Dreams So Real

The Underhills prove that it’s never too late to rock

By Jim Fahy | Photos by Brit Huckabay

I’m in an undisclosed location (Sorry: No narcs) listening to six dudes who aren’t supposed to be in a rock band being the best rock band in the world—well, at least in a 30-mile radius—at 5 pm on a dreary football Sunday in January.

And, right now, in the middle of this undisclosed location, I’m as amped up as said six dudes, who are blazing through a selection of 80’s “college rock” obscurities from the likes of R.E.M., Hoodoo Gurus, and Guadalcanal Diary, not to mention like-minded classic rockers such as the late great Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” The tempos are powerfully fast—so much so that the drummer (of all people!) wonders if they should slow it down. No way: It’s perfect… But maybe they’re just ready to wrap up and watch the Saints play.

To watch The Underhills from this close vantage is to be reminded of the transformative—and restorative—power of music. But it’s not just about being in love with music in general—but performing it: The physical act of creation. Guitarist Mark Haas strikes an impressive pose while conjuring a shrieking solo reminiscent of Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis. He’s locked in with his creative foil, drummer George Carbonie, who’s looking back at him wide-eyed while keeping the breakneck pace. Bassist Jeff Logan and guitarist Ben Fulmer are steady and stoic—locked into the groove. Mike Barlow grinningly presides over an impressive keyboard set-up (including a vintage synth and an iPad displaying sheet music which he’s annotated by hand), joining Fulmer on backing vocals and occasionally whipping out a harmonica – a touch that perfects a spirited rendition of R.E.M.’s “Driver 8.” In the eye of the storm is Frank Cater—the band’s singer and frontman—barrel-chested, both hands on the mic stand, belting out the songs. The blissful look on his face—and the occasional dance move—is telling… And contagious. Not bad for a bunch of “old” guys.

Afterward, the band is happy, if not a little skeptical—even self-deprecating. The sublimate of all the faint praise and smack talk is a giddy, pure pride. That’s all part of being in a band. And The Underhills are very much a band. Here, in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, the idea that anyone should be too old to rock—much less make any sort of art—is absurd, if not ageist. The Rolling Stones have been “too old” for at least 30 years, and it hasn’t hurt ticket sales.

“We’re doing what we wanna do — how we wanna do it first — and then finding our audience.”

But, in The Underhills case, they aren’t playing a clutch of original material, rather songs that mostly come from a subset of 80’s music that has become largely ignored in the current cultural conversation— the aforementioned College Rock—a blend of pop, punk, funk, Americana, and psychedelic music (among other things) that would eventually develop into the arguably more useful sobriquet, “Alternative Music.” Sure, they play some classic rock, some Outlaw Country, and even a few selections from The Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic, but they all feed back into the band’s well-curated approach.

The Underhills are all between 48 and 53 years old. They all have families—some with kids in college. They are all professionals in their respective careers. They have been playing music together for a decade but, with the exception of bassist Jeff Logan, none of them have been in bands that gained any real traction. Even then, Logan’s band, Bone Dali, were local legends with a growing regional following—but like his fellow Underhills, he eventually decided finishing college and finding a career was more important than chasing a music career.

But music remained a passion for The Underhills—a seemingly impossible itch to scratch. And while they remained music fans, no one ever thought they’d ever really play music again—or ever. But that all changed one Halloween:

MARK HAAS: “The people across the street from me have a Halloween party every year that’s kind of a big deal. And this band was playing one night. Towards the end, this guy that I knew from church— just knew him by name… didn’t know him well—asked to get up and sing a song with the band. He does not seem like the kind of guy who would do that. He’s an accountant and very much looks the part. He said ‘Do y’all know “Crazy Train?’ That was kind of a bold step.”

FRANK CATER: “We had a reunion at [Mountain Brook] High School years ago. They had a band. I was looking at their setlist and they had ‘Crazy Train.’ And so I said ‘Hey guys. Do you mind if I sing “Crazy Train”?’ They were like ‘That’s fine.’ So I got up—and I did! So then Halloween came not too long after that and that same band was playing at a function that was happening in the neighborhood. I went up and I said, ‘Hey! Do you mind if I sing “Crazy Train” with you again?’”

MARK: “So they launched into it. I guess I was expecting a ‘CPA’ version and he just killed it. I assumed he had done this before.”

FRANK: “I was always a bit of a frustrated singer. My mother was constantly singing—that’s probably where I got it. I never had an opportunity to try and do it [in a band]. I love karaoke.”

MARK: “So I called and left him a voicemail: ‘Hey. This is Mark Haas from church’—because that’s where I knew him—‘Give me a call.’”

FRANK: “I thought he was going to ask me to be in a bible study or something. He said, ‘So I have this idea to start a band. I heard you sing the other night and I thought you’d like to see what we could do.’ So I said, ‘That sounds like fun.’”

