Catching Up With

Catching Up With: Service Unicorn

“Catching Up With” is a new interview series where we reconnect with an artist who has previously used the NoiseTrade platform and chat with them about what they’re doing now. This week we’re catching up with synth-pop duo Service Unicorn about their new single “Blessing Brigade” and their current pre-order campaign for their self-titled debut EP.

You can pre-order the Service Unicorn EP on digital and physical formats, as well as stream the new single “Blessing Brigade” here: https://serviceunicorn.com/

NoiseTrade: As a big fan of your early digital singles, I was super excited to see your announcement about your debut self-titled EP coming out on CD in a couple of weeks. Can you tell us about your current pre-order campaign and what all will be on the EP?

Chrys Anthemum: Sure thing! Glad to hear you’re excited for this! It’s been a belated release that’s long overdue because, well, real life tends to interrupt art and often times vice-versa. Our first mistake was Kickstarting a project that had not yet been completed. There was a really specific vision in place, but the recording wasn’t done. Then my brother, Dan D. Lion, joined my effort in 2016 when I realized I wanted him along for the ride with his Game Boy hacking chip tune composing skills. All that to say, I realized after the fact that many, if not most other artists, will have a finished to near-finished product already in hand long before they Kickstart the thing into being a physical product. Live and learn, I guess?

Anyway, this EP will include several fresh recordings and reinterpretations of Service Unicorn songs going back to 2014, as well as a few new surprises. It may even end up being more like LP length if we move forward with including a few instrumentals and a few older, unpolished pieces for an “appendix” to the “book.” The song “Blessing Brigade” will of course be a headliner, as well as an older song called “The Lamplighter” which was one of the first Service Unicorn recordings and one of our personal favorites. There will also be a track called “Birds That Sing (And Trees That Do Not Die)” inspired by a direct Lord of the Rings quote from Legolas while he’s touring the recently besieged Minas Tirith.

The EP is available for pre-order on serviceunicorn.com and comes with an immediate download of “Blessing Brigade.” The complete EP will arrive digitally on December 22 with compact discs being mailed out shortly thereafter.

NT: Let’s dig in to the lead single “Blessing Brigade” that’s immediately available with the pre-order. Can you break that song down for us, both lyrically and sonically?

Chrys Anthemum: It’s a song about death and what’s immediately on the other side of things. As a Christian, I would say it’s a song about “falling asleep” in Christ and waking up in a dimension of utter beauty and rest; where saddling up with a blessing (herd) of unicorn(s) is an almost automatic entry point or maybe even more a rite of passage into Paradise. This isn’t a resurrection song. It’s a song wherein I am trying to imagine, for example, my stepdad Norman and father-in-law Billy, who both passed away in 2016, and what they might be experiencing now, in the place we call “Heaven.” In Christ’s dimension that overlaps ours.

Because my brother and I are also unashamedly the products of mythically-rich minds like that of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, there are direct easter egg references to things in their stories sprinkled in. So, take the phrase “further up and further in” from the first verse and then “true silver” in the second verse, which any Tolkien devotee will immediately know is the mythical metal material, Mithril.

Sonically, like all Service Unicorn songs since 2016, it’s a blend of my foundation of analogue and digital synthesizer, along with my brother’s additional chiptune/8-bit work woven in. That’s the Service Unicorn formula now, so to speak. Usually I lay down a drum machine, bass line, and a lead melody synth, and then leave it to my brother to do his thing with his gear. I then weave the parts together to create a uniquely hybrid electronic tapestry. Hopefully the core melody and song itself are never lost in the process. That’s always key for us. It’s never just about the sounds.

NT: What draws me in most to the musical side of your songs is the multi-layered mesmerizing synth work that defines your warmly robotic sound. How did you first get into synthesizers and what’s your current setup looking like?

