From his very first EP at the dawn of the 2010s, Montreal’s Lunice felt like a breath of fresh air, both locally and internationally. As a Montrealer, Lunice’s brash Hip Hop-indebted dance music was the sound of a young, party-ready city ready to sweep away the polite, dour rock music that it was then mostly known for. Internationally, his combination of bass weight and half-time tempos provided the foundation for an entire generation of ravers, be they the hippest of Europeans or the most rowdy of American college bros. Through his work as ½ of TNGHT, he hadron collided Lex Luger level maximalism to rave music’s euphoria, provided the bedrock to one of Kanye West’s most beloved hits, and then vanished, only to return as a more well-rounded and fully fledged artist. To celebrate the re-release of his first 3 EPs on Glasgow dance music institution LuckyMe, I sat down with Lunice in Montreal to discuss his career so far. – Son Raw
So kind of going back, early 2000s, mid 2000s, there was always this idea of the Montreal music scene as very guitar driven. You had a lot of bands that were getting a lot of attention while the whole rest of the world was moving on to more electronic music and Hip Hop music. But Montreal hadn’t reached that same level, despite some great local groups. When did your career start to feel real to you, and did you feel a bit of a shift in terms of what was popping in Montreal?
Lunice: The realization that this is a full-time career and it wasn’t just me in my bedroom making music… It took a long time for me. But I think that’s because of my upbringing, because I didn’t come from an artistic family. It was a very traditional kind of family, hands on type of thing – my grandfather was a tailor. And my mom wasn’t really too interested in art, but she would let me get into it, but she didn’t see it as a career. So I think that kind of upbringing sort of kept my perception of my career as hobby for a long time.
But it sort of worked in the sense that it never made things boring – it was always fun because it was a hobby, but I was making revenue off of it. That kept me conscious of never being completely distracted by the environment of the career as it went forward into more of a professional side of things such as starting a company under my name. There was just so much I didn’t know. And I like to know the context of things before I fully dive into them. In the beginning, I was more focused on making sure my creative momentum was intact and able to go through the hurdles of the industry.
Who are some of the first people to support your art – here or on the Internet? Because the era when you first popped off, a big part of the shift was that we could send music all over the world – and that was very new.
Lunice: Oh, absolutely. It wouldn’t be anything without [Montreal based DJs and producers] Jacques Greene and Sixtoo. I was just posting my own projects on MySpace, and at the time, I was just starting to make music. And because I was already interested in graphic design, photography, film, and cinema, I decided to create these little projects on my own, which is something you see, that’s more common now, but at the time, there weren’t really people that had the resources to try to find and learn all of these different programs to put together. So I would do my own photo shoots and create my own cover art and create my own little rollout for fun, as if I was a label. I just did it for creativity’s sake, just for the feeling of doing something different.
This caught the attention of Jacques Greene, mainly because we were both big fans of Rustie and the LuckyMe crew, even though neither of us weren’t signed to them at the time. So Jacques Greene hits me up, checks my music out and says “Yo, your beats are pretty cool. Have you ever played a DJ gig?” I’d never even been to a club!
My whole background is more nerdy – fantasy worlds and Japanese, RPGs, all of that. So for the most part, I was gaming. That’s why I wasn’t in the club. And so he asked me, and I just so happened to be working on a set for a friend’s birthday, at a house party. He said sure, bring it over on Saturday. So I played his night, which used to be called Bass Culture, and that was on a Saturday night. I just remember everything was developed on that first night in terms of how I present myself on stage, play the music etc. I was just using virtual DJ or something like that.
I was at a point where I had to wait for the end of the hook or something to get to the next song, so I’m just waiting. My friends are in the front. They’re wildin’ out, and I’m like, Fuck it, I’ll just go to the front too! And people start really getting into it! Then somebody approached me and it turned out to be Sixtoo, and he was like, “Dude, that was fucking crazy. You want to play my night tomorrow night?” That’s when I was introduced to a whole new world because I think Jacques Green was also opening for them that night, too.
