Leaves Turn: The Unwound Interview

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In the 1990s, the Pacific Northwest served as the delta for innumerable influential musical phenomena, be it the mainstream explosion of grunge in Seattle, the DIY culture of K Records and burgeoning “riot grrrl” scene in Olympia, or in the atmospheric noir of Angelo Badalmenti against the fictional backdrop of Twin Peaks. Yet that only scratches the surface of the level of creative activity happening in the region. Dylan Carlson reinvented doom metal as a form of ambient music in Earth. Indie pop duo The Spinanes perfected the two-person band sound long before the White Stripes. And Tumwater’s Unwound broadened the possibilities of what a punk band can do.

From Unwound’s earliest days, the trio took a uniquely skewed approach to punk rock, arriving upon an aggressive but melodically challenging permutation of post-hardcore. Singer/guitarist Justin Trosper, bassist Vern Rumsey and drummer Sara Lund (succeeding first drummer Brandt Sandeno) progressed in a fascinating manner, pounding out fierce, Fugazi-style rippers on albums like New Plastic Ideas and The Future of What, gradually adding in more synths and atmospheric elements on 1996’s Repetition, and eventually expanding into epic territory on their 2001 album Leaves Turn Inside You.

Leaves Turn Inside You, comprising 14 tracks and two discs, is unquestionably Unwound’s most ambitious outing, as well as their most powerful. Held against the band’s prior albums, it sounds like the work of the same band, but sifted through various filters, whether jerky and taut on “December,” hazy and ambient on “One Lick Less,” or anthemic and mighty, as on “Off This Century.” Leaves is an exploration of what happens when limitations are removed, and boundaries are crossed. It’s elegant but abrasive — a stunning struggle between muscle and grace.

Touring behind Leaves would prove a challenge for the band. The expansive nature of the songs required a few extra musicians on hand, and when it came time to perform them live, Unwound enlisted former drummer Sandeno as keyboardist and David Stone as second guitarist, as well as soundman Dave Doughman. And all seemed promising until the terrorist attacks on September 11th sort of ruined everyone’s plans that year. The band canceled a handful of dates, but even after resuming their tour routine, things were already going south. Fraying nerves and excessive drinking had begun to chip away at the foundation, and eventually something had to break.

Unwound disbanded on April 1, 2002, which in hindsight is a funny-peculiar date to mark an ending. However, there were never any plans to reunite. Rumsey had become a father, and Trosper spent nearly a decade without playing any music, though that’s changed of late. Trosper now performs in Survival Knife, while Lund drums for both Hungry Ghost and the Corin Tucker Band. But last year, on the 10th anniversary of the band’s breakup, Unwound’s members saw fit to assemble an online archive of the band’s history, titled simply the Unwound Archive. The website chronicles the band’s 10-plus years together, with photos, a complete tour history, a meal diary, video, press clippings and other miscellaneous items.

Coinciding with the launch of the Unwound Archive was the release of Live Leaves, the band’s first ever live album, recorded during the band’s final, fateful tour. It’s a raw document, capturing the group’s live energy and intense performance, and it serves as a reminder of just what kind of damage the group could do with a set of instruments. Likewise, The Numero Group just announced it is reissuing the band’s entire catalog later this year.

With the release of Live Leaves, the launch of the archive and the 12-year anniversary of Leaves Turn Inside You drawing near, the time seemed ripe for a proper Unwound interview. I got in contact with Trosper, Rumsey and Lund to discuss the legacy of the band, as well as their final, triumphant two-LP statement.

Next: The Unwound Archive and long-lost mementos.

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