Makeunder(photo: Ginger Fierstein)


The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

For all the ways in which Oakland is evolving, It’s incredible that people can maintain enthusiasm for Lake Merritt.

On a recent temperate Wednesday — the first one after a rash of blazing heat, the first one where people are beginning to cautiously venture outdoors — Hamilton Ulmer of Makeunder is lounging in the shade on the banks of the lake, near the pergola. Other grateful sunbathers dot the grassy area next to Grand. Birds — we’re not far from the chain of islands established as a safe shelter for local populations of waterfowl — squawk unknowingly in the distance as he discusses their demise. “The summers get hotter, the fire season gets longer, and pretty soon it’s going to be a permanent fire season.”

He thinks a lot about that.

Ulmer isn’t unfamiliar with aligning earthly beauty to an existential outlook — loss is his muse. His body of work, perhaps famously, has dealt exclusively with trauma, death, and personal grief. But for Pale Cicada, his first full-length released last week, he’s moving on to a sister subject of death — ancestry, evolution, and where he, specifically, comes from. And that’s infinitely harder to talk about.

You might know the story of Makeunder by now — the great chain of personal tragedy that birthed Ulmer’s first two records, canonized in glowing NPR coverage as monuments to loss and grief. His first two albums, Radiate, Satellite and Great Headless Blank, were experimental affairs. Not too experimental, but the middle and bottom layers of songs like “What a Lovely Bandsaw!” and Great Headless Blank’s title track were complex works, requiring the listener’s full attention. “It was definitely something that merited study. So the kind of people that were really into it and loved it were the kind of people that loved studying.”

But in the process of making those, he saw how music worked, as it has for so many others, as therapy. “I saw...music as a way of examining unexamined parts of my past...that’s how [the last seven years] happened.”

Which has led him to the far more conventional sounds of Pale Cicada. Family is still at the molten center of Makeunder’s work, but this time it’s molded around a much more accessible structure: Pale Cicada supports a heavy funk influence, major keys, and the polish of professional production (it’s his first studio-produced album). There are still his signature stops, starts, and sudden swerves, but certain parts of it you could, if you wanted, dance to.

Even though some songs scoot closer to a classic verse-chorus-verse structure, the lyrics seem a little more coded; inscrutable. "There’s something about death that’s final, that...makes it easy to talk about, because the lines are so obvious," he says about the process of digging into his own upbringing for Pale Cicada's subject matter. "The part that is much harder is what happens to the living after the fact."

Pale Cicada will sound like a great departure for listeners, but it isn’t for him. “You know, it’s funny to me...it would not be surprising if you heard a lot of the quiet, private sketches that I’ve done over the last number of years,” he says. “The part that is new is revealing to the world that I sometimes make music that is [fun].”

His first real brush with conventionality came in 2015, when he arranged the strings for country music superstar Cam’s “Burning House,” the track that put her on the radar of country radio. He had met Cam through a former girlfriend, when the two were working in a lab together at Stanford (Cam's also from the East Bay). Working with Cam put him within arm’s reach of Nashville, more or less the last American epicenter of traditional music industry support. “Most of the album was recorded with folks out in Oakland, but my Nashville connections helped me get this album across the finish line,” he says. “Various people gave me feedback, helping me with parts of the vocal production, the mix, and the final master. It was inspiring to try to rise to their level, and the album probably wouldn't have felt as cohesive without them,” he says.

He considered a move to Nashville. It would, at least, be easier there for a musician to make a living. But then he got married, and his wife got a job with a chamber orchestra. So he’s still here on the banks of the lake.

He’s in one spot, but Oakland is not. A lot of the places where he worked on Pale Cicada are no more. “My old rehearsal studio [was in] kind of a quiet neighborhood with a ton of history. It’s where the Black Panthers really got their start. It’s also gentrifying really quickly. So I rode over there to take a picture of the front of what used to be the rehearsal studio, and it’s like unrecognizable at this point.” This man-manipulated lake that has a bunch of scooters at the bottom of it is, impossibly, about the only place connected to Pale Cicada still here. He used to walk down here to clear his head while writing and recording. “This lake is for everyone, which is one thing that I like about it," he says. "Give me Lake Merritt over Dolores Park any day. Any day.”

He’s moving on to climate change for his next album, because just like the edifices that have housed him and his music since he arrived in the Bay Area in 2004, what he sees here today won’t last. He’s done mourning, though. “I haven’t figured out how to articulate this yet, but basically I want to write a party album for the climate catastrophe of the apocalypse.” He’s trying to bring a little more light into the world, before it slips silently away. He’s seen it happen so many times before. “I’m always trying to find heaven on earth with sound,” he says. “And I feel like I’m almost there.”

Pale Cicada is out now.

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