Interviews September 6, 2018
Underground System on Their New Album: "What Are You?"

Three years and some change have gone by since I first saw Underground System open for Femi Kuti at Brooklyn Bowl. If you’ve never seen an Afrobeat band start a show, it’s like seeing slow-motion footage of a swan taking off—just building and building until finally a sustained power lifts everything. The group’s rhythm section started laying down the beat, piece by piece, until finally Domenica Fossati, their front woman, took her place at the front of the stage and bit by bit began skipping a melody across the beat with her flute. I saw them a few months later at (le) Poisson Rouge, and Fossati sang through a megaphone, giving the whole thing a patched-together rebel-soundsystem feel.

Now, their first record is dropping on Soul Clap Records Sept. 7, and it…it doesn’t sound much like the band I saw either of those nights. The Afrobeat influence is definitely still there, but it’s now just one flavor among many that the group has melded together into a sound that is their own. Melodic hooks and synthesizer flourishes fill and bounce around inside large looping, circuits of rhythm. They’ve been on a steady dance diet and the band is evolving.

In preparation for the band’s album release party at Music Hall of Williamsburg on Thursday, the band’s songwriters, Fossati and guitarist Peter Matson, called me up Tuesday. I asked about their process, what they’ve been listening to and whether or not traveling with their label’s full circus makes life simpler. We started from the very beginning.

Ben Richmond: Do you guys have an origin story? How you came together?

Domenica Fossati: Peter started the group before I joined the band. And actually, it was more out of a love for Afrobeat music and Fela music so he decided to put this group together to play some of his songs. I think it was for a gig?

Peter Matson: We had this college jazz gig, and it was around that time I met some of the guys from Antibalas and had started checking out Fela a lot and was learning it, and became pretty obsessed with it, practicing it on guitar a ton just for months and months everyday. And born out of a pick-up gig. And it sort quickly developed from there.

Domenica: Right, and so Peter and I met at a music publishing company and he saw me playing with Amayo from Antibalas and he was like "Oh, now I know you like this kind of music, would you like to join and play with us?” and I was like “Sure.” And slowly, together, I started getting more and more involved in writing the music and singing more of the songs and it became my baby as well. Just throughout the years we grew together slowly, by meeting musicians and playing with friends who are really talented players, we put together this group of people now, just from getting together with musicians we really like playing with.

I remember seeing you a few years ago at Brooklyn Bowl, maybe you opened for Seun or Femi Kuti. The Afrobeat influence was really pronounced then.

Domenica: Yeah in the years since then we’ve been exploring our own sound. It’s kind of evolved into a mix of the music that we like from New York like new wave, and there is Afrobeat foundations in there for sure, but now its become more of the sounds that make things like dance music and rock and new wave all together. It’s evolved but there’s the underlying Afrobeat sounds.

What changed in that time? Why did this band become the vehicle for these sounds? I know Domenica, you have other bands. Peter, do you as well?

Peter: This is my main live thing that I’m involved with. I deejay multiple nights a week all over New York, and I’ve been doing that since about 2012, when I became a full-time part time professional DJ, maybe. And that had a huge impact on me expanding the range of our own band and our influences. And now the lane we’re delivering the music in has shifted due to my periphery and access to the New York DJ scene and the culture of it all.

Domenica: And I guess for me it’s from playing with different bands and exploring what I could do with the group. Peter was definitely influential in saying "Hey you know I been playing these other types of songs in these clubs and it would be cool to try something out like this…" And the more I’d be out in the dance scene, I definitely started hearing these other sounds as well and experimenting with Peter and writing these songs.

Do you feel the barriers between Afrobeat and the rest of the dance music world have come down since you started this project?

Peter: Yeah I think there’s a huge connection there, that maybe was left unexplored by some American groups and European groups like Followers of Fela but that has now really caught on. And to me it’s super obvious. A lot of Fela’s stuff is long form and structured in a way that’s similar to classic dance music, just the way that things evolve in songs. They’re compositions; they’re not just jams. But the way that everything is in eight- or 16-bar cycles, and it’s an obvious ebb and flow of energy in terms of tension and release, and keeping that forward motion—in Fela’s case, the way the rhythm section plays together, maintains that high-energy thread that underpins everything. It never fully breaks down the feeling of dance or time never disappears.

It seems obvious now to connect this to something like Donna Summer, but at the time, I wonder if people were hearing that.

