Underground Cities on Songwriting, River Jones, and First Friday

Instrumental music is usually associated with background music. It's what you listen to when you need help relaxing, studying, working, meditating, or what have you.

Chandler's Underground Cities break away from this stereotype by playing loud, energetic shows. No vocals are necessary; intricate melodies are all they need to grab the audience's attention.

The band is working on the follow up to their 2010 debut,The Dalliance Album, which will be released sometime around August. Underground Cities is gearing up for a summer tour with The Whisperlights, which they consider their brother band because bassist Brent Bachelder plays in both groups.

We recently caught up with Jake Arrington, Brent Bachelder, and Bryan Garay to discuss the band's creative process, the new album, working with River Jones, and not wanting to be pigeonholed as a post-rock band.

Up On The Sun: How did the band get started?

Jake Arrington: It got started with Bryan and I. We played music together for years and have been through a lot of different bands. We've played metal before, the band's kinda dismantled. Him and I kept playing, and we started writing this instrumental thing that you couldn't really put vocals to. Him and I collaborated for two months before we decided to make it a full band. That's where we got Joseph. Joseph's played with us for years and Brent's always been a good friend of ours. We just started jamming together.

We all came from playing punk and then went to playing metal. But we've always been really diverse in what we've listened to and we still are, just in one area. 

We've always had trouble writing for a vocalist, even when we played metal. We had problems writing for someone to sing over it. We just kinda kept writing like that because neither one of us know music theory. It's not really some deep musical thing. We're just like, 'Yeah, we wanna write so that it's not traditional,' we just didn't know.

UOTS: How do you name instrumental songs?

JA: That's probably our biggest task, is trying to name them. Our whole new album is written now and there's no names for any of them. It's just kind of the last thing. We write by feeling, so when it's time to name the song, we all sit down and listen to it and say, well how do you feel when you're listening to this? What does it remind you of? What's it similar to? Like, off The Dalliance Album, they're all really obscure names because of things that we felt while we were listening to it.

UOTS: Well, they sound very poetic.

JA: It's not, but... [laughs] We're just lazy.

UOTS: How is the new album different from The Dalliance Album? Is it an EP or a full length?

JA: It's a full length, just based on time. It's 35 to 50 minutes long, but as far as songs, it's considered an EP. There's only five or six songs on it; they're pretty long songs. It's different because The Dalliance Album is something that was basically a half hour of music that we wrote to cut an album and to play shows. We never expected for it to get printed, or get as far as to get signed to an indie label or anything like that. It's just something we wanted to do to play music together and develop. 

This new album is a lot more intricate, it's a lot happier. It's not so droney like some other instrumental bands.

UOTS: How did you get involved with the River Jones Music Label?

JA: We all listen to a variety of artists that are on his label. River lived in Vermont, I believe, for a period of time. When he was there, he was still trying to manage the label here, so everything was done online. He e-mailed us and wanted to know if he could help us out with distributing. We hit it off from there. We never actually met River until six months after being on his label, at River Jones fest. Everything else was on the computer. He's a real sweet guy, we all love him. He's cool like that.

UOTS: Is there a story behind the name Underground Cities, or is it like your song titles?

JA: We used to be named At the End of Underground Cities and it's [from] one of Joseph's favorite poems. I don't remember the name of it; it's just a line in it. Like everything else, like the whole album, we were just putting it together to do it. After we decided we were going to pursue it a little bit longer, we were like, 'We should shorten it.' So there's not much significance to the name, but we found out there's a lot of connections to underground alien layers.

Bryan Garay: If you Google Underground Cities, it's all about conspiracies and random things like that.

UOTS: What are your musical influences?

JA: I really enjoy a lot of singer-songwriter stuff like A.A. Bondy, Bon Iver, Dave Bazan, Pedro the Lion. Of course instrumental music is an influence...This Will Destroy You. Bands like Red Sparrows and stuff like that.

Brent Bachelder: I'm the weird one in the band. I grew up listening to grunge and alternative, and then I went into punk. I like a lot of the weirder, trancey female vocal type stuff. I get most of my music from these guys now.

JA: Noah and the Whale. That is a huge influence.

BB: For everybody in the band.

BG: My influences come from listening to a lot of Spanish rock, Spanish guitar, Flamenco stuff. Also, scores for movies. I've been getting into a lot of classical big symphonies and stuff like that. And just a lot of instrumental music.

JA: He's the artist of the band.

BB: He's the conductor.

JA: He is the backbone.

UOTS: Speaking of film scores, I went to film school with Kenny Yanga and heard "Dalliance" in his timelapse video. What was your experience with him like?

JA: We didn't know anything about it. He pretty much did that on his own and sent it to us. We were all shocked. It was beautiful work; we were all really stoked to see it.

BG: He asked us a while back. He came to our show and said he really dug the music and asked if we could put something to it film-wise. Six months went by, and he came out with this incredible piece and we were just blown away.

BB: We're hoping to work with him a little bit more later on.

UOTS: Tell me about the album art. Was it already made or did somebody draw it for you?

JA: We came up with the concept. A good friend of ours owns a studio called Dunlap Studios. He does a lot of work for the local artists here, he does work for River Jones, he's done a lot of work for national artists too, but he's a very, very close friend of ours. We came to him with the concept and he just kinda went with it. We had no complaints, when it came back it was perfect, it's beautiful.

UOTS: What are some of the recurring themes of The Dalliance Album?

JA: Themes? I...

BB: That's a good question.

UOTS: Dalliance is such a great word.

