Formed in 2001 by Matt Thomas & Matthew Roberts, King Unique hit the floor running, claiming the title of Undisputed Remix Champs by scoring five Essential New Tunes in five months on Pete Tong’s “Essential Selection” Radio 1 show. A US Billboard Dance Chart number 1 for the remix of Dirty Vegas’ “Walk Into The Sun”, plus two more solo Essential New Tunes for Matt under his Watkins and Mainframe alter-egos saw King Unique firmly cement their place amongst the ranks of first-call remixers. The King Unique production touch has been in constant demand since, appearing on more than sixty remixes and yielding some of the biggest dance floor bombs known to man – Underworld’s “Two Months Off”, The Killers “Somebody Told Me”, Planet Funk’s “The Switch”, John Dahlback’s “Late Night Worries”, and Tracey Thorn’s “Grand Canyon”.
2006 saw the end of the original duo’s studio partnership, as Matt Thomas took on the King Unique role as a solo artist. The four years since have seen the KU sound rise to new heights with a mixture of euphoric acidic melodies, dark brooding techno vibes and old skool beats. This new ‘cosmic techno’ has found its home on John Digweed’s Bedrock label with the release of “2000000 Suns” and the KU / Anthony Pappa collaboration “Vamoosh”. Backing up the new material have been remixes of John Digweed’s “Bilder”, Hernan Cattaneo’s “Teleport”, Fergie’s “PCP” and an on-going association with James Lavelle’s UNKLE project that has so far resulted in five stunning re-workings; “Heaven”, “Heavy Drug”, “The Answer”, “Reign feat. Ian Brown” & “Rabbit In Your Headlights feat. Thom Yorke” – all adding up to reaffirm Matt’s status as one of the most versatile and consistent producers of the last ten years.
This week we had the great honour of catching up with the UK dance legend. He’s a got a new Jamie Stevens remix out which recently topped Beatport’s Tech House chart and a few interesting projects coming up that have really caught our attention. A transcription of the interview is below and we hope you enjoy it.
1. Rumor has it that you have a special project in the works with Hernan Cattaneo, anything you can tell us about that?
King Unique: Yes, it’s no secret that Hernan has been playing a great Rodrigo Mateo bootleg of ‘Yohkoh’, big KU track from 2007. First I heard about it was friends tagging me into videos of his sets at Burning Man & Lunar Park. So I spoke to Hernan & Rodrigo and we’ll be doing something with Yohkoh in the New Year. Random ‘Yohkoh’ fact for the day – I’m told it’s used as the news theme/jingle for the main news channel in Argentina, presumably followed by ‘Xpander’ for the weather.
2. So you haven’t had a new single since 2000000 Suns on Bedrock which is now over 3 and half years ago? Can we expect something soon and why such a lapse for new original material?
King Unique: A whole bunch of reasons – some musical, some personal & some practical. Since Suns I’ve had a beautiful daughter, my wife & I separated after 19 years together, I’ve been renovating a 170 year old house in my ‘spare’ time & I’ve been taking more opportunities to enjoy life away from synthesizers. In a nutshell – I’ve had a lot on. Things have settled now, the kids have adjusted to the change, my ex & I are now friends again, life goes on. I have an EP or two of 90% finished tracks written across that time that may yet come out.
Anyway just over a year ago I finally acknowledged to myself that I wasn’t really finding music making easy under the circumstances so I simply stopped for about 6 months, worked on the house & listened to other people’s music – not promos but podcasts & live mixes, just to hear it as everyone else does. It was enormously enjoyable & refreshing to be nothing more than a fan again for the first time in fuck knows how long.
3. Did you have any formal music training growing up? in regards to composing or engineering / sound design etc.? and if not did anyone help you out along the way?
