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Mar 25, 2020

By Richard Ray Ruiz

Photography By Melissa Rodwell & Words by Katherine Turman

Uni are insane. Beautifully, wonderfully so, in the best of all possible ways, musically, personally and visually. Glam aliens? Check. Decadently dark? Quite. Rapid-fire, deadpan, sarcastic humor plus super-brainy? In spades. Uni are old souls, old school, the new wave, futuristic freaks riding their Uni-cycle to the future. Bassist/producer Charlotte Kemp Muhl, guitarist/David Strange, and singer Jack James Busa are the earthbound (ish) aliens who form the core of Uni, one of the more remarkable bands to emerge out of New York this century. 

It’s difficult to capture and condense Uni’s wondrous musical and visual madness in words, but in a wide-ranging interview romp at NYC’s Highlight studios, discussed was Marcel Duchamp, alleged Satanic goat sacrifices, chess, Oscar Wilde, leaking homemade human-sized aquariums, truffle oil in place of WD-40, and the Uni mockumentary. Uni have toured with The Claypool Lennon Delirium, among others, but defy musical clarification. In short: “We’re a surrealist sonic and visual group… that just happens to melt your face off.” 

Let’s start at the sort of beginning. David, you and Kemp knew each other first; how did you meet? 

CHARLOTTE KEMP MUHL: In the Paleolithic era.  

DAVID STRANGE: Kemp was frozen in ice. It was a long process. She’s actually 4,000 years old. I was working as an intern in the lab at the time…

CKM: …Cryogenics…. 

DS: …There was an electrical outage one night, she thawed and broke free. I chased her down and the rest is…   

Ha! Ok, Jack, how did you come to meet these fine people? 

CKM: Grindr! 

DS: Uh, no, because nobody actually responded to your Grindr.

JACK JAMES BUSA:These guys are my last resort for love and affection! Well, really, I think it was right after David Bowie passed away and I was starting to get these inklings where I was like, ‘I need to be doing something else.’ I was going on [acting] auditions all the time and I usually keep my hair brown and kept myself looking like a ‘fillable mold.’ But it just was driving me nuts ’cause I felt like a super freak inside. I couldn’t express it. So I thought maybe I should make music, ’cause if anybody fills [Bowie’s] spot and if I didn’t even try… Around this time I was at a coffee shop, and two really hairy, big, scary monsters are at the table next to me. It was Kemp and David, and I overhear them, Kemp going to David, ‘We need to find a lead singer!’ I was looking really cool, in a velvet bell-bottom suit, and I was like…

CKM: …Oh yeah, parenthetical insert: I clocked Jack walking into the coffee shop wearing a full velvet suit with a wide-brim hat, looking straight up like a ‘70s rock star while I was yelling at David, ‘where are we going to find a lead singer?!’ When Jack walked in, I said, ‘That fucking kid right there would be perfect. There’s no way he can sing.’ But what really happened was he was just too shy to come up and I was too shy to say anything to him.

DS: We held auditions right before our tour and he shows up, and we’re like, ‘Wait a second, you’re the kid in the coffee shop!’ 

JJB: When I looked up Uni, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my band. ‘That’s the band I should be in.’ I auditioned with the song ‘Adult Video.’  

CKM: Jack was just beyond right for it. I realized we had created this vacuum, and he embodied the whole vibe. Our last lead singer was really resistant to wearing makeup and really didn’t like the ‘Adult Video’ music video we did, which is our most popular, with almost half a million views now. We didn’t have to tell Jack what to wear; he just was super extra… [he] is, is!

I couldn’t quite figure out your discography. You have one EP and a bunch of singles? 

CKM: Not even. We’ve only put out 7-inch singles on vinyl. Old school, just an A-side and a B-side. We wanted to start a little old school and just sort of trickle out. 

DS: All these bands coming out in New York that are getting discovered; we went a different route where we decided if we’re gonna put our music online, we want to make it as difficult as possible for people to find. [Laughter] We succeeded, and that’s why you’re confused about our discography. We made it so that we’re impossible to find on Spotify. If it wasn’t for this interview, we would probably remain in blissful obscurity.

Tell me a bit about Uni’s upcoming first full-length album. 

JJB: We discussed having 13 tracks on the album. I personally like the number 13 because of its connotations in religion (Judas was believed to be the 13th and final apostle to sit at the Last Supper), folklore (some ancient cultures claimed 13 represented femininity because of the number of lunar or menstrual cycles in a year), and even politics (13 stripes on the American flag to represent the original colonies). I believe I’ve done vocals on about upwards of 40 songs. Kemp and David have written so many more. We are currently in the process of selecting which songs make the album. Some go together more thematically, some go together more sonically, and we want to give a variety of up-tempo v. more slow-burn ballad types, like ‘Debris.’ 

