There’s no doubt that Matt Thomas is a unique man.
The DJ has a taste for tripped-out cosmic techno and rough-edged underground house that has seen him win an enviable global following, with a ceaseless schedule of sets and festival gigs.
An instantly recognisable favourite with clubbers worldwide, KU has managed to cross genres and end up in the vinyl crates and CD sleeves of the world's most influential DJs from Digweed to Soulwax, Richie Hawtin to Tiesto.
I read that your goal for the year was to stop renovating and go back to being a musician. Did you stick to your resolution?
I delivered my first KU remix of the year to Microcastle just last week, so I think I can say yes. I've committed to some more remixes too; Henry Saiz and Jamie Stevens among them, so the musician side is back in place. And yes, I have stopped renovating – I just haven't actually finished fixing the crumbling old money pit up yet. And when I say 'haven't finished', I'll probably find out soon that I actually mean 'barely started'.
You’ve been releasing a solid stream of broadcasts lately. Is that something you’ll continue to concentrate on?
The new KU broadcasts are a result of the time I took away from music. I realised when I started working on the house that I've been involved in music every day for over 20 years now, but always from the inside, and it's a completely different experience to the way most people experience music. You send me a promo and my brain instantly goes into work-mode; does the tune function for me?
But if I'm caught unawares by music, say hearing a mix CD in a mate's car, then I actually HEAR it, instead of auto-analysing it. That's why I 'vanished' into the renovation, to have a chance to hear music again. I didn't open a single promo email, I didn't look at Beatport, I didn't touch an instrument or make any music. I just consumed it like anyone else – downloading podcasts and mixes and listening to them while I worked and drove around.
It filled me up where I hadn't realised I was running almost on empty, and maybe had been for a couple of years. The first creative itch to come out of this was the need to broadcast some of this great new stuff myself.
Who and/ or what has been musically inspiring you lately?
The resurgence of the UK scene. People like Shadow Child, George Fitzgerald, Blawan, Hot Since 82, Scuba and labels like Hypercolour, Moda Black, Aus would be among the best known, but there are dozens and dozens of others. Sometimes it can just be a single track from an artist that grabs your attention: Park Hill 'Beres', Wordlife 'Small Talk' are two strange tunes that have stuck with me, both picking up on the resurgence of garage and bassline vibes.
I think there is something about music that comes out of your own culture that will always chime a little deeper with you, and if I'm honest I've missed some of the quirky, aggro, maudlin, understated-inhibited-extroverted bravado and weirdness that comes out of this place. Outside of the UK I was massively inspired by the Diynamic and 2DIY4 releases earlier in the year, I'm absolutely in love with NT89's productions.
Did growing up in Northern England, the powerhouse and birthplace of the British electronic scene influence your career choice?
Yes, but probably not the way people expect – I relocated to Liverpool in '93 to try and crack my way into the recording studio scene. Unlike most people I never got into this to perform or be a 'star'; certainly not to be a DJ — the idea that it could be on my tombstone still makes me shudder slightly. I wanted to produce and engineer amazing records, that was always the driving force.
Today's laptop studios hadn't even been dreamt of at that point; records were made with racks and racks of gear, monster mixing desks you could lie on and big tape machines; if you wanted to get on the scene you begged ‘round the big studios to see if they'd take you on as an unpaid 'assistant engineer ie. tea boy, microphone-stand placer, cable runner, odd job man – anything that no one else wanted to do. You'd work days of sessions, often sat around from midday in case the band turned up, but knowing full well they'd roll in around dinner time and then stay up till 4 or 5am. It was slightly life-eating, but it was the only way to be around recording equipment and people 'making it' in the business.
I could write a book about that time and probably should – working with everyone from endless jangly Liverpool guitar bands to Toxteth rappers and ragga toasters, along with occasional superstars like PJ Harvey and Elvis Costello dropping in for a session. Anyway, I did that for a few years, eventually bumping into a bloke called Matthew who was remixing house music and needed stunt keyboards. The rest, dear reader, is history.
King Unique began as a partnership with Matthew Roberts in 2001. You took hold of the reigns and went solo in 2006. How hard was it to transition from two to one?
Disorientating for a while. I dithered for about a year, trying to continue with the existing 'KU sound' before finally realising it was never going to work. You can't carry on being married on your own.
How did your sound change since going solo?
As my colossally disappointed bank manager will tell you It became a lot less commercial. It just made a lot of sense, personally. Prior to King Unique taking off I'd just begun to cut out a solo niche for myself with some very twisty textured tech-house under the 'Watkins' name, getting support from Fabric resident Craig Richards and remixed by DJ Sneak. For the benefit of younger readers, this was the late ‘90s when he was still a cool dude, rather than a guy hunched over his laptop keeping house real one tweet at a time. (Which reminds me of my favourite Sneak joke. Q: What's the difference between DJ Sneak and a gangster? A: Gangsters make hits)
Anyway, I've always enjoyed the textural technical side of music rather than the hooky-riff and killer chorus, so I delved into that side of things. Complex melodies and structures make my heart sing.
Your renowned for your remixes. Has there been a favourite over the years?
Well, we were astonishingly well paid for the Jamiroquai remix… Ok, ok, artistically then – no, it would be impossible to cut it down to just one. Having just put together a two-hour mix of fourteen years of KU history for Friskyradio, I've obviously given this a lot of thought recently, and the trouble is that they've been too diverse.
I don't know how I'd choose between a deep end-of night bliss-out like UNKLE 'Heaven' or a stadium monster like Underworld 'Two Months Off', or the retro ‘80s electro-funk of Suicide Sports Club 'I Don't Know' or the melancholy house of Baz ‘Believers’.
It’s no secret that you’re not afraid to speak your mind. So... what do you think of the current state of the EDM scene and its meteoric rise into the mainstream?
Was it Steve Aoki or Afrojack who said: ‘It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?’ Or was it Macbeth, I can never remember – either way he was spot on.
How has the scene changed since you began?
Endlessly and multifariously – it's exploded out into nearly every corner of the world and meant something different in each place and each time. How do I try and make sense of a scene that's taken me from a plush members' club in Moscow full of politicians, TV stars, groomed gangsters and 'girls who do' back in 2001 to an Australian desert hillside covered in thousands of happy hippies screaming at the totality of an eclipse in 2013?
Or the reverse – a slick Melbourne super-club at the height of the silk shirt and fedora frenzy that was the Aussie electro-house boom to a chaotic rave in a Malaysian jungle with masked horsemen sporadically riding at the crowd – both in the same weekend. The PR people and the clubbing press like to create narratives, some valid, some less so – but the truth is the scene is more akin to one of those sub-atomic particles that moves so rapidly it exists in many different places at once – and still it keeps mutating.
You’re playing the Rainbow Serpent festival this coming January. You've played gigs all over the world. What are you expecting of a festival in the middle of the Australian bush?
Feral pigs. I was promised feral pigs in the illuminating and exhaustive 'things that may kill and eat you' pamphlet distributed at the Eclipse festival, and there wasn't a pig to be seen. Ironically, we nearly collided head-on with three horses on the night drive up there; no one mentioned brumbies galloping on the wrong side of the road.
And... what can the Rainbow Serpent crowd expect when they see you?
Catch King Unique at Rainbow Serpent at Lexton, Victoria, January 24-27.