Gimmie interviewed Krystal Maynard and Christopher Stephenson from Naarm/Melbourne post-punk, synth-heavies, screensaver. Last year they released demos with a lot of heart and promise and this year as well as featuring on two essential compilations – A Complication for Edgar – a fundraiser for Edgar’s Mission Sanctuary providing, shelter and care for homeless, abused, injured, or abandoned animals and the latest Blow Blood Records ALTA2 compilation – they released a new single ‘Strange Anxiety’.
How did you first meet?
CHRISTOPHER STEPHENSON (guitar/synth): We first met in 2014 in Berlin when our bands Spray Paint and Bad Vision played together. The following year Spray Paint travelled to Australia and played with Krystal’s band Polo.
KRYSTAL MAYNARD (vocals/synth): Yeah, our first official meeting was at some heinous hour of the morning on the very last night of Bad Vision’s tour at the kick on at some bar in a suburb of Berlin that I remember very little detail of.
I understand that you both started collaborating musically over the internet beginning in 2016 with Chris in Austin, Texas and Krystal here in Melbourne, Australia; what kinds of songs were you making back then?
CS: At the time I had a great 4-track in my share house bedroom, I didn’t have any real drum machines or great synths, so I tapped beats out on a thrift store Casio into a loop pedal and ran keyboard sounds through enough guitar pedals to sound somewhat synth-y. The project started as me sending over instrumentals and Krystal doing vocals.
What inspired you to go for a synth-punk, new wavey, gothy sound for screensaver?
CS: After I moved over we decided to expand into a full band format where Krystal played keys and I added guitar. Once we brought in bass and drums with Giles and James the sound naturally settled into where we’re at presently.
KM: It wasn’t really a conscious decision, Chris’s original demos really lent themselves to the sound and vocally it made sense for me to go down that path. We’ve both played in a variety of different sounding bands over the years and I was enthused to do something I hadn’t dived into before but actually was core to my musical origins. When I was a teenager I was super into The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division as well as the 77 punk stuff. So for me, it’s been like tapping back into my origins but whilst having had many years of developing a broader palette to take those influences but ( hopefully) not just reproduce their sound but incorporate more wide ranging sounds. I find genre discussions both interesting and tedious. As a band you can’t really escape using genres to describe your music which is frustrating but unavoidable!
What’s the story behind the band name?
CS: I recall coming up with the name as we drove together to Office Works in Coburg in our black Volvo station wagon. I think I had to print a certified copy of my passport that day.
Your debut single ‘Strange Anxiety’ that’s about to come out was recorded remotely in isolation; what sparked the idea for this song?
CS: Krystal had a garage band demo with the initial low keyboard and then sent it to James who programmed the beat. She’s amazingly quick with lyrics and vocals in general, so by the time I started working on it as a session the structure was all there.
KM: I’m pretty sure that this song began as me teaching myself how to program drums in Garageband and having a play with making music that way, it could have easily been a throwaway practice session of mine that nothing happened with. When our drummer James got his hands on it he turned my basic beat into something super dynamic which brought the bass line to life and we built from there.
What’s something that we might be surprised to know about your writing or recording process?
CS: I suppose we’re still getting to know our process ourselves! In an otherwise normal year I doubt we ever would have seen a song through from start to finish without going into a studio to amplify guitar or bass at the very least.
KM: Covid-19 and the restrictions in Melbourne have meant that we’ve had to reinvent our processes completely, it’s enabled us to stretch out into sounds we may not have if we were just jamming as a four piece is a room, the method of making (mostly) in the box music over the last six months has had a lot of positives for us and developing our sound.
The video for the song is a collaboration between screensaver’s bass player Giles Fielke and animator Juliet Miranda Rowe; can you tell us about making it?
KM: We filmed the video using our bass player Giles’ Super 8 camera at his apartment back in June when the restrictions were briefly lifted. Giles riffed off the simplicity of Andy Warhol’s screen tests for the black and white shots of the band members and he edited the foundation of the clip. Juliet came in afterwards and animated over the top of the footage to give it even more movement, working with the songs rhythm’s to give it punch in all the right places.
In 2019 you started playing gigs locally and then did a short run of shows in the US opening for Wiccans and Timmy’s Organism; besides playing, what was one of your favourite moments on the trip?
CS: Personally it was good to be back in my former hometown and reconnect with bandmates and friends in Austin.
