Justin Trosper

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Justin Trosper

“I put my foot forward into the world, and it just kind of happened.” – Justin Trosper

Hearing Justin Trosper explain it, his return to music has been a natural course of events, not a premeditated bilateral effort. In the wake of his band, Unwound, standing down in 2002, singer/guitarist Trosper went through a period of burnout where he didn’t play guitar even casually. He focused on school instead, going off and on for six years. Shortly after finishing in 2010, he decided it was time to start some kind of recording project. After picking it up on his own, Trosper began writing material with his old friend Brandt Sandeno, a founding member of Unwound from their first incarnation, Giant Henry. Sandeno already had a band going with bassist Meg Cunningham and drummer Kris Cunningham, and Trosper was invited to play with them. So became Survival Knife.

Speaking on a Monday with Trosper, who was back home in Washington State after a week in Chicago working on the new Survival Knife record, the temptation to note that I was hearing stories from a post-hardcore veteran on Veteran’s Day was almost too much, but I held out. Instead, the name of another ‘veteran’ immediately came up. In Chicago, mastering the album was none other than Bob Weston, the esteemed producer/engineer and bass player in Shellac. Weston, Trosper said, “seemed like the right guy.” The album, already pretty much finished, will be released on Modest Mouse’s label, Glacial Pace. The band would like to see it come out by April 2014, but the details are still being worked out.

“We recorded the basic tracks up in Seattle at Avast!, which is Stuart Hallerman’s [studio]. We recorded a few Unwound records there – not the same studio, but with the same dude. We did our basic tracks, and then we did overdubs in Olympia at our friend’s home studio. Glacial Pace has a studio in Portland, so we mixed it there. Then we remixed a bunch of it at Steve Fisk’s house. He mixed it.” Steve Fisk, of course, was the producer for almost every Unwound album, save for the last. “It kind of went all over the place. It took us not every day, but over the summer we did a few days here and there, so it probably ended up being a little over two weeks total of studio time.” The band recorded a total of ten songs, but only seven fit on one record. “I wouldn’t have wanted to spend too much more time, otherwise you start second-guessing things too much. You get into masterpiece mode. You’re just making a record, and someone else might think it’s a masterpiece, but you can’t really just make one.”

That kind of unhurried approach has been the way for Survival Knife so far. Dipping their toes in the water with a few shows close to home in the spring of 2012, by the end of the year they were sharing bills with the likes of a reformed Bitch Magnet (whose late-‘80s run pre-dates Unwound by a hair) and Metz, two generations of the post-hardcore sound. Though the band themselves may have been keeping their expectations reasonable, as word about Survival Knife started to drift out of Cascadia, Unwound fans lit up.

It would turn out to be a propitious time for followers a decade in mourning. At the end of October, the Unwound Archive website went live. A work-in-progress begun by Trosper and his two former bandmates – bassist Vern Rumsey and drummer Sara Lund, who is now with the Corin Tucker Band and Hungry Ghost – along with help from friends, the history and multi-media so far amassed on the site makes it one of the more impressive and vital online resources dedicated to a single band. The ball kept rolling from there. “We started building that, and that kind of sparked folks from Numero [Group] to ask us about doing our back catalog with them.”

The Numero Group, known for their extensive and attractive reissues, seems a natural fit for shining a light on Unwound’s prolific catalog, which they are dividing chronologically into four sets. The first, Kid is Gone, released this October, represents their origins and early recordings up until their second (though first officially released) album, Fake Train. The other sets, still being assembled, will follow roughly six months apart from each other. Trosper notes that the liner notes alone, though much had to be cut, will basically be a book when all four sets are done. “The guy that’s been writing the liner notes is a friend of ours, David Wilcox. This year we did a lot of interviews with him, and he came out to Olympia, WA. We…tracked down a bunch of people. I call it ‘punk rock detectives.’ I just get on Facebook: ‘hey, does anyone know how to find this person?’ ‘Yeah, he lives in a tree somewhere’.”

As punk rock career trajectories go, Unwound’s was distinct. It is not easy to come up with too many other bands that, recording-wise, left things not only on a high note, but with an adventurous double album that feels as if it is heralding a renewal, not an end. Yet that is exactly what Unwound did in 2001 with their finale, Leaves Turn Inside You. Surely Leaves’ unfulfilled potential is at least partly responsible for their reverberating reputation and influence.

