Makeunder: Oakland seven-piece band gains national exposure

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Contrary to the Oakland band’s misleading name, what Makeunder does to its songs is anything but a make-under.

Instead, the seven-piece builds straightforward songs into layered masterpieces bursting with four-part harmonies, unexpected time shifts and orchestral swells, all pulled together by frontman Hamilton Ulmer’s smooth R&B vocals. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of Passion Pit’s energetic sound or of new-wave bands such as the Dirty Projectors, but with a more dramatic flair.

Without a doubt, Makeunder’s one-of-a-kind sound springs from the eclectic influences of the band’s creator.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Ulmer cited influences spanning from a performance of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” he heard at age 12 — which he said blew his mind and changed everything he thought about music — to his dad’s musical taste.

“He loved Marvin Gaye,” said Ulmer. “He loved Earth, Wind & Fire. He loved strange, eclectic stuff without any real coherency.”

As a result, Ulmer has taken these diverse inspirations and created a distinctive mix of soul, art rock, orchestral music and synthpop.

Ulmer is originally from San Antonio, Texas, but moved to the Bay Area to attend Stanford University. After graduating, he eventually ended up in Oakland, where he came to meet the rest of the musicians that make up Makeunder.

While cleaning out his childhood home, Ulmer recorded the project’s first EP, Radiate, Satellite, all on his own with a handful of instruments. Although the number of musicians in the group has certainly expanded since then, Ulmer described his role in curatorial terms.

“Most of the music is still composed by me or produced by me,” he explained. “I play the role of curating what other people do and figuring out what it should sound like.”

The band’s latest work is an EP titled Great Headless Blank, coming out July 17. The EP’s title track is available as a single in the meantime — a high-energy, unpredictable, jubilant-sounding song, with Ulmer sounding a desperate plea for help in his silky falsetto.

According to Ulmer, all the songs on the upcoming EP came out of a perilous period of his life. This period included a motorcycle accident, which left his brother in a coma, and the death of two grandparents as well as his father. Ulmer is no stranger to tragedy, but the music that emerges out of the ashes of his losses is nothing short of extraordinary.

As a result, Makeunder has quite deservingly attracted some mainstream attention lately, including a recent feature on NPR’s All Songs Considered.

“It’s surreal to hear something that you’ve made on NPR,” Ulmer explained. “I grew up listening to NPR in the car all the time, and I’ve always been a huge fan of All Songs Considered. I needed to be pinched several times while listening to believe it was really happening.”

As Makeunder catches the attention of more listeners with its bombastic, dazzling sound, Ulmer’s humility will serve him well. With a more-is-more attitude paired with an underlying sense of modesty, Makeunder is sure to shine in the Bay Area’s vibrant music community and beyond.


Contact Madeline Wells at [email protected].