Kill Rock Stars owner and founder Slim Moon originally intended his label to be only for spoken word releases. That is, until he heard Unwound. His devotion to his new favorite band drove him to put them on a compilation with big name indies like the Melvins, Nirvana, and Nation of Ulysses, just so they would be heard. This was back in ’92. Since then, Unwound have released five full-length records on KRS, the latest being Challenge for a Civilized Society.
There is an aura that surrounds this band which is as hard to define as their sound — a stew of messy guitar, throbbing bass lines, and driving teeter-totter percussion, all presented in a structure that leaves enough space for longing. They’re one of the few bands that reaches into new directions with each record. Fans eat it up as fast as they can deliver.
I spoke with guitarist Justin Trosper and drummer Sara Lund, and I found them to be easy to talk to, sincere, and in good humor.
Generally speaking, are your songs written consciously or subconsciously?
[Justin’s eyes snap wide open]
Sara: A little bit of both, I guess
Justin: The process of songwriting is pretty much… we just jam and then find the good parts. It’s conscious in a way.
Sara: It’s almost like it starts not conscious, then once we get an idea we try to consciously structure it … get out the graph chart.
How do the less structured, noisescape parts come together then? Is that studio creativity?
Justin: A little bit.
Sara: They’re a part of the songs.
Justin: I guess that goes back to the songwriting thing.
So you do those parts live?
Justin: Yes, but not to the tee or anything.
There’s keyboards and horns …
Justin: Yeah, we don’t do any of that. It’s the basic drum/bass/guitar thing.
Is there anything different about touring for this record than there has been in the past?
Sara: We didn’t tour at all last year, so we were a little out of practice. Actually, it’s kinda good that we took that year off. In terms of touring now versus touring in the very beginning, there’s a lot that’s different about it.
Sara: America’s attitude towards independent bands.
So would you say it’s easier or more difficult now?
Justin: Easier. There’s more people. We don’t have to worry about losing a bunch of money. We’re more experienced. We’ve learned how to go around some of the stumbling blocks that people experience touring; arguments about money, personality problems … there’s still that but we kinda learned how to exist on a touring level and separate that from our normal lives because it’s just different, you deal with people in a different way. You’re in such close proximity all the time.
You seem to be getting much more experimental, especially in the studio. Do you approach the studio and the live performances differently, and which is more satisfying?
Justin: They both have their high moments and low moments. Originally we didn’t approach them differently, we just tried to get a really live sound on all the recordings. The more we recorded, the more we wanted to try new things out.
Sara: The first couple records were recorded in a couple of days. Part of it is Kill Rock Stars being willing to put up more money so that we can spend two weeks in the studio, as opposed to two days. But also it’s us being more used to each other, than the idea of experimenting in the studio…
Justin: I guess our philosophy’s changed over a few years with recording, actually separating it. Your record doesn’t have to sound like you do live. It’s almost better when it doesn’t, because then it’s just not a total repeat performance. When you listen to a record, you’re usually at home or something so the atmosphere’s different. Live, you’re not really listening for any intricacies that happen on records, it’s just loud music and you can be a part of that experience. Records that do sound live, there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
Your recordings sound simultaneously spacious and cluttered. Do you and your producer purposely go for that sound you have?
Justin: Yeah, especially on the new record, we tried to get different drum sounds. Originally, the idea was just to record song by song and not go for any real homogenous sound. I guess we were just trying for more variety.
Sara: In the beginning we would record all the basic tracks, then do all the overdubs. This record we talked about each song, what the drums should sound like, what different guitar sounds we could get.
So did you actually set things up differently for each song?
Justin: Yeah, we used different mics. I think we even moved the [drum] set around a couple of times.
Sara: The set stayed in the same place.
Justin: Oh. We talked about it.
Sara: Yeah. Actually the set was in a different place for this record. We’ve recorded three records at the same place. We also used different snares.
You put out records pretty quickly one after the other, as compared to most bands. How do you manage to stay so prolific?
