23rd January, 2013 Interview Owen Myers Photography Yann Faucher Fashion Adam Winder
Oliver Sabin (aka Unicorn Kid) approaches making his euphoric synth jams in the same way as his heroes, The KLF. “They had a concerted effort to make successful pop, but in a self-aware way.” the 20-year old Scottish musician says of the seminal electronic band. “It was always an art project.”
Oliver has been working as Unicorn Kid for nearly five years, originally starting the project at 16 inspired by chiptune. After dabbling in dubstep during a brief tenure at Ministry of Sound, the Unicorn Kid sound has emerged as a heady and radio-ready euphoria which draws from rave, happy hardcore and J-Pop’s knack of streamlining stadium house into autotuned hyper-pop. Recent single ‘Need U’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQm6UHrAmCw sampled just one line from Loletta Halliday’s disco classic ‘Crash Goes Love’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voneLF1K-jw (“I need you”) and turned it into a miscellaneous, longing plea amidst life-giving swooshes. In the song’s brilliant anime-themed video, Oliver’s face is overlaid with Sega Dreamcast-ish graphics and interspliced with CGI figures so that he resembles an intrepid video game avatar himself.
Basically Oliver Sabin’s ambition is to make the earworm pop music that forms the texture of daily life, the kind you hear from a newsagent’s portable radio or pre-X Factor idents. He might just have done that with ‘True Love Fantasy’, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K52vP-HRBz4 a song originally from last year’s ‘Tidal Rave’ EP that he’s re-releasing this December, with transporting synth ramps, fluttering bass and its thrilling ‘Hey Mickey’-esque chant “We are the young true love fantasy / We are the whisper of ecstasy dreams.” When we sit down for a chat in East London, I tell Oliver that the songhas all the hallmarks of a one-hit wonder, and he seems flattered. This is pop music elevated to an art. We feel it.
Owen Myers: What’s ‘Need U’ about?
Unicorn Kid: [laughs] Well, I was dating this guy online who I met on tour in the US. We had a Skype relationship for 6 or 7 months, and I was going to send it to him but we split up just after I’d finished it.
OM: I like American guys.
UK: In general I like American guys more than British guys. It’s like Nicki Minaj, you know? She says “I really got a thing for American guys” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JipHEz53sU - and I do! So that song was kind of a tribute to him. It was a Loletta Holiday vocal sample.
OM: You know David Guetta also sampled that.
UK: Really? Is it good?
UK: I mean, everybody samples the same songs. I normally just search for “acapella packs” and go through them.
OM: You got signed to Ministry of Sound when you were 16, didn’t you?
UK: Yeah. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was signing these record deals and publishing deals, and I’d just left school! I wrote a whole album that I never ended up releasing. Back then I didn’t really have any kind of aesthetic, I didn’t really listen to anything except happy hardcore. I guess I got better about branding the project.
OM: You were associated with Sea Punk for a while. What was that all about?
UK: It was never about anything. There were all these think-pieces about what they thought Sea Punk represented, but it didn’t really represent anything. It was just a Facebook group with, like, ten people: me, Le1f http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nrnq4SZ0luc, a guy called Ultra Demon and like, eight other musicians. We’d all just kind of arrived at a collective consciousness of this tropical rave aesthetic. The music wasn’t cohesive. And then a few of the people that were to do with the original Sea Punk started selling T-shirts and badges and talking to journalists and stuff, and I was like ‘I need to get out of this’.
OM: If you get a Number One would you quit?
UK: As Unicorn Kid? Probably. If this album does well I don’t know if I’ll do a second one. I’m not really looking for longevity in my career: I have set out to write a Top 40 pop record. I think it’s good to be transparent about what you’re doing and not make it look like your brand is some kind of organic, natural thing. It never is! I think part of the reason I managed to rebrand so successfully is because I managed to cotton on to images and ideas that were becoming really popular at the time.
OM: Do you worry about that seeming insincere?
UK: I mean, pop is insincere by its very nature. I’m passionate about the kind of world that I want to create with Unicorn Kid, and I really love it, but it is all meticulously branded.
