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Interview: Jack Underkofler of Dead Poet Society

Dead Poet Society
1 April 2021

It’s hard to pigeonhole Dead Poet Society’s sound. On the band’s recently released debut album, – ! – (Spinefarm Records), there’s bluesy stompers (”.CoDA.”), heavy alternative (”.intoodeep.”), moody, mid-tempo numbers (“I Never Loved Myself Like You”) and nu metal (”.lovemelikeyoudo.”). It keeps the listeners on their toes while opening the band up to many different radio and tour opportunities.

The band formed in 2013 at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and then migrated to Los Angeles, where they currently call home. Singer/guitarist Jack Underkofler recently joined a Zoom call which took place at the same time a pre-recorded Dead Poet Society concert was kicking off on Twitch.

Can you tell me how the band started? You’re not a new band, but you just released your first album.

JACK: We started eight years ago. When we started, we had this notion that we need to be putting out music quick and constantly so that we’re on the radar. It would be one thing to make a band in 2013 but then not release anything until two or three years later, so we just hit the ground running. That didn’t really allow time for an album and on top of that, we didn’t really think it was the right time for an album. We didn’t think about an album until two or three years ago when we started writing this one. Since we started, it’s all been singles and EPs.

That seems to be the way things are going these days. Bands are able to get singles and EPs out to the world quickly. I read an article recently where the writer had the opinion that the album was dead – that bands should focus on putting out quality songs rather than writing a full album’s worth of songs to release where some songs are just filler.

JACK: I think it’s a combination of both. I’ve always had that mindset when we started this band, hence the reason why it took us so long to get to an album, is that nobody knows who we are, nobody is anticipating us, nobody gives a shit. So why don’t we just put out music as often as possible; if we like it, let’s put it out there. The album kind of was like a “let’s make a collection of pieces, let’s not put out random music, let’s do something to define a time in this band and show who we are.” We still adapted some of that mindset of releasing things as you go. Almost half of the songs were released by the time we released the album. But, we wanted to show them as part of the bigger picture.

Did you go from being a local, regional band to being a national signed band?

JACK: We started off in Boston, we lived there until we all graduated college in 2016 and then we moved to California. Some people knew us over at Berklee, some people knew us here. We went on a couple of tours with a couple friends’ bands – we went on tour in Mexico – and then we landed a national, pretty big tour with Badflower and that’s what kind of really put us on the map in the U.S. We had been on the map in Mexico for a while because of a YouTuber down there who had shouted us out and brought us on tour with him. But, our first foothold in the U.S. was with Badflower.

When I was growing up, there were pretty specific genres – punk, pop, rock, metal, indie. These days, there’s a lot of mixing of these genres. Generically, I’d call what bands like yours and Badflower are doing is “modern rock.” But what does that mean? It seems to me like your music could be played on an alternative radio station just as easily as it could on a hard rock station. It’s not easy to classify.

JACK: I’d agree. I think that’s a good sign for us as writers that we’re doing something right as far as the evolution of rock goes and that we’re on the right track. If it doesn’t really sound like a specific genre, it means that we’re making some sort of headway in something that’s new. It feels good to do that.

Did you already have plans in place for 2020 and have to scrap them or have you started making plans in 2021 as far as what the rest of the year looks like?

JACK: It’s a combination of both. We had plans to do all these things and then they all just kind of vaporized. Some of the plans we were able to move and some of the plans just straight up disappeared. We’re looking at stuff for the fall. Booking agents are talking to each other again so there’s motion happening. People are planning tours, I don’t know if venues are confirming yet. It still might be too early but we have routes planned and we plan to push forward with them until somebody says “no.”

What have you been doing the last year?

JACK: It has been an interesting year. I did a lot of stuff. I don’t know where I can begin, it’s just been a lot of putting the album together but then also a lot of strange personal things happened to me. It’s been a lot of good material for album two, I’ll just say that.

Before the internet, you could get away with having a band named Them, or Love, or The Doors, or The Cars. Now, if you named your band Love, there would be a million Google search results and it would be very difficult to refine the search to just show results for Love the band. How important was that when you were naming the band? Did you go out and search all the social media channels to make sure Dead Poet Society wasn’t already being used?

JACK: Dude, I wish something to that nature had popped into their heads. I wasn’t in the band when they named it, it was named a year or so before I joined. And, it was just a split second decision – they made it at the lunch table at the Berklee cafeteria. “Dead Poet Society? Dead Poet Society. Okay, cool, that’s the name of our band.” I remember joining the band and being like, “Guys, this name kind of sucks. Why don’t we change it?” They were like, “We already made the Facebook page.” Here we are eight years later and everybody wishes we changed the band name. It is what it is.

When you first started listening to music, you were probably 7 or 8 years old which would have been in 2000. What was the format? Were you listening to CDs or was it already all digital by the time you started paying attention?

