Every Unsane album in their own words
Noise rock legends Unsane have been unleashing their unforgiving sounds on audiences since 1988 – now frontman and co-founder Chris Spencer talks us through the band's back catalogue
It's been five years since Unsane last released a record. When you think about the various shades of chaos which have been unleashed onto the world since then, it should come as little surprise that the NYC noise-rock legends have come back with one of the heaviest, most unforgiving and claustrophobic albums of their career.
To celebrate the release of new album Sterilize, and their evolving legacy as one of the guiding forces of the New York noise-rock scene, we catch up with co-founder and frontman Chris Spencer to hear about the band's eight studio album releases one by one.
Unsane (self-titled, 1991)
"The first record. This one was incredibly fun to make. We were just starting to get comfortable playing in the studio and had our choice from a lot of songs. A majority of the record had already been recorded for an EP, which had been done for a label called Circuit Records, which was just starting out and had done some stuff with our friends from the band Surgery. The guy who started the label disappeared after getting our test pressing – apparently he had spent all the money on cocaine and owed a dealer a ton of cash, hence the total disappearance. I have never been able to find the guy since, despite trying everything possible... the dealer may have gotten to him first.
Anyway, we had to re-record all of the songs (plus a few others to make it a full length), which really worked to our advantage, as we recorded in the same place as the EP, with Wharton Tiers at Fun City. We had been touring as much as possible and I had been recording a lot of the shows on cassette, from which we took some of the noise, feedback and delay loops and edited them in-between songs. I was trying to emulate the live experience onto the record. This record was basically done live to tape in Wharton basement studio with super minimal overdubs. Knowing that we had a legitimate record deal with Matador motivated us to sum up our live show in a more controlled environment. We used a picture given to Pete Shore (our bassist) by a friend who worked as a photographer for the NYPD for the cover art.
We were excited to work with Matador and this was our ticket to more touring. We toured like hell on this and the subsequent singles record [_Singles 89-92_], which was a compilation of all the singles we had done previous to the self-titled record. We were basically living in a van at that point and Matador felt that releasing the singles could keep the ball rolling for a while. We then heard via truck stop pay phone that Matador was going to become a subsidiary of Atlantic. We owed them one more record and started getting songs together for it. Our drummer, and one of my best friends, Charlie Ondras, passed away from a drug overdose just a few weeks before a European tour and the upcoming recording session. We had done a show as the backing band for Jim Thirlwell (Foetus) with Vincent Signorelli as a second drummer and had been really impressed with his skills. We then asked Vinny if he would do the tour with potential to stay on for the next record…"
Total Destruction (1993)
"Okay, Total Destruction was a very different record. We had been touring with Vinny and were writing a more repetitious, punch press, tighter kind of record. We still had some songs that were written with Charlie, but a majority were written with Vinny. We knew that this was to be released by Atlantic, so we were determined to keep it non-commercial. We didn’t want to get swallowed up like so many of the bands of the time by major labels. There was a lot more focus on studio work on this one. Martin Bisi had a much different approach than Wharton. Wharton was all about the dirty, live sound and Martin really much more into the controlled studio approach. It definitely cleaned up our sound a bit.
For me this was a real learning experience. I had been recording on my own with home crap forever, but this was a whole new world. For any band, you have had a lot of time to develop your first record, but the second has to be completely from scratch and in a shorter period of time. There was no lack of ideas and working with Vinny was breathing new life into the band. We intentionally went in a slightly slower, more minimal and repetitious direction.