KM: My first instinct is to say the breakfast I had in New Orleans! I still find eating food in the USA such a novelty, the diners and greasy spoons and the really regional foods. But yes, the shows were great too, tour is always fun, sometimes the best moments are just being juvenile in the van and flogging the tour joke until it’s got no life left in it.
screensaver are featured on the Blow Blood Records ALTA2 compilation (a comp of Australian bands who have made music whilst in isolation); how did the song you contributed to this get started?
CS: That one started as some Michael Rother worship I put over a terrible sounding beat on a cheap machine. James improved the rhythm track immensely and Krystal belted the vocals out in our apartment.
KM: I’m positive that our neighbours think we are crazy, because I am always laying down vocal tracks in headphones really loud, so all they are getting is vocals sans music which we all know sounds pretty bizarre/not very good. I’m now at peace with it. We hear things we don’t wanna hear in the apartment block all the time, so I guess its payback.
ALTA2 is a really impressive compilation and such a great idea to put out songs of artists who have continued to produce music during this lock down. It’s a big reminder of how much talent we have in own backyard, we highly recommend you pick up a copy and discover a whole bunch of new artists.
You also had a live track “Meds” on A Complication for Edgar – a fundraiser for Edgar’s Mission Sanctuary featuring 20+ punk bands; why was it important for you to be a part of it?
CS: In addition to supporting a great cause it actually happens to document our first live show at the Last Chance. Max Ducker did a great job with the live sound and making it sound great on tape.
KM: Max Ducker is a really old friend of mine so we couldn’t say no! But honestly we are happy to support an organisation that is looking after the welfare of animals.
What’s something that has really engaged your attention lately?
CS: I thoroughly enjoyed Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta.
KM: I am very enamoured with Miles Brown’s album The Gateway released early this year, it’s so danceable, moody and evocative and the theremin works it magic to replace any desire you might have for vocals.
Vincent Buchanan-Simpson is the creative behind new solo synthpunk project EUGH, you may also know him from jangle poppers Terrible Signal, psych-punks Hideous Sun Demon and weirdo punks Kitchen People. EUGH is lo-fi, hyper, satirical and wildly fun! Gimmie interviewed Vincent to find out about new release the most brilliant man alive!
Where did you grow up? How did you discover music?
VINCENT: I grew up in Fremantle. My parents are big music lovers and I learned piano at a young age. I was about 11 when I started to really take an interest in it. My dad got me into a lot of good proto-punk and post-punk bands pretty early. I liked my fair share of trash though. Still do really.
Who or what inspired you to first write songs?
V: I don’t know. It’s the only thing that makes me feel productive and it’s been like that forever.
Can you tell us about the first time you ever performed live? How did you feel?
V: Mother’s Day 2006. I played bass in the Christian Brothers College Junior Jazz Band. We played “Tequila”. I felt dumb in the yellow vest they made us wear and we sucked.
You’re in bands Hideous Sun Demon, Terrible Signal and Kitchen People; what inspired you to do this new project EUGH by yourself?
V: I’ve been meaning to start a project like this for ages, it was just been hard finding a space to record since I moved to Melbourne. I write everything in Terrible Signal so I’m used to doing things by myself. Plus lockdown has pretty much made bands impossible here unfortunately.
Why did you decide to go with a synthpunk/egg-punk sound?
V: In 2012 I played in a band that covered “Are We Not Men” by DEVO in full. Learning those parts made me realise how much a like that style of writing. I’d always liked bands like Tubeway Army and The Units since I was young. I guess this project is also a continuation of Kitchen People in a way, same as Ghoulies.
In terms of egg-punk, I dunno. That was just a tag I added on Bandcamp in the hope some European Youtuber would find and upload it. Gotta know your target audience.
I read over at Marthouse Records that writing lyrics was different for you for this project compared to your other bands, usually you’d write about experiences happening around you this time you wrote about made up hilarious scenarios; was there anything you did to spark the process when writing? Was there a scenario you were thinking of using but didn’t?
V: Not really, but that’s only because I kind of made up the stories as I wrote the lyrics. Like with “Junk Shop” for example, I started with the idea of a guy working in a pawn shop. But as I went along it turned into him being kidnapped by a guy and forced into eating at Hogs Breath Café, which I didn’t plan at the start. I think it was that sort of spontaneous approach that led to the song themes to be as stupid as they are.
