Born from the filthy seeds of Big Black, the Swans and Foetus, and bred in the early Nineties in the crime-riddled streets of Manhattan's Alphabet City, Unsane have always relied on strife and struggle to fuel their turbulent noise rock. Their self-titled 1991 debut album featured a crime photo of a decapitated body on the subway on its cover, and the grisly image matched the band's ugly, abrasive sound, which has always been as much about suffering as about rocking out.
"Back then, we all lived in the fuckin' Lower East Side, which was totally nasty," recalls Unsane frontman Chris Spencer. "There was cocaine and heroin being sold on the corner and I lived on Avenue D next to a destroyed building. That area was all fucked up. There was a guy there who had eight dogs, and other people would bring their pit bulls over and they'd just feast on his dogs. We'd hear these animals crying in the middle of the night. And in the morning we'd have to step over junkies and pass by drug dealers. That definitely left an imprint on the music."
In an era of noise rock that championed Jesus Lizard, Hammerhead, Surgery and Cows, Unsane fit right in; only, their agonized riffs and cathartic screams came from an even more authentic place than those of many of their peers. In 1992, original drummer Charlie Ondras died of a heroin overdose and was replaced by Vinnie Signorelli (ex-Swans, ex-Foetus). Various members have battled, injuries, illness and addiction, and in 1998 Spencer was nearly beaten to death by four thugs in Vienna, Austria, and required emergency surgery.
The eighth Unsane album, Sterilize — their first since 2012's Wreck — stands up against their Nineties best. Throughout the record, Spencer, Signorelli and bassist Dave Curran (who replaced original bassist Pete Shore in 1994) launch wave after wave of feedback-saturated riffs, soul-searing screams and pummeling, syncopated beats. And like the rest of their catalog, Sterilize was fueled by plenty of real-life trauma and anxiety. Spencer tells all.
FIVE YEARS HAVE ELAPSED BETWEEN THE RELEASE OF WRECK AND STERILIZE. YOU GUYS HAVE HAD SIMILAR GAPS BETWEEN ALBUMS, BUT THIS TIME YOU HAVE A PRETTY VALID EXCUSE — VINNIE'S LIFE-THREATENING INFECTION. TELL US ABOUT THAT.
CHRIS SPENCER About five years ago, I was with Vinnie in this really tiny hotel in Mexico. We were at the bar on the roof and he came around the edge of the bar and somehow tore a muscle in his lower back near his hip. I hung out for a little while, then tried to get him to come back to New York, but he refused. He preferred the Mexican medical system. It was cheaper and there were no insurance issues.
TURNS OUT THAT WASN'T THE BEST MOVE.
No. He developed an abscess and they misdiagnosed him. The abscess went septic and ate into all the muscles in his lower back. Eventually, he came back to New York, and by that time he was really on the verge of death. The doctor said, "If you had waited three more days to come to me, you probably would not be alive." Vinnie spent four months in Far Rockaway in this flophouse, nightmare rehabilitation place. It was like One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest with all these crazy people screaming. They took out part of the muscle, they rebuilt his hip. It took a lot longer and was more involved than anyone thought it possibly could be.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE VINNIE TO GET BACK BEHIND THE KIT?
A long time. The infection affected his hip on his high-hat leg, thank God. But it took years for him to be better. We were on the verge of going on tour with the Melvins, which we had always wanted to do. We were at JFK about to get onto a plane to fly to L.A. to start the tour when I got a text from Vinnie that said, "I'm fucked. I can't go." And this was way before he had the surgery. He had to cancel out of the tour. We were lucky that Dale [Crover] and Coady [Willis] from the Melvins were cool enough to learn a bunch of our songs in one day so we could get going on that tour. They just toured with the two of us.
DID YOU EVER THINK ABOUT GETTING A NEW DRUMMER WHILE VINNIE WAS OUT OF COMMISSION?
Not for a second. Me, Dave and Vinnie are like a family. We're super-close friends. I've had my troubles, too, with drugs and drinking. Everybody's had their problems, but we all stick together. We're not the kind of band that goes, "Well, that guy's fucking up. Let's replace him." There's definitely a chemistry musically that works really well between the three of us. We've done tours before without Dave and a couple without Vinnie and got different players for the shows, and really, it's just not the same on a friendship level. I miss the guy who's not there. So if it's at all possible, we'll always stick with the lineup we've had for 25 years.
DID YOU REMAIN PRODUCTIVE WHILE YOU WAITED FOR VINNIE TO HEAL?
Not at all. I did a lot of drugs and drank. It was really bad. I mean, I was smoking crack and just drunk nonstop every day. I was doing whatever drugs I could get my hands on and I was pretty much in the worst place you can possibly be inside yourself. I was really disappointed in myself and I hated myself. I wished I could just die. My friends lost faith in me and I was doing shit that was totally out of character because I was wasted all the time. Being a drunk is worse than being a junkie. Think about it, man. When do you see a junkie fighting people or causing trouble like a drunk?
