USS on Their Momentum Towards Connection Through Music

Photo from Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker

One day after the release of New World Alphabet, Ashley Buchholz of USS(Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker) feels so buoyant he’s at risk of floating away.

“I’ve been having to wear steel-toed shoes to make sure that I stay on the ground,” says Buchholz. “I’m in quite an ethereal [state]. This is the byproduct of catharsis, this lightness.”

Even though New World Alphabet is USS’s fifth album, the excitement Buchholz feels differs from their previous releases. His excitement is a testament to the work he and his bandmate Jason Parsons put into New World Alphabet. Now that the album is complete, Buchholz describes his emotions with metaphors of air and water. His predominant feeling is awe: “Now life is just floating.”

New World Alphabet represents a creative turning point for the Toronto-based duo. The album’s sound is the fusion of two-step, acoustic rock, and hip hop that is USS’s signature. The theme is a departure from the predominantly inward focus of their previous albums (the self-destructive mentality on their 2014 single “This Is The Best” comes to mind). Instead, the focus on New World Alphabet is external, with a goal of fostering connection. “Who’s With Me” is USS’s anthem for togetherness.

Conceptually, New World Alphabet begins after one resolves to make a change. Buchholz says, “[The album] boils down to the statement that precludes any great, true change in one’s life: ‘I’ve had enough’… All of a sudden you start acting differently, and you start talking differently, and you start being around different people and your life starts to change.” From there, says Buchholz, one starts to use language differently to communicate a changed perspective. This new language is a new world alphabet.

The shift from an inward to outward focus is indicative of Buchholz’s changed mindset. In USS’s 2008 single “Hollow Point Sniper Hyperbole,” Buchholz needs someone to save him from his sinking ship. Almost ten years later, he wants to act like a lighthouse for those who are feeling isolated by their depression and anxiety. “I want to be a lighthouse instead of lost at sea,” he says. “I’m tired of being the one who’s lost at sea.”

Buchholz is a self-professed introvert who, for a time, isolated himself because he felt uncomfortable around other people. Eventually he realized, “We get so sick when it’s just about us.” He made a decision to change his mindset and in so doing, he felt an energy that became the catalyst for his desire to connect. He says, “There’s this point in the process when it stops being so much about you… [It changes] to ‘How can I make you feel better? How can I help you?’ This whole album is informed by that momentum.”

A few dates into a Canadian tour that will take them across the country, Buchholz already knows what he hopes USS will accomplish in their performances: he wants to foster the maximum connection. For Buchholz and Parsons, the tour is an “opportunity to be able to connect with people.” When he performs, whether he is playing older USS material or songs from New World Alphabet, “I’m singing those songs to people that need that vibration, that comforting vibration.” His hope is that everyone – himself and Parsons included – come away from the show with feelings of togetherness and joy.

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of BeatRoute Magazine.

Spring in Vancouver

North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Cherry blossoms in North Vancouver

Yesterday was the first day of spring. For the first time since I left a month and a half ago, I miss Vancouver. Unlike the rest of Canada where the adage about April showers and May flowers rings true, March brings the first relief from months of rain and fog. I felt most content in spring. The despondency of winter only hit me when the rain fell; the breeze warded off the heavy restlessness of summer.

North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Cherry blossoms on a house in North Vancouver

In spring I set off to beautifully unremarkable places just to remind myself that I could. I went to Greater Mission Squamish Reserve in North Vancouver and took photos from the peripheries. I visited a boy I loved in Victoria and drank until I cried on Douglas Street. I listened to “Townie” by Mitski and felt something that was indistinct and good. (“Drunk Walk Home” reverberates with the weight of July’s heat.) I thought the trees in full bloom turned West 7th to the prettiest street in the world. I checked out CDs from the Vancouver Public Library and listened to them on my apartment’s sagging balcony, looking out onto the stinking alley I loved like it was mine.

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Holland Point, Victoria

Now that I’m away from it, preparing for fall in the opposite hemisphere, I remember how spring felt. It was raw with potential and nerves exposed. I was beat by winter and months of pursuing landmark goals: finishing a degree, establishing a career, finding the next love of my life and other such shit. Whereas in winter I was all stress and perspiration by early nightfall, in spring I found stillness in the last light of a day growing steadily longer. I sat in Jonathon Rogers Park and felt a hush.

Fairview, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Flowers in Fairview, Vancouver

Melbourne’s fall comes with rain and fog. To transition from winter to fall – with a few weeks’ Australian summer in between – means I’m missing the time of year that made me feel the most hopeful. I feel like I’m stuck in the endless pursuit of accomplishment. I oscillate between giving no fucks and giving all the fucks in the world, an indeterminate state that feels like the first whispers of resignation. Now I have to find my own relief in a country without the seasonal signifier I knew and the feelings they cyclically evoked. I must find my own contentment and stillness. But after trudging through winter, all I want is the first lightness of spring.