“Galactic Terror” is one our favourite tracks on the EP it’s pretty hectic; how did this song materialize?
V: The music was really quick. Like maybe an hour to write and record it. All the songs were written like that. All the riffs in that song are the kind of thing I play when I’m fucking around on guitar or whatever, I just threw a few together in a way that made sense to me.
You recorded everything yourself; how did you keep yourself engaged and motivated throughout the process?
V: Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. I just try and make sure when I am motivated that I’m productive as possible. It’s easier with this project coz I can do it all pretty quick.
What might we be surprised to know about your recording process?
V: The EP was recorded all digitally. I’m saving up for a reel-to-reel but I’m actually pretty inexperienced with analogue recording. The EP sounds like it does because after recording the song I would run the whole track back through a Korg MS20, the high and low pass filters round out the sound and the VCA makes it real squashed and nice. I think it worked pretty well.
Do you ever get nervous sharing your songs with people once they’re done?
V: Not so much now. It depends who I’m showing. But my songs are better than they used to be so I’m more confident now.
I peeped stacks of books a while back in one of your Insta vids; what was the last book you read that ruled? What’s it about?
V: The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy. It’s challenging and at times pretty brutal and harrowing. But it’s a modern age epic, especially the second book The Crossing. All three books tell stories of young cowboys from south-west USA being drawn into Mexico for various reasons. All their journeys bring misfortune, but they all encounter characters whose stories bring some of most profoundly deep writing I’ve ever read. It’s about human condition and plight, and the relationships we all have with have with nature, time, society and faith. All set to this harsh yet beautiful backdrop of Northern Mexico in the 1940s.
Last year you were on tour in Europe with Hideous Sun Demon; what’s one of the coolest things you saw or experienced while there?
V: All the venues and all the people were amazing!
We all liked Toulouse a lot. It isn’t a name you hear that much but it’s an amazing town, and Le Ravelin is a great venue. I walked around the morning after our gig and the place was just brimming with history and creativity. It’s not that small a town but it has very relaxed atmosphere.
Your Insta username is @reallygreatoutfit; what’s the greatest outfit you’ve ever worn?
V: Probably when I dressed as the guy who played Smeagol in Lord of the Rings for Halloween. Like the actual actor in his motion capture suit. It was a blue zoot suit that I stuck duct tape it on to make it look real. Remember when zoot suits were a thing? People suck.
I know you’ll be releasing another EUGH EP by the end of the year; have you started it yet? Are you setting yourself any creative challenge writing it?
V: I’ve written it all already. But then I upgraded my studio and I dunno if I wanna re-record it or put it up as is and then do something else. I have three releases going on with different bands as it is at the moment, so I’m gonna get those out and then focus on it. Plus getting out of bed is a challenge enough with curfew lol.
ADULT. have been in existence for over two decades! Their darkwave, electronic, synthpunk is always interesting, always pushing boundaries and always reinventing itself. Towards the beginnings of isolation we caught up with ADULT.’s Adam Lee Miller and Nicola Kuperus from their home in Michigan to find out more about their eight studio album – Perception is/as/of Deception. Recorded in their basement, which they painted all black in an effort to deprive their senses and see what would come creatively, the result is a self-aware, tongue-in-cheek, thrilling record!
How have you both been doing? I remember reading an interview with you from way back and you mentioned that you liked working isolation.
ADAM LEE MILLER: [Laughs] We do. We also enjoy knowing that there is going to be a very public part of our lives after the isolation.
NICOLA KUPERUS: We’re beginning to wonder; when is that public time for musicians?
I know it’s an interesting time. We’ve been hearing here in Australia that we might not see live music until 2021!
ALM: Our European booking agent just nuked our tour that was supposed to be at the end of August.
On the brighter side, you’ve released this incredible new album – Perception is/as/of Deception – on Dais Records! It’s one of my favourites that you’ve made so far.
NK: Thank you! It really feels like someone pulled the rug out from under us with the cancelation of our tour.
You had the launch for the album online?
