A huge figure in the ’90s rock scene, Justin Trosper may be best known for his work with Unwound. The band was a seminal part of the Kill Rock Star’s lineup from the beginning (or at least since 1993’s Fake Train) and went on to record 6 full length LP’s with the label before their break up in 2002. Unwound is often misguidedly lumped into the post-hardcore genre, but the band made politically conscious, angular, noise-rock that had (and still has) an uncompromising energy and drive behind it.
In early 2011, Justin formed Survival Knife with fellow Unwound member Brandt Sandeno. The band released their first single in 2013 and their full-length debut, Loose Power, this past April. Survival Knife will surely draw some comparisons to Unwound (and rightfully so seeing as though they share the same singer/songwriter), but the band finds new ways to continue the dialogue that Unwound begun. This band is still as socially and politically conscious as the last but the music is a bit more accessible and melodic.
Midwest Action were lucky enough to sit down with Justin Trosper just before Survival Knife’s show at Subterranean last week. We discussed how the music scene has changed in the last couple of decades, maturity in songwriting, and how the new band came to be. Get in on the conversation below.
So Survival Knife started up around 2011, right?
Yup, actually it’ll be going on 4 years coming this winter.
Unwound had broken up in 2002, what was the dynamic like starting a new band with Brandt? Did you hope to go in a new direction? What changed?
I wasn’t very active, I didn’t perform for 10 years or play live. I did do some recording and stuff like that for a couple of years after Unwound. Me and Brandt are old friends, since we were little kids. We started Unwound and had a few bands during Unwound even when he wasn’t in Unwound. We’ve been friends since then, we just kind of keep in touch over the years.
I finished up college in 2010 and I was kind of eager and antsy to do something but I was like, I’m just going to finish school because I’m not a multi-tasker. Do one thing at a time. After that, we just got talking and said, “Hey, let’s try doing a two guitar thing”. He played guitar before I ever did. He’s always been playing guitar, but he was a lot of the time just the default drummer because he’d say, “Oh, I’ll just play drums”.
Drummers are always harder to find than guitarists.
Drummers are hard to find. So, we decided to do this thing we’d never done before, we had done a little bit of guitar stuff in our band The Replikants and so it kind of evolved from there. Write a song with two guitars. He was playing a little bit with Chris and Meg, [who are now] the bassist and drummer of Survival Knife. It was sort of happenstance – let’s just see if this works with those guys and take it from there.
None of the songs that we wrote are any leftover Unwound material. I think certain songs I would categorize as similar to Unwound and some songs are more evolved in a different way. Just based on all of the different dynamics. Some of it’s more like something me and Brandt would make and some of it’s more like what all of four of us would make. It’s a little hodge podge on the writing side of it.
Listening to Survival Knife and showing the band to some fellow Unwound fans, it’s definitely a sound that is similar enough to make you say, “Oh yea, this is the guy from Unwound.” But, I feel like Survival Knife is a little more accessible in ways, a little ‘poppier’. A little more math-rock, even. I like that a lot of the aspects of Unwound’s sound were carried over, but it definitely sounds like a new band.
Yea, it’s nice to have the “Unwound foot” in the door because there are a gazillion bands and whatever… so that’s nice to have. My opinion is if Survival Knife sucks, then people are going to be like, “Well, good try buddy”. So, I think after a while if this band keeps going, it’ll be more of its own entity.
You’ll start to get out of the shadow of Unwound a bit…
A little bit, that’ll always be there and that’s fine – it’s history, it’s my life. It’s fine, I’m proud of it and all of that.
I like being able to have different touchstones in my evolution. When I’m an old man, I’ll look back and say this is that, and this is that, and so on. It’ll all be a continuum for me and different people I’ve played with and it’ll make sense in a “bigger picture” type-of-situation.
In the same vein, I’m also working on another project that’s separate from Survival Knife. I hesitate to say “solo” because there will be collaborations on it. Not a band per se, more like an entity of recordings that may or may not tour even. We’ll see how it evolves.
I’m trying to get Survival Knife to be more of an “input from everybody” type thing. Now that we’ve been playing together, we have developed a chemistry. Communication levels are more evolved whereas when we were first starting… if you just have an open book then everybody has no direction. Definitely me and Brandt steered that in the direction. The next record we make will probably be a lot more cohesive sounding in a way. A lot more organic.
It’s exciting to think about, we are playing one new song tonight. We’re excited to try it out.
I was going to ask you if you were still the primary songwriter in the band or if it was more of a democratic process with the whole band.
