King Unique has grafted a sizeable reputation for himself over the past 20 years or so, boasting more recent releases on the likes of microCastle, Bedrock and Sudbeat. Following the release of his compilation album, Beyond Borders: London, we caught up with him to have a thoroughly enjoyable and insightful conversation about what it means to be a receptive record label, what the genre system means to him and what it’s like to be remixed by an idol.

So, just to kick things off, can you explain a little about how did the Armada mix came about? Over the years, I've licensed the odd thing to Armada because here and there the sort of main room King Unique has functioned as the deeper, warm-up end of the trance sound. So there had been contact in the past. Then, they were in touch recently. We were talking and I asked if they’d heard the recent EP on Microcastle. I sent that across and Onno, who was A&Ring the whole thing, liked them and licensed them as well. It was a typical sort of licensing situation, nothing more. He came past me a fortnight later [about the mix]. Straight away, I thought it was lovely to be asked. Then, I guess, the same reaction that some people who, when they first hear it's an Armada thing, have gone "What are you doing on Armada?” My reaction was the same as that, like "Ok, what's the score? Is this going to be, like, a cool comp or is it going to be like them trying to keep their core market happy or…" I had questions and we went through all these. What kind of freedom would I have, and the answer was absolute total freedom to do what the hell I liked. We took a lot of time and did it right I think.

Did you have a picture planned of how you wanted to paint London or, what was the vision you had for the compilation? What I was really keen to do was to try and create a day in London and not slavishly measuring out tracks equivalent to well, "this is the morning" and "this is lunch time" but, I had that kind of idea in mind that I wanted to track through a day in London. Now, my day in London is a day of somebody who doesn't live there. I've never lived in London. I've always gone into it, played, I ran a night there years ago in Terminals...I've always gone there to play – be it Ministry or the End or wherever it might be. You go in, you have a bit of a trippy weekend of all kinds of extremes and interestingness and hangovers and then you're gone, and it's finished again! So, I wanted to catch how London feels, in my life, which is this kind of flickering, fragmented experience and then it's done again. I don't think I've ever spent a week in London in my life! I've always gone there briefly and fucked off. So, I wanted to catch that day.

So, that's a really unpleasant part of being an in-demand remixer – having to crush people’s fragile dreams…
 

Featured on the compilation are quite a lot of remixes – something you've become quite renowned for. You've said before that if you're offered a remix that looks great on paper but that the track doesn't speak to you that you're always gutted…how do actually choose who to remix and what's the process of that decision? A few times in my life I've gone to an artists and said "I'd like to remix your track X. Can we make this happen by the means of label Y or Z?" Ordinarily, when someone’s signed a track, they'd approach you for a remix. So, 90/99% of the time that is how it works – people approach me and ask me. Many times in the past, when there was the two of us doing King Unique, we made what, to me, felt like the mistake of letting the importance of the artist or the chart potential of the track sway us…but actually, the content of the music wasn't necessarily one that was making you say yes just for the music. I found that when you did do those things you'd say yes then six weeks later it comes to the top of the agenda pile and you'd be like "Fuck, what are we going to do?" and it was always a massive pain. I just decided to never do those anymore.

I think it's dead important. I don't know whether my role in life is to be a advisor to people after all these years but if I was to give advice, I would say it is dramatically important that you really…that's there's something in the tune you're offered that makes your ears really prick up, and you sort of go "Whoa, whoa! That's interesting – I want to know how that was done, I want to play with that stuff, I want to re-purpose these sounds to somewhere else…". So, that is, the process of: if it doesn't tick these boxes, I'll regretfully say no.

I guess it's hard to turn down remixes for people you know or are friends with as well. Finding the balance, I imagine, can be a bit awkward sometimes... Awkward is exactly what is, you're absolutely right! I fucking hate being asked for remixes that I don't want to do. I'm probably meant to be callous and businesslike about it but the thing is that I know exactly how it feels. Whenever you make something, you invest this little piece of care and you're basically exposing yourself. It's kind of like walking up to someone and saying "I'd like you to give me good news but I'm aware that if you don't want to, I have left my legs wide open enough for you to kick me hard in the scrotum." It's that feeling, you know? Creativity is a horribly exposing experience. So, that's a really unpleasant part of being an in-demand remixer – having to crush people’s fragile dreams… (laughs).



