Album cover

Unwound — There's No Energy

It was three days from Austin, Texas, to Olympia, Washington, by Greyhound, and what Sean McManus remembered best about the journey, which he embarked upon with his roommate in July 1994, is the seizures. “This one guy on the bus, he didn’t tell anyone he was epileptic, and then he started having them every hour,” McManus said. “The first one, everybody freaked out, like, ‘Don’t let him swallow his tongue!’ By hour eight everybody was like, ‘Jesus, just let this guy die already,’ because we kept having to stop.”

McManus and his roommate were 20 years old at the time, sleeping on bunk beds in a studio apartment they shared in Austin’s Hyde Park district. They flipped burgers at a hole-in-the-wall to pay the rent and whatever money they had left over was spent on records. Local stores were good, but what they were really into was mail-order. And to McManus, “Olympia seemed like musical Mecca.” So when Pat Maley, an Olympia-based producer and founder of the Yoyo Recordings label, announced that he, along with Michele Noel, a DJ at Evergreen State College’s KAOS radio station, and Kento Oiwa, an area musician, were organizing a five-day music festival in downtown Olympia called Yoyo A Go Go, McManus decided a pilgrimage was in order.

Yoyo, like many other aspects of the Olympia music scene, was directly inspired by the International Pop Underground Convention organized by K Records in the summer of 1991. Both were ambitious, grassroots celebrations of the DIY underground, and while music was their shared centerpiece, both would emphasize community. McManus had never exchanged anything more than a few mail-order niceties with anyone in Olympia, and yet there he and his roommate were, being welcomed by name in the intro of the official Yoyo program: “Sean and John from Texas, who quit their shitty service industry jobs just to be here with us all.”

But IPU had been hatched in simpler times. Its opening night, dedicated exclusively to female musicians, was one of the galvanizing moments in the rise of riot grrrl. Back then, the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind was still a month away. By the time Yoyo kicked off three years later, Kurt Cobain was dead and media scrutiny of riot grrrl had become so intense that most of the bands associated with it were refusing to talk to the press. “The atmosphere was paranoid—maybe ‘toxic’ is a better word,” said Unwound guitarist/vocalist Justin Trosper. “Especially after Kurt killed himself. The whole thing was so weird with tourists and media.”

Unwound played their second-ever show at IPU, an afternoon set at the North Shore Surf Club with their first drummer, Brandt Sandeno. At the time, the name Unwound was new enough that most Olympians still referred to the band by their original moniker, Giant Henry. But since then, with Brandt quitting the band and Sara Lund replacing him, Unwound had tucked two LPs and multiple cross-country tours under its belt. When the band walked onstage for a prime opening-night slot at Yoyo, they were one of the festival’s major draws.

At IPU it didn’t seem like it mattered who was there and after that it was like, ‘The Russians are coming! Hide your ideas!’ And you’d wonder: is Olympia turning into something cheesy?

“We went for Unwound,” McManus said. “We went for them, for Karp, Kicking Giant, Godheadsilo. It was cool that there were Japanese bands playing and bands from England, but to me, it was all about the Olympia bands.” “There’s this mentality in Olympia where people don’t want things to be successful,” Justin said. “At IPU it didn’t seem like it mattered who was there and after that it was like, ‘The Russians are coming! Hide your ideas!’ And you’d wonder: is Olympia turning into something cheesy?”

With the exception of Yoyo, the summer of 1994 was Unwound’s longest period of inactivity since Sara joined the band. They had just completed an exhaustive ten-week U.S. tour in support of their second album, New Plastic Ideas, that had tested everyone’s endurance and patience. “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.”

Taking the summer off from her prolonged undergraduate studies at Evergreen, Sara went on a cross-country road trip with her best friend. While she was away, bassist Vern Rumsey worked in local bars and wrote songs with his friend Greg Allen in a New Romantic-style pop duo, Long Hind Legs. (They, too, performed at Yoyo.) Justin installed drywall and played music with Brandt Sandeno, who had just returned from a year of college in Minneapolis and was rooming with Justin at a local punk-house, the Lucky 7. Together they launched a hardcore band, Worst Case Scenario (featuring their old high-school friend Chris Jordan), as well as a harsh, musique concrete-style recording project, Replikants.

