Interview composed by Jordan Robson Cramer - April 2003
Hailing from two separate provinces (British Columbia and Quebec), The Unicorns make the type of music anyone and everyone should enjoy. Nicholas "Niel" Diamonds and Alden Ginger are temporarily obscure geniuses who write songs whose subject matter deals with expeditions gone awry, the future, potassium iodine, and so much more. Although they might only get together to record and perform two times a year, the results are fantastic! They are able to produce catchy songs while at the same time making full use of your stereo headphones.
After sharing a stage with them in mid-August of 2002, I was completely inspired by their kooky stage presence and their many keyboards. Matching suits, Sitars, Dexamphetamines are just some of the topics I got to cover with them in this interview. Let us delve further into the band that is The Unicorns.
So who are the Unicorns? Give me a little bit of history on you guys other than what's already on your site.
All your songs seem to have this lo-fi charm, like it was recorded on a four track. There seems to be a lot of experimentation going on throughout songs, is this a spur of the moment thing or is it all planned out before hand?
Nick: Alden loves dogs. I'm a sawdust person, myself.
Alden: Nick has had a lot to do with us still being alive today. He's carried the torch since our birth, and been steadfast in face of my consequential range of negative emotions: the last couple of summers have involved, literally, burns that would have been setbacks. In 2001, I had an oil burn on my hand, and 2002 a really bad sunburn on my back. We're more than a band though. We're best friends too. And that can't be written as history here.
Nick: We're always heading towards the future grounded in the present. It's like that poster that says "Hang In there." and there's a photograph of a cat hanging on a clothesline (finger flexion) "hanging in there" as it were.
Alden: I tend to disagree. It's more like that poster that says "Bad Hair Day" and in it is a photograph of a really adorable cat with a much too hilarious hairdo that sticks up like a mohawk.
Nick: Yeah, that's more of a faux-hawk, though. Those hairdos are all the rage now. How is your hair Alden? Alden has curly hair, you know.
Alden: Oh, you know, it's been pretty curly lately. The longer it gets, the curlier it becomes.
Nick: That's rational logic, I suppose. For me, the longer my hair gets the straighter it becomes. You see, there's a weird magnetic force between us that just sits so well, like the South and North Pole.
Live shows must be very hard. I remember you guys setting up a truckload of gear before and during your set. I enjoyed the rushed atmosphere very much. There was a sense that anything could happen.
Alden: There is usually a certain framework over which we'll place certain ‘bleeps and dweeps’ in order to contextualize. There is experimentation, but it is usually over a relatively stable substratum. Our earlier songs feature a lot of aleatoric layering, but in reverse: the drums would be recorded afterwards, and so there would be a glitchy feel to it, and the thread connecting certain parts was hard to trace. We still have certain parts that we'll leave open initially, and fill in blanks afterwards, but this is a smoother process. More recently, we've been adding instrumentation that seems to have an intrinsic part of the song, with the drafting happening beforehand. I guess all that involves a sort of learned sense of what is an appropriate sound for a certain song though, so it's hard to say whether it all isn't predetermined anyway. We have this propensity for starting with mechanized drums which then culminate into live drums at the very end. I haven't really thought about any other noticeable patterns
How is the songwriting process divided between you guys?
Nick: Oh, we were high on dexamphetemines. There was a sense that time was really running out.
Alden: Time is running out. But live shows have always sort of felt that way for us. There are often a lot of technical pitfalls, but that show in Victoria, for all the gear and wire, was relatively stable. We got in and out and were satisfied. Sometimes it's not so great. Instruments will be out of tune with one another, or we'll bump into one another. Once, Nick dropped his guitar on the keys of my Casiotone MT-500. All the notes that he dropped the guitar on didn't work. He was more upset than I was though. But that's just an example of how things often come to a halt with our gear, and we're left, mid air, with nothing but our charm beneath us. That's exciting sometimes. But we're hoping to get roadies to tune our gear and set everything up. And get proper guitar straps.
