“Turn on the Machines and Go”: uh on debut album ‘humanus’.

We interview the London-based brother-sister electronic duo on the innate humanity behind their electronic sound on their recently released album.

Photos: Itamer Asher | Words: Lloyd Bolton

uh are a beguiling project, composed of brother and sister Fionnuala and Dominic Kennedy. Their music is immediately accessible as engrossing electronica, blending ambient soundscapes, pulsing beats and ethereal vocals. This is a mere surface, however, drawing you into a dense bustling of complex ideas. These are elucidated as much by the instrumentals as by the lyrics. Finn’s writing puts a surrealistic bend on the experience of existence, analysing and abstracting meditation (‘attention’), brain development (‘early learning’) and family relationships (‘prelude’, ‘mama’, ‘sister’). Dom’s contributions on synths reflect this absurd deconstruction, with the mechanical artifice of humming synths often plateauing into almost traditional folk melodies.

“It’s such a privilege to just jam. I never feel any insecurity or restraint.”

The project came together with a slow naturalness that is still felt in the way uh produce music today. Finn estimates that it was “five or six years ago” that the pair began to play together. “I was putting on a performance piece and I wanted Dom to do the sound for me”. While Dom, a self-described synth obsessive since his mid-teens, had a longer grounding making electronic music, Finn’s practice was more rooted in performance art. She describes her work as “hard to pin down,” circling around “abstract, surreal narratives using lots of vocal modulation and soundscaping.”

With this new project in mind, Dom suggested a jam at the pair’s parents’ house in Harlesden one summer, while said parents were off on their annual trip visiting Ireland. “He got together a bundle of synthesisers and gave me a microphone and a little Boss reverb unit”, Finn remembers. “We had a jam (which we’ve got recorded on one of those old cassette decks!) where we didn’t really speak for maybe three hours. Afterwards we were like, ‘Oh my God, that was really fun! We’ve got to do this again’.”

That process of jamming and recording remains with the band today. Finn explains that “most of the jams we do we’ll record, listen back and kind of review.”  Their creative relationship evidently hinges on a longstanding mutual trust that each can follow the other’s ideas over such long periods without needing much preparation. She describes how, “Me and Dom don’t really talk that much at all. I mean we have a good relationship… ‘hi, how are you?’ etc…. but when it comes to playing music we tend to not really talk. It’s such a privilege to just jam. I never feel any insecurity or restraint. Dominic is always so instinctively with me, and vice versa.”

The strength of this musical relationship comes more from a comfort in each other’s company than a specifically musical compatibility. “Though we grew up together, believe it or not we never jammed”, Dom explains.  This is something that runs a little deeper. Finn describes how outside of their creative work together, the two of them, “Chat as [fictional] characters… for sometimes up to half an hour, and we don’t even really know that we’re doing it! We share strange voices with each other, and that allows us to escape for a bit”.

It seems that the strange characters that emerge on ‘humanus’ come from this imaginary world, as much a continuation of the pair’s relationship as playmates as writerly devices. Dom describes the content of ‘humanus’ as being primarily, “In there because it entertains us.” He suggests that though there are certain external references, the process of synthesising those in a new context is, “Me and Finn trying to entertain each other in the moment. As it turns out, we’re quite similar in what entertains us, things like surreal narratives, sci-fi imaginings, stories of family relationships. A lot driven by character”.

As their process suggests, uh’s music is deeply organic in its development. Once ideas feel sufficiently entertaining to the duo themselves, they take them to the stage for refinement with respect to an audience. Finn tells me, “We write tracks very quickly but then we’re very eager to perform it as soon as possible. This thing happens where when we perform a track live, we understand what it is.” As the forms take more shape, the energy of a crowd can dictate finer points of structure and inspire new points of focus. “When we go into new improvised sections, we write with an audience almost. We’re kind of driven to do that by the pressure of it.”

“‘attention’”, Dom recalls, “was a track that we wrote in front of an audience. Because that was an improv one”. Finn clarifies, “it was taken from a performance I did a couple of years before. We would start out shows quite ambient and I’d do a sort of guided meditation at the beginning. Eventually it turned into ‘attention’.”

Going against to the archetypal electronic artist process of labouring endlessly on DAWs to perfect a piece, unrestrained by time, manpower or available tracks, uh much prefer to have as much of a song ready as possible when it comes time to record. Dom reports that it was almost a rule on this album to have a track fully ‘written’ before recording. “With electronic music it’s very easy to go back and start editing, changing sounds, remixing. We wanted all the work to go into the beginning, into the writing process.” He concedes, “It’s partly for our sanity as well. Once a track is recorded and you hear it back for the first time, you feel that bit of excitement. But when you keep going back to it, that just kills it for you over and over again. We try to keep the process quick so that we stay engaged throughout.”

World-Building and the “Majestic Domestic”.

