KUNZITE | Interview | Music you haven't heard, from the guys you always listen to.
"Birds don't fly, they are flown. Fish don't swim, they are swum." - Victor Shauberger
It’s 2018 and the internet is everywhere. All the time.
People are spending more time on social media as opposed to their actual social lives, the government is watching us through our phones, the matrix is now real life blah, blah, blah.. we get it. Black Mirror is a thing.
But let’s just pause that crippling fear of technology for a moment and think about some of the less terrifying aspects.
We can exchange all kinds of information for free, with little limitation. Anyone can share anything. Everything. Across great distances. Our boundaries of interaction have been completely broken down, to the point we can even argue with people we don’t know about what colour a dress is thanks to the beauty of ‘Facebook Commenting’.
So when I heard that one of my favourite musicians had used the internet as a bridge to create an entire LP with a likeminded collaborator across several continents in recent years... I was intrigued.
Mike Stroud. 50% of Ratatat: Brooklyn-born, electronic rock duo and all round multi-instrumentalist/producer/actual living person.
An enigma, the guy doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. So I can’t really tell you much about him, except that he’s written some of the best songs I’ve ever heard in my life. And he has long hair. And apparently likes birds.
Intrigued by his lacking internet presence, a week ago I decided to google him. Mike. Stroud.
Clicking the ‘news’ tab, I noticed a stand out headline.
’’Ratatat’s’ Mike Stroud and ‘White Flight’s’ Augstin White have formed a new collaborative project, KUNZITE.’ - I frowned.
‘Their debut LP, Birds Don’t Fly, came together via emails between band members across continents with spontaneous recording sessions in Hawaii, New York, California, Iceland and even India.’ - I blinked. Once. Hard.
‘The album was entirely self-recorded, mixed and produced by Stroud and White.’ - Cue very confusing noise with my mouth.
Opening a new tab, I typed in ‘Kunzite band’, finding next to nothing on this new found collaboration. It was then I realised, we were one week into an album that even Pitchfork hadn’t picked up on.
In the space of an hour, I blasted through the whole LP and searched for a Press Contact that didn’t exist. So, I did what any professional journalist is encouraged not to do. I slid right into their Facebook DM’s.
So here we are. I am now writing an article based on two FaceTime interviews held between Scotland, Iceland and Hawaii with none other than Mike Stroud and Augustin White - aka, Kunzite. All conducted from the professionalism of my own bedroom. Thanks, internet.
Within minutes of asking how this all began, it was made clear this project has been going on longer than I realised.
“It was a long time coming.” Augustin explains from the tropical comfort of his home studio in Hawaii, “We started working on music a couple of years ago, it was a slow process but we built up so much music” with a smile he reveals “We have a lot more coming. We’re planning on dropping another album at the end of the Summer”
Just as I’m adjusting to the fact ‘Birds Don’t Fly’ exists, I start to learn it may be old news already. But how did it happen in the first place and when?
“Augustine is an old friend of mine” Stroud explains through my laptop screen. He’s in Iceland. Obviously. “We met in 2001 or something on tour. I was playing guitar in some band as a hired guitar player. He was in another band and we just clicked. We became instant friends.”
Elaborating on the story, Augustin details “I went out to see him at Coachella . He played me a bunch of songs at the time, were just” He almost takes a moment to try and comprehend the songs he’d heard “I think some of them he’d probably made for Ratatat but they didn’t turn out. And I was just like ‘You can’t be sitting on these, bro. We gotta do something with these.” And thank the Lord this man right here did something about that.
And so they went their separate ways, but thanks to the internet - the two were able to keep creatively motivated by one another via email.
“‘Minerals’ was an instrumental song initially and I couldn’t believe they never released it under Ratatat" Augustin explains "So I took it home, started singing on top of it and as soon as I did that it was like ‘lets make music together’ it started all by email.” Augustin goes on “There were no real intentions at that point to release an album, but it just started snowballing and we were having so much fun. Everyone we played to happened to respond really well to it.”
