King Unique – you have to have that ambition; not making it for the chart placing, not for the fame or the DJ gigs but for yourself

Matt Thomas AKA King Unique doesn’t really need any kind of an introduction but for those of you that have been on a desert island for the past 13 years or living under a rock here we go…

King Unique was formed way back in 2001 and was originally formed of Matt Thomas and Matt Roberts. The pair certainly hit the ground running and claimed the title of “Undisputed Remix Champs”, by scoring five Essential New Tunes in five months on Pete Tong’s Essential Selection on Radio 1. A US Billboard Dance Chart number 1 for the remix of Dirty Vegas’ “Walk Into The Sun”, plus two more solo Essential New Tunes for Matt under his Watkins and Mainframe alter-egos saw KU firmly cement their place amongst the ranks of first-call remixers. The King Unique production touch has been in constant demand since, appearing on more than sixty remixes and yielding some of the biggest dance floor bombs known to man – Underworld’s “Two Months Off”, The Killers “Somebody Told Me”, Planet Funk’s “The Switch”, John Dahlback’s “Late Night Worries”, and Tracey Thorn’s “Grand Canyon”.

In 2006 the duo became a solo, as Matt Thomas took on the King Unique role as a solo artist. Since that date the name King Unique has gone on to become a name that is synonymous with anything dark, techno, proggy, and pounding. King Unique’s sound has found its home on John Digweed’s Bedrock label with the likes of “2000 Suns”, and his collaboration with Anthony Pappa, “Vamoosh”. Backing up the new material have been remixes of John Digweed’s “Bilder”, Hernan Cattaneo’s “Teleport”, Fergie’s “PCP”, Guy J’s “Candyland” and an on-going association with James Lavelle’s UNKLE project that has so far resulted in five stunning re-workings; “Heaven”, “Heavy Drug”, “The Answer”, “Reign feat. Ian Brown” & “Rabbit In Your Headlights feat. Thom Yorke”. All adding up to reaffirm Matt’s status as one of the most versatile and consistent producers around.

Hi Matt I hope you are well and having a good beginning to 2015. What have you been up to over the past couple of days?

Finalising promo details for a mix compilation I’m doing with Armada, making a video for microCastle and sorting through bags of archaeological finds at a nearby dig site. If you need to know the difference between Roman black burnished ware and speed garage bass-lines I’m your man.

If we can take a step back in time for a few minutes… What first got you interested in music? Are you from a strong music family and/or background?

An interest in sound preceded an interest in music. When I was about 9 or 10 I bought a couple of old 1950s open reel tape recorders from jumble sales, beautiful bulky things built into their own suitcases. The microphone cable looked like a skipping rope & there was gold mesh where you sang into the mic. I had to stop using it after a while because you got electric shocks if your mouth touched the microphone. My brother and I recorded ourselves on them just talking crap or making noises, then we’d play it backwards. My kids do exactly the same thing now on an iPad voice recorder and it brought it all back to me. There’s something rather magical about recorded sound.

My grandmother (who I only barely remember) was a singer and harp player of some stature in Wales; there’s a one-off 78 vinyl recording of her somewhere but it’s lost at the moment. I’m hoping it turns up at some point as I’d love to hear her. In my immediate family my dad played piano and sang sometimes, but I didn’t have a “radio was always on in our house” upbringing at all – music was there but it was background. I loathed learning the piano myself but stuck with it like maths or any other obligatory painful part of growing up. Around about 16 I got an Atari ST to replace my ageing Spectrum, and slowly bought various peripherals – a floppy disk drive was a big deal after years of loading games off tape – and eventually I thought I should get something to connect to the ST’s MIDI ports. I asked my parents to buy me a tiny Casio synthesiser for Christmas (the HT–700 for any geeks) and then learnt how to make my own sounds by trial and error. I’ve pretty much been hooked since then. I still sometimes wake up in the night screaming when I have a nightmare about the life I might have lead if I’d bought a desktop printer first instead.

You have been producing music for many years now under the King Unique name, and have released a number of incredible tracks that have had a great deal of recognition. What is your secret to being such a consistent producer?

I believe you have to want to make exceptional music. And by that I don’t mean all the music I make ends up being exceptional, but you have to have that ambition; not making it for the chart placing, not for the fame or the DJ gigs but for yourself, so that you hear what you’ve made come out of your speakers and you’re entranced.

You have been a big fan of aliases over the past few years using names such as Mainframe, Watkins, Fatty Acid, Kupon, and of course King Unique. What do you think an alias can give you as an artist, and can we expect any new aliases in the future?

Most of those aliases all date back to shortly before the start of King Unique & simply identified solo or collaborative acts outside of the work that Matthew Roberts and I produced as King Unique. An exception was Kupon, a mechanism to let us “stop being KU” in 2006 when we were making lots of bass and DFA flavoured electro. The minimal techno scene was just exploding and we both heard something interesting in it, so we had a dabble. That ‘dabble’ went to #1 on Beatport’s techno charts – it’s good for the ego to occasionally check that people are really following you for the music rather than just your name. When I got really excited about dance music again in late 2013 I considered doing a dubspeeka or a Copy Paste Soul and working under an alias. It would’ve opened some doors quicker but I just wanted the challenge to be honest – if I dump all my musical baggage and do what the fuck I like can I take people with me on this trip? Seems I can!

