Joss Moorkens spoke with Survival Knife frontman Justin Trosper about the band’s new LP ‘Loose Power’ and his old band Unwound
Unwound were an influential and uncompromising post-hardcore band from Washington state in the US. Their first LP on the Kill Rock Stars label, 1993’s Fake Train, set a rough and addictive template: tightly interwoven drums and bass creating a mighty momentum, jagged and dissonant guitars, vocals screamed or half-spoken. Having released the ambitious self-recorded double LP Leaves Turn Inside You in 2001, the band fell apart one year later (as documented here) and that appeared to be that. Other than drummer Sara Lund who plays with the Corin Tucker Group and Hungry Ghosts, Unwound appeared to have disappeared, with only a Geocities fan site marking their presence online until the Unwound Archive appeared online in 2012. A flurry of Unwound-related activity followed. First came the news that albums, singles, and pre-Unwound juvenilia are being lovingly repackaged, remastered, and reissued by the Chicago-based Numero Group. Then Survival Knife emerged, releasing a 7” on Sub Pop, marking the return of Unwound guitarist/singer Justin Trosper and original Unwound drummer-turned-guitarist Brandt Sandeno, joined by Kris and Meg Cunningham. The quartet’s first LP ‘Loose Power’ came out in April 2014 on Glacial Pace records, and it’s cracking stuff. A 7-track rock record that blurs by in a storm of lovely twin-guitar riffing, big rock drums, and Trosper singing out, restyled but still recognisable. I emailed some questions about Unwound, Survival Knife, and rocking into one’s 40s to Justin. His thoughtful responses follow.
It’s 20 years in November since Unwound played in Ireland. What do you remember about those gigs in Dublin and Belfast?
We played in Cork as well! The thing that sticks with me now is, that after the initial excitement of visiting England and London for the first time wore off, I appreciated going to Ireland (and Wales and Scotland) a great deal more. I really grew to dislike the way the British music world seemed to be. I’m afraid I don’t remember the gigs but I have a distinct memory of driving around Belfast and having someone show us where things had been blown up and rebuilt. Hopefully, I can visit Ireland again – maybe just skip over London this time.
I first thought of contacting you after you responded to this article on a Facebook post. Unwound always seemed to take the idea of independence and non-compromise fairly seriously. Also, one of the first rumours I heard about Unwound in 1993 was that you’d been offered a $45,000 advance from Geffen and had turned it down. (Not an outrageous amount but it sounded a lot then!) There was mention of major label interest right at the end too. Not selling out was a major concern for lots of people involved with music back then. What was your thinking on it then and how has it changed since?
Interesting, the rumor is not true–we were never offered any sum of money by any label ever. However we did do a publishing deal with BMG and maybe that’s where the rumor began. The only semi-corporate label that approached us was American, Rick Rubin’s imprint or whatever. We went out to lunch and they gave us some Slayer promos and that’s it! I also have no recollection of any interest later on. After the last record came out I would have been very surprised that a major would have been interested—maybe if we would stuck around for another couple of years…who knows?
Unwound was very socially/culturally attached to a music scene that was in active rebellion to the majors/corporate takeover – what became known as alternative. There was no convincing argument to deviate from the course we had set out on. But, no one offered us a million dollars, maybe that would have convinced us! In any case, I still feel people that take the money and run, so to speak, and have their careers crash have it coming. Whatever you choose, you have to be savvy to make it happen. Buzz from the Melvins has lived to tell the tale. I hold them up as an example, in some ways, more than people that just say “NO!” to everything. They are real working class people and a lot of the hardcore DIY types I’ve met come from relatively privileged backgrounds. I think that informs these decisions as much as anything political that people volley around. Most people that want to make a living from doing music really just want to play music all the time and it’s a challenge to make that work because they are a part of the 1% vs 99% economic reality.
I think you should be as independent as you can be, but I feel like that about life in general. I think you have to compromise sometimes to get by and I don’t demonize others for doing so. I think it is very difficult to not take corporate handouts and make music your vocation, although there exceptions. But we all depend on these corporate powered technologies (Apple, Amazon, Google, Spotify, et al.) to do it now, unless you are growing gourds for drums and playing to the squirrels in your yard.
Unwound ended in 2002. What have you been doing since and why get back into playing now?
I’ll spare your readers the gory details, but I can say that music was in the background, literally mostly on the stereo, for a lot of that time. I decided to get an education, which I originally moved to California to pursue, and ended up back near Olympia finishing at Evergreen State College. I studied mountaineering as well and finally climbed Mt Rainier a couple of years ago, which was a big accomplishment for me, having grown up near there. I don’t know if I really had a choice on whether I should get back into music actively. It kind of just happened naturally as a part of my life cycle or something.
Touring has always seemed to me a pretty unhealthy pursuit. You’ve experience of that from the tail-end of Unwound too. How has stepping back into that been?