OM: So is it about infiltrating?
UK: Yeah, in a way I guess. It’s not like I’m doing it in a covert way though.
OM: Does it matter what your intentions are? It’s still pop at the end of the day.
UK: I think it matters… I mean, if you look at me and Rihanna, we’re both looking to make Top 40 records. I don’t really see a lot of difference, other than I know about a lot of different worlds within music that maybe others don’t know about. I think you have to approach pop music from quite a weird perspective if you want it to succeed. Calvin Harris wrote really quite unique pop when he was coming out with his tracks. There was nothing really like it, a lot of weird synth sounds and hooky melodies. I like Icona Pop http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxxajLWwzqY so much because they make in your-face-mental pop music.
OM: But a lot of dated pop music does quite well, too.
UK: Of course! God, do you ever hear some things on the radio that sound like they’re very very old? That Carly Rae Jepsen song sounds dated to me.
OM: What about East Asian pop. That’s quite pastiche-y.
UK: I like K-Pop is because it looks like the future of Western pop. It’s this hyper-real other universe and the production quality is so high. I actually like Japanese pop music better than K-Pop though, because the music is a lot more electro-pop. I don’t think it’ll cross over though, even though ‘Spending All My Time’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWuCmjpvXmE is the most Western thing Perfume have ever done.
OM: ’Spending all My Time’ pretty much only has one line in the whole song. The same as your song ‘Need U’.
UK: It’s true. That’s one thing that I learned from trying to write so many pop songs. Repetition is totally key. You come up with one good line, and that’s all you need. ‘True Love Fantasy’ is just one chant.
OM: ’True Love Fantasy’ almost has the sound of a one-hit wonder.
UK: I want to get a novelty pop act to chant on it. Like, who’s the modern equivalent of Daphne and Celeste? Get them to chant on it, and that’s a hit!
OM: You tweeted the other day that you were wearing Cyberdog to feel empowered.
UK: [laughs] It was just so that I could get inspired. Like, a pair of biker trousers. These shoes, [points to his metallic zip-up basketball shoes], and a Cyberdog T-shirt with a tribal biohazard thing on it. Right now I really like utilitarian stuff, army gear, and biohazard shit.
OM: What would you love to see on the fashion week catwalks?
UK: I still really love Cassette Playa’s stuff. She got her first big hit with nu rave in 2006, but if you look at her work that came just after that, she was doing prints with YouTube screen caps and stuff like that years before that stuff was even popular. She did this collection called Believe in Flesh + Metal which was all RuneScape-inspired 3D axes, neon light on these big printed T-shirts. She’s always just been really ahead of the game.
OM: What was the first single you bought?
UK: You remember Lolly? It was ‘Viva La Radio’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CX4sYylS9Q. And then I got ‘Rockin’ Robin’ after that. And I bought a Daphne and Celeste single, and my first ever CD album was Britney’s first album.
OM: That record is great. That song ‘Soda Pop’ is crazy.
UK: So good! I always liked that, but I was always really embarrassed about it. It took me a long time to get over the whole concept of a ‘guilty pleasure’. When you can honestly assess everything that you like and come up with something based on that, that’s the way you get to decide what the next thing is. That’s what happened with Sea Punk, and what’s happening now.
OM: So what’s the “next thing”?
UK: Luckily there’s no name to it, but I see a lot of futuristic dystopian images coming up on Tumblr all the time, and the same thing’s going on in music.
OM: Like that Fatima Al Qadiri video, ‘Vatican Vibes’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKosaf5tmpI
UK: Yeah, totally! I mean, that’s almost quite a realistic vision of the future! It seems like a chromed-out streamlined totalitarian world is something that could happen. But I have an almost dated idea of the future. I like the idea of it being like Hackers, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pP6iTjhlOvs where there are almost comical images of the future. Obviously that will never come to fruition, but it’s funner that way.
Main image: T-shirt by Shaun Samson AW13
Middle image: Jacket by Katie Eary SS13; rollneck by Loft AW12; necklace by Ambush from the Holy Mountain collection
Grooming: Alexander Soltermann