Uni and the Urchins are taking you to church, but this (un)holy land dwells somewhere in the realm of Hiernonymous Bosch and a Weimar Republik cabaret. You are likely already familiar with the lyrics, but you’ve never heard them sung this way before. “Amazing Grace,” an 18th-century Christian hymn by Anglican clergyman/poet John Newton, takes on new life in this sinister darkwave take from this explosive NYC quintet, starring lead singer Jack James, Charlotte Kemp, David Strange, Andrew Oakley, and Cae Rale.
In this portentous and irreverent version from Uni and the Urchins, however, sin takes center stage, presenting itself as that salvation. The video for this hymn, directed by the band’s own Charlotte Kemp, has everything: mesh and vinyl; clever graffiti for Latin 001 students; Blue Velvet references, sultry flame throwing, and leather daddy vibes galore. With GRACE etched in his naked chest as he seductively writhes about, Jack James croons the old standard into a work light on a claustrophobic, DIY stage.
One thing is for certain: a collaboration between John Newton and Uni and the Urchins is a rock song of ages, cleft for thee.
We were curious about how this and their process, so Post-Punk.com had a chat with Uni and the Urchins to learn more.
Is there an overarching theme to your debut album, “SIMULATOR”?
Kemp: Tech and religion, or the new religion of tech, versus our humanity. At least we’d like think it’s about that- all songs are really just about trying to get laid, right? Ha!
How did the idea to cover “Amazing Grace” come about?
Kemp: It was David’s idea actually, but he was going for more of a bluesy Leonard Cohen thing, then I came along with my moog keytar and hijacked it to be more aggressive and industrial.
How important is the visual component to your music? It feels like there are videos for more than half the album, all with some thought in planning going into production. Is there an overarching theme to your aesthetics?
Jack: We’re inspired by surrealism, punk, glam rock, Dada, goths, science, Taco Bell, and Chevy Chase. If there’s a theme, I’d say questioning the world around you. Or at least parking tickets.
Tell us about the making of the video for “Amazing Grace”- are there any Easter eggs we should look for in the intriguing backdrop? Or ideas you drew from that inspired the video?
Kemp: Yes, it’s a direct homage to The Birthday Party, when Nick Cave had “hell” written across his chest in a circus tent, but Jack wanted it to be more uplifting or tonally ambiguous – so we wrote “Grace” on his. We filmed it on 8mm film with no crew except our friend Ariel Sadok on a Bolex and Dave Levine holding a fog machine. Me, Jack and Cae made the circus tent and graffitied it in my living room. The graffiti gave it a slight modern twist. I wanted to do this circus concept because it was cheap and vibey.
This is one of the most recognizable songs in the world – what do you think makes this version unique?
Kemp: Sheesh, well I tried pushing it into new context with the production, and David even changed some of the lyrics. I’ve never heard a heavy or modern goth cover of that church song. The distorted analogue synth and pulverized drum machines are probably not traditional instrumentation, although you never know in a Southern Baptist church! They play some bangers. But I still threw in some angelic choir stacks to counterbalance Cae’s thrash guitar, David’s squawking tom waits saxophone and Jack’s spooky rasping for some retained reverence.
What does the theme of redemption mean to you, or how do you interpret the theme of redemption in this version?
Jack: I think redemption is very cute. My kink is atonement through forgiveness, but I think, in general people feel unworthy of their own personal salvation. The interpretation of this song is sonically dark, but the lyrics are essentially a transformative love song.
Is redemption possible in the world today? Or satire or irony, for that matter?
Kemp: Haha, we’ve gone irrevocably meta in a postmodern world. To me, everything is both hilarious, and deadly serious. But if there’s no redeeming beauty or glimmer of hope in art or your worldview, then angst becomes indulgent and adolescent. There must be some light at the end of the tunnel, like Paradiso after the Inferno and Purgatorio.
Jack: Yes, yes, and yes. Anything is possible, toots.
Amazing Grace is featured on the album Simulator, which you can listen to and purchase here: