Interviews

The Story of Undertow's At Both Ends Album

Photo found on Undertow's Bandcamp page

Released in 1994, Undertow's At Both Ends is largely recognized as one of the best hardcore albums of the '90s by fans of the music and era. Issued through Excursion Records, a Washington label that also released records by the likes of Botch and Sleeper/Serpico, the 11-track collection found the Seattle outfit cojuring the sinister mood and precision of metal in its vibe and riffing, and the fuck you spirit of hardcore in its delivery.

With '90s Hardcore Week in full swing on the site, I figured it was perfect timing to speak about All Both Ends with Undertow vocalist John Pettibone, guitarist Mark Holcomb, and drummer Ryan Murphy.

By the time Undertow was going to record At Both Ends, the band had already had a couple of splits and EPs under its belt. Did you guys write all of the material that ended up on the album specifically for it? Did it feel like you had to step things up because it would be for your first album? 

John Pettibone (vocals): Most of the material was written for the LP but a few songs were rerecorded that were off the Stalemate 7 inch. We were a five piece on that recording. Two of the members left and we got Damien in the band playing bass which help in the writing process. This was all in 1993 I believe. That year was a big progression for us.  

Mark Holcolmb (guitars): There was a momentum building in us and in our surroundings from the Stalemate recording to the At Both Ends sessions. We were playing shows with The Accüsed, Poison Idea, Jawbreaker, Seaweed, and such, which pushed us to explore our song structure and sound.  

How did Excursion Records become involved? Tell me a bit about that relationship.

John: We’ve known [Excursion Records founder] Dave [Larson] almost as long as we’ve known [Overkill Records founder] Ron Guardipee (Rest in Power). Me, Mark, Ryan, and Dave all met on the same night, I think at a Brotherhood show in 1989. Mark and Ryan’s band, Refuse, played the show. Dave was from the Bremerton hardcore scene in northern Washington and he and a few other would drive down for shows. He went with us on our first US tour with Sparkmarker in the Summer of 1993. 

Excursion Records founder Dave Larson in 2019

Seaweed guitarist Clint Werner produced At Both Ends. As a huge fan of that band, I’m curious about how he became involved with the project.

Ryan Murphy (drums): Ron G. was the connection. We played shows with them in Seattle and were somewhat connected from there. I think Clint was just stoked to do a hardcore record. 

Mark: Ron was the tour manager for Seaweed at the time. Ron, Ryan, Dave Larson, and I formed a band called Digh Down and Ron booked some time to record a demo with Clint. John and Damien came in and we recorded some Undertow songs to get a feel for his studio. I was a huge admirer of Clint’s playing in Seaweed and overall as a great band. They took a chance on having us playing with them, this local hardcore band that created some buzz. They are great people and we loved playing with them.

Flyer courtesy of Andrew Kline (Strife, Berthold City, World Be Free, WAR Records)

John: Ron got us on some shows with Seaweed which was incredible as they were a favorite band of mine. Clint really liked us and wanted to record some songs not knowing it would become the LP.  And the Digh Down demo is awesome if you can find those songs!  

How many days did you guys spend in the studio with Clint making At Both Ends? Do you remember the budget? 

Mark: I want to say six days total maybe over two full weekends that included mixing. I think it was $2000 for the budget from Dutch East Ind. who Dave was doing distribution through but we used that money to buy a van to go on tour with. Recording with Clint was easy and comfortable. At times he would tell us to go back and practice at home to fuck with us. He taught me a lot about tones, sounds and confidence in playing. He really caught the emotion of what we sound like as a band.

The coolest thing he Clint told me was that he wore a Undertow shirt on stage an entire tour. 

Photo: Charles Peterson

Ryan: I believe we spent about four days total but I could be wrong. I want to say we did it over a couple of weekends. No idea what our budget was but it definitely was not much if I had to guess it was probably like $1500 or something. From my perspective, it did not go smoothly I remember at one point Clint was not happy with it and offered to re-record the entire thing at no cost I think I said no not because I thought it sounded amazing or anything I was just burnt out on recording(never liked it).

I just wanted my drums to sound like Petey Hines’ on Best Wishes and they were nothing like that. I think Clint was trying to get our record to sound like Repeater (a great record, just wanted a metal sound for me).