I remember people having a tough time figuring out what that scene was – they were asking “Is this dance music that’s influenced by Hip Hop? Or is Hip Hop influenced by dance music?” As far as what you were listening to, what gave you your foundation?
Lunice: A huge part of my foundation comes from gaming soundtracks. It wasn’t on purpose. It was just because when I was young, I wasn’t into music. I only got into music when I got into break dancing, and I was at 13, and that was still pretty late to get into music in a weird way. But when I got into it, I got into everything from funk to jazz. But before that, I was exposed to the music from whatever game I was playing: Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy Tactics, something about the emotion, the cinematic feel, the sounds in it… all of that left an impression on me.
And I didn’t know that up until I started releasing music and started backtracking to my music overall, and realizing it had this undertone, almost like these sounds you would hear from a game. And I realize a lot of people from our scene took a similar path, which I find funny. I think Flying Lotus mentioned that kind of thing, too. He’s also heavily influenced by that whole gaming soundtrack thing.
That’s interesting to me because I had a similar musical foundation and was around at the same time, but I was DJing slightly different parties – more Dubstep focused ones. Were you aware of that stuff?
Lunice: Yeah, definitely. Because Jacques Greene. He was huge on that. He booked Benga when he was 17. He was already on it heavy.
In terms of LuckyMe who were also right on that line of Bass Music and Hip Hop – did you reach out to them or did they reach out to you?
Lunice: I guess we were both silently following each other, but I was most definitely a fan first. The first vinyl record I bought was one of Mike Slott’s. So I was a consumer of their art, and they caught interest in me, but not just me, the whole scene we created in Montreal. Sixtoo, Jacques Greene, Seb Diamond, Tyson Parks, Ango. It’s more because we were creating a whole scene that was similar to theirs in Scotland, and so I guess there was a mutual interest that led to us meeting.
We got the opportunity to reach out to them, to book them to come over. We booked Hudson Mohawke, Rustie, Mike Slott, The Blessings. That was the first time we met. And ever since that moment, we stayed in contact with no intention of signing or anything because they weren’t even trying to sign anybody internationally yet. But eventually we started to cross each other more often. Festivals and club nights would start booking us together. So it was very much a natural thing that just logically came together because of our mutual interests.
Looking back now, it’s been 10-12 years since that era, and we can look at it from a different perspective. One of the things, and maybe I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time, was it felt like the rule book had gotten ripped up because everyone was trading music online. You could mix any influences you wanted. When I heard Stacker Upper the first time I was blown away because it was instrumental and at Hip Hop tempos but it very much wasn’t in the DJ Shadow vein or the Dilla vein. Were you just making tunes and eventually they became a project or was it always planned as a release?
Lunice: Actually. I never thought about the process to Stacker Upper. I just made the music and then put it together afterwards, which is what I’m doing now for my next album. And feels good to think that that I actually went back to that. So, yeah, it was very much just putting the music together.
It’s also interesting because there was that international component from the start and you fit in on LuckyMe. But I re-listened to Stacker Upper, and it reminded me of jerk music from LA, which was also big at the time.
Lunice: That’s where I was, at that point in time!
So it’s interesting where you have this hub here in Montreal. LA obviously has Low End Theory, and you can connect it to LuckyMe up in the north, in Scotland. The Internet was really facilitating it.
Lunice: Yeah, exactly. And it made us aware of each other even more. It was just getting crazier and crazier, more interconnected every month.
Basically, the first two projects Stacker Upper and One Hunned, they came out within a year of each other. When you put out your first project on a label, in terms of the reception, I did that change anything in terms of bookings? – How did it impact you?
Lunice: You know what’s crazy? I think the one thing that I don’t have specific data on is the impact for things I put out, because whatever I finish, I’m already moving on from. And however people respond, I’m like, “thanks!” But there were more opportunities to do gigs like a UK tour or Europe.
