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Unwound Will Never Reunite So Just Get Over It

The long-defunct art-punk legends concludes its reissue campaign with Empire
October 12, 2015, 2:12pm

Every band and their mother—no matter how revolutionary or flat out irrelevant—jump on the reunion bandwagon either to cash in on a nostalgia-sized payday (paging Pavement) or tread in the sludge of mediocrity (check out the string of J Mascis’s solo joints under the guise of the Dinosaur Jr band name). Then there are those trailblazers who your sorry ass will never be able to check off that reunion wish list—and it’s a relatively short one. The chances of catching Hüsker Dü, Fugazi and Sonic Youth onstage together again are as nil as it’s gonna get so just deal.

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Tack Olympia, Washington art-punk titans Unwound onto that iconic list. From 1991 to 2001, the trio of guitarist/vocalist Justin Trosper, bassist Vern Rumsey and drummer Sara Lund were the epitome of the crucial DIY punk-ingrained, get in the van and tour nonstop underground beast.

After the ecstatic shoegazey post-punk dronescapes of Leaves Turn Inside You and its subsequent breakup in 2001, Unwound dropped off the face of the earth. That is until Lund and Trosper—breaking free from his decade-long hiatus from music—launched the Unwound Archive and self-released final tour live document, Live Leaves. From there it’s been a barrage of everything Unwound—except for the reunion. Enter ace archival record label Numero Group stepping in with a massive reissue campaign of Unwound’s entire catalog. And then some.

Numero’s mission so far—with Chunklet guy Henry Owings leading the way on the design front—has manifested into four epic box sets tracing Unwound’s trajectory. Now, the final set has arrived. The sprawling Empire contains Unwound’s criminally underrated 1998 album Challenge for a Civilized Society, 2001's swan song Leaves Turn Inside You, singles, B-sides, unreleased tracks, demos, and a 15,000-word essay penned by roadie and good buddy David Wilcox.

The emotionally jarring lead up to the band’s disbanding in 2001 is a touchy tale. Unwound were on tour in 2001 when the tragic events of 9/11 unfolded. Gigs were cancelled in its wake, they watched the towers burn from Hoboken where they had a gig at Maxwell's, Rumsey aborted the tour and went back to Portland, Lund had her hand crushed in a van door and other hardships transpired.

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Here, we caught up with Trosper and Lund to talk Empire and what they are both up to these days.

Are you relieved this massive reissue campaign is all over?
Justin Trosper: Yeah, kind of. And it’s funny because I just got my copy today.
Sarah Lund: (Laughing) Yeah, well, the process was pretty intense actually, to sort of comb back every minute detail. The first couple of box sets—I wasn’t on the first one so the middle two, happened in a really short amount of time. We are talking about a year or two of our lives but a lot of stuff happening in those year or two and having to think back in a lot more specific terms instead of saying “In that point of my life, I was doing this and this and this.”

How is Empire looking?
JT: It looks really good. It’s ever so slightly different than the other ones because the intent of this one (Empire) is to have a darker overall design to it. The images are more gray and black where the other ones had more natural, paper stock tones. You know, a beige, brown DIY sort of thing—almost metallic.

Empire gives off a different vibe?
JT: It’s all very similar but because of the tone of the narrative—it’s a little bit like doomsday (laughing). Well, only part of it, really. I glanced over the booklet a little bit today and the story is mostly about recording the last record (Leaves Turn Inside You) and then part of it is about the last tour and the liner notes in the box set illuminates some of that stuff.

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Yeah, the liner notes includes a pretty epic essay—15,000 words-worth—written by David Wilcox who was the roadie on Unwound’s final tour?
SL: He wrote all of them for all the box sets. It probably will read like a book once you put them all together. In talking about it, then reading what he had written and then his follow up questions after he had talked to different people, it was really great to put that whole time into perspective. Having David do the liner notes was great because he was a friend. We were all very comfortable talking to him and he had his own personal references having been with us on our last tour where everything crumbled.
JT: David was a friend of ours who we met touring. He lived in Houston, Texas at the time and we met him on the Sonic Youth tour we did. He became a friend and I don’t even know why he came on the road with us (laughing). I guess we were like “Let’s ask him because we like hanging out with him.” I guess he had nothin’ better to do, so, yeah, for better or for worse, right?