Song of the day: Townie by Mitski

I Got Drunk and Hiked a Mountain So You Wouldn’t Have To

    Mount Wellington, Hobart, Tasmania, AustraliaA portrait of an unimpressed woman at the top of Mount Wellington

I hadn’t intended to get drunk and hike a mountain when I set out that morning in Hobart, Tasmania. My plans for the day were completely innocuous: a coffee in the morning followed by a walk by the rivulet. I walked along in nature, conversing with wallabies, eating a scone that tasted like grass and feeling very wholesome overall. That is until I realized I was inadvertently en route to the nearest brewery. Never one to overlook an opportunity, I decided to visit Cascade Brewery.

Rivulet, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Hobart Rivulet

In many ways, I should have been commended for arriving just ten minutes past noon; it was indicative of my morning productivity. I caught a few side eyes as I sat down in the sun with my tasting flight but I was unperturbed. I was living my best life. To be fair, I didn’t get drunk while I was there. I drank less than two pints total but they were two pints that made me feel.

When I took off afterward on an unknown path, I realized I was en route to Mount Wellington. In a rare moment of hubris, I decided that I was well capable of making a quick jaunt up the mountain. As I started along the path I fancied myself an expert solo hiker, recounting to myself the details of all my past hiking successes. Not once did I think about the time I ended up stuck on a cliff edge after ambling through a pathless forest. I was an adventurer whose journeys had yielded nothing but successes.

Cascade Brewery, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Cascade Brewery

I ate all my trail mix within the first fifteen minutes. I drank all my water within the first forty-five. I was resilient, albeit a little peckish. An hour into my hike I realized I was nowhere close to a washroom. An hour and fifteen minutes in, I didn’t care. I was having the time of my life, though I was getting a little tired of inclines instead of grassy meadows. As the inclines grew steeper, I realized with horror that I was only halfway up the mountain. In fact, as a consequence of taking the path from the brewery, I was hiking up the mountain by the longest route possible.

By the time I neared the summit I was sobered up, dehydrated and in an altogether terrible mood. I thought close to an hour of navigating across rock piles would lead to a more appreciable result but I still had another path to follow before I reached the summit. This path, too, was devoid of facilities. I was so thirsty I thought about trying to hitch a ride with one of the passing cars.

Mount Wellington, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
The view from Mount Wellington

When I finally reached the apex of Mount Wellington, I was rewarded with a full view of Hobart and its surroundings, alongside hundreds of tourists in flip flops and summer dresses. I climbed three and a half hours up the mountain only to realize everyone else had gotten there by bus. I was too angry to even celebrate the completion of the hike. I stuck a middle finger at some tour buses and started back down the mountain with all the water the bathroom tap would allow.

Not long into my descent, I passed a sweaty German couple who asked if the view at the summit as worth the hike. I told them it was worth it so long as they were willing to look past the people up there in sandals. The woman said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I was not. There were far easier methods for reaching the top of Mount Wellington.

MONA, Museum of Old and New Art, Mount Wellington, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Mount Wellington as seen from the MONA

Eventually I caught a city bus back to the Hobart CBD and I sat by my sweaty self in the Shamrock Pub with a veggie burger and a cider. The moral of this story is twofold: always preplan your hiking route and never start at a brewery before you climb a mountain.

Song of the Day: The Nosebleed Section by Hilltop Hoods

The Rave in Sydney, Australia

Bass Rave, UFO Club, Valve Bar Basement
Loz Nonsense at Valve Bar Basement

I left a nearly empty bar and walked out into a hot Sydney night. I stood by the curb weighing my options. I walked up to two girls who left the bar a few minutes before I did. Hoarse from a weird cold I’d picked up in Brisbane, I asked if they knew of a better bar in the area. Rather than direct me to a bar, they invited me to a rave they were heading to. They could have sold me on a trip to Macca’s at that point, I was so relieved to have a destination and female companions. The only patrons I’d encountered in Side Bar were males with body odour.

The three of us crossed the street in the wrong direction, crossed back and moved on a changed course. The girls introduced themselves as we made our way north on Pitt Street: Bethanne, two years my junior and Cody, five years. They conversed freely with me and with nearly every male who passed. Actually, it was only with me that they conversed. They catcalled every male under the age of forty. To men moving in packs they called, “The boys, the boys!” To men in cars they called, “The boys, the boys!” To the poor solitary dude who had the misfortune of crossing our path they called, after some consultation between them, “The boy, the boy!” All of this was in reference to a video they showed me, the existence of which I have since been unable to verify.

After twenty minutes of walking the only place we had reached was a 7/11, where a couple of bogans in straw hats stuck Band-Aids on Cody’s scraped knee and Bethanne bought cigarettes. I began to wonder what the hell I was doing there and whether I should buy another Cherry Ripe. I didn’t. We exited and again changed course. We had walked in the wrong direction.