For Justin, the new collaborations were a way to keep busy, but at the back of his mind, they were also part of a back-up plan. “My thinking back then was very fatalist,” Justin said. “I always thought relationships were going to end suddenly, and that extended to Unwound. Every time we made a record, I thought, this is going to be the last one. And I remember thinking, if Sara leaves the band, we’re not gonna get another drummer. We just won’t have this band anymore.” From the outside though, Unwound’s future appeared bright.

Through a new partnership between Kill Rock Stars and the English label Wiiija, New Plastic Ideas was being distributed overseas, and a month-long tour of the U.K. and Europe was planned for October. To Sara’s mind, this was all part of a natural progression. “There was enough of a trajectory happening where it was like, well of course that’s what’s happening next, because that’s what’s happening next for other people,” she said. “But then of course, when we go to do it, it’s not as successful as it is for other people.”

The origin story of Wiiija Records, founded in 1989, is almost identical to that of the legendary British label Rough Trade, which began as an extension of the Rough Trade record shop in the mid-1970s before breaking off as its own entity in the early 1980s. “The staff at the shop felt they wanted to do a label again,” explained founder Gary Walker, who was originally hired to work in the shop’s mail-order department. “I ended up running [Wiiija] because everybody else was older, with wives and families. I was the young kid on the block.”

Like the Rough Trade label before it, Wiiija was intended to benefit the “community of musicians who used the shop as a resource,” Walker said. “It stocked all of these American imports by Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Swans, Big Black, etcetera, and the staff wanted to do something that would reflect the British bands coming up during that period.” The label did well initially with releases by Silverfish, Terminal Cheesecake, and Therapy?, but according to Walker, “it got a lot more serious in ‘92, when Huggy Bear came along.”

Huggy Bear mirrored the American riot grrrl scene, both politically and musically, and in 1993, after releasing two singles on Wiiija, they teamed up with Bikini Kill for a split-LP, Our Troubled Youth/Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, that was released in the U.K. on Catcall Records and in the U.S. on Kill Rock Stars. Later that year, when Bikini Kill crossed the Atlantic for the first time to tour with Huggy Bear, Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon made the trip as well. “We were into the whole ethos of Kill Rock Stars, and Slim became one of our really good friends,” Walker said. “As a business, we wanted to have our own identity, not necessarily license tons and tons of American things. But we did want to help [Slim] distribute the label properly, so we offered to import stock and coordinate the physical distribution ourselves.”

To help promote the partnership, Walker took it upon himself to arrange tours for Kill Rock Stars’ flagship bands. “The first one we brought over was Heavens to Betsy,” Walker recalled. “We booked a few shows, got some press, but there wasn’t a huge audience for it. No offense to them, I’m definitely friends with Corin [Tucker, of Heavens to Betsy, and later Sleater-Kinney], but they came over with a slightly defensive, nervous approach. Suspicious of how riot grrrl had been presented in a lot of U.K. media outlets.”

The riot-grrrl affiliation had made the importation of Heavens to Betsy something of a no-brainer, and still attendance lagged. An Unwound tour, which couldn’t be publicized with the same media-ready narrative, appeared to be an even tougher sell. But Walker was undaunted. “There were not only two strands to Wiiija as a label, but I think also to the scene in the U.K. at that time,” Walker recalled. “One was very much riot grrrl, Huggy Bear, and the bands they inspired. But then you had this tradition that was much more in line with Therapy? and Silverfish, kind of noisier guitar bands, so I thought it might work, bringing Unwound over.”

By the time Unwound arrived in London the last week of October 1994, Walker had succeeded in lining up a dozen shows in the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium, followed by a slew of dates in the U.K. that ran through the end of November. A van and driver were secured through a British company, and two Wiiija bands, Fabric and Jacob’s Mouse, were confirmed as tour support most of the way.

