Amid conflicting personal commitments, the 9/11 attacks*, and the particular type of internal strife that can only stem from a member's substance abuse, the highly influential and ardently DIY Northwest post-hardcore band Unwound disintegrated in the middle of a 2001 tour supporting an album that many considered to be their zenith. They'd toured extensively for the last decade, released eight albums, and played hundreds of shows with acts as disparate as Beck and Sonic Youth to Fugazi and Bikini Kill—all to critical and fan acclaim. It was a fast and hard fall from apex to nadir, and then it was over.
After the split, the band members, who'd never much made a point of self-promotion in the first place, receded even further from the music scene. Drummer Sara Lund resurfaced years later with Portland's Hungry Ghost and on percussion duties for the Corin Tucker Band. Bass player Vern Rumsey flirted around with music, but he has said he "never found the chemistry" he'd enjoyed with his bandmates in Unwound.
It was guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Justin Trosper, however, who made the most drastic change. "I'd done nothing but the band for 10 years—and put a ton of focus and energy into it, since right out of high school," he says.
At first, he continued on with some sound engineering work. "I was still pretty entrenched in music," he says. "Then I realized I was burned out on it, and pretty much hated it [laughs]. And that didn't make me feel good. We all have things that we're passionate about, and music had done so much for me in life that I wanted to preserve that."
So he moved to Los Angeles, started school, and largely avoided music for years. Eventually, he found his way back to Olympia, finishing school with a degree in environmental studies from Evergreen. Around that time, Trosper had been talking with Brandt Sandeno—the original drummer for Unwound, who had also joined them on keyboard for that last cursed tour, and who Trosper has been collaborating with on and off since high school—and soon Sandeno joined up with the now very aptly named Survival Knife.
The band played their first show in March 2012, and after releasing 7-inches on Sub Pop and Kill Rock Stars, they issued their first long-player, Loose Power, on Glacial Pace Recordings late last month.
"It definitely comes across as more muscular—I don't know if that's the right word—but it's more rock," Trosper says of Survival Knife's sound. "And that's the intention. It's meant to be riffs and more rock—but not in a 'Throw your hands in the air and party down!' way, although people are welcome to do that if they want [laughs]."
As it turns out, "muscular" is a pretty good start to describing the band's sound. But it's also feral, scrappy, and wholly confident. It's not angry, but it's not scared of a fight if that's the way things wind up. Things here are looser than Unwound's staccato rhythm section ever would have allowed for, and there are parallels with the work of Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, and Obits—all Rick Froberg endeavors—the latter of which Survival Knife have played with on several occasions.
Opener "Divine Mob," originally released last year on Kill Rock Stars in a rougher 7-inch version, showcases the most strident lines and drumming of the album, and might serve as the album's thesis, with Trosper and Sandero's guitar interplay snaking in and out of straightforward rhythm-section fare while Trosper blurts out: "My epiphany tells me/Have faith in your heresy." And if "Divine Mob" is Power's thesis, the eight-minute "Cut the Quick" is its conclusion. "Stop cutting yourself down/You might just cut the quick/Stop weighing yourself down/You might just levitate," Trosper intones with a sneered/sung drawl never unleashed in the days of Unwound. The chorus/revelation sounds like it could move nations.
Two years after that first show, Trosper is very much entrenched in music again. Unwound are compiling unwoundarchive.com, where fans are encouraged to send in memorabilia from the band's history. And Numero Group is issuing an extensive series of Unwound retrospective compilations. Most importantly, though, Trosper sounds inspired to make more music. "A couple of those songs [on Loose Power] are pretty old," he says with an audible air of anticipation. "After the tour, we'll be working on some new stuff."
* As luck would have it, the band was set to play the Middle East club in Boston with the band Arab on Radar that night. (The show was canceled, along with their next show in New York City.) For more reading about Unwound's last tour and demise, check out Brad Cohan's interviews with the band members at unwoundarchive.com/blog.