It’s always amazing when good music happens by accident. But what amazes me most is that this ‘accidental music’ was happening remotely across several continents, with both Stroud and White writing, recording and sending music seperately from locations such as Hawaii, Iceland, New York, California and India.
“Generally a lot of our work is done through email... Working remotely is a thrill! Its always exciting when you get that email in your inbox of the new song!” Augustin smiles “In a way you think it was going, suddenly it completely shifts.” Their system for creating music was an extremely collaborative one. They would both alter tracks, add, remove, layer, sing.. as though they were handing a drawing back and forth with free reign on what the other could do next. This kind of collaboration could only ever happen between two people who really trust each other - and are clearly very gifted at what they do. “We get a lot of work done when we’re in the same room and we prefer that” Augustin admits “But I think we get certain unique sounds and ideas because of the fact we’re working remotely.”
“With the first album.. It was a process of how we make music together, how we fit together and how we’re going to do it... Now its a well oiled machine. I feel like the music we’re making now is a lot more crystallised.”
With ‘Kunzite’ being a crystal itself, this didn’t come as much of a surprise to me.
In line with their theme, Kunzite have pioneered the way for a strong aesthetics. Pairing psychedelic animation and fluidity to highlight the undeniable energy of their music.
“A big inspiration is sacred geometry.” Mike explains “We’re really into this show ‘Cosmic Disclosure’ - It’s all about crazy, secret space programmes and aliens.” He sheepishly pans off as he continues to describe the record’s inspiration “And there’s a crystal influence. He [Augustin] has quite a vast crystal collection.”
“They’re very technological.” White educates me. He suddenly disappears off camera and returns with a huge piece of Quartz “Every piece of technology we utilise today, including these phones and laptops, they have to have quartz in them to do what they do. They have to have some quartz element. They’re particularly amazing for storing information. And translating information and moving information.” Listening to him and watching him hold the crystal with such care was fascinating. He’s like, the guy who makes science look cool.
Much like their name, Kunzite’s website bio is also quite fascinating. Detailing that this record ‘is the result of two producers getting the keys to their very own spaceships; vessels fuelled by sub bass frequencies, guitarmonies and intuitive voice-activated propulsion systems.’
Spaceships. I read one that over a few times. Then I casually dropped it into an interview question as though I was asking them what time it was.
“Yeah. Uh, yeah. Spaceships.” Mike nodded “We decided to spice it up a little bit” he smiles, with not much else to say - I could tell he was the less eccentric of the two for sure. Augustin articulated things further..
“I’ve always referenced my home studio as a spaceship. Just because, I laugh sometimes thinking of how it must look from the outside! I’m in a room, just a human in a room with speakers, microphone, basic recording gear, listening to the same song over and over hours at a time. From the outside, it’s nothing special but when you’re in that space.. getting into that place, making music in a studio, on the inside I’m having this inner experience that feels so cosmic, psycadelic, so unified and spacious.“
For intergalactic spaceships, Kunzite’s songs are surprisingly worldly. Displaying hints of reggae and familiar Ratatat accents.
“I tried to not do it.” Mike laughs, referring to his signature sound “I always want to just put a thousand guitars on every song. But that was something I had to really try and not do. I still did it on a few tracks, but that was always a temptation.” 'Birds Don’t Fly' certainly has a few less guitar solos, but the intrinsic musicianship of Stroud still leaves a very heavy, tasteful imprint on the record.
Smiling, Augustin explains “My favourite music is this nice balance of organic instruments and electrified.” He disappears off camera again. I’m intrigued. This wonderful bearded man could come back with anything. “This is the ‘charango’” he presents this beautiful small guitar and plays a few chords “a classical guitar in the Andes. this is all over the album but you can’t tell so much because we manipulate the sound.” It’s great. I’m learning something in this interview other than my best camera angle. Augustin places the guitar down gently “Organic instruments. I love being able to mix that with hyper synthetic, space sounds.”
