Unicorn Basement shed rays of light

Just another Saturday night in the Unicorn Basement: Max Clark and Deanna Steege
Emily Utne

It is well past midnight and the house is bursting with music. At an upright piano in the living room, a housemate pounds out a few bars of Water Music, surrounded by cassette tapes and show posters, while in the cellar others rehearse for tomorrow's 48-hour band contest. The house is a teeming ecosystem, and on the porch the Minneapolis electro duo talks about the thrills of being the digital aberration in an analog underworld.

"We've had plenty of shows where people were pissed off that we weren't what they wanted us to be," says Max Clark, wiping an errant strand of hair from his eyes. Beside him, Deanna Steege demurs, frowning from behind a veil of black, ribbony bangs.

"I've never felt that," she says.

An uncertain moment elapses, and Clark drains the last of his Pabst. "Maybe I'm just projecting," he concedes. "I felt it where people wanted us to be badasses with leather jackets and I'm wearing gold tights." With amusement, he adds, "but those experiences make me feel good, too."

Their four-year career as Unicorn Basement has been an expeditionary voyage, one which has brought them from Northfield, where the basement shows they now orchestrate were virtually unknown, to south Minneapolis and its welcoming cadre of DIY venues, sown in shaded sidestreets like dandelion spores. In a community often marked by black Carhartts and punk rock in a minor key, Unicorn Basement's Technicolor presence is as stark and as vital as a Kandinsky canvas.

"I love it," says Clark. "When we first came up here, we played shows with punk bands, and I always felt awesome going to a show like that, where we were the only band that not only wasn't punk but didn't use any of the same instruments."

"We found our place in a really good community for music," says Steege. "It doesn't matter what kind of music you bring. We're all friends. We all support each other. We're lucky to have found that."

Despite the benevolent collaboration of its architects, the punk house circuit has always been plagued by the prejudices of the uninformed. Timid newcomers presume they won't be welcome, and neighborhood watchdogs fear a phantom criminal element. But once approached, these misconceptions vanish like a mirage, and Unicorn Basement are here to help.

"I very firmly like to reinforce the positivity of the individual," says Clark. "Anything you do, whoever you are—if you feel great about it, it's fucking awesome."

The sentiment is visibly and audibly obvious. On their split 7 inch with Baby Guts and their forthcoming full length debut, We Are the Mages of Beauty, Unicorn Basement are motivated by the absurd splendors of being alive. Within their buzzsaw synth loops dwell life-affirming vibrations that rattle like so much window glass. In their lyrics, one hears the delirious, almost shamanistic incantations of a pagan priest as they name check Notorious B.I.G. and dead deer in subsequent breaths. Their beats drone and grind, ascending from corroded Atari circuits to dance club grooves. It is synthesis of the highest order, and it double-dog dares you to dance.

"I just do it myself," says Clark, of their ability to dissolve the latent stage fright that keeps so many hands in so many pockets. "I move however I'm feeling when I hear what's coming out of my machines. Because of that, people feel a lot more comfortable doing it themselves. At least they know they don't look as ridiculous as me."

It's a winning formula, and the enthusiasm of their crowds is further enabled by the performative opportunities afforded by the basement shows they frequently play. At them, an audience is not governed by stages, bouncers, or the judgments of their peers. The communion is private and unmediated, alive with a liberty that Unicorn Basement masterfully seize.

"Think about it," says Clark in a wry deadpan. "How do you feel masturbating on your front lawn compared to your own bedroom? People feel more comfortable when they're in an intimate environment. When there's limits put on something, that conveys itself to the audience automatically."

Steege nods. "I prefer to be on the same level as the audience," she says. "You can get in their face, and they have no choice but to nod their head at the very, very least."

As their case of Pabst wanes, the conversation meanders. Clark laments his Southern Baptist upbringing, which was rife with restrictive posturing, and Steege recounts a fall from a porch, broken by a peanut butter sandwich and a My Size Barbie Doll. All the while, housemates and guests breeze through the porch, vitalized by nightfall. This is the environment that Unicorn Basement help uphold—one which celebrates the lawlessness of creation, and which welcomes those daring and imaginative enough to burn their vanity like a paper effigy.

Unassuming and contemplative, Clark happens upon an anecdote that gives him visible gratification.

"I had this gigantic guy with huge muscles come up to me after a show and say, 'I had no idea you were so angry.' That was awesome, because what I'm singing is 'Don't be ashamed to follow your dreams, don't be ashamed of love.' Be pissed off about the things that are shitty. Don't be afraid to feel awesome about the awesome things. Force them to happen."

In the living room, Bach streams from the upright. From the cellar, the roar of a new band in the making. "Everyone is awesome," says Clark. "We can all do amazing things."

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