The Underground Youth put out their ninth long player, Montage Images Of Lust & Fear earlier this year, which is no mean feat for a band that only started back in 2008. Originally formed in 2008 as a solo project by singer, guitarist and songwriter Craig Dyer, it was around the time of third album, Mademoiselle that things really started to take shape; with Dyer’s spouse Olga now on drums while also providing the visual backdrops and artwork that’s been an integral part of the band’s demeanour ever since. More recently, after several changes in personnel, Max James and Leonard Kaage have come on board, playing bass and guitar respectively, in what is the band’s most settled and technically creative line up to date.
Nowadays based in Berlin, after spending their formative years in Manchester, The Underground Youth have become synonymous with leading UK independent Fuzz Club Records, the label having initially started just to release the band’s fifth LP, Delirium back in 2012.
“You can work with so much more being part of an underground scene, being able to create whatever you want whenever you want, so the prolific nature of recording comes from the fact there is no pressure.”
Nevertheless, it’s the prolific nature of Craig Dyer and The Underground Youth that’s made them such a potent force on the 21st century psych rock circuit. Particularly when considered back in the UK they’re still seen by some as a new band.
“I know! When I hear it’s our ninth album it sounds weirder than it feels,” he admits. “It’s frustrating in a way but at the same time I always feel that had we been picked up by a label or had any kind of radio play it might have fizzled out at some point. Whereas the way it’s actually gone has made it better. You can work with so much more being part of an underground scene, being able to create whatever you want whenever you want, so the prolific nature of recording comes from the fact there is no pressure. There is no feeling the need to do something. It’s just purely for the love of the art and wanting to do it. So, in a way it’s kind of helped to not be in any focus at any point. To have that freedom to be able to do whatever you want to do and have the fan base which is always there then be able to go on tour and play shows where people are going to buy the records as opposed to not worrying that everything is going to fizzle out at some point because we’re not being played on the radio any more.”
However, relocating to Berlin brought about a massive sea change for The Underground Youth. Being such a traditionally creative city with an especially vibrant music scene, where audiences are more appreciative to live bands – particularly ones that exist on their own terms such as The Underground Youth – had a profound impact on Dyer’s writing.
“For me it was a freedom thing as well, because when I was living back in Manchester I was working at the same time, so I could only afford to make music full time when we moved to Berlin. That was a peak moment for me when I moved to Berlin. I can start making music and that’s all I do, whereas in Manchester it was a stressful thing. I worked all day and would write music then record in the night before having to get up in the morning; having this constant living crisis. But now I have the freedom to work whenever I want. I can go to the studio; I can write and record at home and have this freedom in an amazing city. There’s so much history here, not just in music but also in general. The vibe of the city, it’s a very inspirational place to be in. I think that filters into the music as it naturally would do.”
Indeed, it was The Underground Youth’s live show that first caught this writer’s attention. Not only do they possess an incredible catalogue of songs to choose from, but also the visuals add a distinctive element to the show, while the band themselves focus on the performance aspect. Whether it be Olga Dyer’s masterclass in drumming which is reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s legendary Mo Tucker, bass player James’ occasional forays into the audience or Craig Dyer’s intense vocal delivery that bares hallmarks of The Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce in his prime.
“It’s great to listen to a record but if a band tries to recreate the record on stage, that’s not what I want to see.”
“I think that’s a natural thing,” declares the affable frontman. “You can’t force it and you can tell when people do. When you see a band try and do that it’s obvious and it doesn’t look good. It doesn’t work. When it comes naturally you can tell that as someone watching a band. Like if I go and watch a band as a fan and see something that is natural, raw and done with passion – it’s that passion you put into it and we are all passionate about the music we’re making and what we do – it comes across on stage, which is a beautiful thing. I think it’s an important thing for seeing live music. It’s great to listen to a record but if a band tries to recreate the record on stage, that’s not what I want to see.”
Not that there’s any danger of that. Arguably the biggest challenge facing the band before a show is what to play, particularly with their body of work growing at a rate of knots. I’ve often wondered how a band like The Underground Youth manage to squeeze nine albums worth of material into a forty-five-minute set and still keep everyone happy?
“It’s a bit different from when we go to Greece and we can play for two hours you know, narrowing it down can be quite difficult. I mean, I know there’s songs that have to be there like ‘Morning Sun’ and ‘Mademoiselle’ but it’s nice to play old songs. As a band you want to play the new stuff too, but I always think in my own mind as a fan what would I want to hear? I hate it when I go and see a band and they’ve just released a new record, so they only play new songs. You’ve not had chance to get into the new record yet and sometimes it’s not even been released but they still insist on playing new material. So, I think of it in that sense too and I appreciate when we go to places, we’ve never played before we’ll play a lot of the old stuff because they’ve never heard it. Whereas in Paris or Berlin, where they’ve seen us live a bunch of times, we can work a bit more of the new stuff in. It’s actually enjoyable working things around and think of the best possible way to do it for each city.”
