You don’t forget an Underground System show, as anyone who’s ever witnessed their larger-than-life live presence will attest. The raucous Brooklyn band continues to reinvent their brand of global dance music. From an initial purist interpretive approach to Fela Kuti style afrobeat, to drawing on a legacy of NYC indie dance inspirations, the band has crafted a peerless and incendiary sound.
With a debut EP on the essential Brooklyn imprint Razor-N-Tape set to release this week, we caught up with the one of NYC’s most dynamic acts to recap the journey thus far.
WWD: Welcome to When We Dip. Thanks for talking to us.
WWD: When did Underground System first form? How did you all get together?
About a decade ago the fledgling version of Underground System was first formed. Peter was fresh out of school in NY, working at a music publishing company with Domenica. The formative years were spent playing a lot of Fela Kuti’s music and writing some originals in that mode. It took until around 2017-18 and the release of our first LP ‘What Are You’(Soul Clap Records) to truly arrive as an original group combining influences in a way that was idiosyncratic and fully pursuing our own voice.
WWD: Who are the members of the band and what parts do you all play?
Peter and Domenica are the leaders of the group and the songwriters/producers of the creative content. On stage Domenica is the front woman-lead vox, flute, and some percussion. Peter is playing guitar and running drum machines, sequences, and samples.
On this current ‘Into the Fire EP’ we’re now just releasing and on the road we’re featuring our three other most full time/longtime members Jonathan Granoff on Bass, Olatunji Ojore on Percussion, and Yoshio Kobayashi on Drums. We also have a rotating cast of horn players and auxiliary musicians we work with to augment the sound in the studio and live.
WWD: Are you all out of Brooklyn?
WWD: What musical projects were you involved in before the band formed?
We all have a solid amount of experience as freelance musicians in a variety of worlds. Peter came up playing jazz, rock, and other groove related music before getting really deep into the afro/funk and dance music worlds, and Domenica has a background in experimental classical music as well as many afro/latin styles of music and dance.
WWD: Your music is favoured by some headsy DJs. Are any of you guys gigging DJs, or have you been over the years?
Definitely. Peter started himself regularly working as DJ and music producer about a decade ago, and that is closely intertwined with the musical development of the band. It’s definitely why we ended up with one foot in the dance music world, all the crossover dance and electronic music influences running around our brains.
WWD: Are you vinyl collectors, and what kind of rarities might we find in your stash?
For sure. We’re players first but lots of people in the band have sizable record collections. Peter being the most active DJ has some choice rarities that are pretty fun… an OG 12” of that Prince tune Chelsea Rogers that once got flown off the decks at House of Yes in BK by an over-enthusiastic dancer… it survived to play another day.
WWD: What are the cool record shops in Brooklyn for hidden gems?
The record shop scene in NY has for better or worse morphed a lot with the pandemic. There have been all sorts of relocations, closures, and unfortunately last fall some flooding. The two BK spots left standing that would most satiate crate diggers would be the recently relocated Superior Elevation and Human Head. Lots of honourable mentions, but start there…
WWD: The sound of Underground System takes inspiration from Latin, Afro beats, and Funk. If you had to define the sound of US how would YOU best express it?
That’s a good part of the story influence wise for sure. With our first album we often got the ‘Fela meets LCD Soundsystem’ tagline thrown out there in the European press which makes sense to us as well. KCRW in LA said ‘Soulwax meets David Byrne’. These are closely analogous.
The edge to our sound is that we are also processing along with our base musical influence, the importance of songwriting, attitude, and our live performance bringing a high level of dynamics, kinetic energy, and sometimes aggression. All of the above coming together, for lack of a better description, gives us a bit of that indie dance NYC flare.
WWD: Who are the artists that have inspired the music that you make?
So many! Outside of Fela Kuti being our early and most obvious direct influence in our inception, a large other part of our sensibilities would come from the influence of classic downtown NYC groups like ESG, liquid liquid, B-52s, Eno/Byrne, as well as other eras of dance and electronic music. These influences intersect in a way with Domenica’s Afro/Italian/Latin heritage and upbringing to complete the musical puzzle.
WWD: You are well known for your ‘live’ performance. Can you remember the first live you played together? Where did you play and how did it feel?
Wow. First show all together would have been at a long defunct venue in Brooklyn called ‘Public Assembly’. Probably 30 people there? Haha. Very different band at that point Domenica and Peter would have been the only constants. We still always managed to be loud and rambunctious from the get go…. There was always some kind of dynamic core energy in the group that grabbed people, it just took a long time to know what to do with it.
WWD: Is there a venue in Brooklyn that you play at, and have you got a regular home crowd?
We’ve developed a nice following in BK. Most recently we had a residency series that was off to a great start at The Sultan Room in Bushwick, but got sidelined by the pandemic. We did a bit of a reunion there last fall that also was a great time. We’re going to now try out a new venue called Brooklyn Made for our next big NYC play June 17. That’ll be celebrating our ‘Into the Fire’ EP release as we return home from some EU touring.
