New York noise rock trio UNSANE is back to smash your brain with their noise-laden sonic assault. The band is just about to bring out a remastered version of their self-titled debut album (on September 23rd) and tour intensively all over Europe. Chris Spencer [vocalist/guitarist] willingly told me all about living in New York in the 80s, playing shows in CBGB, recording s/t and his deep love for horror movies. This guy has sooooo many great stories!
Every time I read about UNSANE there are always words like “legendary” or “influential” involved. How do you perceive it?
It’s hard for me to say. UNSANE definitely sounds a little different from most bands. So that’s cool. That’d be awesome if we were influential. But at the same time, I really don’t hear many bands that sound like us, so it’s hard to say.
On September 23rd your first album will be released again. It’s remastered by your longtime friend engineer.
Yeah. Andrew Snyder.
How did it all happen?
Well, I had the original tapes, which is like an old format that nobody uses anymore, but I got them back from Matador and gave that with a ton of other shit to Andrew. He was able to, as he puts it, take the cocaine out of the mix, which is like this weird, kind of the early 90s, kind of muffled sound. A lot of stuff from that time period sounds like this. Maybe it’s just the recording process or the tapes that were used. Everything was done analog, so he was able to sort of add some mid-high, bring the drums up a tiny bit, and give everything more of an edge. And also make it sort of higher output, which is excellent. I think it really helped the record. That was my one sort of issue with the record. I thought it came out wonderful.
You have all the time in the world to make your first record, you know what I mean? You have years of you and your friends hanging out together and playing all the time, and then you get to take all that and just condense it down into this one record. So I think these records were good, but it definitely needed a sort of audio update. It just required a bit of help. Not much, but just a little to kick it up.
A quote in your press release made me giggle a bit: “…same infamous album front cover artwork will finally be made into a T-shirt”!
That was my idea, honestly. But it’s kind of a T-shirt that’s a little hard to wear, you know what I mean? It definitely crosses the line in terms of urban distress. It’s not the most friendly T-shirt possible, but yeah, I’ve wanted to do that since that record came out. So we finally got to do it. To me, it’s really cool, but I don’t know if everyone feels the same way. And I can see why you think it’s funny because it’s sort of like you’re going to take this really negative, harsh image and make a T-shirt out of it.
It’s not like something that you put going to work or something like that.
No, it’s an extremely casual Friday!
I read it’s a real photo.
Yeah. Me and our bass player, Pete Shore, and we were really into horror movies. That’s kind of how we started doing all this stuff. We really liked shock stuff. At the time, Pete had this friend of his who worked for the New York Police Department. He would give him old-school photographs; just prints of shit he had shot at work. So, Pete had held onto that picture for years and when we got the opportunity to put out a twelve-inch, Pete was like, we’ve got to use this picture. Which I’m not going to argue with him. If he wants to use it, it’s fine with me. I think in a lot of ways that being from the New York Police Department photo library was appropriate.
New York at the time was really a fucking harsh place. Drugs and violence everywhere. The city was broke, and they talked about turning off every third streetlight at one point to save money, which would have plummeted the city into just even more chaos. And we were cab drivers at the time for the most harsh areas in the town. So, our lives were a little crazy too, you know what I mean? And it just kind of worked with everything.
Weren’t you afraid about some legal issues considering it was a real crime scene photo?
We didn’t care. We never really cared about commercial success. We just wanted to do what we wanted to do. Sort of love it or leave it kind of thing.
I don’t think you could pull it off in these times.
Oh, now it would be almost impossible to do a record like that. Yes, totally. Completely. Even now with the reissue, we put a “censored” bar over the guy’s head and neck that are separated, to avoid any issues with social media. We had posted it earlier, but then they blocked the entire artwork. So, then we put the censored thing on there, and it worked. So we had to censor ourselves already at this point.
Thank god there are no nipples on this cover.
I know. Can you imagine? What if there was a naked lady next to the dead guy? I think we would be in real trouble.
You said you were a horror movies fan. Are you still into that genre?
Yeah, actually this morning I was watching this horror movie called Slaughterhouse Rock. Guy from Devo did a soundtrack for this. And this singer, Toni Basil, she sings in one of the songs, and also she stars in the movie! And it’s like horror, gore, and all kinds of stuff. So, you see, back in the ’80s that was totally viable. Violence was accepted at that time, but sex was a little taboo. So many horror movies were coming out, they were just super harsh. And that somehow was socially acceptable. But sex was not at the time. So, we were a product at that time of that sort of social acceptance in terms of aesthetics. So, we were like, hey, as long it’s not sex, we’re good. As long as there’s no nipple there, next to the guy, we’re going to be all right.
All the other UNSANE artworks are also pretty… brutal. Was it your plan from the beginning?
