Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, the first Thursday of every new month on KEXP.org.
After last month’s two-part odyssey, columnist Martin Douglas decides to go on a quest of his own: a four-hour drive to catch the first performance from Olympia art-punks Unwound in over two decades, and then to the first stop of their reunion tour in Seattle.
Downtown Astoria is a hop, skip, and jump from being 200 miles away from home. So, I did an appropriate amount of hemming and hawing after I was sent a ticket link (that I was specifically asked not to share) for Unwound’s first live performance in 20 years, 10 months, and three days. A text from my girlfriend — simply saying “YOLO?” — sealed the deal.
Ticket purchased; hotel booked.
This is not a live review. This is a firsthand account of seeing a band that went from great and beloved to truly important during a long layoff, and what happens when most of that band gets back together to celebrate their enormous catalog and become witness to a literal generation of posthumous goodwill.
Unwound — in this iteration: founding singer/guitarist Justin Trosper and drummer Sara Lund, along with Jared Warren (onetime members of the Melvins, most notably of the great sludge-punk band KARP) and Scott Seckington (who played with Trosper and Lund in Nocturnal Habits) — took the stage and immediately roared into a barnstorming version of “All Souls Day,” from their 1994 full-length New Plastic Ideas.
As they took the stage to an absolutely packed Showbox, people were screaming for Lund and shouting at nearly every song cue.
According to Spotify, Unwound is my most listened-to non-hip-hop artist on the platform … by a wide margin. Of course, this is due in part to my critical overview piece “The Light at the End of the Tunnel is a Train,” but also long stretches in my personal life where Unwound was the only thing I wanted to listen to. The gap in listening habits only seems to grow wider as I hop into my subcompact Jeep and make the long drive down to coastal Oregon by myself.
This is a perfect drive for someone with too much to think about.
In celebration of the art-punk trio’s rapturously received reunion tour news, with many of the dates selling out in minutes, Numero Group — the famed reissue label that long ago released Unwound’s full discography through a series of incredibly well-curated box sets — made a playlist of everything the band ever released; singles, EPs, full-lengths, and the tracks from those box sets in full. On shuffle, I’ve heard “Stuck in the Middle of Nowhere Again” (from the band’s self-titled album with first drummer Brandt Sandeno, recorded in ‘92 and released in ‘95) twice before stopping in Federal Way for lunch and gas.
The members of Unwound announced they were going to take a short intermission and then play a second set. “Is that a weird thing to do?,” Trosper asked from the stage. “Sometimes people have to pee,” Lund quipped in reply from behind her drum kit.
How many punks have driven their shitty vans along the two-lane highways of Washington State while listening to heavy punk music? You can feel the untold thousands trekking these same roads, probably listening to Unwound (or erstwhile contemporaries like KARP or Fitz of Depression), guitars as blurry and overcast as this landscape can be sometimes. It’s been a sunny day along the backroads, a far cry from this general area of the state around this time yesterday. I took what is referred to as the “scenic drive” of 101 for this specific reason.
On the way home, I took note of the tall trees, some of them stripped bare and ash white from six or seven summers of fire and smoke.
There is a certain element of danger in Unwound’s songwriting. One of their first singles was titled “Kandy Korn Rituals,” the backstory told to the band’s members in a secondhand account from Warren, about a party full of Tumwater High students engaging in the horrific act of hanging and burning an effigy of a Black man.
This danger comes up for me not only as I listen to the band and their loud and incautious brand of arty punk rock, but as I drive along the westbound lane (just one) of Highway 30 in the rain. What happens if I run over a thick piece of glass and my tire goes flat? Will white passersby ignore me like when I walk my dog past their houses in my neighborhood back home, or will something more violent happen? What if a motorist gets on my bumper because I’m “driving too slow” and realizes he doesn’t like the color of my skin or the cut of my jib?
As I am a Black man in America, I don't skydive or do extreme sports. I don't have to.
A sign posted inside the AAMC Ballroom, exactly two blocks from my hotel, somewhat regretfully informed patrons that the day’s yoga classes were canceled. This evokes the Unwound that existed before my tastes caught up with them; trying their best to always play all-ages venues (which meant more often than not playing community spaces).