Is there a lyrical theme or concept for the record? 

CKM: It’s kind of post-apocalyptic, kind of like AI alien, like Ziggy Stardust, but from the year 3000. Actually, we really want to do a full rock opera. Hopefully when we put out this next round of videos, which we’ve done with Jack and are really epic, we’ll be able to get crowdfunding or something to be able to do a feature film rock opera, which will be like our The Wall or whatever.

DS: As I once heard Tyler the Creator say, ‘If you’re a rich, old white man with a lot of money listening to this right now, and you want to invest in a rock opera,’ text Kemp. 

I’m seeing and hearing what you’re about, but I want to hear in your own words about Uni’s aesthetics. 

JJB: Any visual opportunity that comes up, we are meticulous in how we present ourselves. I’ve always looked up to artists whose visuals are symbiotic with their music. That being said, any aesthetic choice should be in response to the music to heighten the message. If we’re making music that sounds out of this world, then we need to look out of this world. I always think of our Uni-que personas as three fugitive aliens who are banished from their home planets and cast down to America, soaking up the juxtaposed culture of regularized daily streamed violence and social media narcissism, and then spewing it out in neon vomit, which is our music. So the question is, how would that look? What would those creatures look like? 

Kemp, you do background vocals: why don’t you sing lead? 

CKM: In the beginning when I started the band, David did want me to be the lead singer, which was sweet. But, this is surprising: I don’t like attention. 

DS: Says the girl with the orange hair! 

CKM: Even onstage, if I’m not holding an instrument and being a little background, my whole face turns red and I start to sweat profusely from my armpits if I sense everyone looking at me. Also, I don’t have pipes like Jack; he has fucking pipes and charisma up the wazoo. He’s born a frontman. You can’t fake that; you either have that X factor or you don’t. You have to have that ‘look at me and I deserve to be looked at’ kind of thing, you know? Also, I just think it’s kind of predictable for a female model to become a singer, whereas becoming a producer and a string arranger is way less common for female models to do. 

How does the songwriting work? 

DS: Kemp writes more of the music and Jack tends to write more of the lyrics. But we’ve written so many songs—we went through this period where we were learning four or five songs a night. 

CKM: When David and I first met, it was like the honeymoon of our friendship. We were super hyper-creative and productive and wrote hundreds of songs. We would write songs on our own, then send them to each other and tweak them, or we’d write together. All the songs we’ve put out so far come from that period. But now we’re doing new material. I wrote a couple with Jack’s aesthetic in mind for the new record. I know he likes ‘Dorian Gray’ and he had this idea for millionaire vampires. 

JJB: Isn’t it the first thing that I said to you in those rehearsals for the tour? I said, ‘I wanna look like a millionaire vampire’? And you wrote this cool song. These two are pretty talented fucks. It does blow my mind. 

CKM: You can sense when a frontman doesn’t believe what they’re singing or doing. The fact that Jack has this theater background is really useful ’cause he thinks about the meaning of it and then projects that; it’s not just like reading from a script. He really brings a lot to it. He brings more to it than what was there. He’s got good ears. 

You’ve played New York, toured, done some press, yet you’re hardly a classifiable rock band. 

CKM: It’s a daunting time to be a rock fan in an era where rock is completely dead. So, yeah, we’re trying to find ways to modernize—not in ways that are cheesy, but in ways that feel kind of like high art. 

DS: I don’t even think I would call us a rock band anymore? I mean, for the photoshoot today we brought a keyboard, not a guitar. 

CKM: What the world knows of us is sort of a retro ‘70s band. We’ve been struggling with that. I think you always have a glass ceiling as a retro band. You’re basically just a Civil War reenactor. It’s a bit cheesy in a way, but so much of the best aesthetics come from the past, so it’s really hard to avoid emulating the things that you love and still finding a way to do something new. So I think with our first album, it’ll be interesting to see how our preexisting fans who love T-Rex and Bowie react to the newer sound, which is steered away from our very purist, tape, analog, ‘70s-style recordings. It still has a lot of that, but it’s infused with a little bit more modern production.

DS: Meeting Charlotte, she really is a melodic genius and approached music from very different place than I did. I like the word. When we played together in this other band, that was one thing I was really drawn to. It was just like, ‘Whoa, she’s doing stuff that nobody else is doing in terms of melody and harmony and arranging and breaking all the rules.’ Basically having no rules, you know…

CKM: …Don’t have a key for a song. Or change keys constantly. 