Yeah, it’s tricky because you talk about songwriting and there’s very conventional ways of looking at what a song is and then there’s non-conventional ways to look at it, and they’re both valid. I think there are elements of a song that are kind of essential. On the spectrum of music, you have stuff that’s so very abstract like noise music then you have very accessible pop. In very accessible pop stuff, the elements are very obvious. You have this melody that’s very familiar that people have already heard, but it’s done in a new way. That’s very repetitive with a simple rhythm that’s driving. Then, you have different levels of complexity. If you take a noise piece, there’s not really a melody, there’s not really necessarily harmony or maybe there’s disharmony. There may not even be a complex rhythm, it may just be arrhythmic. It’s sort of anti-music or negative music. And – not negative meaning bad but meaning kind of the opposite of those elements.
The point of what I’m saying is taking those elements and talking about songwriting, I may be the primary songwriter in a conventional sense. I came up with the melody, I came up with the lyric but everybody else is doing their thing. The harmonies then become more complex. It becomes more interesting. You may have this melody and a lyric. Where as me, I almost always write lyrics on top of the song. The song helps write the lyrics.
I think it’s pretty difficult to write lyrics without a knowledge of the guitar or another instrument. To write lyrics outside of a musical structure has to be a hindrance where as you can compose your lyrics along with guitar and then bring that to the rest of the band.
Yeah, there’s all sorts of ways that songs start. Everybody has their little tricks they do or ways they dive into that process. For me it’s mostly just playing around with guitars. I have some chords that I like playing and I have little tricks that I like to do and I bring that to other people and they make it more interesting. So in that sense there is some conventionality to it. It wouldn’t be true to say that it’s a complete democracy, I just think that’s very, very rare actually. Bands that do have very collaborative songwriting styles are like jam bands. They play a lot together, a lot of hours, and things evolve out of those hours of playing.
Unwound did that quite a bit actually. We played a lot, especially when we were young. This band has a little more of a structure to the process. And it’s slow, it’s also slow. I’d say comparing it to an Unwound song in 1993: written in a practice, performed the next week. This is like, “Alright, I’ve got this idea I’m gonna mull over it for a month, then I’m going to bring it over to Brandt’s house” then he’s gonna go “Hmm, that seems cool, let’s play that a little bit”. Then it’s like three months down the road that we’ll be able to play this live, maybe. It still might be unfinished.
Do you think that’s due to a change in your own maturity or a just change in the times?
Yeah, it’s a little bit maturity, it’s a little more conservative. In a sense, you learn from some of those experiences. I mean there are those times when you throw all of this energy into it and you just throw it out there, and there is some value to that. I think that’s harder to do when you’ve played a long time and your bullshit filter is tougher and the editing table is tighter. You’re able to say, Yeah there’s too much fat on this thing, we need to cut some of this out. How are we going to do that in an economical way? Is this part that you’re so attached to really important to the song? Can you just file that away and use it for something else? How does it relate to the song? So there’s a lot of talk about that kind of stuff and a lot of thought put into it.
There’s similar ideas going on in later Unwound stuff where we worked on more theme and variation vs. chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-weird part… you know what I mean? You’re coming up with the basic idea of the song, the second part of the song may be a variation on that basic idea rather than a verse per se. It may just be “part two of part one” In that sense, it would be a little bit more like Western classical music, theme and variation style. That’s a little pretentious to say in a rock song, it’s not like classical but some of those elements that you would be writing relate. Rather than just, I have this awesome riff and that’s going to lead into another awesome riff, which… some of our songs are like that too. Some of them are strung together in a composite way, they may not relate melodically but there is a thread through them but it’s not always easy to detect.
I noticed right away that Survival Knife’s sound is a lot more riff-heavy than Unwound ever was. Unwound was a bit more free-form and noisy where the guitars would get muddled together…
Yeah, it’s like a wall.
Right. But Survival Knife has all of these sharp, angular guitar riffs coming through.
And that was totally intentional. It was very, like, we’re gonna just get really riffy. We started thinking about bands that are very riffy like Black Flag, or metal bands like Metallica or Drive Like Jehu. All of these bands that we like is reflected, in some ways it’s like an homage to good guitar rock from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Which I think is a little rare these days. You have lots of great music out there, lots of interesting electronic stuff, lots of strange pop music. A lot of stuff I appreciate. I feel like the people who are doing good “riff-type music”… it’s all metal. And there’s very good metal, we’re doing some kind of metal-y things, but it’s all about the guitar tone. It’s getting rid of the metal guitar tone and taking something more classic ’70s or ’80s sounding.