The range of stuff you're making, both for originals and remixes, is huge. Elements of everything really! It's not very marketable! (Laughs)... We [with Jamie Stevens] were discussing this and he was saying that he's always driven anybody, like a manager or agent he's worked with, he's always driven them mad because, like myself, he just has a lot of interest musically... If I'm honest, I'm always suspicious of overly on-message people who are always making what's currently in and it doesn’t matter what they're given, they always hear it in what's cool this week. That's the sort of kicking it into the goal side of remixing which creates this slight disdain for remixing, that it's just putting it in today’s colors and just kicking it out again. I understand that there's a lot out there, unless people have a sort of slight like "Oh, it's just remixing..." I think remixing is incredibly highly creatively if you treat it honestly. I've tried to put everything that interests me into things I've done at points and that's quite a broad spectrum.

It's a nice attribute to not have pigeon-holed yourself into one particular genre, a topic I think you have some interesting comments on – the genre system being broken but in a good way? Genres started for a really good reason. The music, as it emerged... instantly began to mutate. You were adrift without some fucking reference point. You had to start sticking labels on things: this is house, this is techno. Those labels came to the UK in the late ‘80s and the UK does what we always do, which is to start mutating and mongrelizing things straight away. If there's a sort of sound of the UK, it's non-purism.

Genres became a dogma – which is really odd and the opposite of what they were for. What they were trying to do was say "Look at all this freedom and diversity, let's try and label the two of them so at least we can know what we mean." Then it became restricting walls around the genres... it just collapsed, to me, under its own complete absurdity. These genres were so old, that it was like trying to describe Bon Jovi, when they emerged in the ‘80s, by the definitions of Mersey Beat Pop in the 1960s. What relevance has it got? None at all. The stuff has changed and multiplied and created all sorts of new forms for decades.

Drumcode is now so clearly a massively, all conquering genre.

So where do you see it going? You've said before that you see people following labels and artists as opposed to genres. How do the artists get out there then if there are no genres to latch onto for the younger prospective fans? It can allow people to be found that much easier... There's always a role for it. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean it's going to stop being a way that people understand music but I think even people coming to a new thing where... people start to latch onto labels and artists. You get the Seth Troxler's of this world who find guys who he just likes meeting on the road and he releases their records and it's just like, that's kind of the way things work these days. You get little posses and groups of people who share an understanding musically or simply personally amongst themselves of what they consider to be a good time or a good night or whatever. And, because there's these shared sympathies and alignments of taste, if they then release on the same label together then there's some sort of ethical, or resonance, that runs through all the tracks. They may still be quite diverse.

If you find the stuff that really aligns for you, that's where you're going to find the gems. For example, Adam Beyer. Drumcode is now so clearly a massively, all conquering genre. It is a genre. There is Drumcode techno. If you get off on what Adam Beyer is into, you're going to get off on Drumcode. There's enough diversity within that label and that sound that it is it's own genre. I think that's the reality of people these days. It also echoes how social media works where you follow people.

You're quite outspoken – a trait many are afraid to embrace. In an interview recently you had an interesting comment on how the lifestyle of dedicated and devoted producers affects a lot of people around you…can you expand a little bit on this? What I was trying to get across is that it's a commonplace reality for loads of people’s lives. Let's say you have a demanding job, like people who start at law firms in London, and they're asked to do 90-hour weeks to prove that they really fucking can and they're given all the shit work and they have to do two years where they literally do 80/90 hour weeks. They're virtually at a desk or asleep and that's it. Now, that's great and it's the same for music and it's the same for loads of other professions where you're required to sacrifice time or opportunities or money or whatever it might be, to show your dedication. What it costs, is, the opportunities to do other things and it costs the people around you who, if they love you or like you or whatever it may be or…they crave your time. And what you're kind of saying is, well "Fuck you for this period, you're going to have to come second," and it's for the good of everything but eventually it'll all be worthwhile but for now, you're just going to barely see me." There’s no solution to that, there’s no A or B state that fixes it, but people should be aware of it and if you do you best to split that, it's a lot healthier. It's at the expense possibly, of other things that also matter, and possibly other people. So, try to strike a balance.