That culture didn’t quite exist in the U.K., and we were in awe of it. The way they’d dress, thrift store or whatever. We couldn’t quite comprehend the idea of playing shows in coffee shops or back-rooms.

To some extent, the Heavens to Betsy tour had left Walker unsure of what he should expect from the members of Unwound. But the uncertainty went beyond that. “The British mentality toward the post-hardcore bands coming from America at the time was that there was a definite kind of glamour to them, a sense of otherness,” Walker explained. “That culture didn’t quite exist in the U.K., and we were in awe of it. The way they’d dress, thrift store or whatever. We couldn’t quite comprehend the idea of playing shows in coffee shops or back-rooms.”

Fortunately, whatever nervousness Walker felt beforehand was alleviated as soon as he met Unwound. “On a personal level, they were just so much fun to hang out with,” Walker said. “They were like, we want to make friends and we want this to be a great experience. And they just connected with everyone so easily that it immediately became something different."

Of the three bandmates, Sara was the only one who’d traveled outside of North America. “They definitely had a rabbit-in-the-headlights quality when they first came over,” Walker said. “Even though London had had a big financial boom, it still felt like the late ‘70s. A rundown, underfunded, poor-infrastructure kind of city. It caught people off-guard.”

“In general the tour was pretty punk rock,” Sara recalled. “We were all crammed into this little van with this super-crabby British driver who was obviously not cut out for that job at all.” Vern remembered him as a “huge dude, like Andre the Giant, with no hair, wearing Doc Martens, but just a total wiener. We’d show up for shows and he’d be like, ‘Where’s the cheese tray?’ Dude, I’ve been touring for three years and I’ve never gotten a fucking cheese tray.”

Predictably, turnout was weak. The guitar-rock enthusiasts Walker hoped would embrace Unwound failed to catch on. “In retrospect, they really were doing something there was little precedent for over here,” Walker explained. “In that sense they were very ahead of their time, because it wasn’t a hardcore thing. It wasn’t even a post-hardcore thing—it was something else.”

Whatever strides they’d made during the writing and recording of their first two albums, Fake Train and New Plastic Ideas, the influences Unwound were assimilating and deconstructing were much the same as they had been since high school: Sonic Youth, the Melvins, Black Flag, the Jesus Lizard. Their third album, The Future of What, would prove to be not so much a radical departure as the sound of a band growing restless, clinging to their past even as they lashed out against it, taking their first tentative steps toward something new.

In that regard, the U.K. tour proved to be a crucial turning point. “The record collection expanded for sure,” Justin said. “I wouldn’t say I was an Anglophile, but I was definitely intrigued by the mythology, that whole lineage of bands from the ‘60s up through the punk and post-punk stuff. When I became friends with Huggy Bear, they were like, you gotta have this record, and this record. All the classic stuff, like Wire, and the more obscure bands, too, like Fire Engines, those weirder ones you had to go to England to find.”

Sara, for her part, had become a fan of London’s Stereolab, and in learning more about their influences, discovered a few for herself. “This Heat was a huge revelation for me,” Sara professed. “Because one of the things that’s special about them is that the band leader is the drummer, and they’re very rhythmically oriented—the rhythm and the drums are front and center. So yeah, This Heat, Can, Neu—all that krautrock-y stuff I got into because of Stereolab.”

“To me it was sort of this anti-grunge thing, like, these are ideas we should be thinking about,” Justin explained. “The popular alternative stuff was just the most boring aspects of underground music. The Butthole Surfers making watered-down rock records. Those elements like post-punk and no wave, I was definitely pushing us toward stuff like that.”

Disgust with the current state of music and corporate commodification of the underground is a recurring theme on The Future of What. “Lyrically, it’s sort of a rant,” Justin said. “I was reading a lot about art movements, like situationism, futurism, the dadaists, the surrealists.” His reading eventually led him to the work of Russian constructivist architect and graphic designer Yakov Chernikov, whose illustrations adorn the cover art of The Future of What.