Peter: For us, when you dig into the underground a bit more, which for us is an influence—post-punk culture, like ESG or the Talking Heads—and you examine playlists that they were playing at clubs during the era, they heavily included Fela’s stuff, his original recordings, at like the Loft and David Mancuso and the Paradise Garage scene—like the storied most famous origin for house and beyond EDM nightclubbing. These guys were checking out Fela; they were getting those records. It’s not removed at all actually. Maybe it took a while for live bands to latch onto it, but I think people grabbed on quicker than is given credit for in the clubbing scene. It’s just obvious music you want to dance to for an extended period of time. It works so well. For us we’re unpacking that in a way that hasn’t been done before by our generation. That’s our role. But we’re also becoming our own thing at this point just by nature of doing it a while.

I could definitely hear that ESG influence—the groove and pitch and catch vocals. 

Peter: For sure. We were also digging the B52s at that point as well. We also find these common threads, like something like ESG—there’s some vocal and drum and bass rhythmic melodic things that are circular in that way. The B52s are these massive surf guitar parts that are like Fela tenor guitar lines. We’re just sort of marrying these similar music threads together in different ways, mashing it up. 

Is it you two who are listed as the songwriters on the album?

Both: Yeah

Domenica, you play flute, I remember. What else do you play?

Domenica: I play flute and besides the singing I do percussion.

And Peter?

Peter: Guitar and a little bit of synth stuff. I’m pretty heavily involved in the production end, for us and in general and all that’s a big part of my musical thing at this point and I have an understanding of studio stuff and that even contributes to our live thing at this point too, just how we approach it.

Your songs are these big things with cycles and moving parts. How do they come together?

Peter: Yeah, it starts with a pretty contemporary approach. It basically starts with beat making. I use different software forever, but settled like many people do on Ableton. And then just starting scratch templates of styles of groove we’re feeling and Domenica will come in and start riffing on top of it while I’m trying to figure out additional parts. It’s just looping endlessly until something starts to gel. Then we start thinking about how the pieces fit together more specifically.

Domenica: And if I come up with melodic ideas, those turn into beat ideas as well. So we go back and forth until something solidifies. Once we’ve got a good demo together we can bring it to the band and the band will also bring in their own taste and flavor for the music to put in their parts. But for the most part, the songs are pretty much all written by me and Peter.

Peter: Yeah they show up fully written but in a scratch demo sort of form where we know it’s not the finished product yet, so there’s space to move around and for things to just happen and develop the tune in that way.

Domenica: There were moments where, for one the song “Go” in particular, where we were going to recreate the chorus in the studio, because it was just a demo and we wanted better quality, but it was like, “actually, we can’t recreate this moment.” Just the energy and character of what we were singing sounded so nice just there in Peter’s room. There’s a few of those moments on the album. It happened quite a few times, when we were in the studio and we were like "This doesn’t feel right."

Peter: Yeah the performance is different in different spaces.

Always record with a good microphone, I guess, is the lesson there.

Peter: Definitely. And luckily I had a good enough home set up that was able to get stuff that was salvageable and usuable and mixable. That’ll be the way we continue to work, and try to avoid just totally scratching the stuff and making sure we’re capturing the thing.

I saw you with other Afrobeat outfits, but will this album change how you’re booked or the circuits you’ll be running on?

Peter: Only about halfway, I think. Cause I think part of our strength is that we’re commenting on our style from multiple angles. So we do have a thing were it’s hard to pigeonhole us in one specific scene or iTunes description.

Domenica: It’s definitely a change too, with the album, we’ve been booking gigs that are more like the club dance scene, whereas before it was like a world music festival or whatever, but we’re still able to be in that world as well. It’s just more being able to have a bigger variety of places we can play just because of the sound we’re bringing.

The tour is full of dates. Who are you touring with?

Domenica: The whole tour is with two other bands and then the label owners, Eli Goldstein. We’re touring with Lonely Seed and Midnight Magic and us. The entire tour is with this lineup.

Peter: That’s the label affiliation, Soul Clap records. It’s the moniker for guys when they DJ, Soul Clap. They’ve been well known for a while now and they have what is a small but functioning record label at this point. It’s a bit of a crossover between disco and house and world music-leaning stuff. They’re in general interested in stepping the label up and that was everyone’s motivation on that, to do a full-length tour on that.

Does it make it simpler to travel as part of a group that’s bigger than the band?

Peter: I don’t know if simpler is the right word, but definitely more exciting. Our driver’s on photo and video duty.

Domenica: It brings a whole lotta people together to be like "who are our connects in the booking part" and in being able to drive and all that stuff. All the things that Peter and I were doing on our own if we were doing it ourselves. So we have a team of musicians who is pulling together.

Anything else you think our readers and listeners should know?

Domenica: We have the album release show on Thursday at Music Hall of Williamsburg. Everything starts at 8 o’clock. It’s the Soul Clap Tour revue. They can get tickets online on the Music Hall website. And the album itself officially goes on sale on Friday but if they want a physical copy they can get one at the show.