King Unique: I had piano lessons between the age of 5 & 16, never really enjoyed them, never practiced. My first lesson was a complete surprise to me; I was pulled out of class with no warning & taken to a dusty sepia room with a strange & impatient lady who wanted me to play this thing called a piano for her. I thought I’d done something wrong not knowing how to play it already & sat there with my hands frozen on the ivories, snuffling out tiny sobs. As it was the 1970s (when teachers in the UK were mainly chosen for their disdain & contempt for children) she gave an exasperated sigh, asked rather snottily if I actually wanted to learn the piano & proceeded to bully me through my first piece, that one-note hit – ‘Busy B’. You all know it, come on! ‘Busy B, buzzing B, busy buzzy buzzing B’. Best start to a lifelong career ever eh?
What this slow, tedious, decade-long torture left me with was a familiarity with the black & white keys, their names & an idea of which ones sounded good together & which didn’t. I had almost no playing technique, and took no pleasure in practicing nimble-fingered runs that required so much attention to execute that you couldn’t simply enjoy the music you were playing – but what I did love was to jam my foot down on the loudness pedal (which takes all the dampers off the strings) and sound the occasional piano note, letting them sustain to infinity, slowly building up a huge reverberant dissonance. THAT I liked – not tunes but sound.
4. You’ve got a new remix out of Jamie Stevens ‘The Wonder of You’, it’s quite a ‘unique’ remix so to speak. It’s certainly a daunting task to remix a track which many people would probably consider near perfection, What can you tell us about the project? How were you able to conquer the remix?
King Unique: I took it on after Jamie sent me an unfinished version of the track & I fell in love with it. Fortunately microCastle didn’t argue when I Jedi mind-fucked them that I was the remixer they were looking for. My intention all along was to produce a very faithful, spacey, euphoric version – something like Pachanga Boys ‘Time’ – right up until the day I put all the parts in my laptop. Then I just thought ‘why bother?’ The original already packs as much melodic blissful warmth as you could ever want – why try & say the same thing twice? So I went the other way, taking inspiration from the retro UK revival I’ve been digging recently; artists like Shadowchild making very evocative emotional elements but juxtaposing them with something of the old drum’n’bass & speed garage sound set, the whole thing delivered at low 120s bpm. This to me is what ‘progressive’ means – new ideas & combinations that still produce that same result, music that reaches your mind & your body. I love that idea of extremes & very dynamic changes in the same track, so I took ‘The Wonder Of You’ in that direction.
5. We hear you’re moving studios shortly, it been 16 + years, that must make you a touch nervous, how will things be different after the move?
King Unique: If you’d asked me before I left the old studio I was slightly concerned, planning a big treated-room for the new place – all that stuff. Luckily I decided to work with a much more mobile setup over the last year as I’m dividing my time between a few places; just a pair of old powered Genelec 1029s you can find for £300 on eBay, a simple MOTU audio box & a laptop. I usually go to a bedroom, flip the mattress against a wall to ‘kill’ any liveliness in the room’s acoustics, put the speakers & laptop on the bed frame, kneel on the floor & make music. I can’t hear any difference between the tracks I made surrounded by mountains of gear & the ones I make now with next to nothing – it’s been hugely freeing. Trust your ears, not the gear. That said I’m still not selling my CS80 😉
6. There’s certainly a lot of special tracks in your discography, remixes of Underworld’s “Two Months Off” and The Killers “Somebody Told Me” along with “2000000 Suns” all come to mind. If you had to pick some personal favourites what would they be and why?
King Unique: I still regularly play the UNKLE ‘Heavy Drug’ remix because it doesn’t really sound like anything else; Henry Saiz & Marc Marzenit ‘Radiance’ is still a spine-tingler & I have a very clear memory of doodling around on a synth and then locking into the main riff. I think I sat there playing it round & round for about half an hour just for the sheer pleasure of it That’s one aspect of electronic music making that I think is quite fascinating – an iconic riff that you associate with an artist for the rest of their life is likely something that they they came up with in under an hour of doodling at most, recorded in one or two takes, fixed any bum notes & then never played again. I couldn’t play ‘Radiance’ now if you put a gun to my head.