Yeah, we had an idea early on. A lot of bands we knew at the time were having other people do their artwork or having someone from the label help them with their cover. And we were like fuck that! I went to NYU Film School, studying to be a cinematographer. Pete was into fine art. Charlie, our drummer, was an art history guy. So we were all the art types. And if you’re going to give us twelve inches of visual space to do, we are going to do what we want, which is blood, horror, gore-type stuff. We agreed early on that that was appropriate and fun, and we can do it ourselves. Generally. The self-titled record is a real picture, and Scattered, Smothered & Covered is also a real picture. But everything else was done mostly by me, but also super early on by Pete Shore and Jens Jurgenson
Later it was me and my friend, James Rexroad, setting up. We called it a Blood Run: I’ll scout a location in New York that looks kind of cool or fucked up, and then I go get a bunch of blood and another friend to sort of be the model. And we’ll go down to the spot that I sort of located before, and then I hose the whole place down with blood. With real cow’s blood. And then position the body in there and set up a sort of forensic scene, so to speak. Not really, because the real forensics would go nuts! So I have my friends come with me and I set this whole thing up, and then I fucking stand back and say: okay, go for it.
And I let them know, framing-wise, what I’m thinking, so they can get something that’s in my mind’s eye of what I want to achieve there. And then they go in, and they just take as many pictures as they can before we have to fucking run like hell and get the hell out of there. Because if the cops show up, which has happened multiple times, cops see blood everywhere and a body lying there, they’re not going to be cool. And then also other people, if cars drive by, cars would tend to slow down and stop and look and comment and yell shit at us and crap like that. So, we tend to want to do this blood run as quickly as possible and get the hell out. And we don’t clean up. So, we leave this giant scene of gore on the street somewhere and split. I’ve told cops, occupational hazard. The cops rolled up, and I had to go through this whole thing, oh, we’re NYU students, and we’re shooting a horror movie, and I’m sorry we don’t have permits and all, you know, blah, blah, blah. So, it can be a pain in the ass if you don’t get out of there quickly.
That’s a great story.
Haha, thank you!
Let’s get back to the self-titled album for a little. How do you remember the time period of recording this piece of music?
Super fun, super good time. More just creativity overload. We had been living in a van, crashing on people’s floors for months, years at that point. And I always carried around a little cassette deck that I put on the soundboard before we start playing. And then I record the show and I get all that “in-between” songs, just noise. We didn’t care, we just were like: if we offend somebody, we don’t give a shit! So then we just make all this noise. There was almost no silence between songs, ever. Which is good because then you don’t have this awkward moment where people don’t clap because they don’t like you. So you could avoid that altogether. So then I had all these cassette recordings of different shows and different pieces of noise between songs, which I was able to edit. And once we recorded all the initial tracks, which were done live, just us in a room, playing at the same time. Minimal overdubs.
And then I could take this noise between songs, and I wanted to make the record the same way our live shows were. So I took pieces from in-between songs live and put them on there in-between the recorded tracks so that the whole record would hopefully be a good representation of what the live show was. So that record was fun to make.
At the beginning of the band you played a show in CBGB, am I correct?
We played a lot of shows in CBGB. Even before UNSANE, I used to walk by there all the time and drop off a cassette, super early on. It was this thing I was doing called Eye Removal, where I was just making noise, and I bring them cassettes, and Lisa, Hilly’s daughter, would check it out.
So she finally gave UNSANE a show on Monday night. It’s an audition night at CBGB, which is just all these mishmashes of random bands auditioning for the club. And the sound guy has to write a little paragraph about each band. He wrote us a really good review. He said the band was good, they’re really noisy, blah, blah, blah. So we started out there, and then we got Tuesday night opening, and then we got Wednesday night opening, Thursday night opening, Friday night opening, moved on to Saturday night opening. And then we started the whole thing over again. Eventually, we got to the Tuesday night middle slot and Thursday night middle slot.
And then we got to the point where we could headline, and then it was like, Tuesday night headlining, Thursday night headlining. We get to Friday, we get to Saturday. So we did the entire week playing different slots, moving up to headlining. And towards the end, I think it was 98 or something like that, we finally got to Monday night, which was no longer audition night, headlining, selling it out. So we started on Monday night with a shitty little paragraph review and ended there on Monday night, headlining, selling the place out. So it was good to me. That was one of the high points of my career.
CBGB was a very important club up in the 70s. What did it look like in the 90s?
I mean, it was kind of a shithole. They had a really good PA, and they had these giant side fill. Your monitors were like these giant speakers that were mounted on the ceiling roof and tilted down towards you. So it created this giant swirl of sound that just was awesome. It was really good. When you played, it sounded really good there. And there was no volume. You could be as loud as you want. It was not that big of a place. I don’t even know what capacity there is. Maybe like 300? I don’t know. But it wasn’t even that big. And it was always super dirty and just smelled like throw-up.
In terms of the community in the late 80s, and early 90s, when I was there and starting out, it was super central. Everybody knew it. They would have a ton of different bands, and they would put on like five or six bands in a night. Everybody was pretty cool about letting bands start out, giving you a chance. They weren’t like, oh, your band is not going to sell this place out, fuck you. You know what I mean? They were like: We’ll give you a shot. See what you can do.
You are part of the scene for such a long time and as someone who started in the ’80s how do you feel the scene has changed in terms of promoting the band?
Yeah, things have radically changed. With Human Impact we just put out singles and we make a lot of videos. So things are released, and once you got enough singles, then you throw a couple more in there and release an album, which is way different from how it was done, like in the early ’90s when you just write and write and write it at once. So it’s a very different way of doing it now.
