Greetings, dear reader! In lieu of our typical pre-interview banter, I'm just gonna drop a quote from our review of At Hell's Gate, the forthcoming album from today's interviewee:
"Underking--the moniker of the very talented Maxwell Jeffries--plays a stupidly infectious blend of traditional heavy metal, thrash, alternative metal, and NWOBHM, all encased in a decidedly modern sheen. Across the varied breadth of At Hell’s Gate, Jeffries sounds like he’s paying homage to a veritable horde of influences, while simultaneously delivers a fresh-faced take on the side of metal that revels in jubilant hooks, catchy choruses, and enthusiastic groove. Underking arrives at hell’s gate with glee-inducing energy and a penchant for catchy-as-hell songwriting, and if that ain’t enough to wet yer whistle, I can offer nothing but sympathy and condolences."
Big thanks to Max for taking time to chat! After you're down readin,' I highly recommend checking out the pre-order and three available singles. But, without further ado, let's get to the good stuff!
Sleeping Village: Thanks for agreeing to chat with us highfalutin peasants, and congratulations on the imminent release! At this stage in the game, are you enjoying the anticipation, or do you just want to get this thing out into the world and see people's receptions?
Maxwell Jeffries: Absolutely no problem--it's an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to chat about something I love doing! Its a bit of both really! I've been working on some of these songs since early 2020, so it's been a long time coming and I'm really happy to be finally sharing them with people!
SV: Of course listeners will interpret connections and commonalities in distinct ways, but from a perspective of artistic intention, does At Hell's Gate have a central topic or theme?
MJ: Throughout the writing process, the album's lyrics kind of took on their own life. I rarely write songs with lyrics in mind and I usually finish the entire "musical map" before I even start thinking about the lyrical content or message. So as the lyric writing went on, the thematic concept of 'being beyond hope' and 'dealing with inner demons' kind of developed unconsciously - perhaps because of the events happening over the past year. With Shadow I've Become, its about the consequences of Darth Maul's need for revenge--revenge that leads him to his death. In The Dream is Over..., the character of Spike Spiegel (from Cowboy Bebop) is trying to find meaning in his life and in his words: "Watching a dream [he'll] never wake up from". The closer, No Mercy, is centred around the character of Geralt (The Witcher)--someone who's constantly having to deal with morally ambiguous conflicts between men and monsters. I feel, in hindsight, the lyrical content is much more cohesive than on my previous releases because of this!
SV: I'd agree, there's not a direct through-line in terms of characters, but the lyrical themes surrounding their respective struggles feel consistent. In terms of your process, what's the hardest part of operating as a solo act? In a similar vein, is there a part of the album-making process that you would prefer not to do, or is doing everything yourself all part of the appeal?
MJ: The hardest part of working as a solo act is having a lack of people to double-check ideas before you've fully committed to them. Sometimes I'll have an idea and be second guessing it all the way up until the release date so it'd be nice to have bandmates to help me through that feeling occasionally! In terms of the process of actually releasing music, it can be a challenge to handle all the marketing by myself, which can be a bit overwhelming at times. On the whole though, I do enjoy being a solo musician as it allows me to be or do whatever I want and totally shape my sound - which is a huge bonus!
SV: Speaking of working as a solo artist...who would you jump at a chance to collaborate with?
MJ: I'd love to collaborate with some other solo musicians, as they're the people that tend to inspire me these days due to their work ethic and ability to create awesome tunes on their own! In particular, I've been following Hellripper for just over a year now and everything James puts out is fantastic--a real treat for fans of blackened-thrash! It'd be great to have James feature on a song! I'd also love to work with a band like WarlocK A.D, a comedy trad-metal band with a fantasy theme. They're a really solid bunch of guys and it'd be really fun to collaborate with them! In terms of larger acts, a dream would be to collaborate with someone like Rob Halford from 'Priest or Jeff Waters of Annihilator, they're both real idols of mine and it'd be crazy to do something with them - however unlikely that is!
SV: Shoutout to Hellripper! A clear strength of yours--and, indeed, something that consistently drags my back for more--is a focus on earwormy choruses and vocal hooks. What is your process for songwriting? Does the chorus itself come first? Does lyrical content serve as the foundation?
