All photos by Valerie LittleJohn
On February 21st, Phoenix-based hardcore band Unruh played their first show in fifteen years. Formed in 1995, they're now a household name for anyone who is a fan of old school 90s hardcore, metal, and punk alike. Twenty years after they first came together as a band, Unruh took the stage in Mesa, AZ for an unforgettable night of loud music and time travel. The whole crowd was on fire, and the band had the ferocity to match.
Guitarist Ryan Butler (also of deathgrind champs Landmine Marathon and Arcane Digital Recording) was kind enough to take some time to talk about the show as well as the history of the band. You can pick up a 20th anniversary copy of Unruh's album Tomb over at King of the Monsters Records.
Noisey: Tell us a little bit about how Unruh formed, and how doing a reunion show came to pass?
Ryan Butler: I was playing in Wellington before we started playing together in a band called Uruk-Hai. Uruk-Hai was just a studio project that fell apart after the 7" on Fetus was recorded. I really wanted to play fast to counter what Wellington was doing, so Bill (drums) and Nick (original bassist) decided to keep playing together. We initially wanted to sound like a mix of Voice of Reason from Texas and Rorschach. We kept that sound alive over the years while adding in a lot of death metal and grindcore influences, while still remaining a hardcore band. We tried out a few vocalists and ended up with Mike Edwards and started playing shows.
The reunion show came about from years of people requesting it and the box set being released. We got together last May and decided that since it was going to be twenty years in 2015 and everything was being released that maybe it was time to do one last show. We never had a proper last show, so this was good closure.
What was it like being on stage with Unruh again? Could you see the younger version of yourself on stage, like a flashback? Did it make you feel old?
It was pretty surreal being onstage with those guys again. I had a little bit of flashback feelings, but not too much. We didn't get to put in a ton of rehearsal times, and most of these guys aren't used to playing on big stages with monitors, or haven't in fifteen years. So, there was some anxiety about not letting down the people who had come from all over the country to see us. It didn't make me feel young, especially playing 45 minutes worth of hardcore/grind, and it was totally different. We generally played on the floor or on small stages with direct contact with the crowd, but we needed a big room, so that we wouldn't have to turn anyone away. I also remembered why I don't write complex clean parts anymore! The amount of smiles in the front row and the amount of people coming through the door was totally heartwarming, though.
You've stayed in Arizona throughout the years. How do you think things have changed within the scene since the 90s?
It's changed for the good and the bad. The scene here is bigger than ever and the population of the valley has doubled since I was a kid. The amount of bands touring nowadays makes for a staggering amount of shows, and we get every single show that LA gets with a fifth of the population to fill the venues. So, shows are hit or miss. But the amount of awesome bands coming out of the valley is killer. There used to be four or five hardcore bands here and now there's hundreds. There are tons of diehard kids here. But even the weekend of our show, we had DRI on Friday, us on Saturday, a doom show on Sunday and Napalm Death/Voivod on Monday. Not to mention a few smaller shows competing. So, it's hard to physically and monetarily keep up with the amount of awesome shows coming through and kids become spoiled, which can kind of hurt the scene a bit. It's tough to complain about too many rad shows, though.
I was told that on your European tour back in the 90's there were European fans who were under the impression Unruh was a black metal band. How did that happen?
Well, we did a Halloween show at the Che Cafe in 98 with Dystopia, Still Life, Suicide Nation and some others. We wore KISS makeup that turned out to be real cheap and melted on us. Photos from that show ended up in the HeartattaCk zine and we had several people ask why we weren't wearing corpse paint. We also had someone ask if we had to wear special glasses, like in Dune, because we lived in the desert. Haha.
Mike Bjella (bassist) stories seem to come up a lot in talking about Unruh— what's one of your favorite Bjella stories from back in the old touring days?
