Q&A: Barhopping with Unsane's Chris Spencer, Who Made Us Puke. Literally.
Guess which one is Chris.
After a five-hour jaunt through various LES watering holes, downing beers and knocking back shots while grilling guttural-throated bawler/guitarist Chris Spencer of Herculean noise-rock face rippers Unsane, yours truly ended the night on the pavement, covered in my own puke, outside Fifth Street dive Ace Bar. Thankfully, my recorder and I somehow made it home intact.
Back in 1998, the same couldn't be said about Spencer. Beaten to a pulp by Austrian thugs and left for dead, Spencer had to get internal organs removed. But hell, over two decades since Unsane's formation, amidst the loss of their original drummer to heroin and a clusterfuck of Downtown transformation, longtime Chinatown resident Spencer and cohorts (bassist Dave Curran and drummer Vinnie Signorelli) have outlasted nearly every '90s East Village partner-in-scum-rock.
Now, as this loud-as-fuck NYC institution continues to move forward--albeit a little older, with a less rigorous touring schedule--Unsane is embarking on a short series of dates, during which they will perform their seminal 1998 album Scattered, Smothered and Covered in its entirety. (Their New York date is next Thursday, August 5 at Santos Party House.) Here, Spencer waxes nostalgic on the band's early years, discusses their notoriously gruesome album art (highlights have included a decapitated dude on the NYC subway tracks and a super-hot naked woman in a gore-drenched bathtub) and reflects on his beloved New York Yankees. Yes, to this day, he still wears that trademark baseball cap.
Why pick Scattered, Smothered and Covered to play?
Chris Spencer: That was the first record me, Dave and Vinnie did together. We did it in two weeks at Amphetamine Reptile, wrote and recorded it between tours with eight feet of snow around the studios so we couldn't really go out except hang out with the guys from the Cows. Then we'd come back late at night all drunk, have jam sessions, and end up wrestling--us, Shannon Selberg, and Kevin Rutmanis. It's all very embarrassing but true!
Has performing an entire album live become cliché, with so many bands doing it now?
Spencer: Personally, it's really fun for me to play it all at once. We'll do that, take ten minutes, have a beer and a smoke, and come back and do newer stuff.
Which album would you want to hear your favorite band play?
Spencer: Huh, wow. I would love to hear Iggy do Raw Power.
That's actually happening at ATP.
Spencer: I didn't realize he was doing that. But that would be fantastic!
Unsane's playing the upcoming AmRep 25th Anniversary show. Were you asked to perform at Matador Records' Las Vegas show celebrating their 21st year? You guys were one of the first Matador bands.
Spencer: No, I didn't know about that. Matador did call me up about using one of our songs on a box set of their history since we were one of the first bands on there, so I told them it was cool. At the same time, we're not that poppy and Matador is not representative of the heaviest bands in the world. We're definitely much more suited to AmRep. But if Matador asked us to play Vegas, we'd do it.
You've resided Downtown forever. What's your take on how it's morphed?
Spencer: It's a weird yuppie Disneyland. What can you do? Expansionism is all around. If I was a kid moving here now, I'd probably live in East New York. It's a similar kind of environment as this was back when I first got here.
Where did you live in those early days?
Spencer: I lived on Ave D and Eighth Street when it was really nasty. Actually, our drummer Charlie [Ondras] died in that apartment, which we got from Jon Spencer and Christina Martinez [of Blues Explosion and Boss Hog]. I also lived on Ave A and Sixth Street, Clinton Street between Stanton and Houston and on Rivington and Eldridge. Like everyone, I moved south as the invasion set in.
Musically, there was a lot of originality going on back then. Tom Surgal would book shows at the Pyramid Club with us, Nirvana or Mudhoney. And then there was CB's, obviously.
You are never without a Yankees hat. How many caps have you obliterated over Unsane's career?
Spencer: That's actually a good question [laughing]! I have no idea! There's been so many. I basically use them as a sweat rack because I sweat so much and have the bald head and the sweat rolls off the back instead of going into my eyes. It's a functional thing. And if I had to pick some cap to wear, it's definitely going to be the Yankees.
So, you're a hardcore fan. Were you upset when George Steinbrenner died?
Spencer: Uh, whatever. He was like a Nazi [laughing]! But, he was a genius cutthroat type of guy. He got the job done.
Unsane has been on a multitude of labels over the years: Matador, AmRep, Ipecac. Which was the coolest?
Spencer: Obviously, [AmRep founder] Tom Hazelmyer! He's as fair as goddamn possible to the band. An honest and intelligent man...handsome, too. Also, I have to say Mike [Patton] of Ipecac is very cool.
So you've started your own label now?
Spencer: I called Tom and asked him what would be the thing to do right now for Unsane, being an underground band that's not mainstream. He said, "Start a web site and put your shit out." So, we are in the process of starting our own label called Coextinction Recordings. We own it, we can distribute it freely as we feel necessary. No middleman.
Unsane has only done four albums since 1998--the last of which was three years ago--and rarely play live. Do you need day jobs?
Spencer: Up until '99, we were working a lot--playing over 300 shows a year. None of us had lives, and you start to want something else, so we cut things way back: Vinnie started the tattoo shops and Dave is tour manager and soundguy for the Melvins, amongst his other ventures. I don't have a day job...as of yet. I've been kinda winging it. I just did the soundtrack for a French horror film called The Pack (La meute). I don't really need that much money to live. I've had the same apartment for 15 years and my rent is really cheap.
Is there a show that stands out in your mind?
Spencer: This is one of the greatest, weird stories. We were kids and very excited to play with Sonic Youth at CBGB in '90 or '91. Me, Charlie and [original bassist] Pete Shore were the graveyard band coming on after SY! We waited through four or five opening bands. Then SY came on and could do anything they wanted so they invited up Don Fleming [of Gumball and Velvet Monkeys fame]. I knew it was the beginning of the end. He did multiple songs with them. It went on forever--and ever and ever! We were standing there with our jaws down to our stomachs thinking, Everyone will leave because it's getting so late. At 3am we go up and just attack! I wouldn't say we were angry but generally our music reflects that. But the coolest thing was that among the five people who actually stayed after SY was Gerard Cosloy from Matador. And that's how we got a deal with them.
What's your latest blood-splattered idea for the next album art?
Spencer: I have one that I have not conquered in my lifetime: just one guy in the corner on the floor of a subway car with real blood sprayed everywhere, all over the moving train. I wanted to do this forever, but when 9/11 happened, it became unobtainable. Now, things have toned down. I don't want to give my secrets away, but there might actually be a train. I hose everything down with real blood then have a friend, hopefully, do the body thing. What I'll do is get on at one stop, do my thing, leave my friend on the train and as I get off--covered in blood because you have to really throw it everywhere--then my photographers get on and take pictures. I guess I did just give my secrets away.