Every now and again I stumble across an artist that blows my socks off with his originality and musical skill. Christopher Stewart of Service Unicorn is one such artist.
I found Chris through a Noisetrade email, where editor Will Hodge spoke very highly of this peculiarly named synthpop singer/songwriter from Nashville. So I gave his track a listen and was very impressed. I did some digging to find some of his older tunes and enjoyed them just as much. When I saw that Chris was launching a Kickstarter for his first official EP, I knew I had to jump on board and interview this amazing musician. This is part one of the interview. Part two can be found HERE.
EJ: How long have you been making music? How did you start?
Chris: Goodness. I suppose I need to begin with my own heritage, which is steeped in music. I found out only a few years ago that my Great Grandmother on the Stewart side was an opera singer in Czechoslovakia. Then she came over here and lived in an area of Virginia they called New Bohemia, I think. So, I’ve been geeking out about that family tree news ever since. I grew up for all intents and purposes estranged from my biological Dad, but he was and is still a drummer. Then on my Mom’s side, I guess that’s really where the synth seedlings took root. My Grandparents had Kraftwerk’s Autobahn on vinyl. I can remember my Grandmother, Nita, particularly loving the synth tones and textures. She would sometimes lay her head back and close her eyes, just letting it fill her head. I think I must’ve inherited that relationship to bliss where synth music is concerned. Then, perhaps more oddly, my Mom had a little white Casio keyboard. A Casiotone MT-65 to be exact (I know, because I still have her old keyboard.) She would record her own back up tracks to cassette, and then head out to small clubs in the Richmond area and play her sets of these sort of funk/late disco inspired, lo-fi songs. But I still have memories of being a super tiny toddler, I guess, and sitting with a friend of Mom’s in the audience several times-screaming and crying. I just wanted her to stop playing and pay me attention, I’m sure. But she was a single Mom, doing her thing! I still admire her boldness, looking back. I often wonder why I didn’t inherit more of that! But, needless to say, theatricality/musicality abounds in my family, on both sides. So, I took up the drum kit around 12 years old, and the acoustic/electric guitar around the same time. All the while I was still tinkering with the old Casiotone and a weird Yamaha keyboard/synth that my Grandmother had.
EJ: In all publications about you, it is made very clear that you play the analogue synthesizer. What makes this instrument special, and what drew you to it?
Chris: Well, until I heard the likes of JoyElectric as a high schooler, I freely admit that I had no idea what the distinction was between a “keyboard” and a genuine analogue synthesizer. I noticed how Ronnie of JE emphasized the exclusivity of the analogue synth in his own recordings (no computers, no sequencers, no drum machines, etc.) This was fascinating to me, and because I loved the sounds so much, I figured the analogue instrument must be where the magic was. Then, looking backwards, I realized that was also what had made the music of Kraftwerk so strangely wonderful. I started to connect the dots, and eventually aspired to generate my own songs with the same “magic.” Plus, JE and Kraftwerk aside-even if I’d never heard of them-there’s the sheer tactile nature of an instrument like the analogue synthesizer. Infinite “tweak-ability” but with a sense of real hands-on craftsmanship (as opposed to so-called soft-synths, that exist only on a digital, nearly theoretical space, even with MIDI keyboards attached to enhance the feel.) The circuitry isn’t there, with the soft-synths. No real oscillators or patch cables or envelope generators. Nothing ‘organic’ with grit and character in the sound. And I say this as someone who, for a long time wrote and recorded with my own unique blend of both analogue and software synths. It’s only recently, along with the formation of Service Unicorn, that my set up has become all-analogue. Even with that, I use an analogue drum machine for a lot of the beats I construct-so I’m still not up to the purist standards of some *ahem* great synth artists, like JE, for instance. A lot of that has to do with affordability/accessibility of gear. But then, I’m sure the utterly puritanical among us would say that’s a cop-out. In the end, sounds are sounds, no matter how they’re generated I suppose. I hope.
EJ: Besides Service Unicorn, you have gone by the names of MelodyMap and Magic Book. What inspired those names, and what led you to settle on Service Unicorn?
Chris: I have been lovingly mocked by friends and family for this, for years. Not just for MelodyMap and Magic Book. But for a multiplicity of other band names that I’ve worn for brief seasons and in different genres. Would you believe, I’ve been part of musical projects ranging from melodic death metal (In Quiet Desperation) to bedroom synth-pop rock (Goodwill Falcon) to even earlier synth efforts (myFirst Love and Painter Pitchbender.) to very Starflyer-esque garage rock (Lucy the Valiant). There are even more band names where they came from. All I can tell you, is that I’ve never been on a big/mainstream record label, and therefore there’s never been anyone standing over me, demanding that I stick to one name/one idea in order to sell records. As the ideas have come, I’ve just grabbed on and tried them out for a while, only to catch on to another somewhere down the line. ADD, perhaps (I can say that because I’m currently doing some testing for that very thing, lest anyone think I use “ADD” flippantly!)
All that said, Service Unicorn is unique in that, well, for one I’ve never launched anything on NoiseTrade or Bandcamp or anywhere that anyone ever caught wind of the way they have with SU. Never been interviewed until now, and lo and behold, I’m answering questions for you this week, as well as for Will Hodge over at My So Called Soundtrack. ‘Twas he who first wrote about me in one of his Weekend Updates, which I believe is where you heard about SU for the first time? So, the little bit of traction I’ve had with SU serves to cement it, make it “more real” for me. In addition, there is a meaningful explanation in the name, for me. See answer to next question…
That’s all the time for today. Be watching for the other half of this interview coming this Music Thursday! Until then, check out Service Unicorn on…