But to return to the question, I really like dozens of them, all for reasons that probably have almost nothing to do with why anyone else does. Like the remix of Fergie’s ‘Anon’ – I’m guessing it’s just me in the whole world that gets off on the technique I nicked off Walter Carlos for it, using just a single monophonic synth through a distorted & endlessly repeating long echo to build up great complex layers. What really interests me is what they mean to other people.
7. What’s happened to the genres in electronic music? Artists, DJs and fans are constantly complaining about everything being miscategorised, where did everything go wrong?
King Unique: We didn’t let the old genres go; we’re still trying to categorize music using terms that arose in 1987/88. That’s 25 years ago now – it’s like trying to work out where Bon Jovi’s ‘Living On A Prayer’ fits into the Merseybeat sound of the early Beatles. Music keeps mutating – but if you insist it’s still fundamentally the same thing that you were calling house or techno a quarter of a century ago you widen the definition until it becomes so broad as to be meaningless.
What’s actually happening is that there are really only two important genres left now: ‘hot’ & ‘not hot’. If the prevailing wisdom is that deep house is hot & a particular artist is also hot then chances are that their tracks are going to end up labelled as deep house, even if it’s a club-monster with a massive drop that flattens buildings. Just cut the bullshit – have a ‘hot’ & a ‘not hot’ chart. Or admit that it’s all about branding these days – a DJ Mag chart & an RA chart maybe?
8. Thoughts on the DJ Mag Top 100?
King Unique: Marketing exercise for excitable 12 year olds full of sugar.
9. Thoughts on the RA Top 100?
King Unique: Marketing exercise for socially-anxious 19 year olds full of shit? Grow your own taste – and that goes doubly for promoters. I remember back in ‘05 giggling behind my hand at tales of clueless sponsor brands in China offering £1million to whoever could bring the DJ Mag Top 10 in one season. Now there are countless nights & festivals all chasing the RA Top 10, as though there is only room in the whole world for the current sound du jour. There’s a lot to be said for championing a sound, but not when it’s presented as nothing more than a Panini sticker book for hipsters.
10. If the world was going to explode and you had only one final meal (ok snack), and you had to pick one of the following what would it be and why? 1. Freddos 2. Twix 3.Giant Buttons 4. Nutty (all meals include Walkers Cheese & Onion chips + diet coke)
King Unique: How do you know about this stuff??? Freddos obviously, in the regulation minimum portion of 3 Freddos at a sitting. Why? Because it’s the crack of chocolate; Cadburys know that if they hook you young they’ve got you for life, so they make the Freddo just that little bit tastier than a typical bar. And Cadburys? I’m all yours, pimp daddy.
11. Record labels are a dime a dozen these days and the majority of people feel most of them are mediocre music factories. Which ones if any standout for you?
King Unique: I tend not to follow record labels as much as I do artists. Like everyone I’ll notice that say Diynamic or Aus are having a good year but do I then head to Beatport and browse the label? Not really. Not sure why but one thing I noticed when I did get attached to a label was that I usually stuck with it for too long when it went off the boil, or changed direction. I like trying to find music that really really appeals to me, rather than being a bit like that one that appealed to me before. It’s essential if you’re going to find a sound of your own that you rely on your own ears more than anyone else’s.
12. When the writing or production process gets tough, what gets you through it?
King Unique: Carrying on.
13. Which producers consistently inspire you? and who are some of the best undiscovered talents in your eyes?
King Unique: I think they’d be surprised at being described as ‘undiscovered’ but they’re new to me this year and both huge talents – NT89 & Pedram Marshahi. As for consistently inspiring – I really don’t know, I tend to follow an artist for a couple of years or so but usually after that my tastes or theirs (sometimes both) move in different directions. I think it’s pretty rare to genuinely love someone’s output year after year, certainly for me anyway. Take Stephan Bodzin as an example; for around two or three years in the mid 2000s he was my god – end of. The Bodzin & Huntemann tracks, the Rekorder project – just untouchable. Then as he delivered the album he began to get more & more focussed on his (admittedly incredible) mastery of studio technique & somehow the mood and directness of his music got lost. I still I admire him immensely but my focus moved to new things just as I’m sure his has.