You get certain write-ups in certain magazines or blogs. Blogs were very heavy at the time, and that helped me gain new opportunities to play certain festivals. And once you do those festivals and you perform and you get a good response, you build this relationship with them over time, so you can just build a route even more precisely for where you want to do shows. So that’s the one thing I definitely would have noticed on my side.
Stacker Upper and One Hunned, they do sound like a pair. There’s a continuity there. But one of the things that leads into the TNGHT project is that you start to have a little bit more of that slow/fast dynamic. You could count those beats at half time or dance music tempos. With your earliest work, I felt like I could tell what you might have been inspired by, but by your third EP, 180, I didn’t know where you got those arpeggios from. They’re kind of sci-fi but then there’s a chiptune influence even though you’re not making straight up game music. But then there’s also a soul sample that feels really post-Dipset. Do you have any particular memories or thoughts on that project?
Lunice: So what’s interesting about the three EPs is that it shows this overall artistic development, because, again, we’re backtracking to my upbringing. I never came from an artistic family. So my only real introduction to art was when whichever teacher I had in art class that was passionate enough to show me and teach me about art. I wanted to soak in as much as I can, because it was just fascinating for me. So finding creative inspiration, despite the environment I was in, it led me to approach music in a very different way. I only noticed it when working with traditionally trained musicians and they would hear and experience my music and be like, “this is completely weird, but it works!”
I found that interesting and that’s why I’ve never gone any deeper with the tools that I know and am comfortable with. I’m very incremental with learning new ideas and new techniques. So when you start hearing the first record, it’s very much my first introduction into putting out a big music project, and if you start hearing differences throughout every release, that’s because it’s literally me learning about new tools and ideas to work with.
That’s why Stacker Upper is very clear in terms of the melodies whereas on One Hunned, it’s a bit weird because I had just found a different pathway to explore. I sort of built this kind of structure where I’m like, “okay, let me just look through this soundscape and see what sounds come out of it.” I just treated it as a way to teach myself about new ideas and new sounds and learn from whoever was around me. I started realizing that sound could make you feel more than just happiness – it may make you feel confused. And I love the idea that it can make you feel all types of emotions. So by the third EP, I treated that one more like a layup into the debut album. So that’s why it’s called 180. [The album being titled CCCLX, or 360].
Before we kind of get into 360. We got to talk about TNGHT because you could play those tracks to 50,000 people in a field and they would go freaking wild, which is not something that too many human beings have experienced. It’s a pretty unique record – when you guys are making it, did you have any idea how big it would be in a live context?
Lunice: I had an idea of how it would sound live, but only to the extent of how much we liked it ourselves, because it’s hard to tell how people will react to the music we make, honestly. We were into the kind of music we were making at the time, experimenting with all the different sounds and that kind of laser influence. It was a wild transitional point in terms of sound because I feel like nowadays a lot of sound new sounds or new ideas could come into the scene and go viral immediately, there are instantly starter kits for whatever’s new. Or a Splice kit. But this was a no man’s land we created for ourselves that enable us to experiment with all these weird sounds.
I remember, for me as a DJ, that TNGHT EP, it was the cheat code: it instantly filled dancefloors. But interestingly, you guys didn’t do the thing that everyone expected you to: full length album, world tour, now you’re an EDM Metallica. Instead you pulled back.
Lunice: They were all offering us that route. The starter package of an all-star worldwide rollout. But that entails a lot of different things. I wanted to prioritize my life and mental health first. And so we weighed the implications of it all and there was more bad then good.
Did Hudmo agree with that or was that a tough conversation?
Lunice: No, he totally agreed. And thankfully, so did our management teams. Both management teams were totally for it because they understood where we came from as artists. But that’s very rare. We were just very lucky in the kinds of people we worked with.
In hindsight, it seems like that was a really smart decision because you guys never got branded as EDM Trap or something like that. You didn’t burn out fast because of a corny fad. You guys are still doing vital music, and people are still receptive to it.
