Our band should be your life: Underground Inc and the US' untold musical history

The poster for Underground Inc

Think the alternative music boom of the 1990s lived and died with Nirvana? Think again. While the Seattle trio were busy rewriting the rulebook when it came to radio-friendly unit shifters, hundreds of bands across the country were toiling beneath the radar – trying, and ultimately failing – to benefit from the mainstream’s renewed interested in rock. Their story has remained largely untold. Until now.

Filmmaker Shaun Katz, with new documentary Underground Inc: The Unsung Story Of Alternative Rock, has spent the last year tracking down the bands who helped America’s 90s underground music scene thrive. The film revisits a time in music which has been allowed to fall through the cracks – its starring artists falling with it – with a view to finally getting those bands the recognition they deserve. Or, as Queens Of The Stone Age’s Joey Castillo puts it, “A film that captures and preserves a time in music that will forever be felt in sound, style, and inspiration.”

We chat with Katz to find out more about the project.

Underground Inc. sets out to tell the unsung story of the alt music scene of the 90s. Where does that story begin?

Shaun Katz: “The story of Underground Inc. begins in the 80s, before “alternative music” even was a thing. In many ways, the film picks up where the documentary American Hardcore left off – around 1987. [Just] as that music did, [American Hardcore] sets the groundwork for this story.

We focus on all the bands from around the USA, who broke their backs and blazed trails, and eventually benefitted in many way from the commercial explosion that came from the success of the more commercially embraced bands like Nirvana, NIN, Primus, Smashing Pumpkins, etc. As you’ll see, however, this also came with a dear price, causing many of these bands to have their careers end prematurely – very much a double edged sword.”

What was your relationship to that scene and those bands at the time?

SK: “I worked in a record store, and had access to everything being released at the time. It was fascinating to get a more complete vision of what music was at the time, as opposed to the bands only getting airplay on MTV or the radio. There were a lot of really diverse bands that I was exposed to, like Satchel, Drive Like Jehu, or Sunny Day Real Estate – so many bands that the music buying public weren’t exposed to.

In terms of my relationship, I was simply a fan who wanted to use my passion for filmmaking to communicate with other music lovers about the value of these artists, who hadn’t gotten had their story told yet.”

What inspired you to tell this story, and why did you decide it needed to be told now?

SK: “What inspired me to tell this story, aside from the actual music, was Paul Rachman’s doc, American Hardcore. I think what made me want to tell it now was a reaction to the way music had changed. As the 90s progressed into the 2000s there was a real disconnect between the dirty, visceral sounds that made up rock music then vs. what rock landed up sounding like as it got more watered down. I feel like that uncensored energy that defined the underground scene is being lost, as indie music continues to sound safer in many ways. But, I am hearing quite a bit of new stuff that is shaking that up again!”

How did you decide to include, and who was best suited for the story you wanted to tell?

SK: “A lot of the post-hardcore bands that I loved like Quicksand, Jawbox, Sensefield, landed up being included in the film, they made up a lot of the bands that I felt didn’t get enough attention.

Many of the bands in the film like Fishbone, Clutch or Corrosion Of Conformity found their roots in the punk and metal scenes. There was an incredibly amazing scene going on in New York and Los Angeles that simply wasn’t being talked about in the middle of all the Seattle mania. In fact there was an amazing blend of styles coming out of every city during that time, not only Seattle. The idea around Underground Inc, is that the Seattle story had been told to death, and I thought it was time for people to hear a bit more about the other bands in cities like D.C. or Chicago during the 90s.”

Was anyone you wanted to talk to particularly hard to get hold of? Did anyone refuse to be included?

SK: “There were definitely some scheduling conflicts when planning out all the logistics of the filming. I’m based in Australia, and I flew to the USA, and filmed in 23 cities for two months. Since most bands are constantly on tour, I had to plan it all very carefully. Some people were harder to pin down, but I was very lucky. There were some artists who I landed up having to interview only once they toured Australia, when the editing had begun – like Clutch, Rocket From The Crypt, Pop Will Eat itself, etc.

