By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — An important figure on New York City’s noise-rock scene for over 30 years as the leader of Unsane, guitarist/singer Chris Spencer emerged last year with Human Impact, his new all-star project featuring members of Cop Shoot Cop and Swans.
While a number experimental noise-rock acts emerged from the East Village post-punk underground in the late ’80s, none matched the corrosive vitriol and brutality of Unsane. Founded in 1988 by Spencer and the original rhythm section of drummer Charlie Ondras and bassist Pete Shore while the members were attending Sarah Lawrence College, the band mixed the dissonance of Sonic Youth and Swans with an aggressive NYC hardcore attack.
Infamous for their cover art using graphic crime-scene photos that matched the punishing, cacophonous menace of the band’s music, Unsane quickly became an integral part of the vital New York noise-rock scene with contemporaries like Helmet, Cop Shoot Cop and Surgery. The band earned solid reviews for the droning, vicious sludge punk heard on its eponymous 1990 debut for Matador Records and a subsequent singles collection before being dealt a devastating blow with the heroin overdose death of Ondras in 1992.
The band regrouped with drummer Vinnie Signoreli (who has previously played in Foetus and Swans) to record Total Destruction, their first release handled by a major label due to a deal Matador struck with Atlantic Records. Shore would depart in 1994 and was replaced by bassist Dave Curran, who made his recorded debut with the band on Scattered, Smothered & Covered, the group’s first album for Amphetamine Reptile Records. Unsane managed a minor MTV hit with the lo-fi clip for “Scrape” that featured band footage interspersed with raw video of skateboarder wipeouts.
Following an extended hiatus, Unsane returned stronger than ever in 2005 with their first Relapse Record release Blood Run. The band continued to put out compelling new music over the next decade and a half for a variety of labels — notably Mike Patton’s artist-friendly Ipecac Recordings imprint, which released the blues-tinged 2007 album Visqueen, and Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles, who issued the equally punishing Wreck in 2012.
Though the trio had issued another celebrated effort with Sterilize on Southern Lord Records in 2017 and toured extensively into the following year, last summer Spencer announced during an interview that Unsane was over and that he would be focusing his creative energies on a new project, Human Impact. A group featuring longtime friend, keyboardist/sampler/sound designer Jim Coleman (formerly of Cop Shoot Cop), drummer Phil Puleo (Swans, ex-Cop Shoot Cop), and bassist Chris Pravdica (Swans, ex-Xiu Xiu), the quartet made its live debut in late August at Brooklyn’s Union Pool.
Tempering the noise-punk fury of Unsane with Coleman’s cinematic soundscapes and industrial drone, the band ushers Spencer into new sonic territory that hearkens back to the music Gary Numan made with Tubeway Army, early Killing Joke and Celan, the guitarist’s 2009 collaboration with Einstürzende Neubauten’s keyboardist Ari Benjamin Meyers and Oxbow guitarist Niko Wenner. Having signed a new deal with Ipecac to release the band’s eponymous first album that came out on March 13th, Human Impact was set to make its first trip to the West Coast supporting Oregon-based spiritual doom trio YOB when the growing coronavirus pandemic derailed the planned tour. In this recent interview conducted prior to the tour cancellation, Spencer spoke with CBS SF about how Human Impact came together and the fruitful creative partnership he has discovered with the new group.
CBS SF: You’re getting ready to do the album release party there in New York, and then you’ll be heading out to west meet up with YOB for the tour.
Chris Spencer: Yeah, that’s about right.
CBS SF: I guess the first thing I wanted to ask about was the genesis of Human Impact and how the band came together. I figure you have at least known some of these guys for quite a while since you came up in the New York scene at the same time during the late ’80s…
Chris Spencer: Me and Jim were actually friends before — I was kind of playing with the guys, but it was before Unsane or Cop Shoot Cop really got started. We used to hang out in the Lower East Side area. He was doing electronic stuff then, We would kind of fool around with tape loops and stuff. So we were friends from way before, and then both our bands started touring and stuff like that. Then in about ’97, Cop Shoot Cop broke up and I actually asked the guys in Unsane if they would they would consider having Jim join the band doing like samples and noise, but they wanted to stay a three piece.