I was trying to get across an aesthetic more than a particular idea about the society of the spectacle, where we’re watching life go by, and it’s just media.

“Looking back I honestly probably didn’t understand it that well,” Justin admitted, “but The Revolution of Everyday Life and Society of the Spectacle were two books that people I knew were reading, and I kinda gleaned some ideas out of that, and got into this mentality about life as a spectacle, how everything could be considered some weird piece of art, everything can be objectified. And also I saw the parallels of how that influenced punk, English punk particularly, or post-punk, industrial music. So I was trying to get across an aesthetic more than a particular idea about the society of the spectacle, where we’re watching life go by, and it’s just media.”

Front to back, The Future of What is Unwound at their most pummeling. The loose, even sloppy band captured on Fake Train and New Plastic Ideas had evolved into a tight, confident machine. Time signatures on songs like “Equally Stupid,” “Petals Like Bricks,” and “Here Come the Dogs” were growing more complex. Justin’s vocals were becoming more tuneful and more bracing. The album kicks off with him asking “What about the future of what it is?” on “New Energy” and then seemingly answering his own question on album closer “Swan,” an unrelenting, eight-minute epic that captures Justin screaming, over and over, “For what I see is the end is the end, and what I think is the end is the end of the end.”

“If it had been up to me, I think that record would have been even harsher,” Justin opined. “But I think Vern and Sara reigned it in, doing what they do. We wound up hooking people not necessarily with a riff but with the rhythm.”

The most surprising moment on The Future of What, and arguably in the entire Unwound catalog to that point, is “Pardon My French,” a creepy, archaic waltz Justin and Sara created in the studio while goofing around with an optigan, a shoddily designed organ from the 1970s that paired a miniature keyboard with a built-in playback system for optical discs encoded with various prerecorded instrumental tracks. In other words, the keyboard allowed them to play a melody and the discs provided accompaniment.

On the LP version of Future, “Pardon My French” clocks in at a brief and alluring minute-and-a-half. The CD however, features all 13-plus minutes of the optigan jam as a series of unlisted tracks. “I don’t remember if the idea to include it came from Steve [Fisk] or if it came from us, but it just seemed so weird, so novel,” Sara said. “Like, this doesn’t sound like an Unwound song; this isn’t squealy feedback. There was this mischievous quality to it of, oh, we’re sneaking this weird thing on here, and that’ll kinda fuck with people.”

Through three years of working with producer Steve Fisk—who recorded The Future of What in December 1994 at John and Stu’s, the sister studio to Avast!, where prior Unwound sessions had taken place—Unwound had been resolute in their conception of who they were and what their music represented. Fisk, though, wasn’t shy about testing that resolve. “We were always resistant with Fisk,” Justin said. “He’d be like, you wanna do something wacky? And we’d go, no, that sounds too weird, we’re a bass-drums-guitar band. And then with Future of What, we started experimenting a little more. Though mostly it was stuff like the optigan thing; we weren’t really incorporating the ideas into actual songs.”

There were minor exceptions during the recording of Future. One song, “Seen Not Heard,” prominently featured vibraslap, though it was not included on the final album, and was instead released more than a year later as part of a split-single with Steel Pole Bath Tub. Another, “Here Come the Dogs,” did make the cut, and for its intro, Justin played a stand-alone chord progression through a tiny Pignose amplifier. “That was a Fisk idea for sure,” Justin stated. “Like, ‘Here’s a way to get a fucked-up guitar sound.’ And it’s funny, because it almost sounds like I’m playing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at the beginning. It turns into this musical commentary on grunge.”

“Fisk was always respectful of where we were coming from, but he also was like, look, I have this different perspective,” Sara recalled. “You guys think you’re this scrappy punk band, but you need to think bigger. You need to think of yourself in the context of music, the grand scheme of music. So I’m gonna toss these ideas at you and maybe something will stick.”

