The latest electronic act to join a growing list of producers emerging from Belfast in recent years is the talented duo UNKNWN. It all started in 2012 as the anonymous side project of DJ and producer Chris Hanna, who uploaded his tracks onto YouTube under the alias ‘Unknown’ and in the process garnered some serious attention from the music world. People were left wondering who was making these heartfelt, mysterious tracks, and in the speculation names such as La Roux and Fourtet were thrown in the mix to name but a few.
The anonymity has since been shaken off and Chris is now joined by Dublin singer and producer Gemma Dunleavy, who sang on the last ‘Unknown’ release I Cry. They’ve dropped a vowel and the two-piece live act UNKNWN has been born.
Dunleavy’s unique vocals provide the music with a mournful tone that compliments the scattered rhythms that roll underneath beautifully.
With their first EP as a duo coming out this year on Champion Sounds and a string of lives shows on the way, UNKNWN look set for big things in 2014. With a trip to Texas this week to perform at the prestigious SXSW, we caught up with the pair before they left to talk about the new EP and their plans for the coming months.
How would you describe UNKNWN?
Chris: It’s just music, just beats that sort of flirt with house and garage and has the live element of Gemma singing and now we’re together as a duo we’re producing it all together now as well so it’s sort of us making music and slowly adding more and more live elements to it. It started as a live project so it’s just been building from there.
Gemma: We’re just two friends making music, that’s basically all it is. I mean things are a lot more considered now but we just have fun and then develop those ideas into what we do.
Why did you feel the need to separate the Unknown work from your house and techno productions?
Chris: I used to just make 4/4 and then I made stuff that was like garage or broken 2-step, but the overall aesthetic of the Unknown stuff sounded different to what I was making before, so it felt better having it as a separate thing to see how it would go. I was always into this sort of sound but I never even thought of making it so I never tried. Then I made three or four tracks, uploaded them and it just sort of went from there.
Your identity was a “well known secret” in Belfast why did you feel the need to reveal yourself to the wider community?
Chris: It wasn’t started to remain anonymous, it was started so people would listen to the music and they did. So it just felt like there was no point trying to hang on to it and make a show out of it. I didn’t want it to be a fade or some cheesy, tacky gimmick so that’s why I just stuck it up on Facebook because it didn’t matter to me.
Did critics focusing on your anonymity annoy you?
Chris: Sort of. It was obviously to be expected because it just seems like your trying to create your own hype, but it wasn’t meant to be like a sneaky marketing ploy. It was to make sure or to see if people would listen to the music without sort of getting all wrapped up in the whole “he’s not famous so it doesn’t matter to me”. It was sort of ironic that people only picked up on that so it was just one of those things.
Some of the shows like SXSW are big events, very early on in your career, how do you manage this sudden burst of attention?
Chris: You just enjoy it, you try not to eat into it obviously too much because you don’t want to become a big head or let it affect you in a way that it affects what you want to do. You don’t want to just change all of a sudden because one thing starts doing well and you buy into it and you’re just a one trick pony after it. But just enjoy it, it is enjoyable having people admire and respect your work.
Gemma: To me it doesn’t really matter. I’m so grateful for all the opportunities that are coming up but that’s not my main goal. If a release isn’t finished yet and we have a load of shows I’m more anxious than excited because I want to make sure that we get the tracks perfect and if they’re not sorted then I can’t get excited about the events. I feel really happy and blessed to have a platform for when we are 100 percent happy with things.
How do you both manage your time between this and your other projects?
Chris: I’m pretty much making music every day, even if it’s just messing about, so its handy having the UNKNWN stuff on the back burner, because I made loads of house and techno tunes. After you go to a big night out you don’t want to sit and make a sad, slow tempo tune, you want to make a banger so you just sit and it just happens but it’s different if say we’re finishing an EP for either project then you’re going to devote 95% of your time to getting that finished.
