Synth-pop duo Unkept minds the gap from both sides of the pond

The Bedroom Boys

Oct 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

When Detroit native Austin Grebinski met Aaron Baker of Southend, England, on a vacation in the Dominican Republic in the spring of 2013, they were already well on their way to becoming a successful modern electronic pop act — and they were both still in high school. Grebinski had taken piano and guitar lessons as a young child, and soon after began to teach himself drums, synths, and even the organ. At the age of 10 he was writing his own music, and by the time he was 14 he started laying the bones to build a recording studio in his parents' basement in Northville.

Three years later, the songs he had been working on throughout his teenage years would become the basis of his band Unkept, and in April of 2013, just one month after meeting his vocalist, Baker, Grebinski was ready to release their first single, "Torn." A week later, that song would premiere on BBC Essex Radio Introducing, a program dedicated to uncovering new musical acts. Soon after, Rough Trade records, the British independent record label equivalent of stateside indie-flagship Matador, handpicked "Torn" for inclusion on an album compilation of new "bedroom" artists. The Detroit musical wunderkind had found his audience, only 3,755 miles away.

Writing songs as a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, he had no idea his music would strike a chord across the pond. It was pure chance of his meeting a British vocalist on a family vacation.

"I was making music by myself in my room, not caring, pretty much for myself," he tells us. Of the sudden rise of popularity in the U.K., he says, "Well, when we made and released 'Torn' and they loved it, I thought, 'Oh cool, that's my audience.'"

But does it influence his songwriting?

"In the end," he says, "these songs are for me."

It's no surprise, though, that the Brits were first to embrace Grebinski's brand of sparse, instrumental pop music. While writing his first batch of songs, he recalls listening to "a lot of New Order and the Jesus and Mary Chain." The song itself incorporates dreamy textures and a quiet romance that owes a debt to the XX's first record, XX, one of the most influential albums in recent memory for the bedroom kids.

The idea of creating music in one's own humble abode for mass consumption isn't new to Michigan's melodious landscape. Warren DeFever, of Livonia, recorded His Name Is Alive's seminal debut LP, fitfully titled Livonia, in his parents' basement during the late 1980s while he was in high school. Like Grebinski's recordings, they are intimate and striking in a way only a teenager could make.

"My music is based on raw emotions and ignorance," Grebinski says.

The songs aren't steeped in the bitter nostalgia and self-loathing most 20-something bands ensconce themselves in.

Last October, they self-released their first EP on Soundcloud and, in just over a year, Grebinski's songwriting has become more complex and significantly relaxed. The beat on "Make Sense" is metronomic and contemplative, late-night listening for sharing a bottle of wine with friends before heading out, while the bass recalls the funkier moments of Roxy Music. They are not afraid to dance.

There's even a candid desperation in Baker's vocals that swirl alongside the synths, lending a certain European flair in some cases. It's almost as if they jumped from teenage years straight to adult contemporary territory, bringing along a few disco records and old soul harmonies. There's a reason for that, though: We're hearing the sounds of classic '80s synthpop bands through Grebinski's ears. There isn't any irony or filter one would find with most new acts, it's an appreciation for the sound and sentiment that shines through on these four songs. Once again, BBC Radio has picked up on this, already debuting two more songs on their Saturday night lineup this month. The BBC, unlike NPR, can influence the musical popularity of an entire nation.

So is there room here in America for Unkept? Or will their popularity be confined overseas? Unkept played its first gig in Chelmsford, Essex, last January. "They were really receptive and danced," Grebinski recalls. As for playing locally, he says they would love to, perhaps sometime after Christmas at the Magic Stick or the Crofoot, opening for a bigger act.

For now, they're managing themselves, and Grebinski continues to write and refine his music. They're also in talks with Italo-disco legend Mike Simonetti for executive producing their next record. Here's to hoping Detroit gets to hear it first.