Over the years you have appeared to develop a great working relationship with Bedrock Records and microCastle? How did the opportunities first come about, and how do you find working with the labels?

The first KU remix delivered for Bedrock was actually when we remixed Suicide Sports Club “I Don’t Know” around 2005, though John has always been a supporter right back to the early days of KU. When I wrote ‘2000000 Suns’ Bedrock had artists like Maetrik, Henry Saiz, Guy J and many others all breaking through with huge records for the label; it seemed the obvious choice. I sent the track to John, he played it out and signed it straight after – that simple. Since then I’ve remixed John a couple of times, he’s returned the favour and I’ve placed several more tracks with them. I get on with John and Scott without any bullshit (though I guess they have to put up with a fair bit from me in relation to mix delivery deadlines…) and the same goes for Mitch at microCastle. I was pleased to finally meet him in person last summer when I played in Toronto; a very interesting person Mitch, and one blessed with great A&R instincts. microCastle has been instrumental in letting me get some of my wilder ideas out (Petrels’ 12-minute ambient noisecore remix of ‘Without Boxes’ for example) so I’m looking forward to seeing what else we get up to this year.

Many people believe that you have had a very positive impact on the progressive house sound over the years which of course was a genre that was given quite a bad name a few years back. What are you thoughts on your impact on the scene and the state of the genre known as progressive?

If people think I have a positive impact on the scene then great, that makes me happy. For myself the genre system is broken, finished & done – and I mean this in a good way. I’m fusing garage beats and UK-bass with melodic prog & techno and everyone seems to love it. But what the hell genre do I put it in? I think the utter nonsense that Beatport and then the labels and artists themselves have made of the genre sections has pushed DJs away from following a style and onto following particular artists or labels. If that artist then takes chances with their sound and experiments with a different vibe I think people are more likely to go with them than previously. Whatever the cause I do know that crowds are open to almost anything I play them these days and that then makes me want to take more risks with them.

People in the scene know you as a real studio junkie. Do you have a workflow or ritual when you first enter your studio to work on new original materials or remixes?

No the exact opposite, my only constant is to try and find new things to keep me interested. Like everyone I have a favourite technique or plug-in to use for a while but I think I lose interest in my own ideas much quicker than the fans do. When I remixed Pedro Aguiar “I Don’t Want It” I came up with a whole new technique for creating musical parts for that remix; it just occurred to me today that I’ve not actually gone back to that. It’s as if I invented filter-disco or micro-sampling then just thought ’nah, don’t think I’ll bother doing that again’. I need my bloody head examined!

You clearly have very high standards when producing tracks, as can be seen from the final work we hear. When you begin working on a track do you feel there is a certain expectation of a particular sound? If so how do you ensure your music remains fresh and current?

There is a certain expectation – it comes from me. I loathe hearing people produce what can only really be called ‘product’, a track inspired by the need to fill up a release schedule. If I’m offered a remix that looks great on paper (top artist or label) but the track isn’t speaking to me i’m always gutted as I’ve learnt to say ‘no’ when that happens. You have to be inspired musically – everything else is secondary. As for remaining fresh I avoid purism as I find it a creative dead–end, whereas at the other extreme endless bandwagon jumping is a little too calculating and hollow. Certainly you can cherry pick the things that speak to you in the current scene and mix them into what you do – and further away you look from what you’re already doing the more inspiring that can be.

You are obviously very busy in the studio which has seen you release a staggering number of original tracks and remixes in 2014. Have you ever thought of starting your own label so you can release music that may not suit other labels?

When KU was two of us we ran the Curfew label to release our own music; ‘Yohkoh’, ‘To The Left’ and the Kupon ‘Zoom In/Out’ EP amongst others, as well as tracks by friends. We had tracks and remixes by Gui Boratto, Alan Fitzpatrick, Nic Fanciulli, Paolo Mojo, Nicolas Masseyeff and more. It was a good thing to do at that point but very time consuming, I dropped it around ’09 and I’ve never regretted it. I do best when I focus on one thing so for me producers should produce and label bosses should run labels.

Your sound has evolved hugely over the years since first producing under the name King Unique. Many of us remember tracks like “Change” and remixes of “The Funk” on Yoshitoshi. Besides Matt Roberts’ departure what else influenced your sound to change?

The passage of 15 years – the changes in my life, the changes in technology, the changes in the world, the changes in the scene – if my sound hadn’t changed I’d be worried. I never set out to be a dependable ‘brand’. Even the use of that word in relation to music makes me want to stab people in the eyeballs. I did this job to get away from the corporate mindset, not embrace it and turn music into a Big Mac.

I believe you have some productions coming up on Sudbeat and microCastle, and a remix for Robert Babicz. What can you tell us about these tracks, and when will they be available to the public?

Well the remixes I’m doing for Sudbeat & microCastle aren’t even going to get into the studio until this summer so at the moment that’s all I can say about them. The Babicz remix however I just wrapped last week and it’s a great mutant bass and beats thing, very stark & explosive. Should be out on Selador in February I gather.

