A gothic birthday party, UNzipped

Photo : Andrew McNeill

With the band’s biggest festival appearance yet just days away, UN’s Kara Keith was fretting over footwear before set lists.
“It’s all about the outfits, right?” reasoned Keith.
UN, a gothic rock/electro-pop duo featuring Concordia grad Jen Reimer on drums with Keith on vocals and piano, is jetting off to Austin, Texas to play POP Montreal’s showcase at the SXSW Music Festival.
Over 2,000 acts from all over the world flock to SXSW every year to mingle with music industry professionals, debut new material and wrestle for exposure. Buzzing reviews at this festival can change an artist’s life overnight. Just one year after her SXSW debut, former McGill student and electronic musician Grimes has gone from virtually unknown to posing for Vogue.
“I haven’t gone to SXSW before, but I’ve done a lot of crazy shit in my life,” said Keith. “It’s just another five-day-long party where I don’t have a home to go to at night.”
Keith and Reimer have been playing together in bands for over five years, but they first collaborated as UN in 2010 and have just released their debut album, Nu. Keith’s confidence on stage is magnetic, her voice deep, dark and borderline satanic. Backed by snappy synth, piano and Reimer’s fierce animalistic drumming, this is something you must dance to, entranced in your own world.
UN’s sound and stage presence has the ability to whisk the crowd away to a subterranean gothic birthday party, providing an escape from the mundane.
“It’s cathartic for me,” explained Keith. “That’s why it ends up being cathartic for other people.
All the melodies, lyrics and ideas are from my singular experience. I walk about with those songs all the time.”
Reimer and Keith left their families behind in Alberta before becoming Mile End inhabitants. They attended separate classical music conservatories in Edmonton and Calgary, but met at an artist residency program at the Banff Centre in 2007.
“We started jamming together in these little huts in the woods, spending night upon night playing music,” revealed Keith. “We instantly connected.”
At the time, Keith studied piano, while Reimer was perfecting the French horn. Reimer picked up the drums as recently as two years ago for UN’s first performance in New York City, though she had only been practising for three weeks.
“[Reimer] already had so much skill in her body from being a very accomplished classical musician,” explained Keith.
Keith found Alberta hostile to artists, as rent was skyrocketing and it was difficult to find space to practise or play.
“It wasn’t a very nurturing community, and we felt like outsiders,” said Keith. “There were no other women doing anything [like us].”
The pair clicked with producer Howard Bilerman, known for his work on Arcade Fire’s Funeral (2004), while at The Banff Centre. Keith wrote a record while in Alberta, but flew to Montreal in 2008 to record with Reimer, Bilerman and a band of 10 other people.
“That was our foray into Montreal. We were just going to come for two weeks and make a record,” said Keith, “but that record took six months.
“We quickly evolved, realized it was an amazing city, and now we are very happy here.”
Though the songstress was unhappy in Alberta, the record she wrote while living there is curiously upbeat, and became quite popular. Keith’s indie-pop single, “Kick this City,” caught fire in 2008 and was picked up by CBC for radio play.
Since moving to Montreal and forming UN, Keith’s songwriting has turned to gloom.
“What’s funny is that as I’ve gotten my life more organized, been happier, got really good friends, moved to a great new city, and started taking care of myself, I started writing really dark music,” said Keith.
Despite the drastic change in her musical tone, Keith insisted that it’s completely unintentional. She challenged herself to depart from her more complicated classical roots and produce music that was simple, strong and straight from the gut.
“I’m not trying to do anything, I don’t listen to music, and I don’t know what our ‘sound’ is,” said Keith. “Neither does Jen.”

UN debuts at SXSW on March 16 at Hotel Vegas in Austin, Texas.

To download their new album visit their bandcamp:


Top Ten : Outdoor music festivals

If you’re like me, you’re already dreaming about summertime, and outdoor festivals go hand in hand with my season of preference.

10. Osheaga Music and Arts Festival; Montreal, Quebec, Canada
– Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without the mention of our own Osheaga Festival right here in Montreal. Held every year in Jean Drapeau Park on beautiful Ste-Hélène Island, Osheaga has been bringing together musicians, artists, and music and art lovers since 2006. Although the annual summer festie doesn’t boast on-site camping, festival-goers build a sense of camaraderie through the commute from downtown to the park via shuttle, bicycle or footmobile.

