Revisit the bands last two albums from the final reissue boxset, Empire, and read our interview below.
When Unwound first turned up as a hardcore band in the Olympia, Washington music scene no one could have expected they would bow out with one of the greatest swan songs of the last 20 years. 2001’s Leaves Turn Inside You blew apart all expectations of what this band was capable of. Though they had begun incorporating new sounds on 1998’s Challenge for a Civilized Society, Leaves tied post-rock flourishes, psychedelia-infused production and vast orchestration with frontman Justin Trosper’s most impressive songwriting. It was the sound of a band gradually realizing their version of perfection and as more defunct bands reunite every year, you never feel that urge with Unwound. They achieved what they set out to do, the experiment was complete.
In the last few years the band have embraced their legacy with remastered box sets, each containing a pair of albums. Now the band prepares for Empire, the final release which collects Challenge and Leaves along with a selection of outtakes and rarities. It’s a big moment for the band and fans, so FACT reached out to Trosper and drummer Sara Lund to discuss the series — from the remastering process to the decision to release the LPs in pairs — and what they’re working on now.
For the first time you can hear the remastered Leaves Turn Inside You along with the rest of Empire below, and grab the set September 4 via The Numero Group.
You were both part of this band which grew such an intense following around the world, but you both still feel very much part of your local music scene in these current projects. That seems like the best of both worlds in a way. How do you see it?
Sara Lund: Honestly, the Portland music scene is so vast and varied, it’s hard to figure out which part I’m attached to. Maybe because I came from such a small, tight scene in Olympia, but Portland’s 90’s scene was pretty small and tight, too. I just play as much as I can and hope real hard that people will come listen.
Justin Trosper: I’m not sure I really feel part of any music scene anymore but when Unwound started out it was definitely part and parcel of the scene in Olympia and then that extended to other places like Portland, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and DC, etc. It seemed like scenes mattered a little more then. Now we are more connected virtually as well as being older and admittedly ignorant of what other people are up to. Geography and regionalism isn’t quite as critical to social identity as it was then.
Was there anything about pairing the albums the way you did — like Challenge and Leaves, or Future and Repetition — that made you think about them differently or notice some new connection?
JT: That was purposeful for a couple reasons. The practical element was that we had to figure out a reasonable way to put these sets to market. The conceptual element is that in each set the first record sort of predicts the second– like the concept gets more fully realized. So, you hear us doing this thing that is based more on energy on Fake Train and then by the time we release New Plastic Ideas those ideas are more solidly defined. Each one is sort of self contained like a series of books. You can read/listen to one and it’s not totally necessary to get them all, but you don’t get the whole story unless you do.
Going off that – each set has been given its own title. What made you want to title this Empire, and place that demo right at the end?
JT: Empire was meant to be the title for Challenge for a Civilized Society. Challenge was supposed to be a more political record about the unsustainability of our society and the rise of technocratic influence. It didn’t come out that way; it was more like about personal crisis but I got more into the idea of writing in character, so the songs are all like these different people commenting on the world. It makes for a nice last set title in the sense that we created our own mini-empire and watched it fall apart. The demo is there because that’s where we could cram it in!
Leaves Turn Inside You is obviously a special record to so many people and it has gained such a strong reputation over the years. How did it feel to revisit it after these years as that following has grown?
SL: It is a great record that I can enjoy much more objectively now that so much time has passed. And it does help to hear how much it has meant to people over the years. But it is the record I feel least attached to because we lived with it for the shortest amount of time. We only played those songs live for a brief period, and when we did, it was mostly with an expanded line up, so it really is a very different experience from any of our other records. We spent most of our years as a band touring and touring and playing and playing. The songs were in our blood! By the time Leaves came around, we were scattered so practice and touring happened at a fraction of the rate of our previous records. All of that being said, it is an impressive work that I’m very proud to have been a part of.
JT: It’s hard to listen to it and not want to remix some of it! But the mixing is part of the uniqueness of this record. We had a hodge-podge of gear and worked inside limits that most people aren’t doing anymore, for better or worse. But mostly, I like the flow and sequence and I think it works. In some ways it’s our best record, but not really as a band. Our best stuff as a cohesive unit is the No Energy set.