Because so much posthumous attention has been (rightfully) paid to Leaves, two facts that give insight into Unwound’s nature have seemed to get less notice. For one, they were remarkably productive from the beginning. From 1992 to 1996, they went on a creative run that built momentum with a new album every year. The second is how far back Unwound actually goes. It’s easy to overlook that, coming from Tumwater, WA, adjacent to Olympia, they were at ground zero when Grunge broke. “We were like the little annoying brothers when all that was happening.” They followed the bands and were excited to watch the scene take off, but, “in some ways, especially later, we were kind of reacting a little bit against Grunge.”

They also minded their elders that pre-dated the boom years. “The band that a lot of people forget about is the Wipers. We were hugely influenced by them, especially early on. It’s that dark, heavy guitar stuff…that I feel like they sort of invented that, and everybody took a cue from that.” Outside influences were also important. They avidly read Maximum Rocknroll and payed attention to the scene in DC. The pre-hype Pacific Northwest still occasionally gets painted as a rarely treaded backwater, but that wasn’t really the case. “A lot of bands, say from ’88 or ’89 to ’91, a whole bunch of bands came through Olympia and Seattle. At least I can say went to one or two shows a week from when I was sixteen to when I was nineteen.”

From the building blocks of Dischord, punk, and the peers around them, their eclectic approach resulted in a defined but versatile sound that could fit in a variety of lineups. Even a cursory scroll through the Chronology section of the Unwound Archive turns up gems like the time Giant Henry played with a young Green Day, or a Seattle show in 1992 with Jawbreaker and Chewbacca Kaboom, who would later settle on the name Sunny Day Real Estate. Whatever revered art-punk or post-hardcore band from that time you can think of, chances are Unwound shared the stage with them at least one night.

The pairings weren’t always ideal, and Europe in particular sometimes had a hard time placing them in the right context. The band also tried to do all-ages shows whenever possible, which often meant ending up in unusual venues and atypical scenarios, though they were able to control that element more over time. “As fun as early touring was — all the weird and wacky things that would happen every night — at some point it would become less fun. You’re like, ‘Oh God, where do we end up now?’…Touring was still supposed to be fun. I still view it this way. ‘Fun’ is a broad term, whatever that means for you. If it doesn’t seem like it’s fun then, even if you’re making money…ehh.”

For Trosper, the high point of touring was 1995 and the years on either end, when there was still a mainstream alternative and underground scene with competition, antagonism, and zeitgeist energy. Unwound continued to spend time on the road until reaching a burnout point in 1998. When the time came to tour behind Leaves Turn Inside You, Trosper was ready to head out again, but by then everyone’s lives had changed a little bit. In addition to that, the tour was hamstrung by fate, as chronicled in Brad Cohan’s oral history, “Unwound: The Untold Story,” published earlier this year in Maura Magazine on the heels of the release of the corresponding live album, Live Leaves. “Whatever momentum we built earlier, and whatever burnout we had gone through, that all was kind of off the table, because that tour, there were factors that were out of our control.”

When Leaves Turn Inside You was finished, it had been three years since the release of Unwound’s previous album, Challenge For a Civilized Society, an epoch by their own standards. Time played a developmental role in another way as well. Building their own studio to record in, the band afforded themselves the luxury of not being on the clock.

“We were trying to evolve in the recording process. [For] Challenge we spent more studio time, we made a really nice sounding record. ‘What are we gonna do on the next one?’ We decided we should at least use a different producer. Even Steve Fisk was like, ‘You guys should probably work with somebody else.’ We were trying to reinvent a little bit. We had already started doing some simple recordings. For Challenge, we recorded a demo version at home. And Vern particularly had interest in having a studio, so we were like, why don’t we just build a studio and eventually maybe it will turn into something that is good for Olympia; to have a studio (or another studio), and this could evolve into something that’s bigger than our own interests. It kind of allowed us to rethink how to write songs and make that more interesting again.”

Home recording, albeit on a more modest scale, was also how Unwound began. When Trosper and Sandeno began playing together in high school, Sandeno had a Tascam 4-track recorder, and the pair’s first “bands” were recording projects committed to cassette on that machine. During the life of Unwound, the two continued to play in a number of side projects: Replikants, The Young Ginns, Worst Case Scenario. Survival Knife, then, has deep-running roots, and is, at least in some ways, a continuation of their songwriting partnership. “All these different iterations of things that me and Brandt have done since we were fifteen are kind of culminating now.”

