Montreal duo UNDERHER prove that something magical can happen when opposites attract. Jessica Abruzzese was an aspiring vocalist looking for a challenge and Kalden Bess a sound technician searching for a spark. Their collaboration lit the blue touch paper, yet UNDERHER hunted an instrument to provide the creative glue. Enter MASCHINE.
Despite coming from completely different musical backgrounds, classically trained vocalist Jessica Abruzzese and sound engineer Kalden Bess immediately clicked. Within a day of meeting they’d written two tracks and 12 months later evolved a sound they could call their own. UNDERHER was born with MASCHINE playing a key role, providing a technological gateway to facilitate their creative connection.
Initially, UNDERHER’s sound bridged Abruzzese’s sultry R&B vocal and Bess’ deep techno past, yet the project took a surprisingly immersive and cinematic turn. Fast-tracked into syncs with Netflix, the duo resisted the temptation to overthink their approach. Instead, they focus on making music daily, heavily reliant on Native Instruments tools to write, record, and develop a multifaceted approach to playing live.
How did you get together and create what we know as UNDERHER?
Jessica: I was signed to a pop label from age 14 but had no creative input. It was a great experience, but at the end of the day I was just a puppet. We met through mutual friends at a studio in Montreal. Kalden already had a basis in the industry and I’d been singing for a long time. We ended up recording two tracks in the first couple of hours of meeting, and another the next day. There was an automatic musical connection and it’s kept rolling ever since.
Kalden: From 2009, I’d been making techno music in the Drumcode vibe. Our musical journey is quite vast and I think that’s what makes UNDERHER special. We make 80-130bpm music and like to think we’re versatile. For example, we have three live shows coming up and they’re all going to be different sets, from Techno to a more concert-type performance.
At what point did you feel that your productions were more than an experiment but evolving into something cohesive?
Jessica: There was a certain period of adaptation because of our different musical backgrounds. Especially vocally, I had to alter some of the influences I had to suit a more electronic sound. But it’s important to mention that the first track we recorded is one that we still play today. We adjusted for sure, but also understood each other’s musical language. At first, we geared our music more towards a niche – for raves and the techno scene, but then we started broadening our horizons to pierce different types of genres.
I understand MASCHINE is integral to your production process? What first brought your attention to it?
Kalden: I got the Ableton Push, but it didn’t do the job. Maschine really sold me because of the screen. Out of all the gear I tried, this was the one that was the most user-friendly and had the best flow. A couple of months ago we were in Berlin and created a track using Maschine in around ten minutes, and that was signed to Netflix. It was only when I got the Maschine that my prayers were answered. It was exactly what I needed for studio work.
Tell us more about that Netflix sync?
Jessica: Our manager opened up some doors by pushing our music through different avenues. We presented the music to a representative at Netflix who fell in love with our sound and it got pushed to different series. The first sync propelled and inspired us to revisit that style and opened our eyes to new ideas. There’s times when we’d listen to a track over and over and think it was perfect for a series, and it’s been picked up. Now we know how to evolve our sound around that cinematic vibe.
What features on MASCHINE most interest you?
Kalden: The new version is so user-friendly and has a beautiful screen with so many options that I don’t even need to touch the computer anymore. I can generate ideas within two seconds and Jess can also create ideas easily. Now I want to add the Komplete Kontrol S61 MIDI keyboard. It’s a real instrument and, like Maschine, will give me the power to control all the instrument plug-ins I use. Basically, one of us can be on Maschine and the other on the piano and nobody need look at the computer anymore.
Is MASCHINE the starting point for all your productions?
Kalden: It’s one of the first tools I go to when creating a track because it doesn’t lock me to a 4/4 groove and I can explore and create ideas that I wouldn’t do with a piano or other instrument. We’re never afraid to explore or push boundaries in terms of the pace of a track or the drums we use. I can make a little beat in two minutes and Maschine gives me the flexibility to change the tempo from 70-120bpm and switch everything up in a second. One of the problems a producer faces lies in the syncing of a bunch of MIDI gear. It ruins your flow and makes you feel less like producing, but Maschine has it all in one unit.
Why not just do everything on a computer?
Kalden: Because I’m an instrument guy and love to play with my hands. I have the rhythm in my blood – I don’t have it in a mouse! Sometimes you can come up with ideas that way, but I want to feel what I’m doing and my best tracks are always the ones I create live.
You’re a big fan of creating chords with MASCHINE. Is that right?
Kalden: I love the chord feature and how many scales it has. The first time I tried it, it had a very Arabic vibe. The new chord feature where you can create a bunch of combinations gives me hundreds of options. You can’t go wrong. When I have a good flow of ideas, I record to audio or route the channels out to Ableton and mix and engineer on that.
What other hardware are you using? I noticed a couple of synths and some outboard?
Kalden: Right now I’m using the Moog Voyager a lot and the Virus TI. The Moog has a really warm, cinematic sound. I also use Massive. I don’t tend to use Maschine as a sampler, although that’s something I want to explore more in the future. Things are a bit crazy right now, but we intend to get another Maschine so Jess can sample and play with her own vocals.
What part does MASSIVE play in the production process?
Kalden: It plays a big part. It’s a bit like the Moog Voyager, it has that rawness and you can create nice melodic techno sounds. I’ll tend to use it more for pads and lead sounds, whereas the Moog is more often used for bass. Sometimes I’m traveling and don’t have the Moog at my disposal, so I’ll just use Massive for everything.
Jessica, unlike a traditional vocalist, your vocals sound very breathy, almost like another instrument?
Jessica: Most of the time I think of the vocals as adding an extra layer of atmosphere. It’s not about putting the vocals front and center and making them the focal point of the tracks, but blending them in to create an entire vibe. But my vocal chain is quite basic. I’m using an Audio Technica microphone and a Focusrite soundcard running straight into Ableton.
Kalden: The way we add a reverb chain to blend Jess’s vocals into the instruments is done at the creative and mixing stage. We use Waves and UAD plug-ins a lot and get inspired by her atmospheric R&B vibe. We want to create an atmosphere with one word or voice, so we like to make the vocal huge, but smoothe.
Will you be integrating MASCHINE into your live sets?
Kalden: Live, I use Maschine to add layers. Sometimes I’ll change the vibe by adding some kicks and a layer of hi-hats or snares. Our tracks can be very slow, so having the power to add layers of sound through Maschine can change everything up in a second. We plan our sets, but also want to cut everything up, build a vibe and go in different directions. Every time we play a show, we want to surprise people.
Jessica: We find that Maschine gives us the freedom to choose the direction we want to go within a live set based on how we’re feeling. We’re confident in our music, so we’re confident to experiment. We’ve never played two shows that are exactly the same.
You have an official remix on the way for U2 and collaboration with Booka Shade.
Kalden: Our manager met Booka Shade at WMC and gave us five days to mix one of their tracks. They loved it and wanted to collaborate.
Jessica: U2 also loved our remix. When we heard the track we only thought of adding our own UNDERHER spin. It’s exciting, but we try not to overthink things. We have another remix coming up for Maya Jane Coles and ideas for an album.
Kalden: We have enough material to make three albums!
The Booka Shade vs. UNDERHER track ‘Chemical Release’ is available from 8th March on Blaufield. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/underhermusic/.