Having formed in New York City in 1988, noise-rock trio Unsane is one of those bands that might not have set the world on fire in terms of commercial success but inspires unwavering devotion from those who have heard them. Alongside the likes of fellow New Yorkers Helmet, which formed a year later, it’s unlikely that contemporary post-hardcore would sound the way it does today were it not for Unsane.
It’s been a long, hard road, however. The music and cult loyalty has had to pretty much be its own reward, because this isn’t a story of a band rising from the dives to arenas. Indeed, Unsane plays at the hi-dive this week, nearly three decades after forming. These guys do what they do because they love it.
There have been casualties along the way. Drummer Charlie Ondras died of a heroin overdose in 1992, leading to the addition of Vinnie Signorelli. Then Pete Shore left the band in ’94, to be replaced by Dave Curran, which left singer-guitarist Chris Spencer as the only original member (though it should be noted that the lineup has remained consistent for the 23 years that have followed).
“Chris and I tend to write stuff together and work the songs out with Vinnie,” says Curran, talking to us on the phone from the tour bus as Unsane travels between gigs. “I guess over the years that’s basically what transitioned from the early stuff, where Chris basically wrote everything. It was a natural progression more than anything.”
For Curran, it’s been a particularly strange journey, given the fluke that led to his joining in the first place. He was working sound for his future bandmates on a tour for which Unsane had hired a fill-in bass player. That didn’t work out, and Curran was asked to pick up the bass mid-tour.
“They just asked me to join up on bass instead of doing sound,” Curran says. “I learned their set in a van ride between Vegas and L.A. That was basically it. After the tour, they asked me to stick around, and here we are 23 years later.”
Eight albums have followed the 1988 formation, each one of them a musical shot of adrenaline and a lyrical lesson in intelligent intensity. Many of them have artwork that jolts the senses, too, including the ’91 self-titled debut, which featured a police photo of a decapitated man lying across New York subway tracks.
The art for this year’s Sterilize album is literally splattered blood, but this is a band that makes brutal symbolism work quite nicely. Curran is certainly pleased to the response that it’s generated.
“It’s been really great,” he says. “We just signed to Southern Lord for this record, which we had never been on before, but we knew Greg [Anderson] and his band Sunn O))), and all this stuff. Basically, when the opportunity came up, Chris called Greg and Greg was happy to jump to the occasion. It really worked out well for us. He’s doing a really great job promoting the record, and we’re staying busy on tour promoting it as well. Everybody’s happy.”
Sterilize also saw Unsane self-producing an album for the first time, with Curran engineering it. He says that it was a natural, easy experience, thanks to the fact that he’s been spending a lot of time with studio work of late. The album was recorded in the desert — Gatos Trail Recording Studio in Yucca Valley, California — and Curran says that with just the three of them in there, the lack of pressure was refreshing.
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“Chris and I had hashed out the songs prior to that,” Curran says. “He had written a bunch of songs at his place, I had written a bunch of songs at my place, and then we just sort of picked out the best ones to pick for the record. So we actually had more than what we needed, and then before going into the studio, we got together and practiced those songs. So we were self-producing before going to the studio, and that way we’re not wasting time in there.”
When asked about a theme or concept that glues Sterilize together, Curran turns to Spencer, who sat next to him on the bus. Spencer talks about how art has become whitewashed, gentrified and homogenized, adding that anything with artistic merit basically just gets appropriated and loses all of its value. A song like “We’re Fucked” seems like an anthem for the mood of the nation right now, though Curran is keen to point out that it’s not only Americans who can relate to these songs.
“The more downtrodden the population, the more they seem to enjoy our record,” he says. “I guess if anybody can get out their frustrations by listening to our music, then so be it.”