Hole, as misunderstood as they were, channeled the pain of femininity found in smeared lipstick and tattered dresses. For UNI and The Urchins, they find that trigger point and twist.
Press materials for the band describe them as an omnipresent, sinister figure that lurks in the shadows of your psyche, sees you when you're engaging in life's most intimate moments and stares you down when you least expect it. Composed of Jack James, Charlotte Kemp Muhl and David Strange, the trio take New York art-punk back to its extreme roots, relying on their DIY ethos to craft a precise, uncomfortable and strangely beautiful blend of grunge, synth wave and punk.
For their next adventure, they tackled the grim feminist anthem "Doll Parts" by '90s grunge legends Hole, fronted by Courtney Love. While acknowledging the feminine horror of the original song, they place their own dark sci-fi twist. Despite being scrapped together with very little material, the resulting video (directed and edited by Kemp herself) is macabre in the best way, channeling sex, intimacy and the uncertainty of a growing technological world informed by their diverse experiences and backgrounds ranging from fashion to just being a human.
In addition to the new single and video, the band has announced their debut album, Simulator, described as "a cosmic trip through a lobotomized disco," with the not-so-subtle undertone of robots possibly taking over the world and destroying the human race. In other words, right up our alley.
Kemp and James took some time to answer some questions about what makes "Doll Parts" the perfect piece in their brilliant sci-fi puzzle.
There’s a lot of controversy wrapped up within Courtney Love, and Hole is a tough band to cover. What was the process like to reimagine the song?
Charlotte Kemp Muhl: Jack came to me wanting to do a Hole cover. I immediately thought how killer the "Doll Parts" lyrics were in the new context of Crispr, transhumanism, avatars, Web 3.0. Originally, Courtney was writing about feminine dysmorphia and objectification in the '90s. But like the insufferable sci-fi stan I am, I was excited about how they could apply to designer gene modification and the spirit’s attempt to flee its fleshy cage. The penultimate step of evolution, planned obsolescence of the physical, blah blah blah.
So I changed some of the chords to be darker, worked on the demo with my sample connoisseur pal Cae Rale, utilizing a digital version of the Exquisite Corpse victorian parlor game, then I mangled the crap out of it. David strummed some late-night guitar in my living room through a busted '50s amp, and lastly, I wrote some orchestral arrangements that my heavy metal violinist friend Earl absolutely shredded. The best part, of course, was recording Jack’s vocals, which are so damn eerie and emotive. I think he always cries when he sings, he’s so deep in character. Either that or he’s just allergic to my cats…
Jack James: I’m a big fan of Hole – in more ways than one! I had the idea to cover the song a few years ago just for fun. Kemp wanted to give it an industrial pop makeover, and it was the first song we tried post-quarantine, so we all worked remotely. I know this may come as a surprise to people, but I have a propensity for cinematic drama; I put the extra in extraterrestrial! So when I heard her strings and Cae’s sledgehammer beat I knew we had something great on our webbed hands.
I think because Courtney Love is wrapped in controversy as you say, she often gets overlooked for the incredible artist she is. Live Through This is a masterpiece! The 16-year-old riot girl that lives in me is elated to be dipping into that iconography. We love you, Courtney!
The visuals are stunning, playing into the literal and metaphorical meaning of the song. How did you come up with everything?
Kemp: I always wanted to do a video inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange. So I kind of merged those sets into one. Jack wanted to give the droog outfits an equestrian twist, which I thought was super cool, so I also threw in some medical and sports elements like shin guards and neck braces. We were debating what should go on the neon sign and Jack thought of making it the album title – so then I imagined this whole backstory that the Simulator is actually an inter-dimensional bar where the demi-Gods and Coders gather to drink adrenochrome and consort with geishas from other planets. The casting process for diverse body types to represent bio-hacked babes and avatars was so fun and we met/made friends with some wonderful people. We wrapped our shoot in the middle of the night in the grimiest subway station in Manhattan. That shot of Jack had been looping in my head for months, with the many arms representing desire, so I'm thrilled we were able to get it. He nailed it in one take, of course.