Space sounds aren’t the only strange thing to appear in this album. Vocal-less and apparently instrumental-only Stroud.. well, he sings now. My mouth is literally hanging open when he reveals this to me.
“My voice is the softer of the two for sure. That was totally different but new for me in the studio. But I’m so shy about it. I’m just like.." Mike pulls an extremely sheepish face "..singing so soft”
“It turns out he’s an amazing singer!” Augustin exclaims “Especially in our newer stuff, I’m really encouraging him to sing by himself. He always wants my voice to layer over his but first chorus of ‘Monks’ - thats pretty much only Mike singing there.”
It’s important to remember that Stroud and White, wrote, recorded, mixed and have released the album by themselves.
“As far as the music stuff, I like doing everything.” Stroud explains “With mixing, it would be hard to hire anyone to do the mix because its such a part of the sound - all the music is being recorded as its being written. It’s not like we would write a song and then it’s done and we go into the studio. It’s all about recording one track at a time. You mix as you go.”
Oh - and they did it under their own record label. Of course.
Their decision to release on their own label seems to have something to do with the delay in release “I think we were putting that off for a long time” Augustin laughs and mimics “‘oh lets just keep making music and worry about that later!’” It was our family and friends that were like “you have to release this. It’s selfish to sit on it.” and thank goodness they did.
Listening through Birds Don’t Fly, you’re almost annoyed at yourself for not having heard it sooner. I wondered how it must feel, to be the musician who makes this music and know you have to withhold it for some time. I asked Mike if that was at all frustrating.
“Throughout the years I’ve made so much music that I’ve never released. And I kind of like it like that, it’s very personal you know? making music. And sometimes when it’s being shared..” Mike almost winces when he explains the latter. It amazes me that someone with such a strong library of music could ever feel nervous about releasing it. Unlike other musicians, Mike’s confidence seems to be centred in the approach and process of how he creates - as opposed to the aftermath and attention, which others tend to thrive on. It is, however, very annoying to hear he has an endless selection of amazing music we’ll probably never hear in it’s entirety, but that’s FINE, Mike.
Aside from the music production side of things, running a label was an opportunity for Kunzite to put their business caps on.. or, business space helmets.. or… business cosmic crystal hats? Whatever. They got into business.
“Doing the business stuff is really boring.” Mike admits bluntly, and I relate with him instantly “Neither one of us is really a ‘business man’ at all.”
Augustin further explains “We love to make music, generate music and just be in the studio. But in terms of like, business aspect. Thats not either one of our specialties.. But its been good! Cause we’ve had to force our way through learning.” his positivity has no limits. “The way things are with the music industry as we all know, everything is so different now. With streaming, its like a whole different world. Although its been a lot to wrap my head around - I’ve been amazed at how empowering some of the new systems are” He expresses “5 years ago it didn’t exist like this, let alone 10 or 15. It’s empowering the artists big time.”
With the rise and independence of technology and online services, most of what was once traditionally an ‘industry task’ can be done by ourselves. Augustin goes on “It doesn’t make sense to make label deals like it did a few years ago. Its really shifting, thats why you have huge artists taking care of things themselves.”
On the subject of other labels, it didn’t surprise me to discover that Kunzite had been offered a few deals prior to their release.
"We had plenty of labels who were interested that wanted to release it, throwing deals at us. We could’ve spent a lot of resources ourselves to promote it. But really, the idea is to watch it grow from this little seed and see how it moves.”
However, with growth comes time. The internet is a wonderful tool, as mentioned - anyone can upload anything. And everyone does upload everything... But at what point does the internet become a place of value and when does it breach into an overwhelming ocean of content? Circulation of music online today is no easy feat, even for these professionals.