Nick: Or improper guitar straps. the possibilities of guitar straps are often overlooked. Car seat belt guitar straps for instance. Sealskin guitar straps for instance. Edible guitar straps for instance. This isn't rocket science here.
What affect does being hundreds of miles apart have on the music? "Let's get known" appears to be recorded long distance. Correct? How do you guys go about finishing songs? Are most of them written when you are together? Explain!
Nick: Here, Jellybones is a perfect example of perfect synthesis. Alden comes to me with a little something on the synthesizer (Korg Delta in this case). I come up with a complementary 2nd half on the electric guitaroo, & pen some lyrics. I sing over the first half that Alden wrote, and Alden sings over the second half that I wrote. The third ACT climaxes with Alden writing acoustic guitar). Oh, what magic!
Any past projects? Influences?
Nick: Our growth is concentrated into about 2 months (at the most) a year. When we finally get together (hormones and bad moods aside) we explode. We share the things we've been storing up, and then expand from there. And often, when these creative juices surge, we'll write new things together in little moments shared that we call "Grazing time". This summer, we had 2 weeks together. We made it our objective to write all new songs, record as much of them as humanly possible and then perform it all to a blood-hungry audience. ‘Let's Get Known’ was written after I moved back to Montreal and played over the phone to Alden, which he happened to be recording.
What's your goal with the music? My take on it is that you are trying to write structured songs using the most unconventional techniques and instruments. I like the whole atmosphere that's created with the Casio's and other instruments. Had you guys been collecting this sort of stuff for a long time?
Nick: I've got 2 albums of music I've recorded on my own that I'd love to give away, but just don't have the time or the energy to design and staple the covers. As a result, they collect dust. However, as an optimist, I like to think of dust as invisible royalty cheques. The albums are doing very well.
Alden: Nick and I were in The Stanley Milgram Project along with a couple friends when we were in high school. I've been involved in ‘Afterthought’, ‘Poor Alexander and the ObfuscationPraxisCollective’, but that's all over now. We've got a side project we're excited about called Zzzzz. It's no-name rap music with us manning the drum machine and the analog synthesizers. Right now, we're just looking for a few good MCs. http://www.zebox.com/zzzz .
Nick: I had a dream Alden and I had a hip-hop side-project called Zzzzz. Go figure.
Alden: I like Edith Piaf, The Beatles, Orchid, Velvet Underground, 400 yrs, John Cage, Miami Sound Machine, The Who, those crazy motherfuckers Oxes, and more!
Nick: I don't know if my influences carry over into our work, but they include: cLOUDDEAD, Dose One, Silver Apples, Flaming Lips, Chet Baker, Paul Simon, Morrissey, AWOL One, Bobby Conn, and Cannibal Ox. Of course, the Microphones chart on this list as well. The velvets too, naturally.
Your songs, on their own merit, work remarkably well. But listening to them with headphones on there's this massive stereo trickery occurring. Are the Unicorns more of a Studio band then a Live Band? "Ghost Mountain" is my favorite example of what I'm talking about (live drums, drum machine, multi-tracked vocals, everything!).
Nick: My ultimate goal with the music is to share. I want people to hear what we're doing, because I believe in it. Music has a lot of potential to make a lot of things hurt a lot less.
Alden:(Albert) Camus wrote against the silence of the universe. Music functions in the same way for me, and more symbolically. I am feeble, and prone to so many things, but the music acts as an anchor to clarity. In a similarly existentialist way, I think there is a comment about absurdity on many levels. And, in drawing upon the subject of the human perception of the unicorn as myth, also an avenue for transcendence. But yeah, gear has been sedimenting gradually between us.
What do you use to record? If given the option would you rather be more "hi-fi" than "lo-fi"? I think the ‘lo-fi’ coating has a narcotic affect.
Nick: Listening to a record is a completely different experience than watching two musicians perform on stage, so why should the two share any similarities beyond the absolutely obvious ones? We've got advantages with both environments. On record, We can work the STEREO button, we can EQ the drums infinitely, and we can manipulate the listener's ear. On ‘Ghost Mountain’ I sequenced each drum hit Alden made, aligning the tempo accordingly. When the beat matched the rhythm of the song, I added distortion to the snare drum, and voila, you've been convinced you're listening to a drum machine. Live, in front of an audience, we retain complete control, but it has less to do with what you hear and more to do with what you see. We'll share with you. We can dance if we want to.
