Unwound - Biography

The Olympia music scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s was important for a variety of reasons. It was where Calvin Johnson founded K Records as well as the influential band, Beat Happening; it was the scene of the Riot Grrrl movement, responsible for bands such as Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill; the music of Olympia inspired Kurt Cobain, who moved there from Aberdeen before heading to Seattle. And then there was Unwound, a noisy little band that moved to Olympia from a neighboring city called Tumwater.

Perhaps the most admirable thing about Unwound was their ability and willingness to evolve. Although the Sonic Youth-inspired indie noise rock they so loved would be a constant in each of their albums, they never shied away from trying new things or incorporating new instruments. Unwound weren’t afraid to be melodic either, and with each passing album, it was clear that main songwriter, Justin Trosper, was getting better and better at writing music that was compelling and intelligent on top of being viscerally satisfying. While some of their experiments failed, they ended their decade-long career with a nearly flawless album, 2001’s gorgeous, Leaves Turn Inside You (Kill Rock Stars).

Trosper (vocals, guitar) met Vern Rumsey (bass) as early as the third grade, when they played on the same baseball team. Eventually, they started playing music together and formed Giant Henry with drummer Brandt Sandeno. In 1991, when they were still all in their teens, they changed their name to Unwound and began recording. They went on to become the first group signed to Kill Rock Stars, releasing two singles. Kill Rock Stars originally began as a spoken word label, but founder Slim Moon was so impressed by the live performances of Unwound, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, that he broadened his scope and signed them. Unwound was also an early signee of Gravity Records, where they released one single.

In early 1992, they recorded their debut full-length. That July, Sandeno exited the fold. The departure put the album in a limbo state, and it was not released until 1995. The band eventually issued it on their own label—Punk in My Vitamins—which limited its release and made it largely unheard. A drummer named Sara Lund had moved to Olympia from Bloomington, Indiana and started playing in the band Witchypoo. She became a friend of Sandeno’s, and Trosper met her on New Year’s Eve of 1991. He soon asked her to take over on drums. In mid-1993, Unwound teamed up with Washington native Steve Fisk, a prominent member of the Sub Pop scene who already had EPs by Nirvana and Soundgarden to his credit. Fisk added an extra layer of power to Trosper’s tunes, and would work on every subsequent Unwound album. Fake Train (1993) was finally issued on Kill Rock Stars that July, and it was a great take on grindcore.

Unwound’s touring schedule was becoming more and more rigorous. They were living the same unglamorous life as all their idols in the DIY punk bands of the early ’80s. They would sleep wherever a bed was offered, play where they could and eat fast food almost exclusively. Soon enough, they would be opening for Fugazi, a band to whom their sound is often likened. One of the many principles that Unwound would share with Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye was the strict policy of playing only all ages shows. This meant that they’d often have to play unorthodox venues, as most bars and clubs would not let minors through the doors.

For the next three years, Unwound were prolific, releasing an album per year. First to come was New Plastic Ideas (1994 Kill Rock Stars). Here, Unwound continued their noise-crammed assault while incorporating a few directional hints of melody. December of the next year saw the release of The Future of What (1995 Kill Rock Stars). Again working with producer Steve Fisk, the band crafted their most cohesive set of songs up to that point, many of them far more accessible than previous material.

Possibly the best introduction to Unwound’s body of work and the greatest example of what they contributed as a band arrived the next year. Repetition (1996 Kill Rock Stars) had all of the Sonic Youth noisiness, but an added layer of melody, focus, and depth. Excellently produced, the album features Trosper’s inimitable vocals over layers of feedback and rollicking guitar overplay. Arguably, Repetition was the band at their peak, as their final two albums might have pushed too hard for the artiness that the album seems to effortlessly achieve.

Looking to switch gears a little bit, in 1997 Trosper continued the streak of releasing one album each year, but this time with Sandeno on a side project called The Replikants. This is Our Message (1997) was a collection of their home demos, recorded between 1994 and 1996. With that off their chest and revitalized, Unwound started recording again later that same year, and the product of those sessions was the extremely noisy Challenge For a Civilized Society (1998 Kill Rock Stars), an extension of the inventiveness captured on Repetition.

The band ended up taking a three-year break after Challenge came out. In that time, they industriously built a home studio, which they called MagRecOne—a portmanteau of Magnetic Recording Academy—and took as much time as they felt necessary to come up with a new album concept. The members even decided to produce it themselves, though Steve Fisk was around to lend a helping hand. The album that was to result from the break—the double-LP, Leaves Turn Inside You (2001 Kill Rock Stars)—would be, perhaps unbeknownst to them, their last. And what a crescendo it was, as Unwound went out on the most ambitious note of their career. “December” begins with typical Unwound dissonance that gives way to an unexpectedly melodic slow-building interlude. The initially irritating opener, “We Invent You,” begins with a cluster of notes held for two droning minutes that hypnotizes . . . right before an actual song floats up into the mix. One of Unwound’s greatest songs, “Demons Sing Love Songs,” achieves a deli-tray of emotions—spooky, trippy, but above all, catchy.

In the end, Leaves Turn Inside You is a kind of celebration of the band, with ex-member Sandeno pitching in on keyboard on some tracks, as well as friend Janet Weiss (Quasi/Sleater-Kinney) adding vocals. The band earned the best reviews of their career with the release, landing comparisons to landmark albums such as Soundgarden’s Superunknown and Sonic Youth’s, Daydream Nation. It was a perfect note for the band to end on, leaving fans to wonder what they might have possibly turned out next.

Unwound amicably split up in 2002.

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