While Montage Images Of Lust & Fear only came out in March of this year, Craig Dyer has already started writing the next one.
“Generally, I work in seasons in a way. I’m constantly creating. Even when we were mixing the last record I came up with an idea for a new song. I wish I could have worked that onto the album but then I know it will be dealt with on the next record. I just have this constant process and it’s a massive fear that it will go away at some point. As it stands and through ten years of doing this its been constant. It’s like the ideas are coming even though you change and listen to different things, get inspired by different things and go in different directions. But I would never stop the process in any way to change anything.”
“The record I’m currently working on is going to be a departure from what I’m doing at the moment. The current mood is… I don’t know, I’ve been going back to the likes of Leonard Cohen. I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan. He is one of the reasons I picked up a guitar in the first place. I’ve just watched this new Scorsese documentary called Rolling Thunder Revue about the Desire period of his tour and it just inspired me. I hadn’t listened to Dylan in years and I put that record on again and it was magical. So, we’re gonna get a string orchestra on this record and do something a bit different. Go in this whole new direction but the beauty is that at no point am I concerned if it’s what the label wants because I know that whatever I send, Fuzz Club will release it. That’s a beautiful thing as an artist to be able to do whatever you want and know that your label is going to support you and back it in every way they can.”
Back with Montages…, after several listens it takes on quite a dark, almost political narrative. Although The Underground Youth have never been viewed as political or social commentators, it would be difficult to not be influenced by what’s happening in the world right now. Whether that be indirectly or otherwise, a point Dyer explains at length.
“I think I would hate to say that I set about to write something about that, but at the same time what I write is influenced by what’s going on in myself and what I’ve read or seen so obviously when things go a bit shit in the world as we are currently experiencing, especially since 2016 or whenever it was with Brexit and Donald Trump, it does obviously impact your mindset, the way you think and the way you react to things. So, I think my writing reflects that but I don’t set out to write something about it.”
“If I had to trade not making any good music with the world being a better, fairer place with civil rights and everything being more accepted, I’d happily do it.”
Staying with the political climate in the UK, we discuss Craig and the band’s decision to relocate to Berlin and whether moving back would ever be an option. Unsurprisingly, it’s not something he’s looking to do any time soon.
“It’s frustrating to go back. It feels like a different country now. It’s weird how it’s changed and how the people have changed. I’m from Blackpool originally and I go back and see my parents occasionally. Sometimes I’ll bump into some people I knew from school, go to the local pub and there’s people in exactly the same places. The same seats and those people have not changed. Their ideas are so numbed by what’s going on and they don’t really feel it. It’s just disappointing to go back and feel that sort of change. People don’t understand this class system thing. The politics that surrounds it. It’s a really dangerous and horrible thing.”
On the flipside, there are parallels between the present and the 1980s. The rise of Thatcherism leading to where we are now with divisions in society, the miners strike, austerity and everything closing down. Yet at the same time, a lot of great art came out of that era. It’s really frustrating to hear people talk about the eighties being this awful decade for art yet some of the finest records in the history of music and the artists that made them had some sort of lineage to that era.
“Someone recently said this, and it was picked up on. I can’t remember who it was. You have to appreciate it but at the same time you can’t appreciate it when you’re in the middle of it because you don’t want that to happen. I would rather not make art and have the world be a better place. If I had to trade not making any good music with the world being a better, fairer place with civil rights and everything being more accepted, I’d happily do it. The world’s shit but I’m going to make a couple of good tunes you know. It doesn’t make any sense in those terms, so I do believe that filters into peoples’ mindsets and the way that people work. As an artist you latch onto things that make you angry and passionate and I think that can breed good art. Obviously that’s something that happens and is proven to happen but I really would trade that for the world being a better place.”
Having been with Fuzz Club since the label started in 2012, The Underground Youth have released more records for that imprint than any other artist. Their name has become instantly associated with Fuzz Club and vice versa, to the point where the two almost roll off the tongue simultaneously. What’s been most satisfying for an outsider looking in has been able to watch both the band and label grow on an international scale to the reverence and respect each holds today. Dyer recalls how it all started.
“In 2011 I got an email from Casper (Dee), who runs the label. He wrote saying he was a really big fan and asked where he could buy our record. I said I’m sorry but currently we are all digital. We have no record label or anything and he was like, ‘Oh okay, well I’m thinking of setting up a record label. Would you like me to release your record?’ Of course, that sounded like a great idea! He then flew over to Manchester and we went out for a few drinks. We talked, and then he came to a rehearsal. The first time we played live a few years after I started recording was the first time I met Casper. There was no record label, no Fuzz Club. It was just an idea in his mind and then he created everything, released Delirium as the first record on Fuzz Club and we’ve become really good friends since. Now we just stick together and do everything with them. He’ll send me an email like an excited schoolboy every now and again like, ‘We’ve just got A Place to Bury Strangers to do this or we just got so and so to do that!’ It’s really cool. I think we’ve both grown in a certain way.”
