Inside the Mind of KUU: the Alex Metric, Riton, and Shungudzo Collaborative Project

An exciting new project has charged ahead bringing a sound that is timeless and enthralling. Formed by Alex Metric, Riton, and Shungudzo, the supergroup is a mesmerizing descent into sounds of glistening pearly and prickly poignancy that is lost in today’s digital obsessed world. With only a few records out, it is evident that KUU is a delectable formula that has solidified itself as one of the best and most inventive acts of the year.

Last Friday, KUU released its second single, “We’ll Always Have This Dance”, a sonic landscape painted with swaths of mosaic-like sounds of squelching Rolands and orchestral elements. Shungudzo’s divine vocal floats above the production work and breathes raw emotive intensity into listeners’ souls. The record is an incredible sound that highlights what true genius can bring to an electronic realm that often chases trends.

Backed by two of the best records of the year, we felt it necessary to dive into the mind’s behind KUU to learn about the project, the music, dealing with the lockdowns and so much more. Here is CULTR’s exclusive interview with the group.

How did all three of you connect and begin working on music together?

Alex & Shun: We met in London on a day that was scheduled with the intent of us writing something great for someone else. All of us write and produce for other artists, so you end up doing a lot of sessions with people you’ve never met, kind of like musical ‘speed dating’. Sometimes the pressure of meeting new people and being expected to emotionally connect and create something great every day can really get to you. On this day, in particular, I think we were all feeling a bit of that pressure, so we decided not to think about what someone else might or might not want and just write a song that we’d listen to. It was so much fun that we did it again, and again, until we eventually realized that we weren’t just writing songs we’d listen to — we were writing songs that we wanted to release together. A few months later we connected again in LA and our first single “How Could I Ever” was born!

All three of you have had a lot of success as individuals, what drew you in to form a collaborative project? Where did the idea for KUU come from? 

Shun: One of the joys of being in KUU is that we’ve been free-flowing from the start. We didn’t set out to create a group and release music together. We just enjoyed each other’s company and the lack of restraint we felt when making music together. Creativity can be really finicky — you can sit in a room with someone phenomenal, and be phenomenal in your own right, but be totally unable to create something together. You really have to learn not to take those moments when you struggle to create with others personally, and also to treasure the moments, and people you’re with, when your individual creative spirits combine into one artistic being. Everyone in KUU can make music alone, but we can only make the music we make as KUU together.

Alex: There’s not really been a grand plan for KUU, it’s just something that happened naturally and evolved from us loving the music we were making together. Before we had officially decided to pursue the project or give it a name we had already made 5 songs together – it was already happening!

How has working together remotely been? Any difficulties being in different locations? Any surprises come from it?

Alex: Fortunately, we did a lot of writing before the pandemic so we have quite a few songs in the bank ready to go. Our new single “We’ll Always Have This Dance” was actually the first track we did completely remotely. What was interesting about doing it this way was normally the song and track would evolve concurrently over the course of the day, however, with “We’ll Always Have This Dance”, Shun sent us a finished, recorded vocal and we worked from there. The whole process worked remarkably smoothly, although nothing can beat the feeling of all creating something in a room together.

Shun: The process of working remotely has been really seamless because we really trust each other’s instincts. And we also enjoy the surprise of receiving new ideas from each other! In general, working this way has reminded me of the importance of feeling rather than analysing. You can analyse your work into a hole, but if it feels good, it’s done. 

I noticed on your Twisted Melon’s Playlist, plus your Twisted Melon’s mixes that you draw from a wealth of different artists and genres, from the likes of Tame Impala to Frank Ocean. How do these eclectic tastes influence your sound? Additionally, how do you bring to life these sounds in a mix despite not necessarily being a prototypical dance record? Do you think this eclecticism brings about a more exciting mix and/or overall sound?

Alex: I feel like Twisted Melons Volume 1 is a really good blueprint for the KUU sound. We are heavily influenced by all the music on there. If you throw all those records into a blender you come out with something KUU sounding, I think. It’s the through-line between, acid house, pop, RnB, Indie and dance music. It’s that Balearic ‘eclecticness’ we love, an anything-goes attitude, recontextualizing seemingly different and diverse tracks into something that makes sense. 

Doing the TMV1 mix really influenced our KUU records too – it has inspired us a lot when writing tracks, almost like research through music. I’m really proud of that mix and it’s probably one of my favourite DJ mixes I’ve ever been a part of. The eclectic aspect is super fun when putting it together… who knew Brian Eno and Frank Ocean would mix into each other so well!?

I love your remix of Foals’ Wash Off. How did that remix come about? When you set out to remix a record what is your process and how do you bring your sound to it while still retaining enough of the original?

Alex: We are signed to the same label as Foals, so when the chance came up through our A&R we jumped at it. One of mine and Henry’s favourite remixes is the Andy Weatherall remix of “Hallelujah” by The Happy Mondays, so we’re definitely channeling some of those 90s baggy vibes on this. The good thing about remixing Foals is their parts are already great, so we used a lot of the original in there – there was no battle trying to shoehorn stuff in, their sounds really lent themselves to KUU production. It was about boiling it down to key parts on this remix, between the vocal “ooh” hook and the chorus vocal there’s so much vibe and character, then we built it from there. I love that Shun appears on this remix too, she doubled the “ooh” melody that goes throughout the track, adding a whole other dimension to the remix.

Shungudzo – you’ve written and recorded quite a few magical vocals for dance records. What is your process like and how do you bring about a lyricism that is different from what I’d call the prototypical commercial-leaning dance vocal? 

