Unwound was one of most influential and hardest-working underground groups of the 1990s. Like the innovators of American hardcore who inspired them, the group existed in a subterranean world that rarely intersected with the mainstream. Yet they made a distinct mark on popular culture via their musical influence on other, more accessible groups: You can hear bits of their sound in bands like Blur, Radiohead, Modest Mouse, At the Drive-In and Blonde Redhead. It’s arguable that they even influenced the bands that influenced them, like Sonic Youth and Fugazi.
Their successful blend of experimental guitar noise, aggressive melodic bass and dubbed-out drumming created a distinct sound that both sublimated and celebrated each individual member’s contribution to the group. Justin Trosper’s searching vocal lines and existential lyrical riddles landed them squarely in the long tradition of transcendent northwest trios — among them, Nirvana, the Melvins and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
It was my pleasure to sit down with Trosper, one of my most treasured friends, to discuss the history of Unwound, starting with their high school genesis, Giant Henry. We talked for hours, trying not only to get the cultural context down, but this to hammer out a kind of introduction to a story that spanned over a decade and has a seemingly infinite number of chapters.
[Those looking for a more complete history of the group would do well to investigate The Unwound Archive. — Ed.]
Let’s talk about when Giant Henry started. The ’80s were over and the ’90s were just beginning.
1990-91 is the time of big changes here. The whole evolution of computers and the software industry…
Also, Desert Storm happened — which foreshadowed all the changes that were to come politically.
Yes, and Fort Lewis and Mcchord Air force base (now Joint Base Lewis-Mcchord) that growth is a big change — the influence of the military-industrial complex.
You grew up in Tumwater, one town over from Olympia, where this underground music scene was happening that you were aware of from listening to the radio and skateboarding.
Instead of being involved in the real music scene in Olympia we created our own scene in Tumwater where we would record every weekend. We didn’t really go to parties and probably didn’t really know about shows that were happening, but every weekend we recorded on the four-track or watched movies. We started making fanzines as we started going to more shows and meeting people in Olympia. But in the very early days before we were able to drive, we were really involved in music. But it was very insular. It was more of a high school clique than anything. Giant Henry was me, Brandt [Sandeno] and Vern [Rumsey]. We started when we were sophomores in high school, like 1988-89, and then it kind of fizzled away.
You were going to Tumwater High School with Vern and Brandt.
We went through the cycle of doing all these project bands and then we started actually learning how to play our instruments. Brandt was already a good guitar player. He became the drummer by default. None of the drummers we were playing with worked out and he had a drum set. Brandt had all the equipment at first. We eventually got our own stuff. He also had the practice space. It started in 1988 but we didn’t really play shows. I’m still trying to figure out the first Giant Henry show. We played with L-7. Bikini Kill played too, right?
We only played one song. We asked to borrow your instruments because we wanted to play with L-7 but we weren’t actually on the bill. That’s when we were a three piece. Can you describe what was going on in Olympia?
Bikini Kill had just started. Nirvana was playing a lot and there was a lot of excitement about them happening.
Right. Dave Grohl moved to Olympia (from D.C.) and was living with Kurt. He joined the band that September and moved here right away.
They hadn’t signed to a major label yet. There was a lot of Sub Pop hype. The Nirvana demos were circulating so we were all listening to that stuff before they recorded [Nevermind] and we knew they were going to be huge. Not as huge as they actually got, but huge like, “Wow they are gonna be bigger than Mudhoney, they are gonna be bigger than The Melvins!”
Yeah. Because it was good.
It was really good. And bands were touring a lot and playing in Olympia. There were shows every week. It seemed like more people were starting bands than ever before.
Giant Henry had the exact same members playing the exact same instruments as the early Unwound stuff, right? Is it the same band as Unwound?
No…it’s the same members but it’s different musically. The first era of Giant Henry was sillier — making fun of grunge music, but we actually sounded grungy. The second era is a little more influenced by like Black Flag and stuff. We were just getting better at our instruments — like, “This sounds kinda good,” but, yeah, just being able to take some of the bands we liked and emulate them.
Melvins, Nirvana, Black Flag, Flipper — stuff like that.
How did you feel about K Records?
When we were younger, we thought K was lame. And then I realized, once I got to know Calvin [Johnson], that he knew more about hardcore than anyone I’d ever met.
He can quote The Germs’ live album crowd banter word-for-word.
Yeah. If you look through his 45 collection, it’s all there.
He’s from that generation.
Yeah. But that’s just one aspect of music that he knows about that impressed us. It turned out he was not the guy we thought he was. Same with the other people (pointing at me) like, “Oh people have nerdy glasses and yo-yo’s” and shit. And then we realized it’s not what we think, it actually is cool.