What advice would you give to new producers out there that are looking to break into the scene?

In all honesty I tend to shy away from offering that advice; when I’m asked this same question in person I usually ask what they’re doing currently and what they’re doing music for. If they’re experiencing any kind of satisfaction from it – maybe they’re DJing a bit or making their first productions – I tell them: that feeling is the important bit. Yes, of course getting paid for it/getting famous/etc is a huge bonus but the core of the experience is in that pleasure that comes from doing it at all. No matter how big your career gets you will always have special memories of the first things you did – so really, enjoy them while you’re doing them.

Besides production you also DJ, and you had a huge gig alongside Henry Saiz in Manchester last week, and of course Cream Reunion this weekend. Can you tell us a little about the gigs?

The Manchester gig was a fantastic night – I debuted some new KU material and remixes there and got the sort of response you dream about. Fantastic crowd, as is increasingly often the case in the UK these days – I think this is an increasingly golden era for UK clubbing. Then I have the Cream Reunion coming up this Saturday which I’m giddily excited about. I’ve never played a classics set till now – KU’s very first gig was in the Annexe at Cream in 2001, so when they asked if I’d like a chance to look back to where it all started, in the very DJ booth where it started I was an instant ‘yes’. I’m going for a full on time warp back to 2001 – dark prog, moody tribal and epic drops. Hearing some of those tracks again has reminded me of a lot of previously forgotten moments – I may spend the entire set in a state of euphoric deja-vu!!!

You recently dropped “Watkins – Black AM” in your recent set at Ministry of Sound which got quite a reaction. What made you decided to drop this classic, and can we expect any new remixes of this track in the near future?

Natalie Arnold who sang ‘Black a.m.’ and also recent single ‘7 Hours’ was in the crowd that night, the first time we’d actually seen each other face to face in 12 years! She’s never heard ‘Black a.m.’ played out in a club so I had to take the chance. She was in the crowd as they all began cheering when they recognised it coming in. Very lovely moment.

What has been your favourite gig you have played in 2014, and why?

Rainbow Serpent Festival was spectacular, not just the set itself which was amazing – 10,000 blissed out Aussies dancing in the midday outback sun – but the whole trip. Caught up with a lot of friends and made plenty of new ones. Plus people in the crowd had read an interview where I said I always enjoy jam lammingtons when I visit, so there were jammy lammies being delivered to back stage security and thrown to me on stage mid-set. Aussies.

When DJing to crowd what would be your preferred DJ equipment setup?

The Pioneer RMX-1000 is currently making me smile, enough to take one with me to gigs & suffer the inevitable delays having it swabbed for explosives at every airport security check.

What has been your greatest life lesson or experience (good or bad) that the industry has taught at you over the years?

Devoting yourself whole-heartedly to something is the only way you’ll get the best results for your effort, but that can come at a cost to those closest to you. Good luck walking that line.

As we turn towards the New Year what have been some of your personal highlights of 2014?

Getting some time to hang out in New York rather than the usual dash through – gave me a chance to do a little film-set spotting; double points for New York Library steps (Day After Tomorrow AND Ghostbusters) – plus I was invited to a karaoke bar for the very first time and bloody loved it. My ‘Insane In The Brain’ & ’Take On Me’ are still spoken of in hushed tones by those who attended…. Also finally making it to Teotihuacan outside Mexico City and climbing the pyramids on a blazing hot day. There’s loads, too many to mention – this is a very blessed job.

Have you set yourself any New Year’s resolutions?

Two – release new original KU material and relocate to the semi–derelict house I bought a couple of year back – I put the renovations on hold for the whole of 2014 to give KU my full focus, now it’s time to make the move. I’ve spent part of the Christmas break crawling around hammering down floorboards & searching online for the perfect bath.

Finally, is there anything else you would like to add that you have planned for 2015?

I’m releasing a mix compilation through Armada called “Without Borders: London” that I’m really pleased with. It’s taken a while to get right and it’s my sense of where this melodic bass-led house music that I’m feeling is at. The artwork is from a fantastic street photographer called Stephen Leslie who captures mundane yet surreal shots of London; they seemed to complement the music perfectly. That’s available to pre-order now here and we’re going to do something a little bit unusual with the packaging. You’ll have to check out my facebook this week for more details.

There’s also a remix EP coming out on microCastle today featuring 5 new takes on last year’s “Some Break The Shell EP”. Remixes by dubspeeka, Pedram, Jamie Stevens & Petrels, along with a stripped out ‘No Makeup Mix’ Natalie & I did of “7 Hours”. I absolutely smitten with this release, I’ve got truly great tracks back from everyone involved. Check it out here.

There’s also a slew of remixes coming in February that I’ve done for Tilt, Grum and Robert Babicz, all fierce bass-focused club damagers.

Did I mention I’m feeling enormously creatively energetic right now?

About the Author

Director and DJ, Ian French (Naif) is passionate about every genre of music from Breakbeat, to Drum & Bass, to Techno and House. A man that lives in a world of beats and bass, and total confusion about life!