Jan 05, 2023
By Caleb Campbell
Rising NYC art rockers UNI and the Urchins often feel like a throwback to the dirty and dangerous days of the city, in no small part due to their love for ‘70s glam rock and adventurous visual aesthetics. Their early singles relied heavily on inspirations from Bowie and T. Rex, but the band are now set to explore an ambitious new era with their forthcoming debut album, Simulator, due out January 13th via Chimera Music.
While exploring themes of A.I. anxiety and trans-humanism, the record finds the band (led by Jack James and Kemp Muhl) embarking on a techno-futurist odyssey. They pull inspirations from the fringes of glam rock, post punk, disco, and industrial, fusing them into chimeric art punk meditations. The band have been teasing the album with a series of singles, each accompanied by a new music video, and today they’re back with their final single release from the record, “CLEAN,” premiering with Under the Radar.
“CLEAN” leans into the grungier side of the band, sketching a track that is at once gnarled, haunting, and anthemic. Bursts of horns color James’ vocals and Muhl’s rumbling basslines, enlacing into a sublime haze of dark punk psychedelia. At each moment, sharp fragments of melodic bliss intersect with downcast grunge guitars, balancing the band’s jagged instrumentals with their talent for captivating melodies. Meanwhile, the lyrics find the band reflecting on conformity as Muhl and James bristle against the pull of easy normalcy.
The band says of the track, “Be happy, they tell you. Be productive, be normal, be sane, don’t ask questions, don’t make a mess, stay in your lane, get a 401k, get married, get divorced, get cancer, then re-enter the void without ever looking it directly in the eye.
This was our small town directive. Our fathers rinsed our mouths out with soap for cursing. We got 10 lashings of the belt for being caught in early internet chat rooms. We’d go to Sunday school to pray the gay away. Even had to cut the front lawn with scissors once as punishment for sneaking out of the house wearing makeup.
Coming to the big city seemed like it would be different- but just more puritans and cults in other forms.
The nail that sticks out gets the hammer… ‘be special just like everybody else.’
So you try crystals. Science books. Uppers. Downers. Sex. Unrequited love. Fancy food. Starvation. Pasolini. Buddhism. Economics. Conspiracies. Nihilism. Panpsychism. Bowie. Bukowski. Can’t shake the void.
Until one day, you learn to embrace it.’
Check out the song and video below. Simulator is out everywhere on January 13th via Chimera Music. You can also read our introductory Q&A with the band below.
You’ve been releasing music for a few years now, first under the name UNI and now as UNI and the Urchins. When did the name change happen, and when/how did work on your debut record start coming together?
Kemp: We started with releasing on a vinyl 45 format, 2 songs at a time. Then we had our hands full touring and building giant vagina sets and pleather coffins, so quarantine was the first time to focus on album. We actually have 4 albums worth of songs recorded, and I accidentally smashed one of the hard drives, so we decided to curate the more dystopian remaining tunes for this first batch, ha.
Jack: There are two answers to the name change. Foremost that UNI and the Urchins represents a collective with our creative friends a la Warhol’s Factory. We wanted a name that would include all the outcast artists we’ve picked up along our journey; they are The Urchins along with our small core of awesome fans. The second answer is less romantic, which is that no one could find us on streaming platforms or on search engines because Spotify doesn’t recognize Japanese words apparently and assumed Uni was a prefix.
How did the record’s themes of tech acceleration and A.I. develop?
Kemp: It’s something we’re really inspired by and terrified of at the same time. Jack has a more optimistic view of the future than I do. But I got into gaming during covid, and the new algorithms for light ray tracing and water and gravity really blew my mind. It’s ironic because I invested all my money in collecting vintage music gear from the 1960s and now everyone makes music digitally with plugins for a fraction of the time and cost. So it is kind of a funeral dirge for everything I once loved, but also an undying attraction to science fiction.
Jack: The way I sung the record is from the perspective of an outsider narrating the material world. Opioids, apocalypse, and A.I. are the relevant topics of our time. I’ve always felt like the man who fell to earth…or the boy who fell to Texas, at least.
You’ve said that much of the album was made virtually (aka physically apart). Did that experience influence the album’s tech-oriented themes?
