Life at the Bottom:
Unsane on Noise, Growing Up,
and Surviving NYC Back in the '80s

Unsane pic #1
Photo courtesy of Unsane.
Over the past two decades, New York City's Unsane have become famous for three things: their music, a groovy and cruelly violent mixture of punk, hardcore, metal and noise; their gory album covers, notorious for their gruesome realism; and their commitment to a punishing touring schedule, which takes them around the U.S. and Europe for eight to ten months out of the year, every year. In truth, these three elements are facets of a single ethos, in which the casual brutality of life at the bottom of one of America's toughest cities and the sheer difficulty of life on the road inform a sound that is frightening and vitally expressive.
Guitarist Chris Spencer started Unsane in Manhattan in 1988. Since that time, the band has had its ups, such as a brief stint on Atlantic Records and a minor MTV hit ("Scrape," a montage of skateboarding accidents), and its downs, such as the death of drummer Charlie Ondras of a heroin overdose in 1991 and Spencer's near-fatal beating at the hands of German thugs in 1998. As a result of Spencer's injuries, Unsane went on hiatus from 2000 to 2003. Since reforming, the band has released two new studio records, including this year's Visqueen, out on Ipecac Records.
Unsane play in Houston on Saturday, June 16th at The Proletariat (903 Richmond Ave., Houston, TX. 77006), along with 400 Blows, Mouth of the Architect, and Dizzy Pilot.

SCR: Where are you right now?
Chris Spencer: We're driving to Seattle right now, gonna play a show tonight.
How long have you been on tour this time?
Not long, about two and a half weeks.
That's not very long for you guys.
Yeah, it's not bad, not bad at all. We're doing pretty good at this point.
Unsane got together in 1988, is that right?
1988? Yeah, when I was a kid. We didn't start playing shows until 1990. There was some demo stuff and crap like that, but we didn't get out until -- we shared a practice space with Pussy Galore and Cop Shoot Cop, and that's when we first started getting shows.
That's almost 20 years -- how have you managed to stick around so long?
I don't know; I mean, if you love what you do, you kind of have no choice.
Unsane record cover
Most of the other bands from that time aren't around any more.
Well, over time, people get jobs, people get married, people do other things with their lives. This is what we like to do, so we keep doing it. As long as labels will put out our music and we can go on tour, why would we stop? We try to stay focused on doing this.
Does it feel different now than when you were starting out?
Yes and no. At the time, things were a little more chaotic. After a while you start to get to know what you're doing and how to do it. When we first started out, me and my friends were just living in the van touring Canada in February and making mistakes like that. [laughs] Now we tend to avoid those types of situations. Also, equipment-wise, things have gotten better. Obviously we've gotten better as musicians, and the songwriting I think has gotten better. So, what can I say? I guess if I had to I'd say it's different in that it's a little easier and we're better at it, but other than that, no, not really.
You feel like you play better now?
When I say "better," I don't necessarily mean technically better, but better at getting what you want out of it. I don't personally think that it's the greatest thing to be able to play the fastest guitar riff or something like that. I think it's better to be able to play a riff that actually reflects something of how you're feeling or of what you're trying to convey to other people.
Unsane's music has remained remarkably consistent over the years -- what's behind that?
Probably my fucked-up friends in the drug culture and just living as a transient a lot. I don't know, life has not changed that drastically for me. If I'd got married and had two kids and was living out in the country, I'd probably be writing country songs, but it hasn't happened that way.
New York has changed around you in that time, though.
New York is very gentrified, but I live in sort of an old-school part of New York, so I have a lot of the same friends I've had forever, for 20 years. From an outer point of view, maybe it's changed, but if you really live there and you're around the same people for a long time, it doesn't change quite as much. It's really more about gentrification, and all of these people from all over the country coming in and invading Brooklyn, and rents going up and stuff. Whereas my rent is still fairly cheap because I've been in a rent-controlled place for a long time.
Which part of New York do you live in?
I live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Are you from New York originally?
No, I was born in Durham, North Carolina, but my mother moved us up to Rochester, New York when I was a kid, and then I came down to the city as soon as I could, when I was 17.
Unsane pic #2
Photo courtesy of Unsane.