What do you remember about the Challenge era?
SL: The experience of Challenge was very different from the experience of Leaves Turn Inside You. We were still touring like crazy and toured that record so hard. We were all still living in the same town, practicing and touring a lot. We went further and wider on that record, going to Japan and a couple of European tours, too. After that, between the time that lapsed between Challenge and Leaves, we all drifted. I moved to Portland, Vern moved to Las Vegas for a while and everything became pretty disjointed. With Challenge—like our previous records—we went into a real recording studio that we had to reserve time in and pay by the hour. I think we spent two whole weeks in the studio on Challenge when we spent maybe a week on earlier ones—in a studio with a producer and an engineer, banging it out.

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Challenge sounds way different than even Repetition did a couple of years before. What were you trying to do with that record specifically?
SL: Leading up to Repetition, we were just banging out songs. After Repetition, we had a whole year of writers block, essentially. We had a whole year where we didn’t write a new song—at least that’s how I remember it (laughing). We had all been living in punk houses with basements and then we all had a teeny tiny bit more money and we all lived in our own apartments so we had to rent a practice space. So we rented a practice space and we practiced but we did not write a single song in that practice space. It wasn’t until Vern ended up moving into not what ended up being the farmhouse where we recorded Leaves but down the dirt road where we built a practice space in that basement. It wasn’t until we got back in a basement where we started writing songs again.

What about the difference, sound-wise, between Challenge and Leaves?
SL: With Challenge, we did spent a lot more time—two whole weeks (laughing)—in the studio and it was the more produced record than all the ones leading up to it. We had more a little more time and we had been building interest in the band of production tricks. There was definitely more of a conscious effort for it to be a studio record and not just a record of what we sound like live, which was what we were doing before. Leaves was even farther than that because a lot of the songs were actually built in the studio. There was a significant number of them we wrote together—the three of us—which is how we mostly wrote our songs in practice. But there were a few on there that were built in the recording process—which is I think maybe how modern people write music now (laughing).

Was Leaves the hardest record for you guys to make?
SL: Yeah, it took like two years to make that record. I was living in Portland and working and I would just come up on the weekends. Vern, at some point in the middle of making of the record, moved to Las Vegas. He was going to try to come back more regularly but that didn’t end up working out. There was a lot of time where it was Justin just by himself. He was living at the house with the studio at that point, in the basement toiling away and he got Brandt to come in and help a bit. I would come up whenever I could and work on stuff. Meanwhile, we weren’t playing shows or touring at all. I remember the spring of 1999, it was the first spring in five or six years that we weren’t going to be in Europe. We went to Europe every spring and I remember that spring and thinking “There’s something wrong! I’m not supposed to be in this country right now!” (Laughing). I definitely got anxious like “What are we doing? Is this happening?” I remember having conversations with Justin where he was like “This is just the way this is happening now. We are going to take our time. We’re not going to rush anything. That’s the whole point in having our own studio and doing it ourselves is that we can take as long as we want and doing as much as we want and do whatever we want as long as the technology that we have allows.” But we were pretty limited by technology—we had an eight-track, that whole record was recorded on an eight-track.

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Were you nervous on how Leaves would be received since it was so different than the other ones?
SL: I feel like we always—I don’t know if it was confidence or attitude or naiveté or whatever (laughing)—believed in what we were doing to be like “This is what we’re doing and if people like it great. If they don’t that’s their problem (laughing).” Art for art’s sake, kind of thing. That was also when in 2000-whatever when people started getting licensed more so we started having these jokey conversations about “Oh, this is going to be the new Intel commercial or whatever.” But that never happened, by the way (laughing).

Justin, you mentioned Empire is dark visually and that final tour wasn’t necessarily a good time for Unwound.
JT: Yeah, those were dark days and the disintegration of relationships and friendships (laughing). Bands deserve their own category of a relationship because a lot of times people compare bands to a marriage. It’s sorta like a marriage and a business mixed together or a partnership type of thing. It’s a complex relationship and usually it’s more than two people involved. When bands last a number of years, or even short periods of time, they can be just as emotionally hard as breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend. People don’t think about it that way necessarily but instead like “Oh, it’s just a band” or “Maybe if they were more business-oriented and kicked that person out and kept it going.” Unwound started at such an early age and based so much on bonding and friendship that by the time we had evolved into more of almost a business relationship then this total tight web of complexity (laughs) of there’s no easy decision about how to end that kind of thing or keep going and so on and so forth. That last set (Empire) explains that to some degree—the complexity of that kind of relationship.

