Uni and the Urchins

New Album 'Simulator' Will Not Prison-Take, Will Not Negotiate

Written by

Matthew Bedard

Photographed by

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Styled by

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Uni and the Urchins are sorta like if Chat GPT was sliced sashimi-thin, then massaged into the nearly-caressing fingertips of Michaelangelo's "The Creation of Adam," then transported back into Diego Maradona's fingertips for his infamous 1986 "Hand of God" moment, then razored out across a sumptuous marble table, mixed with wasabi and yuzu, and snorted with gleeful abandon. In short, Uni and the Urchins are a rare amalgamation, culturally transcendent, both derived and defiant of the fucked up mores and s'mores that define today's aural experience. And they look fucking cool.

Comprised of Jack James Busa, David Strange, filmmaker and moonlighting model, Charlotte Kemp Muhl, Uni and the Urchins, after some years of dropping singles with avant-garde grade boner-popping visualizers, recently blessed the masses with debut album, Simulator, which gauntlets the modern music milieu across electronics, synthy pop anthemics, and grungy grit. The album has serious range, a rebel yell, and a gnarly aesthetic.

The ambition? To create a film for every song. The hope? To marinate in artistry that might be polarizing and never populist, to extol the tele-theatrics of what is 'dark' or 'dirty', to above all else, minimize on compromise and have fun doing so.

I got to chat with Jack and Charlotte, who feature herein for a Flaunt exclusive photo shoot, some setups of which feature fashioned human hair, about AI's eerie encroachment, pushing boundaries, and the strife that went into creating this searing sonic simulation, Simulator. Burn after reading!

Are you reading about this conversation to potentially ban Tik Tok in the US?

Charlotte: I think it's just in Texas for now? And for people under 18, using more rigorous sign-in info with legal state ID. It's a very Texan thing. But I'm low-key kind of into it. You know, I wasn't allowed to do anything like that when I was a kid. And I really resented my parents for not letting me play video games. Was really late to the social media party. And I didn't even have a smartphone for forever. But now in hindsight, I'm super grateful for that. Jack, did you have that stuff? Like, immediately as a kid?

Jack: I wasn't allowed to have video games. But I got a phone when I was like 12. And I got a computer around the same time. And I had MySpace. But at the time it was a novelty fad. It wasn’t, like, scary. And now everything I've ever done since 11 is public and well documented. I'm afraid my AI avatar person is going to come back to haunt me. Well, I'm actually excited to see this avatar, because they collect all your data throughout time. So I'm like, ‘Ooh, which iteration of myself will it be?’

Charlotte: Oh yeah. That’s also a Black Mirror episode where after someone dies, there's this company that offers the service of collecting all the data that's been amassed on your lover or ex-husband or whatever. And they can reconstruct an avatar out of them, post-mortem. And it's actually the thing I love about Black Mirror—it’s always a plausible context that’s already been developed, like the five-star rating system in China for every social interaction—the social credit score, that's already a thing.

Jack: I learned that from you. When we were writing “Popstar,” there was some lyric I had, and then you suggested to change it to ‘social credit’. “Unless your social credit says, ‘no room for you,’" or whatever.

Charlotte: We would have very mixed reviews on our social credit score.

Jack: Our rating is not gonna go well.

Charlotte: What's the earliest tech you remember, Matthew? Do you remember dial-up internet? We’re now seeing ruination from these platforms, which I think has been rather prophesied. There’s kind of no going back, though, right? It's like Pandora's box—that Greek myth. Once you let the demons out, you can't put them back in.

The goal is the 24 hour broadcast, which certainly comes back to this country's Big Media identity and export aspirations, right? And there's a natural bridge here to some of the themes in the album—this ambition to look the the future, right? Let me ask about your avatar. What is a personal attribute you would like to see retained in sincerity?

Jack: My really big... um, heart. Oh, sorry, you mean personality trait?