MARK: “The engine that makes the whole thing go is Frank. You take him away, it becomes pretty ordinary pretty quick.

BEN FULMER: “Frank is an incredibly nice guy. He is quippy and funny in real life. Kind of a smiling-all-the-time kind of guy. But you put him on stage as a frontman, he becomes a real entertainer. He’s got that thing. The rest of us don’t have that—he knows how to put on a show. The rest of us are just dudes”

GEORGE CARBONIE:“From Frank’s day-to-day life, no one would guess that he has an alter-ego. He just turns into this different guy. When the show starts he just goes into performance mode.”

It’s no surprise that all of The Underhills insist I spend time with Frank. Being on stage—performing —is his superpower. In a sense, he represents the collective group on stage. He is their spirit animal.

“I’m an accountant,” says Frank. “There are very few things about me that would surprise you. I’m pretty straight-laced or whatever, but I went to college… Whatever… Playing a part—I love doing that. Maybe I’m revealing a part of me. Am I taking my mask off or am I putting one on? I’m not sure. Maybe a little bit of both.”

With Frank secured, Mark immediately made a call to Jeff Logan with the hope he would play bass. Logan’s former band, Bone Dali, was an Auburn-based punk/funk band that was a local sensation in the late 80s/early 90s, playing lots of rowdy underground shows before graduating to larger venues. After the band ran its course, Jeff focused on finishing school and finding a career. Mark’s call was surprising and fortuitous:

“I hadn’t picked up an instrument in 20 years–1–and–2–I didn’t play bass,” says Logan with a laugh. “But I was like, “Man, I’d really like to get back into music.’ So I drove to Guitar Center and picked a bass up off the wall and started fooling around with it. Then I was like, ‘I remember enough to fake my way through it.’ So I called ‘em up and said ‘I don’t play bass, but I can. I’ll definitely do it.’”
Despite his past experiences, Logan’s inclusion into the nascent band didn’t bring with it any extra authority, but he helped instill a crucial bit of confidence.

“So much of it is putting yourself in the right spot for people to receive what you’re doing,” says Logan. “You can go to a wedding where the band is amazing and everyone’s ignoring them because they’re socializing. We’re doing what we wanna do—how we wanna do it first—and then finding our audience. That works better than finding what niche you wanna fit in.”

This attitude and approach are crucial to The Underhills. Of course, they want the audience to have a great time, but this is also a creative endeavor. And any creative endeavor worth its salt thrives on tension—with the audience and, often, within the band itself.

BEN: Our tastes are pretty different. Mark and Jeff are classic, edgy music guys. Those guys are all about edgy, alternative music. Barlow is probably a Yacht Rocker.”

GEORGE: “Barlow gave us a dimension we needed to pull this off. He’s got all the technical stuff… All the sounds we need to bring the whole deal together. He’s a very good musician.”

JEFF: “We all have fun. It’s just that Mark and George have two different personalities. Which is awesome—because you kinda need that. As long as it works.”

BEN: “Mark – who is our fearless leader…” GEORGE: “Well, he plays lead guitar.”

MARK: “Everybody else calls us ‘The Odd Couple.’ I’m the fastidious neat freak (Oscar?). I like the details right.

GEORGE: “The people who come to see us—if we play anything close to what the song is—they’re thrilled with it. That ‘mistake’ that we’ve made, Mark is the only one who noticed it.”

MARK: “George had never been in a band before. He’s got a gift for music—a natural who gets by on no practice. He can pick up the bass and play something. The guitar… He’s great like that.”

There have been a few other people that have floated in and out of The Underhills. But George Carbonie, along with Mark, Frank, and Jeff, are The Fab Four—the foundation of the band. There was initially another drummer, but he was having trouble making practices. Desperate to work out some material, Frank suggested George as a ringer.

“I had never performed for anybody.” Says George. “Frank called and said, ‘Hey do you play drums?’ For some reason he thought I played drums—and I didn’t—I don’t know where he really got that idea. But he said that his son had, literally, this little kid drum set in his basement and said, ‘Will you just come over and play them a little bit while we try to figure this out?’” Once assembled, Mark played the opening riff to “Wild Flower” by The Cult. When George responded with the correct drum fill… Well, they became a band.

“I know that whole album [1987’s Electric] in my head—whether I sat at a drum kit or not,” says George. “So I did that first lick to that song and Mark just stopped. ‘You know that song? Okay. You’re the drummer.’

“I went down to Mike’s Pawn Shop and bought a drum kit. Took my wife’s car, loaded it up, took it home and told Kristen ‘Hey, I’m gonna be in this rock band with these guys and I’m gonna play drums.’ And she said, ‘You don’t even have any drums.’ And I go, ‘Turns out I do. They’re in the Suburban.’”
Mark and George may love to talk smack about each other but their bond is undeniable. They may have seemingly opposing philosophies— grounded in their love of playing music—but that push and pull is what makes The Underhills rock. And though Frank is a force all his own, Mark and George are the group’s most physical musicians—and it’s that palpable energy that sends their music reeling.

