Album cover

Unwound — Experiments in Chemistry

During the Brandt years, Vern had typically been a silent partner. “My job back then was the van,” he said. “Making sure we could get from point A to point B.” Booking tours, dealing with labels, lining up studio time, networking—those were Justin’s responsibilities. Talk to anyone who met the band in those days and more often than not, their one memory of Vern will be that he wasn’t around much.

That started to change on the Fake Train tour, as Vern gradually assumed the role of tour manager. “It’s funny, because I was always half-inebriated, but I was really good with the books,” he said, “Handling the money, making sure the van was taken care of, getting our asses on the road so we got to shows on time.” And in part because Justin was notoriously moody, Vern, formerly Unwound’s most elusive member, emerged as its ambassador. “People would come up to me and be like, ‘I wanna meet Justin, why is he so unapproachable?,’” Vern said. “And I’d be like, ‘I don’t know—wanna have a beer?’ And then I’d sit and chat with them.”

Not that Vern, still just 20 years old, had suddenly become the picture of maturity. “The first crazy, borderline-scary thing I ever saw Vern do was in Northampton,” Sara remembered. “I think we were staying at the apartment of someone from the Supreme Dicks. And Vern had this staple gun he was shooting at me and other people and I was trying to tell him to stop because it was clearly dangerous. And he said, ‘It doesn’t hurt—watch!’ And put it right up against his arm and shot it.”

“Instantly it’s swelling up,” Dirty recalled, “and we’re like, fuck, dude, what are you doing?! And he grabs a butter knife and starts trying to get the staple out. Boom! It comes out, his left hand has swollen up really big, and of course he plays bass, so he needs that. We wrapped it up and iced it, and he was kinda bummin’ for the next few days. But Vern did that kind of stuff.”

He wasn’t alone. That same night, prior to the staple gun incident, Dirty had revealed to Sara that he had stolen someone’s purse at the show, which she promptly made him return. Dirty also had a particular stunt he liked to pull on overnight drives. “Something they’d really hate, and it’s a really stupid thing to do,” he said, “but when they would wake up in the morning, I would tend to stand up on the driver’s seat and drive like I was on a surfboard.”

“Our humor was definitely more twisted and delirious than most bands I met,” Justin said. “One time we had been driving all night and everybody but me and Dustin were asleep and we drove by this gnarly looking hitchhiker. Dustin was like, ‘Let’s pick him up!’ So we pull over and open the side door and the guy, in this bum voice, is all, ‘Thanks for the ride, man!’ And everybody starts waking up to this stinky drunk dude plopping down on the bench seat. And then he just keeps talking as Dustin and I egged him on.”

Had it not been for Sara, “I’d venture to say the band might have self-destructed faster,” Justin said. “Not that she was square in any way, but the all-guy dynamic can get wild, so things like stealing someone’s purse didn’t happen often. It’s that thing when people are doing something stupid and laughing and someone says, ‘Uh, we should probably not be doing this.’ And then it brings people to their senses.”

The tour was in many ways one long chemistry experiment: Sara trying to hold her own in a van full of jackasses; Justin and Vern trying to adapt to someone who wasn’t Brandt. “I think I was a snob,” Sara said. “I came from a family of well-rounded, educated people, and Vern was from a totally different world. Justin was from a different world, too, but he had this desire to be a self-educated cultural elite, and none of that seemed interesting or appealing to Vern at all. He was just so into grossness. Like, cutting holes in his shirt so his nipples poked out or hanging up Penthouse centerfolds where he lived in the van.

“One of the things I felt like bugged them about me was that I always had a story about something,” she continued, “because I did a lot of traveling growing up. And I felt like they were treating me like I was bragging about how worldly I was. That’s how I internalized it. Because with everything, they’d be like, “Oh, really? How many friends do you have? How many cool things have you done?’”

Still, more often than not, the day would end with the four of them retreating to the safety of the van and the family they were becoming. “We’d be at someone’s house, at a party, and we’d just go back to the van, bring beers or whatever, hang out and shoot the shit, sleep in the van as a four-piece,” Dirty said. “Not even consciously thinking about team-building, but definitely in those early days, doing things to build that kind of camaraderie. That take-a-bullet-for-you mentality.”

The tour wrapped the first week of August with a string of dates along the west coast, Unwound’s second such trip that year. Apart from the Pacific northwest, it was the only part of the country where the band had tangibly started to catch on with an audience. Unwound played Jabberjaw—an all-ages coffeehouse-turned-performance space in Los Angeles, owned and operated by Michelle Carr and Gary Dent—for the first time on August 4, 1993. “That and the X-Ray [Cafe, in Portland] were the first two venues where we really found a home,” Sara recalled. “There was a regular group of people who would come see us every time, more and more people every time, and we’d have consistently great shows. They were both all ages, run by volunteers, and the scene was very youth-driven, there was a lot of excitement and energy around. Exactly the right atmosphere.”

I think New Plastic Ideas is a lot about deconstructing hardcore or post-hardcore.

