Underscores Is a Hyperpop Legend in the Making

Photo: Dan Franco

Devon Karpf, better known as underscores, is a creative force to be reckoned with. The San Francisco native took an interest in composing and recording music at the age of six, ultimately laying the groundwork for their journey of becoming the innovative and eclectic hyperpop musician we know them as today.

Karpf first made their sonic presence known on SoundCloud in 2015 with the release of their first single, “mild season.” The dubstep track opens with pulsating beats layered over the sounds of cars driving on the highway, building into a collage that envelops the listener in a flurry of wobbly beats and enrapturing synths patterns. The track ends with a monologue from underscores eluding to an era of “computer music” and how the movement is only just beginning.  

According to the artist, the story of underscores actually begins with the release of their 2018 project skin purifying treatment. The eight-track record is a striking mix of jazz and modern, experimental electronic aesthetics that results in a unique, passionate, and inspired sound, focusing on an internal conflict between emotion and logic. “It was literally the first time I had used my voice and written lyrics for something serious,” they share. “After seeing how it impacted my online friends when it came out and how they resonated with the feelings I was trying to express, I think I decided then, and there I wanted to do that over and over again.”

Following the success of skin purifying treatment, underscores kept the ball rolling with back-to-back releases, including 2019’s we never got strawberry cake. The project highlighted the budding hyperpop artist’s vibrant and detail-oriented production and writing prowess. “To this day, I’m still the most proud of we never got strawberry cake, shares Karpf. "It’s a 3-song EP I kinda just put out when I was done with it. I think I’m as proud as I am with it because I didn’t give myself ample time to start resenting it (laughs). Usually, with most artists, once we finish a body of work, we have to sit on it for months before it can come out, which can lead to us starting to hate the art. I’m pretty sure as soon as I finished that EP, I made the cover art and uploaded it to DistroKid or something. It was a really great feeling.”

Karpf continued to creatively grow throughout 2019 and 2020, amid the pandemic, eventually releasing character development! This noted development was especially evident in songs like “clean!,” with its pitched vocals and sparse pads and synths that   a satisfyingly peppy quality to the forefront before making the perfect transition into a slower, slightly more somber section at the end. Another standout track during this period was the infectiously happy “pay attention!” The song is reminiscent of acts like MGMT, with its varicolored instrumentals, including rainbowy guitar riffs, head-bob inducing drum lines, and a fantastic synth arpeggio that adds a bit of flare every eight bars while still feeling so authentic to underscores' trademark sound.

In March 2021, they released their highly anticipated debut album, fishmonger, which featured a blend of various genres, including indie rock, emo, bedroom pop, and ambient music. The two flagship singles, “Second hand embarrassment” and “Kinko’s field trip 2006,” drummed up excitement before its full release with its repeated mantra, a “new wave of the future!,” taking on a life of its own.  

fishmonger is brimming with punchy, punk-style drums, catchy lyrics, beautifully paired instrumentals, and gritty distortions that transport listeners to an entirely different plane. Featuring appearances from longtime collaborator and electronic/indie artist Knapsack, experimental electronic artist 8485, and indie artist Maxwell Young, the album reflects on the “uncanny” and “uncomfortable middle,” a “transitional spot” between two points that underscores experienced at the time of writing the album. These themes of in-betweenness and dwelling in liminal spaces are further explored and portrayed in the accompanying visuals for the album, especially in the music video for “Spoiled little brat” and “Second hand embarrassment.”

The record earned high praise from old and new fans and even captured the hearts of other artists like glaive, Blink-182’s Travis Barker, and Norwegian producer Lido. Once touring became an option again, Karpf found themselves on the road opening up for one of their childhood heroes, hyperpop heavyweight 100 gecs. “That was a crazy full-circle moment - they’ve been my idols since high school, so that was a super special experience for me.” Finally, in December 2021, underscores gave listeners a present just in time for the holidays and left us on an even higher note with the release of yet another album, boneyard aka fearmonger.

boneyard aka fearmonger, is a seven-track collection that combines indie pop and indie rock elements, hyperpop aesthetics, grandiose sound production, superb songwriting, and even features a cameo from recently converted underscores fan Travis Barker. Karpf shared in an interview with Rolling Stone that after they finished fishmonger, they didn’t make music for five months. “I didn’t know what to do,” they confess. “In those months, I had my first brush with a feeling of existential dread. I got super into trying to put that apocalyptic setting into whatever the music was."  

They started writing boneyard aka fearmonger with a central concept in mind, exploring the sensation of fear from different angles. This new era began with the release of the restless, drum-and-bass heavy single "Everybody’s Dead!” “When people listen to this EP, I want their initial reaction to be, ‘This is ridiculous,’” Karpf tells Genius. “But then, the more they listen to it, they should hear the nuance in it, the heaviness in it, and I hope they connect with it on some kind of emotional level. The ultimate goal is to turn people off, then win them back.” Reflecting on their growth, underscores admits they wanted to do a lot of different things with  fishmonger but didn’t know how to organize their ideas at the time. “The process of writing boneyard might’ve been a little too type-A, haha, so I definitely want my songwriting process to evolve for the better…I definitely just wanted to make some more fun songs, though!”

underscores is starting their year by hitting the road again this March on a mini-tour and will be making a return to San Francisco for their first hometown show. “It’s where I spent my entire childhood, so this will kinda be my first proper hometown show, haha. Also really stoked to see juno and jedwill perform. They’re both incredible artists. So the lineup is stacked, for sure.”

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