As far as who just said no to me. There were a couple of big names who weren’t into it, but I was fine with that. The essential idea behind this was about the bigger bands paying tribute to the lesser known influential bands, who were the ones I was really interested in.”

What is your favourite story to come out of the interviews you did for the film?

SK: “Wow, some of the stuff I heard was nuts. Much of it never got into the film, unless it was directly connected to the main story I was telling. Is it any surprise, though, that the wildest stories came from former members of Ministry? Stuff involving chickens and voodoo, designed to improve the sound mixing during the recording of Psalm 69 – crazy shit! There was also a wonderfully screwed-up story involving a fight that broke out between a homeless guy and a Seattle rock kid after an Afghan Whigs show, which turned really nasty. That IS in the film though, so keep an eye out for it when the end credits roll!

In terms of the more genuine heartfelt stories, some of these artists really opened up in unexpected ways. There were some amazingly personal stories shared from members of Biohazard and C.O.C., in particular, that I felt honoured to hear. These artists have so much heart and have stuck with doing what they love for their entire lives. Many of them, for all the drama that may have occurred in the music business during the 90s, have now done really well. It was quite an honour to meet so many of these artists.”

What was your favourite moment of making the film? Who were the bands you were particularly excited to talk to?

SK: “I was very excited to talk to Steve Albini. I think I caught him in a particularly animated mood that day. I definitely felt like I had to win his respect in a very short amount of time, because he has this enormous reputation for recording albums with Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, Failure, etc. He was hilarious, though, and very giving of his time. I had to try my hardest to not laugh while the interview was being conducted. A great experience for sure

I also loved talking to Dave Wyndorf from Monster Magnet – he provided my favourite interview in the film. He really is the perfect example of a rock’n’roll legend – wild eyed and crazy, yet totally genuine and humble – and a perfect combination of mad genius and space prophet. Pepper Keenan (Down, C.O.C.) was also the man – the very essence of rock star coolness.”

Which one band from that time would you say is most criminally forgotten?

SK: “There are a couple of bands that I love, which the film focuses on heavily, who are completely lost to time. But the one band that I feel deserves the most attention is Course Of Empire from Dallas. They were an industrial metal band, who you might like if you’re into bands like Killing Joke or Ministry. They had these long, dense songs, with these amazing lyrical concepts. They had two drummers, which gave the band a very tribal, propulsive sound, and this amazing guitar player who was off the chain – a total monster who got these other-worldly, almost alien tones out of his guitar. Very unique.

The album I would recommend by them the most is their last album Telepathic Last Words, it was produced by John Freyer (who produced Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine), and it’s a record that not only has stood the test of time, but holds its own against other towering industrial landmarks like [Nine Inch Nail’s] The Downward Spiral or [Ministry’s] The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste. Good stuff!”

Why do you think it was bands like Nirvana who broke through? Why did the rest struggle to get noticed?

SK: “These aren’t my words, but Dave Wyndorf from Monster Magnet pointed out to me that Nirvana had a much more A-B, head-nodding structure to their songs than a lot of other bands from that scene. No one played that much in the rock-pop thing like they did. That would be one reason why Nirvana broke way bigger than many of those other bands.

Another thing to note, is that as these bands got bigger and started playing in bigger venues – to everyone’s horror – a lot of this really cool, esoteric music that worked in small clubs didn’t work at all in a giant rock hall! Nirvana and other bands like STP or the Smashing Pumpkins broke through that for a very specific reason: the pop sensibilities they possessed in their songwriting allowed them to adapt better to bigger platforms.”

In the subsequent signing frenzy, what do you think was the strangest major label decision?