Gemma: I’m constantly trying to plan out and manage my time but you always know what a priority is. At the moment it’s the UNKNWN release so I’m putting all my time into that. It is difficult trying to juggle the stuff on the side but when you’re excited about things you get them done so by the deadline things just fall into place.
What are the aims, long term plans, for UNKNWN?
Chris: We’re just finishing the new EP and after that it’s basically the serious live shows are starting and we’re going to America to New York and then SXSW for a week. And then after that the UNKNWN DJ sets are starting as well, we’re playing The Great Escape in May, and looking to organise a UK tour. It’s always best not to plan too far ahead with these things so once the EP comes out we’ll just take it from there.
Gemma: We have the EP coming out but we’re also working on stuff for an album. We’ve talked about having a bit more of a concept behind that because the EP is just a chance for us to get something out that is us because we haven’t got that at the moment. We have a load of gigs and a few exciting things coming up but the main aim for me is to be working on the tracks and trying to bring in more live elements to the shows we do.
How do you split responsibilities between you and Gemma?
Chris: We sort of don’t. We don’t sit down and go “right let’s make a song like this”. I’ll just be sitting one night and I’ll make two or three ideas and send them over to Gemma. If she likes any we’ll keep them and put them aside to work on and vice- versa.
Gemma: We send each other stuff a lot and we do work together when we get time to work together but there’s no straight roles. We give each other feedback and we both adjust and change things accordingly.
What are some of the difficulties of being based in two different countries?
Chris: Yea it is because if we’re together I can know instantly if Gemma likes my idea or not. Whereas being apart means that there could be hours between you having an idea and the other person seeing it. So if you’re feeling really creative or knocking stuff out its frustrating when you have to wait for the other person because you don’t want to go mad ahead and then they don’t really like it. So yea it can be hard when there’s gaps between when we’re talking to each other, just when normal life gets in the way.
Gemma: I’d say communication and time. A lot of the stuff you can do separately but in person you get more of a feel for it. We worked on one of the EP tracks separately for the whole time, then when Chris was in Liverpool we were sitting listening to it and something just clicked, we both knew exactly what mood we wanted for that track and that’s something that can get lost through emails or Skype.
Where do you see yourself in the musical spectrum?
Chris: I don’t really know, we spoke about this recently. I suppose it would be sort of like Jamie Woon and people like that but a bit clubbier at times. It’s not as song driven all the time it’s more of a set. Rather than a band doing songs we are more like a DJ set done live. It’s a wee bit weird finding were you fit in but that’s good as well. Maybe there’s a gap.
Gemma: I’m constantly asking myself that question because we have heavier club tunes but then some really ambient sections in the set. Even with our release I don’t know because I look at it and describe it more as dance music but then the live vocals give it a different feel. My main vocal inspirations come from R&B when I was growing up so I tend to see similarities there when thinking about where we fit.
What are you listening to at the moment?
Banks- Brain. See in the second half when her voice gets all distorted it gets me every time.
What has it been like coming through as the new act in a very talented line-up of Belfast artists?
Chris: The support system in Belfast is great, especially meeting everyone through DJing. The scene at the minute is mad with Ejeca, Bicep, and SDC and all those boys. There’s so many people from home doing it now and doing it really well. Everyone’s good mates and we all send music to each other. I’ll send them UNKNWN stuff over and it’s good to have people who you know will give you honest feedback. Instead of just “aw yea it’s cool man” people actually go “yea but I think you should do this or maybe try that”. Especially John McIver, Timmy Stewart or Cromby, we would always send music to each other. It’s never been better for electronic music in Belfast.
Gemma: It feels great, I’m flattered that we are part of it, and Chris obviously gets a lot of work there. It’s become a nice little home for us because we have a lot of support there which is so good. It just makes you more excited to get stuff out there to these people who are giving you opportunities and attention.
Listen to UNKNWN on Soundcloud: [soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/users/17016174″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]
Written & Edited by Tim Lewis.