“We’re 40, [but] there’s still that element of when you’re kids. I think there are ways that we approach songwriting that are probably kind of the same, which is sort of exploratory, a lot of laughter involved. Some people think that, you know, you listen to Unwound and our other bands and think, ‘these guys are all serious,’ and we are serious about songwriting, but there’s a lot of humor involved that people don’t pick up on. Me and Brandt have a rapport. There are certain things that haven’t changed. I think we’re better songwriters now. We’ll sit down and philosophize about the song, what belongs in the song, what can be taken away, if there’s something that doesn’t belong you have to let it go.”

“The ability to edit yourself, the ability to let go of things that don’t belong in the song, that don’t serve the song, those are little things that you learn over a lot of times. But a lot of the process is similar. We experiment a lot. We had a band, the Replikants. In a way, we could have never played publically or put anything out. It was sort of, to me, a true experimental band, where you’re not trying to sound experimental, you’re actually experimenting.”

Trosper and Sandeno’s longstanding interest in experimental music comes partly from following the SST label and Black Flag; with particular attention paid to Black Flag’s The Process of Weeding Out and Family Man. Survival Knife feeds on other old influences of theirs which may not be apparent on first listen: King Crimson, Frank Zappa, guitar-heavy bands like ZZ Top. The proto-punk side of prog rock, “not the Dungeons & Dragons, flutes stuff [laughs].” Reflecting on his newly afforded two-guitar dynamic, Television also looms. “That Marquee Moon record is always kind of hovering.”

Before Survival Knife, Trosper had for a while wanted to work with a second guitar, and Unwound did bring in David Scott Stone to fill that role for their last tour. Thinking of Fugazi and Sonic Youth, Trosper’s early influences were all about two-guitar interactions. “I ended up doing that with Vern, Vern being a really melodic, kind of unusual bass player in some ways. A lot of the sound that came from that band, a lot of the melodies, he’s almost playing a little bit of guitar, and I’m almost playing a little bit of bass, so that we’re making that little sound in the middle…the overtones, the harmony between those two instruments. To me, in some way, it was compensating for a lack of a second guitar.” Survival Knife allows Trosper that dialogue with Sandeno, and also relieves some of the focus on him that would come with being the sole axe man.

Listening to the two 7”s that Survival Knife have cut so far – the recently released “Divine Mob”/”Snakebit” (Kill Rock Stars), and their first, “Traces of Me”/“Name That Tune” (Sub Pop) – the traces of Unwound are there, but might be more in the vein of a Drive Like Jehu-esque outlier like “Murder Movies” from Repetition. The rhythms are charging, looser. The vocals are full-throated. There’s experimental process, but, Trosper says, “you wouldn’t listen to Survival Knife and go ‘oh yeah, this is pretty experimental,’ because it’s all very composed, it’s been edited, agonized over and practiced a lot.”

One of the interesting details in “Unwound: The Untold Story” is Trosper’s mention of his use of dream journals to derive the lyrics for Leaves Turn Inside You, a process he has picked up again. “I actually kind of tried to do the dream journal thing again, to just get some writing done, to get my writing going on. So there’s still an element of that. I didn’t really do it as disciplined as I did then. When I was doing dream journaling then I would try to get up every day and do it. I recommend that for anybody. Personally, if I try to approach a song, the lyrics, topically, it usually doesn’t work.”

“Going back to the Leaves stuff, lyric writing has always been really frustrating; pulling your hair out trying to come up with something that wasn’t just totally clichéd or stupid. I know I succeeded on some level. On each record there was at least something worthwhile. Challenge was really like a low point for me trying to do lyrics. I wanted to make this kind of more political record and it totally didn’t work. So I ended up starting to kind of veer towards what I ended up doing on Leaves Turn Inside You, which was way more in the recesses of my brain, and kind of comes off as quasi-religious or something, I guess.”

