putting on a fun hat, painting our faces, and trying to have what ultimately turns into a silly, fun time,” Laney says. “I’d like it to feel like a cartoon version of Dr. Hook, and I think it does a lot of the time…Everyone’s dancing and joking with each other, and we just try to turn it into a party. I think Andrew W.K. would be proud.”

While it’s a more polished version now, that sentiment is borrowed from Laney’s days spent in a post-rock band, back when “a bunch of college kids got down on this insane-sounding hardcore music that was appreciatively untouched by the idea that everything needs to sound good.”

“It wasn’t about everything sounding perfect, it was about getting out there, leaving everything on the stage, leaving everything on the album, and hopefully making someone enjoy it,” Laney says.

Even if it’s now dressed up in a bolo tie, that human element still exists, as the Underhill Family Orchestra is more concerned with “leaving it all out there” than perfection, more interested in creating something enjoyable, and therefore, real.

“The history of the music where we’re from is, ‘Hey, let’s mess up a bunch and then sing over it,’” Laney jokes. “We go through our lives with this idea that everything is going to go perfect that day. Then you remember nothing is going to go perfect ever—why would it? That’s when the mistakes and the improvisations start happening, and that’s how you make a good life for yourself. So why can’t we take that same thought set and apply it to our art?”

Manifested on stage, the imperfect personnel in the Underhill Family Orchestra is as eclectic as their music, the group making the same holistic sense when they perform their art as when it’s captured on record: among the band, there’s an agreement that “the only person that looks cool on stage” is bassist Joe Grove. Everyone else claims to be less so, the eccentricities of their band beginning with their wild-haired, tattooed drummer, Roy Durand, who has affectionately received the nickname “Animal” for the way he behaves behind his kit, pounding at his skins with an unhinged ferocity, and providing vocals from the back of the stage, as he once did as part of a “Zappa-esque” group called Vagabond Swing. His energy is a contagion and often carries over to Laney, who returns to his post-rock self, swinging guitars around his torso—a rarity in the roots world—while “natural born stomper” Ben Cook slams on guitars and mandolins, always at risk of putting a hole in the floor, The sole-female, Rosen manages big hats, hand claps, and tambourines, carrying herself with a smoothness that seems improbable in the same band as Animal Durand, but her downhome, call-and-response is a necessary counterpoint, adding texture and personality to a group that demands attention, before even playing a note.

For better or for worse, the Underhill Family Orchestra is entirely themselves, which allows their audience to do the same: like them, our lives have been defined by mistakes and improvisations, and when looking at the stage, those things have clearly helped make this band, in ways that extend beyond their sound.

Because the plan wasn’t to wait around for a decade before getting signed.

That’s what happened, though, and the Underhill Family Orchestra may be better for it: the reason that old fans have followed, and new fans will follow, is because the band means what they say, and try to live off stage with the spirit they’ve fortified on it, which can be hard to do when the Chick-fil-A downtown is overrun with hungry artists on a humid, late-May, Alabama afternoon.

But Steven Laney and his band-turned-family have always been surprisingly patient.

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