Sara: Ginko. [laughs]
Justin: Speed. [laughs] No, we just started out raring to go. As soon as we started the band we recorded a demo and went out on tour. We’ve tried to keep ourselves busy with it and not just wait for things to happen to us. You know, make things happen. We kinda got into a routine. Record and tour and wait a while, record and tour and wait a while. We did that until Repetition, and then pretty much stopped.
Did you take a year off of touring or from the band?
Justin: We played at odd shows. Really peculiar, strange shows. It wasn’t even a decision, really, we just didn’t tour. We weren’t really practicing that much or anything. We decided to record last summer, and see what happened after that.
Tell me about Unwound side projects.
Justin: Right now, Vern has a band called Long Hind Legs. They’ve been around a long time. They have an album out and they just recorded.
Will that be on Kill Rock Stars as well?
Justin: Yeah. I have a band called the Replicants. We’re not that active. Here and there we do stuff. We have a CD out. We play live like twice a year.
Do your other bands sound like Unwound?
Justin: Not really. If you listen to Long Hind Legs, you can hear Vern’s bass lines totally, but otherwise they’re worlds apart.
Does it help you maintain interest in Unwound?
Justin: I think we all like music enough. I think we’re just overflowing, to a fault almost.
That’s cool that you have time to do that.
Sara: I don’t!
Justin: She goes to school.
How do you go to school and tour at the same time?
Sara: I take time off. I’ve been in school as long as I’ve been in the band … like six years. It was hard at the beginning, but over the years I’ve figured out a better balance.
I’m gonna shift gears here. I’ve read some interviews, and I notice that your lyrical content tends to get downplayed. How important is the content or the “message” of a song?
Justin: It gets downplayed a lot because I downplay it. It’s secondary to the music. I don’t try to make cruddy joke lyrics or anything.
That’s why I ask. I think they’re good.
Justin: I don’t know. There’s not really any message or anything. Let people get out of it what they will. I don’t really ever try to explain songs. It usually just sounds stupid to me. Does that nix your next two questions? [laughs] A lot of times I don’t even know what I’m writing about, making rhymes up and stuff. Sometimes I’ll look back and go, “oh, that wasn’t so bad,” or “that was a bunch of crap.” That’s usually how it is.
It’s great how people will pull things out of lyrics and poetry that aren’t even there or were never intended.
Sara: That happens in all the arts.
Justin: I like writing, just writing. I don’t really like writing poetry. I don’t mind lyrics, because there’s more of a purpose behind it than just writing on a piece of paper. I’m definitely not someone who has notebooks of poetry. Writing lyrics can be fun, or just a total drag.
I won’t call your lyrics poetic then
Sara: You can call my drumming poetry!
Justin: They are more poetic than… whatever that other word is…
Justin: (feigns accent) It’s a bunch of gobbledygook. Only I understand it!
I’ve read that you no longer care about being misinterpreted because it’s happened so often. Is the process of describing music through words inaccurate or just limiting?
Sara: Well, as Steve Fisk says, but he’s actually quoting someone else, “music is non-literal.”
Justin: I don’t blame people at all for doing that. I do the same thing when describing music. It’s a cross between this and that, or it’s like a bad version of so and so. It just becomes kind of frustrating when you’re the person being scrutinized, and you’re like, no it doesn’t. I just don’t take it seriously. If you’re doing something that’s going to be scrutinized, that just happens.
So do you prefer interviews or reviews?
Justin: My opinion about reviews is that anybody can do them. Interviews are maybe slightly more selective, but not that much. With interviews, I prefer Q and A’s as opposed to articles, but I can understand why a writer would want to write an article, and not just transcribe the interview and slap it down on paper, because they want to interject. It’s kind of hard to criticize a critic, it can get kind of twisted.
Do you like to talk about your music?
Justin: Not that much.
Sara: Not really.
Justin: I like talking about music, but not necessarily mine. I don’t mind spouting my opinion, but talking about yourself can get tedious.