Charlotte: Well, that’s the interesting thing about it, right? Once we all sort of live vicariously through avatars... in a way that might seem superficial, but it's actually the least superficial way of existing, because suddenly our minds will be the only thing that distinguishes us from each other, right? And our personality, because it'll no longer be about looks. So it'll be the great egalitarianism of physical beauty, or whatever. So I think, in that sense, I'm really glad I've invested in learning a few factoids, and the gift of banter, because once we're all avatars, you can't rely on your Double D's anymore. Literally, everyone will have them.

When is sexuality and anatomy a powerful and relevant differentiator, when heading into the physical-less AI universe?

Charlotte: The whole thing I love about trans-humanism is evolving past the analog identity markers of gender and race into entirely new, abstract territory. Would be so much more fun, in the future, to fight over nuanced clashes of consciousness or artistic taste in flesh Picassos instead of the wage gap.

Jack: I guess it becomes relevant when you need to sexily distract security guards while stealing art at the Met or something like that? I’m excited to meet the sexbots.

Is there a track on the album that you feel is most potently unpacking the singularity concern? When technology evolves to such an extent that it becomes conscious, or godlike, one with humans... Or do you feel this idea is more consummately threaded?

Jack: We're one with tech, basically.

Charlotte: I would definitely say “Simulator,” the album’s title track, which came out a few weeks ago—we worked with an AI program to write it. And it's literally about that, in the simulator: avatars and saviors.

Uni and the Urchins have, in my opinion, always offered homage to historic movements, or styles, or genres. And yet, there's this futurist ambition with this your first full-length album. Did this ambition stem from a lot of time alone? Was it newer music exposure? Was there an inciting incident that lead to this particular piece of art?

Jack: It’s a few different things. Charlotte and I get very excited by cultural iconography that exists in the past, or could be in the future, that we’ve made up. And we've spoken about it too. Like, we envy people that can really stick to one brand, because we get excited by this thing, and that thing, or that thing from however long ago. And I think that’s even on the record—there’s a lot of tracks that are, like, a little more new wave. There's some grunge on the album. There's some glam tracks on the album, and I think, you know, all exist in the Universe, so to speak.

Charlotte: The thing we love about the 70s was all the space race themes and wondering, what's about to happen? We’re kind of in that era again, but with AI and the internet. It’s the same sort of feeling of awe, and imagination, and explosive creativity, like a renaissance based around tech.

Do you feel like it's a celebratory message? Or is there cynicism as well?

Jack: I think it's observational and cheeky. In a lot of interviews, we get questions about the content being very dark and nihilistic, and yeah, perhaps if you interpret it that way... but I think it's pretty funny, actually. In "COVID METAMORPHOSES" we talk about morphogenetic fields of Monsanto corn-fed veal, and that is so absurd.

Charlotte: We play off of each other in that sense, because I'm definitely the pessimist, as in: ‘we’re falling apart as a result of the internet’ and blah, blah, blah. I’m really dark, mechanistic and scientific. And then Jack is like this ray of light. And he just loves everyone and meditates every morning and believes in all religions at once. And he's very mystical and optimistic. So we counterbalance each other. He wrote the lyrics of ‘Pop Star’, which are super fun and camp. David’s style is more Leonard Cohen. When it’s just me alone, it’s very Wagnerian with more minor chords and dark surrealism.

Jack: She sends me video simulations of nuclear war...

Charlotte: Yeah, I watch World War Three simulations to fall asleep, ha. It's the aerial patterns of nukes, where they would first be launched, and how likely a response is, with a string map of radiation fallout...

When did you experience the most uncomfortable tension while making Simulator?

Jack: It was more pressure from friends and fans relentlessly asking ‘When is it coming?’ Overall it wasn’t a tense experience.

Charlotte: I had a bit of a mental breakdown mixing it alone in the woods, and think I ultimately botched it from long stretches of no sleep or food. I listen back and wanna redo the whole thing with fresh ears.

Let's talk about the album’s visuals. There's already some videos, but I understand there's an ambition to make one for every track on the record? What are the goals?