“I’m quite happy in my life. I write the music I want to write and because of our relationship with Fuzz Club they release what I want to release.”
Being total music fans, the people behind Fuzz Club only tend to sign acts they genuinely love and believe in. Which puts them in the same category as labels such as Sarah Records and Heavenly Recordings. A pure labour of love which as Craig Dyer says, “Is exactly the way it should be.”
By the same token, it’s infuriating that The Underground Youth aren’t a household name in the UK outside of the psych rock scene that spawned them. With nine critically acclaimed albums under their belt and a reputation as one of the most incendiary live bands on the circuit, is it not a source of frustration for their main songwriter when he sees lesser acts getting the breaks his own outfit deserve?
“No that doesn’t frustrate me where we’re concerned. It frustrates me that happens, and I feel bad for the bands just starting out now. Obviously if you play in Northampton on a Monday night and there’s ten people there it’s frustrating and you’re on tour then the next day you’re back in mainland Europe and playing to 300 people in a different venue. So why is that happening in the UK? Why is that a different thing? But at the same time, I wouldn’t trade that for being in a band that has twelve months in the limelight of playing really good shows and having radio plays but then afterwards that’s it. Radio plugging and everything that goes with it doesn’t really exist in the world that we currently work in and I wouldn’t want it to be that way either. I’m happy how things are. Of course, some recognition is something you would take on and enjoy but it’s not something you seek. I would never look for that. I would never change the way we do things to specifically find that. I would behave in exactly the same way and if something happened off the back of that, fine. Like if at some point for some reason I wrote a song that gets radio play or becomes a hit I’m not going to turn down the money that’s going to come my way off that. But I could never imagine selling out either. That’s not a thing. I’m quite happy in my life. I write the music I want to write and because of our relationship with Fuzz Club they release what I want to release.”
Having made music for over a decade, Craig Dyer and The Underground Youth have witnessed the industry change into the almost unrecognisable entity that exists today, and not necessarily for the better.
“The landscape has changed. The internet is a weird thing in the sense that we wouldn’t exist as a band if it wasn’t for MySpace. That was the way it started for me for sure. I wouldn’t have done it if there wasn’t that way of pushing things into the world. It wasn’t until I received things back from people saying they liked my music that I thought maybe I could carry on with this. At first it was just me indulging myself and I really enjoyed writing songs. Just really derivative songs to begin with, almost one step down from being a cover band essentially. Then you develop your own sound and ideas and it breeds from that. Because of the amount of music and bands out there it’s really hard to get noticed. That’s why we tour and play as many shows as we can. The way to get noticed comes from playing live. It doesn’t come from sending something out on Facebook. You’re literally throwing a needle into a haystack where you can have an amazing song, but it’s not forced to get noticed. Whereas if you go and play as many shows as you possibly can, that’s how you really get noticed and that’s how people pick up on you. So that probably hasn’t changed over the past ten years.”
One thing The Underground Youth can never be accused of is resting on their laurels, having toured extensively around the globe in between writing and recording for the majority of the band’s existence. Or as Craig Dyer puts it, setting achievable goals and then aiming even further for the next one.
“You get to all these steppingstones then always want to do something more. Like when I first started The Underground Youth all I wanted to do was have a record on vinyl. So, I got pressed on vinyl for the first time and then it arrived. It had happened so I wanted to make another one. The first time we played outside the UK, we went to Greece, did a few shows then came back. Afterwards I wanted to do a full tour, then go to Asia and play there. You feel like you’ve hit a peak but then want to go one more than that. So, playing with heroes, bands that have influenced everything about what you do and you play with them then hang out afterwards. It’s probably the reason I have flowed with creativity too because I never feel like I’ve reached something. I’m always striving for the next thing so OK; we’ve released nine records or whatever it is, but I just want to do one more and the next one’s gonna be fucking great. That sort of mindset where I’m not happy with everything I’ve got already. I want something else but obviously at the same time without being overconfident and thinking we can do better than this, we can go bigger than this, we can play bigger than this, bigger festivals, bigger shows and things like that.”
While the psych scene that launched The Underground Youth has been good to them in many ways, not least because it possesses one of the most loyal and inclusive audiences in music, it also has its constraints, something Dyer is only too aware of.
“It is frustrating in some elements, I mean… I’ve never really understood it. I know we sort of dipped into that, but I think it was more around the timing. These bands that started around the same time as us, yet maybe people didn’t actually look into where the music was coming from or what it was related to. There are some influences in there and of course the nuance of the psychedelic scene. It was relevant but I don’t think the music that I’m making is that psychedelic. It doesn’t really make sense.”
Montage Images Of Lust & Fear is out now on Fuzz Club Records.