ALM: Yeah, you know how it works, the record cycle for things is so far ahead, the way it’s planned. If the record label has to push ours back then they have to push everyone else’s back and no one knows when to push it back to, that’s the problem. If we knew it was going to last for four months then we could reschedule according to that. Our North American tour that was supposed to start next Thursday, we’ve rescheduled it three times! Now we’re trying to start October 5th in Boston, but we don’t even know if that will happen. Our Governor today sent out another emergency alert extending the quarantine. We have a very severe lockdown in Detroit, we’re not allowed to visit anyone. We were just watching some of our neighbours taking a walk in the rain a couple of nights ago.
NK: Everyone’s losing their fucking minds!
ALM: They didn’t take an umbrella and it was 36 degrees out [laughs].
Why do you love to create?
NK: I don’t know? I don’t know what else we would do! [laughs]. My entire life I’ve just been interested in making stuff. It doesn’t mean just music, it means creating your own world. No one has ever asked that before… it’s just something that’s innately in you.
ALM: When we started hanging out, that was one of the main things that we had in common, we both liked to make things. It’s not like we were going to a movie and make out point! [laughs]. It was let’s stay in and work on a photograph or something. When we started making music together—the rest is history!
What do you get from creating stuff?
NK: It’s just a satisfaction.
ALM: It’s a compulsion. It’s not always fun!
As an artist what are the things you value?
ALM: The work that we like the most is the work that has its own vocabulary; the work that you know is always that person’s work. I get satisfaction when we’re making work like that. One of the most satisfying things about releasing work is helping create a community of likeminded individuals that feel like they can have a space place outside of society that we can all feel together in. I’m satisfied when the work is very against what we feel is wrong.
NK: It’s interesting because I think in 2008, we were basically fed up with the music industry and the way things were shifting. We were really burnt out! So we said, fuck it! We didn’t make a public announcement and we also didn’t say to ourselves that it would be forever; we said, we don’t want to do it anymore, the way that we’d been doing it. We actually made a short film and did construction work. We did construction work for money for three years. It’s 12 to 14 hour days of hard labour!
ALM: The work we was making wasn’t satisfying us.
NK: What that did was allow us to recharge and revaluate. It makes you realise that for us making visual work and making music it’s something that’s unavoidable, we can’t stop doing it for whatever reason.
I understand that. No matter what job I do and no matter what I try, I always end up coming back to doing interviews and making zines. I guess something inside you just tells you that it’s your passion, so do it! Like you were saying just before, you feel compelled to do it.
I really love the title of your new album Perception is/as/of Deception. Looking at it made me think; how do I say it? It has options.
ALM: Those lyrics are in the song ‘Total Total Damage’. I don’t see the words before Nicola starts singing them, she was rehearsing and I asked her if I could see those lyrics and we both got talking about how interesting it was… when it’s written as more say a poem on paper, you start seeing if/as/of all together. We thought it would be a great t-shirt if it said: is/as/of. That was before we had an album title. We drew it and put it on the wall and just kept looking at it thinking it was a cool image, somehow that then became the title. It came from designing merch, we weren’t trying to design merch thoug; it was just inspired from one medium to the other. I don’t know a lot of bands that have titles that can be read in different ways.
NK: Choose your own adventure! [laughs].
I love that it made me stop and think. I love words and new ways of looking at them. I’ve worked in libraries for the last twenty years so I read a lot; I’m a total word nerd. It’s really cool what you’ve done with the title.
NK: That’s great! It’s interesting too because it’s the first time in our history of albums that we have not actually put the text on the proper album jacket, so it’s just an image for the album art. I like that too because is/as/of; what does this mean? There is no title in the traditional sense of how titles normally are on the front cover.
I think that makes you more curious to want to know what it is, all you have to go on is the image. It makes you want to open up the sleeve and check out the record or go online to learn more about it, it becomes a different level of interactive experience.
When you recorded the LP I understand that you made it in your basement, painting the whole room black to use sensory deprivation to see where that would lead; where did you get this idea from?
NK: I’m not really certain where the moment was that the idea came to me. I was reading Aldous Huxley The Doors Of Perception and I was thinking of how interesting it is that he was taking LSD to intensify his visual writing experience. I was thinking sonically; what could you do to intensify your experience? What would make you use your ears more? I was thinking about spaces that were just visually void, that’s what led me to do this to our basement; what would it be like to be in this space that is visually void? What would it do to the sound? What would it do to how we’re feeling?
