Scott McNiece Designs the Soundtrack of Your Life (If You Live at Trenchermen)
“I’m not against mainstream music. I just think most of it’s really bad.” That’s Uncanned Music founder Scott McNiece, whose programming service curates eclectic playlists for top-tier restaurants across Chicago’s West Town. With comments like this, McNiece risks coming across as a music snob, but it’s hard to blame the busy DJ who refuses to mince words. After all, it’s his full-time job to explore the strange underbelly of American and international music.
Even if you’ve never heard of McNiece or Uncanned Music, you might have heard his work. Those reel-to-reel hip-hop tapes that make the brunch plates rattle at Au Cheval? Probably McNiece’s most well-known project. Those soulful tunes that splash off the white-tiled walls at Trenchermen Bar? Another soundtrack courtesy of Uncanned.
But what’s the key to building a solid playlist? Mixtapes, road trips, parties, workouts—almost everybody’s made a soundtrack for something at some point. I sat down with McNiece to see what sets his soundscapes apart from a Pandora One subscription.
Step One: Think Like a Scientist
Originally a student of anthropology, McNiece approaches music with the curiosity of a scientist. Before curating a playlist for one of his Chicago-based clients, he spends as much time as he can inside the space—preferably on a crowded night—making meticulous field observations. “I think about what I heard when I was there and how it affected people, how it made me feel, how it flattered the space,” he explains. “I think about the people that are working there and what kind of style they have, what kind of energy they have.”
He also pays attention to the room’s construction. For instance, a jangly garage-rock song would echo terribly in a room with lots of mirrors, hardwood floors, and wooden tables. “[With] really soft rooms, you can pretty much go any way with it,” McNiece says. “The more reverberant [the room] is, the less choices you have.”
Step Two: Play Matchmaker
McNiece also considers taste—in the literal sense. Some sounds go best with comfort food, while others pair better with a menu that’s cerebral and complicated. “If the place serves cheeseburgers and hot dogs, you [don’t] want to use some arty Brian Eno [tracks] from the late '70s,” he says. “You might want to consider using something more comfortable—like the Rolling Stones.”
Step Three: Think Visually
McNiece often thinks of his music less as “playlists” and more as “soundtracks.” The first time he walked into Trenchermen, he immediately thought of the film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. “The visual symmetry of the room is really striking in the same way that a lot of [the film’s director] Wes Anderson’s shots are,” he explains. For the first song on his Trenchermen playlist, McNiece chose Sigur Rós’s “Starálfur,” a song that actually appears in the film.
This may seem like a strange source of inspiration, but McNiece often references movies when brainstorming with clients. “Part of the method of defining and designing a music program is trying to think of the room as a scene. The most epic, amazing, unforgettable movie scenes you’ve ever seen with a song in 'em—could it ever be a different song in that scene? If you saw it [with a different song], it would f*ck you up.”
He claims that films are “a great common language point” that help him easily relate his ideas. When designing the soundtrack for Ruxbin, for example, he noticed that the restaurant seems to marry a “postapocalyptic Asian junkyard vibe” with “futuristic food.” So with the owner’s blessing, he sculpted a playlist loosely based on the Blade Runner soundtrack.
Step Four: Play for 10% of the Room
“We don’t play Top 40,” McNiece says. “Customers [should] feel like the music they’re hearing … is not something they can get anywhere else.” He prioritizes local artists—Tortoise, Angel Olsen, and the Cairo Gang are among his current favorites—but doesn’t shy away from obscure genres such as Polish psychedelic pop (a sample of which he played for me; I was expecting it to be bizarre, but it’s actually quite pretty).
In fact, McNiece only expects his music to appeal to about 10% of a restaurant’s clientele. “But that 10% are the people who really know music and understand it,” he says. “And they’re the kind of people that will become incredibly excited, and will be like, ‘I can’t believe they’re playing this song, I thought only I liked this music!’”
In addition to the curated playlists, McNiece and the Uncanned Music team also DJ (the old-fashioned way, with vinyl) and host a series called Collection Selection. For this project, McNiece interviews music collectors who work within the restaurant industry and invites them to guest DJ at Trenchermen. “Music for most people is very personal,” he explains. “The more profiles of people you understand, the more you can understand how music is grouped together and what people like.”
To hear the latest from McNiece and Uncanned Music, check out their calendar for upcoming events or simply visit Trenchermen, The Revel Room, Carriage House, Mott Street, or Au Cheval—all restaurants that feature their music.
Photo: © Stephanie Bassos, Groupon