MARK: “None of us have ever really tapped into this part of our lives. I’ve been in Birmingham 20 years and I’ve not held a guitar on stage until I did this. So it wasn’t like we have other outlets in music and we’re doing just this. I’ve played in bands that I’ve had a lot of fun in—but none that generated a good crowd or a good crowd reaction. This is fantasy camp.”

Mark Haas grew up in Mobile and went to college in Auburn. WEGL, the college radio station, was crucial.

“We constantly have a seesaw battle within the band,” he says. “I’m probably the one looking to go a little more obscure – because that was my taste.”
So a compromise was reached – and, from that, a concept formed. “We pick songs that take people our age back to college,” Mark says. “Some kind of obscure alternative stuff… The ultimate compliment is, ‘I haven’t heard that song in 20 years’ but they sing every word.” But in order to keep things interesting, they largely avoid “TheHits.” For example, they’ll play R.E.M. but they’re not going to play “Losing My Religion.”

“There’s nothing interesting about playing them,” says Mark. “To me, you go straight to the one no one would expect. Or you try to.”

That stance has proven successful both as an act of agency and a path to their current success. When Halloween rolled around again, the band played a party in Frank’s basement to somewhere between 50 and 80 people. The band later scored a gig at MAFIAoZA’S in Crestline. Though it was not unusual for the pizza joint to host live music—usually low-key acoustic music—they cleared out all the tables in the main dining room and let the band hire both a stage and a sound guy. They packed the place out, so they did it again. And again.

At a typical gig, The Underhills play between 40 and 50 songs (their current repertoire is about 100 songs deep) with barely any breaks. That’s a pace that would intimidate musicians half their age—so it’s all the more impressive that they can blaze through ‘em. “A lot of the times I’m saying, ‘We gotta slow down’ or ‘I gotta adjust the setlist’ or ‘I gotta get a break here,’” says George. “I’m playing 20-year-old-drummer songs. I’ll be 50 this year. The guys playing these songs were young.”

“We’ll take an eight-minute break,” says Mark. “Because—at our age—you take [too long of] a break – the Ubers start lining up. It’s eleven o’clock… You better get back up there pretty quick or it’s gonna empty out. It’s literally ‘Go to the bathroom. Get back up here. We gotta go!’ And people in the crowd are like [slurring] ‘Let’s go!’”

“I went down to Mike’s Pawn Shop and bought a drum kit. Took my wife’s car, loaded it up, took it home and told Kristen ‘Hey, I’m gonna be in this rock band with these guys and I’m gonna play drums.’ And she said, ‘You don’t even have any drums.’ And I go, ‘Turns out I do. They’re in the Suburban.’”

Those people are dancing, singing, and partying their asses off, too—including their wives who, when it comes to choosing new material, have become a crucial barometer: If they’re up front dancing and singing along, then they know they’re doing something right.
When it became clear that they were outgrowing their typical gigs (they play about 5 a year) they set their sights on Saturn—the state-of-the-art music venue in Avondale. It was a bold move, so they kept their expectations reasonably modest: “If you give us a bar tab,” says George, “then we’ll fill up the place.”

He wasn’t lying. This past Halloween they had 460 people at the 500 capacity club. “It was our crowd – friends and family,” says Mark. “But some other people who happened into Saturn that night came in. College kids came with their friends. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven.”
Now those kids are extending invitations to play their respective schools. And while they’re not interested in playing frat parties or whatever, they are thrilled that music is creating an even deeper connection with their kids—some of whom are musicians themselves, including Mike Barlow’s daughter and Ben’s eldest sons.

BEN: “My family—when we get together—we’re always queuing up music. My wife is into all kinds of music. My eldest child is all into Prog Rock—King Crimson—and Krautrock, Deep Purple, King Gizzard… That’s been a blast because we’re sending each other music all the time. It’s a huge part of our life: Not just playing music but listening to music.”

FRANK: “I was listening to all these songs—trying to learn the lyrics—and one good by-product is that—I have two boys—they learned all that stuff, too. So, in a way, I’ve kind of influenced what they listened to.”
But The Underhills are also grateful for the family they’ve found in each other.

BEN: “I’m this standard, stressful career type of guy. So to be able to jump over into a hobby like that… Well, it keeps you alive.”

GEORGE: “For this to be the first real band I’ve played in, we’ve built a separate little family—and we all get it. It’s just our thing. And it’s, for me—and probably everybody else—it’s so fulfilling. It’s one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.”

FRANK: “It’s brought me a group of friends that I wouldn’t be as close to otherwise. I was walking the dog the other night, listening to some of the music that we play, and I just texted everyone: ‘You guys are awesome. And whatever this is, I love it.’”