ALM: The basement was, we’re talking walls black, floors black, no windows, lights on dimmers, it was extremely dark. The record we wrote before called This Behavior we also worked in isolation up in a cabin in northern Michigan, in February when the temperature was -14 and there was two-feet of snow in the Great Lake. There were big plates of ice from the lake shifting on top of each other. We were in a beautiful knotty wood cabin with glass windows overlooking on this small cliff, it was cold, outside was beautiful, but you couldn’t go out there; you were isolated with a view. It had the complete opposite effect. This is just when we do the demo process… it was done in the summer for this album, you had this beautiful outside that was warm enough to go out but this time you couldn’t even see it.
Did anything surprise you about the experience of recording in these conditions?
NK: It was really hard. It was really exciting at first but then it just became like… wow! To go into that environment day after day after day for however many months… it’s funny because it’s a problem that you put on yourself, you created the circumstance, you don’t have to stay in it. That’s kind of the way we are though, we’re gonna do it and labour through it.
ALM: We’re changing the formula so we don’t repeat ourselves. It’s so easy for some bands after 20 years where you’re just like… oh, that’s the new Ministry single, it came out today and I heard it and really liked it and I was trying to tell Nicola why. I guess it’s ‘cause I liked it because it sounded like how they sounded ten years ago, that’s not a reason to like it. Anyways, we’re always just trying not to repeat ourselves so if we don’t follow our own rules then we’re not…
NK: We’re not pushing ourselves.
What mood were you in when making the album?
ALM: Well, super happy! [laughs]. Just kidding! It did start to really wear on you to go down there… we’d come up for lunch and be like, oh man, it’s so nice up here! I don’t want to have to go back down into the black hole! Once you were there, time was not an issue. We didn’t bring our phones down. There was just no sense of time, that was something that was amazing. You can get into routines. You’d come up from downstairs and suddenly it would be night-time or there’d be a thunderstorm. A song like ‘Total Total Damage’ was one of the last songs we wrote. I think that’s interesting how you can take a song like ‘Untroubled Mind’ which is one of the early songs along with ‘Second Nature’ and they have a lighter feel, as the record proceeds you get more into…
NK: Tension. Frustration.
I got that when I was listening to it. As the album unfolds I feel we’re along with you for the journey and we get a real insight into where you were at/what you were going through when making it. At the start you have ‘We Look Between Each Other’ like things are exciting at the start and then you get to the middle portion of the album there’s more frustration and by the time you get to the end you have ‘Untroubled Mind’… the synth parts in that one really soar!
ALM: [Laughs]. Thank you.
It’s like you’re ending on a happy note. The LP feels really introspective to me.
NK: When we put an album together we always try to work really hard on there being a journey you’re taking through the album. I do feel like it’s something we’ve done three times, where the end song… I don’t want to say that ‘Untroubled Mind’ is a meditation but, I think it has a relief from the rest of the album. I feel like it’s the song that’s most different from the other songs on the record, it almost has a coda, or a final thought that it’s saying. We did that on Why Bother?, the last song ‘Harvest’ it sounds like bees in a lawnmower almost; it has a strange meditation to me. On Detroit House Guests the last song [‘As You Dream’] on that with Michael Gira, feels like it’s a total “Namaste” wrap up song.
ALM: Just a little trivia on that song, we have this rule that you have to write the whole song in two to three days and if you haven’t got it by then you have to leave it. We could not get that song to go anywhere because it’s a really strange sequence line for us. It was the third day and it was getting late and I said, we just have to document what we have and move on! Nicola was like, ‘yeah, you’re right’. Then she just got on the delay pedal and went on over to the PRO-1 and wrote it. I was like, holy shit! You just finished the demo at the eleventh hour!
It’s my favourite track on the album. I love how it leaves things on a positive note and there’s a real freeness about it. It makes me curious as to where you’ll go next.
NK: I love that! That’s really nice,
ALM: Thank you.
Your record has been making me really happy while in isolation.
NK: The most amazing thing about music compared to visual art is that it is something that everyone can have, it’s out there. A painting is a painting on a wall, you can’t really…
ALM: Experience that on the internet.
I wanted to talk about your film clip for song ‘Why Always Why’. At the start of the clip there’s a quote from GJ Ballard’s book Millennium People: At times you feel like you’re living someone else’s life, in a strange house you’ve rented by accident. Why did you chose this quote?
