Unicorn Kid: Next Generation Pop Music
“It’s got to be bizarre to be born now,” ruminates a 20-year-old Oliver Sabin over bowl of chips at a rickety cafe table. “All these kids growing up, overdosing on technology. We’re living in a futuristic dystopia. Which is exactly the world my album is set in.” The album in question is of course Sabin’s as-of-yet untitled, debut full-length as Unicorn Kid. And, well, as an artist whose first musical experiments were conducted on a Gameboy, it is hardly surprising that he’s so bugged out by the idea of our constantly evolving technological landscape. Sabin is young and, like all young people, highly literate in pop music; indeed, the juvenalia of his first metal band aside, he first started sizing up the pop landscape when he was 16, posting tracks to his MySpace. Now, he wants to infiltrate the charts with what he calls “Next Generation Pop Music.” Judging by his performance at New York’s Knitting Factory as part of CMJ last week, that takeover may be sooner rather than later. Lauren Down caught up with the Edinburgh native to chat 8bit evolutions, Western Otakus and Top 40 pop.
The album is coming out on 3 Beat but you’ve previously released music on Ministry of Sound—both quite mainstream dance labels. How come? And how do the two compare?
I started out on Ministry of Sound two years ago. I didn’t know what I wanted to do then, I was just making 8bit music and putting it out, I didn’t really have any focus behind the project. I knew I wanted to make pop music but I didn’t really know how to do it. Then the relationship dissolved after a bunch of shit went down at the label and I was left with a bunch of people I didn’t know around me so we just decided to leave it. I signed with 3 Beat afterwards and they’ve been really good. I kind of know everybody at the label and they really just handle the business side of things whilst letting me get on with what I want to do; they let me do the artwork and brand the whole thing. They’re a commercial dance label and that’s what I want—the plan behind the record was always to write top 40 pop but in an interesting way.
Obviously the video game references are still pretty integral to you…
Definitely. In the first cut of the ‘Need U’ video a lot of the graphics were really oldschool video game-y but I wanted to make it more like early PlayStation One type things, like Tekken. I really loved those types of games because the graphics aren’t realistic at all but they’re trying so hard! We got rid of all the 8bit Mario vibe which I didn’t like because that was very similar to what I was doing back when I first started and I really wanted to have something that was very separate from back then, I was just a kid then you know!
So other than the Gameboy, what instruments did you play as a kid?
My brother and sister began learning the keyboard so I was desperate to learn too. I started taking lessons when I was seven but I was never very good at it. I did that for a few years then I… um… started playing guitar… I was in a metalcore band when I was teenager.
Amazing! What were you called?
Hah, we were called Exit to Nowhere. It was kind of screamo/metalcore type thing. I did that for a bit then started Unicorn kid.
A pretty swift transition from metal…
Yeah, but even as a kid I had these two influences in my life. The first single I ever bought was “Viva La Radio” by that bubblegum popstar Lolly, then the first album I bought was Britney‘s record but my first concert when I was 10 was Slipknot—my dad took me. I mean I still like metal a little bit, and I’ve loved dance music all my life, all that Ibiza heyday kind of stuff—Sasha, Paul Oakenfold and Carl Cox. I like a lot of commercial brostep stuff too, like Skrillex. I just like to embrace what other people would call “guilty pleasures”.
The phrase “guilty pleasures” is always such a defence mechanism.
And that’s the thing. I genuinely like Top 40 pop music, I don’t care if it is considered uncool, I’m not going to hide behind that phrase. If this new album is about anything it’s about refusing to take part in that hierarchy within music where it’s like “Oh you like that?! How can you like that?!” People go to concerts even though they’ve never heard the bands because it’s a “cool” band that’s going to play. I hate that. People force themselves to like things because the music that you like and the music that you tell people you like is a total extension of yourself. If you’re just a super-confident person you can just say that you’re into that other stuff and not be ashamed of it.
With all these influences, how would you describe the sounds you make?
Next generation pop music. I think all good pop music brings something new to the table. Other musicians I know always say, “Pop music is so easy to write, anybody can write pop song” but no, they can’t, man! I think there’s a lot of credit to be given to pop music because it totally transcends everything. No matter how much money you’ve got, where you live, what race you are or whether you’re gay or straight—everybody likes pop music. It doesn’t matter. It’s not exclusive.
Pop music doesn’t discriminate right? When you were making this record, did you imagine it soundtracking anything particular in people’s lives?
I think the album could totally exist in a fictional future—it’s what I would want the future tribes of teenagers to listen to. I would want it to be the commercial pop of that era. I finished the album intro track last week and I was watching Tokyo Drift, you know the Fast and The Furious film? I thought, “You know what, I could totally imagine like a fucking super car rollin’ up outside the club in this big futuristic metropolis with a song like this being played on the car stereo.” So I just wrote the rest of the track from there. I brought in all these little car samples, revving engines and things like that. That’s how I wrote all the songs, you just need one core idea and you just go from there.
Is there anybody you really want to collaborate with?
Well I had this idea: Katy Perry is… well, she’s not a joke, but there’s this comedy element to what she does and I reckon there’s room for a resurgence of a certain kind of music. You remember Aqua? Those kind of novelty pop records. She’s halfway there anyway. LMFAO and Katy Perry are two people I could write the best stupid pop with. Or “Sam and the Womp”—that is such a novelty pop song and it’s got something like two million YouTube views already or something. [It is closer to 5 at the time of writing this]. There’s always one stupid pop song each summer. Maybe I’ll try and do next year’s.
Aside from getting next year’s novelty song down, what’s next for Unicorn Kid?
I reckon in the future I’d like to maybe work as somebody who manufactures pop stars because I’d be so good at that. Like styling some cool teenage Korean pop group, training them to dance and sing, and producing their records.
Hah, manufacturing their back stories?
Yeah, like they all grew up in an orphanage together and I don’t know, something really heartbreaking. That is my plan. It would be so perfect.
If you could create your own back story, what would you say?
That I just turned up at a police station with no memory of myself so they gave me a flat and a computer and I just started coming up with these beats. Then I slowly started piecing together my past life through the music. So mysterious. ~
Photo: Sonny Malhotra
Published October 22, 2012.