Unicorn Kid: the teenager who remixed Pet Shop Boys.
Not many teenage bedroom musicians get the chance to be heard outside their own bedrooms. Fewer still get invited to remix an arena-filling act. But for Oli Sabin, a 17-year old from Leith who has been recording and performing as Unicorn Kid since he was 15, the dream became a reality during the Easter school holidays, when he was invited to rework the latest Pet Shop Boys single, Did You See Me Coming?
“It was the first remix that I did,” he admits. “I was sitting in my room and I started opening all the files up, and I had five different a capellas of Neil Tennant’s voice. It was so weird to be hearing that.”
In his remix, Tennant’s vocals are the sole surviving elements of the original track. As for Chris Lowe’s instrumentation, “I kind of wiped him out. I started the remix before I’d actually listened to the original track, so I wasn’t too influenced by what it sounds like. The chord combinations underneath it are all completely different. Maybe that’s the reason why they liked it.”
Championed by Popjustice.com’s Peter Robinson – who brokered the hook-up with Tennant and Lowe – and Huw Stephens at Radio 1, Unicorn Kid’s bright, brash, richly melodic brand of electronic dance music has also caught the ear of Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, who publicly courted his friendship on Twitter. Following a recent London showcase gig (“60, 80 kids down in the pit, and it was all just industry at the back”), the pair met, clicked, and discussed future collaborations.
Unicorn Kid’s music has its roots in the 8-bit scene: a long-established if mostly overlooked genre (also known as chiptune or gamewave), whose practitioners use old-school videogame consoles to generate original compositions. “I’m not well-regarded within the scene,” he concedes. Perhaps it’s because he uses modern equipment to emulate the sound chips of the games consoles, thus offending the genre purists – or perhaps it’s “because I’m a young guy, making popular young music. But I’m not looking to impress them more than anyone else.”
To unschooled ears, 8-bit’s blaring bleeps and swirls can sound jarring and over-insistent – but for Unicorn Kid, its appeal lies in the clean, electronic purity of the sound. “It gave me a kind of sound set,” he explains. “Something to hang on to, to make you understand it a bit better. If I wasn’t doing that, I think I would have got lost with all the other dance music.”
Unicorn Kid insists his work should not be bracketed as “video game music”. Neither should it be seen as purely functional, mechanistic dancefloor fodder. “You get feelings of determination,” he suggests, “or of positive optimism. People often message me, saying it makes them feel happy when they listen to it. It often reflects what I’m feeling at that time.”
On stage, the tumbling melodic intricacy that defines his sound is beefed up with fatter basslines and a more pronounced rhythmic urgency. Mindful of his popularity with teenage fans, Unicorn Kid is happiest when playing gigs at which under-18s are admitted, and wary of age-restricted club PAs, where his music can sometimes sound plain wrong.
Despite its roots in trance and hardcore, the cheerful freshness of tracks such as Lion Hat and Wee Monsters contrasts sharply with the more demonic, oblivion-seeking dynamics of hard dance. Listen carefully, and you might catch echoes of Bollywood soundtracks, Scottish jigs and reels, or even the flashy wizardry of prog. Curious and inclusive by nature, Unicorn Kid cheerfully acknowledges the uncool delights of “stuff that people would consider to be bad music, like Clubland albums”. Best of all, he’s an unashamed fan of current mainstream pop – Lady GaGa, Tinchy Stryder, Calvin Harris – at a time when the singles charts are arguably in their healthiest state for years. “I love the production sounds, and I really think there’s elements of what I’m doing occurring in stuff like La Roux,” he agrees. “I think it’s my time, to come in and do my thing now.”
Here are some additional out-takes from the interview.
It’s a really good remix. It was the first time I heard you. I was listening to the Pet Shop Boys show on Radio 2, in the bath. And it came on, and I thought: oh, this is good. And then the next I heard of you was via Twitter, where Jake Shears was giving you a shout-out. Did he came to your London gig?
He actually missed it, but I went out for a drink with him afterwards with some other people and it was really cool. And also Peter Robinson [Popjustice], who has been really supportive. It was actually him who got me the Pet Shop Boys remix. He was the one who set it up.
Did you go into the studio, or did you do it all at home?
I did it all in my bedroom actually, during the Easter holidays. (Laughs)
Is that the first time that you worked with a vocal track?