Though I’m not going to pretend reunion tours aren’t big business — especially for a band who added dates because all of the tour stops sold out in minutes — it’s refreshing for a band to book a community hall, at least for this one warm-up show, in the face of the deeply capitalist mindset many young musicians feel they have to possess in order to “make it.”
It seems as though every building in Astoria has poor insulation; a heavy pour of condensation sets on all the windows. The venue, a few nearby stores, the sushi restaurant I grabbed takeout from before returning to my hotel room to finish watching WWE Royal Rumble on my laptop before the show.
What does it mean to see a band that means so much to you; one you barely knew existed when they were active?
In the decades since Unwound called it a day, every major city has been infected with a particularly Hollywood brand of rise-and-grind what-do-you-do industry striver culture. I see it in Seattle to a very high degree, even though this city knows firsthand what it’s like to be gutted completely by major labels and industry vultures.
So much is being supported by clever branding or media savvy or kissing up to people for clout or begging your friendly neighborhood music scribe for coverage on the low and then sneak-dissing them on Twitter to make themselves look cool.
Unwound and many bands inspired by them had or have a chief concern of pushing their art forward. To say something that needs to be said, with soft words buried alive by loud guitars.
I’m thinking about all this as I stand alone and look up at the chandeliers, moments before my friend Ben taps me on the shoulder and introduces me to some of his friends.
A somewhat polite mosh pit consumed the center of the crowd, like a black hole pulling enthusiastic young people into its orbit. From that black hole, cumulus clouds (of cannabis smoke) floated into the air.
The Seattle crowd was comprised of a few separate demographics. Lots of teenagers, even more than in Astoria. A group of four twentysomething ladies who looked like they were lost on their way to purchase scalped Taylor Swift tickets but probably had very considered opinions about Caroline Polachek. And plenty of forty- and fifty-something-year-old punks.
I’ve never really understood the “post-hardcore” descriptor as it pertains to Unwound. I mean, I doubt I’ve ever truly understood the notion of post-hardcore in general, especially when Black Flag was subverting the idea of hardcore punk while it was still being invented. I’ve referred to Unwound as an art-punk band, both here and other places, more than once, but they have many examples where you could remove the “art” or the “punk” and still have a good handle on what they’re about.
There’s an argument to be made that Unwound hasn’t been a post-hardcore band since Fake Train was released in 1993. There’s an argument to be made that Unwound haven’t been a post-hardcore band since Sara Lund joined the year prior and the band stopped being viewed as Giant Henry 2.0.
By the time I reached Longview and took a couple jumps from I-5 to Highway 30, the sky darkened and rainfall assaulted everything in its path. Train tracks and truck stops and tiny roadside restaurants, drenched. Driving through town before heading to the two-lane highway in the woods made me think of how small towns always seem stuck in time.
I’m sure these places don’t look much different from when Northwest punk bands of yesteryear, in those aforementioned shitty vans, ran through them.
Unwound’s reunion was, to paraphrase Sara Lund in a press statement, a correction of failure. The band did pretty well for themselves by the end of their first run, in terms of critical acclaim and just-above-modest sales. But everyone who loved their music before they got back together could agree that they should have been bigger than they were back then. The combination punch of “Laugh Track” (1998) followed by “Corpse Pose” (1996), played just past the halfway point of their first set, proved the band had jams that could hang with anything on college or alternative rock radio in their heyday.
The clarion call of Leaves Turn Inside You, as exalted as it was by critics and fans alike, was somewhat an anomaly in Unwound’s extensive catalog. The muddy, sludgy, distorted guitars were replaced with cleanness, crispness. The album felt like a slick marble floor compared to the gravel driveways of, say, The Future of What.
Whether it was a bold new direction that could have been or just a wild left turn, Leaves was the curio bookending Unwound’s seven full-lengths. Which is probably why two of its songs (“Look a Ghost” and “Scarlette,” the latter coming closest to the sound the band had perfected and taken to new heights) made the band’s 19-song setlist.
I’d be remiss to forgo mentioning Vern Rumsey, adored bassist of Unwound; in many ways the public face of the group for many years. There is a scepter of alcoholism that haunts the band throughout their initial breakup, but also the idea that Rumsey just wanted off the road, to only record albums. Like the Beatles, as it’s mentioned in the liner notes for their Empire box set.
