UNI and The Urchins Are More Than Music—They’re an Art Collective

UNI and The Urchins talk about cannabis, consuming psychedelics, Warhol, traditional vs AI music creation, and why soullessness might be the new soul.
Photo by Ariel Sadok

New York City is home to many artists, and among those who live under its gloriously creative umbrella is glam rock group UNI and The Urchins. The band—comprised of bassist Charlotte Kemp Muhl (who goes by Kemp), frontman/vocalist Jack James, guitarist David Strange, and drummer Andrew Oakley—has recently celebrated the drop of their debut album Simulator via Chimera Music, the artist-run label from Kemp and Sean Lennon, and is gearing up to have a fruitful 2023 in its wake. As part of the band’s debut record release, High Times has the exclusive worldwide premiere of the music video for the single “Dorian Gray,” which provides a trippy experience through both sound and visuals: 

To learn more about the album and the group itself, we drop in a Zoom interview which, per UNI’s request, takes place at 4:20pm.

Kemp then kicks things off with her thoughts on cannabis in a free-flowing chat that morphs into an exploration of the group’s creative inspirations, how drugs and psychedelics can open new and different creative doors, and how authenticity pertains to the relationship between art, commerce, and creation as a whole.

Kemp: I feel like a lot of weed puritans are actually against the legalization in a sort of roundabout way because it fucks with their pipeline.

David Strange: But true or false: Part of the fun of doing drugs is that you’re not supposed to be doing them? I feel like part of [weed] being illegal is it made it so that you really had to want to do drugs. You had to really seek them out and you usually had to do something super sketchy to get them. I know I sure did when I was in junior high.

We would take the train down to the worst place in the Bronx—so dangerous—and buy it from legitimate gangsters with fifty-dollars worth of crumpled up ones and fives that we’d scrounge together from all of our friends’ lunch monies. We got mugged a couple of times doing that.

Kemp: And they just sold you tic-tacs.

David Strange: God knows what was in that weed. When we got it, we were so fucking stoked to have lived through the experience that it made it that much more meaningful—the fact that [weed] was difficult to come by. Nowadays, in Los Angeles especially, you can go to the health food store and they’re like, “Have some flaxseed or pot brownies.”

Kemp: Or CBD lube.

High Times: Everything is now so infused.

Kemp: Well, isn’t music kind of the same way? It’s so easy-access now with Spotify and all of these apps. You just discover band after band that it takes the fun out of discovering them from an odyssey to the record shop or a friend making you a mixtape from some other city or something.

David Strange: With all of these technological advances making parts of life easier to attain, it takes the fun out of the experience and makes the experience less meaningful. It’s like the harder it is to do something the more you appreciate it, is what it boils down to. With weed being so normalized, I think we need to up the ante now.

Jack James: To David’s point on how drugs used to be hard to find or how music used to be hard to find, we did pick a band name that was universally very difficult to find on any streaming platform. And then we changed our band name and everyone was like, “Well, why on earth would you change it?” It’s the same thing with “Weed should be legalized, weed should be legalized,” and then it’s no longer fun.

Photo by Ariel Sadok

High Times: Is the band name now more of a conversation piece than it was before?

Kemp: The unsexy truth of it is that the Spotify algorithm thought “UNI” was a prefix, so it would be the last thing to come up after “unicorn,” “university,” everything “uni.” But it’s a Japanese word that means “sea urchin,” which is one of my favorite foods. UNI and The Urchins is technically redundant, but it’s cool because “Urchins” makes it feel more like a collective and a Warhol factory. We’re UNI, but the “Urchins” is anyone who wants to be involved in this movement.

There really haven’t been any art movements happening, and New York used to be such a hub for that. We’re very nostalgic for those times. Videos of Bowie hanging out with Dylan. It was such a scene. The Beach Boys used to be competitive in a friendly way with The Beatles and it made them make their best work. There’s not a lot of that, so the “Urchins” sort of represents the community we imagine we would like to have.

Jack James: For every video we do, there are so many people who come on and we can’t pay them what they’re worth, but they come on because they love it and it’s representative of the art collective like Kemp is saying. But the brass tax of it is no one could find us on Spotify [laughs].

David Strange: I also had a really funny joke about the real reason we had to change our name from what it used to be but I can’t say it.

Kemp: We’ll just have to take your word for it that it’s the best story.