SK: “Take your pick – Steel Pole Bath Tub? Royal Trux? Sleep? Jim Thirlwell? – a countless list of strange choices as a bid for the next gold-selling hopeful. Many of these artists, who I’m a fan of, probably had no business being signed to Sony or other major labels, since those labels are geared towards the mainstream and there’s a certain expectation to sell millions of records in order to justify the massive expenditure invested. The good thing that came out of it, though, were all the amazing unlimited resources these bands had to make whatever kind of album they desired. In that sense, I’m sure that those bands also wanted to just experience this world and they had plenty of self-awareness about this.”

The film looks towards the future of underground music, too. Where do you think that future is headed?

Definitely a hard thing to predict. Hopefully, the generation of artists who are coming of age now, in the current political climate, are passionate and have something to say. I’m definitely optimistic about some of the newer acts that have started coming out in the last couple of years. Hopefully it’s just the start of something bigger.

Do you think an underground movement like that could happen now, given that most bands (and music) are so easily accessible?

That’s just it… the internet makes it really difficult for a certain type of music scene to build up again. The biggest problem for the future of the underground music scene is the lack of physical interaction. I wonder about this a lot, and I also think that the approach of doing things through online platforms vs. face-to-face makes a huge difference. I think that’s key, and that kind of physical interaction will allow for those scenes to really grow into something bigger. There’s a big difference between emailing someone a file and looking them in the eye.

The music industry has changed massively since the 90s. How do you think that continues to effect bands and artists today, compared to back then?

The main difference is that artists now make money off touring instead of album royalties, which was a system that was set up in a way where the artists benefitted the least – unless they were a massive act. Most artists are forced to now be on a perpetual touring cycle to make a living from music, which is obviously very difficult. The upside of this is that an artist has total power over their music and their career, if they have the will to do it themselves. It’s great that the days of dozens of gate keepers constantly standing in the way of your audience isn’t something that bands need to put up with anymore.

The problem now is obviously the huge glut of bands competing on the internet for attention, and in that sense a traditional business team is still extremely valuable. So, from a structural or distribution perspective, yeah, it has changed a lot. But in the sense of all the variables that can effect a band reaching an audience, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed.

When will the documentary be released? Are there any plans for distribution outside of the US?

The film is completely done and edited and I can’t wait to get it out there, but there are some heavy business challenges now with a project like this. Our goal is for the final quarter of this year, and it will definitely be shown outside of America.

Katz’s cuts

The essential unheard 90s playlist, as chosen by Shaun Katz

Fishbone – Fight The Youth

Reality Of My Surroundings was my favourite album from them. Heroes and trailblazers of the underground, and constantly cited as an influence on Primus, Chili Peppers, Sublime and more.

Quicksand – Thorn In My Side

Tom Capone is my favourite guitar player. Their drummer Alan Cage is an absolute weapon, and their bassist Sergio Vega is in Deftones. A fascinating and unique band.

Jesus Lizard – Monkey Trick

There are some things that words can’t do justice to, and they certainly can’t brace you for the Jesus Lizard. A fine line between genius and insanity.

Sonic Youth – ‘Cross The Breeze

For me this album (Daydream Nation) epitomises the creative collective of the 80s underground moving into the 90s.

Ministry – Stigmata

Punk music being reinterpreted through machinery. The work of an iconoclast.

Sunny Day Real Estate – Seven

An emocore band with a wonderful, velvet hammer sound. Creators of some of the most gorgeous melodies and emotion that I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing.

Drive Like Jehu – If It Kills You

A jam that rewired my brain! These guys love colouring outside the lines.

Nirvana – Very Ape

Well, the 90s did belong to them… I wanted to pick a song from them that no one seems to talk about.

Jawbox – Savory

Another influential band. A great example of how major label environments could also bring out the best in a band.

Cop Shoot Cop – It Only Hurts When I Breathe

A buried treasure. The way these guys clangorously bounced off each other was great. This album (Release) plays out like a hard-boiled pulp novel in sonic form.