The esteemed tribal/prog DJ/producer has spent the last few years doing an altogether different kind of digging
Recently, we heard a rumour. Well, two rumours, but we'll come to the second one in a bit. The first rumour we heard, was that there was some new music on its way from King Unique, AKA Matt Thomas.
That pricked up our ears, because Matt was someone we hadn't spoken to for a long time - not since the early 00s, in fact, when both Black AM (as Watkins) and Lighters (as King Unique) featured in Heavy Rotation, the regular slot in the old print version of iDJ where we'd talk to the makers of any given month's 'biggest' tune.
We were aware, of course, that he'd used those two massive club hits as a springboard to launch a career that saw him dropping a long series of tough, tribal-tinged releases on the likes of Junior and Defected for the rest of the 00s. But we were also aware that the current decade had seen a marked downturn in his output.
Which brings us to that second rumour - that he had in fact turned his back on the music business altogether, and become an archaeologist (as you do). Could this be true?
There was only one way to find out...
So... you've been a bit quiet for the past few years, and a little bird keeps whispering the world 'archaeology' in my ear! What's that all about, then?
"It's very simple, really: where in clubland could I have spent today digging up centuries old cats, cows, stag antlers and knives? Actually that sounds like the makings of a rather legendary Shoreditch pop-up bar. But yeah, in short I wanted to do it, so I did! I'm fascinated by the past and deeply moved by the idea of holding relics of bygone lives. Till recently I'd always been happy to visit museums and look, but gradually that came to feel rather passive.
"One certainty I've come to appreciate is that I'm never going to have enough time to do all the things I want to. Not even a fraction, in fact. That's something you just can't get your head round when you're in your 20s and 30s, but once you've absorbed that truth you start getting really picky about how you use your time.
"Around the same period, the thrill of arriving in a foreign country, meeting new people, eating new food, playing gigs, making records – one day I suddenly noticed that it was starting to merge into a single repetitive experience. One where the characters, menus and crowds blurred into one another and the sequence of events became pure Groundhog Day – airports, delayed flights, vinyl vs digital debates over dinner, humble-brag social media posting and so on. Everything got to feeling numbingly over-familiar.
"Now, I can hear the sound of people pulling out tiny violins at this point - and I'll take that cheerfully on the chin. But also, and with the greatest respect in the world, fuck 'em! This is my one life we're talking about, and I didn't choose music in order to sleepwalk through a variety of #hot Instagram locations. Like the Chems said, you have 'dig your own hole', so it was techno off, archaeology on."
If you'd decided to hang up your headphones, was there anything in particular that inspired you to take them down off the peg again?
"So yeah, the whole time I wasn't making music I wasn't worried about having stopped - people don't worry about forgetting to speak, do they? Eighteen months passed without a note played or any regrets.
"And then this summer I wanted that feeling again, the best bit (for me) of music - sitting in a room and making a tune so well that you're transported by it, that your authorship of it is almost incidental to the simple feeling of loving the tune you're hearing. Turns out at heart I'm a King Unique fan - and I just happen to be the only one that could get him back in the studio!"
Tell us about the remixes you've been working on lately... you mentioned something about "recreating an era"?
"Yeah I'm tinkering with something a bit special for Jeremy Olander at present. I've noticed a lot of 'prog's back' chatter recently but when you listen to the records in question it's pretty much contemporary techno with retro-trance melodies, a sort of Snapchat '90s prog' filter. So following a discussion on this very subject I've set myself a challenge - to be painstakingly accurate about making a 90s monster, right down to sourcing the beats off sample CDs of the era (which I still have), finding the right synths, hitting the right energy.
"Then, halfway through doing it, I stumbled on another way of reimagining the track, this time as an early German trance tune. Sort of a Harthouse vibe which was where I first really encountered club music, Pete Namlook's Sequential being an all-time favourite that I heard being rather cheekily sampled recently. You know who you are, £500 in used £20s buys my continued silence! So anyway yeah, despite recently protesting how little time I have for retro revivals I'm now doing two. Hmmm."