ALM: We went through four billion quotes! [laughs]. We wanted to make sure that we don’t lead the audience that they feel what they want to feel and look into the work but we also felt the work could have a reading that was a critique of individual humans and their individual behaviours. It was more about us not feeling a part of this world. It was a way to gently say…
NK: That this is a foreshadowing of what you’re going to watch.
I love how in the film clip you’re at the mall and at Home Depot. I’s really fun!
NK & ALM: [Laughter].
ALM: It was so funny, we shot it in Florida. We shot it all on an iPhone. It was funny watching people, everyone was in shorts and flip flops, and we come in with full leather! People are like ‘what the fuck are these people doing!’ [laughs].
NK: It was entertaining.
It was funny too because the way your music is and how you dress etc. is a real juxtapose from the environment you were in. It gives that feeling of being out of place and out of step with the rest of the world.
I especially love the bit where Adam, you’re standing in the foreground just looking at the camera and then there’s kids in the background on trampolines!
ALM & NK: [Laughter].
ALM: We actually went back the next day to get that shot. It felt funny because… we didn’t want it to be me standing there being like, I hate you people! Its more just, I don’t understand what’s going on behind me… you took your kids indoors to play on stuff that should be outdoors, you have no idea of the safety rating on this!
I know that feeling sometimes, like I go to the shops or a café and you’ll hear the conversations of people around you and you think, wow! I really am different from most people.
ALM: It’s funny how people would love to stare at us but the minute we stare back at them they’d be like, ‘oh shit!’ and run [laughs].
It’s funny how we can be more accepting of other people even if they’re not into what we are but then on the flip side, they can’t accept us. It’s so weird.
NK: It’s totally true!
I also love the ‘Total Total Damage’ film clip too. I know you built that set. It’s fun how Nicola is completely destroying the set and Adam, you’re just crouched down in the middle of it all totally calm. What were you thinking of in that moment to stay calm and in the zone?
ALM: You should see the very first time she swung the sledgehammer about an inch from my head! I grabbed her leg and was like; what are you doing?! [laughs]. Once that was established…
NK: There’s a lot of trust!
ALM: We always say, that if we die on an aeroplane going to a show or on stage or making a music video… well, there’s a lot of worse ways to go [laughs].
I’ve noticed in both film clips lampshades make an appearance.
NK: I think a lot of our visual work deals with domesticity and domestic situations and ritual.
ALM: We also love that the idiot always puts the lampshade on their head! [laughs]. We’ve used it in a lot of our video visuals…. we did a performance piece with Dorit Chrysler at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York; she’s a theremin player from Austria. We created a performance piece together called We’re Thinking About These Lamps. Nicola put contact mics on a bunch of lamps, while Dorit and I performed music, Nicola played lamps. We’re always just playing on putting the domestic into a public situation, which has a lot to do with being in isolation and going out into the public.
It’s so cool that you both work across so many different mediums whether it’s music, visual art, performance art, film, photography or whatever.
ALM: When you work in a different medium you suddenly perceive things differently. You start to see what you’re really talking about and maybe not what’s superficial.
NK: Everything starts informing each other. If you start getting burnt out on music… really I think that back in 2008 that was the big problem that we were only doing music and we weren’t doing visual work, that’s why we had to stop. When we started back up again we knew we had to have a better balance of visual and music because otherwise it becomes too one-sided and it’s not interesting and it’s not inspiring.
Are there any books that you’ve read that have had a profound impact on you?
ALM: That would be the Holy Bible and The Art Of The Deal by Donald Trump! [laughs].
NK: [Laughs] Oh geeze! We have a lot of books and I read a lot of books but I don’t have something that’s become a staple.
ALM: It depends on what kind of inspiration we’re looking for.
Are you working on anything else now?
NK: Oh, yeah. We’re working on our live set.
ALM: Which is so hard because we want to work on it and we’ve rebuilt what the live rig is, obviously there’s tons of new songs in the set but, you just don’t know when you’re gonna do it. It’s such a strange feeling! I’ve always been more of a deadline orientated artist. It’s going well though.
NK: I’m actually working on… going into the isolation and lockdown and “shelter in place” it really brought up the realisation of how many songs throughout the past 25 years of working, how appropriate the lyrics are for this time and moment in our lives. I’ve been working on the idea of working on a book that’s the lyrics of these songs but, it’s more in form of a poetry book… also doing a recording of the words. I’ve been researching about poets who cross the line between visual artist, and music… it’s a whole new inspiration and world that I’m learning about. It’s exciting!