Were there not so many people from around the country when you were a kid?
Of course there were, there were tons. But now it's like Williamsburg and Brooklyn seem almost like a college campus. Whereas before, when I first got there, there were drug rats, cocaine and heroin...there was more of a deterrent at the time to people who would be a little more homogenous, socially.
What do you mean by that?
What I'm trying to say is that at that time, New York was a very violent place, and pretty screwed up from having Dinkins and Koch as mayors, and these days it's really cleaned up. There's not that threat of getting mugged, or not as much. There's still a small threat, but at that time it was openly violent, and there was a lot of racism which is not there anymore. So maybe that was a deterrent to more mild-mannered people living in New York. Now, just about anybody can come there and be safe.
That experience of New York must have played a big part in your music.
Yeah, definitely. [laughs] No question.
And has your experience of the band changed as the city around you has changed?
Y'know, when we first started the band -- I guess you're sort of right, in a way, things have changed, in that, when we first started, we didn't even face the audience. We just wanted to make noise and vent our frustration. We didn't care what anyone thought -- just total noise, noise, noise. Now, it's a little more controlled, and there's a little more maybe melody to it. It's like I was saying, I feel like I've gotten better at using my guitar to express something more than just pure hatred. [laughs]
It's become more sophisticated?
I guess so, if that's what you would call it.
Where are you drawing inspiration from these days?
Pretty much myself, or Dave [Curran], our bass player, or Vinnie [Signorelli, drummer], when he comes up with something. If we have something that sounds like something else that we recognize, that we know, we ditch it right away. We come up with something new. We're not trying to emulate anyone.
Do you find that there are bands out there who are emulating you?
I have heard this, but I have yet to hear anybody that can swing it. It's a weird sound, sort of abnormal. The way it's done is a lot different than the way that most people play.
There's nobody you can think of that you would put in the same category as Unsane?
Maybe ethically, but not musically. Right now we're on tour with a band called 400 Blows, who are great, they're ballistic as hell. But they don't sound like us, though they're definitely of that same sort of ilk.
I read in an interview recently that Unsane has never played with the Melvins.
We played with them one time. I've known Buzz a long time. It was before... [to Dave Curran] What album was it? Was it Houdini? Stoner Witch or Houdini? I think it was Stoner Witch. I had known Buzz a long time. We were playing at this tiny little cafe in LA, and Buzz came up at soundcheck, and -- it was a just little tiny place, but he said, "Hey, do you mind if we just try out these new songs from Stoner Witch" -- which we didn't realize what it was at the time -- "and just play before you guys so that we can try them for an audience before we go to Europe?," and we were like, "Sure, go ahead." Then Dave looked over at me and said, "Oh my God, we're playing after the Melvins." [laughs] So that's the one time we actually did play with them. [laughs] But it was cool, they were really cool. They had small amps, so they didn't overdo it -- they tried their songs, and everything was cool, and we spazzed out, and it was great. It worked out.
It seems surprising that in almost two decades of criss-crossing the continent, these two bands have never played a proper show together.
Yeah, that's true, I know. That's what I'm shooting for, trying to get this done. [laughs]
Unsane pic #3
Photo courtesy of Unsane.
I also read that you're thinking of starting a record label.
Oh yeah, that's way...it's premature to even really talk about it.
Are there any details you can give us?
Well, there's this whole conceptual thing. It's sort of the noise ilk we were talking about before -- the "noise coalition" is what we call it. It would be a bunch of different stuff, tons of artists like someone maybe from the Cows; I talked to Alexander from Einsturzende Neubauten about maybe doing stuff. It would be more that we all worked together and did some of that stuff, and then if we found bands that we were interested in putting out records for, we'd probably do that too.
That sounds very interesting.
Yeah, I guess so, once I'm not on tour and I'm not busy 24-7, I could maybe get on it.
You still tour, what? Nine months out of the year?
This year, I'd say maybe eight.
You've slowed down a little since the band has been back together, is that right?
Yeah, we have, definitely. Vinnie runs a tattoo shop out on Brooklyn, so he has a business to run, and we need to be considerate of what he needs to do. We can't be out of town all the time. END