Sure, the internet is great for sharing ideas but what of keeping them to yourself until they’ve been developed into a fully formed beast of a concept? This is just one of the questions surrounding many an internet meme, as well as the strongest argument against the dreaded micro-genre. It’s a dilemma someone like Unicorn Kid (aka Oliver Sabin) has come up against many times before and, as an electronic musician who got his start at 15, is directly related to ‘growing up online’. A MySpace success-story when the music sharing site was still relevant, Unicorn Kid was remixing the Pet Shop Boys and producing chiptunes in highschool, blowing off art college in favour of signing to Ministry of Sound soon thereafter.
It all sounds like a rather blessed existence but, as someone who was still experiencing the growing pains of adolescence, it wasn’t long before the relationship with the famed dance label fell apart, a promised debut album never eventuated and Sabin found himself taking six months off to reevaluate what it was he wanted from life. That’s when the Tidal Rave EP, with all its aqua blues and pastel pinks, came out in 2011 only to cause a stir before being funneled into the the sonic marina of the now infamous #seapunk micro-genre and let out again.
And that’s not because the 20-year-old Scotsman has some misguided notions of what constitutes longevity in music but because he is a self-aware, tech savvy product of the 21st century whose tastes are moving as fast as a wave through a fibre optic cable. Where Jonna Lee of Swedish audiovisual project iamamiwhoami thanked fortune for her ‘analogue way of thinking’ in a recent interview with aqnb, Sabin, as a child of the plugged-in 90s (or as he once dubbed-slash-tweeted ☆ BRAIN WASH 洗腦 ☆ GEN-Z MUSIC ☆), hasn’t been so lucky. He’s the kind of digital era offspring that uses a ‘private blog’ instead of a scrapbook, talks about self-branding instead of his ‘vision’ and whose non-committal attitude runs so deep that ‘or whatever’ has become an indispensable part of his vocabulary.
But, while to a deadbrained baby of the pre-internet age Unicorn Kid might seem like an oxymoron personified, he makes total sense as a product of this new post-ironic generation. Here, Sabin makes no distinction between the alternative and pop music universes, while being imbued with such an uncynical sense of himself that he can make the positive pop affirmations of ‘True Love Fantasy’ and the bouncing underwater bleeps of ‘Boys of Paradise’ seem indie. He can even lift a whirling riff from old track ‘Chrome Lion’, transplant it to new single ‘Pure Space’ and make it sound fresh.
What’s most surprising about Unicorn Kid, though, is that rather then being off with the pixels, he is totally present in person. A large part of his social network exists on his private facebook but his chatty, open demeanour shows Sabin knows how to interact with a human. He has his iPhone with him but he rarely looks at it, if only to selflessly record our conversation when my Dictaphone dies and tweet it back to me later. Obviously.
aqnb: You’re much taller than I expected.
Oliver Sabin: Yeah? Yeah, everyone thinks I’m small.
aqnb: You don’t look much like you do in your old press shots.
OS: I guess I’ve been the Unicorn kid for four years, so going from 16 to 20, they’re your most crucial years of transition and figuring out who you are so, having had that documented online from the start, you can pinpoint each change.
aqnb: As a 27-year-old, I for one am grateful YouTube didn’t exist when I was a teenager.
OS: Exactly. I don’t know how Google picks all those things up from the images but when you search my name it’s all stuff from four years ago, especially in the images.
aqnb: That must be frustrating, seeing you’ve been repositioning yourself artistically.
OS: There’s been a big transition. I’ve kept the name but the music has changed drastically over the past four years. When I first started out, I was 16, a year off leaving school and eventually signing to a label. I hadn’t really figured out what I wanted to do. I didn’t even know much about music in general. I was just listening to hard dance, happy hardcore and making this 8-bit chiptune music and then over time I started to learn a bit more about what I actually liked and what I was into. It started to affect the music and I was having all these identity crises and I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to make. I’d signed to these labels and they all wanted me to make stuff for the radio.
aqnb: Your association with seapunk is what go me interested in you at first.
OS: Yeah but the thing is, it didn’t mean anything, there was nothing behind it. I remember doing this interview with the 10 of us that were in the original group and they asked us what it was about and nobody could answer because it wasn’t about anything. It was just a Tropical Rave aesthetic that we all shared in common. None of us had ever really spoken or met before and it was funny that we all arrived at that together. But it was just through websites like Tumblr, where people are sharing images and collaborating the whole time. Everybody just gets a sense of what’s going to happen next.
aqnb: I originally thought it was a pun on Cyberpunk, like C-punk, which made a bit more sense to me.
OS: This guy Lil Internet, Julian [Foxworth], he’s a DJ producer guy from New York, his story is he had a dream about his leather jacket being studded with crustaceans or something. It was a joke. This was about a month before seapunk hit and then it just kind of happened. I don’t even know how I feel about it because it was a ‘youth scene’ of 14 to 16 year olds dying their hair. It was good to get press but it was cool for like a month because things like that become uncool very quickly.
