Origins is a recurring new music feature that gives artists the chance to provide listeners a deeper look into the inspirations for their latest track.
A great deal of Hamilton Ulmer’s music as Makeunder is defined by loss. He’d spent years watching his family of eccentric hippies struggle to compete in the grind of a conservative working class. Then came a period from late 2010 through 2011 when his brother was in a terrible motorcycle accident, he lost both his grandfathers, and his father was diagnosed with and subsequently succumbed to lung cancer. But instead of letting all these hard times diminish his spirit, Ulmer has chosen to process his pain in bombastic alt-pop numbers like new single “In Between My Dead-End Jobs”.
The latest single from his forthcoming Pale Cicada LP, Makeunder’s “In Between My Dead-End Jobs” is a funky clav jam that channels the big sounds of Peter Gabriel and Stevie Wonder. Like an ’80s tUnE-yArDs jam, slapping bass and surprising rhythms propel the vibrant track through its blue-collar distress. “You tell me we’ll be alright/ You believe it,” sing a cacophony of voices. “Well, we ain’t got another plan/ So snap out of the fix and wait for the sun to come up and do it again.”
Through songs like this, Makeunder is making up for the common strifes of life with a fierce creativity that refuses to quit — just like he and his family have done for years. Take a listen to “In Between My Dead-End Jobs” below.
Pale Cicada is due out June 28th on Good Eye Records. For more on what inspired the latest single, Makeunder has broken down the song’s Origins below.
Scraping One Paycheck Ahead:
The line “in between my dead-end jobs/ What do I do?” came to me out of nowhere one day while I was noodling around on a clavinet preset on my keyboard. Twenty minutes later, I had the first two verses written. Something about the timbre of the clavinet brought me back to being sixteen and seeing my mother work retail, my father taking on odd jobs to pay the bills, never getting ahead, never able to plan for the future. My family had plenty of ups and downs financially, but those precarious times left a mark on me. Why did it take me fifteen years to find a way to talk about it? Maybe – and this is hard to admit – that since I was lucky enough to go to college and find a decent job, I felt unqualified to share. Maybe I was finally mature enough to see that period as part of a story bigger than mine. For a lot of folks in the US, hard work alone isn’t enough to keep you from being one accident, one mistake, one unfortunate setback away from losing everything. Especially for people my age, it’s easy to feel hopeless. Maybe we’re all just finally waking up.
“Living for the City” — Stevie Wonder:
The first time I heard Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” was in a dorm room down the hall from mine, early in my freshman year of college. I later ripped every song of his I could find on Limewire and listened on my silver iPod mini, no rhyme or reason to the ordering of the playlist. Stevie Wonder came to be part of the fabric of my confusing college years, as I tried to find my place among kids who grew up much wealthier than I did, kids that seemed to have their destinies handed to them on a silver platter. I think that’s why the rhodes and clavinet grooves on “Superstition” and “I Wish” were already in my ears when I wrote “In Between My Dead-End Jobs”, the product of thousands of listens. But the plain-spoken storytelling of “Living for the City” felt like the real form below the surface, and noodling on the clavinet helped the song breach the water.
Rehearsal Studio at Market, Adeline, and 57th:
During the stretch when I was writing Pale Cicada, I shared with a few other musicians the side room of a foreclosed storefront church at the intersection of Market, Adeline, and 57th in West Oakland. The pastor who used to run it got thrown in jail for fraud, so the new owner posted the space on Craigslist to keep the building occupied while she figured out what to do with it. In one corner was a matrix of phone jacks where an autodialer had once been set up to make robocalls. The room was a bit nicer than most shared rehearsal spaces in big complexes, and while it always felt a little exposed to the outside, the neighborhood has a lot of life (and history) to it. Eventually we were kicked out of the space once the owner found a real tenant, but I’m grateful I had such a uniquely weird place to write “In Between My Dead-End Jobs”.
My Dad Whistled While He Worked:
I like putting together antithetical sounds and ideas in Makeunder songs, seeing how the paradoxes make room for a new understanding. The first verse was about one of my older brothers who, while I was in high school, worked at a warehouse packing boxes, feeling hopeless about what came next for him. The second verse is about working a shit retail job with a petty authoritarian for a boss. And yet, there’s this carefree whistling that punctuates these dark stories. That part was inspired by my dad. He was an eccentric, complicated man, but he always seemed at peace when I saw him working with his hands, softly whistling along to the Gypsy Kings or Marvin Gaye blasting from the speakers in our garage while a handful of industrial fans circulated the summer air back out to the street, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The relationship between the grim feeling that you’ll never get off the wage treadmill and the buoyant whistling probably depends on the listener’s worldview, but to me the whistling seems to grow darker and more absurd as the song unfolds.
At some point after I wrote the first two verses in “In Between My Dead-End Jobs” I remember going to a Frank Stella retrospective in San Francisco. My parents were both visual artists, so I am often looking to sculpture and painting for inspiration. I lucked out that day, staring at one of the concentric square paintings, when I saw an idea of how to finish “In Between My Dead-End Jobs”. As you head deeper into the song, you realize the journey was just another workday for the narrator, who has to wake up and do it all again. I immediately thought of the opening of “East Coker” from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “In the end is my beginning”. My father died a few years ago of lung cancer, and his death stirred up a lot of existential stuff that finds its way into all the tracks on Pale Cicada, including this song – what does an ending look like, where does the beginning begin, what repeats itself, what falls apart. I’m sure that wasn’t really the original intent of those square paintings. But who cares? It was just the projection I needed.