Suren Unka (the name revealing his grandparent’s Gujarati origins) drums for Auckland fuzzy popsters Beach Pigs, who released their debut album at the end of May. Left to his own devices however he is an electro-house artist, also with a newly released album that has been in the works for the last couple of years. ‘El Chupacabra’, takes its name from a maybe-mythical Central American creature, while Unka himself took inadvertent inspiration from his working exposure to club-land house music, as Martyn Pepperell discovers.
Repetition is a form of change. Hear something enough, and you never know, you might start to like it. Several years ago Suren Unka was working as a party photographer at Cassette Nine on Vulcan Lane in Auckland.
“Every Saturday night they would have a party called Sick Disco, he recalls, speaking from his home studio. “They used to play house music. At first I didn’t like it, but after two years of working there I started really enjoying house music and getting into why people were dancing, and beyond that, studying the beats people would dance to the most.”
Hailing from a musical background rooted in emo, punk and playing drums, Suren first started making electronic music in his early teens. His first tool was a Kelloggs’ Nutri-Grain ‘Make Your Own Music’ program.
“They had a promotion going on with a CD inside the cereal box. I remember loading the program onto a computer and learning it!”
Graduating to a music-making Playstation game called Music 2000 in his mid-teens, he got hold of a Korg Radias synthesiser and began mucking around with that, alongside Garageband and Ableton Live. Coming into contact with the abrasive dubstep sounds of UK and Canadian producer DJs Bar9, Skream, Datsick and Excision, Suren’s musical focus shifted from emo/punk to hefty stadium-sized modern club electronica.
“I was really into the heavy stuff,” he remembers with a laugh. “Thankfully I made it out the other side.”
After finishing high school, Suren headed to MAINZ where he studied live sound and event production for a year.
“When I learned something at MAINZ, I would go home and apply it to my songs.”
In the process he took the first step down the pathway that would lead him to ‘El Chupacabra’, his recently released debut album. Suren started playing drums in Auckland punk band Beach Pigs, and began photographing party crowds at Cassette Nine. As he came to accept and eventually love house music, his production style started drifting towards more of an explicit four to the floor focus, along the away incorporating aspects of house, synth-pop, UK garage and post-dubstep. Fusing the love of strong melodies he developed as a fan of emo and modern punk with the maximal heft of late 2000s dubstep, and the dance floor lessons he was learning at Cassette Nine, his signature soundworld developed.
‘El Chupacabra’ took him two years of working time, during which he filtered 130 potential songs down to the chosen 10. Operating on a set-up driven by his Radias synth and a laptop with Ableton Live, he would create custom sounds on the Korg, before using them to record patterns into Ableton. Once inside the box, he’d spend hours painstakingly arranging them to perfection, sometimes replacing them with VST-generated noises. In terms of live performance, Suren essentially recreates his studio on stage.
“Half-way through recording the album I played it through my friend’s studio monitors and there were all these clicking noises I couldn’t notice on my shitty speakers,” he laughs. “I got proper studio monitors after that. It was weird. It took me a couple of months to get used to them, that delayed the album a bit.”
Regardless, the extra time did his work a world of good, and after hiring respected UK engineer Stuart Hawkes of Metropolis Studios for the final mastering, Suren came away with a record impressive in both ideas and sonic fidelity.
“Stuart mastered the Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs’ album. I loved the mastering on that and emailed him. The cost was reasonable, so I went with it.”
Driven by an impressive command of melody, astute dance floor sensibilities, stadium-sized sonics and clever atmospherics, ‘El Chupacabra’ (named after a mythical hairless creature from South America) is a stunning debut, and beyond that, a world-class dance music record. In particular, the way he uses vocal grabs to create a vibe is interesting.
“I love vocals in music, but I never actually listen to lyrics,” he admits. “I wanted to reference the idea of vocals by using vocal snippets in my songs.”
With ‘El Chupacabra’ now out now, Suren Unka is currently focused on playing live shows, helping mix the new Beach Pigs’ album, and moving forwards as a creative, both on and off stages.
“I just want to make music that I enjoy basically,” he concludes. “I want to show who I am through my music. I also want to do an awesome live electronic performance.