Q&A: Jim Carroll Of Unicycle Loves You On The Nature Of Failure, The Fifth Element, And Paying Tribute To Sonic Youth
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 songswhich 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 Failuredue next Februaryputs 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.
Unicycle Loves You, "Dollars And Cents"
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.