Oh man. Bjella is an anomaly and one of my favorite people. He's one of the few people who nowadays I just feel completely at ease around. He's just super witty, but super out there in his ideas, which makes for an amazing combination. He also used to drink a lot, so many of his tales are not fit for print. One tamer one I can think of is about a house we stayed at in Portland once. We got there and there was a Poodle that probably should have been put to sleep years earlier. It was like a blind walking corpse. Bjella stated that he refused to sleep on the floor with this dog roaming around. He took all of the cushions off the couch, trapped the dog in a corner and began building a fort around the dog with cushions. He was bending over to put a cushion in place as a roommate we hadn't met emerged from the bedroom to yell, "What the hell are you doing to my dog?" Bjella looked back and responded, "I'm helping it". She was none too pleased and came and grabbed the corpse dog and took it to her room. As soon as her door shut, we all lost it.
Besides the corpsepaint confusion, was Unruh better-received in Europe or in America? What was different about the scene over there?
Europe is just overall more accepting and supporting of the arts. So, we were well supported when we went there, but kids are there to literally just watch the bands. In America, when you have a group of kids who are there to see the band and are fanatical, they go crazy. So, it's a different vibe. There was probably more people at the European shows and we were well taken care of, but the crowds weren't as insane. The UK is a mirror image of the US, though. Bands are lucky to get paid, but the kids go nuts. The second or third show of our Europe tour was in Germany with Oi Polloi at a vegan festival. We were served the worst vegan food I've ever had and then played to four or five hundred people who just stood there. You'd finish a song and they'd go nuts cheering, though. I thought it was really odd. It wasn't like playing in LA where 50-100 kids would show up and literally be bouncing off the walls. You can reference the youtube video Unruh 4/26/97 Van Nuys, CA to really see what I'm talking about. For even more fun, watch Crom PCP Parade part 2 from the same show. There's a guy who throws an entire love seat over his head onto the band while they're playing.
What other Arizona based or West Coast hardcore bands did you share a kinship with back in the day?
Arizona bands we played with often were Tho Ko Losi/Suicide Nation, Atomkinder, Pay Neuter, Vomitus, Sea of Deprivation and a few others. We were really tight with the guys in Enewetak, Fall Silent and Gehenna, as far as West Coast bands go. Levi from Fall Silent was at the reunion show, and it warmed my heart to see him. We haven't been in close contact for awhile and he's someone I really miss. I still talk to a lot of guys from the other bands, though.
Is it exciting for you to see Enewetak do a reunion show too? Is there any chance we'll see Unruh do any more shows in the future or was this the one and only chance to see you guys back together again?
Seeing Enewetak again will be rad. They only really ever played in AZ and surrounding areas of their hometown of Orange, CA. When we announced our show, Gehenna, Enewetak and Fall Silent all approached us about also playing, but we really just wanted it to be a night focused on Unruh, and it was. As amazing as it would be to play with all those bands again, we just wanted to have our thing. All the openers were AZ bands with members who had played with Unruh in previous bands. I think that will more than likely be the only thing we'll do. It was a huge undertaking and I've gotta get back to working on Landmine Marathon.
What other bands have you and the other members been involved with? Who is still actively involved in music?
Mike Bjella has been doing GOG pretty steadily for about 10 years and was in a great stoner rock band called Black Hell. Mike Edwards has been somewhat out of the music scene raising two boys and working. Bill Fees has been a professional musician for the last ten years in a band called Antique Scream which came from the ashes of our band, Structure of Lies. Haven't heard from Nick in a few years, but he was an original member of Landmine. Jason, our second bassist, lives in Texas with his awesome family and still does music off and on. We try and visit him whenever Landmine rolls through the area. I've done time in Structure of Lies, Mercitron, North Side Kings and have been playing in Landmine Marathon since 2006. I'm also currently involved in the revitalization of NYHC greats, District 9, here in Arizona and I run Arcane Digital Recording in Chandler.
Valerie LittleJohn is tearing it up on Twitter - @violentresval