Charlotte: We really do care a lot about the visuals. It’s the synesthetic experience of writing music and visualizing the video as you're doing it. We had to downscale a lot of the ideas, though, because at the beginning of the pandemic I heavily invested in crypto, thinking, ‘Oh, I'm going to fund all our videos with these sweet gains.' And then it just crashed. Then I bought back in, because I was like, ‘Oh, now it's at the bottom....’ and then it crashed again. And then it crashed again. And I was just like, ‘Fuck, I have no money left’—we’re gonna have to get really creative. So it forced us to be scrappy. We made a video for every song except for two we still have to make. Our vision is very ambitious but our team and resources are tiny. It's like, ‘Oh, we wanna do Blade Runner meets Cronenberg... but all we have is some Amazon clothes and spray paint. We dabbled in CGI, which was really fun. Jack was a praying mantis in some of my favorite visuals.

Jack: And it's very cinematic music. There's strings and big drums.

And how about the actual recording process?

Charlotte: There are old or new ways to approach recording music, and we've done both. When we started as a band, we were tape machine only track live. I would get the whole band in my studio, in a barn, and we'd record live, and then just do a few overdubs, and then put it out on a 45 vinyl. That’s the old-school way of doing it. And then, as a result of the pandemic, I started getting into using more samples in Logic. And Jack— being younger and showing me newer music, and being excited more about pop—pushed incorporating some of those sounds he likes more. So I worked both alone and remotely with musicians like Earl Mannenin, Cae Rale and OG bandmates David Strange and Andrew Oakley. I chopped everything up like Edward Scissorhands, often mixing it into our old tape recordings. And so now we’re this mutant chimera of modern and retro.

Is there a preference?

Charlotte: I mean, I personally prefer recording analog. I spent all my modeling money collecting vintage recording gear, which is now completely obsolete, and everyone has a cheap plug-in to replicate whatever it sounds like, which is a bummer. It's so hard to get people together, especially during a pandemic. Like, we just couldn't physically be in a room together to record a track live. And even now, it's just so hard to get us together to even do a rehearsal. So I do see the trade off—new technology being so much more convenient. There's something lost, something gained.

Speaking of the pandemic, what do you think is something you guys have learned about yourselves over the last couple of years?

Jack: The older I get, the less I sort of care what other people think—a tale as old as time. When I first joined the band, I was like, ‘We're number one, I want us to be the biggest thing, I want to play Madison Square.’ Now I want to make the songs I want to make with Charlotte and the videos we want to make. Because I like doing it. I like putting it out. It fulfills me. And I hope people enjoy it. And for those who don’t, that's cool. I feel much more, like, ‘Let's just do whatever we want, because it's all blowing up anyway...’

Charlotte: When I first met him, he was very sweet and innocent and loving. And I was like, ‘That's gonna go quick’, ha. I was projecting my own narrative of becoming totally jaded. But he's retained that positive outlook.

Jack: There's a freedom in not giving too many shits.

Charlotte: I feel like the last few years have been really transformational for a lot of people, and not always in a great way. I mean, suicide rates are the highest they've ever been, especially for young people. And there's just a general sort of existential crisis. Technology induces these questions: what is the meaning of life? Are people progressing further and further into these little virtual bubbles and human connections are just harder? Understanding where you fit into any industry is harder, because AI is about to replace a lot of jobs. And it's really hard to be successful at anything creative anymore. Look at record sales. Like 4% of Drake fans actually bought his album... you know what I mean? So it's a really challenging time, especially as a musician, but in any field, to know where you fit into anything in the grand scheme of things, especially after the last few years. But I think it’s an exciting time because it's like the Wild West— everything is so unstable and stuff’s about to change.

And what about instability is inspiring?

Charlotte: Well, the tectonic plates of whatever we considered normal are all about to shift. And that is what was so exciting about the 60s and the 70s—they were breaking out of the complacency of the 50s, where everything was just like button up suit, go into work, ‘Honey, I'll be back at five’, you know, and then all of a sudden, LSD, sexual revolution, like all this crazy shit goes down. I think something similar is about to happen. I don't know if it's going to change for the better, but it's going to change. I don't know. It could suck 40 years from now we could look back on this as the last good times.

