By 1991 I was (temporarily) done with metal. There was a lot of shit happening in that world that didn’t speak to me, but I was still interested in extreme music, so bands like Unsane helped fill that void. No one in their right mind would say what this NYC trio was dishing out was metal, but there was no denying it was extreme. Unsane took the gnarliest, ugliest aspects of New York punk, hardcore and noise and laid it bloody and bare. It was as savage as music got, aggression and anger reduced to its basest elements. And they adorned their albums with images (real or staged, I dunno) that were equally horrifying. If you picked up an Unsane album in the early ’90s, you had a pretty good idea what guitarist/vocalist Chris Spencer, bassist Pete Shore and the late drummer Charlie Ondras had in store, and it wasn’t pretty.
Though indie label Matador Records originally issued Unsane’s first two albums—Unsane (1991) and Total Destruction (1993)—the band’s debut has been virtually out of print for decades. Chris Spencer is rectifying that with the remastered reissue of Unsane via his Lamb Unlimited label, which will make it available for the first time ever digitally and will also issue it on CD and vinyl on Sept. 23 (preorder here).
We gave Spencer the opportunity to take us track by track through that devastating debut in advance of the upcoming reissue. (And for European readers, please note that Unsane will be touring there in October and November 2022, the dates posted below.)
CHRIS SPENCER: I guess I should start this with how it was recorded and what (generally) equipment was used. We recorded this in Wharton Tiers’ basement studio, Fun City, in 1991. I think it was on 16-track 2” tape. My guitar set up was a ’76 Telecaster with a stack magnet single coil bridge pickup through a ’71 Fender Twin reverb, the first Rat distortion pedal and a late ’60s Cry Baby wah. Charlie Ondras’ drum kit was a late ’60s Ludwig Downbeat kit with a “psychedelic” red finish. Pete Shore was using a Rickenbacker 4001 and a shitty/untouchable Crate amp, or possibly a GK. It was all recorded with us playing live in the same room with minimal separation. Tunings were done by ear and they change slightly throughout the record. Excerpts from live show noise are scattered between songs to try to replicate the live show experience. At the time, we didn’t know anything about mastering so the newly remastered (by Andrew Schneider) re-issue is a vast improvement.
First track on the record. Very direct and a pretty straight-ahead early Unsane song. This one’s a commentary on neighborhood life in downtown New York in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Violence, drugs, burned up cars, a real sense of lawlessness and assholes starting shit with people were pretty regular occurrences in the area. The song is abrasive, and is meant to be. The title is a reference to the organ donor status on the back of my license.
A chaotic scream in the face of overpopulation. The feeling of being crushed by the constant flow and undertow of humanity. Understanding that your existence is completely irrelevant in a sea of people. This one hits on a couple of other callous, urban “day after day” topics, but you get the idea. I really like what Charlie Ondras played on the drums.
This is essentially based around the overwhelming feeling of low self esteem. A kind of “keep your head down and get through the shit” mentality. Let what you can roll off and deal with what you have to. An early attempt at the kind of grinding repetition we would be doing a lot more of later.
The voice of frustration as I watched my friend and roommate fall into cocaine addiction. Our apartment had become something of a drug den at the time and I was feeling like there was no escape. At the time, it was easy to get whatever you’d want in our neighborhood and the easy access really fucked some people up. We were all pretty fucked so this was not meant as a judgement call, but more of an observation of the lifestyle.
I always thought of this one as one of our more melodic, less abrasive songs. In the set, it was a good way to give the audience a slight break from the constant onslaught. Lyrically, the basic theme touches on how sometimes in life I’d think something or someone was new, different and positive only to discover that it/they were just more of the same old shit.
This was created out of a weird situation I found myself in. One morning I woke up to being hosed down with pesticides by an exterminator that my landlord had let into the apartment without even letting me know. Our place was a pit, with roaches and various other insects all over—we were in the basement apartment by the building’s garbage—so I understood the necessity for pest control, but was literally sprayed in the face as I slept and inhaled the pesticides. Some crazy fever/toxin dreams followed and I was really sick for a few days.
The title of this one refers to the spray paint remover that we had to use on our van every time we left New York to head out on tour. We had a white Chevy van, so it would get constantly tagged when it was parked on the street. I always thought of it as an analogy for us trying to clean up our act when we got out of shitsville and into the rest of America. My block had a lot of drug dealers working it, so a lot of fucked up shit happened on it.This one points out the realization that I was just like everyone else around me and that we’re all pretty fucking awful. For me, one of my favorite songs we’ve done. It really feels good to play this one live.
We were looking to do one that would have more of a stop/start rhythmic approach. Something that Charlie could run with the drums a bit more. Lyrically it’s a nod to a lying, pathetic asshole that confessed to way more crimes than were committed.
Pete shore (bass) sings this one and I think he did a great job. We were trying to spread out vocal duties to add a bit of variation to the record. I always thought that Pete was a great vocalist.
One of the earliest songs I’d written. I wrote this on a 4-track with a drum machine and used it to try and get a band started. It was played with a lot of different people before it got to its final form. Lyrically, it’s loosely about how pain lets you know you’re alive.
Hello, Charlie Ondras! We had recorded this song and I had no vocals for it. We had been in the studio forever doing Pete and my vocals and I needed a break. We talked about it, and Pete and Charlie were cool with taking the reins on this one vocally. I figured that I’d head down the block and grab something to eat at the deli. It took a while, and when I got back those guys had it done. Holy shit! I was really surprised. Charlie had gone into a vocal frenzy about how he was the “Action Man” and Pete had done the verses. It’s basically a testimonial to a crazy night out with Charlie, The Action Man.
Another very early one that had been written before the band had started. There is a definite influence of Matt Wheeler, a friend who was the second guitar player when Unsane first started. He left the band to go down to Nicaragua and build housing for people that needed it. A bit more melodic than our other shit. This one was really fun to play with two guitarists. Matt was definitely missed once he left.
Fall 2022 European tour dates