At the end of November, Unwound returned to Avast! to begin work on New Plastic Ideas, their second full-length with Sara. Though the writing had started before they left for the Fake Train tour, the bulk of it was completed in the three months after. Unwound was hitting its creative stride. They were tight, they were inspired, and they were evolving. Fast.

What Unwound’s debut LP introduced, New Plastic Ideas refined. At times even more aggressive—the off-kilter, vertiginous rhythm of “Entirely Different Matters”; the neck-snapping velocity of “What Was Wound”; the relentless pounding at the end of “All Souls Day”—New Plastic Ideas was also less recognizable as punk or hardcore. “By that point people were doing amazing mid-tempo things with punk, and there was a lot more room to get into interesting arrangements,” said Steve Fisk, who again served as producer. “On New Plastic Ideas, it was going, oh, we’re going to do a bunch of open-E stuff with harmonics, and then we’re going to triple-track it, and it’ll be this big, slowly evolving, pentatonic roar.”

“The Melvins were always an influence,” Justin said. “You can’t necessarily hear it in Unwound directly, but the way they were always deconstructing things—like, you can’t just recreate the records you were into, you have to deconstruct them, reinterpret them, so they become more a product of their time and less like a retro thing. And I think New Plastic Ideas is a lot about deconstructing hardcore or post-hardcore.”

Eleven songs total were recorded during the sessions, which like Fake Train lasted all of four days. One song, “Broken E Strings,” would be given to Jabberjaw for a benefit compilation they were putting together with Mammoth Records. Two others, “MK Ultra” (pronounced “McUltra” by the band) and “Totality,” were set aside for a Kill Rock Stars single. Of the eight chosen for New Plastic Ideas, half clocked in at over five minutes, the longest being a foreboding, tension-heavy instrumental at the end of side one called “Abstraktions.” “Usual Dosage” and “Arboretum” both featured extended, hypnotic breakdowns, and on the latter, Sara busted out a cyclical, open hi-hat roll that would be mimicked by air drummers whenever Unwound played it live. “Hexenzsene” and “Fiction Friction” flirted with traditional melodies in a way not even “Dragnalus” had, though both were still too dissonant to qualify as pop.

To this point, Fisk had been a largely hands-off producer when it came to Unwound, but having now presided over four sessions with the band—two with Brandt, two with Sara—he was, little by little, becoming an active collaborator. “With ‘All Souls Day,’ Steve came up with the ending,” Justin said. “I remember him saying in the studio, ‘We’ll do it like Abbey Road, cut it off in the middle of the beat.’ Which is how we wound up doing it live, too.” Fisk also contributed a keyboard part to “Abstraktions.”

The awkwardness Sara had felt during Fake Train wasn’t an issue during the recording of New Plastic Ideas. The mixing, on the other hand, drove her nuts. “It was at a different studio, and we were in one little mixing room,” she recalled. “Slim was there, and he was drinking Theraflu by the gallon, just fucking wasted on Theraflu. And there was tons of smoke. Justin and Vern were smoking cigarettes, Slim, too, and I was losing consciousness from the lack of oxygen in the room. And Slim getting weirder and weirder with his Theraflu high, rolling on the floor and giggling, and I remember being like, I gotta get out of here. Like seriously having to go outside and sit down with my head between my knees because I couldn’t breathe anymore. So imagine that when you’re listening to that record. Freaking out, no air. I think that kind of explains the way it sounds.”

“It was a great session, but I remember Sara wasn’t having a very good time,” Fisk said. “Studio C, the Music Source, on Steve Miller’s old MCI console. There were dead rats in the wall with bad air freshener. Sara was probably getting that, too.”

“I remember being at the Kill Rock Stars office, and Slim was reading me a review, and it said something about the drums sounding like Steve Shelley,” Sara said. “And I was like, who’s Steve Shelley?”

Comparisons to Sonic Youth—typically in combination with Fugazi—bubbled up here and there after the release of Fake Train, but when New Plastic Ideas hit the market in March 1994, that comparison was the fulcrum of seemingly every review. For their part, neither Vern nor Sara ascribe any aspect of their playing styles to Sonic Youth, though both of them like Sonic Youth just fine. With Justin, it’s a different story.

“I listened to Daydream Nation probably every day in high school, and that would still be one of my Desert Island Discs, for sure,” he said. “If you’re a guitar player, you can’t ignore that record; there’s too much good stuff on there. It’s too rich.”

Although Justin and Vern had written songs in drop D with Brandt and for Fake Train, they consider “Arboretum,” one of the signature tracks on New Plastic Ideas, their first real foray into non-standard tunings. “We tuned up just a half-step, to F, so the barre chords would be bigger,” Justin explained. “But the cool thing about alternate tunings is they’re all based on open tunings, so certain strings ring out. And in that song, the part where it’s droning on that one note, we could do different combinations of harmonics. And that would be when people would go, ‘Ah, Sonic Youth.’ Well, yeah, harmonics are totally a Sonic Youth motif. But rhythmically and structurally, there’s nothing in common. The guitar’s doing a Sonic Youth thing, but the bass, drums, and vocals aren’t.”

