There’s nothing subtle about New York trio UNI. Taking inspiration from 1970’s glam rock icons like David Bowie, T. Rex, and New York Dolls, the band has been marrying striking, larger than life visuals with psychedelic-tinged art pop since 2017. While they’ve yet to release a full-length, the consistent outpour of singles and videos and (formerly) fiery live shows have long made them a band on the cusp of breaking big in dramatic fashion.
Made up of bassist Charlotte Kemp Muhl, guitarist David Strange, and vocalist Jack James, the band is no stranger to starpower. Kemp Muhl is probably most recognizable as Sean Lennon’s longtime girlfriend, with whom she shares a band called The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (GOASTT) but you might have also noticed her playing bass for Jack White or posing in a glossy magazine ad for Maybelline. James makes the most of his striking androgynous looks outside the band by modeling as well and Strange won the Jimi Hendrix Electric Guitar Competition while still in his teens.
The band showcases this starpower, as well as a cutting sense of humor and vast knowledge of cultural references with each song delivered, which typically is accompanied by a detailed yet cryptically opaque story. Today, just in time for Halloween, the band is unveiling their latest, “Predator’s Ball,” via a very NSFW self-described “mini-film” directed by and starring Kemp Muhl as the fearful victim of a glamorous sex cult of monsters and James as the flamboyant leader of said cult. Rale and Kemp Muhl set the scene with this description:
You wake up and an onyx colored envelope is just laying there on the bed by your face; the deadbolts have not been disturbed and the windows are all still latched.
Flamingo leather boots and an imperial cape are strewn on the floor from the night before, upon which a hairless cat gives a bored stretch. Groggily, you reach for the envelope. Several articles are inside including a card of some kind of polished bone with an inlaid filagree of elegant gold-scripting.
Le Roi des Lézards
Ba’al de Prédateurs
À la Rothschild et Dali
Tout Sera Servi
On the back is what must be the address:
La Dernière Maison.
— The ‘Last House’?
— This is a joke, right?’
There is also what appears to be to be a menu:
Soupe de poussière de lune Kubrick
Soufflé de réserve fédérale
Soufflé Mondes Morts
And in English:
All tastes are indulged,
From Seraph To Beast,
Just bring your appetite,
For you are the feast.
Odd. You pack it all back into the envelope and slip it under your neighbors door - the investment banker - sincerely wishing couriers would notice that your address is only 665.
KEXP spoke with the band about the new single, their progression as a band, and lessons from Yoko Ono. Find it below, alongside the "Predator's Ball" mini-film and its accompanying artwork.
KEXP: How’d the idea for “Predator’s Ball,” the song, come about?
DAVID: We got sick of living in the art rock squaller of our artistic integrity so we took the three best songs ever written: ‘I’ll Make Love to You’ by Boyz II Men, ‘Don’t Make Me Wait for Love’ by Kenny G and ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ by Motley Crue, plagiarized the best parts of each including the lyrics and the result is what you hear in Predators’ Ball.
KEMP: Haha, it’s a facetious love song to the Illuminati, just to fuck with the internet trolls who already think we’re devil worshipping with Marina Abromovich. The term refers to corruption on Wallstreet.
The song itself is a bit of a departure from the 70s glam rock you’re known for. More 90s industrial. Definitely getting major Marilyn Manson vibes! What spurred this sonic change?
JACK: Wow, cool. I love Marilyn, (and hope he never sues me), so thank you for that. Ziggy-era glam rock is the foundation in which the three of our musical languages (barf) coexist. For me, it’s not a departure, but a natural evolution. How do we keep pushing the ideology of “70s glam rock” without getting stuck in some genre box? My bones are made of glass, not rock anyway.
You’re calling the video for “Predator’s Ball” a “mini-film” and, indeed, it is incredibly cinematic. You’ve directed nearly all of UNI’s videos but this definitely appears to be a bigger undertaking. What was the video-making process like?
KEMP: I make it a modus operandi to never cry- but this production brought me to tears at some point, haha... In the 2nd verse there is this Eyes Wide Shut kind of diorama and my original goal was for it to all be a single fluid take- but this one diva who was jealous she never had a “solo shot” kept interrupting and throwing a fit and storming out and storming back in, which made everyone else really restless and joke around. In film making, every second counts or you’ll have to start cutting shots- which we did. Was trying to hold all the chaos together and steer the ship and almost had a mental breakdown at that point, but my friend Rich Ragsdale gave me a sort of 1980s montage pep-talk, and got my head back in the game like a wrestler or something. Me, Jack and David work our asses off and though the result is very “professional” looking, the process is incredibly DIY. Also- that’s real blood in the nun scene.”
Were there any films or directors you were looking at for reference points for “Predator’s Ball”?
KEMP: There is this 1960s propaganda film called Alice In Acidland which is designed to make parents terrified of their children doing drugs but backfired and became a hilarious cult film. That, plus elements of Kubrick and Jodorowsky and Rocky Horror 80s tropes were the vibe. I even gave some winks to that French lesbian vampire director from 70s, Jean Rollins. Jack was definitely channeling some Labyrinth style Bowie, and David had no idea he was being filmed.
It’s clear from all the incredible high-concept videos that the visual component is just as important as the musical for UNI. Is there one that would you say feeds you more creatively between making videos and making musical [Ed. note: that was a spelling error]? Or are they both equally important and enjoyable?
JACK: Did you say “musical”...? Heh heh...Careful what you wish for! Well thank you, that’s very kind. Honestly, it depends. Some days you want to set your hair on fire while wearing prosthetic pig makeup and balancing on a unicycle on a tightrope for a VHS camera. Other days, you just want to get fast food with Kemp in the studio and sing some songs about a colony on Pluto. The entire uni experience or “uni-verse” is a roller coaster that the visuals and sound are all a part of.
UNI’s released a number of singles since 2018 but no EPs or LPs so far. Are there any plans to put out a full-length in the near future?
DAVID: To be honest, I’m not at all ashamed of being single for so long. It’s not like I CAN’T or I WON’T commit...It just that...I don’t know...it hasn’t been right yet. I mean with the rate of divorce these days and child support payments combined with the uncertainty in the economy and the global pandemic- I just think that maybe it’s best to be alone and focus on ME for a while. I’m not ruling out something more serious in the future. It could be that the whole concept of marriage and monogamy and the format itself that has existed for so long doesn’t apply to the modern age anymore. Maybe it’s... obsolete?? Sorry, were you asking about albums?
KEMP: We’ve been advised not to put out our album in Covid times because touring and promo will be impossible. So instead, we’ll be putting out a song and video every month.
Charlotte, you and Sean Lennon recently played The Late Late Show with James Corden, honoring Hal Willner. Any chance this means there will be new music from GOASTT on the horizon?What advice or tidbit of inspiration, if any, has Yoko Ono given you on music/art/performance?
KEMP: Sean and I will definitely make music again, and we have our whole lives together to do it, so I’m in no rush there. Right now I want to focus on Uni while I can still fit into latex leotards, haha. As for Yoko- she comes from the opposite school of me- she is so amazingly off the cuff, minimalist and quickly improvises stuff and moves on. She’s punk before punk. I’m more of a meticulous perfectionist, maximalist and control freak, so getting to tour as her bassist and sit in on her studio sessions has taught me a lot about giving into serendipity, leaving certain stuff raw and adapting on the fly- which definitely came in handy on the set of Predator’s Ball!
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