So it was your senior year of high school and all of a sudden we had this amazing scene. Riot Grrrl started that summer and then in August The IPU (International Pop Underground) festival happened in Olympia and the first Kill Rock Stars compilation came out. A month later, Nirvana’s Nevermind was huge and everything changed really fast, right?
Yeah, it was crazy.
Isn’t this right when Giant Henry broke up and Unwound started?
Unwound started that summer. We played IPU.
Was that one of your first shows?
I think it was our third show. Giant Henry developed a set of songs. Then we decided to scrap the songs, thinking that no one would take us seriously if we were called Giant Henry.
It was a just such a dumb name.
How is Giant Henry different from Unwound?
Giant Henry was our band in high school, so it reflects what we were then. Unwound was a step towards universal ideas, exploring the world outside of our little bubble. Musically speaking, Unwound was clearly inclusive of more influences, which you can hear in our first demo tape. DC bands and more melodic stuff like Husker Du and the Wipers — more ability/techniques to perform what we wanted.
How long until you were asked to do a 7-inch on Kill Rock Stars?
Slim [Moon, founder of Kill Rock Stars] asked us in December ’91. It was after we recorded [our eight-song demo] with Pat Maley in October. IPU was in August — that was our third show. We were on the [International Pop Underground] comp, then we recorded with Pat and left on tour — our ridiculous first tour. We played like two weeks worth of shows in a month. We had too many days off and a lot of times we were like, “What the hell are we doing this for?” Then we came home and recorded the single and booked another tour to California that spring. When we got back from that next tour we recorded our first record.
Right, the first album you recorded (Unwound) didn’t come out first. (It came out later on Honey Bear.)
Brandt quit after we recorded the first album. Before we finished it, actually. He had pressure from his family to do something besides play in a band, like to go to college and get a job. He ended up going to school the following year.
And then Sara [Lund] joined. Would you say she was a riot grrrl?
No. I would not say that. [Laughs.]
She’s in The Corin Tucker Band now.
She’s a really strong individual. A lot of women I know that were around then — that maybe were resistant to that wave of feminism at first — are way more accepting now of that time and that scene.
Well, riot grrrl also got turned into a cartoon by the media.
Yeah. And Sara is a really individualistic person too. She was an outsider from the Midwest even though her dad lived here.
She went to my high school. She played in the school band.
For a little while. But she had an outsider identity and was a bit reactionary to the music scene here.
That’s ironic. She’s easily one of the best musicians from that time period. What happened when she joined Unwound?
She was given carte blanche. We said, “Do what you want?” We came up with song ideas but we never told her what to play or how to play. We just let her play in that weird way that she plays.
How did the lineup change of Unwound affect your sound?
We became less derivative. Sara had a really distinct style. She has a way of playing the kick drum that is pretty unique. It’s funny: The Giant Henry stuff eventually got pretty tight, and then when Unwound started, it was kind of crappy. Then Unwound got really good, and then Brandt quit and it got really crappy again.
It wasn’t crappy at all.
Tightness-wise. I completely changed my guitar playing style, too. Sara had a totally different approach to drumming.
Were Giant Henry and Unwound doing something political, or do you think of it as a purely musical endeavor? Personally, I put Unwound in the same category as the Minutemen.
Less overtly political, but yeah. Maybe it’s not really obvious to the rest of the world — but we took that whole Fugazi thing seriously.
What do you mean? Not being overly commercial? You guys didn’t even sell T-shirts in mail order until you broke up.
We sold them at shows. But yeah, being aware of commercialism and mass marketing. We were a part of DIY culture. What I learned from other people — like you or Calvin or Fugazi or other intelligent, knowledgeable people in bands — is that while you may not have an overtly political message, the personal is political; you conduct your personal life, your band life, in a way that reflects your politics. So you try to play all ages shows and make an effort to be cool and fair. Like if there’s a choice between bands to put on the bill and there’s a choice between an all-male band and an all-female band, we’d choose to play with the all-female band because we were trying to support feminism.
Yeah. Business practices. We were influenced by the culture here — DIY, co-ops, elements of radical or liberal politics.
We’ve talked about this before but I think DIY comes naturally to people with a similar background as us — our families are both from Kansas, right? When you live on a farm, you make your own entertainment, just like you grow your own food. I see that continuum happening from folk and country western music, to ’60s garage to punk/ independent/ underground music. For me that is where the DIY ethic comes from.
It is. That’s DIY before it was self-consciously called “DIY.” It makes me laugh when I go into a restaurant and there’s “artisan” or “handcrafted” food, because that’s what my grandma did. That’s not fancy, it’s just normal! People are like, “This is from the farm” or “I canned something!” My grandma had a whole pantry full of food she canned. All this “artisan” stuff — that’s just farm food to me. It’s cool, but it’s no big deal.