And we were doing a lot of touring at the time, so it would have been kind of hard. So then a lot of time passes; Jim was doing like weird sort of Forensic Files-type TV shows and electronics and stuff like that. I kind of lost touch with him for awhile. And then about a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago, he came to an Unsane show and just asked me if I wanted to do something. Which, you know, of course! I’d wanted to work with Jen since I first met him. Yeah. So it’s been a long time coming.
CBS SF: So it sounds like the gestation period, for you at least, goes back a ways. How long of a time passed between when you decided, “Okay, we’re doing a band,” and that first show last August? Was that a couple of years of getting material together and sort of feeling each other out?
Chris Spencer: Yeah, initially Jim just started sending me stuff via the Internet and we both have a home studio set ups. So. I started working with him on that stuff. We really didn’t know where it was going. We just kind of were just tossing ideas back and forth. And then he brought in Phil and Chris Pravdica, who were available at the time.
So he let me know, “Hey, these guys are willing to do it.” Some of the ideas were just really raw, but we kind of got together with those guys at our practice space in Brooklyn and just kinda sort of working things out. It was about, maybe like a year, a little bit more prior to that first show that we played at Union Pool.
CBS SF: Had you already recorded the album at that point? Or did you record the album after the live debut?
Chris Spencer: We had basically recorded it by then and had already sort of scored the deal with Ipecac [Records, the label owned by Bay Area singer Mike Patton]. We had a full record, but then some of it was the early, kind of raw stuff. And once we started playing together, things really developed, you know? we could sort of see where the sound was going and what we were looking at.
So we had to deal with Ipecac, but then we actually went back into the studio because they couldn’t get it out until next week [March 13, 2020]. So we had quite a while to wait. We had noticed that stuff was getting better, at least in our opinion, so we wanted to just keep working and do more and try and make the record better from what we had initially. So we went back in and did I think four or five newer ones, which turned out really good. So those all ended up on the on the record. We kind of took the record we had sent to Ipecec and went like, “Hey, can we just substitute these for these?” Which I think really helped the record.
CBS SF: As far as the songwriting process, was it you and and Jim had sketches for the basic ideas or basic songs and then you flushed them out with the whole band?
Chris Spencer: That’s generally how it…I mean, yes and no. It’s about half and half. Some we write. Like me and Jim have an idea, but then we’ve done multiple sessions where we all get together and kind of bounce around maybe five or six ideas. But then some have just been written hanging out at practice space. Like Chris wrote “E605” and that bass line fade-in thing, and then we just took that and ran with it.
So there’s been other sessions where we show up and I just was like, “Hey, look, you guys just go wild. You know, do your thing.” Came in with no preconceived ideas or anything. So it’s gone both ways. But generally a lot of it is Jim will send me something or I’ll send you something and we kind of hash that out. So we have some stuff to get going on right when we see the guys, you know?
CBS SF: And are you writing the lyrics yourself, or is that collaborative too?
Chris Spencer: Yeah, I’m writing all the lyrics. I do this thing where I send Jim — this is very embarrassing a lot of ways [laughs] — but I just send Jim what I’m thinking, what kind of treatment I’m thinking and lyrics and stuff. And he and his wife will listen to them and give me their critique, and then I do a little bit editing.
CBS SF: How does the songwriting partnership compare as far as what you would do with Unsane? It seems like those songwriting credits were generally collective, where it was attributed to all three members…
Chris Spencer: Yeah, by the end of Unsane — and a lot of reason made sort of came to an end — was by the end like doing Sterilize, I wrote a majority of that record just kind of by myself entirely. They just kind of showed up and it was becoming really one sided. And so now, man, this is a great thing to walk into. Jim has this just giant arsenal of sounds doing samples and electronic stuff. So for me, it’s like a whole new world. Jim is super hyper creative and so are Chris and Phil. So now I’m in an over-productive, over-creative environment, whereas before things were kind of like same old, same old, you know? And that ended up with me writing a lot of s–t.
So it’s great. It’s really good. Everybody’s super creative in this band. I mean, we kind of played music because we just wanted to play music together. We didn’t do this because we wanted to start a band and get out and do s–t, you know? I mean, well, obviously we do, but at the same time, it really started just because we all wanted to work together creatively.