Survival Knife hasn’t really done much more than a week, so it’s “touring-lite” and that seems to work for us. Honestly, I would like to do some more adventurous stuff but this band can’t really do it. I feel like I can do some less rigorous form of touring for another 20 years, but making it happen financially is the main thing. I love traveling and adventure however it can happen, so bring it on!
Up until the last LP, Unwound didn’t have much of a web presence. Has it been strange revisiting your own history by creating the web archive, then editing and remastering for the Numero reissues?
Strange, indeed. Doing the Unwound site was sort of an academic-like project for me, which in turn, became this therapeutic process, and I hate to say it like that– but that’s the reality. The most interesting part has been creating the narrative with the writer David Wilcox for the liner notes and seeing how it all unfolds. I understand biography better now – it’s not actual reality but there is no way to encompass all of that in written form. Patterns do emerge and that’s how we solve mysteries to the best of a collective memory. Certainly, having the website evolve over time adds a dimension that written narrative can’t capture. So if people are really interested in the story of Unwound, they will have to dig into the website and read the notes that come with Numero releases. No, I don’t expect very many people will, but at least there’s the option!
Survival Knife has a Facebook page, website, releases trailed on Soundcloud, album preview on Pitchfork. How does a release feel different now? Is there a tighter feedback loop? Does it feel less like putting something out into the ether?
We approached the record in kind of an old school way, thinking in terms of putting out an LP record – trying to reinforce a listening habit/style within the confines of that format. Of course, I know most people will hear a track or two and take it or leave it. But the ultimate reward is for someone who likes to listen to records and they may appreciate it that way.
I’ve set up my own kind of rules for the modern music media experience. I take advantage of the immediacy of something like Soundcloud (I don’t like Spotify and other streaming “services” too much) and then pursue it further if I like the artist. Then track down the LP or Bandcamp, iTunes etc.
Loose Power sounds to me like a Rock Record – with a rock title. It sounds like a lot of fun to play! You’ve mentioned listening to a lot of rock and metal in interviews (and written a top-8 for Decibel!) Have you found the rock coming to the fore more with two guitars? What metal have you been listening to?
You got it! Survival Knife is totally supposed to be rock and the songs are really fun to play. I take songwriting pretty “seriously” but the element of “fun” is there. One of my goals for making this record was to drill people with lots of riffs, so I was listening to lots of riffy stuff. Classics like the Who and Led Zep, prog rock like King Crimson and Mahavishnu, metal-ly stuff like Opeth and Voivod and then the 80’s SST shit, as always. And I always forget to mention that Soundgarden totally influenced this record as well. Kim Thayil is by far one of the most interesting players alive.
Having two guitars is a joy. It opens up a way wider range of harmonic possibilities and makes it really distinct from Unwound, other than having a completely different rhythm section. Some of the Unwound stuff had two or more guitar parts in the recordings and we touched on that on the last tour with a second guitarist. The tones are quite a bit different than Unwound too. Different amps, effects, etc.
Btw, the metal band I most love right now is Gorguts. Rad.
Loose Power one of several sharply-written rock songs on the LP, then there’s Heaven Has No Eyes, a song with lots of distinct parts (something I always enjoyed from early 70s Paul McCartney records – like three songs rolled into one). Was the idea to either write structured songs with choruses or to eschew conventional arrangement entirely?
I’ve been trying to experiment with songs that don’t have repeated A-B parts, like a verse chorus thing, but instead make variations on a theme. Heaven Has No Eyes does it a little but is more of a composite of song ideas (yes, like Sir Paul!). This variation method is hard to do and get people on board with it. People want familiar, right? So it’s hard to do trickier composition styles in the context of rock. I guess that’s why prog rock failed for a lot of people. Some of it is bad songwriting and some of it people just don’t get because there isn’t a familiar hook that keeps grabbing the listener in continually. There has to be a thread that keeps the listener engaged. So the challenge is to introduce new ideas within the context of the song without alienating the audience. But it still has to be rockin somehow.
The lyrics seem less oblique that in Unwound. Do you feel an obligation to take on things you disagree with from the wider world?
There are more overt themes and ideas being expressed on the Loose Power record. I never felt successful or very comfortable trying to tackle political songs in Unwound, although I wouldn’t say the songs were apolitical exactly. Unwound was a lot more about articulating the emotional stew that I was cooking in my 20’s brain. I also existed in a very different and more volatile social atmosphere than I do now. Back then, I had some writing rules I followed but much of it was thrown together at the last minute, with varying results. I’m more conscious of making a more solid piece of writing, but it never gets easy for me. Wish me luck!
Finally, I feel I can reasonably ask since I’m approaching 41 and I’m assuming you’re about the same: what are your priorities or ambitions beginning a band in your late 30s/ early 40s? Is it easier to identify what will satisfy you from playing music?
I think my music priorities/ambitions are similar as they were in the later stages of Unwound–I want to make records I would like to listen to and have “fun” (a higher quality of experience, that is) making them. I’m less ruled by my emotions or so-called fate and more driven by gettings things done efficiently. But I always allow for the element of chance and let the universe write the setlist.