DS: Yeah. I mean, she was writing songs in pork chops. [Laughter]. Yeah, she’d show up to rehearsal with a side of pork and I’d be like, ‘Well, let’s plug it in!’

CKM: We all have a different thing. My thing is melodic perversion, yours [DS] is lyric perversion and yours… [JJB] is…perversion in general!

DS: If everybody saw the world the way I do, we’d all be big Leonard Cohen fans…it’s tough because we live in a different world. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m not being nostalgic here. But times have changed and things are a lot more immediate. You can still create the art that has the same information and from the same place, but it seems to be packaged a little bit differently. In order to create any kind of relevant change, you have to be communicating in a language that’s being spoken of the day. It isn’t as much as we’ve come from a background of loving music from the Golden Era of rock and roll, the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. You know, it ain’t that time anymore. Even if we’re drawing water from the same well, you’ve got to package it in a different way if people are going to buy it or consume it or drink it.

JJB: I’d say our visual references always come back to Jodorowsky, Dalí, Grace Jones, Thierry Mugler, and, of course, Bowie. We take these references that are ingrained into our consciousness and try to propel those ideas of fashion into what I believe should be the future of glam rock.

Kemp, did you teach yourself production and the tech side of things or how did you learn? 

CKM: Just do it, I guess. Maybe the term autodidact applies. David has taught me a lot. I mean, I still sometimes feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, but that’s how you should always feel in music, like a kid experimenting with things and not having rules or proper ways of doing things. I think the fact that I have my own weird ways of doing things is better than if I properly learned. The three of us are really DIY. We do everything ourselves and we’re like little orphans and we have this mad scientist rig in my living room. 

JJB: It’s this really cool dichotomy: there’s all this amazing vintage equipment that they have and then run through whatever synth…. The record is, not to toot my own horn, but really dope. . It’s really cool. 

You guys are quite young to have such deep ‘60s and ‘70s references and knowledge. How did you come by that? 

CKM: You have to be curious and hungry and spend many hours in the middle of the night going down rabbit holes. I was really impressed when I met Jack ’cause for a 23-year-old gay boy from Texas, he had been really obscure…

JJB: …I’m gay?! Oh my god.

CKM: But he does some really like obscure music, like prog and weird stuff that a lot of kids in his group don’t listen to. They listen to more pop. 

JJB: I’ll have early Genesis and then the Spice Girls on the same playlist…

CKM: …which is what I love about Jack. 

DS: I feel like there’s been a leveling of the playing field between music that’s cool and music that isn’t cool, because previously—and I was alive for a bit of this era—in order to have access to the information, which is cool music, you needed to be accepted into a group of people that were going to give you that information.

CKM: The mixtapes. 

DS: You’d have to go to a cool record store, and if the guy who works there likes you, he will tell you about bands. Or my brother’s friends, they knew about all these underground bands. But now, it’s like, you see [someone] wear a Velvet Underground t-shirt, you play [them] on Spotify and [you think], ‘Oh, Velvet Underground. You also might like David Bowie, and you might like Lou Reed and John Cale, and it just shows you everything you can like in a night you can learn what used to have to be hard-earned over years. 

CKM: There’s something about the hunt of a cool, older guy giving you a mix CD that has Tom Waits and it’s the first time you’ve heard it, or discovering something serendipitously in the record store. There’s something about that. And then riding your bicycle home and you can’t wait to listen to it. That ingrains the experience of the art so much more profoundly in you than when it’s glibly at your fingertips like potato chips, [like] disposable background. That’s why I don’t have Spotify. I don’t like those algorithms. I like to dig for stuff and find it.

You guys have a pretty big social media following for not having a record out… 

CKM: That’s actually a miracle, how many fans we have considering we’ve never put out an album. We’ve never had a publicist officially. Right now we don’t even have a manager. We’re literally doing everything ourselves. There’s this kind of misnomer in the sense that Sean’s [Lennon] my boyfriend. A lot of people think he’s paying for stuff. He literally has nothing to do with the project. I paid for everything. He supports us from the sidelines.  

DS: Most of [our methods] are very old fashioned, not just in the way we’re recording, but in the way we get fans. It’s a very different approach than most bands take. We go door to door. We will stand on someone’s doorstep singing them songs until they call the police. 

Photographer: Melissa Rodwell @melissarodwell

Words by: Katherine Turman @katturman

Makeup: Cheyenne Timperio @cheyennnemakeup

Hair: Tanya Pacht @tanyapacht Using Oribe @oribe

Available HERE

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