I’d had goes at remixes, of my friends’ vocal tracks and stuff like that, just to mess around with what it would be like. It was the first time that I’d actually applied myself and thought: I actually have to finish this.
How long did it take?
The full two weeks of the holidays. Working every day in my room.
Did they just e-mail you the constituent parts?
It was on an FTP server, on the Internet. All I needed were the vocals, but they sent me every single part. So there were something like 30 or 40 WAV files that got sent to me. But I only touched five vocal parts.
So you didn’t even take a rhythm track from there?
No, no. I sped the whole thing up, as well. So it’s completely different.
So, this tour that you’ve been doing: have you had different reactions in different places?
Yeah, I tend not to like doing over 18s, because you realise it’s 14-to-19 that’s the demographic, or even younger. I like that, and I gear what I’m doing towards that. I like playing to those guys better than I like playing to the over 18s. I’ve played about four Club NME dates on the tour. Some of them were good and some of them were bad. Chelmsford was horrendous, it was really bad. It was empty, and nobody got it.
I think because when you’re playing a club night, everyone’s enjoying dancing to things that they know, and they’re all having a good time. Then someone weird like me comes on, and plays stuff that they don’t have a clue about, at such a faster pace. I didn’t get booed off the stage or anything, but nobody was really feeling it. But when I play 14+ gigs, people jump around and have a good time. I gauge the success of a show on how much the crowd seem to be enjoying it.
And you know that their senses haven’t been dulled by alcohol, so it’s all genuine. How much of the music do you create on stage?
The different parts of the songs are being triggered by pads on a MIDI controller. They’re being filtered or changed, or drums or bass are being taken in, or a chorus as a whole. There’s also synth parts being played over live.
I like to jump around and stuff like that, so there’s nothing much else more that I can do without kind of dampening [the effect]. It’s just me on stage, so I have to create a live energy. I couldn’t be doing any more without having to stand really, really still.
So you’re not picking out those incredibly fast melody lines with your fingers?
No, no way. My keyboard playing is poor. It’s done with a mouse. Essentially, you get almost like a piano down the side, and I kind of type it in. I think that’s how the melodies are so weird, because I’ve got free rein to click what I want.
But I’m happy with the legitimacy of my live show. If I wasn’t on stage, the songs would not be playing. If I pressed Go, it would be looping on the same bit, the same 30 seconds, for the next hour.
And you’ve got the freedom to change it around?
Definitely. Each live show is completely different to the next one. I might choose to go to one bit, one time, depending on if the crowd is enjoying it. If the crowd’s enjoying the chorus, then I can keep it on for another, or I can double it, or whatever.
You had a problem at one of the venues – they weren’t going to let you in because of your age?
That was Chelmsford. I got kicked out before we had even played the gig! We were sitting down on the sofa, and I was bored because I knew it wasn’t going to be a good one, and I was a bit moody because I was tired after London, and I’d just done Brighton. And the guy said, have you got any ID. And I said, I’m playing tonight, I don’t need any ID! And then he was like, get outside. Are you kidding?
That must have been your first “don’t you know who I am” moment.
I was like, are you honestly kicking me out? Because if you’re kicking me out, I’ll go. I’ll go home if you want me to. And then the manager came over and had a word with the bouncer. But obviously I would never not play the show, because a couple of guys did come down to see me who actually knew who I was. I wasn’t going to go away.
Even if there’s only two people in the room who have made the effort…
And they enjoyed it. They drove 40 minutes to come and see me. I also played Southampton, it was an over-18s one. And it was a girl’s birthday – I think she was 14 – and she and a bunch of her friends had come down for the gig. But it was an over 18s, so I had to turn them away at the door. It was heartbreaking, you know? And they’d driven about an hour and a half to come over, and it was about 9 o’clock at night. So I gave them all CDs and took pictures with them – but I felt really bad.
Well, at least they let you play. When Laura Marling was 16, she was barred from her own gig in Soho, so she ended up busking on the pavement outside.
I heard about that! Somebody used that as a comparison, saying you should have done that. But it would be difficult for me, I suppose!
You’d have to find a plug socket.
It would take about an hour to set up!
I loved your comment on Twitter. You were obviously replying to someone who was worried about going to the gig because they felt too old. And you said: just pretend you’re a journalist. That made me feel so much better about myself.