Undertow photo found on Last.fm

John: I think it was five or six days not sure what the budget was and confusing as how it was paid for since we bought a van with the budget money. I came in on the second weekend and was really stoked with what the other guys had captured. The songs sounded really emotional and I wanted to be able to catch the same feeling vocal wise.

I want a sound like Inside Out or No Escape. To be raw, intense and striking. 

John, in terms of your vocal tracks, did you spread those out, or did you knock them out in a marathon session? Also, did you blow your voice out at any point?

John: I think it was one and a half days. I believe I only had trouble with one or two songs with tempo and timing. I never blew my voice out but honestly I never went to band practices and looking back I wish I did go and take it a little more seriously. 

What kinds of themes did you take on lyrically on At Both Ends? Also, did you guys ever discuss the lyrics in Undertow while you were writing and/or recording?

John: It wasn’t so much as themes but was more reality of what was go on around us in our lives and the current climate of the times. We had songs about passion, conflict, disappointments, anti-religion, fighting back against racism, sexism, homophobia. We as young people discovering love, confronting failure and loss.

At times it felt innocent but other times were harsh realities of humanity. White power skins at our shows we would fight. Losing close friends to drug addiction. Broken families and relationships. Both Mark and I wrote lyrics from the heart and never wrote to appease a crowd. The lyrics Mark wrote were incredible and honest. What he penned I could understand. 

Mark: The lyrics were just a collection of personal feelings sometimes exciting sometimes disappointing but always honest. 

Undertow live in Europe, circa early '90s. (Photo: Andrea Delbello)

Being a musician himself, did Clint help out in the arrangements department? What kind of producer was he: hands-on or let it flow?

Ryan: I think Clint was fairly hands off. I don’t remember there being much of him trying to influence. He probably tried and Mark told him to fuck off.

Mark: He gave me some advice on tones and gear. And sometimes on timing. He played more of a big brother engineer type role.

John: He was hands off. We were pretty prepared once we entered the studio. I think I wrote "Where Do We Go" and some of "Sink" in the studio.  

Once At Both Ends was released to the public, what do you remember the reaction being like? I remember people being hyped on it when it came out, but I wanted your take from the band’s viewpoint.

Mark: It was pretty incredible since we had no expectations. We were taking off for a two-month tour that summer with no merch, no records and maybe some disto releases. And when we hit the Midwest and East Coast people knew most of our songs already. It was very humbling and we were so grateful that kids cared about us.

John: I was blown away by how many kids new our songs before the record even came out. The tour we did before the release had us going to a lot of places we had never been. Places with premade scenes dating back 10-15 years and we were embraced instantly and made incredible friendships that still last to this day. 

Undertow in New Jersey, circa early '90s. (Photo: Josh Grabelle)

How much touring did you do after the album came out? 

John: A US tour with Unbroken in summer of '94, winter East coast Dates with Earth Crisis, Snapcase, and Stife. A few times down the West Coast then Europe with Ignite and Temperance in 1995. 

Found on HardShowFlyers.net

It’s been well over 25 years since At Both Ends came out. How do you feel about the album today? Are you happy with the material and your performance?

Ryan: I feel proud of what we did with that record for sure, but now I regret not going back to re-record. Still wish my drums sounded like Petey Hines’.

Mark: I’m very happy with what we did at the time. A lot of it was learning as we were going. We were young and it felt organic and I have a lot of gratitude for Clint.

John: I’m extremely happy with it. There was never any expectations and we just created it as we went. No rules or guidelines. We were building and making something really special.

We four are still close friends, still creating in some form and talk often about those days that shaped us into who we became. Clint helped capture that. 

Undertown in New Jersey, circa early '90s. (Photo: Sean Capone)

If you had to pick your favorite song on the album, which one would it be and why?

Mark: "Pin," not just for content but how fast and aggressive it was. We would play it live it would feel so ferocious. We would open with it to set the tone for the rest of the set and keep up that energy.

John: "Taken" because the beginning with the high-hat, the build with bass and guitar, and then the punch of the riff. Unbroken stole that riff for "End of a Lifetime," by the way.... we love you Steven). Lyrically, it is the character of how we started and ended as a band. I really like "Where Do We Go" also with it’s slowed tempo and has a sort of Burn vibe to it, in my opinion. 

Ryan: I can’t remember the name of one of them on that record. Though I remember liking all of them when we played them live.

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Tagged: 90s hardcore week, undertow

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