Some of the songs, if you played it maybe a little bit faster with a super metal’d out tone you’d be like, “Oh, that is kind of metal”. But yeah, we’d rather sound like Television doing that than Opeth. A band I appreciate but I’m not going to fucking play like that. It’d be joke if I walked out there and just pretended I was as into myself as this metal dude.
There’s a big distinction there, I’m not into much metal myself. I was always a big Unwound fan as well as a fan of the whole Kill Rock Stars family. But I never really thought of Unwound as a metal group. I even shy away from using the term “post-hardcore” when it comes to you guys.
Yeah I agree, it’s just a convenient term to use.
The way Unwound evolved from beginning to end is this whole weird thing.
Most good bands have a weird evolution. It’s nice to a band like Unwound, and I hope Survival Knife as well, have an evolution. Some bands they find a sound on the first album and they just ride that as long as they can without really growing or changing as a band.
You have to take risks. That’s usually the hallmark sign of a boring artist is that they don’t take risks. There is a safety zone, we have safety zones we fall into. I’m not going to radically change the way I sing, I mean it’s actually bound by my physical nature. Age, time, and who I am change… and whatever. At the same time, I’m not going to just tread the same territory as Unwound. There’s different people involved, it’d just be boring.
I think some Unwound fans may not like this band and I think a lot of people who wouldn’t like Unwound would like this band. It does kind of fall down some little fault line in terms of musical styles. But still at the end of the day it’s still… I hate to use the word “fun” but in a way it’s about the quality of the experience that I’m going for, especially at this point in my life.
What have your live shows been like in comparison to Unwound shows?
Unwound was definitely more of an emotional experience where we were kind of creating moods with our shows. For better or worse. At a good show we would go into these different moods from depressing into triumphant or whatever you want to say. I think Survival Knife is more of a… it feels more technical in that it’s almost like a recital or something sometimes. I don’t know how else to say it. That sounds bad but it’s just that a lot of these songs are challenging and it’s about just presenting these songs. There’s still an emotional quality to it but it’s less loaded and it’s less throwing it all out there.
It’s a little bit more about the performance aspect than the emotional response?
Yeah, and I think the thing when you see our bass player Meg, she really brings this great energy. She’s fairly new to being in bands so she has more of blank slate approaching things. It’s great because the rest of us have been playing too long. It brings us out a little bit and forces us to perform better I think. Chris is also a really high energy drummer. He’s a lot different from Sara from Unwound, whose band Hungry Ghost is playing tonight also.
It’s just a different dynamic. The live thing is different, it’s not as wild. Unwound could be seen as this wild, crazy, destructive feeling. I’m at a different point in my life, it’s more held back a bit.
To me, I’ve evolved as a guitar player so some of it was way less in tune, less precise and now we’re a little bit more about precision… I’m not sure how to describe it, I think I’m over describing it.
Do you think some of that difference was due to the scene? Portland in the ’90s was a little more about DIY culture…
Yeah, just a little more about the feeling of the band and the feeling of being younger. My view of the world and insecure it was then. I think my view was a lot more fatalistic. I didn’t really understand the world how I do now. I’m a lot more rational person that I was in my 20’s, so that might be the thing. Survival Knife seems a bit more rational.
Has that changed your songwriting much? Are you a little less political now?
The songs are a little more obviously political. I’m still on the fence about it. Writing political songs is not my strength but I feel like it’s appropriate for Survival Knife to have an element of philosophy in there. Where as Unwound was more existential and all about me or this situation or whatever it was, Survival Knife is a bit more topical. The Loose Power record definitely touches on certain topics like Atheism and institutional failure. The song “Heaven Has No Eyes” is about the strength of institution against the individual and the feeling that a lot of people have about not being able to change the world around them. They are kind of political and they do reference things that may seem obvious or feel appropriate to throw out there.
I’m kind of taking a risk here because I’m not sure if it’s the right idea, but I’m going to try it and see what happens.
There’s still plenty to be angry and political about these days and there always will be.
Of course there is, and if you can do it and let people make up their mind… they don’t even have to listen to the lyrics they can just to the music and rock out. I do that for the most part with music I listen to, I don’t usually delve deep into their politics. Like I was saying earlier, “The music writes the lyrics”, I think the music a lot of times just feels more philosophical or political to me. It just seems appropriate.
Survival Knife just wrapped up a short tour in support of their new EP, Survivalized available now via Chunklet Industries. The limited edition 12″ clear vinyl is going fast so pick one up while you still can and keep an eye out for more music and tour dates from this group!