Before we discuss the dissolution of the group, will you talk a bit about Leaves Turn Inside You?
We did a lot of touring on Challenge [for a Civilized Society] and we hit a burnout. Every record, we tried to raise the bar to some degree by asking, “What can we do to make this better?” Usually that was just increasing the amount of time we spent in the studio. So the idea with the last record is that we would build a studio to record ourselves and break out of the pattern we’d established with [longtime producer] Steve Fisk and we’d have as much time to do it as we wanted — for better or worse. And there were life changes going on with the band members too. It became a long project. It’s totally different than all our other records. It’s way more “inner.”
But it also seems like a pop album in some ways. If I had to choose any of the records as my favorite I would pick that one. I can’t think of another band where I like their last album best. But the songs are so economical and you are working with themes.
There’s a lot of depth to it. We layered the tracking. It’s sort of a weird mix of lo-fi and, well, not hi-fi — but there’s a lot going on — and a lot of that stuff I worked out on my own because we weren’t really practicing as a band.
Why did Unwound break up?
Unwound was evolving toward something new and different in its last couple of years, but our sense of purpose was weakening. It crashed really hard for me when that band broke up. I was like “Fuck, what am I gonna do now?” Unwound was my whole thing. It was my identity. That’s who I was.
Do you think you had to be that way in order to make it work?
I think somebody did. Sara was in school. Vern had his family responsibilities. On the surface, it was like, “Oh they’re a band, they write songs together,” but the reality is that that was my whole life.
I read the interview where you talked about Vern’s substance abuse, which was pretty harsh, and why the band came to a stop when it did, as I understand it.
It is. But you know, thinking deeper about that, where I could stand back and blame Vern for things like that — while, yes, that’s the problem — we could have gone like, “Hey look, we’re gonna send you to rehab, we’re gonna keep the band going and you’re gonna get cleaned up and we’ll keep the band together. Let’s deal with this directly.” Instead, I saw it all happening a couple years before that and I was like, “Maybe I don’t actually wanna be in this band anymore…”
So you don’t think the band broke up because of Vern’s substance abuse?
That was the conflict. But the conflict could have been resolved. We could have been more direct. But we could also just have tried harder. But in the face of the shit that went down, we actually bowed out pretty nicely. So many details that I don’t wanna get into — but these are the kind of things you hear about where bands get into fistfights with each other and somehow we managed to avoid that. It could have ended worse.
What did you do next?
I didn’t wanna be in a band. So I decided to move to Los Angeles. If you really want to disappear, that is the place to go. You can go there and never be heard from again. It’s so vast. Unless you go to a show, you don’t ever run into people. So we moved down there in 2004 and I decided to go back to school. I was also beginning a long-term relationship. That was part of it. And I gave up on playing music. I did a couple recording projects, collaborating with an artist friend, Slater Bradley, and that was it. I didn’t play in a band until 2011.
Then when I was living there I got sick. I ended up in the hospital. I had a mystery disease. That prompted me to get out of L.A. I was living in a really polluted place. Sarcoidosis is an autoimmune disease but it usually affects the lungs. We ended up coming back and I finished school in Olympia. Now I’m in a band with people who are all 40.
What inspired you to start playing music again? I remember seeing you after the Wild Flag show in Olympia and you were like, “Fuck it, I can do this. Why aren’t I in a band?”
Yeah! I was like “Why am I not playing shows!?” They were so good, they sounded great; Mary Timony was great. But I think I was still in school then so I didn’t have time. After that, Brandt and I started playing again.
Who is Survival Knife? What are you trying to accomplish?
Survival Knife is myself and Brandt Sandeno on guitar, Kris Cunningham on drums, Meg Cunningham on bass. I do most of the vocal duties. Musically, people that have followed Unwound closely will probably notice that it has similarities to Worst Case Scenario and Young Ginns. I sing, so it sounds like Unwound. With two guitars the songwriting is a little different — complex harmonies and that sort of thing — whereas with Unwound, the melodic interplay was mostly guitar and bass. Kris is a way different drummer than Sara Lund, so that has a big effect on how songs end up being arranged. Personally, I’m trying to refine my songwriting craft and raise the bar on guitar playing.
What is happening with the Unwound back catalog and reissues on Numero Group?
Ken Shipley from Numero Group approached us with the offer to do a career-spanning series of reissues. I think he kind of saw that our catalog was stagnating or disappearing, which it is. So we are basically putting out everything worth putting out in a series of reissues, which will culminate in a box set. There is a complete band history being written. Everything is being re-mastered and packaged. It’s pretty epic. If you have seen the Codeine box set you will get an idea of what it will be like.