Lunice: I’ve learned over the years to understand the economics of it all and the infrastructure of the music industry. So because now I have a better understanding of it, I’m able to then go in on my own terms and choose what I want for myself. So that’s why I end up in sessions just for the rapper to just hear the new weird stuff I’m making, rather than hope I get a beat placement. That’s not necessarily why I’m there. I’m just here to talk. And I appreciate that they are even interested in the art I’m trying to express, and that feels really liberating.
But when we didn’t follow up “Higher Ground” and we didn’t take the big deal, that was a very isolating thing to do, because to the general public, that move didn’t make sense. I feel like the culture has this perception of success being a high peak but for me, I’ve always been about lasting over time. And we’re okay with that. And I’m happy that everybody else around us is okay with that.
“Blood On the Leaves” was interesting as well. I’d forgotten that the original beat wasn’t “Higher Ground.”
Lunice: The only reason “Higher Ground” exists is because Kanye took “R U Ready.” Originally he just used it for his first fashion show. Then we got the news saying it was on the album, so we switched “R U Ready” for “Higher Ground.”
I mean, obviously you’ve collaborated with vocalists before, but Kanye is… he’s Prince, he’s MJ, especially at that point coming off, Watch the Throne and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He’s the biggest artist in the world, give or take a Beyonce. Were you involved in his version?
Lunice: It was mind boggling. He took it but didn’t change much. He just added the Nina Simone sample and some pianos. But that might have been Hudmo that added the extra pianos, and then Mike Dean mixed it. And, yeah, that’s it. I was very grateful because typically he gets a full team of people to break it down, to see where else you can go, but he said “you know what? It’s going to stay this way.”
It’s a deep song, too. I mean, obviously, the Nina Simone sample is about race, but it’s also about his relationship. And then there’s that whole energetic element that you’re bringing to it.
Lunice: He’s really good at that.
I feel everyone who has a longer music career has that first moment where you break and people are excited because you’re the new guy with the new sound. And then you reach that first natural peak with TNGHT and Kanye. But then you’re a professional musician. You have a career. You have goals but the magazines or the websites they’re naturally going to move on to the next new act. That’s when you release your full length debut, CCCLX.
Lunice: So CCCLX is really fun because I used it to understand myself first. That’s why I took five years on it. It wasn’t about making sure it’s the best sound, and I go to this country to record. It was more just “Let’s really think about this. Who am I in this industry? I’m a very stubborn person. But I use my stubbornness in a good direction. So I said, let’s break myself down.” And so I started working on different sounds, different ideas.
And I really let myself go in every direction. I started working when I was in LA, often for different work. But then I took a couple of weeks there to just initiate the foundation of my CCCLX project. And I just went everywhere with it, in the sense that as I was making the loops, I would start drawing the stage and then I would start drawing the different lights, the podium, and the drapery and all that stuff. And then I’d go and present it to my management team. I loved it because it was just freeing. And I couldn’t believe they were giving me this opportunity. There were no restrictions, so I was able to give myself the structure to feel more liberated.
Those five years were really when I developed this style of working on music instinctually and then just saving it. Boom, forget about it for a while, come back to it and hear it and be like, “wow, I made this!” I started to collaborate with myself in that kind of way, from adding my past perspective to my present perspective. I started using that, taking advantage of that dynamic, and started to layer the music that I was making. And that’s what helped create this sense of confidence in terms of being able to start and finish music. I would just feel satisfied or content. And that was my main thing: to be content with this. So I was not concerned about the time it took, because I was very well aware of my position within all of this. I felt very lucky that I could take that amount of time.
That was also an album where you can put it on and you don’t need giant speakers to “get it”. Was that something that you were consciously trying to get to?
Lunice: Especially for that one, very much. I really wanted to make it very theatrical, the way that it can directly translate itself on stage or just listening with your eyes closed and just seeing things. Playing with many different senses because at the time I was also using incense at the beginning of shows, and that was all coming from the idea of trying to use different human senses to capture thoughts and making yourself stand out in the whole industry.
