Listen In: Oakland's Makeunder on Kandinsky, Motown, and Death

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Makeunder, with Hamilton Ulmer (center, seated), release their new EP on July 17. (Photo: Clay Lancaster)

Fans and critics alike may be quick to compare Oakland’s Makeunder to the celebrated indie rock band Dirty Projectors -- both groups make use of intricate female harmonies and guitar figures heavily indebted to West African legends like Ali Farka Touré. But while Dirty Projectors’ tunes often teeter on the edge of becoming challenging, Makeunder fully embraces a puzzling, disorienting sound. The six songs on their new EP Great Headless Blank (out July 17, and streaming now via NPR Music) move in gymnastic leaps and unexpected turns; pinning them down is like riding a bull intent on throwing its rider in the dirt.

Although Great Headless Blank embraces a kaleidoscope of styles and genres, drawing on R&B and Renaissance-era motets, not all of its influences are musical. In this podcast, Makeunder frontman Hamilton Ulmer zeroes in on the connection between his songs and the work of expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky.

“I discovered Kandinsky before I discovered orchestral music, but I think it had a lot more meaning to me after I begun studying music,” Ulmer explains. “There are a million things going on [in Kandinsky’s paintings], and there are a million places to focus." Likewise, Ulmer’s songs are overwhelming and often elusive; they reward multiple listens, and rarely adhere to a simple verse-chorus-verse structure.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a period where I’ve written music where I haven’t visualized [it] in abstract form and color,” Ulmer points out. Great Headless Blank, in particular, “capture[s] a sense of grandiose feeling” akin to pieces like Kandinsky’s Composition VI. To realize his maximalist vision, Ulmer brought in horn players and string players, adding countless layers of twisting, shimmering sound to his arrangements.


With such complex music lies the risk that people, naturally, will tune out. But when I ask Ulmer if he's afraid this new EP will alienate listeners, he's confident as ever. “I’m fine with that,” he tells me. “I’ve accomplished my goal.”


'The Great Headless Blank' is due out July 17. Makeunder play a record-release show with Bells Atlas at Leo's in Oakland on Saturday, Aug. 22.

Also on KQED Arts: Preview the new EP and read Ulmer's stories behind each of the songs.