CBS SF: Unsane had a connection with Swans through Vincent and this band now has two current members of Swans making up half the lineup, which I’m sure at some point might complicate things a little bit. But I guess if you schedule things out far enough that it shouldn’t be an issue. I know those guys are coming to San Francisco to play the Fillmore coming up in June…
Chris Spencer: Yeah, they are. They have a lot of touring coming up. Initially, when we started the band, Michael [Gira, Swans founder and main songwriter] had said he was doing a whole new lineup and those guys were not going to be in the band…
CBS SF: Right, that’s what I’d heard too…
Chris Spencer: So then we were like, “Oh, cool! Well, those guys are free.” You know? But then he pulled them back in and, you know, that’s a hard gig to refuse. But those guys are cool and we’re all friends. And luckily our manager, Todd Cote, actually manages Swans as well, so we can sort of just work around Swans stuff. Our record is coming out this week, we were doing this sort of short tour and then Swans go out. And then when they’re done, Human Impact does the States, and then Europe in like September and November, December. So when they’re done, we take them.
CBS SF: I was wondering if, given the connection with Swans, is there any kinship you feel with Michael Gira beyond your shared background and geography. You came up in the same place at close to the same time, and there are certainly some parallels in what Unsane did and what Swans do as far as creating this kind of heavy, really visceral, emotional music with, in some cases, a lot of vitriol…
Chris Spencer: For me personally, there, there honestly is not that much of a connection with Michael Gira. I had seen him around a couple of times, but him and Vinny and those guys were kind of the generation before me, you know? Unsane was a much younger band when Swans had already been around for, I don’t know, maybe eight or ten years by the time we really got going. They were way ahead of us.
But in terms of [stylistic similarities], that kind of boils back to the old New York in the early ’80s, late ’80s, early ’90s when things were crazy, the city was broke and s–t was really pretty violent and disgusting and dirty. Now it’s like a shopping mall. I mean, there’s similarities that were maybe more geographic than actually scene wise. When Vinny played was Swans, that was kind of their mellow phase, you know?
CBS SF: Did you know, going into Human Impact that you would kind of move in a different direction from Unsane? There are some parallels there, but it’s definitely a less aggressive and more cinematic, more atmospheric…
Chris Spencer: Yeah. I mean, I was hoping, to be honest with you. After doing Unsane for 30 years, I wanted to do something else; you want to try other stuff; creatively. I don’t just want to go out there and do the same s–t again with different guys in the band. And having hung out with Jim a lot and worked with him before, I knew that that was more where he was going. So I knew I had to kind of change it up. I don’t want to just scream my ass off forever.
CBS SF: Yeah, I imagine it’s hard on the voice. This definitely brings a whole different set of dynamics to the music. I was really happy, in fact, to hear like a couple of things I love from my history, things I’ve been into since I was a teenager, like early Killing Joke and Gary Numan, especially the earlier Tubeway Army stuff. Sonically it’s this sort of like dystopian future style punk. I was wondering how much of an influence those bands were? Or were there other influences you were drawing on when you were coming up with the music for Human Impact?
Chris Spencer: I mean, nothing intentional. Nothing pre-thought out. But of course, for me, a band like Killing Joke is always going to be there somewhere, you know what I mean? I’m like you. When I was a kid, Killing Joke were way up there on the scale of bands. So maybe you’re hearing stuff from my influences in general. And Jim too. Jim and are from the same generation, there’s going to be sort of that ’80s dystopian punk kind of influences, especially with the electronic stuff.
CBS SF: And he’s playing some keyboards as well, besides the the sampling and electronics? There were a couple of places where I heard a little piano bit that’s mixed into the music…
Chris Spencer: Yeah, Jim is very accomplished. I think he was trained classically, to be honest. I think he studied French horn as a kid and hung out with jazz greats. His dad, I think, was a jazz musician. Jim can play pretty much anything. It’s really cool, because with a lot of his samples and the noise stuff, it seems as though maybe it’s just sort of hitting a button, you know?
