Just after 1pm Pacific Time, the Zoom splash screen dissolved to reveal the blonde tips of Alexander Miranda’s hair. Miranda is the front person and founder of Underpass, a band straddled between new wave and punk, birthed in the clouds and rain of the Pacific Northwest and baked in the sun of San Diego. Miranda has since returned to Vancouver, bringing with him a refined sound and two musically unique albums. I sat down with the artist to speak with him about punk, politics and music in the technological age.
So what exactly is punk? As with many genres, this can be a challenging question to answer. Punk has many offshoots and reboots, each with different tempos, moods, and styles.
For many, the genre is associated very closely with the sound of hardcore punk. Contemporary femcore or queercore punk bands such as Moscow’s Pussy Riot, Seattle’s Mommy Long Legs and Toronto’s DILLY DALLY are some prime examples of this sound; they all use radical forms of expression and protest to address radical political and social problems. Then there is the slower, deeper, and more longing side of punk: the side that borders on new wave and even independent rock. Think about The Smiths, Joy Division, or newer bands such as Washington DC’s Sneaks.
All of this considered, in the North American context, within the punk scene there can be a juxtaposition between a subculture rooted in anti-authority, yet tacitly connected to a performative punk style and decorum. According to Miranda the answer to what punk is can be convoluted. But, despite Maranda’s admitted variation in his albums, they never stray too far from the realm of punk, though he himself experiences a level of disconnect from some of the cultural aspects of the community.
Miranda says some of his first experiences with punk were overtly exclusionary. Through his youth (as a twelve-year-old), he was called a poser by those within the community at school yet teased by other kids on the reservation where he grew up for his decisions around clothing and hairstyles.
Attending shows early in his life in Lake Elsinore California, Miranda found that show-goers tended to focus too much on this aesthetic performance of punk and not enough on the roots, “Yeah, people get hung up on looking cool and being accepted but ultimately it’s about doing things your own way.” This forced the musician to create his own unique sound and trust his musical instincts, regardless of whether he identified as punk, new wave, or something else entirely. The result is a sound that is familiar yet uniquely Underpass. Though he admits genres in music are unavoidable, His confidence and desire to overcome these boundaries makes Underpass a force to be reckoned with in the re-emerging punk scene. Miranda’s work doesn’t fit neatly into a single genre, and the musician has had to create his own unique sound and trust his musical instincts.
Much of the band’s initial works were written in Vancouver, and later in Olympia Washington. The environment of Vancouver had a notable impact on the band’s initial musical output. “The weather really affected me, and I didn’t realize it,” he says.
At this time, Miranda found himself writing pieces that were darker, and a bit drearier. The difference between Underpass’s earlier work, such as About Violence, is heard both in the composition and the lyrics. This earlier work saw a more deconstructed sound and melancholic drawl on subjects such as longing and romantic endeavors. Though the core remains, Miranda’s newer work is clearer, better produced, and slightly brighter than his older work. Miranda also commented on the effect of the US Border on the Vancouver music scene, “With most cities in the United States it is so much easier to move up and down the coast, and just explore like that,” he explains, “But when a band does come from Oakland or San Diego, it’s kind of a bigger deal because there is a lot more preparation required.” This is how Vancouver can be insular, he tells me, with some local bands opting to forego the anxiety of crossing the border in favor of staying put.
After touring for Red Reflection, the second full album, and creating new projects, Underpass came face to face with tragedy. The band endured a series of traumatic events: family members’ serious injuries, complex health problems, social and political turmoil, and the horrific Ghost Ship fire — it presented an inflection point for Miranda and the band. He tells me, “The Oakland fire was very crazy because it cast a tremendous shadow over everyone.”
Despite the hardships Miranda slowly came back to the passion he loved.
‘Traumatic events kinda shape people’s perceptions of the world, (and) how to navigate it. The purpose of making art is to get out of that headspace — not to dwell and say, “I can’t do anything” and be destroyed by that anxiety.”
The most recent project, Deluxe Industrial (November 2021,) carries on the tantalizing intensity of traditional bands such as The Cure, The Smiths and Depeche Mode, while incorporating 21st century sampling and mixing. The 5-track album, which addresses the timeless subject of love and depression, culminates into a contemporary reboot of punk which continues the conversation of generations past, while tastefully adding new layers of complexity through technology.
The band absorbs the currents of North America’s West Coast. Miranda receives influence which transcends geography, admitting that much of his early days were spent in the seemingly infinite landscape of the internet.
This can be seen throughout April 2021’s Physical World where the cover was created from a magazine clipping Miranda had saved over the years, featuring beloved photographer Cindy Sherman.
Throughout Underpasse’s discography, Miranda cites inspiration from his young adulthood spent on MySpace and LastFM when he became consumed by the virtual. This is something which he admits likely shaped his largely instrumental and heavily technologically influenced album, which he describes was at least partially a result of “Instagram Brain,” or his desire to engage with everything all at once during our collective time on the internet throughout the COVID pandemic and mesh it together.
“I’ve been conditioned for years to just see, to go, and do, and take, and after being cooped up for a few years in (my) house, living in this weird world and not having a real, physical, world to just be in — “Physical Word” was a response to that feeling.”
Despite its cybernetic connection, the music does not feel overly processed. The album presents a diverse, and experimental, five-part series, working extensively with samples.
Despite his tackling of these complex themes, Miranda has come under fire in the past for a lack of outwardly political lyrics, something that many followers of punk, especially fans of more activist branches, have come to expect from the genre. When I asked him about the way he engages with politics, he explained his personal approach:
“There are so many expectations of native people. Oh, this person has a platform so they must say something deep. It’s not that my music isn’t deep, […] but for me, art and music transcends politics. It’s so much more than simply saying X is wrong and Y is right. I like to have people think about something — to just sit with it. It’s [about that kind of] poetic beauty. I’ll probably never write a song that’s gonna’ be direct like that. You just have to look for it.”
It is important to note Miranda isn’t bound by the confines of punk, in fact, Underpass is just one of many projects down the line for the artist. He was recently nominated for best musical score at the International Documentary Awards for “Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust” along with composers Lori Goldston and Steve Fisk.
The documentary itself follows the environmental impact of United States colonial control in Payahuunadü (“the land of flowing water”) also known as Owens Valley, California. It tackles the displacement of the water, which converted the valley from a lake to a desert, as well as the history of forced removals occurring on the land in reference to Indigenous erasure and Japanese internment camps. Notably, the score’s nomination has already caused controversy for being largely improvised.
Moving forward, Miranda hopes to further develop Underpass while continuing to work on all sorts of projects and collaborations. You can find his music on Bandcamp. We will be keeping an eye out for some of his scheduled releases in the upcoming months, as well as the public release of Manzanar Diverted.