Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Interview with Service Unicorn

I first latched on to the stunning synth stylings of Service Unicorn when "they" (Service Unicorn is a solo project from musician/artist Chris Stewart) released the single "A Single Thread of Silver" here on NoiseTrade. I immediately feel in love with the calculated coldness of the vocals playing the foil to the playful instrument bed of slinky synths, pulsating drum pads, and bouncy bassline. I heard echos of early Depeche Mode, Joy Electric, and even more modern elements of bands like Washed Out and MGMT. Recently, Service Unicorn released their second single "Watercolor Warpaint" and the bubbling synths and disembodied echo-drenched vocals are as sythnfully delicious as they were the first time around. 

Service Unicorn just launched a Kickstarter for their debut EP (details found HERE) and as Stewart tells it: "I’m dreaming big. I’m hoping that this EP will be like the prologue to a bigger story, a truly fitting introduction to Service Unicorn for those who’ve never heard of 'us' before - which would be almost everyone in the world." You can watch Service Unicorn's Kickstarter launch video below and be sure to check out our interview as well!


NoiseTrade: As cliché as it is… Let’s start with the name. I first clicked on your NoiseTrade page because the name Service Unicorn conjured up an immediate image of a helpful unicorn performing daily tasks for someone in need. Where’d the name actually come from? 

Chris Stewart: Precisely! Well, almost. You’re right to picture a helpful unicorn, perhaps wearing one of those service animal vests, alongside a weary/lost/blind traveler. The rationale is this… if a service animal can help a weary/lost/blind individual find their way through everyday life, then I gather a service unicorn would help the mythologically weary/lost/blind individual to truly discover and engage with story, legend, magic and myth. Ultimately, as a Christian, I would think the service unicorn might even lead that mythologically blind individual into the Greater Story, as Professor Lewis must have also believed. 

As a side note… as a lifelong Lewis reader, I somehow never got around to The Great Divorce until this year. I was delighted and surprised to read the passage about the blessing (herd) of heavenly unicorns that come rushing in at one point. I felt like it bolstered my line of thought on the band name, and that Lewis and I were “on the same page” as it were, all along.

NT: What first sparked your interest in analog synthesizers? 

Stewart: I grew up with my mother and grandparents. My grandparents had all kinds of records, but among them was Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (the original release, on vinyl, of course.) My grandmother, in particular, seemed to really drink in the synth textures. I used to see her close her eyes and lay her head back on her chair, just listening and getting lost in it. I knew the synth tones and sounds made me feel strange and lit up some parts of my brain, but that was all I knew at the time, as a child. My grandmother also always played Mannheim Steamroller throughout Christmas time, and those first MS records were really synth-heavy - but I also loved the medieval instrumentation! 

In addition to that, my mom used to write songs on an old Casio keyboard, record her own back up tracks to cassette, and go play in little night clubs. I was really just a toddler then, so the memories are vague, but my mom's solo keyboard project obviously made quite the impression. Looking back, I think I mostly admire her boldness in playing solo with such an odd setup. I would sit with a friend of hers in the audience, and mostly scream and cry wanting mom’s attention, I think. 

Fast-forward to high school. I spent a lot of years as a pre-teen thinking I just wanted to do the classic guitar/drums rock band thing (my biological dad was and still is a drummer, and my great grandmother was a Czech opera singer. I had music coming at me from both sides of the family, really.) I heard a lot of rock and metal growing up, actually. 

Then, in 10th grade, on a seemingly normal school day afternoon, somebody popped in a Joy Electric cd, and that was it for me. I never looked back. It was like hearing magic happening, pouring out of the crummy little classroom boom box. In fact, I think the song might have actually been “The Magic Of” from CHRISTIANsongs, a record I more recently heard Ronnie in an audio interview claim to regret ever making for various reasons, which makes me so sad! 

In more recent years, I’ve retroactively consumed a lot of the music that informed Ronnie’s own song craft (The Smiths, Erasure, Human League, New Order, etc.), but I didn’t grow up on those amazing bands. It was like Joy Electric was just a fresh link in a continuous chain for me at that point, and looking back I realize how interwoven synth music has been in my own musical formation since I was born, really. 

NT: Is the equipment that you work with fairly easy to come by or do you search for the tried-and-true vintage instruments to get the job done? 

Stewart: I only recently managed to put together a genuine, all-analogue setup, which is primarily KORG-based. For a long time, because of my deep admiration for what Ronnie was doing with Joy Electric (esp. early Joy E: Old Wives Tales is the ultimate expression of synth-based storytelling song craft, in my opinion). I thought I could never really produce the kinds of sounds and songs I wanted to without MOOG equipment. Well, it’s comes down to affordability for me-and at this juncture, KORG is making some rugged, true-analogue equipment that a young-ish married man with a fairly ordinary salary, still paying down his student loans can actually afford. 

Don’t get me wrong, I will someday own a MOOG modular or Sub Phatty or maybe find an old Prodigy somewhere! It’s a bucket list item for me, for sure. For now, though, I’ve managed to come into my own with a lot of sounds and tones I genuinely love from the KORG set up I’ve built. None of it is truly vintage at this point, and I’m ok with that. It is truly analogue though, which is something I’ve worked to assemble for a number of years, aiming to no longer rely on software synths - no disrespect to you soft-synth composers out there! I’m still learning the instruments at this point, which is exciting and challenging for me. 

I’m more of a songwriter and less of a gear-head, so taking the time to learn the ins and outs of a real synth when all I really want to do is lay down the next bass line or sparkly hook can be a matter of tedious discipline. But the more I tweak and turn and patch, I discover that I’m learning by way of play, and that’s the only way I really learn anything anyway. It’s the way creativity works. Play. The tinkering has its rewards.


NT: You work in a variety of other creative mediums outside of music. How do those inform your music and vice versa?

Stewart: Yes, I’m a freelance illustrator by night and a graphic designer at an agency by day. I love children’s books. Professionally, that’s a goal of mine, to be a children’s book illustrator. I have a BFA in design, with an illustration concentration. I was mentored by a number of amazing illustrators and professors who managed to make illustration a career-or at least a fairly regular and paying part of their professional lives.

It’s difficult to separate those creative mediums from the songwriting/music, because I’ve been drawing pictures and digesting comic books, etc. for as long or longer than I’ve been writing songs. But once music took hold of me as a pre-teen, it took a deeper root, in some ways, than the visual arts ever had. Songwriting is instinctual at this point. Something I do that comes as naturally as breathing. Illustrating/designing is something I have to sit and make intentional space for. There is an instinctual aspect to that too, of course, but there's even more of a discipline, maybe? Then again, song craft takes a good deal of discipline too. They both take a great deal of one's time to truly hone. 

I think, perhaps, it all comes back around to “wonder” though? I’ve never lost my sense of wonder, especially as that pertains to the mystical/magical/whimsical. So, that feeds into what I tend to create with water color, or pen & ink, as well as the kinds of synthesizer sounds I prefer to build, or the kinds of lyrics I infuse into the songs I write. The common thread is wonder. 

This is an aside, but artists/writers/and so-called creatives are by trade thieves, borrowers and students of the “other.” So, whether I’m taking a mundane walk in the neighborhood, overhearing someone quibbling away in the grocery store or noticing an odd patch of light on the wall across the room, it all becomes fodder to work with later on, if I maintain that sense of wonder about it all. It’s fair game. Artists have eyes to see and ears to hear. I pray I never go blind or deaf. And if I ever do begin to, I’m trusting the Service Unicorn will be right there, willing to let me lean on it, feel its mane, and walk slowly into something brighter and better than I could see or hear with my own dim eyes and ears. 

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