That was my problem when I was starting out, I had this crisis about wanting to be a cool artist and as soon as I stopped really caring about that I started getting coverage in Fader and Pitchfork and Dummy Magazine and I was really happy about that but I’ve just learned to try not to really care about that sort of thing. I can’t make things cool for the sake of being cool.
aqnb: That’s trying too hard isn’t it?
OS: Well, of course. I learned over time there’s that fine line between trying too hard and actually trying to come up with an original idea that you’re really passionate about and that really relates to the music. So following seapunk was the final hurdle to becoming comfortable in my own skin as Unicorn Kid.
aqnb: I feel like things like seapunk happen all the time, where kids are so smart, they can’t actually commit to any real idea.
OS: For sure. What I wanted to do with Unicorn Kid was come up with an original way to present it. Because I think the way that you present the music, with your videos and your ‘personal brand’ or whatever, really, really affects the way that people receive your music. I reckon if I put some of the stuff that I put out years before, with all the imagery that I use now, people would receive it a lot better than they did back then. I think people are fooled quite easily into think something is cool, or whatever, just by a website or your press photos. I think seapunk taught me to come up with something so futuristic that other people can’t piggy back on the back of that.
My Tumblr is just like a mood board for the things that I’m in to and by the time you get your releases out –it takes about three or four months from delivering a track to actually getting it out –it’s already passé by then. So it’s a constant battle to make something that’s cohesive and makes sense with the record but is also ahead of its time.
aqnb: There’s something to be said for keeping things to yourself.
OS: I know. I have a private blog now, where I just put stuff up and I can flick through it when I need ideas but I was talking to James Ferraro a while ago when he was in Glasgow and him and Sean [Bowie, aka Teams] who was also one of the seapunk guys but is in Bodyguard now, they were saying ‘you have to keep things to yourself from now on. Until it comes time for the release, keep quiet.’ But I find it difficult because of Tumblr and the fact that my fan base is so young, you have to constantly exist. You have to be putting something on Tumblr at least twice a week; you have to tweet to even stay in their minds because they move forward from things so quickly. Fourteen year old girls will be like, ‘I really hate myself from six months ago’. Do you you know what I mean? They’re very keen to keep on top of what’s going on so it’s a constant struggle for relevancy [laughs].
aqnb: The concept of social media is something that eludes me.
OS: If I didn’t have Unicorn Kid, I wouldn’t have a facebook, a Tumblr or a twitter. I definitely wouldn’t have twitter. It’s really just a tool. You know, you have to live online or be very conscious about the way you’re portraying yourself. Not in a professional way but you have to be your brand as that artist. It takes over me because I’m at home writing all the time, and I’m on the internet all the time. You just become what you’re trying to be, for me as Unicorn Kid.
aqnb: That’s the dilemma isn’t it? Social media is marketing.
OS: Artists not even having a twitter is a statement in itself though. I think it’s Sleigh Bells, they have something like 200,000 followers but they’ve never tweeted and they don’t follow anybody. That in it self is like a huge statement. You can either be funny on twitter, you can be serious, you can only tweet links. It’s all part of constructing that personal brand.
But it also creates a world for people to receive to your music because it’s so much more than just music. For music like mine, anyway. I keep using the word but it’s like branding, where teenagers can associate themselves with that. I talk about it like it’s a marketing plan or whatever but it’s just the way that I’ve always seen it. I started out on MySpace, putting tunes up. It’s always been really internet-centric from the start. It’s just the way that I know how to do things, I guess.
It’s not like I’m being dishonest about it. It’s not like it’s a false image or I’m trying to trick anybody, it’s just the way that I like to make music. I like to make a world or an idea for all this stuff that I’m doing to exist in. It makes the whole process easier and it makes it fun. I’ve always been interested in design, doing the videos and the graphics and that kind of thing, it’s always been a huge part of it so, if anything, it’s about keeping myself entertained.
aqnb: At least you’re being honest about it.
OS: I think it’s worse not to be. It’s good to be transparent about it because it just comes across as really disingenuous if you’re not. You look at something like Salem and it almost seems a bit silly, if you think about it. I’m not dissing them or anything but the way that they act, it almost comes across as trying too hard when you’re trying to act as if this brand is something completely natural. But it’s not, everybody’s doing it, you look at any artist and they’ve got their brand or image, whether they admit it or not. They try and make it seem like it’s this very natural thing but it’s very carefully constructed. And everything that I do as Unicorn Kid is very carefully considered.
aqnb: Is that where you’re going with your current visual direction; that sort of millenial rave culture?
OS: I had this idea that all the videos, branding and photos, I wanted to set in a dystopian future following teen trends of that year. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I am doing. It was a good thing to focus on because I thought of the new record as ‘futuristic pop music’. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if my music was the music that was popular with teenagers in 2050’ or something like that. It’s something that I’ve had so much experience with, I’m really versed in teen tribes and trends and it’s really easy to pick up on. I’m getting more and more out of touch now though because, you know, I’m getting older.