JACK: I was a CD person until probably … I don’t remember the last CD I bought … I want to say it was Green Day’s American Idiot. But I think my sister actually bought that album. It was around that time that I stopped buying CDs because I had iTunes and then when I got to college my freshman year, Spotify came out. I discovered that really early on. I think it was like an ad on some sort of page, it was so obscure. It was just this brand new application. When I downloaded it, there was no subscription service, it was all free music and you got an ad every 10 songs or so. That was the era I grew up in.

I’ve listened to your album on Spotify. Is there a physical release as well?

JACK: Yeah, there’s a CD and a vinyl. They sent us a bunch of comped ones so we can take a look at them and they are sitting in my car right now. I put my backpack on them and I think I bent them.

Does the album have Thank You credits?

JACK: Oh yeah. It’s all of the people who originally funded the album like three years ago. Three years ago we put out a GoFundMe and we had like 50 people on it and then, of course, friends and people that helped get the album out and helped us make it, we threw their names on there. That’s a pretty cool part, it starts to make it real when you put the finishing touches like that on it.

I like the diversity on the album. I hear a couple of songs that almost sound, musically, not vocally, like Korn or the Deftones while other songs have that modern rock sound I was talking about earlier. I didn’t feel like I was listening to the same song over and over.

JACK: It’s interesting you point that out. It’s like that album fatigue. You get enough of an artist and it’s like, “Okay, time to move on.” I think that’s where everybody in the band is very A.D.D. so whenever we write something, it’s hard for us to write a song like that again because we just get bored with it so easily. When we started writing the record, we all had this idea that it’s exactly what you just said. There’s so many artists that I absolutely love but I can’t make it through their albums in one sitting because it just all sounds the same. We didn’t want that to happen with this album. We wanted you to be able to fit every single vibe possible in here.

There are some between song spoken word tracks – sound like voice mail messages or snippets of conversations. There’s one where a woman is saying she doesn’t like your music because every song sounds the same and goes from quiet to loud. Where did that stuff come from?

JACK: Those are all real, candid moments that we just happened to have the voice memo recorder going. (Guitarist) Jack (Collins) has made a conscious effort to record as many conversations as possible and that one in particular stuck out because it was so funny because it’s exactly what the fuck we do! We thought it would be hilarious to put that voice memo after literally the description of that song and then just go completely left field again on the next song. What’s so funny about those voice memos is we got a review in a magazine recently and they were saying that they thought the voice memos were unnecessary and wastes the listeners time. I’m like, “What the fuck are you listening to the album for then? You’re on Spotify. Just hit ‘next’.” Listening to an album is not a task, it’s something that you just sit down to do. If you get bored, you leave.

You’ve made some videos for the album. Were those made during the pandemic or had you shot them before the pandemic but waited to release?

JACK: Those were made during the pandemic. It definitely made it more interesting. The music videos we released during the pandemic, I’m proud of them but I wondered what we could have done without those limitations. It’s interesting shooting music videos during a pandemic.

I’m not asking about your influences but are there artists or bands that you’re really passionate about?

JACK: It’s constantly changing. Even with the constant change, I go in and out of phases listening to a lot of music, especially when I’m writing. I don’t listen to music. If I were to go back to my childhood and pick an artist, I think the definite outlier that kind of stuck with me throughout my entire childhood was either John Mayer or Coldplay. Those two, their music just always kind of resonated with me, especially Coldplay’s Parachutes album. The melody writing behind it just always fascinated me. The lyrics were always so simple but so impactful. John Mayer is a very prodigal guitarist. I started out as a guitarist and being a guitarist kind of makes you hate guitarists because it’s just nothing but this showboating of this instrument that’s not really that cool when you start getting into the weeds of it. He’s always ridden this line between cool and nerdy when it comes to guitar and I think that’s why I kind of like it. He’s so fucking good, it’s insane. Same with his melody writing.

Have you been making a lot of content for social media just to keep pushing stuff to fans since you’re not playing live shows?

JACK: Yeah. It’s honestly way more work trying to make content for these one livestream than it is to go on tour. With livestreams there’s an immense amount of work packed into a very small period of time and you get one shot. When you’re on tour, you fuck up one night and it’s like, “Eh, we’ll get ‘em the next night.” With this, it’s like it’s ride or die.

All of the song titles, they are very stylized. All lowercase letters and periods before and after each title. Any reason for that styling?

JACK: The philosophy I kind of have is that art is nothing but feeling and it’s just a tangible expression of feeling at it’s utmost core. There’s a famous quote from this neuroanatomist, her name is Jill Bolte Taylor. She says although we like to think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biology tells us we’re feeling creatures that think. So when you take that philosophy and you apply it to art, you take all the thinking out and what you’re left with is you’re going purely on feeling, if something hits you, stick with it. Somebody accidentally wrote one of the song titles like that, with the periods on either end, and it just had a feeling, it had a vibe to it. We just said, “let’s keep it.”