David Strange: I just wish people weren’t so sensitive these days.

High Times: Sometimes it seems people want to go out of their way to be offended, which often takes more energy than to simply live your existence.

David Strange: What’s the last thing that offended you, Andrew?

Andrew Oakley: Me? I’m always offended.

David Strange: Just my question offended you, huh?

Kemp: We have a culture within our band of really hazing each other and it really takes the pressure off. There’s no feeling of walking on eggshells because we just call each other horrible things that I can’t even say here. It’s in a loving way.

Jack James: It’s nice, weirdly.

Kemp: And it’s very hard to offend us internally because we all come from a place of love and camaraderie.

In terms of the album, the thing that we were saying earlier about access and deflating value, technology has done that with recording in a lot of ways. I spent all of my last money on investing in vintage music gear, for example. Over the course of the pandemic, I decided to go to the dark side a little bit and flirt with some of these more sample-based programs. It’s been interesting, but I am nostalgic for our old way of making music, which was tracking live-to-tape as a band. It does make me really think about the ratio of satisfaction-and-value to ease-and-accessibility.

It’s great how egalitarian these new techs have made everything now. People who are barely a musician can now just push a button and make a track that sounds like a hit. I feel like such a grandpa about it.

High Times: There’s an authenticity that’s lost in any type of art when you can just press a button and it spits out something that wasn’t coming from a place within somebody.

David Strange: But maybe soullessness is the new soul?

Kemp: [Laughs]

David Strange: No, really. Warhol said the best kind of art is “business art.” He had the whole factory and he wasn’t even making his prints. Now there’s a huge argument in the Warhol community over whether the prints were real or not, or which printmaker was making them. Talk about going to the dark side, I’m kind of with you Kemp—I don’t think you can fight against the tide. I think it’s going in that direction and maybe there’s some new soul to be discovered within all the soullessness.

One thing that Kemp has really gotten into lately and turned me onto is the new AI renderings that are creating original content. It’s putting to the forefront: What do you do to become a good artist? You study other artists, you learn your craft, you go to school, and you take inspiration from the things you want to take inspiration from. These AI generators are doing that by condensing a lifetime full of references and learning them down to thirty seconds and just processing the AI in a computer and spitting it out. Surely it’s the same thing if you’re one of the cool people in New York who lives downtown—like a DJ who knows all the cool references and Iranian psychedelic music from the seventies and afro-pop from the sixties—and you can put all of that into your pot and have these cool original tracks based upon it. Why is it then that we should look down upon AI for being able to do the same thing in a matter of seconds? Is it less authentic or is it evolution? I don’t know.

Kemp: What it is is like a gun to the samurai; it levels the playing field. It’s like Uber to the taxi driver. It’s inevitable, but it creates a class of resentful Luddites. It’s the Industrial Revolution 3.0.

David Strange: If I really feel something while I’m creating it, does that make the end result more important or better compared to if I feel nothing at all when I’m creating and the end result is really awesome?

High Times: Though if you’re feeling something in the moment of creation, people can pick up on that through the work.

Kemp: I agree with you, except a lot of people’s most successful work is the shit they cared the least about. There’s that scene in Of Mice and Men where he’s strangling a girl and he doesn’t mean to be strangling her and he’s like, “Why aren’t you smiling? Why aren’t you smiling?” She dies and he doesn’t mean to kill her and I feel like artists do that to their own art when they care too much. So, I think there’s a sweet spot there of being too precious.

I think also with putting out a first album, you’re always overly precious and second guessing. That was definitely a factor for us in that we had like forty songs and we didn’t know which ones to put on the album. We were losing perspective, so we were finally just like, “Fuck it,” lets just throw out these ten songs and then put out the next one. We’re learning to be less precious, which is good. But I agree with you, you do have to have a boner for what you’re working on.

Photo by Ariel Sadok

High Times: How did the song selection process work with having so much material?

Kemp: For Me, Jack is really my read on stuff because I go into a jazz trance and lose perspective on everything when I’m working on tracks. Each one that I’m working on at the moment becomes my favorite child. The way that Jack will respond to a rough mix will kind of be a gauge for me on what we should pursue.

Jack James: Although to be fair, the last single we put out—when I went upstate to the studio and [Kemp] was showing me the song “Subhuman Suburbia,” I was like, “I dunno, I’m just going to roll with it,” and then it turned out to be my favorite song I think off the album.