But the comparison wasn’t being made solely by people outside the band’s immediate circle. “I think Fake Train was a great synthesis of influences and a startlingly good debut record, but I don’t think New Plastic Ideas made a strong argument for originality,” Slim Moon said. “I think it’s their only record where you really hear the Sonic Youth influence. And to my mind it’s their least loved record. At least the sales figures say that.”

New Plastic Ideas had this reputation for being ‘the boring record,’” Sara said. “I think it really caught people off-guard, people who had been following Unwound since the Brandt days into Fake Train. It wasn’t as noisy; it stretched out a lot more. And I guess it bored the shit out of people.”

But not everyone. Maggie Vail, Tobi’s younger sister, had started working at Kill Rock Stars just prior to New Plastic Ideas release. “I’ll never forget how it affected the town,” she said. “I lived in the Martin Apartments at the time, where basically everyone lived, and after a day of stuffing LP mailers, I came home to hear nearly every single apartment listening to a different track on the album. It hadn’t been officially released yet but people either had promo LPs or cassettes of it. It’s all anyone could talk about for weeks: ‘Who is that song about?’; ‘Did you hear the drums on that song?’; ‘Vern is the best bass player ever!’ It blew everyone away.”

They all admit now that it was a mistake. That they were young and naive. That the home stretch of the Fake Train tour, to supportive crowds on the west coast, might have glossed over the rougher patches of the previous seven weeks they’d spent on the road and deluded them into thinking they’d quit too soon. And because of that, for New Plastic Ideas, they’d decided to top themselves, to book ten weeks of shows, in any basement in any township that would have them.

It started out fine. March 23 through April 2 were spent in the friendly confines of California, Oregon, and Washington, after which there was a brief recording layover at the Red House with Tim Green. They completed the single for Mike Simonetti’s Troubleman Unlimited (“Negated,” “Said Serial,” and “Census,” the latter two featuring Dirty on trombone), banged out a cover of “Plight” by the Minutemen (with Dirty on vocals) for a D. Boon tribute compilation, then headed to Salt Lake City for the beginning of the second leg, which would take them through the end of May. They even brought along a second roadie, Jared Warren, to ease the burden on Dirty. “But he refused to let me load stuff,” Jared remembered, “and he drove the whole time.”

When Unwound was on familiar turf, the shows were usually okay. Sometimes good, occasionally great. They were booked at the Fireside Bowl in Chicago with Los Crudos and Spitboy; had a string of dates on the east coast with labelmates Universal Order of Armageddon; played with Versus, a band with whom they’d later put out a split-single, in the New Jersey basement of John Hiltz, a former member of Born Against whose home was a welcome respite on the touring circuit back then.

Then they got to the south. Specifically, Florida. “And when we realized we had no days off—every little city, every little town, every frickin’ day—it was too much, man,” Dirty recalled. “They were places we hadn’t been, so the shows weren’t very good, and then because they had already hit their stride, it was like, aw, man, what are we doing this for? Why are we coming here? We started questioning ourselves a little bit.”

“I had this weird physical experience at the end of the tour where I couldn’t play ‘What Was Wound’ anymore,” Sara recalled. “I think it was the kick drum, a fast double thing in the kick drum where I hit a point of diminishing returns, so we just stopped playing it.”

Confrontation became the norm. Sets would often open with “Abstraktions,” all seven slow, instrumental minutes of it, “and we’d be playing at some VFW hall where kids just wanted to mosh,” Justin said. When the pace finally picked up, the volume got cranked. “I was into the idea of punishing the audience,” Justin said. “If people are standing there, and it’s loud, if they really want to be there, they’ll stay. And yeah, you want people to like you, but there were times when I was like, tonight is about: Punish them.’”

In a tradition that started during the Fake Train tour, Justin would hand over his guitar for “Valentine Card”—sometimes to the guitarist from an opening band, more often to Dirty—and embrace his inner hardcore frontman. Of the new songs, “All Souls Day” was consistently good live. “We magically knew every change together,” Sara said. “The cues were so slight that probably to the naked eye it was like, are they counting it? How do they know? There was never any counting. You’d see someone move, or not even looking at them, vaguely sense it.”

“That end part could go on for ages,” Vern remembered, and so naturally that turned into a means of needling one another. “There was one time where I kept going and going, just to drive Sara nuts,” Justin said. “Because I’d give the cue, or me and Vern would, and I was watching Sara, and I turned away from her on purpose while Vern and I were still going. Finally she made this noise and stopped. ‘No! The song is over!’”

“I can’t remember if Sara ever told me this or if I heard about it from other people, that supposedly on that tour I was the only one who was nice to her,” Jared said. “I don’t especially remember it that way, and I’m generally pretty sensitive to that stuff, but I wasn’t the only girl in a van full of dudes, either.”

“By the time we got home, we were not speaking, and we were throwing things at each other,” Sara said. “I was like, I don’t want to see either one of you for an entire month. And I pulled it off. Which is amazing, considering Vern was living in my basement.”

David Wilcox, September 2013