Stirring The Lower Depths: UNSANE On ‘Sterilize’

Stirring The Lower Depths: UNSANE On ‘Sterilize’

Interview with vocalist/guitarist Chris Spencer | By Christopher J. Harrington 

New York City’s lean and mean noise-rock machine, UNSANE, have always stirred in the lower depths. It’s the place where the band can fully stretch their gritty wings. After 29 years, things haven’t changed: the group’s newest record, Sterilize—out Sept. 29 via Relapse Records—is a slab of airy concrete amongst a pile of infinite steel: bent, twisted, and ripping as hell.

“The dirty, seedy New York we started in is completely gone,” vocalist and guitarist Chris Spencer muses. “For me, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the drive to play the type of music I love and to be playing it with my friends. At times, I feel like a sonic emissary from a nastier, more fucked up time.”

Sterilize is angular in dimension, with UNSANE’s trademark spiral extensions billowing out from within the prism. The record is hard, completely chugging, and never shy to explore the more harrowing and circular environment it was born in. It’s old-school and still utterly fresh. “What is now labeled ‘noise-rock’ was originally bands that reflected their environment,” Spencer notes. “Violence, street noise, urban overcrowding, and the adversity of the street drug culture were the everyday grind. Things have really changed.”

UNSANE started out in the diverse and heavily influential noise and experimental scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in the East Village. Bands like Pussy Galore, Cop Shoot Cop, Helmet, and Sonic Youth were all tearing up the scene in their own unique and individualistic ways. It was a community of bands who were taking chances and creating their own thing. “It was just a great local scene to be a part of,” Spencer reminisces. “I think every band in that late ‘80s N.Y. scene that I hung out in had a different sound. Being original was the main part of it. I don’t think any of us wanted to be like anything we had heard before or rip off anyone.”

UNSANE tore a portal straight through metal, punk, and noise, piecing together some industrially organic phantom of riffs, dirges, and iron: simple, yet infinitely armored. The gear they donned was cubist and reflective, minimalist and charmed. “I think simplicity can be pure power musically,” Spencer explains. “You just need to find the right phrasing. I tend to stick with what comes naturally, what feels good. Too much overthinking and structure can ruin something that, on its own, works.”

Sterilize continues the plunge into space and environment. It’s a record both physical and emotional, bending the very ground it walks upon. UNSANE have always been masters of direction and specification, and the new record is very connected to the present. “For Sterilize, we started recording ideas on our own initially,” Spencer says. “For what I was working on, there was a definite focus on the modern plight of the human: technology creating alienation, overpopulation, media disinformation, mass consumption, the slow death of the planet, etc. We are living in a strange time.”

And what about that name? UNSANE. What a cool and oddly precise moniker for a band so down to earth, so driven by the very nature of their existence. The name is circular and mysterious, but simple and direct. “Some friends and me were hanging out on 42nd Street, sometime in ‘88, back when it was a cesspool,” Spencer explains. “We used to go watch the gore triple bill at the Lyric Theater for $3.50. It was a crack smoker’s haven. Drugged-up types could hang out all day and do their drugs in relative peace, watching first-run director’s cut horror movies. We were big fans of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci, who were all shown there.”

“So, after a crazy six-plus hours of screaming crackheads, and [former UNSANE bassist] Pete Shore almost getting robbed in the bathroom, we made our way outside to the street,” he continues. “Surrounded by lowlifes and hookers in possibly the grossest scene on the planet, I looked up at the marquee and saw the name ‘UNSANE.’ It was a fitting description of our existence at the time and, we thought, a fitting band name.”

Purchase Sterilize here

Photo By Dan Rawe

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