David Strange: Not to bring it all back to drugs, but sometimes when you think things are good, it’s really hard to trust yourself and your own internal experience versus other peoples’ external experiences.

For instance, I went on a really heavy trip recently—a full day thing—and went immediately to this party at the house where I was staying and just tripped my balls off. The other people at the party hadn’t been tripping, so I was explaining to them what had happened to me and how incredible and life changing the experience had been and it was so uninteresting to everyone at this party. The only person who it was interesting to was me.

I was telling them, “There I was in the jungle and I could see the fabric of the universe,” and people were like, “Oh, cool. Anyway, is that juice over there? I think I’m gonna go get a cup.” My point is, you can imagine [thinking] That song, I’m really feeling it, the way I was feeling after that trip and then other people are like, “Yeah, it’s cool that you’re feeling it, but I’m not feeling this at all.” It’s really hard to tell.

Jack James: For our songs, eventually we decided the songs we chose for the album encompassed whatever the hell we’re trying to say and we thought they were the best to fit on a ten song vinyl.

High Times: Creatively, is there something you hope that the audience and fans take from the debut record Simulator?

Kemp: This is where it gets like that Frank Zappa quote: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s always hard to put it into words. David Lynch was like, “If I wanted to put it into words, I would have just written a book instead of making a movie.” I think the best art is open to interpretation.

Jack James: Yeah, whatever they take from it is really nice and I appreciate them listening to it. It’s whatever you take from it. We keep an audience in mind, but it’s like-minded outcast weirdos like [us] and I hope they find some solace in that they have another friend who is out there when they listen to it.

Kemp: We’re all drawn to each other being weirdos and outcasts but we’re all very different and that’s what makes us feel like the motley crew from Lord of The Rings or something.

I am very dark and nihilistic and Jack is very spiritual and positive. Andrew is the cool metal Black Sabbath analog rock dude and David is the insane freak poet charlatan hobo. Normally if we saw each other at a bar and we didn’t know each other, we’d probably never talk to each other. But we somehow ended up together and it’s this beautiful synthesis of our very different personalities. The thing that binds us is sort of feeling alienated from the rest of society.

Photo by Ariel Sadok

High Times: Is there a lot of parallel thinking that happens when you’re creating or are you each bringing something unique to that process?

Jack James: I think both, though it depends, especially if we’re doing a music video and we’ve been around each other enough. You sort of finish each other’s sentences very quickly and there’s a simpatico thing going on. Other times, one of us will come with an idea and the others will look at it like, “What are you fucking talking about?” I think for as different as we are, we are very like-minded in what we enjoy to see and enjoy listening to.

High Times: How does cannabis and/or psychedelics play a role in that creation process?

Andrew Oakley: I’m pretty into edibles these days, especially something with heavy CBD.

High Times: Sativa or Indica?

Andrew Oakley: Sativa for sure, especially if you’re playing music. It gives you a little energy, gets you focused. It’s the way to go.

David Strange: We have all partaken on the spiritual quests together on multiple occasions and what I think is pretty cool about psychedelics is that they tend to open up doors. Those doors lead to rooms within you that already exist and there’s a lot of ways to open up those doors. Psychedelics are just one way to open those doors.

Kemp: I don’t think you can make rock or psych or glam or any of the genres that we love without having done psychedelics. It’s really what created the genres.

Jack James: I remember growing up thinking, “I bet all the coolest shit was written on drugs,” but then you try to do it and you find how difficult it actually is.

David Strange: That’s what I was saying about the doors—the drugs are the training wheels that show you those doors because, truly, a lot of the experiences that we’ve had either on stage or in studio have been psychedelic without any drugs at all. But if you can’t access those rooms on your own, sometimes doing a drug like that is the key that can open up that door and give you access to it. If you treat drugs in the right way, you will retain the combination or key to that door so you can go through it again and again when you need to.

Kemp: That being said, I think drugs should not be done flippantly. Yeah, it’s fun to occasionally do them at a party, but they definitely are spiritual keys and should be used with purpose like creativity, sex, thinking, and introspection.

Follow @uniandtheurchins and check out https://uniandtheurchins.com/ for tickets, tour dates, and their debut album “Simulator”.

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