James: Thank you for saying that, that’s very kind. Kemp and I are constantly collecting and sending each other inspiration, from Klaus Nomi to Steven Arnold. We like to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. The videos are an extension of the sonic emotion and lyrical meaning. Of course, when it’s your own music video you have the opportunity to live out your teenage dream of being an equestrian droog in a made-up Space Odyssey-inspired milk bar… that’s what every 16-year-old dreams of, right?
Body horror is a big theme across your work and visuals. What is that significance?
Kemp: I don’t consider it horror. I find all that Cronenberg/Chris Cunningham/Matthew Barney stuff so exquisitely beautiful. "Body surrealism" is what I’d call it. Maybe, having been objectified my whole life as a model since age 12, I view the body as a modular dissociative toy. And mainstream beauty is so banal. The Kardashians and culture’s obsession with surgical perfection is the real horror show to me.
James: Body horror? That’s hot - do you mind if I steal that for something? To me, the artery of UNI and The Urchins’ visuals is surrealism. Not to sound pretentious (MUAH…?), but I think we always want to evoke the viewer to question what they’re seeing in the world. I don’t always care to see the same conventional models or dancers over and over again, I’d rather see something unique. Kemp and I in our own careers have experienced such physical reductionism that when we’re in the driver’s seat, it’s nice to flip the script on the beauty industry.
How do you utilize the medium of music videos as an art in itself with your music, and how do you make sure one does not eclipse the other?
Kemp: I know it’s such a cliche when artists claim to have synesthesia, but I do think that cross-wiring of the senses is how most people subliminally digest art. When I close my eyes and listen to Bach, I see movies. When I look at a painting I hear soundtracks.
James: We’ve made a music video for every song on the album and for almost every single we’ve ever put out, so the visuals are an extension of the lyrics for us. I’d say we utilize them just as another tool for getting our point across… if there is a point. As far as eclipsing goes? I love eclipses!
What was the most challenging part of this entire process, either film-wise or music-wise?
Kemp: To be totally honest, running out of money. Modeling came to a grinding halt the first year of covid, then I lost interest in being a fashion zombie entirely. I turned to investing in crypto, but at the worst possible time. So the plan to fund all our vids and music with sweet Eth gains went out the window, lol, and we had to re envision a lot of the grand-scale ideas and postpone the rock opera we were planning to do. We got super scrappy and shot half our videos with no crew except our friend Ari and a Bolex. I was literally duct-taping cameras to mic stands. Our catering was Taco Bell. We pulled a lot of favors from friends and got a free studio to shoot "Doll Parts" (thanks Mighty Lucky and Levine!). Jack and I made costumes from cardboard or cheap crap off Amazon we’d return after. I taught myself how to mix/master to save money. Learned rotoscoping and After FX. Even considered starting an OnlyFans of my feet. But I wouldn’t trade the adventure, friendship, and puzzles of low-budget art for anything…. (Except maybe a Netflix deal. Call me.)
James: We do everything ourselves. Concept, costumes, lightning, you name it; we put the “why?!” in D.I.Y.
It’s always challenging working with a limited budget to make the visual in our heads a reality. The pre-production for these videos is a blast, but then again I’m a masochist. It’s no sleep, glitter, and elbow grease but we’re laughing together the whole time. Or should I say in this case the “hole” time?
How do you hope to further expand upon such intense, thought-provoking artistry, whether it be live shows or other innovations?
James: At heart, I’m a show pony; I live to perform. I would love to build a theatrical stage show a la “The Diamond Dogs Tour” or pretty much any Grace Jones live show. UNI and The Urchins is more than a band, it’s a collective similar to Warhol’s factory (at least in my head). We clock in at nine and leave at one; one being until one of us dies. We’ll keep creating until they close the coffin… and even then we’ll still be going Cryogenics style.
Kemp: We’re starting to put together a new live band and show concept. But long term we want to expand into video game characters, VR rock operas, comic books, and feature films. At this point, we’re grateful to get a singing telegram gig so we’ll see if any corpos wanna throw their rupees at us to make weird uncommercial stuff. If not, I’m happy retiring from music to become an inventor of practical things, cuz at the end of the day art is ego and we live in a post-art world.
Below, watch the PAPER premiere of "Doll Parts" by UNI and the Urchins.
Photo courtesy of Ariel Sadok
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