But no, there’s a lot of of interplay between me and him with the guitar and the synth where we’re playing with microtonal dissonance that I really like. For me, is part of the fun of it is working on stuff where the guitar and the synthesizer are doing this weird s–t where I’m bending [the strings] and he bending slightly, maybe in another direction. And then, again, he has this huge arsenal of his sounds. So he can use those keyboards in any way he wants. I’ve referred to it as “synth crack” [laughs].
CBS SF: Given that Unsane has been put to bed from what you’ve been saying in other interviews…
Chris Spencer: Yeah, it’s done.
CBS SF: I was wondering if, since the bands shared a couple of members, is this sort of the end for Cutthroats 9 too? I always thought of the group as the bluesier, West Coast version of Unsane and always enjoyed seeing that band when you would play SF. Do you see that band getting back together at some point?
Chris Spencer: I don’t know, maybe? We might get together for a few shows. I’ve seen Will [Carroll, the band’s drummer] around a couple of times. He’s mentioned it. Cutthroats still maybe is a possibility, because it’s is kind of like my underground source of fun [laughs]. And Will is so good. And then we have Tony who is now in LA, Tony Baumeister playing bass. Or we had it last time; he played on that last record. But that’s more just getting together with your friends and having fun. I’m always open to that.
CBS SF: Right. And I know Will’s dance card is really full. I can’t believe how much Death Angel is on the road these days. This last year for them, their touring schedule was relentless. So I’m sure it’s a matter of him squeezing in the time.
Chris Spencer: Yeah. With Cutthroats, it’s usually pretty spontaneous. It’s like, “Hey man, I got a couple of months. You want to do something?” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure. Let’s do it.”
CBS SF: I can’t remember if we talked about another one of your projects, and I’m guessing on the pronunciation, Celan. You did one album back in 2009 with Einstürzende Neubauten’s keyboardist Ari Benjamin Meyers and Oxbow guitarist Niko Wenner. Is that something you would consider reviving or was that more of like a one off thing?
Chris Spencer: Well, Berlin seems like a long way away right now. At the same time, I could be open to that. But I’ve kind of got a lot of s–t going on right now. Whenever I think I have downtime, Jim sends me five ideas, you know? [laughs] So every time I think I’m going to have a little spare time, I don’t. It’s pretty cool. It’s kind of amazing actually. So it’s always possible, but I kinda doubt it, to be honest with you.
At the time I was living in Berlin and was given the chance to work with with Ari and those guys. And work in the Neubauten studio, which I could not turn down. I was like, “Aw, man, let’s go try this.” So we did it. We hung out for a year. I mean, winter is a little rough in Berlin. It’s pretty dark all the time. But who knows? Maybe down the line, but I sort of doubt it anytime in the near future.
CBS SF: It sounds like from all the material that’s coming up, you must already be working on a second Human Impact album, if there’s that much of a flow of ideas going back and forth between you and Jim…
Chris Spencer: Yeah, a couple of days ago, just finished mixing four new ones, so we’re sending those out to get mastered probably this week. We’ve got four really strong new songs for the next record or whatever. Now these days, the way Ipecac works, they tend to do sort of teaser singles for a while and then the full record comes out. So while Swans are on tour, there’ll be a few singles, I would assume. And then some new s–t after that.
CBS SF: If the new material is together enough to have already been recorded and being sent out for mastered, are those songs that you’ll be playing on the upcoming tour? I guess that also depends on time, since you are in the support slot with YOB…
Chris Spencer: Yeah, we’ll be doing a shorter set for the support thing with YOB. At Saint Vitus on Saturday, we will be doing a longer set, obviously, so we’re doing a few new ones. We’ll probably do I think probably do two of the newer ones that aren’t on the record. We trying to squeeze them in there, but like you said, time-wise, you gotta be careful.
CBS SF: I think the pairing with YOB is really interesting. I love Mike Scheidt and have been a huge fan of YOB for ages. How did you guys ended up linking up with them for the tour?
Chris Spencer: They just kind of hit us up, honestly. They just kinda went, “Hey dude, does Human Impact want to do West Coast shows with us?” And by chance, that was right before the Swans take off. So it was like, “Yeah, let’s get this done.”