Chicago’s Unicycle Loves You is unabashedly a noise-pop band, but not in the (mo-fi) sense that Sisters, Japanther, Railcars, or early No Age jams are noise-pop. Rather, singer/guitarist Jim Carroll, singer/bassist Nicole Vitale, and drummer J.T. Baker author lo-fi indie-pop bangers that graft together figurative bits and pieces of underground 1990s/2000s bands they love with oddball sonic feints and samples. In Unicycle songs—which somehow manage to combine “mid-tempo” with “high-octane”—you might encounter trace amounts of My Bloody Valentine, Belly, Guided By Voices, Of Montreal, the High Water Marks, the Fiery Furnaces, The Strokes, and Belle & Sebastian, bathed in Carroll and Vitale’s mawkish, harmonized sarcasm and concentrated bursts of effects-pedal napalm. If 2009’s Mirror, Mirror (High Wheel Records) sometimes forsook pop pluck for abject abstraction, the band’s third album Failure—due next February—puts indefatigable hooks front and center without sacrificing any of the intriguingly rhythmic and textural kinks that are the group’s trademark. Jangly “Wow Wave Cinema” blazes cryptically through a dozen aural moods without missing a step, while the spare, taut “Sun Comes Out (And I Don’t Care)” skips along on chicken-wire riffs and narrative-challenged “Piranha” throbs and aches like a fresh bruise whose source you can’t remember.
Sound of the City emailed with Carroll about Unicycle Loves You!’s beginnings, his favorite Sonic Youth albums, and what he’s going to be for Halloween this year.
What was the first song you wrote for Unicycle Loves You!, and what was that experience like? When you wrote it, did you know that it would turn into something lasting?
Immediately after graduating from The Art Institute of Colorado, I started recording a slew of songs as sort of an exorcism of all my years flip-flopping through college. I believe the first track was called “Dark Train.” Then I started to record lots of experimental stuff with my friend Jeff on bass, threw it together with this messy dark psych pop I was doing, and called it Unicycle. It was just for us and I had no intention of making it into a band, least of all taking it to the stage. It wasn’t until moving to Chicago a few years later that I realized I had completely shifted my focus to music, met amazing people I could play with, and added the ever cynical “Loves You!” to the tail.
As an album title, Failure is pretty loaded; it could be read straight, ironically, or as applicable to a character, system or institution. How did you arrive at it, and what does it signify?
Let’s face it: failure is inevitable in art and life. You try and fail and try again. If you’re lucky, you come out stronger and can eventually shed your unrealistic expectations and redefine what success means to you. The popularity contest that is the music industry is a complete joke and an utter hoax. Failure, on the other hand, is very real.
“Failure” the song actually has a weird duality going on, lyrically, if I’m reading it right: the narrator is simultaneously terrified of and haunted by failure but also doesn’t give a shit. There’s something universal about that, I think; everybody wants to achieve and succeed wildly but to keep from going insane we almost have to force ourselves not to want more than we have at the present moment.
You pretty much nailed it.
Has your definition of success, in terms of Unicycle Loves You!, changed much over the years?
Absolutely. We went into things very gung-ho and with little focus or direction when we started out. We had no idea what we wanted to sound like, and the result ended up sounding a bit like nothing and everything. And like many young bands, we had some really stupid expectations. After some years of realizing that you either buy your way to notoriety or just relax and stick around for the long haul, you could say our philosophy has changed a bit. Our goal has since become to simply make music that we would listen to if we weren’t us, and to avoid the act of approval-seeking at all costs. Life is much less stressful and more rewarding that way.
What are some of the disappointments and difficulties you’ve endured as a band?
Cancelled tours, failed PR campaigns, loads of money that we worked hard to make completely wasted, misinterpreted sonic intentions, friendships lost over virtually nothing. The list could go on and on. We try not to get frustrated anymore, and now tend to laugh when things fall through. With today’s ridiculous “indie” climate, we’ve come to realize that we’re going to have to be in it for the long haul, and that’s just fine with us. We never intended anything otherwise.
To these ears, what’s most appealing about Unicycle Loves You! is the admixture of quirky pop and various sonic elements that seem like thy shouldn’t play nicely with quirky pop yet somehow do: seemingly unconnected vocal samples, hot shots of distortion, weird effects. What was the songwriting process like for, say, “Garbage Dump” and “Piranha”?
Thanks! We’re hugely influenced by the visual world of Pop Art, especially the films of bold artists like William Klein. I think that’s where we might come across as having quirk and cynical disconnection. As far as the songwriting process of “Garbage Dump,” it’s really a folk/blues song that I wrote on my acoustic guitar. If you take away the noise and grit, it could possibly be sung around a campfire. “Piranha” was more of an experiment that went right and has become my favorite song on the album.
Who are some of your other influences?
Man, sometimes it’s like I’m influenced by everything I see or hear. This has been my biggest problem finding a focused ground in the past. What I will say is that during the writing and recording of Failure, I pretty much strictly listened to Thee Oh Sees, Captain Beefheart, Sonic Youth, No Age, Dinosaur Jr., and Guided By Voices. Also, we got a bit into exploring the films of Luis Bunuel and Whit Stillman.
