The Underhill Family Orchestra is not a family or an orchestra, they don’t even listen to the same music. None of the members is named Underhill and most of them grew up in other places before they moved to Mobile. They are six talented musicians who are unified in their commitment to their music and to each other. Together, they write their own songs, wear face paint and vintage clothing onstage, and survive life on the road as a six-piece band.
Where did you get the name The Underhill Family Orchestra?
Steven: At one point we had nine members, so it felt like an orchestra. We were all good friends, so family felt right. I looked through my family tree and found the name Underhill and that sounded like a good, old-fashioned name.
Brian: We all took on the last name Underhill and we have a whole backstory for our Underhill family.
How did The Underhill Family Orchestra begin?
Steven: We started as a three-piece band with Brian, Joelle, and me. We added drums and bass, and it has been an evolution. Most of us met at the University of Mobile, except for Jeremy.
Jeremy: I met them at the coffee shop. I knew they were about to go on tour and I was trying to find a way to weasel myself in. I was going to learn their songs on banjo, but one thing led to another and I ended up becoming their drummer. I had to learn all of their songs in four days.
Explain the war paint that you wear at each show.
Steven: We played together for about a year and then we quit. We even played one last show. After that, I went to Germany to a performing arts institute. By the third week, I realized there was something that I would much rather be doing back in Mobile. I came back, and we all got back together. We started wearing the face paint as a symbol of solidarity that we are all in this together. Our music is nothing compared to the brotherhood that we are.
Brian: We had a show in Jackson, Mississippi and forgot our face paint. We thought it would be fine and went on without it. The show was horrible, one of the worst shows we have ever played.
Ben: We didn’t know how important that face paint was until we didn’t have it. We realized that the face paint unifies us. It sounds silly to say that, but it is true.
Steven: Ben once said you go into a crowd of people you don’t know with five other people wearing face paint, at least you have five people who you can relate to. You have family there.
How does living in Mobile influence your music?
Steve: It is how we are thinking or feeling while we are living here that affects the mood we create in our music. It is the history of this city of six flags and everything going on here, but it also the people. 90 percent of our songs are about people we meet, the good and bad.
“Sam” is about a traveling preacher character who is a total hypocrite. You can meet people like that here, but at the same time there are also people who are going through the same things that we are, that we can relate to. People get our songs because they have been through it. They know what it is like to have an awful girlfriend or boyfriend. People understand the lyrics because it happens to them. We all go through the same things.
How do you write songs together?
Brian: People sometimes bring in whole songs to the group. Some songs come in with just a hook and a chorus and we sit in a room and write for hours until we have a song. Writing together is fun and it is the best feeling when we finish a song.
Steven: We don’t have the same musical influences, and we don’t listen to the same music. We disagree on a lot of music, but we are all together in the music we make together.
Ben: That is part of the magic of our songwriting. We have six people from very different musical places, but we all come together. No one’s feelings are hurt if an idea doesn’t work.
Steven: We all have side projects. If a song doesn’t work as an Underhill song, then it will work as an individual project.
Your last show was on New Year’s Eve and you are taking time off from touring to write and record your next album. What are your plans for this album?
Steven: We are getting into a focused version of what were were doing on our last album. Some of it has a tribal chant feel and a progression of what we were doing already with four-part harmony. We have organized our chants into something melodious and pretty.
Ben: This album will also be different from our past albums. It wouldn’t be interesting if we put the same thing out every time. It has to move and it has to change.
Jeremy: You change and your grow and your music changes with you. That is what we are going through now.
How do you pick which songs will be on the album?
Ben: It is usually obvious which songs we like and which songs should be on the album. We aren’t selfish and we know that the music is not only for us. It is about performing the songs and for people latching on to them and enjoying them.
What is it like when the crowd connects with your songs at a show?
Brian: That connection is the greatest feeling for a musician and it is why we do this. There are times when it gets really hard with bad jobs and little money, but we play a show and life immediately gets better.
Ben: The first time we played a show in Panama City was one of the best shows we ever had. We looked out and there were 20-30 people singing our songs back to us. They had listened to our songs beforehand and it was so great to hear them singing our songs.
Brian: The last song we played at that show had the chant “Come on, come on, come on, let’s go.” We tried to stop and they wouldn’t let us, so we had to keep playing it.
What is your day job?
Brian: I work at AutoZone.
Ben: I wait tables at Mellow Mushroom.
Steven: I am a bartender at Alchemy Tavern.
Jeremy: I am a coffee roaster at Serda’s Coffee.
Steven: Joelle is a photographer and we aren’t sure what Jimmy does.
What was the song that made you want to be a musician?
Brian: The first song that made it click for me and made me realize that I wanted to play the electric guitar was “Saturday Night” by Elton John. The buzzed out electric guitar on that track is killer.
Steven: 38 Special is important to me because I listened to them with my dad and brother. I remember going to a scout meeting with my dad and listening to the “Robin Hood Suite” by 38 Special. “Party” by Boston is my standard.
Ben: “Clarity” by Jimmy Eat World. It was the only music I knew when I was living in Canada, but it was one of the simplest albums I’ve ever heard. On song repeats a simple line over and over, but everything else changes. I had never heard music like that before and it opened up my mind to what defines a song. It doesn’t have to be verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and the song is over. There are more ways to construct a song. “Clarity” is what made me think about writing music and understand that I could make it interesting.
Jeremy: There have been different phases of listening and wanting to play music in my life, but it started with my dad. He was a drummer with a big personality and was very animated when he played drums. My family was strict about the music we listened to and we couldn’t listen to secular music. But there was one song, “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors, that I got to hear. I would sit on my dad’s lap and hold on to his hands while he played the drums on that song. When I became a teenager, the protective bubble was popped. My neighbor listened to heavy metal and he gave me my first 2 cd’s, “Kill ‘Em All” by Metallica, and “Rest in Peace” by Megadeth.
How does listening to other music affect the music you create?
Steven: I have to go see live music about ten times a month, or I feel like I wasted that month. I am always trying to take in music. I don’t want to be jamming on the same songs the rest of my life.
Ben: If you aren’t listening to other stuff and broadening what you are listening to, you are just going to regurgitate the same songs over and over. I have to listen to other types of music.
What do you drive to your shows?
Brian: We used to have the best-looking and worst-operating van. We once bought a bunch of cans of spray paint, handed them out at a show, and told them to go for it, the van is your canvass. There were parts of the van that turned out good, and parts that didn’t. We had friends who were graffiti artist put on specific things that we wanted on it. However, the transmission and almost everything else blew out on it about a month ago. Now it is in a junkyard.
Steven: I am going to miss that van. It was like rolling around with Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.
Ben: We got many reactions to that van. Many weren’t good, and someone once rolled down his window and asked if we were the Illuminati. We have also had people flag us down and pull us over because they saw our name on the van, looked us up on YouTube, and wanted to buy cds.
For The Underhill Family Orchestra, touring is one of the best parts of their music. Along with memories of good crowds and cracking jokes on each other, there are stories of eating bad food at gas stations, shows at strange venues with even stranger people, and sleeping in the homes of people they have never met. The Underhill Family Orchestra may never become an orchestra, or Underhills, but through life and music they have become family.
The members of the Underhill Family Orchestra are: Steven Laney (acoustic guitar, drums), Joelle Rosen (tamborine) , Brian Wattier (electric guitar), Jimmy Lee (bass, acoustic guitar) , Ben Cook (mandolin, guitar), Jeremy Padot (drums).