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Listener Supported: Makeunder and Dean Stuart 

Wednesday, Dec 9 2015
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"Blasting it on your ancestor's hi-fi, surrounded by your ghosts." "Humming along while riding a bike in a foreign city." "Putting it on a primo car stereo while driving across the endless desert."

These are three of the instructions included in the listening guide for Oakland musician Makeunder's Great Headless Blank EP. The listening guide — a joint project between Hamilton Ulmer, the man behind Makeunder, and Dean Stuart, a San Francisco illustrator — began a year ago as Ulmer put the finishing touches on a record dealing with what he calls "really tricky subject matter."

Makeunder describes his sound "as if Wagner made arrangements of David Byrne songs." The result is an intense array of pop dissonance that blends disparate genres like art rock and soul. The subjects woven through Great Headless Blank include the passing of Ulmer's father from lung cancer, a long-distance relationship that was born and ended in the wake of that death, and the emotions he felt sifting through his past while emptying out his parents' home in San Antonio.

"I wanted this sort of strange, ebullient, magical feel to the EP," he explains, "but it's a pretty difficult listen."

Discussing his desire to encourage people to listen a little more thoughtfully, and not simply play the album while going about their day, Ulmer joked with a friend that he should make a step-by-step guide that listed the procedures for optimally listening to music. Kidding or not, the idea took root in Ulmer's mind, and he reached out to a few illustrators. Someone put him in touch with Stuart, who found the album "powerful and unique."

"I hadn't heard anything like it before," Stuart says. "I immediately got the sense that there was a heavy narrative quality to the work."

Stuart, who graduated from the California College of the Arts in 2010 and recently contributed to a Wes Anderson-inspired art show called "Bad Dads," met with Ulmer at the Awaken Café in downtown Oakland, where Ulmer unveiled the layers of emotions and storylines behind Great Headless Blank. Together, they devised something that could aid the narrative of the music without overpowering it. Their focus was the idea of music as more than just a soundtrack to the listener's daily activities.

"I think music is a very visual medium for the people that make it," Ulmer says. "You visualize what you're making when you're making it."

For Stuart, the reverse is true, too. He often uses music as inspiration when creating a new piece, and relished the idea of finding a way to incorporate another medium entirely into his work.

Album art has long shaped the public's understanding of music, from the shock value of a naked lady adorning the cover of Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland to the present day work of companies like Jack White's Third Man Records, where every facet of the record, including the vinyl itself, is treated as a potential canvas. For Stuart, it's the gatefold for the Beastie Boys' Hello Nasty that sticks in his mind. He remembers opening up the album as a kid and seeing the interior of the spaceship, complete with all the little compartments and rooms mapped out.

"That was one of the things I was thinking of when I was creating the listening guide," he says, "a visual map of these stories."

The results, which Stuart initially rendered as sketches before scanning and digitally coloring them, are ethereal and surreal. One image shows a figure in a blazer and tie next to a gramophone, seated among four specters. Another portrays an astronaut adrift in the endless black of space, a Walkman floating beside him.

Exchanging the fantastical for the practical, the step-by-step portion of the guide is humorous in its clinical tone. There are specifics given for the dimensions of the ideal room in which to play the EP, as well as suggestions for the optimal number of lumens to achieve the perfect mood lighting. Stuart found his inspiration for this section in the instructional guides found on airplanes and other manuals of a similar nature.

"They're really dry and boring," he says, "but if you combine them with something creative and colorful like a musical album, I think you get something really original."

While the listening guide is available online, Ulmer confesses that, at the time he and Stuart were putting it together, he had no idea how he planned to release his EP.

"At that point, the last thing I'd released was in 2012. No one in Oakland really knew who I was — maybe a handful of people. It kind of took us by surprise when things started to pick up. Originally, we were just going to publish [the guide] on the internet and see what happened, but at this point, we think it would be really great to release it."

How the guide will take physical form is still under discussion. Ulmer suggests that he may have it printed and sold as merchandise at his live shows, while acknowledging that a vinyl pressing of his EP with the guide included within is "its natural home."

For Ulmer, the project extends beyond something to sell or package with his albums. When working with Stuart to create the guide, they were simply "making it just to make it." Emanating across the guide is a shared passion for storytelling.

"We're coming from the same place, with a story as an image or a story as a song," Stuart says. "I mean, we do very different things, but we're coming from the same place, emotionally, when we create something."

"It's really neat to pair visual art with music," Ulmer adds. "Because I think it helps us give voice to some of these deep, visceral forms that we have in our heads. And it's just cool as hell."

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About The Author

Zack Ruskin

Zack Ruskin

Bio:
Zack was born in San Francisco and never found a reason to leave. He has written for Consequence of Sound, The Believer, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is still in search of a Bort license plate.

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