Artist Interview: Exercise

Posted: by The Editor

North Carolina-based band Exercise (Matt Wilkins on vocals/guitar, Matt Underwood on bass, and Dan Jones on drums) has been integral to the small but rowdy music scene in the pirate town of Wilmington. They’ve kept the house show scene alive and pulsing in the port city, and their LP Shrug was recently released in 2023. It has sloppy guitar and frantic, choppy vocals that feel like an instrument in its own right. With lyrics about eating Taco Bell in a parking lot or biting your nails, Exercise is a fun band to listen to with songs that are a little on edge, like you’re driving with expired plates. The almost disjointed sound is what makes this band so fun to see live.

When I first saw Exercise play in their small living room in downtown Wilmington, it checked all the boxes for a DIY show. There was a degree from the nearby college on the wall, unframed—as well as sticky floors, a porch full of smokers, and a whole lot of PBR. It was also hot—the south is always muggy, like living in someone’s mouth. You cram a bunch of people in a living room, and it’s going to be sweaty. That didn’t discourage me from bringing along some friends to see Exercise play with Floral Print (Atlanta) and local a punk band, AZZA, so I could gawk at the drummer, who I was crushing on. It was a rowdy night but what I remember most was the energy Exercise had brought—loud, frenzied, and a little goofy. Exercise finally created an Instagram this last year, dropped their LP Shrug, and have been playing shows around North Carolina with bands like Truth Club and Hiding Places. Matt Wilkins also has a solo project, MINI MALL, which recently dropped an EP. 

I sat down with Wilkins to chat about the band’s noisy house shows, releasing an LP, and what might be in store for the future. 

Give me a quick run-through of your history—Exercise has been a band for 6 years, and now your first LP is out. How did this one come together? 

We’ve probably got about 30 or 40 songs in the can that we used to rotate through during very loose and unhinged sets, usually at house shows. There was no real distinct sound of the band until I eventually created a more cohesive setlist of some songs that dated back to 2016. They all had somewhat of a similar tempo and mood, and that’s what eventually became the lineup for the album. 

Max Gowan, who is based in Raleigh, helped mix/master this one. He mentioned how he knew the instrumentals were gonna be amazing, but was surprised with the vocal takes on the last day—how you had a lot of charisma and your voice became more highlighted than originally intended. What was that recording process like?

Recording with Max G was one of the most fun, rewarding, organic things we’ve ever done as a band. I had heard of him through friends and was blown away when hearing his music. He’s got this crazy ear for melody and an ability to throw together these ethereal, kinda daydreamy songs. On top of that, he maneuvers the 1’s and 2’s on production like a jet pilot. We would fuck up a take of a song and he would go in and somehow edit them out like it was never there. The band went up for a weekend and knocked out all the songs in two days, but probably spent more time just hanging out with him and his partner, Amelia, in their backyard. He’s probably more than half of why the album turned out how it did.

What music are y’all listening to right now? Did any particular records inspire Shrug or your general sound? 

It’s just myself answering these, so I can’t really speak for the other guys, but I’ve been listening to a bunch of Soundcloud trash lately—trash stuff in a good way. Like, really abrasive techno that I’m pretty sure has blown out the speakers of my work truck, because there’s no audio normalization on Soundcloud, which essentially allows users to upload tracks as loud as they want to. Some stuff that I would say inspired the album would probably be System of a Down, Alex Calder, Pom Pokko, Spirit of the Beehive, Family Vision, Uranium Club, Black Midi, Wavves, and Hooded Fang. 

What was the writing process for Shrug collaborative? Did you have a vision for it?

I typically make little demos on my 4-track and will send them to the fellas. Now and then they’ll mention one they like, and we’ll flesh it out and try to make it last more than 2 minutes. “My Room” was a 30-second 4-track demo that I had on my Soundcloud, and Dan really liked it, so we started playing it—and tacked on some other progressions to make it what it is now.

You have thrown many house shows—any plans to keep this going? What’s it like running a house venue?

House shows are great for having a guaranteed rowdy audience, and we thrive off that—but for that same reason we had to pump the brakes. At our height, we were doing about 2 shows a month and without fail, we’d have a great turnout, but our house is also 110 years old, and there was the actual integrity of it to consider when packing people in. I can remember this one show, we played with our friends in Self-Help, and I’m pretty sure we had around 40 people in the living room. Every time they jumped with the music I would notice the floorboards start to sag a little more. I had to stop the song because I was nervous the actual floor would give away. Shit like that was what made us eventually chill out, plus the stale air in the house the morning after a show was on another level—breathing in stale beer vapor. Nasty. There has been talk of having another one though!

Any music plans for 2024? 

I’m hoping for another Exercise album by next summer—a few songs are in the can and those are the best yet. A lot of our songs go back 7-10 years ago, and it was all over the place when we first started recording—soul songs to disjointed rock—we didn’t really have a sound. Eventually, we narrowed our sound down to what it is now, something that sounds like it’s about to explode at all times. We tried capturing that feeling by playing frantic and loud and wanted that to come through in the riffs and tones of the music. 

Exercise will be playing at The Sandspur in Wilmington, NC, on March 30th, and at Trans Pecos in New York City on April 11th.


Ryleigh Wann | @wannderfullll

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