Anything else you’d like to tell me or add?
ALM: When I got the email from you, Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie zine… our album is called Gimmie Trouble, it comes from the [Black Flag] song ‘Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie’… I asked Nicola if we could spell the title that way because when I was fourteen I grew up in a small town in Indiana and a future friend moved up from Atlanta. I was like; how do you know about all this weird music I want to hear but can’t find it anywhere? He said his older brother had lots of that stuff and would make me a tape. The next day he brought me a tape which was my first tape; side A was Everything Went Black by Black Flag and side B was Depeche Mode’s A Broken Frame. I always say to this day that, that’s who I am as a musician because of that tape, I have both parts in me!
We’re always been drawn to bands that are original, highly creative, innovative, provocative, funny and courageous—all the things that The Units are. They’re one of our favourite bands. Starting out life as a multimedia performance art group in San Francisco at the tail end of the ’70s they went on to be known as one of the pioneering synthpunk acts. They were the first punk band in SF performing just using synths and have shared the bill with acts like the Dead Kennedys, Screamers, Dead Boys, Soft Cell, Noh Mercy and Sparks (all bands that we think are pretty neat). We interviewed The Units’ Scott Ryser to give us a little insight into the band, his musical journey and what he’s been up to since activity in The Units’ camp went quiet. It’s also Scott’s birthday today too so, Happy Birthday Scott!!
What in your life do you think led you to music? I know you were in a band when you were a teen with your two younger brothers and some neighbourhood kids called, The Brothers and The Others.
SCOTT RYSER: Music is one of the few things in life that gives me hope that we are not a doomed species…and that we can do something together besides hunt like a pack of wolves. My experience of the world, and especially childhood, reminds me of the novel “Lord of the Flies” …people congregating out of fear…always on the verge of slipping into some kind of chaotic mob mentality…people yearning to be part of the groupthink instead of nurturing individuality…and the will to power overcoming the will to help each other.
Music has the power to light up dark, lonely and dangerous places…and give a comforting order, feelings and personality to chaos. Playing music made me feel like I could finally communicate…not just with people…but with “life” in general. When I played music, even as a kid in a small town, it was the only way I could escape the predictable, predetermined, assembly line fate of my future.
Playing in a band helped me with my social awkwardness…and allowed me to be a part of civilization on my own terms.
The “Brothers and the Others” was the first band I was in. I was 12, my brother Ken was 11, and my brother Tom was 9. There were two other neighbourhood kids in the band too. At first we were really more of a gang than a band. We all dressed in the same exact clothes and we went everywhere together. We thought it was especially fun to go to a movie theatre and take up almost a whole row of seats. None of us knew how to play, but somehow we figured out three chords and based all of our songs on those three chords. We played a few gigs at our local elementary school…those kind of school dances where a teacher with a ruler makes sure you’re at least 3 inches away from your dancing partner.
It was great therapy…it made us all feel soooo cool.
Can you tell us about the first piece of performance art that you can remember witnessing? What did it mean to you?
SR: I remember seeing Spaulding Grey do a monologue in the mid ‘70’s just after he’d founded the Wooster Group in NYC. It was in a very small place with about 20 people in the room. What it meant to me, was that you/I could be scared/sensitive/fragile/vulnerable…and if you had the courage, you could still pull off a really great performance. In contrast to someone like Chris Burden (who I also admire) shooting himself, or crucifying himself…sometimes it takes more courage to confront something less obvious…like stage fright…and not trying to hide how vulnerable you are.
It helped me value and even get power from my vulnerability before I’d go on stage. If you’re talented and totally confident in your art, it becomes almost fun to walk onstage like a lamb and go out like a lion.
How did synthesizers manifest themselves in your life?
SR: In 1971, prior to the time Tim Ennis and I started The Units, we were working the graveyard shift at our little town’s lumber mill. The lumber mill was in a horribly desolate little redneck area of northern California…an all day’s ride away from any kind of city…and it seemed like we couldn’t make it through the night without some cowboy or lumberjack taunting us. We’d been out of high school for about a year…and we definitely, without a doubt…had no future. I guess it was that sense of hopelessness and despair that inspired us to sneak in the life-sized plastic baby dolls…and send them down the log assembly line to be sawed and chopped up in the wood chipper.