Speaking of an era... we first spoke when Watkins' Black AM came out. That was 16 years ago! Did you even think, back then, that you'd be still doing this all these years later?
"Wow, that was a time... but yes, I did actually, because it seemed my whole life was suddenly being mapped out for me. Sony and Parlophone/EMI were both trying to sign albums (one from King Unique and one from Watkins); six-figure publishing deals were being discussed for myself and Matthew Roberts (my KU partner at the time); Underworld's manager (coincidentally also our manager) asking me if I fancied sticking it all on hold to go and work on the next Underworld album; and I was finding myself in situations like filming a video for Black AM on location with two trucks stuffed with lighting rigs, a full film crew and dozens of extras.
"So, yeah I honestly thought I'd be spending the rest of my life selling records and choosing the colour of my next swimming pool - because pretty much everyone was telling me I would be. It was like Pink Floyd's Have A Cigar turning into reality, right down to opening a magazine one day to find a quote from Tongy saying how rich I was going to be soon. Any time now would be good, Pete!"
Coming a bit more back up to date, in 2015 you did a mix album for Armada. Tell us about that...
"Yeah, that was Beyond Borders: London. Armada approached me and asked if I'd like to make a mix album reflecting my vision of the underground sound of the city of my choice - oh and by the way you'll have complete artistic control of the music and imagery. So, yes, it was just a hugely satisfying experience to be honest.
"I collaborated with street photographer Stephen Leslie, who's been shooting weird off-balance images of London for years, to make the album artwork. The music is a melting pot of styles - bass, melodic, garage, techno - from people like dubspeeka, Kölsch, Ashworth, Napoleon and Danism, all inter-cut with street sounds, subway announcements and traffic noise recorded by fans.
"The mix is loosely modelled on a day - it starts off with someone asleep, with the night sounds of the city intruding into their dreams. Then they wake, catch a glimpse of one of those stunning optimistic sunrises and then it's onto the Tube to get to work, listening to tunes on earbuds, then half-daydreaming at a desk all morning while mechanically getting through tasks. Out for lunch, beats and languages from across the globe drop in and out of the mix and things turn a bit moody and restless as the evening comes on - red-light tailbacks and police sirens. In the second half of the mix the night energy kicks in and things get sweaty, seductive and brutally beautiful before a euphoric hands in the air end-of-nighter suddenly collapses into kicking-out time confusion; a disorientating night bus home and back into those dreams again. Press repeat."
And do you have anything else in the pipeline on the mix album front?
"No, I guess I really scratched that itch as I've hardly even made a radio mix since. I'm a huge believer in doing things because you want to, rather than because the marketing schedule says it's time. Possibly why most PRs I've worked with end up tearing their hair out. Hang on – is this why I'm still not rich?"
Speaking of the DJ side of things generally, are you keeping busy in that regard or are you more a 'strictly studio' kinda guy these days?
"Well, I really needed that 18 months where I didn't pursue gigs at all, but noow that I'm getting interest off the back of the recent releases, the excitement is there again. I'm currently talking to some people in Karachi about making my Pakistan debut. The scene over there is at that point where it's starting to snowball, with 4,000 people turning up to 1,500-capacity shows. I'm also engaged in a social media campaign to convince the promoters of the otherworldly Rainbow Serpent Festival to bring me back to their Aussie outback paradise. Hello again, Thad!"
It won't be long till you hit your 20-year anniversary as a producer (in the sense of having records out, anyway). Any plans to mark that milestone in any way?
"You're right, my first vinyl appearance was on Matthew Roberts' remix of Way Out West's Ajare, in late summer 1997. I might have a slice of cake right now to celebrate!"
Finally, what else is going on in King Unique/Matt Thomas's world right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"My rather lush remix of Dan Sieg's They Won't Find You is on Beatport now and would make the perfect accompaniment to a trip to Anglesey, where the remains of a whole Iron Age settlement still stand today. See you there..."
Words: Russell Deeks
Dan Sieg's They Won't Find You [King Unique Remix] is out now on Mango Alley