“He had this encyclopedic knowledge about production and records, and he introduced a lot of universal concepts,” Justin elaborated. “He talked in terms of archetypes. He’d say to us, ‘This is your Fleetwood Mac song,’ or ‘This is your Steely Dan song.’ And we’d look at him like, what the fuck are you talking about?”

“He was always comparing me to the bassist from Yes,” Vern recalled. “He meant it as a compliment, and these days I take it as a compliment, but at the time I fucking hated it.”

“They were never really like Yes, but the bass parts did come close,” Fisk clarified. “I mean, there’s only so many things you can do with a chord progression or a time signature. But rather than saying something was good or bad, it was just something funny I could say that bothered them, because it’s usually a very unhip reference.”

“Remember, Steve was our age now, then,” Justin said. “We were early 20s, and he was about 40. I don’t know if I’d be able to handle us, or people like us, at this point. I’d be saying the exact same things he did. I’d be giving them the exact same amount of shit. Like, what you think you’re doing, it sounds great, but what it really sounds like is this. Just throwing it out there, because I’ve been listening to records twice as long as you have.”

Of the many universal concepts Fisk introduced to Unwound, it was his thoughts on sequencing that sunk in first. “I think the human attention span works more with two 20-minute sides than a 60- or 70-minute piece of music, so I really encouraged them to think of it as two chapters, with one or two things that would separate these two lobes,” Fisk said. “What’s the thing that happens at the end of side one that makes you want to stick around for the beginning of side two? You’ve got to have something very interesting at song five—never put your strongest song at song five, put something tantalizing. Your strongest songs should be at the beginning of each side. And if you’ve done three or four records, maybe something really cool at the end. Unwound, by the time they made their third record, people were probably going to listen to it all the way through.”

Which partially explains why Future ends as majestically as it does. “The reason that song is called ‘Swan’—well, I might be making this up—but I went and saw the Swans play, and not that our song was derived from them, but after it was written, I thought, that has that feeling of when I went and saw the Swans, just that pounding fucking sound,” Justin said. “And during the recording, I kept going back and adding guitar tracks. Everybody was like, really, another one? And I’d be like, no, really, it’s gotta be there. To get the right effect, it has to be overdone.”

“They started to come around in percentages” Fisk reminisced, with some vindication. “Maybe 15 percent on Fake Train, 20 percent on Plastic, 25 percent on Future of What. And then it got interesting, because they were the ones coming in with funny ideas.”

Evergreen State College is the sort of institution where a student can go on tour with a rock band and still have it count as course credit toward a degree. Spring of 1995, Sara took advantage. “They have these independent contracts where you get a faculty advisor and you basically design a curriculum for a quarter,” she explained. “I had a book list that the two of us came up with where I was reading about subcultures and punk rock, trying to treat it like I was an anthropologist, or sociologist, something in the humanities.”

As part of her curriculum, Sara kept a detailed journal during the five-and-a-half week U.S. excursion Unwound undertook in support of The Future of What, from the end of March through early May. And though when it came to touring Unwound were far from neophytes, it’s clear from the journal that they were out of sorts. “We’re all a bit delirious, it’s been a long time since any of us have done this,” Sara wrote in her first entry, on an overnight drive to Utah. In actuality, it had only been ten months since they last traversed America, but by Unwound standards, that was an eternity.

Unwound were once again joined by roadie extraordinaire Dustin “Dirty” Milsap, but otherwise, the tour was unlike any they’d embarked upon. For the first time, they had a booking agent. For the first time in the U.S., they’d be touring as part of a package, first with Dayton, Ohio’s Brainiac, newly signed to Touch and Go Records, and then with San Diego’s Clikatat Ikatowi, who had just released their debut LP on an Unwound-affiliated label, Gravity Records. And for the first time anywhere, they were going to play in front of huge crowds, because for a half-dozen shows in the northeast, they were scheduled to open for Fugazi.