The instinctive process really coloured the way the album was put together, another reflection of the trusting swiftness with which the pair work together. “We wrote a lot of it in one week”, Dom explains, a trip to Margate providing the loose time pressure to get the ideas down. Thematically, this meant that for Finn, “The album naturally marks a space in time for us and what we were into at that particular moment, though it was not all consciously linked together.”

Though the lyrics were not planned to string the whole album together, there was a fresh willingness to build a world into each song. Finn explains that where before they may have shied away from including something like that into a track, on ‘humanus’ this could form the basis of a piece. Comparing to their ‘Seasick in Salts’ EP, “this is more down the performative, narrative-driven route, which we wanted to bring forward because that’s always been there behind the scenes.” They were ready to “be a bit braver with some of the things that please us and to share that.”

The intimate, biological introduction from the speaker on ‘prelude’ sets up this approach. A character reflects on their being, their body, and the condition of dermatitis rendering them “inferior” to a sister. While the band insist this was not planned to be a concept album, it seems the short timespan for the bulk of the writing established some unconscious themes felt strongly throughout the album. Awareness of mind and body bleeds into the next track, ‘attention’. Rejection of one’s own skin resurfaces in the frustrated outburst of ‘rocky’, while sisterhood forms the subject of the album’s closer.

Reconsidering whether the album could be seen as a concept album, Dom muses, “There’s definite world-building that goes on within it, but often a track will be in complete contrast to the next one. The only conversations we’d have in making it were like, ‘That one’s quite atmospheric and slow, let’s do something heavy now.’” In writing the tracks, “We’d just turn on the machines and go. Stuff would come out and we’d say, ‘Ooh I like that’ and it would stick. It is only on reflection afterwards that you’re like, ‘Ah, I think I understand what it’s evoking for me.’”

Considering the album as a whole, Finn reflects that it is, as a whole, “about humanity”. She sees it as “satirising existence, building caricatures and surreal narratives.” Dom agrees, commenting on Finn’s style that it can be “deeply moving and emotional… but also completely surreal and bonkers… and sometimes a bit funny.” While modestly crediting most of the album’s specific subject matter to his sister, he does accept that, “It’s an expression of both of us as artists; of our character and what we lean into.”

“I call it majestic domestic”, Finn explains with a smile. “I like the surreal in the mundane, the idea of a house being full of strange secrets and strange parts, bending teapots, that kind of thing.” Evidently the pair have built such a thorough idiosyncratic network of shared ideas that these recurrent themes come out naturally in their work, without needing to be too thoroughly laboured over.

‘humanus’: A Study.

The scholarly language of the album’s title, ‘humanus’, begins to explain the sense of fascination that drives its music. It feels like a study of the condition of being human, tinged with the science fiction strangeness indicated by its artificial instrumentation. The artwork recalls late 20th Century imagery used to describe posthuman and transhuman states, and indeed the work as a whole feels like a reflection on existence in our hyper-technological society. Vocals are modulated beyond recognition, characters schizophrenically squeaking and then shifting pitch to a Darth Vader drawl. Human melodies, dance-inducing beats and audience-guided improvisations are facilitated by machines. These contradictions have been self-consciously studied throughout the history of electronic music, and are analysed here on an especially biological level.

As perfect and preconceived as such a title may feel, it was another product of the automatic. Finn explains that, “it came up when we were jamming the ‘humanus’ track. Near the end of it I started going, ‘It’s you and us, it’s you and us. I’m humanus. I’m humanus.’” It is yet another product of the creative purity facilitated by the duo’s method, and as such, it is still something they are trying to interpret it together outside of that space. Attempting to elucidate his response, Dom explains, “It’s made up, but I liked it because… ‘human us’… it did evoke a sort of posthuman thing. When we looked at that track in hindsight, we talked about it as imagery of like a future race. Dare I say it, I think it’s about future pilgrims calling out to a god. And that’s what ‘You and us’ is about. That’s what I read into it anyway”. “Future pilgrims”, Finn repeats, savouring the phrase, “we need to remember that.”

‘humanus’ is a rare delight, describing the mystery of its creation as it plays out over fifty-four minutes. We meander through themes, repeated images and sonic motifs that resist straightforward understanding (even by the band themselves!). In a beautifully circular process of interpretation, the lyrical subject matter concerning human existence and its technological mediation begins to explain how the band’s creative process works. uh is a marriage of the ultra-technological with the supremely human. Their instinctive, automatic processes are facilitated jointly by a mastery of the complex sound-making technology and the duos close familial relationship. ‘humanus’ is a study of this process.

“It also spells ‘Hum Anus’,” Finn adds, “which we didn’t notice until someone was making the artwork and was like, ‘Would you like me to separate the words out?’ I’m glad that some people will look at it and see ‘Hum Anus’.”

‘humanus’ is out now, with the launch party at Peckham Audio taking place on 26th May.