Onstage and in the studio, what’s the division of labor like? I always wonder how you guys source the samples woven into Unicycle songs, whether they’re found or homemade or both. Like on “Wow Wave Cinema” there’s this swarm of broken chimes effect that surfaces a couple times. How did you achieve that?
Since becoming a trio, I’ve definitely taken on the leading role in the recording process. Onstage, we trust each other to make the right decisions. Every sound you will hear on a Unicycle album has been homemade with probably only one exception ever: an uncredited voice at the end of Failure. We even bought one of those “make your own music box” things for the creepy ending of Mirror, Mirror. The chimes on “Wow Wave Cinema” are a reinforcement to the ears. There are two guitars with vibrato feedback in the red at that part, and they already made that sound in my head. Most of the extra sounds that might come across as samples on our albums arrive that way to me. I’m trying to learn how to make the listener hear what I hear.
One of the things that made Mirror, Mirror so interesting is that it couldn’t seem to decide whether it was a rock album or an avant-garde album; in listening I never quite knew what I was gonna get, which was intriguing. With Failure the divide isn’t quite as pronounced, though the oddness is there in the songs.
Having gone to art school for seven years, I tend to be my own worst critic and get over my own work before anybody even hears it. Mirror, Mirror was an attempt to make something so much more than the first album and take back our sound, while Failure is an attempt to kick Mirror, Mirror‘s ass. I’m always just trying to make it better and better without compromising concept or personal style, much like one does in visual art. “Never repeat yourself” is a good mantra for us.
Do you see Unicycle as a sort of extension of your interest in the visual arts, or something altogether separate? If separate, at what point did music take precedence over art for you, or does it, in your mind?
Yes, absolutely. I went through various stages of interest in fine art, commercial art, and animation, but would constantly be recording little home recordings to share with friends and family. For me, it was just a matter of finding which form of expression I found most gratifying and expansive. I still vow to make a feature length film someday—my own Buffalo 66 or something.
Failure is your third album overall, but second album as a trio. Did you feel different, more confident maybe, heading into Failure than Mirror, Mirror?
Yes, definitely. I think we gain confidence with each project we take on. This time, we felt good enough about our songs to strip away the bullshit and really sound like a trio.
What will you be for Halloween this year?
We’ll actually be filming our video for “Piranha” in Williamsburg the week of CMJ. Nicole and I will be thrown-together skeleton people and John will be a creepy panda. We think we’ll use the same costumes for Halloween, except John will be the “gimme the cash” guy from The Fifth Element.
Wow, The Fifth Element. That was like the bizarro/pop art Blade Runner or something. Which character was he?
Yeah, I couldn’t remember who that was either until John showed me. He’s the guy who wears a picture of the hallway he’s standing in on his head in order to trick Bruce Willis into not seeing him so he can surprise him with “gimme the cash!”
Lyrically, “Piranha” seems pretty, open to interpretation, fairly ear-of-the-beholder. When I try to link that kind of hangdog pulse to a visual in my mind, all I wind up with is a sense of people running, maybe in a chase scene. Do you guys have a video treatment in mind? Where will you film?
I find that in the past, we’ve attempted to marry influences while unintentionally avoiding wearing them on our sleeve. “Piranha” is the result of two things I hold near and dear: early Dinosaur Jr. and early solo Thurston Moore. Like most of the tracks on Failure, I really wanted to hone in on interpreting the albums I really loved as a teenager while maintaining my own voice. As far as the video goes, we have to keep that a secret for now.
There was a demo for a song from the Failure sessions called “Magic Marker Blackout” floating around—this sort of bruising, distorted pile-driver of a song that’s of a piece with the overall album theme. Will that song be released?
I recorded around 18 fully formed demos during the first half of 2011. This was great because we could really be picky about the way Failure would sound. We’ve never been able to throw away eight full songs before. It’s really exhilarating. “Magic Marker Blackout” was one of a few that kind of ended up a bit more of a glam vibe than we wanted. There are a few more out there too. Maybe we’ll release a faux-glam 7-inch someday.
Did you hear that Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon are separating? I learned about this about 24 hours ago and still can’t quite get my head around it.
The Sonic divorce is bad for humanity and breaks my heart. Don’t do it, Kim and Thurston! Think about the kids!
They really were like the cool parents of indie rock nation, weren’t they? I’ve got this gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that they stayed together for the kids, but now that the kids have their MFAs and are either gainfully employed or frequenting Occupy Wall Street protests, they’re like “fuck this shit.”
Yeah, they’ve always been such an important and constant influence on me, whether it be hidden, out in front, musically or visually. And I guess when you put it that way, I’d totally be “fuck this shit” too. Without the Sonic Youths and Guided By Voices of the world, we’d all be left with a bunch of spoiled, whiny fakers. I can’t live in a world like that.
Which SY albums or songs have had the biggest influence on you?
I love most everything Sonic Youth has put out, but the albums that came out at the height of my youth—Goo, Dirty, Washing Machine—are the ones that find their way into my subconscious more often than others. “My Friend Goo” frequently appears in our sets; Nicole really nails it.
That’d be a great SY CMJ salute, to play that. Then, you know, pour some out for Kim and Thurston, then slide the empty bottle up and down the strings of your amplified guitar.
Unicycle Loves You! plays Fontana’s on Saturday.