JA: Yes! The meaning of it is a brief love affair with anything, really. Something short. We thought it was kind of appropriate for the album, because we didn't really expect to be a band for very long. We just wrote a half hour of music so we could play shows and get some CDs out. We all love what we do and love each other so, a brief love affair is perfect.

UOTS: "Train Tracks Across the Sky" is not on The Dalliance Album. Why did you decide to leave it out?

JA: We had already recorded the album, so we decided we were going to record it real quick and have it as a single. We didn't know if it really fit Dalliance; Dalliance was a finished puzzle. It was an opening to what we thought we would start writing in kind of a cowboy-ish kinda way. It just became a single we have for free download. It's more to get ourselves out there.

BB: It just happened to come in a weird transition time where The Dalliance Album was done. It doesn't really sound a lot like The Dalliance Album, but the writing we had for The Dalliance Album was similar to that. When we started writing stuff for this new album, it became clear to us that it doesn't fit anything on this new album, either.

JA: It's kinda in limbo. We still play it live; it's still one of the funner songs to play.

UOTS: I love that you guys still use the intro.

JA: We pretty much keep all the songs intact like that. We never do a lot of changing as far as live performance. Pretty much how they're recorded is how we try to play it.

UOTS: Where are some of your favorite places to play in town?

JA: Rhythm Room's really cool.

BB: Yeah, Yucca Tap Room.

JA: Long Wong's. They've always been big supporters of us.

BG: First Fridays.

JA: We love First Fridays.

UOTS: Do you play them often?

JA: We try to do it every month when we're in town. It's a real positive way to be a part of the art community and not have to have people come out and have to pay money to see us. Mesa has an art event too, it's like second Fridays. There's always new people there to hear you. We always get a good response there, so we try to play it as much as we can. I believe Arizona has a strong art community and I think the more involved bands can be in that will help it to grow.

UOTS: Do you have a designated spot for First Friday?

JA: No, we play at Conspire a lot. We played at Revolver Records. Those are pretty much the two places.

UOTS: You guys went on tour in April. Where did you go, who did you go with, and what was the overall experience like?

JA: We went out by ourselves; we didn't go with another band. We went to Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California. We actually had a lot of luck on this tour as far as bands to play with.

UOTS: So, you're going in tour in July. What are your plans?

JA: I think we're doing a really similar route. It would be one or two extra states that weren't in this tour, possibly Nevada.

BB: I know we're going through Nevada. We're going with what we'd consider our brother band, The Whisperlights. This one's a bit different because a lot of it is going to be with bands The Whisperlights have played with before on their tours, so we're excited to meet more new bands that are incredible in different areas.

UOTS: When do you think the album will be finished?

JA: We have already recorded the backbone of it. Our basic instruments are recorded, but there's a lot that we're adding to it. We have a choir singing on it, violin, cello, piano, trumpet...That's basically what we need to do next. We're hoping around August is when we'll be able to put it out.

UOTS: How will you play those songs live? Will you actually have a violinist, or just play the track?

JA: Our good friend Tobie [Milford] plays in The Whisperlights, he'll probably play some live shows with us, probably play a couple shows with us on tour, but he's so busy, you never know. Bryan plays cello as well, so we might have to get inventive as far as live, using the loop recordings. We have a lot of friends that play really diverse instruments, so hopefully we can get something together, for at least for the CD release. He writes all the piano for the album, too. He's the savant, and he's so humble, too.

BG: I'll go climb this tree... [Laughs]

UOTS: Aside from an album and a summer tour, what else do you have planned?

JA: We have a light show that we're working on that we're hoping to start incorporating into more of our shows. We've been working on it for the past year and a half. It's all controlled by a combo pedal amp that Bryan made...Bryan's the guy.

BB: Should we all just leave?

JA: You should talk to him.

BB: We don't need to be here anymore. [Laughs]

JA: Just something to make the live performance a little bit more intimate and more passionate. Hopefully, we'll be able to integrate that into our set before the CD release. We're gonna hopefully find an appropriate venue and make it a big deal.

We're starting to open up to The Color Group. They have a lot of affiliation with Stateside [Presents]. Jeff [Taylor] kinda runs it, he's in a band called St. Ranger. He's in the more business aspect of the music industry, we're gonna start working with him as far as promotional things. He'll do out of town booking for us, but yeah, that's all in the works now. Them and River Jones are working together with us. They've helped us out a lot, too.

UOTS: How does it feel to be one of the major post-rock bands in town?

JA: I don't know, because we've never really wanted to be labeled as post-rock. We love instrumental music and that's what we play. There's definitely a trend amongst instrumental bands, but I think it's just different with us because we basically just write it all based on feeling and not really any musical structure.

There's a lot of very talented instrumental bands here. We're doing a mini-tour with this instrumental band called Cassiopeia in the beginning of June. They're very good too, a lot like Godspeed [You! Black Emperor] and Explosions [in the Sky].

BB: Not very many people listen to instrumental music, so it's cool that for a lot of people that haven't seen us before, it's kind of an introduction to instrumental music. I have a lot of friends that have never listened to an instrumental group that are now are starting to get into it.

JA: We get just as bored playing a part over and over again just as much as a listener would if you hear the same part for like 10 minutes. It might be a really beautiful part, and a lot of bands do it really well, but we all have the ADD kind of mindset writing mode. We're always changing, writing for pace. Surprisingly, it's been real humbling for the response we've gotten, especially here in the music scene. There's so much talent here. The fact that people are really enjoying something that you put so much of yourself into is so humbling, it's really cool.

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