Unwound's Justin Trosper Explains 'Peel Sessions,' Track By Track
In 1998, Unwound was closing in on the height of its powers. Two years earlier, the Olympia band had released the career-defining Repetition, which dug into Unwound's weirder grooves with a muscle-constricting tension that, when released, made it feel as if the world was opening up. Challenge For A Civilized Society explored that mode with more studio experimentation, as the band added synths, saxophone and samples. The result was pulsing, ecstatic.
It's during this time that the band was booked to record a Peel Session in London. As guitarist and vocalist Justin Trosper writes in an email to NPR, "We were pretty damn excited to be asked to do a Peel Session, as that was definitely an indicator that we had 'arrived.' But really, being a record collector and music fan, it was an honor!"
As most bands know or discover when they arrive at the BBC, John Peel rarely attended the recording sessions bearing the influential DJ's name. At the time, "We chose these songs as they were basically a whole section of the set we had been grinding out on the Challenge tours," Trosper writes.
"'Hexenszene' and 'Kantina' were older numbers that had endured and evolved to higher forms. 'Side Effects Of Being Tired' was a like-minded song which had a second section that usually extended for as long as we pleased. Listening now, I hear what people say when they [call it] shoegazey, but we were much more punk rock in attitude, stance, gesture and form than most of those bands before or since. Ha."
Known for the way the band would rework old songs and mutate them into hulking, Cubist-punk beasts, Unwound's live sets are prized by tape traders, and for years, these sessions would appear in dubiously legal forms. So to wrap up Numero Group's heroic reissue campaign of the Unwound discography, Empire includes not only the band's final two albums (Challenge For A Civilized Society and the crucial swan song Leaves Turn Inside You) with demos, B-sides and unreleased tracks, but also Peel Sessions as a bonus record packaged with the first 1,000 orders.
Justin Trosper revisits the session below with notes on each track.
This song from New Plastic Ideas was written as commentary about the social scene of Olympia. There was a lot of intense personalities and subsequent political discourse derived from what people were "learning" at The Evergreen State College. This combination led to some awkward social situations — I'll just leave it at that. Our songwriting technique of the time was to spend a good many hours in the practice space and work out the problems together, usually from a skeleton of a song idea (a.k.a. riff) that myself or [bassist Vern] Rumsey brought in. This often led to a part in the song where it falls apart and comes back together, as a sort of break from the verse/chorus back-and-forth. People call this a "noise part." We got better doing this after many years of playing live, and this song became a fixture of our set. The version here is an evolved and superior-sounding version, as many of our recorded songs became after touring them to hell and back. Each instrument is honed and the vocals are much more confident.
2. Side Effects Of Being Tired
Vern's first foray into singing and lyricizing. This song's structure is really a composite of two songs — the second part definitely written on the heels of touring with Sonic Youth! Though I hear very well [drummer] Sara [Lund] doing a great job of creating a more unique and Can-like atmosphere with her drumming. Vern is doing the meditative bass drone, and here I am making joyful guitar jerks for better, worse, weird and otherwise. Fun. But I don't think the first section is that great, so the song sort of fails — and not because Vern is singing. It's just not an Unwound classic, if we can propose such a thing.
3. Kantina / Were, Are And Was Or Is
I guess this was our most cherished live number, and agreed, it was almost always nice to play. Vern's bass line was stolen from a Circus Lupus song (which was probably stolen from a Jesus Lizard song), but it still sounds like Vern Rumsey. He was like the less evil, more soulful and melodious version of David Sims. I suppose some of the appeal of the song is the "emo" aspect of the chorus build-up ("Wait!"). After all, the song was about total desperation, subsequent depression and the feeling of loss. Then we do the stoner-y Daydream Nation part at the end, which went on and on and usually was the right thing to do. It was the last song we ever played together.
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