When we finally arrived at the Agincourt Hotel, we went up a few flights of stairs to find another empty bar. We were told to go to the basement so we went back down, past the pokies and horse racing broadcasts to a dimly lit bar called Valve.

Valve was disproportionately populated by white people with dreadlocks for an event called GlitchSys Bass Rave. The DJ, another white man with dreadlocks, played heavy dupstep while the crowd danced itself to frenzy to his repetitious beat. A man with crazy eyes passed out Spider-Man stickers to people dancing around the stage. I smiled like a grimacing emoji at the man and the shiny Spider-Man on my arm. I found Bethanne and Cody on the dance floor, themselves covered in shiny stickers. They asked if I wanted them to tell me before they left but I said I was able to make my own way back.

After a few hours of dancing I consulted a posted setlist and realized that I had, in fact, been there for about twenty minutes. A guy in goggles approached me twice to ask if I’d like him to buy me a drink, perhaps not realizing that I wasn’t two similarly dressed people but was instead one disinterested person. I waited around for the next set to start while the people around me continued to two-step to whatever was playing on the house speakers. I sighed and admitted to myself that I simply wasn’t on their level. I peeled the Spider-Man sticker from my arm and walked back out into the hot Sydney night.

Song of the Day: Diamond Heart by Lady Gaga

Sixteen Hours in Guangzhou, China

Guangzhou, China
Canton Tower, Haizhu District

A bargain price is never without its catch; inexpensive flights are no exception. When I read over the details of the bargain flight I found for a round trip from Vancouver to Melbourne, I realized the catch was a sixteen hour layover in Guangzhou, China.

Guangzhou is a city two hours northwest of Hong Kong. It is currently China’s third largest city behind Beijing and Shanghai, and it is generally considered an important node in the global economic system. This I learned from a Wikipedia search. The specifics of international geography are not my strong suit. I decided that a layover in Guangzhou agreed with me and all other details I could work out later.

Pearl River, Zhujiang River, Haizhu District
A group of men play cards along the Pearl River

The flight landed at six at night, two in the morning PST. What I thought was cloud cover as the plane made its descent turned out to be smog. I had no trouble getting a visa for a half day’s stay in China; I had a great deal of trouble locating my hotel even though it was practically attached to the airport. When I finally made it to the hotel my Raptors jersey and duffle bag were met with some side eyes but I had no issues checking in. Within an hour, I was back on the street and determined to take the subway to the Haizhu District. Two hundred metres out of the hotel lobby, I realized I couldn’t tell driveway from roadway.

I took an hour long taxi ride through the residential districts of Guangzhou. We drove past hundreds of apartment buildings, some clean white, many with stained facades. Windows glowed pale with fluorescent lights, casting eerie shadows in stairwells and against the clothes hung from lines across hundreds of small grated balconies. As we came closer to the Haizhu District more buildings were topped with gigantic neon signs, flashing coloured light onto the adjacent buildings. I wondered what it would be like to hang your shirts in the glow of red neon.

The taxi let me off along the Pearl River, near Canton Tower. The river walk was packed with pedestrians taking photos of the tower, of the river, of themselves, and of the coloured lights that seemed to beam from every bridge and building. I realized after the fact that I was in the district on a Friday during the opening night of the Guangzhou International Light Festival.

Liede Bridge during the Guangzhou International Light Festival

The lights and the crowd thrilled me at first but as I walked around, I began to feel lonely. I obliged the first pair of women who asked for a photo – surely they realized I was an average looking white person and not a Gigi Hadid in their midst – but declined anyone who asked after. The gaze of by passers made me feel alien. Never before had I been a visible minority. Huacheng Square was closed to pedestrians by the time I reached it, leaving me at a dead end a few kilometres from where I started on the riverbank opposite from where I intended to be. For the first time I was stuck by the realization that I could become lost in Guangzhou and if that happened, I wouldn’t be able to ask for help. In the middle of a crowd of thousands I was completely alone.

I hailed a return taxi at close to eleven. I showed the driver my hotel name in Cantonese on my phone. He raised his hand and made an engine sound. Yes, I was staying at the airport hotel. As he drove the winding highway past the neon lights and stained facades I struggled to stay awake, drifting and waking fitfully in the glare of five storey flashing signs.

In front of the hotel lobby I paid the driver in yuan, grateful to have enough small bills to pay the fare exactly. When I opened the door to exit the taxi, he began to protest loudly. He waved the money at me. I looked from the metre to the money, certain I had given him the right fare. I moved for the door again but he started to yell. I got out anyway. He motioned for the bellhop, with whom he conversed. The bellhop told me I owed an additional five yuan. “That’s not what the metre showed.” They spoke again. “Yes, five yuan.” I was prepared to argue it but the language barrier stacked the odds against me. I paid the five yuan. The equivalent of $1.05 Canadian wasn’t worth arguing about. I made my way back to my room, washed the city from my hair, and closed the curtains on the moonless sky.

Song of the Day: Jeopardy by Run The Jewels