What's the response to a Unicorns show in a big city like Montreal as opposed to somewhere like Courtenay?
Alden: The phrase "lo-fi charm" has outlived its use. It's on the out and out. We feed our data into a computer. It just happens that a lot of our instruments are filtered, prior to reaching the computer, through some analog device or another-- a tape deck, a PA amplifier, or something-- and so we get some of that hum as well as a richer, heavier, and less harsh distortion when things peak.
Nick: Yeah, we're all so far removed from the age of four-track home-recording that Kim Deal has felt it necessary to initiate her "ALL-WAVE Philosophy", a firm analog recording approach that involves the entire production, mixing, editing, sequencing, and post-production in analog format. Meanwhile, ALL-WAVE is rejecting (finger flexion) "digitally manipulated sounds separated from the dimension of time in which they were performed." Okaaaay. Well, we're futurists. The Last Unicorns didn't cope with changes in their environment (read: The Great Flood) and got swept away while Noah's Ark made a clean break. We've learned the lessons, so this time, we're manning the Ark. We embrace hi-fidelity potential, and if we can manipulate real-time, we're more than happy to do so. Glenn Gould did it.
What plans are in the future for the Unicorns?
Nick: Remarkably, we're loved the same all over.
Alden: Courtenay is a place that has had some of the more well-evolved musical palates prevail in kids putting on shows, but I sometimes felt alienated or divorced somehow from the an all too often uncomprehending "audience"; which could just as well be a misgiving of my own fabrication, because this can apply in the metropolis as well. Last time we played in Vancouver, we bombed. But that was also in the hands of a good number of variables outside of the whole "audience" sphere. Courtenay is a red herring of a small town. It doesn't count if we're trying to contextualize reactions on a spectrum. If we applied anything to, say, Campbell River, where an altogether rougher philistinism is boss, then I think the point you're trying to make would be more evident: the response is weaker, if at all existent. In too many ways, people are searching for a quick fix. We're more of a quirk fix.
Have you guys realized your dreams of matching suits yet?
Nick: Oh the future is where we are strongest. The Unicorns always have to be on our toes, always thinking "What's Next, Unicorns?" The spiraled horn acts as radar, and we detect an enormous backing band orchestra, with choral singers, ood, percussion, sitar, bass, xylophone, glockenspiel, live drums, trumpet, saxophone, flute, clarinet, and an expensive laptop. (Prediction): I see larger crowds, larger pay cheques, and larger bedrooms. I see Alden and I on 6 feet risers. I see great things.
Alden: Sitar? Are we also headed for a Beatlesesque fascination with eastern religion as well? I'd like to go to Japan. I hear they're even more fucked up than we are. And with good reason, too. The bizarre Americana that they identify with, I'm quite sure, is causally related to huge bombs being dropped on them by representatives of governments on this side of the Pacific. Nick mentioned going to China or North Korea because of bountiful offers teaching English there.
Nick: Japan is an entirely different culture dealing with tight space. We wouldn't survive. Teaching English seems dirty, but the pay cheques are large.
Nick: This call goes out to designers and hunters: The Unicorns want to dress sharp. We need pink collar shirts, black pants and gray ties. Can you help us?
Alden: We used to have these disposable paper suits that you get at hardware stores for painting and whatnot, with a screenprinted image on the back that Nick made and our names on the front. Mine disappeared. That sucks, because they were super cool.
Nick: Yeah, but those were our warm-up suits. Having an naked image of Chuck Norris on the back really pumped us up.
Alden: Have you heard about all the dolphins beaching up? I haven't. But I am concerned, in a detached and fleeting human sort of way, and in the true and more sincere form of mine as a Unicorn, because dolphins are close kin to us. Belugas and narwhales and all the creatures really. But, the dolphins…