Unsane Are Still As Nasty As They Wanna Be
Listen to the noise rock veterans' new album 'Sterilize' as they reminisce about the good old, bad old days of grimy, bloody 90s New York City.
Photo by Dan Joeright
Chris Spencer remembers New York City. His were the bad old days, the ones portrayed in depraved Abel Ferrara flicks like Bad Lieutenant, ones spattered across the pages of the town's tabloids as warnings or threats to outsiders. In those nihilistic pre-Giuliani times, Dope-Guns-'N-Fucking In The Streets was more than just a compilation series his seminal noise rock band Unsane appeared on—it was a way of life on and around the Bowery in downtown Manhattan.
"We were in front of The Pyramid drinking beer out of paper bags and not getting hassled by the cops," he recalls fondly. "There were lots of people selling drugs everywhere."
Spencer freely admits that the feral metallic blues of Unsane couldn't have existed if not for that filthy, anything-goes incubator. Emerging in the early 90s as part of a post-Sonic Youth scene alongside similarly afflicted groups like Cop Shoot Cop and Pussy Galore, his trio sounded about as dangerous as the city itself. A genuine camaraderie existed with these like-minded misfits, similar to the one they experienced later with noise rock contemporaries from other cities like the Cows and Cherubs, even as their respective interpretations revealed themselves differently. With grisly cuts like the hard-charging "Organ Doctor" and "Bath," Unsane's self-titled debut for Matador in 1991 presented New York as a genuine house of horrors, with Spencer's pained screams and tortured riffs coming as if from a crude speaker. In what would become part of a tradition, the album's cover artwork depicted a beheading by subway car.
"We were gorehounds, going to the Lyric Theater on 42nd Street to catch the $3.50 crazy triple feature," Spencer says. While an appreciation of exploitation certainly contributed to their artistic decision making, he also points out the timeliness of such deliberate choices in the age of AIDS. "Blood was really taboo," he says. "It was a weird medium to use for art, actual real blood."
Debuting here at Noisey today, Unsane's latest album Sterilize comes via Southern Lord on September 29 (preorders are live here) and continues that characteristically bloody legacy with another grisly scene front-and-center. "I think there's something really beautiful about it," he says. The red splatter adorning the cover accurately matches the tone of its contents. "Aberration" squeals with feedback and a meaty bassline by longtime member Dave Curran, while "Inclusion" slowly grinds a steel-toed boot into the grime and viscera. For fans of the group, these ten tracks deliver the messy goods.
Curran, who joined Unsane on bass ahead of 1995's Scattered, Smothered & Covered and remains alongside drummer Vincent Signorelli more than two decades later, attributes the perpetuation of the band's unsettling style to more than just a consistent lineup. "Even if we don't release anything for years, when we get together and write, the sounds we make consistently come out of a base emotion we all naturally gravitate towards and always have," he says. "We all work toward achieving a sound that leaves an impression, on us initially, and hopefully on others."
"For Scattered…, we just holed up for a few weeks in between tours at the Amphetamine Reptile Records offices, their studio in the basement," Spencer remembers of a bitterly cold Minneapolis winter. "Over the years, certain records have been more me and Dave hanging out and writing together."
Notably, Unsane's membership lives in three different cities now, which naturally impacts the ways in which songwriting and recording happens. "The process has differed on this record mostly because we wrote songs separately and sent each other audio files, added parts, tweaked others," Curran says. "All of this was really more out of necessity than choice." Culled from more than 90 minutes of new material, by Spencer's count, Sterilize comes off about as cohesively as possible. "There's been a lot of shit over the years [and] we're still really close friends," Spencer, who's spent much of the 2000s living in Northern California, says. "I fucking love playing this kind of music."
Though hardly longing for the self-described "nasty" days of seeing friends and strangers alike overdose, Spencer equates the thorough gentrification process with outright pillaging. "A lot of stuff culturally has been cleaned up," he says with a bittersweet sense of lament for his old stomping grounds. "Artistically, things have fallen by the wayside."
The closure of institutions like CBGBs still stings for him. "You could see crazy bands every night of the week," he says. Spencer cites the current lack of affordable housing as one major factor for this creative brain drain downtown, expressing incredulity over the high-rise developments and double-decker Whole Foods. "It's been sterilized from what I grew up in."
Reflecting on the warts-and-all past, another New York denizen from Unsane's heyday comes to mind: Donald Trump. "He was just a total fucking idiot, a fake playboy," Spencer says of the real estate developer frequently covered in the local papers back in the day. "I hated him then. I hate him even more now." Curran remembers our current president with similar disdain. "To me, he was just another billionaire real estate tycoon like any other; rich, self-serving," he says. "In the end, like many others, I never expected him to win the presidency."