Jack: Nowadays, it feels like everyone has something to say, which can, you know, solicit a bit of an eye roll, but at least I'm not bored.

Describe a recent circumstance where you felt the most externally influenced to sever from your true self.

Jack: My true self? Which one?! In nightlife where I work, there are lots of situations with drunk zombies where you just have to smile, appease, and do the happy monkey dance.

Charlotte: Jack’s right. There is no true self. Any time I model I have to have an out-of-body experience to deal with not being in creative control.

Jack earlier, you mentioned that sometimes feedback in your interviews tends toward ascribing the output as ‘dark’. How do you sort of process that?

Jack: Whatever your interpretation of it is, you know, whatever you're thinking, as long as you're thinking about it, I don’t mind, whatever. Questioning things is always good—that’s the purpose of art. And I think it's kind of sexy—I like a smokier aesthetic. I think my favorite response was from my grandma, actually, and she watched the video. She goes, ‘Darlin’, you sound beautiful on it—but I'm not gonna lie—I had to sleep with the lights on!’ But then, I would be more unsettled if someone said, ‘That made me want to skip into a field of daffodils.’

So how might you define darkness?

Charlotte: That's a very meta question. Because what if the conclusion is like, ‘We all die, or everything will be terrible for humans?’ Is that really bad? In the grand scheme of the universe? Maybe it's good for humans to die. Maybe we're just part of the bacterial balance? I think about that a lot in terms of just good and evil, and how it's scalable. Remember that story of that guy who saved Hitler from drowning when he was a child? What if he had just stood there and watched this child drown?
Anyway, I don't really know what dark is. But I think the sort of visceral response to anything that's morbid, or relating to morbidity, like dying, like fate, like facing our death, is a theme that I really like in art. I'm really terrified at the idea of non-existence, and jealous of my religious grandma, who died like such a fucking champ. She like, you know, thought she was going back to hug and kiss Grandpa and be reunited with all her friends and heaven. She was just like, ‘I can die any day now.’ I don't have that sense of assurance. So I guess that would be considered dark. And then the themes of trans-humanism and genetic manipulation going awry, and corruption and politics. And I mean, there's a lot of themes in our visuals and lyrics, acts that could be considered dark, but I just think it's interesting to think about the unknowables.

And the record encapsulates this unknown?

Jack: I always look at the record as an alien. He's sort of crashed landed here. And he's like, ‘Wow, there's like this hypocrisy of ultra vanity versus ultra violence.’ There’s dark themes, but almost as if Bugs Bunny were singing about them, with a little smirk...

Charlotte: Yes, and it's informed by the themes of lockdown and COVID, and Jack's fear of getting older and, you know, all the crazy shit going on with technology. So it's a reflection of the zeitgeist right now for sure.

In light of these themes, what used to scare you that now feels like fuel or fodder for creativity?

Charlotte: Fear of death? The alternatives of Hell, Heaven, some alien ant farm or utter non-existence all equally terrify and motivate me.

Jack: When I was younger, being afraid of what people thought of me. I pay way less attention to any of that static now. Not measuring yourself by external validation is a joyous experience.

But you do at times see the appeal of religion, right?

Charlotte: My thing is that the world is hard. Life is really hard. And it's a cruel world. Whatever you need to do to get through it. As long as you're not hurting anyone else, I say go for it.

Photographed by Ariel Sadok

Styled by Charlotte Kemp Muhl and Jack James

Written by Matthew Bedard

Makeup: Charlotte Kemp Muhl and Ahbi Nishman

Hair: William Schaedler 

Hair Dresses: Addam Artist

Clothing Design: Three as Four

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Uni and the Urchins, Jack James, Charlotte Kemp Muhl, Matthew Bedard, Simulator