WWD: How do you prepare for a live? Do you practice each song down to the last detail, or do you get up there and just do it?
I’d say a combination of those two things. Our songs definitely all have lots of structure to them, so we need to rehearse a bit, but in terms of sonic details or being OCD about things, we try not to overcook it. We keep our palette of sounds, equipment, and aesthetics consistent enough so we can just let things ride and have the experience of the show come alive on stage.
WWD: I guess the crowds don’t stand still at your gigs. It’s one big dance off right?
Haha yes. Lots of movement in every direction. You know it’s a good show when Domenica ends up stage diving…. if that says anything about our live spirit.
WWD: JKriv plays with you sometimes right?
JKriv has become a pretty close collaborator in quite a few ways. His Razor-N-Tape label partnering with us, and he’s assisted on the music production side of things, etc. Maybe he has only sat in with us live once at this point but that will all change soon enough…. haha
WWD: There is something quite tribal about a large band on stage. How can you best describe the energy between you when you perform?
The compounded energy of having many people (currently 6-7 for us on stage) all interacting musically is undeniable and infectious when done right. It also can take a lot of musical maturity and experience to properly coordinate a large band and the environment where an audience can feel like they’re participating and enjoy it, but it’s worth it.
WWD: Does the energy lasts for a few days after a great performance?
Definitely. Sometimes even longer. We’ve had people mention they remember a show from years back, which also snaps us back into that particular time and space.
WWD: What are some of the challenges of live performance that you encounter?
Logistical details are very difficult to nail 100% every time. So many balls in the air between the backend business, managing equipment, sound systems, promotion, band members, etc. Our team has a high % win ratio I’d say but there’s always something…. lol. No business like show business.
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WWD: What other bands do feel you sit alongside, or do you feel you are in a lane of your own?
We’re definitely out on our own a bit lone wolfing in our contemporary scene, but we’ve had a few great experiences finding like-minded groups on parallel journeys even if our music doesn’t sound the same. We closely bonded and toured with the disco group Midnight Magic during our Soul Clap Records days, and we always find ourselves getting along with groups like Combo Chimbita (out on Anti- records) or Ibibio Sound Machine in the UK, who have these sort of retro futuristic sensibilities and are constantly pushing to evolve their own styles of music. Not settling for status quos or industry prescribed genres.
WWD: Before the pandemic, you had a pretty massive tour around Europe. What were some of the highlights for you?
2019 was a great year for us, our busiest. What followed after was obviously jarring but we’re all glad we made it that far! There were so many highlights, but it all stemmed from our experience at the Trans Musicales Festival in Rennes, France, which was our official debut over there in 2018. We played separate shows for kids, for prisoners, and then for around 6-8k music and industry heads. Those performances were so well received it led to about 20 more shows in the EU the following year.
WWD: You played in France at Laurent Garnier’s festival. How did you make that happen?
Yes. Amazing festival. The programming and location are top notch.
WWD: What was the festival location like? Are you booked to play again?
Super beautiful chateau in Lourmarin, France. Would love to play again someday of course. One unfortunate thing about the era we’re in is that we’ve just lost multiple years of music programming seasons following 2019, so it will be a little while longer before a lot of festivals that traditionally vary their line ups are bringing the same artists back, even in 2022.
WWD: Did you hang out and watch Laurent’s set? What was that like?
The night we were there it was 2many DJs taking the headlining DJ slot, they played right before us I believe, and it was awesome. A big moment for us in France. Laurent was mostly buzzing around and making sure everything was taken care of festival wise. He’s a great person to program such a mix of musical styles and statuses. Established legends and the scrappy up and comers all together.
WWD: What do you love about touring most?
The sense memories of travelling and quickly moving through places you’ve never been, it’s hard to do it with quite that same energy any other way. Touring with a crew of people you really enjoy brings a beautiful energy and nostalgia, even during the difficult logistical or personal moments racing against the clock show to show.
WWD: Do you think it is harder for bands to release records? What are some of the challenges you have faced?
Definitely. Creating and releasing a recording that’s high quality and sounds like a band recording, like humans in a room playing together, is a challenge that a lot of modern music producers and artists don’t understand. Recording live drums well is a lifelong pursuit, and that’s just the beginning of the musical basics. Industry wise, bands with any sizable amount of players in them are a scary prospect to business people, given the inherent overhead and attention that’s built into touring and supporting groups with many members. You’d be hard pressed to find a lot of artists right now who have been through it and speak favourably about the current state of the American music industry and streaming platforms etc. At the end of the day however, all that difficulty is secondary to why we do this and there are some great organisations and communities helping original bands and artists get out there and find a platform in their own way. We love our current team we’re working with on releases.
WWD: In the studio, how do you manage artistic decisions? With five members of the band, I guess you can’t all agree all the time.