Like any campaign worth its salt, Unsane's upcoming tour for Sterilize takes them to a number of familiar places, including New York City. Though Spencer remembers some very rough and antagonistic gigs from the early days, Curran takes a more grateful and optimistic view of their road dogging. "Like all bands, we've had our share of weird, low attendance or cancelled shows, but that's part of the deal," he says. "We've been well received pretty much everywhere and we certainly don't take that for granted."
"We were just kind of on our own personal urban mission to represent the place we came from and do exactly what we love," Spencer says with a similarly appreciative spirit. "Honestly, I'm surprised this band ever got anywhere!"
UNSANE TOUR DATES:
10/05/2017 Futurum – Prague, CZ
10/06/2017 Hydrozagadka – Warsaw, PL
10/07/2017 Carpe Diem – Wroclaw, PL
10/08/2017 Musik & Frieden – Berlin, DE
10/10/2017 Blä – Oslo, NO
10/11/2017 Kraken – Stockholm, SE
10/12//2017 Loppen – Copenhagen, DK
10/13/2017 Hafenklang – Hamburg, DE
10/14/2017 Desertfest – Antwerp, BE
10/15/2017 Les 4Ecluses – Dunkerque, FR
10/16/2017 The Dome – London, UK
10/17/2017 Petit Bain – Paris, FR
10/18/2017 Le Cafe Charbon – Nevers, FR
10/19/2017 Rockschool Barbey – Bordeaux, FR w/ Burning Heads
10/20/2017 Astrolabe – Orleans, FR w/ Burning Heads
10/21/2017 Gaswerk – Winterthur, CH
10/23/2017 Epicerie Moderne – Lyon, FR
10/24/2017 La Razzle – Marseille, FR
10/25/2017 Circolo Magnolia – Milan, IT
10/26/2017 Benicico Live - Giavera Del Montello, IT
10/27/2017 Traffic Live Club – Rome, IT
10/28/2017 FUZZ Club – Athens, GR @ Fraternity Of Sound
10/29/2017 Melkweg – Amsterdam, NL @ Southern Lord show [info]
10/30/2017 Cinema Metropolis – Umbertide, IT
10/31/2017 Scugnizzo Liberato – Napoli, IT
11/01/2017 Freakout Club – Bologna, IT
11/02/2017 Tetris Club – Trieste, IT
11/03/2017 Arena – Vienna, AU
11/04/2017 Robot – Budapest, HU
11/05/2017 Vintage Industrial Bar – Zagreb, HU
11/06/2017 Kino Siska – Ljubljana, SL
11/07/2017 PMK – Innsbruck, AT
11/16/2017 Saint Vitus Bar – Brooklyn, NY w/ Cherubs, Buildings [info]
11/17/2017 Saint Vitus Bar – Brooklyn, NY w/ Cherubs, Plaque Marks [info]
11/18/2017 Ottobar – Baltimore, MD w/ Plaque Marks
11/19/2017 Strange Matter – Richmond, VA w/ Plaque Marks
11/20/2017 The Earl – Atlanta, GA w/ Plaque Marks
11/21/2017 Gasa Gasa – New Orleans, LA w/ Plaque Marks
11/25/2017 Lost Well – Austin, TX w/ Plaque Marks
11/26/2017 Ridglea Lounge – Ft. Worth, TX w/ Plaque Marks
11/28/2017 Club Congress – Tucson, AZ w/ Plaque Marks
11/29/2017 Beauty Bar – Las Vegas, NV w/ Plaque Marks
12/02/2017 Bottom Of The Hill – San Francisco, CA w/ Plaque Marks
12/04/2017 Old Nick's – Eugene, OR w/ Plaque Marks
12/05/2017 Highline – Seattle, WA w/ Plaque Marks
12/06/2017 Cobalt – Vancouver, BC w/ Plaque Marks
12/07/2017 Tonic Lounge – Portland, OR w/ Plaque Marks
12/08/2017 Neurolux – Boise, ID w/ Plaque Marks
12/09/2017 Diabolical Records – Salt Lake City, UT w/ Plaque Marks
12/10/2017 Hi Dive – Denver, CO w/ Plaque Marks
12/12/2017 7th St Entry – Minneapolis, MN w/ Big|Brave, Child Bite
12/13/2017 Cactus Club – Milwaukee, WI w/ Big|Brave, Child Bite
12/14/2017 Grog Shop – Cleveland, OH w/ Big|Brave, Child Bite
12/15/2017 Loving Touch – Detroit, MI w/ Big|Brave, Child Bite
12/16/2017 Hard Luck Bar – Toronto, ON w/ Big|Brave, Child Bite
12/17/2017 L'Astral – Montreal, QC w/ Child Bite
12/18/2017 Great Scott – Boston, MA w/ Big|Brave, Child Bite
12/19/2017 Kung Fu Necktie – Philadelphia, PA w/ Big|Brave, Child Bite
Gary Suarez is grinding on Twitter.