Rumsey passed away on August 5, 2020, after years of Lund and Trosper trying to figure out if he would be in good enough condition to play an Unwound reunion tour. They decided he wasn’t and Warren (as close as anyone could get to a member of the band without actually playing for them) tried out to be the tour’s bassist. Rumsey passed before Warren could secure his friend’s blessing.
In a moment before launching into the Fake Train song trilogy of “Valentine Card,” “Kantina,” and “Were, Are or Was or Is” (gorgeous version of the latter, by the way), Lund spoke briefly of Rumsey — evoking the range of feelings she spoke of and felt in her interview with Pitchfork about this reunion tour — and dedicated the final trio of songs to him and his memory.
[The phone rings, I press the button on my steering wheel to answer.]
Me: Hi, Ma.
My Grandmother: Hi, Ju-Ju. How are you?
Me: I’m doing well, how are you?
My Grandmother: I’m fine.
Me: I’m on the road right now. I drove down to Oregon for a concert and I’m on my way back home. I didn’t take the freeway, I’m driving along the back highways.
My Grandmother: How was the concert?
Me: It was phenomenal, really special. I’m so glad I made the drive down.
My Grandmother: Well, I want you to concentrate on the road. I was just calling to see how you were doing.
Me: Thanks for calling. I’ll call you sometime after I get back home.
My Grandmother: Love you. Be careful.
Me: I love you. Bye!
My Grandmother: Bye-bye.
I came home from the pub one night; I was watching Game 1 of the 2022 World Series, the one that went like 18 innings. My girlfriend and her friends were wrapping up their book club; they read the novel Magic for Liars. I started drinking wine with them (after two or three beers during a full game’s worth of extra innings). Somebody had the idea that I should read tarot for everybody.
A couple of friends seemed very interested in me getting my tarot read too. There was no focus for my mini-reading, but themes pertaining to my career came up in the cards. Tarot is primarily a skill of intuition; the cards are going to tell you what you’re preoccupied by.
When people see The Devil show up, they often become fearful of what’s in store. Are they being manipulated, beset upon a period of darkness, overindulging on drugs or bad thoughts? The Devil showed up in my deck, as did Death (or the Nameless Arcanum if you’re freaky).
People too often focus on the end Death brings instead of the new beginning that comes after. After a friend, the one most interested in what my reading had to say, said, “Whoa, that seems like a rough one,’ my girlfriend explained that there has been a lot of darkness in my life, and that I mine that darkness in my work and usually turn it into something approaching beauty.
I have mined some very dark places for my art, and having to make my way through bleak darkness at such a young age, and at a much older age, has made me a better person.
I think about the email my friend sent me often. I hope that she lied about ending her own life and she is living happily wherever she is, whatever she’s doing.
I ponder this scenario as “Lady Elect” plays, and I pass Olympia on my way south. Olympia, the place where she lived and went to school, presumably on an Independent Learning Contract in the field of fashion design. I think. When she moved to Federal Way, I was in my early twenties, and she was my cool friend. All of the great bands I liked prior to 2008 — when I started showing her who the great bands were — were from her record collection. Of course, Unwound was one of those bands.
Trosper wrote “Lady Elect” after the death of a friend. A suicide. Living in Olympia in the '90s, I’m sure he was no stranger to the way hearing the news of a sudden death feels like a punch to the chest. The very thought is grisly and punishing, and that’s only for the people simply hearing the news. He sings the song in a low, disaffected register, from the pit of his soul. It’s much like the opening verse of New Plastic Ideas closer “Fiction Friction,” where if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics, you might mistake Trosper for being bored. (Also, “it’s a sadder day” sounds a lot like “it’s a Saturday”.) But it’s just that he’s not succumbing to the performance of sadness but living inside of it.
Depending on who you ask, “Lady Elect” has been played live once or twice before this night, or it had never been played at all. Regardless, the emotional centerpiece of Repetition rang through the spacious Showbox, along with the ghosts that came along with it. Trosper’s friend who took their own life; my friend who took hers; my father, who was murdered trying to be a tough guy; the end of Vern Rumsey’s long battle with alcoholism. All the people I do and don’t know in this building with someone they’ve lost floating along with the soundwaves.
