A mysterious, semi-anonymous producer with a guest vocalist drops some bedroom-produced tracks online, pegs them with the “post-dubstep” tag, and watches them spread like wildfire through the underground. It is a paradigm shift that we’ve become used to over the past few years, and welcomed in a world where we are subjected to information overload. UNKNWN is one of these producer-vocalist combos, and in an increasingly crowded scene they have managed to attract a lot of interest from blogs as well as bigger fish (Pitchfork, Annie Mac and Boiler Room); and, what’s more, they’ve put their own, fresh angle on things. Over the small but perfectly formed clutch of tracks released so far, UNKNWN’s aesthetic has progressed massively – from the ethereal garage of yore to something darker, with more than a small dose of early trip hop entering the heady fug. In the same week that Clash magazine featured their new single Devil, I caught up with the production half of the duo, Chris Hanna, to have a chat with him about life, the universe and everything in it.
“We just wanted to push the boat out a little and try and make some stuff we hadn’t tried before as well as trying to make something we thought sounded original, or not like something we’ve heard. Personally, we’re really happy with [Devil]!” It’s a bullish opening from Hanna, who is joined by vocalist Gemma Dunleavy on the UNKNWN journey. Originality is one of their hallmarks, and one of the major things that helps UNKNWN stand out from a rather crowded marketplace is the use of live vocals on top of the pitch-shifted vocals and 2-step rhythms that are somewhat de rigeur these days. And, unlike the current wave of vocal-led pop house flooding the charts, their use of minimally processed voices doesn’t feel like an attempt at accessibility; it’s a far more organic feeling. “It was definitely just a natural thing, me and Gemma collaborating. She happened to be living with a good friend of mine, and we just met through that. Then I found out she had an amazing voice and we just spoke about making something. Why not?”
Blossoming from the type of one-off collaborations that occur every day in dance music, it appears that this union is developing into something more permanent, and that can only be a good thing, right? Hanna concurs: “After we released I Cry and played live together, it was just enjoyable and we felt it could be something we could really build and develop. It was definitely nice that it happened naturally, as it hasn’t felt like we’ve tried to do a certain thing and stick to that; it all just sort of happened.” It was around this time that Unknown also became UNKNWN. “I think when it got to the point where this could actually be something I do for a living, changing the name and us becoming a duo was just like, new beginnings. Let’s start fresh and work together – which has been great. I think the sound has become more interesting and varied, and has grown with myself and her both still learning and trying new things. We’re not ones for wanting things to go stale, and we’re both pretty opinionated, so it can have its ups and downs, but we always reach a point where we’re both satisfied.”
Despite being based in Belfast, Chris is over in Liverpool regularly, where Gemma is based (she studies at LIPA). Being in touch with Liverpool’s nascent electronic scene has definitely helped nudge the UNKNWN narrative too. It’s only a small scene, but what we have is great – just look at GhostChant and The Cyclist, who both seem to share a collective approach. This is something with which Chris agrees: “It’s definitely a great city for music, especially electronic. LIPA has some amazing people, and everyone is really open about helping each other with shows or set ups; it’s like one big collective and people are constantly doing favours for each other – and everyone seems to be doing well.” Despite this, everyone occupies a different aesthetic space, a scene (if you can call it that) not unified by a defined sound.
Nonetheless, location is clearly important to the music. “I think [that] being in Liverpool has definitely made me more open, with working with people, etc,” Chris explains. “When the whole Unknown thing started, I just liked doing things myself and keeping it that way, as I’m just quite picky, as you would be if it’s your music. Then coming here and working with Gemma, and even other people in LIPA, it’s like everyone is just really creative and open about it.” More importantly, this drives everyone along to try out new things – one of the reasons they have progressed so much in such a short space of time. “There’s no embarrassment to try something or holding back, which I think opened me up a bit more and helped me just work with other people a lot more freely. With regards to the actual sound, I think that’s just the combination of what me and Gemma like, which has been quite varied, but we try not to become repetitive or fall into one ‘sound’ – if that doesn’t sound completely pretentious.”
This ability and willingness to experiment spills over into their live set-up, an arena where most electronic musicians fall down. Well, it is kind of hard to make a man (and sadly it is usually a man, but that is an argument for another time) hunched over a mass of wires and boxes look anything other than tedious. Chris and Gemma, however, circumvent this neatly – their live set at Abandon Silence’s fourth birthday bash was one of the day’s highlights. In Chris’ opinion, “Gemma has turned it into a proper live show, and she’s the frontwoman. She has good experience working with people and organising a proper live show, as well as being a great performer, whereas I have more of a DJ background, so it’s been a learning curve. We’re actually working on a completely new live set that we’ll be touring with at the end of summer. We’ve just felt like the time has come to step things up a bit.”
Theirs is a sound that works equally well in the dark bowels of a club and in the sunnier climes of places like The Kazimier Garden, taking clear influences from outside the dance universe in the way artists like Mount Kimbie and Andrew Weatherall do. “It was a conscious decision to have our tracks split between the more clubbier, darker side of things, as well as the likes of BBY, which is more of a song in the traditional sense. We decided that we don’t want to be a band playing songs, but would rather tread the line between the two elements – and maintaining the heart of the Unknown stuff when it started. It can be a tricky one; in the end, we just make what we like and what we think is cool. Only way to do it, really. Sometimes the track you least suspect goes down the best. It’s unpredictable.” And, in an ouroboros kind of way, this is feeding back into how they think about music back in the production stage. “After playing more and talking about this new live set, we’re going to be producing the music as we produce the live set. The two should go hand in hand. I’ve always been a production first guy, but it’ll be nice try something new and develop an interesting show.”
However, there is still one issue hanging over the conversation – that Burial-esque, fastidious sense of mystery that is so commonplace… “I’m not doing it anymore; it was more in the beginning. I just wanted people to listen to the tunes and enjoy [the vibe] merely because it sounded good, not because it was attached to a certain name.” Confidence, it seems has changed all that now. “Now I don’t care, as people did seem to do that, and it was sweet. Now I just wanna make good music and play good shows. I’m actually not a shy person at all really, I’m quite loud. I’m definitely not one to be running off stage in a cloak and disappearing.” And off like that go UNKNWN, back into the ether for the summer. Don’t be gone too long.