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Did reading Wilcox’s account affect you in taking you back to those dark days of the band?
JT: I think the main thing that I walked away with was that my initial feeling was I felt doubtful there was much of a story (laughing). We didn’t do all kinds of crazy stuff. But then as we did all these interviews and it started turning into this narrative that he’s doing as a writer, it was like “Oh yeah, there is a story here.” Everybody has a biography and not all of them are worth telling (laughing) or worth reading. That sounds mean but they are all worth reading to somebody but they don’t have all have mass appeal. For Unwound, it has limited appeal but has a wider appeal than I thought it did—it outlives just the people who cared about it in the 90’s. People now can go have any more of an artifact sort of way and go “Oh, wow.” It’s part of a greater story that was in the 90’s in terms of music history where a lot of that stuff hasn’t been told that well. Everybody knows about Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the grunge, Sub Pop and Riot Grrl—some of that stuff has been pretty well documented. A lot of the other stuff is less clear and the cultural cache that it has is a little less heavy but it’s all tied together. There’s little stories like ours that are coming out that actually help punctuate some of the music history stuff more complete. Now that it’s all in print form, I’m like “Hmmm. This is a story.” (Laughing).
SL: It (Empire) was toughest to revisit but we’ve been building towards it all along. The final installment…it was rough. The end was hard and painful. When we broke up, we turned our backs on walked away. There was kind of like a grieving process, I guess. We were all in touch but it was about ten years before we all sat down and talked again.

Were you, Sara and Vern 100% full on involved in putting together Empire?
JT: It’s almost embarrassing. I ended up mining Instagram a little bit for Unwound photos—not super purposefully but I actually came across some stuff that ended up in the booklets. We were putting on Facebook that we need pictures. We had to mine pretty deep for some stuff and did some detective work between us and Numero and Henry Owings, who was sort of the art director and did the layout. He had as big role in the whole project, getting the ball rolling in the first place between us and Numero. Some of the detective work was fun and that’s what Numero does: they are musical detectives. I know that people were sitting on good pictures but now I kind of don’t care (laughing). It’s like “This is the moment! Can we get the best stuff, put it in this thing and then just call it good?” After this, it’s like the whole idea is to put it in one box and go “Yup. This is the best of the best.” Nothing is gonna surface after this.

Do you have a problem with Unwound being called a legacy act?
JT: Not really. It’s just sort of the reality. Twenty years down the way—I mean, at least from the origins. That’s what it is. We never got back together and I certainly don’t intend to. I think the injustice of the situation—and this isn’t against anybody or the world—was we haven’t really done a very good job of telling the story or for people to know about it, that we did all this work and it sorta seems like “Oh, what’s that?” But that’s up to us. We can’t just sit around and go “Poor me. No one cares about what we do.”

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Was there ever an idea thrown around of playing some reunion shows to coincide with the release of the reissues?
JT: I think, at the very initial start after many years of not even really considering it, I was like “Oh, maybe that’s possible.” But then I realized, as we were interacting, this is not going to work. It’s way, way too complicated and personally just way too risky to get involved with trying to do that. No one ever went like “We’ll give you $500,000.” No figures were dropped to do that. There’s been some offers but they weren’t actual monetary offers. It’s better that way because I don’t really want to know (laughs) because it’s just not going to happen. I’d say 90% chance not happening.

So there’s a 10% chance of an Unwound reunion?
Trosper: (Laughing)

Sara, is that something you’d be into doing if a reunion was actually possible?
SL: I don’t think so. There’s definitely a part of me that’s sad that I will never play those songs again, especially with the Leaves record, there’s some songs that I’m so proud of and we don’t did a tiny amount of touring. We barely ever played them live compared to all the other songs on the other records. There’s definitely a part of me that’s like “Oh, man. I just want to play “Look a Ghost” and “Terminus” I just want to play those songs because they’re so fun. To me, the playing is the satisfying part of making music. It’s great that we have these records that we can listen back to and as a fan of music I’m glad that music exists in recorded form. But as a player, it’s the actual, physical, visceral act of playing music that is the most satisfying. It’s sad to me that I can’t play those songs but on the other hand, all the other crap (laughing) that’s wrapped up in doing a reunion tour does not sound very appealing.

