Understand: “It’s gonna be a nice closure of that period”

Twenty-five years after Southenders Understand disbanded, the group finally release their long-awaited second album, ‘Real Food at Last’, posthumously celebrating founding member John Hannon.

Twenty-five years ago, Southenders Understand set about recording demos for their potential second album. 

After the dissolution of their deal with then-label East/West Records, post the fumbled distribution handling of their 1995 debut album ‘Burning Bushes and Burning Bridges’, interest came from left and right with a new deal elsewhere to be scribbled and sealed imminently. So they set to work. Holing up a shack, piecing together ideas, they were planning on following up a debut which had received critical as well as fan acclaim. Everything seemed to be going their way. Unfortunately, nothing came to fruition. 

While ‘Burning Bushes’ found its footing as a solid example of the future of post-hardcore, becoming a cult favourite with its gloriously melodic sounds amongst a barrage of hardcore daggers, they inevitably wound up going their separate ways after a final show in 1998.  

The five of Understand – John Hannon (guitar), Dom Anderson (vocals), Stuart Quinell (bass), Andy Shepherd (drums), and Rob Coleman (guitar) – let the sketches and demoed tracks lie. Taking them out over the years, slowly converting them from the older formats they’d recorded them – in what was essentially a shed with a few rented mics – it was an Understand WhatsApp group that led to the tracks properly resurfacing.

Very much separated by land and sea, the five-piece had followed differing paths. Various industry-related jobs ended up carrying them to different corners of the globe. But it was these jobs that would inevitably lead to ‘Real Food at Last’ finding its way out into the world. Calling in favours, and with Rise Records eventually coming on board also, the album was finally establishing its footing. Though not before tragedy struck.

The process of getting the album licked and polished was well underway – and during Covid to boot – but there was no real rush, after all these were songs that had been germinating for decades. But in May 2021, Understand suffered the tragic loss of John. This is why ‘Real Food at Last’ now holds even more weight to the band. Not only is it a moment of celebration for the band writ large, but also for their founding friend. It was with him that Understand established itself and almost made the dream come true.

Reflecting on their time now as a band, Dom describes the scene they found themselves in back in the mid-90s. “It wasn’t like we were all super serious people. We were lumped in with the straight-edge scene back in the day; we played with a lot of those bands, and a couple of the members of the band just chose not to drink. But we weren’t one of these super serious, straight-edge bands. We weren’t singing about straight-edge themes or anything like that.”

The band’s entire look was all a part of their charm. They felt like the kids down the road who one day heard Fugazi and then decided that was it. “We weren’t a regular hardcore band, so none of the normal, metal-y kind of aggro imagery ever felt appropriate to us. We were always presenting ourselves as more along that DC band style. It was never a band that felt like it could be funny or cheesy; it was always very serious and just very straight to the point.”

‘Real Food at Last’ picks up where ‘Burning Bushes’ left off. This was mostly in part due to John’s commitment to bringing the tracks to life. John was part of the band’s integral aesthetic and musical glue. So much so that while being the “studio guy”, this also meant that “he was the keeper of all of the files,” says Dom. “And the tapes and all the stuff. So, there was a whole process of having to get hold of his computer and get it in the hands of someone over there in England who could find the files and get the files sent to where we needed them sent to get them mixed. 

“John was also the taste-keeper for the band,” Dom continues. “He was the one who did all of the graphic design and artwork for the earliest stuff that we did, and for our first album. So everything moving forward with this record always had that ‘what would John do’ mentality.”

The band’s issues in 1995 which led to their breaking up never came from any personal level for the group, which is why this return feels even more triumphant. “It seemed like a fairly natural thing,” says Dom. “It wasn’t like the band had this big break up, it wasn’t like we had this big, ‘Oh, you’ve been dropped from the record label’, everything just kind of petered out, you know. And obviously, that was disappointing. And it was disappointing at the time that the first album didn’t do better because it got great reviews, and was received well. And the band was on a big high at the time.

“We were touring with lots of cool bands when the record actually came out. Like the week of release, we were on tour opening for Therapy? around the UK and Europe, and you couldn’t really be with a bigger alternative band at that time in whatever that was, 94/95. So everything was going great apart from no one could get actually go and buy the record, because they just didn’t really make any! Which was crazy; I still, to this day, don’t really understand how it got so fucked up. But I think we were just lost in a world of major labels at the time, suddenly just grabbing every alternative band that they could, and throwing them all at the wall and see which ones stuck.”

“We were just lost in a world of major labels suddenly just grabbing every alternative band that they could”

Dom Anderson

As for the idea of new material, it’s something that has been bandied about the WhatsApp chats, albeit in a not-so-serious manner. “We’ve talked about it. And it’s really been only in kind of jokey conversation.” The reality is, with a couple of members tour-managing gigantic rock acts (Dom is currently with Muse, and Rob with Iron Maiden), the others living halfway around the world, and with John’s passing, an understandable and perhaps even untenable gap created, it’s just not likely. 

Twenty years is a long time for anything to be sat around, let alone a literal snapshot of who you were, and how you sounded when you were two decades younger. Thinking upon it now, Dom is pleased with the outcome. “I have a copy of it; it looks great. It sounds great. The feedback is really good. So I think it’s gonna be a nice closure of that period,” he says earnestly. “And of that little set of songs. I think it’s going to do itself proud, and considering it was recorded by ourselves basically in a shed on a pig farm in Hullbridge, Essex, it sounds great. It’s a good final piece of the puzzle.” ■

Taken from the May 2023 edition of Upset. Understand’s album ‘Real Food At Last’ is out now.