On an unusually cold and rainy Pacific Northwest winter day I found myself driving up I-5 to Olympia, WA. After narrowly escaping death from a couple of speeding 18-wheelers, I pulled into downtown and gave Justin Trosper a call. He told me that his house, which doubles as Mag Rec One studio, is a little hard to find and that I should go to Vern Ramsey's home. After meeting Vern we followed a series of twisting country roads, eventually ending on a one-lane dirt trail out in the middle of some barren fields. Once we reached our destination, a decrepit looking farm house half covered by overgrown trees, I felt like I was witnessing one of the great secrets of rock. Justin greeted us, and after brewing some coffee, we headed down a dark set of stairs to the basement studio. Nothing fancy, just a towering stack of speaker cabinets, a couple of Sunn heads, a beat-up drum kit and a lot of bare concrete. Justin opened a narrow door in the corner of the room and said, "This is it," revealing a tiny smoke filled room with a lot of funky looking recording gear and a couple dozen photographs of 20th century composers on the walls. This is the site where Unwound has spent the better part of the past year self producing their new record Leaves Turn Inside You. The interview was conducted with Justin (guitar and vocals for Unwound and Replikants), Vern (bass and vocals for Unwound and Long Hind Legs), and Brandt Sandeno (electronics and drums for Replikants and original Unwound drummer).
When did you begin recording yourselves?
Justin: Winter of 97/98. Replikants and Long Hind Legs on a Tascam. That was at the old house with different equipment. We began recording here about a year ago. Vern: As soon as we were finished putting up the walls, which was March of last year. In fact, the guy who helped us get set up came here to an empty room, and by the end of the day we were getting drum sounds.
Did you have an electrician put in the wiring?
Justin: The guy who helped us build the walls kind of knows everything, so he put in a ground.
Vern: Put everything on two different circuits. We still need to put the live room on a separate circuit though.
So the toaster oven doesn't come through the guitar amps?
Vern: I don't really notice that too much.
Justin: We both get a weird knocking thing though. That's the ghost. It starts knocking on the wall, and then through our amps.
Was there a murder here?
Vern: We haven't figured that out yet.
Justin: No, but its not a malevolent one. It just likes to play funny little tricks.
So why record yourselves? After doing six albums with Steve Fisk why take this approach?
Justin: We learned a lot by working with Fisk and Vern already had some equipment which we wanted to set up. Not necessarily to record an Unwound record, just to use. But then it came time to start thinking about a new one and we all wanted to create different circumstances.
Vern: Originally we were planning on recording basic ideas so we would have a better idea of what to do when we went to a big studio, but the longer we did that the more we realized how it was all coming together.
Justin: Yeah, and this way we could spend as long as we want recording without having to worry about cost. And do things we had talked about for years. Then it expanded into, "Hey, we can record anything, any band, blah-blidy-blah," and the whole production aspect is under our control.
Vern: And instead of paying someone a bunch of money and only having a record done, this way we can end up with a studio as well.
How does recording yourselves affect the creative process? Being in your own home, and being able to work as long as you want, does it affect the music?
Justin: Definitely. We can record ideas, give it a few days, and then decide if something isn't working. This way we have a lot more time to filter out the bad ideas. [laughs]
Brandt: You think a lot more about permanence when your not in this kind of situation. You feel like everything has to be done before you go to the studio, whereas working here you can be a lot more contemplative and not feel pressured. There is always the possibility of approaching something in a totally different way.
Vern: We would let things sit for a couple weeks and then listen back to them which is a total luxury.
Justin: Normally that's only for people with a million dollar budget! But now that technology is so available, with digital recording and everything, it's easier for people to do it themselves.
Brandt: You can surprise yourself more too. There have been a lot of situations where I didn't know something could sound so good. It's possible to totally expand your horizons and get a good sounding song. You just have to use your ears.
So is the new Unwound material more pieced together?
Justin: Its almost the same [guitar, bass, and drums] but then we could add to it.
But it wasn't like lay down one riff and then come back later and add in some other idea?
Justin: There are only a couple like that. We actually wanted to do more that way, but we kept writing new songs. I mean its already a double album, did we want a quadruple? [chuckles]