And I think in terms of promotion, it’s almost better in a way, because everything you do, you want to release good shit, so you’re not going to release weak shit, you know what I mean? Like, if you do a whole album, I can’t speak for other bands, I would prefer not to have weak shit on an album. But if you’re doing it single by single, then you’re really looking at stuff under a microscope, you know what I mean? Like you’re taking everything one piece at a time, which maybe is good.
Things are really different now and it’s a lot easier not to record on our own for everyone, I think. So there can be a lot more sort of creativity. You don’t have to go into the studio and pay some guy arm and a leg to record your shit now. You can do a lot of your own stuff, which is great, and you actually are not quite as dependent on a label as maybe you used to be, you know what I mean? So things have really opened up.
And what do you think about the involvement of women in the music scene? Would you agree with this that things are changing for women in the music industry and it’s like an independent music scene?
Yeah, it does seem like it. I’m definitely not gender-specific on anything. Sexual preference and gender are pretty much irrelevant to me, I think it really depends on how intelligent and creative you are. But also like, what do you want to express or if you have the legitimate, sincere motivation to express yourself. Early on with UNSANE, I saw many bands where people were just like, oh, look at me, look at me. They just want to be like rock stars or something shitty like that. And they don’t have the sincerity or commitment, it just seems hollow to me musically. I think music should be pure and expressive of the inside of somebody, you know what I mean? So yeah, I think things have opened for women in music these days. Actually, we’re going to play on that tour with Maggot Heart. I don’t know if you ever heard of them, but yeah, we’re doing tons of shows with them. It’s like two women and a guy, and I’m curious to see how that goes.
There have been some personal changes in the band.
This is kind of a bit of a long story… so Vinny [Signorelli – drums] moved to Mexico. Dave [Curran – bass guitar] moved to Italy. And the last tour we did was in 2017. And I thought we were basically done as a band. Honestly, I was like: Okay, how are we going to get everybody together? It’s not like you’re a band anymore. Everybody’s separated and doesn’t talk. You know what I mean? Like, we’re going to fly everybody in to do something? Fuck that. So then the pandemic hit, and my friend Todd Cote who’s a manager and booking agent said to me: Chris, I have nothing to do right now. Let me try and get your entire catalog back in your hands so you own all your old shit again. I was very excited about it because I tried to do this already but as the guy in the band, as the musician, you get kind of run around a little bit. Obviously not from the cool labels, not from the people who are actually nice and friendly, but from other ones. I won’t mention any names, but they’re sort of like: Oh, I think we still own that record. You should talk to our lawyer. Which, I’m not going to hire a lawyer to get my record back, you know what I mean?
So Todd, as a third party, got in touch with everybody, and he said: Okay, my lawyer will be talking to you on Monday, then they’re like: Okay, we don’t own it. We will admit that now and you can have your shit back. So he got all my shit back! Basically, there’s one record I didn’t get back, which we’ll see down the line. Then he introduced me to this thing, Virtual Label, which is a label that really runs all of your Internet digital download stuff.
And then what I do is get all the artwork and press records together, get a pressing plan, etc and they fulfill orders and do all the logistics stuff. So that’s really a cool thing. Todd had gotten it for Michael Gira from Swans and Jon Spencer from Blues Explosion. So he helped me out, too, and hooked me up with them. So then they said, okay, well, you start your own label, Lamb Unlimited. And that way you have your label and we just fulfill orders for you. You know what I mean? So it’s sort of a ghost label in the background. So then we got all the rights back to my shit. We wanted to rerelease the earliest shit possible. Like the first record that never came out, which is another story altogether.
But then cut to a year and a half into the pandemic. We’ve got all this done and I’m hanging out with Jon and Cooper, the guys who are in the band now. There’s a period of time in the band when me and Pete and Charlie were the original guys, right? So we did our first record and we did a couple of others. Then Charlie died. Charlie had a heroin overdose and he passed away. And then we got Vinny to take over. He has a very different drum style. So the drums sounded really different on the really early stuff. The stuff that Charlie played on did not sound the same when Vinny played it. Vinny’s great drummer. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying anything negative about Vinny. It just sounded different. So we were like: Okay, let’s move on. Let’s write new shit with Vinny and then keep going from there. So we stopped playing the super early stuff. I had not played this material for like 20 years. So during the pandemic, me and Jon and Cooper were like: Okay, let’s do all the early shit that Vinny and Dave didn’t play on. Let’s just do that shit for fun.
We weren’t even thinking about the tour. We hung out in my friend Eric Cooper’s practice space and rehearsed about six days a week. All three of us are used to touring, so we really like playing all the time. So we played every day for a few months and it was awesome. We did one show in Austin and suddenly Todd was getting all these offers for us to play the early shit and tour. No disrespect at all to Vinny and Dave, but with these guys, it’s really ballistic. It’s so fun to play the early stuff that I didn’t get to play for so long. So now that’s why down the line, who knows? Once we reissue Scattered, Smothered & Covered maybe Dave and Vinny will play the band.
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