As I shook my body while Trosper and Seckington’s guitars chimed along, I felt a familiar lump in my throat; the one I feel when I dance to keep from sobbing. When I shake off the heft of grief and guide my brain to the spiritual healing of music. When I forget all the shit I’ve been through and live in the moment for once.
Whatever Lund and perhaps the full complement of Unwound perceived as failure was probably assuaged by the hordes of earnest teenagers moshing to their music. Or the fact that they had to add dates to keep up with demand for their full first tour since the Twin Towers fell. Or the long lines for their merch; t-shirts and LPs and tapes and a ten-pound coffee table book containing the liner notes of all four of their Numero Group box sets (all written superbly by David Wilcox) bookended by a never-before-published interview with Lund and Trosper about the long struggle of trying to get the band back together.
Unwound were a beloved band and became more beloved when they went away and scores of posthumous fans (including the one writing this long feature) realized there wasn’t another band on Earth like them.
Longtime readers of Throwaway Style, even dating back to before I took over the column in 2018, are very likely familiar with the loud guitars of Versing. Versing drummer Max Keyes formed Spiral XP in 2020 just before the pandemic took hold of all of our lives, and two years after their very good EP Drop Me In comes a bold step forward for the shoegaze-leaning quintet. A great many bands use shoegaze and noise textures to hide the fact that they, you know, can’t write songs, but It’s Been a While has great songwriting in spades; “The End,” “Free Thinking,” and “The Hunger,” in particular, stand out as can’t-miss jams.
As with shoegaze, there are plenty of artists who use dream-pop textures to hide deficiencies in songwriting ability, but Coral Grief, surprise, makes dream-pop music that isn’t dreadfully boring! Lena Morrissey-Farr is also a member of Spiral XP, but her Coral Grief project (supplementary shout out to our friends at Den Tapes!) takes distant, pretty compositional elements and wraps them around surprising and deep songs around feeling stuck and overwhelmed; taking the ephemera of life (shells from the yard, cups of coffee) and turning them into affecting slices of life in a world that continues to spin recklessly.
I’m old enough to remember a time when the term “art-rap” was met with derision and people’s eyes rolling into the backs of their heads. But now we’re in a time where, at the very least, daringly brainy hip-hop is accepted into the fabric of the culture. Enter Vancouver’s Andrew Mbaruk, self-described phonotextual master and architect of six-dozen (and counting) Bandcamp singles, EPs, and full-length releases. On the production end is L.A.’s Rhys Langston, a writer, visual artist, rapper, and musician so far ahead of the curve he probably should take an executive lunch break while the rest of the world catches up to him. Mbaruk (with crucial assistance from Something Something Brax, Old Grape God, and Joaquin Fox) occupies the middle space between Busdriver and your favorite smart-ass PhD professor, while Langston flips more styles over seven tracks than most beatmakers can muster in seven years.
Underneath the mountain of effects pedals and notions of what they call “garage-glam,” Eugene, Oregon power trio Titsweat is, in their heart of hearts, a pop band. This is not a way to lighten their heft or devalue the fact that they indeed rip, but the four songs that make up the band’s most recent EP Swelter are so rife with indelible catchiness, it would a disservice to anyone who loves great pop songwriting to call attention to anything else first. As a lyricist, bassist Gracie Schatz fills these earworm melodies with lyrics about temptation and fruit, about wondering if the wondering we do is worse than knowing for sure, about the literary staple Jane Eyre.
Stinging with treble but in the best way, the latest album from this trio of punk lifers — Layla Gibbon, Marissa Magic, and Tobi Vail — was issued last June by the great punk label Thrilling Living (also label home of Mississippi’s greatest punk band, Judy and the Jerks). The Muse Ascends, Girlsperm’s first album since 2017, is packed with short and shrill bangers with evocative titles such as “Disembodied Man,” “Alice B Toklas,” and “Teens at the Library,” bursting with meditations on existentialism, leering dudes, and striking back against the normies.
Two decades after their breakup, Martin Douglas explores the history of the influential South Sound punk band through their music.
Martin Douglas processes some very personal stuff while listening to a posthumously released collection of the South Sound art-punk heroes' 2001 live recordings.