Interesting. I guess, following on from that as well, taking time out to reflect and taking a step back...you had a sort of sabbatical for a little while? Yeah, yeah I did. That was just, simply, I think in retrospect, was kind of a burnout from doing this intensity, making music, you know, by the yard for years and years and years, without considering how odd it is to make music by the yard. I landed very quickly into a very, sort of, fast success as it were in '97, and by '99 it was just insanely fast, and demands on your time and you just do it.15 years ago I went "Whoa, I may be finding it incredibly hard! I think I'm actually struggling so much to make tunes, there must be something wrong…" At that point I realised I should stop the whole thing... [I'd decided] I'm quitting making music and then maybe I'll start again or maybe I won't start again. Mentally, I had to actually and genuinely allow the possibility that something else may happen into my mind, to find out if I want to and how I want to do music, or if I want to do something else. It turned out that I really did want to music but I only found that out by not living my experience of music over the previous number of years. That was an enormously invigorating experience, so where one can take theses opportunities, take them if you can because you'll find out what you think. People who wanted me to do stuff were disappointed and, I guess, looked elsewhere, but fuck it, I'm enormously satisfied and pleased I did it. Do things quite soon after you realise that they're important!

A get up and go attitude, just get on with it? Well it's nice to be all inspiring and say 'yes this' and 'do that' and obviously I struggle with achieving even a tenth of the things I'd like to but you have to at least put them on the agenda. Most people put them on the distant agenda and keep moving it back. This is a fatal flaw that we all have as people, you know. So yes, if you're having problems or you need to think things through then stop, think them through. Acknowledge the problems and then move on but, this pushing and pushing and pushing, is a strange reaction we all have which I don't think is necessarily the right one.

Another funny comment that's popped up recently; if you are at that low point, just buy a new piece of studio gear! I've heard it can unleash you into other realms... It is true, yeah. I used to work for Future Music, reviewing gear, so I used to get endless flow of new gear coming to my studio to play with for weeks and then send back again. Great fun, it's lovely fun having new stuff to play with. I'm kind of similar still to this day. I won't use the same software for long. As soon as I find myself getting a bit like '”Yeah, pull out that reverb” I'd just have to stop using it. I couldn't have done 20 years without constantly changing the shape of the balls I was juggling; it just suits me that way. If you're somebody that requires some novelty in life to keep you going, then by all means, go, borrow, buy some new toy, make yourself use it, just make yourself use it. You'll probably end up finding that you make something that you might have made up anyway with the other gear, but you'll have at least had the incentive to fucking use it and engage and be refreshed. I don't think buying gear is the solution but it's an angle to kick yourself into new avenues.

Try to remember why you fucking started and make your choice accordingly.

Aside from the Armada compilation, you had a remix of Petar Dundov come out recently, another for Kölsch and more. What else is on the horizon for King Unique? I've got nothing for the first time in ages. I'm remixing a bunch of different people and the one I'm most excited about is Petrels, which is the closing track, although there's only a glimpse, on Beyond Borders. Petrels is a classically trained dude who plays amazing cello stuff but makes this, what I always call 'ambient noise core'; this incredible, intense ambient music that's delivered, particularly if you go and see him live and it will blow your mind. In a live setting particularly, it's delivered with the intensity of a Megadeath concert. He's made a few tunes, one of which is genuinely become one of my Top 10 favorite records of my life. So, I was enormously in awe when I didn't know who he was, of this record. It's called 'Concrete' by Petrels if you want to hear it. I like all manner of abstract and strange and unusual non-dance music. So this is one of my absolute dream records and I was just smitten, utterly, thinking “God this is the most amazing record ever.” And then I made a tune of my own called 'Without Boxes', which is a ‘70s synthesizers project I did where I thought “Right, I'm going to play everything like an Eno record,” something in a night that captures the sound of those Eno records that he invented, the early ambient stuff like on Another Green World, that album.

So I made this record, and in the depths of my heart, I was like, “It would be so lovely if Petrels remixed this.” Finally after a year, I plucked up the courage to ask him and actually approach him. I was braced for [the worst] and he came back saying, “I absolutely love it mate, it's a gorgeous vibe!” He did the remix, and when I got it back… I actually cried briefly listening to it, because, whatever it was that I'd imagined in my heart 18 months or two years previously, by the time the whole finished project arrived, it was like it – and more! 18 months before I was sitting, thinking; “Fuck, I'm done, I'm finished, I've lost all my mojo.” Then, to be sitting there with this person, who I thought was an unapproachable genius, making this remix of a thing I felt so personally strongly about, was incredible.

You have to find the things that you care about in music. Tell people what you like, why you like it and be honest – don't just do it because it's an advantage to you, and see what comes back to you, it might be surprising. Try to remember why you fucking started and make your choice accordingly.

King Unique's Beyond Borders: London is out now on Armada Music. Buy it here.
Photos by Stephen Leslie
Header image by FlukePhotography

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