HOW DID YOU GET CLEAN?
I hit rock bottom after months and months of fucking nastiness. And then I cleaned up. Honestly, I did it by myself with going to any sort of rehab program. I just knew I had to get my shit together and become myself again. And when I was better I started working.
MISERY CAN MAKE FOR GREAT ART.
Yeah, you gotta get shit out of your system.
WHEN DID YOU WRITE STERILIZE?
About a year ago we did a three-week tour of Europe to see if everything was cool. Then I went, "OK, let's do a new record." I got home and had a few months to write a bunch of shit. We were definitely more separated as a band than we had been in the past. Dave was writing at his place and we were bouncing ideas off each other, but there was less collaboration than before, which is maybe why it sounds more like the old Unsane stuff. Back then, I wrote everything. Pete [Shore] didn't write songs. I wrote a shitload of material for this album. I wrote 14 songs and Dave wrote six or seven. We had an hour and a half of shit to sort through when we all got together. That's the greatest position to be in. You have shit you're totally into and happy with and then you get the two guys you love playing with showing up.
DO YOU LIKE THAT LISTENERS HAVE COMPARED THIS TO EARLY UNSANE?
I'm fine would that, but I would say that this record is not quite as minimal as a lot of our older stuff. There was a lot of early Unsane stuff that was really repetitious. It was just riff, riff, repeat. This one has some of that, but I think it's more musically developed.
HAVE YOU GROWN AS A SONGWRITER?
I hope so, but also, back then things were really hectic-quick in terms of touring. We were touring 10 months of the year, which gave us a week between tours and maybe two weeks to write a record. [1995's] Scattered, Smothered & Covered was written in basically two weeks. I did all the lyrics while doing laundry. We were working so fast and everything had to be done so quickly, there was no time for looking back.
WILL YOU TOUR STERILIZE FOR ANOTHER 10 MONTHS?
We'll see. Now that Vinnie's back, we'll see what he can handle. He's still got a limp and he's still tired and in pain a lot of the time. But he's up for it. He's a fuckin' iron man. It's the best kind of physical therapy, to actually work your ass off. Vinnie's always been like that. One time in 1998 he wiped out on my dirt bike and broke his collarbone midway through the tour. We had another two and a half weeks of shows booked. It happened on a Thursday in San Francisco. We fuckin' duct-taped his shoulder together and he played that night and the next night in L.A. with a broken collarbone. Once Monday hit, he was in too much pain to continue. But it was unbelievable that he even did those two shows.
YOU HAD A BRUSH WITH FAME IN 1995 WHEN YOU SPENT AROUND $200 TO CREATE A MUSIC VIDEO FOR "SCRAPE" THAT SHOWED ALMOST NOTHING BUT KIDS WIPING OUT WHILE PERFORMING TRICKS ON SKATEBOARDS AND BIKES. PEOPLE LOVED IT AND THE VIDEO WENT INTO HEAVY ROTATION ON MTV.
I couldn't believe it. I remember seeing Janet Jackson and then us. It was so fuckin' stupid. What a joke. Apparently, a lot of big acts got really mad because they spent a lot of money on their videos and then ours beat them out. It was a total fluke but a lot of people who were kids at the time and saw that video are now fans of the band. That's kind of amazing to me.
WHOSE IDEA WAS IT TO JUST USE FOOTAGE OF PEOPLE HURTING THEMSELVES FOR THE VIDEO?
I was just hanging out with some friends. I used to live in the art gallery on Ludlow Street way before it was college-bar central. The guy who made it, Thomas Campbell and I were sitting in the back of the gallery in the living room watching skate videos. I took a big bong hit and said, "Hey, let's do a video that maybe only has six seconds of the band in it and the rest of it is about people getting hurt skateboarding." He was like, "Yeah, I can do that." He shot us on Super-8 and then everything else was just pain. Thomas worked for TransWorld and he was in skate shops all the time so he had access to all kinds of videos. There were clips of kids breaking their arms and legs. One guy in L.A. came up to us after one of our shows once and said, "Dude, I was the guy on the BMX bike and I smashed my teeth out in that shot!" He was pretty excited to tell us that, too.
HAVE YOU GUYS EVER INJURED YOURSELVES WHILE PLAYING ONSTAGE?
One of the greatest, most fun things that ever happened was in the late-Nineties when we flew in to play a festival in Europe. We had never played one of these giant festivals. I was sitting behind the stage in the grass changing my strings 'cause we didn't have time to do shit. Then we got pushed out there and we realized we were playing to 10,000 people. But we'd been touring a lot so we were super-tight and playing this really good show. Then suddenly, I lifted up the headstock of my guitar doing a chord and one of the tuning pegs clipped the bridge of my nose and it started bleeding down my chin. I looked over at Vinnie and he had done basically the same thing with a drumstick and he's also bleeding out of his face. We played to that many people are we got through the set bleeding profusely. It was, to me, one of the best experiences ever.