MJ: Yeah - I wish I could tell you how it happens! It's a mystery to me! What I can tell you though is that I never write the lyrics first, I really wish I could but I can't do it. A normal Underking song will start with me writing the main riff and working outwards from there. Then, when I have the whole song mapped out musically, I start thinking of a lyrical theme to go over the top. This is normally influenced by what TV, films, books or games I'm enjoying at the time and I try to work those themes in! Lyric and melody writing is something that I've been working hard over the past year to develop so it's really nice to hear that people are enjoying the music!
SV: Is there a track that you are most proud of having created?
MJ: On At Hell's Gate, there's a clear winner in my head for the song I'm most proud of. The first time I listened back to the final mix of No Mercy, I actually felt a bit of imposter syndrome creep in. I couldn't believe that I'd written it--it really feels like something special. Dustin and Charlotte both completely nailed their parts and to have a choir of fans on the track was an awesome experience that lends itself so well to the song. On a wholly different note, I'm also really proud of Oblivion. As an instrumental track, I'm not sure about the mass appeal of the song, but it's something that I've wanted to 'put to tape' for some time now!
SV: I'm a big fan of Oblivion, it holds its own in the midst of super catchy tracks, so I'd say it was definitely a success. In terms of inspiration, is your focus on fantasy and science fiction born out of nostalgia and comfort, like you mentioned in your recent video about re-watching the LOTR extended editions, or do you gravitate towards fantastical worlds and stories because they inevitably promise something new and unfamiliar?
MJ: I feel most at home in fantasy/sci-fi worlds. At times, they feel more real than the real world to me. The characters and stories from them have formed an integral part of the person I am today and yes, whilst some of it may be influenced by nostalgia, I believe it's something a little deeper than that. Immersing myself in a fictional world is often the only time I get to escape reality and I really do find comfort in it. I often get hyper fixated on things like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and often find myself consumed by them to be honest. However, it's something I love and wouldn't ever change about myself!
SV: You've mentioned that At Hell's Gate turns a lyrical lens on issues of mental health. In your experience, is mental health at all associated with the fandoms we attach ourselves to? Speaking personally, I take a lot of solace in the escapism of fictional worlds and universes that seem detached from the anxieties of everyday life, but am always interested to hear how other people interpret that correlation (or lack thereof).
MJ: I'd agree yeah! I think personally, I turn to fantasy and sci-fi to relieve the pressure of everyday life for sure. I much prefer to immerse myself in the somewhat black and white morality of something like Star Wars, than deal with the mundane, often greatly depressing truth of reality. I know that seems pretty doom and gloom but yeah, I think they are intrinsically linked!
SV: Speaking of the truth of reality, how do you maintain your constant productive creative state? As purveyors of the ol' "creative burnout," we villagers could certainly use some pointers.
MJ: With this, I feel like it might be a bit of a misconception surrounding Underking. My inspiration tends to come in very short bursts of super intense musical work - so I get a lot done in a short space of time. I tend to focus extremely intently on something once I'm "in the zone" and it gets done rather quickly (well, as quickly as anything in the music world can get done). However, I do go through lots of lengthy periods of not having any ideas at all, which is usually really frustrating! With my music, I just tend to wait until I have an idea naturally, as all of my forced ideas never see the light of day.
SV: Now that At Hell's Gate is on the brink of release, what's next for Underking?
MJ: A little bit of a rest! I think I've put out enough music over the past twelve months to take a couple off! I'm aiming for a single release later in the year, with maybe a cover on top of that but that's all I have planned for now!
SV: Sounds like a plan, I hope you find some relaxation! Thanks again for taking the time--is there anything you'd like to add?
MJ: Thank you to everyone who has given my music a listen so far! It all still means the world to me and I can never express that enough! I hope you enjoy the album!
Underking - At Hell's Gate will be released April 23rd, 2021, and can be pre-ordered here.
We provide thoughtful reviews of music that is heavy, gloomy...and loud enough to wake us from slumber. Written by a highfalutin peasantry.
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