What was it that attracted Unsane to St. Louis? Was it our friendly Midwestern demeanor? Our plethora of venues? The legion of loyal fans who still wince when they think about Unsane's video for "Scrape" (the one in which a cavalcade of skateboarders snuff out any dreams of fatherhood by busting their crotches on an array of genital-unfriendly objects)?
"It's just routing," explains Unsane guitarist/vocalist Chris Spencer. "We had to get down to Austin and back." Ah, well. St. Louis' ego takes another hit, but at least it gets a kiss; Spencer quickly adds, "We've had good shows there, though. There was one show we did there where an Unsane fan beat up a Slayer fan for yelling, 'You suck!' to us. I was, like, 'Oh my God, that's great!"
Unsane is a band that appreciates a good beating. Spencer was the victim of a particularly savage one in Austria that required his abdomen to be stapled back together and held in place with a special girdle during what became Unsane's last tour. It was the after-effects of that attack, along with a brutal touring schedule, that caused the band to grind to a halt. "We had over 300 shows a year for four years, something ridiculous like that. None of us had lives. You'd get home and go, 'What do I do now? I guess make another record.' And then Vinnie [Signorelli, Unsane's drummer] was opening a tattoo shop in Brooklyn, and Dave [Curran, Unsane's bassist) was starting to do sound work at a club in Brooklyn. Everyone just wanted to take a break, do their own thing for a while."
As a band, Unsane has a ten-year track record of doing its own thing. Although Unsane is often lumped into the noise-rock category, along with such New York contemporaries as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Surgery, few sonic similarities exist between Unsane and its peers. Over the course of four albums and a dozen early singles, the members of Unsane transformed themselves from noisy, slightly metallic punks into a focused avalanche of riffs that obliterated the boundaries between punk, metal and industrial. By the time they released their last album, Occupational Hazard, they were like a Soviet icebreaker let loose in the streets of New York, crushing pavement, shouldering buildings off their foundations and driving relentlessly into forbidding wastelands. The brunt of Unsane's force is borne by Signorelli and Curran, who must construct dense slabs of bottom-end hum and plod and then propel them fast enough to keep pace with Spencer's scything guitar howls. At its best -- say, the version "Get Off My Back" found on the live Amrep Christmas album -- Unsane is a grinding engine of oppressive might. Its protean noise assault echoes in the sound of the younger math-metal bands that followed in Unsane's wake, such as Knut and the recently deceased Botch, but Spencer is reluctant to claim any role as a forefather of the Hydra Head Records generation: "Yeah, I don't know. That's a hard question. I don't want to seem like a schmuck and be, like, 'All these people were influenced by me.' I wouldn't know. I don't know them personally."
Spencer's reluctance to speculate, his tendency to stick with what he knows, is his greatest strength as a lyricist. Although Unsane is notorious for its lurid album covers, which almost always depict the bloody aftermath of humanity's propensity for violence, Spencer never wanders off into the psychotic/fantasy realm of lyrics favored by other bands who share his interest in the darker side of the human psyche. When the topic of gore/fantasy metal is brought up, Spencer laughs: "Ah, it's funny you say that. I have a joke with Will, the drummer from Cutthroats 9 [Spencer's other band], 'cause he's a real metal fan, and I grew up with punk rock. So to me, the whole fantasy aspect of music is not really applicable.... It depends if you're into the fantasy thing. I mean, if you want to hear about The Lord of the Rings, go on, go ahead."
Instead, Spencer's lyrics are tautly drawn stories of violence and outrage that read like elliptical police reports, with the particulars removed and only the emotion and the effects of said emotion remaining intact. These minimal narratives are a grim fit for the stark bursts of almost mechanical noise Unsane projects when flaying a riff down to the bone and cracking it open to suck out the marrow. In "Smells Like Rain," while the band bludgeons its way through boilerplate, Spencer's flat speech -- "I can see there's something gone in me/I wash the whole thing down/and watch you drown with me now" -- creates a greater sense of menace than any song about demonic bloodletting and chainsaw murders ever will.
The visceral nature of his writing stems from the fact that Spencer writes with an audience of one in mind: "When I write the words for songs, it's sort of, just so I'm reminded of an experience. So whatever will hit me the hardest, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm not at all about the fantasy aspect of rock. To me music, if you're playing music, it's very self-centered. To write music just for yourself, that really hits home with you, so when you're playing live over 300 times a year, every time you play it it's gonna hit you pretty hard -- because you're thinking about something specifically that happened to you, or a friend of yours, or right in front of you."
Although this current tour is only twelve dates long, Spencer has "four or five" new songs written that he hopes to debut in front of a live audience. He also says that Unsane might make another record and possibly tour again in the spring, so maybe Chicago will get a chance to hear Unsane at some point. OK, Chicago gets to hear them the day after we do. But remember, you're getting the chance to hear them first. Don't blow it.