Survival Knife take a similar approach, starting with vocalization as the song is being written, with the music guiding the lyrics. “I usually work backwards from the song title, too. I usually have a song title, and that’s where the lyrics come from, rather than having lyrics and then coming up with the song title. Ninety to ninety-five percent of all songs I’ve been a part of derive from a title first.” In terms of branching out going forward, “Meg, the bass player, actually does sing a song [“Snakebit”], so hopefully she’ll do some more vocalizing on our next batch of songs that we write. And Brandt, too. We’re getting a little bit more vocal-focused. I’ve always been more guitar-centric, or sound-centric…and [in Unwound] the way we mixed sometimes you could barely hear the vocals, and part of that was just my personal… shyness, or shame in hearing my own voice [laughs], so part of evolving has been: ‘How can I get better at that? What’s my strength and how can we push that?’”

Despite his past focus on instrumentation and sound, thinking about his own music and watching other bands over time, Trosper appreciates how people respond to voices. “It’s the most human aspect of the music, the voice. There was kind of this wave of instrumental bands that started in the late ‘90s that was sort of a reaction, I think, against vocal music and stuff that seems pop, or not serious enough, or whatever. And some of those bands got popular — like Mogwai, really popular band. I think it’s interesting that that does appeal to a certain part of what we like about music, where it’s very ‘inside’ and you can fill in the gaps and there’s no one telling you, or singing at you, or whatever. But I think, generally, to really reach out, or really get into people’s heads, there has to be somebody with a voice, and it has to be unique and confident, it doesn’t have to be pitch perfect.”

Much of what Trosper finds more interesting in the last decade in terms of guitar innovation has come from metal bands. Thus metal gets duly drawn into the fold of Survival Knife, from classics like Metallica and Slayer, to newer bands like Opeth, Mastadon, and Norway’s Enslaved, whose willingness to take risks and combine different styles strikes Trosper as something that comes out of a very open-minded group of people. “No indie band would do that, because they’re all so self conscious [laughs]. You have to have some almost backwoods weird Norwegian guys that are like, discovered some new music and they’re gonna dovetail it into their crazy black metal thing, and something very inventive comes out of that.”

Now that we’re deep into an era of ‘90s indie band reunions, the idea of scene survivors going to the trouble of starting over instead playing the old favorites seems almost counterintuitive. While an Unwound victory lap hasn’t officially been ruled out, Trosper acknowledges the increased viability of a band like Survival Knife in the modern music landscape. “When I was twenty, there wasn’t a bunch of forty-year-old people going to shows. Now, I think it’s just different. I think people have stayed around. There’s a wider range of people that like interesting music everywhere.” For now, then, the archive and reissues should be enough to keep interest in Unwound sated. Thinking of how he had previously noted that the website is a way to document that the band existed, I asked Trosper if there was anything in particular that he would like new listeners to take away from Unwound’s music and story.

“I think the real intent is…rather than having stuff sit in a box in someone’s closet, it’s better that the world can access that stuff. I’m into archives, and public information, whatever that implicates. In terms of what I want the world to know about Unwound, I don’t know…I think that we did hold a unique spot in the ‘90s. You look at the list of shows and it’s kind of all over the place, we crossed all these different scenes, and we were influenced by stuff early on that kind of allowed us to navigate through the ‘90s. We could play with Stereolab or we could play with Born Against. There was some universal element that I think we achieved musically. And I think a lot of it does have to do with that we were so music-centric, as opposed to ideology, or theatrics, or careerist.

“Even though we developed a career, we kind of stuck to that independent model. Like, trying to be like Fugazi. That’s how you try to build a career. People now, I’m surprised how weirdly careerist things are. I mean, I understand, and I don’t really think there’s necessarily anything wrong with it, but sometimes I’m a little bit shocked. I’m like an olden-days person, I took my cues from bands from the ‘80s: you start a band, and you hang out, you practice, you eventually write songs, and then you put out an LP record. ‘That’s what people did in the 1920’s [Laughs].’ So it’s almost conservative or something. I think people could probably take a cue from the Unwound playbook, whatever that is.

“Really, the point is: this happened, this existed, this isn’t going in the history books, the history book has yet to be written. I’ve seen more stuff like that come out, like the Karp movie that came out; I just saw Kathleen [Hanna]’s movie, The Punk Singer. These alternate histories that are starting to emerge now 20 years down the line that weren’t in the Nirvana book, and they’re all important things.”

*Photo by Roger Stanley


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