What was the remastering process like for these albums?
JT: I’m glad we got a chance to remaster it all and for the most part they are all improved. The only thing to really makes things even better would be to remix some of it but that would be too much of a reinvention, which is pretty unnecessary. The first few records were all recorded and mixed in short spans of time, three to four days, so there’s a very hurried feel to them. Marginal performances and global mixes — the kind of thing I wouldn’t want to do now. Leaves, despite its variable fidelity, was very carefully manipulated. There’s some weird — almost iffy — performances, but all the processing sort of masks the reality. Fake Train, on the other hand, is “warts and all.”
Sara, there’s a video of you drumming head to head against Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss and it’s so cool and that’s not really a question, but I needed to bring it up because it’s great. Here’s a real question: I read you’ve been working on a new album with your band Hungry Ghost. How has the process been?
SL: Thanks! That “drum battle” (which was totally not a battle) was incredibly fun! Janet and I have been good friends and mutual admirers for many years and we both jumped at the chance to play head to head like that, “trading 8’s.” Since then, I have collaborated in more multi-drummer ensembles and am now a regular member of the Portland-based Secret Drum Band, led by the incredible Lisa Schonberg (formerly of Explode Into Colors). We’re a 6-piece with 4 drummers and 2 soundscapers.
And yes, Hungry Ghost is hard at work on our 2nd album. In the interim since our first, we lost our bass player and have been playing just as a 2 piece. This new album has been an exciting learning experience for us as we’ve really been honing our songwriting skills as well as singing together a LOT. Neither one of us has much of a songwriting or singing background, so it’s pretty exciting to develop those muscles at this later stage in our musical careers. It’s also a full on break-up record and therefore very cathartic in every respect. Interested labels, please enquire!
AND I am also working on a new album with my other duo with Thollem Electric, the insanely talented globe-trotting keyboard/pianist. We have an album we made the first time we met, entirely improvised, out on New Atlantis records from a couple years ago. We called ourselves Impulsive Machinations and the album was called Conformity Contortion. For this next one, we will be using Conformity Contortion as our name. The music is born mostly out of improvisation, but there is a plenty of structure to hold things in place with a fair share of composed pieces. Playing with Thollem I’ve been able to stretch my drumming into places I never imagined I could go. We’ll be shopping for a label once it’s done!
And AND, I got to play on Justin’s new record. Been busy, drumming my little heart out!
Justin, Survival Knife’s debut album came out last year, but the band had been going for a couple years before that. How did it feel to put that out? Were those songs you’d played together for a few years at that point?
JT: The main thing I got from that record was a reminder of how much I like putting together records in general. It was a little like closing a circle by working with people from the past like Steve Fisk and Stuart Hallerman and applying experience that I’ve acquired after so many years of being pretty inactive creatively. Since then I’ve been working on another record called Nocturnal Habits that isn’t really a band but will probably be my main focus musically. Sara plays on several tracks so Unwound fans may rejoice. I think people that like the Leaves stuff will relate more closely to it as well. I’m pretty excited about it. Look for it next year!
So this series started a few years ago, but is finally closing in on the final release. What have your feelings been about it since this archival project began to where it is now? Has this felt like the closing of a chapter?
SL: This whole experience has been so amazing and necessary. When we broke up, we just walked away and looking back was just too hard. The fact that our music has remained relevant for so many people and that we got the chance to really dig in and process, in minute detail, that decade of our lives – it’s been validating, to say the least. Big thanks to Numero, Henry Owings, and especially David Wilcox for tearing our story out of us, tooth and nail.
JT: I’m glad we got the opportunity to do this; not everybody is so lucky to crystalize their legacy so nicely. I can’t really think of a better way to put the capstone on the whole experience. It’s given us a lot to reflect on and allowed me to process things that were left open. That period of my life was very defining and it’s nice to be able to move on but also have a beautiful document for other people to experience and learn from. I think we’ve set the bar a little higher for reissues thanks to Numero (and David Wilcox, who wrote the liners)!