The one nice thing about the way Underground System is structured as a band is that Peter and Domenica are the ones doing the songwriting and a majority of producing the creative elements. The core members all contribute a ton to the sound of the live band and our rapport and energy, but having the structure where people can mostly expect the recording process to be approached in a certain way by the bandleaders helps everyone manage expectations a bit and provides some clear aesthetic direction.
WWD: You are releasing your ‘Into The Fire’ EP on Razor-N-Tape. Tell us of your relationship with the label? Do you all go back a long way? Is this your first RNT release?
First RNT release for the band! We’re quite excited. Peter has one other track on the label with JKriv before this one, and he has also worked on a lot of other music with Jason (‘Bigtime EP’ on Heist). Underground System members are also getting quite involved with the ‘Joyful Noise’ live series Razor-N-Tape has recently launched. At this point things have quickly added up to a family affair.
WWD: This release is a partnership between RNT and Heavenly Sweetness. How does that work?
This was a partnership that while a new connection for all involved, was born out of some very practical circumstances. We are BK based and RNT is our home/lead record label involved, but because of our success and touring history in the EU and France in particular, we needed extra help on the ground over there with labels that can work the live band angle and help us release the music into a territory we can’t always be in in person. It’s exciting to be able to expand the crew supporting us and we’re glad to see it coming together!
WWD: Labels come and labels go, and some of them just keeping rolling with the goodness. Why do you think Razor-N-Tape has been such a strong and consistent label?
There’s a really deep knowledge and decades of experience in the dance music world label honchos JKriv and Aaron Dae are pulling from in RNT land, so it would start there. From the music fan and DJ perspective, they initially built up such a strong rapport over the years having so many consistent releases available that DJs would immediately trust and love to play out. They’ve kept this same quality control and music first sensibility intact in recent times as they’ve been pivoting away a bit from the white label edit game into more and more original and officially licensed music, and now even live music programming. It’s great to see it all continue to make sense and grow.
WWD: Talk us through this new release a little.
A bit of stepping back out and showcasing the direction our sound has been heading. As RNT already described it well ‘The 3 original songs of the ‘Into The Fire EP’ range from the Afrobeat-meets-indie-disco vibe of the title track, to the raucous and instant earworm bounce of He Said, She Said, and the smoulderingly sultry Desnuda. On the B side the original material gets some heavy DJ-friendly reimagining by Detroit legend Andrés, and French don Yuksek making this 12” both a proud musical manifesto of the new artist-centred direction of RNT, as well as a knowing nod to the label’s devoted fans on the dancefloor.’
WWD: You cite one of your musical icons and inspirations as the great Fela Kuti. Fela was a human rights activist as well as a vibrant and dynamic performer. There was always a message in his music. Are there themes and messages within Underground System tracks? What are they?
Definitely. We really take to and respect the way Fela approached social commentary and some really dire circumstances in such clever and nuanced ways within his music. He was almost always telling a story to deliver a message and framed these vocal moments within his compositions in such a well-timed manner. Underground System being a group of people from lots of different backgrounds aim to apply some of these gestures in messaging to our own perspectives. A very literal example for anyone who has seen us live would be our version of the traditional Italian anti-fascist anthem ‘Bella Ciao’. We try to keep this attitude, humour, and vivaciousness alive in our delivery of music and lyrics that we all have felt coming out of Fela’s spirit. Very punk rock.
WWD: What other projects are you working on currently?
It will be very focused on Underground System for the next few months as we are releasing this current EP and touring internationally. Outside of that, Domenica had recently co-directed an artist residency called OneBeat in the Sahara which was an incredible experience long delayed by the pandemic. Peter has had several of his own dance music releases come out in recent months on Heist and Bastard Jazz.
WWD: Tell us of your live plans for this year? Feel free to drop your tour dates.
Opportunities keep coming! We’re on the cusp of doing our first real tour since 2019, which is quite exciting. Here’s some dates:
26TH MAY STRASBOURG/ PELPASS FESTIVA
27TH MAY AJACCIO/ AGHJA
28TH MAY LE BUEYMARD/ FESTIVAL D’OIT
1ST JUNE PARIS / LE HASSARD LUDIQUE
2ND JUNE LILLE/ LE GUARDS SAINT SAUVEUR
3RD JUNE ANGOULEME/ FESTIVAL MUSIQUES METISSES
4TH JUNE ROUEN / RUSH FESTIVAL
5TH JUNE EMBRUN/ OUTDOOR MIX FESTIVAL
17TH JUNE BROOKLYN NYC / BROOKLYN MADE
18TH JUNE NEW YORK/ CIRCUS OF LIFE FESTIVAL
WWD: What are your next ambitions for the band?
I think the vision is a bit like building back all the energy and momentum in this new era that we need to release a 2nd full LP with all the pieces in place to do it well. If it takes a couple more EPs to warm up into that we’ll just have to see how it all unfolds!
WWD: We wish you every success with this KILLER release.
Stream & Buy ‘Into The Fire’ – https://razor-n-tape.fanlink.to/IntoTheFire
Follow Underground System – https://www.undergroundsystembk.com/