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Would you even be able to muster up the energy to revisit those Unwound songs in the live setting again or mentally you’re just past that because so many years have passed?
JT: Well, there is that and there would be a learning curve and an energy curve, which would be a concept to explore. If you gave me a guitar right now, I would struggle to play any of those songs. If you think about the personal history, it makes it complicated. Putting those three people in a room together and actually putting together a set of songs to play in front of people under a pretty high pressure situation…uh, yeah. It’s not going to happen (laughing).

Sara, what about when Unwound broke up and Justin dropped out of music completely?
SL: He totally did. At first, there was a brief period where he and I tried to start a thing new. It was pretty clear he was totally burnt out and needed to not do it for a while. But he didn’t do it for ten years, which is insane (laughing). We would hang out, he’d come over and pick up a guitar and start twiddling around. I’d be like “Hello? Is this the first time you’ve played guitar in ten years? Remember that you’re a really good guitar player and maybe you should play some music again?” (Laughing). But he needed to do what he needed to do. Now he likes playing again so that’s great.

You didn’t stop playing after Unwound ended, though.
SL: I never did, I never stopped. It took me, at least, five years to find anyone to have a satisfying musical experience.

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Unwound was a hard act to follow.
SL: In a lot of levels because we started playing together when we were really young. We became the players that we are—because of the way Justin plays, because of the way Vern plays, that’s why I played drums the way I played. It was a special musical connection that we had and I wasn’t going to find that with any ol’ person. It was kind of a wakeup call to realize like “Oh, not everybody works like that.” It’s rare to have a truly collaborative everyone listening and everyone playing off of each other kind of dynamic that the three of us had—that’s not that common, that’s not how most people play together. We were really great at playing music together, we were only kind of good friends and we were terrible communicators and there was a lot of personal crap.

Well you guys were pretty young.
SL: Exactly. To find people that are quality humans that make the kind of music you want to make and play in a way that is conducive to the way you play so when I started playing with Andrew from Hungry Ghost, he had also not played music in like ten years. I had still been playing but hadn’t been in a band type of situation so when we started playing together, it was almost like we both got to start over again in this way and do that thing where we were relearning and finding our new voices together and we had known each other many, many years and had a lot of shared musical references. We are working on our second record right now. Sam Coomes, who produced our first one, is also working with us on our second one.

How was Vern involved was with putting together the reissues?
JT: He was involved to a lesser degree. We ran everything by him and he wasn’t—and I’m not saying it in a bad way—as active as Sara and I were in terms of hunting down, doing the detective work and doing a lot of the leg work. But I wasn’t expecting him to carry 1/3 of the weight of that (laughing). I was like “You know, if I want things done the way I like things done, well, I have to do’em.” I can’t expect people to do that; they have lives. I had time to do a lot of that stuff so that was good.

Yes, I saw he has a project called Red Rumsey.
JT: I haven’t heard the latest thing he did but someone was telling me the last time they saw him do something he was evolving and not stagnating. That’s good and that was a good sign. So everybody is at their own pace doing stuff. The closest thing, as far as those three people, is I started making a record and Sara plays on some of those songs.

Your own record? You’re going solo?
JT: (Laughing)Goin’ solo! Actually, it’s not called “Justin Trosper.” I’m basically starting to do a solo-ish type of thing that involves other people. It’s not like me playing an acoustic guitar (laughing). It’s just sort of me doing stuff. It’s not a democratic band process which other stuff I’ve done is. Sara plays on half the record.

Cool. Is it coming out anytime soon?
JT: Well, I wanted to have it done by now but I’m still not done with it. Life got in the way a little bit but I’m definitely going to try to get it out a year from now—hopefully next spring (laughing). That’s a little ambitious.

Where does Unwound go from here since the reissue campaign is complete?
SL: I think focusing on the archive will be good. There’s still plenty of stuff out there that we don’t even know exists that other people have that they keep on uncovering. I don’t know if having all this stuff out there in this new format and what that translates into in terms of what people expect, besides the reunion tour (laughing).
JT: There’s going to be a CD box of the whole thing. Maybe that was a secret. That will be the final thing. My goal this winter is I would like to button up the website and do the final hours of work on that and make it its own thing that’s not growing anymore but is still accessible. Ideally, that would be great to have, at least, a handful of live shows that people could access. I can’t imagine doing anymore releases that are exclusive. All the critical stuff is there and packaged and (laughing)…

…in a big way.
JT: In a big way, yeah. It’s great, it’s cool. But there’s not much more to do other than to do that website and if people want to dig in they could do that.

Empire is out now via Numero Group.