On Thursdays, Del Owusu interviews an artist on the Fresh On The Net radar. This week, Uncle Kid!
Hello Uncle Kid, how are you?
I just went to Lidl to buy a cauliflower. I can feel autumn in my bones now. I dread this time of year. Anyway, I get to the checkout and apparently I’ve hit my shopping goal for the month and have earned a free loaf. But when I pick it up from the bakery it turns out they’ve shrunk them. It’s basically an oversized roll. ‘Shrinkflation’ they call it. I’m wondering if it is possible to get through a day these days without being conned or deceived somehow.
Congratulations on making the Fresh Faves with What A Wonderful World, how does it feel?
It’s the first time I’ve produced a cover and had trepidation about doing such a well known one. The last thing I wanted to do was butcher Louis Armstrong. One person on Reddit described it as ‘nauseating’. I’m glad to see this is not the general consensus and really grateful to everyone who gave it their vote. It helped me to forget all about that negative comment. I literally don’t care about it anymore.
What made you choose that song to cover?
I was invited to contribute a cover for the annual Specialized charity compilation. I was offered What a Wonderful World but initially declined as I thought it was too at odds with my usual style. I didn’t think I could do it justice. But eventually I started to explore that juxtaposition, realising that Louis’s joyful message is a bit alien to me, and that it also contains a hint of wistful regret. So I started to reimagine it from a place of detachment from all of life’s wonder, as can be the experience of living with mental struggles.
Did you have another in mind?
I’m a big fan of Jackie Leven, and his album Fairy Tales for Hard Men has been a big influence on me. So I’ve incorporated one of the tracks, Extremely Violent Man into my live set. I was playing at the weekend in a medieval church in rural Leicestershire and bats came out and darted round the ceiling during this song. I’m pretty sure something was invoked. I might include it in a future release.
Tell us about the video. You had some interesting instruments to hand. How did you come up with the concept?
Most of the instruments in the video are part of my live set. A friend of mine, Electric Alan, circuit-bends vintage electronic instruments and toys and has kindly donated some to me to make use of. The song features a circuit-bent Yamaha drum machine and a Touch and Tell children’s educational toy. I used this to try to convey a sense of torment, as random intrusive voices and glitchy noises unexpectedly appear in the song and contradict the narrative. My friend, Neil of MonkeyRig Media, came up with the idea to film it in a darkened room so we pitched up in the dingy basement of local bohemian cafe, Sketchy Beats, and he did an expert job of bringing it all to life.
It’s just occurred to me, was it the song that the Reddit critic found nauseating? Or the video? Or both? The comment had zero context. So stupid.
You are an artist from Scotland. How did it all begin for you?
Before creating this project, I used to define myself as a guitarist and singer. I worked briefly with a friend and great musician, Michael Steele who one day thrust a mic and some lyrics at me and told me to do whatever comes out while he played guitar. I was a bit thrown by this, but it forced me to abandon all my preconceptions about singing. He later fired me. But he urged me to go at it alone, telling me that he saw me as a solo musician. I decided to put his theory to the test and a whole new style developed. It was like a blank canvas. I had no idea what was going to come out.
What did you listen to growing up?
I grew up in a spooky wee village with an annual folk festival. I’m far from a folk musician but I was pretty enchanted by it. Seeing this otherwise silent backwater fill up with travellers and completely transform into a lively folk party for one weekend of the year. I think a bit of that folky sound has come out in my song, Lamplig. When I was at school I fell in love with Porno for Pyros. They’ve got a sort of mystical sound which I’m really drawn to. And on that note, I was at a friend’s house in my teens and he played a compilation CD which came with a magazine he’d bought. I think it was African-themed, and one track instantly grabbed us both. I hastily taped it but forgot to note the artist or song title, so listened to it for years without knowing. Anyway, I recently discovered it’s a track called Plug Dub by Pops Mohamed Meets The London Sound Collective.
Your sound has been described as “unsettling” by our Tom, which is quite a compliment. What made you take this route?
It certainly is. Well I don’t like to sugarcoat things. I set out to write something that feels earnest, or not at all. I don’t want to make music just for the sake of it, I want to express something as truthfully as I can and hopefully find some catharsis. I suppose that sometimes this can make for uncomfortable listening. Some of my lyrics can be pretty candid or close to the bone.
You’ve undertaken live performances, what’s it been like taking your music onstage?
Pretty overwhelming. I’m a bit of an introvert and not always the most comfortable at talking, so it’s a bizarre experience to get up in front of a crowd of people and do spoken word. And given some of the raw lyrical content, I find myself wrestling with my emotions every time. I’ve been taken aback by this experience. I was recently described as stoic. I’m just terrified.
Solving the riddle of how to perform these songs live took a lot of figuring out. I teamed up with my friend Martin, AKA The Amusements who’s a wizard on the keys and expert knob twiddler. He’s a great supportive presence. Between us we have an ever expanding array of gadgets, many of them unstable, which adds a fair tension to the performance. I’m also grateful to guitarist Pete who was involved for the first few gigs as we got the thing off the ground.
Post-Covid, what have you learned about yourself in the last three years?
That the slower pace of life suited me better. I remember feeling anxiety when I saw the cars taking back to the roads and the pavements filling up with folk again. I hadn’t noticed before that my mind seems to operate on a much slower frequency than the outside world. I experience a pretty constant state of overwhelm. It can make it hard to find the mental space to be creative.
Did you pick up any new skills?
I learnt Kung Fu. I took it up just before the pandemic, and when lockdown happened all of the other students quit. I continued over zoom as their sole student and earned my first belt. To this day it’s still just me and the two black belt senseis. So as a yellow belt, I’m officially the third best at Nam Pai Chuan in Scotland.
What are you listening to at the moment?
The upstairs neighbour using a circular saw. Hopefully he’ll be finished soon because I plan to tune into Exile FM for The Monday Night Ride Out. I’ve discovered so many great artists through that show. Have you heard Bull Believer by Wednesday? It has one of the most startling vocals I’ve ever heard. She lulls you into a false sense of security before descending into a full blown exorcism. I see she’s playing in Glasgow soon. If she manages to recreate that live I’ll be astounded.
What are you looking forward to doing next?
My next gig is at an arts festival at Edinburgh’s O2 Academy in November. In the meantime I’m looking forward to getting back into song-writing. I need to get away from all the hustle and bustle. I’m going to spend a week in Fife, house-sitting by myself. I plan to take only a notepad and toothbrush. I suppose it’ll be a sort of self-imposed lockdown. If I don’t descend into madness then hopefully some new material will emerge.