Shun: I’ve always been a really deep feeler and constant observer. When you really observe everything around you — not with your eyes, but with your heart — you can’t help but feel it too. At least, that’s how I feel. From the leaves of a tree waving in the wind to the solemn look in a stranger’s eyes as they walk home from work. Everything has a feeling, everything is interconnected, and everything — to me — is also poetry. I’ve written poetry since I was a kid, and didn’t have any intention of becoming a musician until I realized that songs are poems. Words are such powerful tools, and I’m aware of the responsibility that I (choose to) have to use mine as tools for positive change. I’ve felt that responsibility my whole life.

My process changes a lot from day to day, and a lot of it is almost inexplicable. It feels really magical to start a day having no idea what you’re going to write, and to end it listening to a song. It’s so magical that sometimes, when you finish, you wonder if you’ll ever be able write a song again. But if you’re open to it, and open with yourself, creativity keeps flowing at its own pace. 

What are the inspirations behind KUU? Are there any themes that you explore and focus on?

Alex: From a production point of view, we are really influenced by early house music, mid / late 80’s, early 90s stuff. It’s about taking some of those ideas and techniques and bringing them into 2020. We always want KUU records to sound like they have a nod to the past and a nod to the present day – we want them to sound timeless and classic rather than sounding dated because they are too rooted in the now. There’s a Balearic vibe to what we do too, in the warmth we try and capture and the eclecticism of some of the records. Our studios are also full of vintage analog gear so that plays a key part to the sound. I think the magic comes when Shun interprets and reacts to these ideas and influences and puts her own unique spin on it all.

Shun: I think it’s our greatest hope to create joy. Be that by finding a glimmer of optimism in a tough situation or simply by inspiring people to dance. 

I noticed that you guys shared several photos of synthesizers and modular setups. Do you guys have a favourite synthesizer? 

Shun: I love the Juno 106. But really, the best synth is whatever someone plays with intention. As someone who doesn’t have a lot of gear and plugins, I also try to get creative. For example, by singing through a guitar amp and heavily EQing it to mimic the sound of some kind of alien synthesizer.

Alex: For me, it has to be my Jupiter 8.

Your sound has a very modern reimagining of classic dance sounds. Was that a main point of the project? If so, what drew you in to explore these classic eras?

Alex: I think the inception of this was when myself and Henry lived together. We’d sit up getting drunk playing music to each other on YouTube, then follow the YouTube algorithm and let it lead us down rabbit holes of new discovery. We became pretty obsessed with early house music and weird Balearic stuff, and this started to seep into the music we were making at the time. Initially, there was no thought for what the KUU sound was, we just wrote tunes, but it quickly developed and became apparent that there was a through-line in the records.

Shun: Alex and Henry love classic dance music so much that they stuck by it through a time when those sounds were no longer widely considered commercial. I really admire them for their commitment to making and reimagining the music they love, and it’s so amazing to see them succeeding now because of their devotion it. They bring so much of their sonic expertise, and love of sound, into KUU. 

The sound from “How Could I Ever?” to “We’ll Always Have This Dance” is quite different, but still feels cohesive. How do you achieve this?

Shun: I think we — as listeners — have been so trained to try to define music as one genre or another, while we — as musicians — are often just trying to express ourselves as honestly as possible at any moment in time, regardless of what “kind” of music we’re making. While one thread of KUU is combining past and future dance sounds, the other is the three of us; our diverse backgrounds and tastes that come together to create what you hear when we make music together. Aside from familiar sounds or techniques, I really think that people make their art cohesive simply by being themselves.

Alex: On the production side, an important part of the KUU sound is a minimalism and simplicity to the records. Dispelling unnecessary things and keeping them to the point. We know what works and what doesn’t – when flicking through synth patches, for example, we know what is and isn’t right for the project. Having this defined idea makes the creative process a lot easier, a sonic framework to work within. Our studios also create this cohesive sound. Using mostly vintage gear from the eras we reference and are inspired by.

Walk us through the process of how you created “We’ll Always Have This Dance

Alex: I think the best music comes when you don’t think about it too much, when you are not thinking about the end result or external pressures – this is a good example of that. We had tried to write a track under the vocal quite a few times. Always going in with the attitude “we have to make an amazing track for this amazing vocal”, that didn’t work surprisingly! One night I was going through sounds on a soft synth I’d just got, and I stumbled on the chord sound in the song and started badly playing some chords on the keyboard. Suddenly my ears pricked up and I thought there’s something going on here! The next day we tried the vocal over the chords and it fit perfectly. Once we had the main chord sound and the music it was just about supporting this powerful vocal from Shun. She had said she imagined some sort of melodic response to the “We’ll Always Have This Dance” line, and this naturally gravitated to the strings you hear on the record, they seemed to fit the sentiment of the song well.

Shun: “We’ll Always Have This Dance” is the first song we made working from different locations. I wrote and recorded the original song as something to comfort those who are currently struggling with loss or loneliness. Be it lost life, lost relationships, or friendships that have been put on a temporary pause due to the pandemic. On a selfish level, I wanted to write something to make me feel less alone in isolation — something I could dance to in my living room, and feel like I was surrounded by all of the people that I love. 

In spite of the lyrics being optimistic, I recorded it to a super melancholy string sample which I then sent to Alex and Henry, who were able to beautifully capture the spirit and optimism of the lyrics and melodies in the track. They completed the story. 

If you could choose a specific place for someone to listen to your records where would it be and why?

Shun: Dancing with friends is wonderful. But one of the best feelings I know is dancing alone, especially when you really need it. I hope our songs inspire people to share a happy moment with themselves — to find some joy in their own company.

What else is on the horizon for KUU?

Alex & Shun: More music and to perform live, or at least to create some kind of live experience, in the future. We’re very excited for the world the hear the body of work we have!