14. How big of an influence are other artists or music genres when it comes to composing tracks? Could you give any examples?
King Unique: When I get the chance I listen to everything except dance music – my kids & I are currently hammering a CD of Beatles singles in the car, which has got me singing again. I like bits of contemporary classical like John Tavener & Max Richter, 70s kosmische musik like Ashra & early ambient by Brian Eno. I’ll also occasionally get a brief fetish for an artist – last one was Cerrone the hugely camp French electronic disco artist. As soon as you hear a few of his albums Air & Daft Punk no longer seem to have appeared from a parallel universe but simply to have grown up listening to their dads’ Cerrone LPs.
15. What was the first and last record you purchased?
King Unique: First was Abba ‘Take A Chance On Me’ at a jumble sale when I was about 5. And, intriguingly looking back, the bit that I always loved was the little bar of Moroder-ish synths in the pre-chorus bridge, just after “it’s MAAAAGIC”. Minor key changes in otherwise relentlessly upbeat major tunes always get me.
Last time I put my hand in my pocket for a tune was, rather ironically, one of my own – I did a two-hour mix of KU history recently & I couldn’t find the master file for an old remix we did on Defected in ’99, Astrotrax ‘The Energy’. Quick trip to Beatport was required.
16. What artist or track would you love to remix?
King Unique: I would love to be given free rein with Max Richter’s catalogue, but probably not to make club tracks.
17. King Unique Current Favourites (you can list more than one per category if you like)
Food: Wok’n’Go noodles
Drink: Black tea with one sugar
Drug: Mr. Bear’s giggly weed
Animal: Tardigrade, a tiny, oddly cute & more or less un-killable creature that will undoubtedly inherit the earth after us.
TV Show: Haven’t watched it in years so it would still be Flight Of The Conchords I guess
Movie: I enjoyed Django Unchained recently. There are some very disturbing insights mixed in with all the high-entertainment. Halfway through, prompted by all Tarantino’s carefully delivered images of slave-girls arrayed in beautiful costly French dresses I found myself wondering what I’d think of the film if it were presented as an imaginary dystopia; with say blonde-haired people rather than dark-skinned people as the slaves. When you strip it off all historical, cultural & racial circumstance & look at it for what it simply was – people holding the lives of others as property, with no accountability – it’s truly staggeringly appalling. I think that’s easily lost sight of, as though there was some sort of inevitability to mass African slavery.
Video Game: Napoleon Total War, first & only game I’ve allowed myself on the computer in about ten years.
Album: Max Richter ‘Henry May Long’
Track / Song: Moderat ‘Bad Kingdom Instrumental’
Producer / Band: Shadowchild is holding my rapt attention of late, though I really couldn’t warm to his big crossover single ‘Friday’ – check him out, just maybe don’t start with that track.
Record Label: Hypercolour
Nightclub: Not a club per se but a rather messy weekend I enjoyed – The Good Robot at Hendre Hall
DJ: I don’t know, I’ve been pondering this one for a few minutes & I can’t say I really LOVE any particular DJ at present. I’ve heard good sets from a bunch of people but not one that stood head & shoulders above the rest. Possibly it’s a reflection of what selfhatemau5 said, there really hasn’t been anyone made it simply on their talent as a dj for a number of years, almost all the big breakthrough artists of the last few years are production led.
18. If the final DJ/live set of your career was next week what would your last track be?
King Unique: Next week eh? Then the most important thing would be for my kids to come & see what it is daddy’s been doing when he “goes on planes & plays music” for all these years – obviously with huge ear defenders on.
For the last tune I’d like to hear an unreleased track of mine called ‘Without Boxes’ on a big system just once. It’s more of a comedown tune than a soaring leave-them-wanting-more thing – the kind of track you play for the bar staff & the last handful of people who couldn’t go home until you did too.
King Unique’s remix of Jamie Stevens ‘The Wonder of You’ is out now on microCastle, you can purchase the release: here