Chrys Anthemum: One of the reasons it was an easy and obvious choice to invite Dan into my process as a song composing partner is that we both grew up in our grandparent’s home, under the care of a single mother, which was a place rich in music of all kinds. In particular, it was where we first heard Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, as well as the yuletide synth stylings of the legendary Mannheim Steamroller. I think we were both entranced by the tones and sounds they produced. Our brains were both musical sponges, soaking it all up year upon year.

Next to that, I’d say Nintendo soundtracks also played a huge role in shaping both of our brains and wiring us to filter music and melody through a different sonic spectrum beyond just the traditional rock/country/pop/americana/guitar-driven music that our culture was steeped in. I mean, we also grew up in the early-mid 80’s, which was a synth-drenched era even into the early 90’s. My mom also played solo gigs at coffee houses with a little Casio and some backing tapes. So yeah, all of that was a bundle of factors that Dan and I both grew up with and thus both still have in common.

As far as our gear breakdown, my current setup is super simple: Korg Monologue, Volca Kick and Beats, and an Arturia Key Lab to fill in some of the sonic gaps where there are synth textures I want but simply don’t have the actual hardware for – synth gear can be quite expensive. For the longest time I held out for an all-analogue sound, to the point of being a bit snobbish about it, quite honestly. I’ve come to accept a new sonic philosophy when it comes to synths though: sounds are sounds. True, perhaps not all sounds are created equal, a Casio vs. a Moog for example, but still, sounds are sounds. I’m composing with sounds that grab my ear and that’s it.

Dan D. Lion: I use a customized Game Boy ROM cart, flashed with a music software interface that allows me to utilize the 8-bit PCM sound chip as a stand-alone synth. For convenience, I use a Super Game Boy cart on the SNES which allows me to see the ROM cart on a larger screen, mimicking a DAW.

NT: Recently, Service Unicorn played a big role in Kevin Max’s Romeo Drive album that came out last month. How did that collaboration first come about and how did the creative partnership play out in the studio?

Service Unicorn: That whole collaboration started haphazardly on Twitter after I sent a link to my original Kickstarter campaign video to K Max and a ton of other people. I was just hoping to get some eyes on it. I’d never done anything like that before. To my utter shock and disbelief, I got a direct message back from Kevin within 30 minutes of my tweet saying, “We should do a synth wave covers record.” The first three songs we recorded together played out in my home studio in Nashville, where Kevin actually came to my place to record vocals for “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Are Friends Electric?” and also the “Unicorn” poem reading. That was an on-the-fly thing I asked him to read out of a book of poetry I had and he kindly obliged.

After that initial tiny release we called Same Wavelength, everything went dark and dormant for me musically, right up until this past fall where suddenly there was a spark and some fresh energy. I was able to pick everything back up, both the K Max project and the forthcoming Service Unicorn EP. By that time I’d moved from Nashville to St Louis, where my wife is in grad school becoming an Art Therapist. Kevin sent me his rough synth demos and Dan and I re-recorded everything he sent in our own fashion, albeit with a distinct synthwave/retrowave vibe, and then he did vocals in a Nashville studio. So, it was all long-distance, my brother is headquartered in Virginia, and kind of amazing that it all came together in like a month. It’s kind of insane, actually. I guess it’s all or nothing with us – dead in the water or full throttle. Not a lot in between.

NT: Finally, for music fans looking to expand their synth-soaked horizons, what are three synth-heavy albums that you recommend listeners seek out and take for a test drive?

Chrys Anthemum: I’d recommend Kraftwerk’s Autobahn as referenced earlier. Also, any older Joy Electric but specifically the Old Wives Tales EP, which is one Dan and I agree is particularly magical and influential to our sound. If I may plug Ronnie’s newest material – I’ve said, in terms of synth influences, Ronnie Martin is the George MacDonald to our C.S. Lewis – see his Said Fantasy project on Plastiq Musiq. He has a super clean, expertly minimalist EP called Chariot of God, as well as two Christmas recordings now.

Dan D. Lion: Junichi Masuda, Pocket Monster OST. That, or the Chrono Trigger OST.