Scent was a very easy way. That’s a super impactful method of remembering a moment, more than music to me. And so I was very much thinking about everything else in addition to the music. I always thought that the music became the way it is because of how I built myself towards it, how I felt that day. Say, I just went for a really long walk, that feeling is what’s going to end up in the music.
Just because I know you through your discography, were you also doing other stuff in film or fashion as well? Or were you really focusing on “Lunice”.
Lunice: I guess in the CCCLX times, yeah. I’ve done a few things where my earliest production gig was a presentation or a live show of different performers and dancers. The director was the same as Lady Gaga’s show. So it was a very big colorful, elaborate production about street dancing. I’ve had a few things happen more recently as well.
I think post album release, I started working a bit with Cirque Du Soleil because they started to experiment with different ideas. They opened a new division called C-Lab. That’s when they were just investing money just to try crazy stuff out, anything from sound to installation performance. And that was part of one project and it won an international award over the Chemical Brothers’ show.
Wow. That’s symbolic of the next generation taking over.
Lunice: Exactly, they were trying to find the next generation for the shows, so I’m glad it worked out. And they’re very happy about that. I’ve had more stuff like that. I’ve done music for a Nike fashion show recently. It was the Nike Olympic 2020 fashion show so it was delayed. It’s like a movie, the fashion world: people are stressed the fuck out, right? And I have no stress because I’m not attached to any of this shit!
Before we wrap up – I have a bit of a detour question. You did a full project with Alchemist and that was really interesting because at the time, you were known as the big maximalist sound guy and he’s really the exact opposite, very minimal. How did that come together?
Lunice: That was just pure faith, honestly, because the best way to explain it is when you have two somewhat distant mutual circles of friends. We sort of have circles of friends that might know each other, but pretty distant because he’s like a God to me [laughs]. So it was put together by Pata the clothing brand in Amsterdam, and Red Bull BC One. Which is so crazy because when I used to breakdance, BC One was the Olympics of break dancing. Pata said, “let’s get Alchemist” because they’re close, and Red Bull BC One said “hey, what about Lunice? He used to break dance. He might have an interesting take”. It turned out that Alchemist was already familiar with me. I forgot that we’d met before that a couple years earlier. It was thanks to Budgie.
Yeah, he did the gospel record flips on The Good Book with Alc. I love those records.
Lunice: So Budgie, I’ve known him for many years because he’s my main weed buddy in London whenever I was in the UK and I would go to his spot and we’d just chill all day. And eventually he moved to LA and started working a lot with Alchemist. And that’s how I got to meet him at that point. So I guess when we got to work together, Al was already familiar with what I do. And probably because I was also cool with Budgie, probably based off of that alone it worked out perfectly. It was just super seamless. We just had a lot of fun and smoked a lot of good weed.
So I guess the last one to wrap it up. LuckyMe are putting out the first three EPs, remastered. Why now? And what does it mean to you to put these back out?
Lunice: So honestly, it came quick because me and the label, we just didn’t realize we were already up ten years. And so by the time we noticed, we figured we should probably try to put the three pieces together. And what I loved about the idea was that it didn’t feel like we were recompiling and releasing a project. It feels like, “Oh this was a moment in time that was genuinely overlooked”. So it feels fresh. It’s a very weird idea where for the ones who know, it feels nostalgic, but for the ones who don’t know, it doesn’t feel specific to any era.
It’s very much its own thing that could be placed anywhere because it was a lightning in the bottle moment where it just sort of happened and it was gone. It didn’t prolong itself for more than three or four years, that scene. So I went back to find old songs that I never released from that era. And that was another journey, basically getting out that time capsule and then finding old stems and being like, “Let me just mix it the way I do now”. And it’s cool because it let me learn about my past self, which gives me more insight for what I need to do in the future. That’s why I love hearing my old stuff and I never get tired of playing those out, because I’m not presented as a one hit wonder. That style of sound could be placed at any time.