Kemp: Jack was kind enough to visit me on a remote farm sometimes for late night sessions. We’d get weird with tape delay and neural networks. And I got our bandmates Andrew and Cae to play some remote overdubs and drums, even my violinist friend Earl and his cellist wife would play my midi arrangements over email. But it was mostly a very solitary and spooky experience in the woods I would equate with The Shining.
Jack: We recorded the album mostly apart due to outside circumstances (covid), which of course influenced the record because we’re narrating what’s going on in the world through detached observation and anechoic chambers.
I also read that you used AI when writing the title track. How did that change your creative process and did it change how you see the technology?
Jack: The AI word generators for the title track was mostly creative flint, like Bowie did with cut-ups. It was a fun angle in sparking song writing flames. Some of the lyrics the bot came up with were absolutely hilarious and others were deeply depressing… A.I. may need some serious therapy.
Kemp: It actually made the creative process harder because it would generate this word salad (under subject matters of our choosing) and then we’d have to curate it into a rhyming schema, etc. Was a bit like Sudoku. The way I see the technology is a harmless novelty now but will ultimately replace a lot of humans in the workplace and contribute to the overwhelming sense of meaninglessness as an artist. But fighting it will be on the wrong side of history.
How did you work to balance the record’s futuristic themes with the more retro glam rock side of your previous output?
Kemp: To me, splicing what we love about the past and future is a pretty seamless chimera, since it’s all the same themes anyway. Ziggy Stardust was obsessed with the space race. We are obsessed with AI and ectogenesis and blockchain. It’s all just wondering, what will happen next, and will it explain where we come from, or what our purpose is?
Jack: Yeah, Glam Rock had futuristic themes for its time; landing on the moon, communist body snatchers, extra terrestrial existence were the tech of its time. Sonically, it’s diverging from what you think of “glam rock” but I’d still call it neo-glam rock.
You all have developed a really alluring aesthetic for your debut. What are some of the inspirations behind the record’s art and visuals?
Jack: Thanks! Sooooooo many eclectic things. Kemp and I are constantly sending each other inspo. We collect and marry visuals that in our mind match a song’s themes and sonic vibe. Anything from Grace Jones to Hildegard of Bingen or praying mantises and Nick Knight editorials. The only rule is something that makes you question what you’re looking at and is equal parts disturbing and beautiful.
Kemp: Literal sea urchins inspired the spiky makeup on our album cover plus my hair in the ‘Clean’ video. Kubrick films and science magazines really get my juices flowing. Jack and I send each other vintage McQueen fashion refs constantly, which we then figure out how to make with no money. We’ve made dresses from literal garbage bags and melted candle wax. But now that AI image generation is so adept, I’ve been using it to generate our own haute couture designs and mood boards so we don’t need to look for external inspo.”
Why did you choose to make a music video for each of the record’s tracks? Do the videos have a uniting theme?
Kemp: Yeah, the themes consistently explore the perspective of an alien bemused by the absurdity of human behavior. Man Who Fell To Earth, but in the time of Tik Tok. It’s hard for us to record a song without visualizing an accompanying video, although it’s definitely not cost effective. Jack and I have a lot of fun getting synesthetic and scrappy with the accompanying visuals though.”
Jack: I’m inclined to say if there’s a uniting theme, it’s to always question what you’re looking at. I think it’s important to question everything in this surreal matrix dream. I always have disliked the term “write what you know”, where’s the fun in that? As to why we chose to make a video for each song? The simplest answer is: practice and world-building for our feature film. These vids will be proof of concept for potential funding.
What are some of the inspirations behind “CLEAN” and the new track’s accompanying video?
Jack: I interpreted is as an anti-conformity anthem. Virgil has a quote that sums up how I feel about the song, “It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air – there’s the rub, the task.”
Kemp: It was originally a portrait of a close family member with schizophrenia who was convinced we were all in on the conspiracy to make them feel crazy and deny their hallucinations. It was very heartbreaking for me growing up with that and getting sucked into some of the conspiracies until my own sense of reality became warped. But Jack has reinterpreted the song beautifully into being more about an outsider or black sheep that the world wants to grind down into conformity and rob of imagination. For a nation of medication- mental health has never been worse. It’s another aspect of post-quarantine and social media reality that young people struggle with, so hopefully music is a positive force for making alienated kids more connected to the collective unconscious.