“Theres been a few days where I was getting frustrated - just ‘cause, it’s slow.” chimes in Mike, regarding the album two weeks into its release “I didn’t understand how Facebook worked. Well, I understand how it works but I just figured you post something.. and all of the followers see it. And thats totally not the case. At all.” a man with almost 700k followers under the name Ratatat, even sharing Kunzite via this page was somewhat of a challenge. Algorithms having restricted the audience who saw this announcement to just a mere few thousand - a crowd even I wasn’t part of.
“People would tell us ‘albums don’t even matter anymore, its all about the single’.. And I see now why that works.” Augustin almost embraced this fact “People are so over saturated with information and new content - even if its something amazing, the next day theres another avalanche of information and they’ve forgotten about it.”
As free-spirited as Augustin appears to be - he addresses the realities of todays music industry and internet culture with true sincerity. “Thats one advantage of signing a deal with a label, they can get you in all these places and saturate the online scene a lot more. That helps, it definitely helps. But with this, I see it as more organic. We wanted to start small and go down that route.“ the shining light of positivity that he is, he details further “The cream will rise to the top no matter what. It’s not 100% of the time, I know that. Every now and then I’ll discover something online and be amazed that not everyone knows about it. But generally, I see the cream rises to the top.”
“We’re trying to figure out everyday ‘how do i circulate this music without being annoying about it?’” Mike asks pensively “I hate writing to my friends being like ‘you gotta check this out, check this out!’ I want them to just find out. I don’t want to shove it in anyones face but.. you kind of have to?” Laughing, it’s clear he doesn’t want to push his music on anyone, and to be fair.. neither of them have had to before. White Flight and Ratatat were the pioneers of the MySpace age, when music had to go on tour to be heard. Equally, back then they had a label to manage this aspect of their artistry. With their own label ‘Sol System Records’ they’re now finding their feet in the art of sharing what they’ve made.
“We both have an idea of what its like to be deep in the music industry. With Kunzite we’re just starting small, doing it ourselves, growing it grass roots style. And it feels great to be doing that, but we’ve had to go through the learning curve of figuring out how to release the record and be a record label.” Augustin explains “It might take a lot longer this way, but we want to do it this way because we know what the other way is like.” Augustin nods, referring to the music industry norms “Lets try it this way.”
It’s then I realise that sometimes the ‘known’ way and perhaps best proven isn’t necessarily for everyone. In any industry, we see creatives in big positions voluntarily opt out of big salaries to do things independently. Be it in music, art, design, film.. sometimes the idea of being connected to a big name, doesn’t always make for big rewards. Kunzite are in no way inexperienced with regards to the ever changing scenes and uprise of the music industry. If anything, their extensive knowledge has led them to take on a truly altruistic approach with Kunzite. My thoughts are affirmed when Augustin firmly presses his palms together, closing his eyes as he concludes “I’m just excited to share the music and get it out there. Let people have their own experience with it, whatever it is.”
Aside from their ever commendable (and in no way obligatory) independence as businessmen, artists and producers in music, the record itself 'Birds Don't Fly' is nothing short of brilliance.
In a day and age of lacking patience with albums, Birds Don’t Fly is a truly valuable gem (or crystal, eyyy) which seems to have captured the attention of everyone I’ve shown it to. It’s the first time in years I’ve been able to play something to people and they stop me to confirm who they’re listening to. I have this amazing privilege to let Ratatat and White Flight fans know that more music is coming from their favourite, enigmatic musicians. And honestly? The album is totally cosmic. Not in a pretentious, modern-day-obscure-millennial-headache way. Kunzite are an ode to the lovers of instrumentals and lyrics that reach beyond the never-ending experience of tacky break ups. It’s easy to feel like the days of searching for hidden brilliance in music are over - but it is refreshing to see that Stroud and White have teamed together to selflessly contribute this amazing project at their own independent expense.
In an industry which otherwise seems lifeless and lost - Kunzite are a living entity of creative energy, transforming music in its most intellectual form.. all the while guided by the ever climbing age of independence.