Unicycle Loves You remains a bit of a pop-rock enigma.
For starters, the band started out as a project of just one person alone: singer/songwriter Jim Carroll. Ever since moving to Chicago in 2005 (a transplant from Poughkeepsie, NY), Carroll has been slowly carving out his niche as one of the foremost garage-pop songwriters of his day. Raised on a steady diet of Sebadoh and Superchunk (with good healthy portions of Guided by Voices to be served up as a main course), Carroll doesn’t as much revive the glorious days of ‘90s indie rock as he does synthesize it into his own gloriously warped vision of what guitar-pop was always meant to sound like. Now, with the assistance of drummer J.T. Baker and bassist Nicole Vitale, it seems that Carroll has found the perfect people to help his vision come into being.
Now, with the group’s third full-length, Failure, getting acclaim from all quarters of the critical community (including write-ups in such high-profile places such as USA Today) and the band continuing to tour following a triumphant inaugural performance at South by Southwest, the group is poised to blow up bigger than ever. Sitting down with PopMatters, Carroll discusses his slow and steady rise through the Chicago music scene, his great big “pop whatever”, and why he’d love to write some terribly catchy songs for INXS . . .
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I think the first line of the new record, “You find rainbows in garbage dumps”, is the perfect description of your pop-choruses-meet-gritty-guitars kind of sound. Would you agree?
I definitely think that this line played a major part in deciding to place “Garbage Dump” first when figuring out the track order. I guess you could say it’s a representative notion of how we develop our songs.
Failure seems to have a much more intentionally fuzzy sound than the last record—a bit more chaotic, a bit less “produced” as it were. Was this intentional? What effect were you trying to achieve?
What you hear on Failure is what my demos have always sounded like since the inception of the band. I just got fed up with the idea that a demo was just a preview of something bigger or better produced. This time, I looked at writing and recording as an art more than a production. The songs were built upon similarly, if not exactly, as I would layer paint on an oil painting: adding layers upon layers to the canvas, rather than redoing the whole painting.
There seems to be an overall theme of idleness on this album, seeming to find bliss in the unchanging. I specifically think of lines like “It’s not a crime / To be always wasting time / ‘cos with you it feels OK / Just to lay around all day” (from “Sun Comes Out (And I Don’t Care)”) and the hipster-biting ending of “Wow Wave Cinema” (where you claim “It’s nothing new / It’s just called a new name / It’s nothing different / It’s always the same”). It’s an album where the theme comes off almost as being content with the way things are. How would you thematically define this album?
I am, by no means, content with anything. Whether it be in the state of the music industry, politics, or daily life, the bullshit always seems to come out as the winner. But it’s really mentally self-destructive to be constantly angry and hateful. I feel that writing, recording, and performing the songs from Failure has served as a sort of a zen practice for us while festering in the shit storm. But, I guess I’m not doing or saying anything new myself since punk rock has been doing this for decades, so whatever. Failure is just our great, big “pop whatever”.
In a previous discussion we had, you once noted that you wrote one song that was super-catchy but was advised by your label to not release as “it’d be the song everyone knows you for” for years down the line. While I can see this album hiding its pop intentions in that grimey layer of fuzz, do you feel like you’re ever toeing the line between being poppy and being too poppy? I can’t imagine it easy being a pop songwriter in cases like that . . .
Yeah, man. That song would have likely made us one big joke. I like to feel free to fuck around and experiment in private while recording. Sometimes we’ll come up with something out of left field that really doesn’t represent anything that we’re about or going for, and rather is just me seeing if I can write a certain kind of song. It’s healthy to not always take yourself seriously. I like to push myself into uncharted territory just to see the results a lot of times, and we have tons of ridiculous songs locked away that will never see the light of day because they are actually representing everything that I hate about pop music. Maybe I should sell these kinds of stupid, commercial ideas to INXS, Depeche Mode, or Marilyn Manson, collect the money, and let them remain the laughing stock. I’d rather maintain my dignity than be considered a sellout any day. I mean, what would Uncle Bob think?
ULY started out as a solo project many years ago. Now, with its expanded lineup, its numerous videos, and national coverage, are you ever surprised by what has come about since its formation? Where would you like to see it go?
Yesterday, we played the Hideout’s SXSW send-off party with 10 other incredible, hard-working bands. I didn’t realize this was going to happen until I was up on stage, but next thing I knew Tim Tuten was up on stage announcing us and came up with this great analogy for ULY and Chicago. Tim Tuten, co-owner of the Hideout/Chicago music champion, and his on-stage introductions were some of my first experiences when I moved to Chicago in 2005, figuring I’d check out this “Pitchfork/Intonation thing” going on in this “Union Park place”. He was up there announcing Les Savy Fav or the Wrens or something, and I just remember being stoned and feeling like “this is the greatest place on Earth”. I would have never thought that, seven years later, I would be fronting a band and being introduced by this very same man. Realizing and reflecting on situations like these makes me eternally grateful for everything that has come our way, above all else. That’s what it’s all about.
Finally, looking back on your career, what would you say is your biggest regret, and, conversely, what has been your proudest accomplishment?
Although I’ll remain restless in regards to some previous decisions, I definitely don’t regret any of them. Past decisions bring you to where you are, and I like where we are right now. Failure is, in fact, my proudest accomplishment because I feel like I’ve finally uncovered and achieved what we’ve wanted to sound like from the beginning. That was really difficult for me in the past. Considering myself an artist before a musician, it’s eventually going to become my #1 job to find a way of hating everything about it in order to write the next one, but for now, I’ll just say I love Failure.