Subculture Unsung: Pete Um

An artist that defies criticism or comparison

Thursday 23rd November 2017

I first heard of and saw Pete Um when he supported Hot Chip at Cambridge Junction in 2014. As the stage cleared, it became evident that the strange man wearing shit sunglasses and brandishing a pint of cider was the opener. Fumbling through minidiscs (his chosen format for backing tracks) in front of a largely nonplussed audience, he rattled through a bewildering and extraordinary 15 or so tracks in half an hour.

That night I bought UM’s 2012 compilation, Can’t Get Started. It’s a fairly low-key, sombre and strange affair for a purported ‘best of’ volume, which he also saw fit to press onto a single 10”. Um’s music is both praised and maligned for its brevity, with many songs clocking in around the 1-minute mark. He has a response for that on ‘That’s Too Close’ (1:17):

While she’s going on and on 
About the thing that’s wrong
About my brilliant songs
They’re too short
They should be more... long.

The answers to UM’s intrigues, as an artist and a person, are often partially answered by his own songs. ‘Enough’, drawn from 2012’s Babysitting the Apocalypse, squelches and lurches along as he questions 20 years of UM: When will you all have had enough?

His first (he thinks) album, General Purpose Um, relies heavily on disjointed samples purloined from bargain bins and abstract wittering. An obvious standout is the glittery, sadistic electro-swing of ‘Just Like Kurt’ with the lyrics: Every time I see your face, I just want to kill myself, like Kurt, and the paranoid shuffle of ‘Ain’t Got No Style’.

Then there’s ‘If You Speak My Real Name’ from one of his high-water marks, 2008’s No Pressure, which is a mesmerising, stuttering and totally unironic love song. ‘The Social Astronaut’ crackles like Um drifting through space-time called to a standstill and often near-transcendent when he includes it in his sets.

Of the approximately 25 times I’ve seen Pete, his most recent gigs have been some of the most memorable, coinciding with a fertile flood of new songs. The riotous ‘Real Rock ‘n’ Roll’ seems to satirise the situation of being a middle-aged man in a band (Please help an old man off of his high horse / You take the reins just remember it’s my horse), ‘Ed Sheeran’ sees a comment by an in-law on the ginger megastar turned into a rumination on Pete’s own career, and ‘Golden Buddha Baby’ ruefully questions the possibility for personal growth and change.

Pete’s world starts existence with cassettes and CD-Rs from 1996 onwards along a vague timeline of varied artistic productivity, including hundreds of YouTube clips, an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and a seemingly impenetrable back catalogue of literally thousands of songs. He has created, over 20 years, a full career and history of a musical visionary, the surface of which has barely been scratched by the general public. His YouTube videos, many of which predate the channel, constitute a fascinating wormhole to access everything from the raw existential horror of a hangover in a grey and windy London park to footage of Pete being harassed during a boombox performance at Cambridge’s Strawberry Fair festival.

I am in danger of becoming a self-styled ‘Um Evangelist’, telling anyone who will listen about Cambridge’s Don Van Vliet, the East Anglian Brian Wilson. When I told him that we had him pegged as an ‘unsung hero’, he offered this response:

"Seems churlish to disagree but don’t think I’m a genius or unsung hero. I am, however, Pete F*cking Um!"

He’s right; he doesn’t need to be categorised as genius, unsung nor any kind of hero. The answer perhaps lies in his recent song, ‘Sheep’.

I’m by far the world’s foremost Pete Um
If there’s others around, I’ve not yet met one
Maybe that sounds arrogant, maybe it’s true
But then why in the world am I telling you?

It is enough for Pete Um just to exist, so it almost defies criticism or comparison: why does he need to tell you? He is the foremost Pete Um, and that is enough, he doesn’t have to be anything else. Long may it continue.

Written by Connor Browne
(Nervous Conditions)

Pete Um will play at The Five Bells, New Cross on 23rd November 2017.


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