The first of the Fugazi shows took place at Irving Plaza in New York City the night after Sara’s 22nd birthday. The date had been celebrated, during a show with Brainiac at the Grog Shop in Cleveland, with copious amounts of bourbon and an onstage performance by Captain America, a “beefy stripper in stars and stripes spandex shorts and a white denim vest,” as Sara described him. He’d been hired by Dirty, Justin, and Vern to do “some grinding thing” on Sara in the middle of Unwound’s set, in front of the entire crowd.

Exhausted from the birthday antics, Unwound’s Irving Plaza set was “short and mediocre,” according to Sara’s journal. It was their “first big rock show,” at easily the fanciest venue they’d ever played, attended by celebrities like MCA from the Beastie Boys and someone Sara recognized as “the Noxzema model.” But those sort of trappings would not be the norm. “Opening for Fugazi could be kind of brutal,” Sara recalled years later. “The crowds were often kind of hostile, because it was only five dollars to get in and you were guaranteed to get a reaction from them if you said or did anything. Skinheads showed up because they were all gonna stand together and sieg heil until Ian stopped playing and yelled at them. Fucking everywhere that happened.”

Regardless, Fugazi and Unwound bonded easily. They dissected music, shared bottles of wine, played endless rounds of kariki, a dice game fueled by bluffing and shit-talk. Their last night together, in Providence, Rhode Island, Fugazi took Unwound to dinner as a show of gratitude, a practice Unwound would adopt in later years with their own opening bands.

The crowds were often kind of hostile, because it was only five dollars to get in and you were guaranteed to get a reaction from them if you said or did anything. Skinheads showed up because they were all gonna stand together and sieg heil until Ian stopped playing and yelled at them. Fucking everywhere that happened.

regardless, Fugazi and Unwound bonded easily. They dissected music, shared bottles of wine, played endless rounds of kariki, a dice game fueled by bluffing and shit-talk. Their last night together, in Providence, Rhode Island, Fugazi took Unwound to dinner as a show of gratitude, a practice Unwound would adopt in later years with their own opening bands.

“We looked at Fugazi as this model,” Justin said. “I thought the best way you can do a band is Fugazi. You tour a lot, you’re a self-contained unit, and eventually you make a living off of it, and it’s all in your control. Of course, Fugazi was also this anomaly.”

“We’d often have these conversations where it was like, ‘Fugazi did blah blah blah,’ and I’m like, yeah, but Fugazi’s Fugazi,” Sara said. “Not everyone can afford to only charge five dollars and not sell any merch and only play all-ages. But it was definitely a level of righteousness to at least strive for, to try your best to keep things as DIY as possible and create fantastic music and be a successful band and not go through all of the bullshit that other bands were finding themselves going through.”

Of the bands that played the inaugural Yoyo A Go Go in 1994, seven had either signed or would end up signing publishing deals through BMG: Beck, Built to Spill, Neutral Milk Hotel, Mary Lou Lord, Fitz of Depression, Godheadsilo, and Unwound.

The group celebrated their signing with BMG a year after Yoyo, during the summer of ‘95, at a now-defunct Italian restaurant in Justin and Vern’s hometown of Tumwater, right outside Olympia. “It was the most expensive place we could think of that was worth going to,” Justin said. “And I was still worried it might be too podunk for an LA bizzer.”

For a band as averse to dealing with corporate entities as Unwound, it seems odd, in hindsight, that they would have entertained the notion of signing away their publishing rights to a company like BMG. But the truth is, even after discussing the matter with an attorney, they didn’t understand how publishing worked. “It was a different reality back then for sure,” Sara said. “Now everyone knows that owning your publishing is really valuable, because there are all these different ways in which money is plucked out of the air.”

Ultimately, they went through with the deal because they felt it wouldn’t make much difference. “It was totally like, here’s some money for nothing,” Sara admitted. “They weren’t going to have anything to do with how we made our music or how we presented our music to the world. Nobody would even know about it unless they read the fine print on our record.”

At the end of the Future of What tour, in May 1995, each member of Unwound went home with a $1,500 profit share. Sara commented in her tour journal that it was the largest sum of money anyone had ever handed her, “more money than I made all of last year.”

- David Wilcox, March 2014