9. Exit Festival; Novi Sad, Serbia – Exit Festival keeps people up all night long with big name acts like Iggy Pop, the Beastie Boys, Snoop Dogg, M.I.A., Deadmau5, Portishead, Wu-Tang Clan, Bad Religion and tons more. What makes Exit different from other festivals? Firstly, it began as a student-initiated project against the Milosevic regime in 2000. Secondly, it has been hosted at the beautiful Petrovaradin fortress since 2001, and finally, the music doesn’t start until late at night, with musicians performing until dawn.

8. Rock al Parque; Bogota, Colombia
– As one of the longest established festivals on this side of the Greenwich Meridian, this Colombian festival has been, well, rocking the park for 17 years. With that kind of longevity, you know it’s got to be good. The festival’s international and inter-genre flair sets it apart from other festivals that boast more mainstream or specialized genres. The three-day-long festie has hosted musicians from France, the Netherlands, Germany, Peru, Jamaica, El Salvador, Spain, the U.S. and plenty more.

7. SXSW Music Conference and Festival; Austin, Texas, U.S.
– If finding new, emerging and upcoming music is your schtick, then SXSW is, hands down, the festival for you. For five days, over 2,000 musicians take over practically every venue available in Austin to showcase their talents for the festival’s 45,000 patrons, 2,941 media members, as well as an undisclosed number of industry bigwigs. In addition to non-stop live music, SXSW also holds musician workshops and conferences, and features big name speakers like Nas and Bruce Springsteen.

6. Big Day Out; Australia and New Zealand – This multi-city festival goes on tour every January, hitting up Auckland, Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth between the last week of January and the first week of February. Taking place in prime southern hemisphere summertime, the festival secures huge acts like Kanye West and Soundgarden, who, no doubt, are drawn to the festival to escape the cold and soak up some of that warm, golden Australian sun with up to 50,000 festival attendees.

5. Burning Man; Black Rock Desert, Nevada, U.S. – Burning Man is the most elusive festival in North America—maybe even the world. This week-long arid experience is so much more than a music festival, with many attendees left unable to explain their time at Burning Man. It’s more like an experiment that happens to include some amazing music and art. The temporary community is built upon “radical self-expression and radical self-reliance” with each year dedicated to a different theme (2011’s was “Rites of Passage”). There are no rules, and money is of no value. At the end of the festival, a giant effigy of a man is burned to the ground, hence the name of the festival.

4. Sasquatch! Music Festival; George, Washington, U.S. – Held every year in the awe-inspiring Gorge Amphitheatre on the Columbia River, Sasquatch! Music Festival’s four stages are graced by some of the biggest names in music. Foo Fighters, Death From Above 1979, Modest Mouse, the Flaming Lips, Kings of Leon, Nine Inch Nails and countless others have played during the four-day long festival, but tons of indie bands get their beginnings there, too.

3. Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival; Indio, California, U.S.– As one of the largest outdoor music festivals in North America, you’d better believe Coachella is a damn good time. While camping at the festival is the most popular (and arguably the best) way to experience Coachella, those who can’t live without their hair straighteners and who prefer to have daily showers also have the option of shuttling into the festival grounds from nearby Los Angeles. The festival is held over two weekends every April, so if one weekend doesn’t work for you, then you can catch the same acts the next weekend—or why not go to both?

2. Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival; Manchester, Tennessee, U.S. – So, I’m a little biased in placing this festival so high on the list—after all, I did meet my significant other here and if you ask me, I’ll tell you that my time at ‘Roo changed my life. Literally. Located in the heart of Tennessee, a mere 90 minutes from Nashville, Bonnaroo is an epic experience of music, art and community. With 80,000 campers, over 100 acts, including stand-up comedians, on more than 10 stages spread over 700 acres of lush Tennessee farmland, Bonnaroo will soon become your gospel.

1. Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts;  Pilton, Somerset, U.K.– Although the beloved Glastonbury is not happening this year, its triumphant return is scheduled for 2013, and rightly so. As the largest outdoor music festival in the world, this festival has been rocking the masses since 1970, the day after Jimi Hendrix died. With over 40 years in the game, dozens of stages and upwards of 140,000 attendees, Glastonbury is the festival of all music festivals.

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