After Matador had been bought out by Atlantic, and Charlie’s death (he had been the closest with the guys at Matador), we were looking forward to getting back on an indie label. Our bassist (Pete Shore) left the band for a less chaotic life after a bunch of touring on this one, but we had a tour opening for Biohazard in a month and things were starting to go well. We were left in a lurch by Pete, but Vinny said we would do it as a two piece if we had to. Vinny’s drive has always been a solid anchor for the group. We found a guy to play bass for the tour, but just a few shows in it became apparent that he didn’t have the skills. Dave Curran was our sound engineer on that tour, but took over on bass just a few shows in, learning the set in the four hours in the van between Las Vegas and L.A. He played it perfectly at his first show with us at the Whiskey A Go Go. Crisis averted. Time to get back to work…"
Scattered, Smothered, Covered (1995)
"Hello, Amphetamine Reptile Records! We were now on the right track. I had wanted to put out a record on AMREP from the beginning and the band was now firing on all cylinders. Dave and I had developed a close friendship both musically and personally on tour and Vinny was now comfortable as a permanent member of the group. This is the beginning of the brothers in arms ethos within the band that continues to this day.
We were now touring non-stop, only to break briefly to write and record this record. Dave and I hung out in Seattle between tours with the girls from 7 Year Bitch and started writing in their practice space. For the first time since the band started, I had someone that contributed to the writing. It was great! We worked there for a few weeks then met Vinny in Minneapolis to hole up in the studio at AMREP and work with Tim Mac. Sleeping in a room next to the studio with head high snow drifts outside, this was the perfect environment for recording. No distractions. Tim’s ability to keep a raw, live sound while maintaining the instrument separation suited our sound.
This was an amazingly easy record to make. The studio was in the basement directly below the label offices, so we got to know everyone well. We’d wake up and go upstairs to drink their coffee. The offices were closed at night, so occasionally the guys from The Cows would come over and we’d try the new stuff with them and hang out. It was all around great times for Minneapolis in the middle of winter. All of the lyrics to this record were written in one trip to do laundry at a laundromat. Things really clicked. I think it would be hard to find a better way to make a record."
Occupational Hazard (1998)
"Now we were hitting our stride, we took a break at home in New York to write and record this one. Vinny, Dave and I wrote together in Vinny’s basement in Ridgewood, Queens. We took a record deal with Relapse Records for this one and signed a three record deal. We got Billy Anderson to come out and record it and booked time at Excello in Brooklyn. We were totally prepared for it. I think the songwriting on this one is a bit more developed, compared to Scattered...
It was great to record at home and distractions were not an issue. Early on there seemed to be some issues with the board – Billy was also trying some unconventional microphone techniques. Things started taking a bit too long on the recording end, but we got the tracks done. Billy then had to return to the west coast and we still hadn’t mixed. At this point, we called on our good friend, and saving grace, Dave Sardi. He had run a studio in Brooklyn for years – his band, Barkmarket, was amazing – and he was a friend who had been doing some stuff with Slayer recently. Thank god he did it. We took the tapes to a giant studio Sardi worked in in midtown and discovered the initial recordings needed some serious help. Dave worked his magic and luckily the record came out sounding good. We do a lot of these songs live. Some of my favourite songs. Just before this record came out, I was jumped by four guys in Vienna and had full exploratory surgery for internal bleeding. They cut out a small piece of my small intestine and stapled me up. We went out on months of touring a few weeks later. I did the touring, but it was extremely painful and a serious low point in my life. Then the touring/recording machine went on hiatus."
Blood Run (2005)
"Time heals all wounds and we got back together…
Blood Run had a slightly different writing process from Occupational Hazard. We were at home again, but this time Dave and I holed up at my place in Manhattan to write. Home recording technology was coming more into play. We were able to write together with a drum machine and a computer and really get things worked out before bringing the songs to Vinny.
We recorded with our friend Joel Hamilton at Studio G in Brooklyn. It was good to be in a fully functional, professionally run studio after the experience on Occupational Hazard. We were becoming really familiar with working together in the studio at this point. In an attempt to keep studio costs as low as possible, things were completely worked out before we got there. We were getting into a rhythm. A strange surprise happened when I went to do the vocals. I showed up and got all set up to do my vocal part, when Frank Black from The Pixies walks in. He was friends with Tony (the studio owner) and wanted someplace other than his hotel to relax and dodge the media. He asked if he could hang while I did my vocal tracks which was cool, but strange to meet him in that context. It’s really weird to do a sweaty, full blast vocal track and look up and he’s the only person you can see on the other side of the glass.
