Chris Jones interviews the anonymous Belfast beatmaker after tweets from Ellie Goulding and a year of bad reviews, killer singles and collaborations
Dance music has always been a haven for faceless producers and arcane aliases; a place where the music can be left to speak for itself. But what if the anonymity becomes part of the plan?
18 months ago, an anonymous YouTube channel began to post sequentially ordered tracks under the name 'Unknown' and send them to various music blogs. The music was clearly accomplished stuff – murky and mysterious with disembodied vocal samples and strong echoes of Burial's haunted two-step.
Before long, its view counts were rocketing as more blogs posted them and the rumours began circulating. Was it Burial himself? An alias of Four Tet? Or a complete newcomer? Then pop starlet Ellie Goulding shared a track on Twitter and the gossip-mongers went into overdrive – could it be that her (then) boyfriend, EDM king Skrillex, was attempting to gain underground cred by way of an alias?
In fact, the man behind Unknown is a gregarious, fidgety 22-year-old from Belfast with a background in house and techno. Although he asks us to maintain the secrecy of his identity, Unknown has agreed to meet in a Belfast coffee shop, where he recounts the tale with a mixture of bewilderment and excitement.
With three vinyl releases under his belt, some choice bookings for the live show and the recent addition of singer Gemma Dunleavy, it's safe to say that the Unknown 'project' is going rather well.
'You know that thing at a party, when you get sick of hearing a kick drum after 10 hours, and you want to hear something else? It's like that,' he says, explaining his desire to branch out from the 4/4 straitjacket of house and techno. 'Listening to Burial blew my mind. And then Four Tet, Jamie xx and people like that. I got so into it. I remember the day I first heard Burial's 'Archangel', playing it in the house, on repeat. Like "Oh my god, this is insane!".
'I make other types of music,' he adds, 'but then I got into this and I didn't know what to do with it. It's all house and techno here and I thought no-one would give a sh*t. I thought it would be interesting to see if people would listen to it not knowing who it is – it could be someone big or it could be a nobody, which is basically what it is. Open ears, open minds.'
The plan worked – the videos racked up thousands of views and posts on blogs worldwide. It worked so well, in fact, that XL Recordings got in touch. The label that launched the careers of The Prodigy, M.I.A. and Dizzee Rascal among others wanted to meet the mysterious Unknown.
A meeting in London didn't amount to anything concrete, but the interest helped to get him a manager in Belfast and the knowledge that he was on the right track. 'It was nice to know that these sort of people were listening,' he says.
Last summer, Unknown issued his first official release through Belfast label Champion Sound Recordings, a 12" record and digital EP collecting the first four tracks he put out on YouTube. But a PR campaign that focused on the buzz generated by Unknown's anonymity brought him face to face with the fickle nature of the music business.
The EP received a harsh 2/5 review on respected dance music website Resident Advisor. The music was dismissed as 'tepid post-dubstep house', and the faceless persona as 'a cynical strategy'. Not surprisingly, the criticism stung.
'When I read it, I was livid, because this was the first big thing I'd had. He said I was trying to create my own hype. If this was a marketing ploy, I wouldn't have called myself Unknown, because you can't find it anywhere. (He's right, it's not Google-friendly.) It's ironic, I wanted people to just listen to the music but that whole review was about the 'unknown' thing. But what can you do?'
The comment box below the review became a febrile debate between those agreeing with the reviewer and those defending the artist, while Unknown found that his inbox started to fill up with hate mail. 'Some people got pissed at it, emailing me and saying, "Who do you think you are?"'
Unknown says that the whole episode was 'a turning point', a lesson that not everyone will like everything you do, and that perhaps it was indeed time to start putting more of a stamp on his work. 'I think it really put the nail in the coffin of the certain way I was making it.
'Back to experimenting a bit more and trying to be a bit different. I realised that I would have to knuckle down a bit more and push my own style of music.' In any case, the vinyl sold out shortly after the RA review was published. Any publicity is good publicity, after all.
Our interview takes place a fortnight after Unknown's first gig in Belfast – previous shows had gone well at the Irish festivals Forbidden Fruit and Electric Picnic, and the London launch of Belfast Music Week – and a couple of days before he is off to Liverpool to spend a few days working on tracks with new musical partner Dunleavy, who he met through a mutual friend.
Their first release together, recent single 'I Cry', made prominent use of her ethereal vocals, and she has quickly progressed from featured artist to member of the newly styled UNKNWN 'band'.
'We're going to be making stuff together, but at the minute it’s a transition. When we met, she didn't know I did [music]. I heard her singing and was like, "Jesus Christ, I've got to get her on a song!" She was really up for it and wrote 'I Cry' off a one-and-a-half minute clip of a tune I gave her. The live shows were starting to happen, so we thought we'd definitely get her to sing live. She's got a good stage presence and her voice is amazing, so it adds that extra live thing.'
The pair are currently working on an album together, with another EP to come first, and Unknown's eyes light up when he talks about the 'beefy' tracks he has prepared for that, and the more experimental, ambient excursions that the album format will allow him to release. There are other exciting things happening, too. Barcelona DJ John Talabot licensed Unknown's track '#001' for his recent DJ-Kicks mix CD.
That was acclaimed by Resident Advisor (them again) as 'quite possibly the commercial mix of the year', and UNKNWN will support him at his Dublin show on December 7. 'It came out of the blue,' he says. 'I didn't know he'd even heard [the track], and then we got an email one day from people looking the rights to use it for DJ-Kicks. That was an absolute buzz, mate. Actually going on someone's mix CD, that's crazy.'
Then there's the recent news that UNKNWN will perform at next year's South by Southwest, the massive new music festival that takes over Austin, Texas every spring. 'That's a step up to the bigger leagues. We got announced in the same batch as Skream and Gary Numan. Doing something you want to do as a career, and you're heading to South By Southwest to do it… it's madness.'
Everything is moving in the right direction, then, which begs the question – how long can he keep up the anonymity, and why do so anyway? His identity is an open secret among electronic music circles in Belfast, but he is in no hurry to make any big statement about it.
'I just like it like this. It preserves the mystique. Not that that's what it's about, but it's definitely nice. I don't want to make a big thing out of it because then it has become something I'm holding onto to reveal. I just don't want any fuss over it.'
Surely, the longer he avoids making his identity public, the bigger the deal when it does happen? 'Yeah, that's fine,' he shrugs. 'As long as it's not an interview where I finally reveal who I am. At the minute it is speaking for itself. If you know who I am, it's not going to change anything, so I'll just leave it and let it unravel itself if people really want to.'
The way things are going, there's no need for any rush.