I was really glad to be able to spend more time in a controlled environment for the artwork and my friend James Rexroad did and amazing job on the photography. Another close friend Orion Landau did a great layout. In the end, Relapse thought it was too explicit and put a cover over the artwork."
"Relapse had released a compilation of a few tracks off every record and a live DVD, called Lambhouse, after Blood Run and our contractual obligations with them were done. Whew. That was almost like dealing with a major. With our new found freedom we signed with Mike Patton’s label Ipecac. He had asked at a festival if we’d be interested and a one off was exactly what we needed. We get a lot of shit for sticking to our guns musically, but it’s what the three of us gravitate to and I love what we do. We sound like ourselves and we’re glad we do. I have generally never been a fan of bands that make a drastic stylistic change after a few records. That being said, Dave and I got to work writing at my place again. This time I had written some stuff on an acoustic and had some ideas about loops and using samples. I had been going out in Manhattan, a mic on each wrist, recording street noises with a digital recorder and had been building a sound library for a while. The changes in our sound were subtle, but substantial. We worked with or friend Andrew Schneider at his place Translator Audio in Brooklyn. This was another great recording experience. Andrew is fantastic and we’re all friends which made it easy. We toured this record for a few months, but took another break. My drinking on tour was taking its toll..."
"At this point we were all doing different things. Dave was doing his band PIGS and touring full time with The Melvins. Vinny had moved to Mexico and opened a hostel in Tulum. I was out in Northern California playing with The Cutthroats 9 and had been in Berlin working on a project called Celan.
So, I went to a Melvins show in San Francisco to catch up with Dave and ran into Jello Biafra, who asked if we would do a record with Alternative Tentacles. I was psyched! Jello, to me, is one of those guys you see perform when you're a kid and always look up to. So, Dave and I got back to work writing at his place in Brooklyn. The songwriting went super smooth. We got together with Vinny and hit up Andrew to record with him at his place (Translator Audio had moved to a new spot). Again, this set up was like a well oiled machine. I think we were conscious that this was gonna be an AT release and didn’t mind adding some more abrasive stuff as well as some low dynamic stuff. Working with the guys in Celan I had learned a thing or two. Musically we were solid, but again my self destructive lifestyle was getting in the way. Soon after the record came out we were supposed to do a tour with The Melvins when Vinny got seriously hurt. We did the tour, but with Dale Crover and Cody Willis on drums. It was years before we could play again. I was just thankful that Vinny made it through his injury ok. It was seriously life threatening."
"So now we come to our latest release, Sterilize. Vinny has healed up and I got my shit together years ago. Dave no longer tours full time with the Melvins.
Jello kindly offered to do this one, but after the recording was done, we ended up spending more than AT could afford. In the end I approached Greg Anderson from Southern Lord whom I had met through my friend Steve Austin of Today Is The Day. I had done a project with him called UXO, which Steve had tried to get on SLR. Greg got back to me immediately and things worked out perfectly.
This one was recorded in a completely different way than the others. It has been great! Dave and I were able to hone everything at our own places, send files back and forth and then meet up with Vinny and work through all of it. Dave Curran recorded this one at Gatos Trail Studios in Yucca Vally. It was kinda similar to the AMREP lockdown, but this time we had had plenty of time to work on everything beforehand. No distractions, not even an outside engineer. Just the three of us hanging out in the desert doing what we love to do. The bullshit is behind us. We’ve become pretty much self contained. Finally. We have been amazingly lucky. Now the touring begins…"
Unsane's new album, Sterilize, is available now via Southern Lord Records. They're currently on European tour, check out their full tour dates here.