Our little statement on how we felt people in our culture were similar to identical conveyor belt products. We thought it was pretty funny at the time, but the boss and the rest of the crew didn’t see it our way. We were 19 years old, and we were lumber mill history. It was time to reinvent ourselves. We decided to drive to San Francisco with our lumber mill money, so I could buy this new synthesizer that I had been reading about.
Robert Moog had just introduced a portable synthesizer called the Minimoog, and according to the salesman at the music store, I turned out to be the first one in SF to buy one. I had been reading about the Minimoog, and the idea of being able to create new sounds with it, in new ways, intrigued me.
I was tired of the sound of the “guitar boy band” formula. I wanted to create a new look and a new sound, and the only way I thought I could do that was with a new/different instrument.
Synthesizers seemed like the perfect instrument. You could create new sounds completely from scratch. They were a very D.I.Y., Punk idea to me…because any amateur could play one and sound as good as a 4 handed pro, if they had good ideas. They could automate sounds and riffs that you didn’t have the dexterity to play in real time…speed up and slow down time…in real time!
Up until the Minimoog came out, synthesizers were too big, heavy and expensive to afford or use. Only big institutions had them. But the Minimoog was portable and affordable. It really democratized electronic music. You no longer had to go to a university to get your hands on one. And you didn’t have to be “taught” how to use it “correctly”. You could pioneer whatever sounds you wanted.
I couldn’t help but extend the idea. Just the name alone was full of possibilities. “Synthesizer”. The ability to create or re-create yourself and remix the world. One that synthesizes. A wizard. Some definitions of synthesis I like are; “the combining of often diverse conceptions into a coherent whole”, and “the dialectic combination of thesis and antithesis into a higher stage of truth.” That’s what being a synthesizer means to me. Remixing the life you are given, recreating it as you see fit, and creating a higher stage of truth.
Being able to find some kind of coherent whole, some kind of personal meaning in all this swirling chaos. No wonder we applied it to create synthpunk and to punk up disco and the music industry. It was the perfect instrument to reinvent the status quo.
So it seemed like perfect timing to me, that perhaps the most famous synthesizer player of the time, Walter Carlos (Switched on Bach, Clockwork Orange soundtrack), would take this idea to its extreme…by not only synthesizing his sound…but by synthesizing himself! And changing his body from a man to a woman.
Carlos’s first public appearance after her gender transition was in an interview in the May 1979 issue of Playboy magazine, a decision she regrets because of the unwelcome publicity it brought to her personal life. It was the same month that we were bashing images of cops on the hood of a Cadillac as our synths played on autopilot.
The (musical instrument) synthesizer itself is defined as a “computerized electronic apparatus for the production and control of sound (as for producing music).” But I’m afraid that definition just doesn’t cut it. A better definition would be: a “computerized electronic apparatus capable of reinventing music”. NEW YORK CITY – 1979.
You’re a self-taught musician. What do you feel are the greatest things about being self-taught?
SR: The best thing about being self-taught, is that you can write songs in a key that you can sing in. It also helps you connect with, and express, your inner feelings. Puts you in touch with your intuition. When I have some strong feeling come over me, I’ll go to my piano or synth and just start playing. I don’t even have a melody in my head when I put my hands on the keys. The melody comes out of my hands…not my head. It’s weird to talk about your body in such an outsider kind of way…but I think there is a body-mind divide…and sometimes it feels really good show your body some faith and respect, and let your mind take a rest.
What is your most beloved piece of musical equipment? What significance does it have to you?
SR: Definitely my Minimoog. It has taken me on a great adventure and given me a voice that I can use to express myself, in a more understandable way sometimes, than that of my own.
I understand that back in the beginning days of The Units you viewed guitars as a “negative symbol” that represented socially acceptable rebellion for young people. Was there a catalyst for this realisation? Do you still view them this way three decades on? Has things changed?
SR: I don’t have anything against guitars as a musical instrument. But it annoys me that in popular culture, many musicians and the music industry have taken the politics and good intentions Woody Guthrie had with his guitar, the one with “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on it, and turned the future of it into a commodity and a fashion statement.
The entertainment/advertising industry has homogenized the piss out of guitars until they might as well be the symbol for Coke, Budweiser or Marlboro. The USA media is great at taking confrontation and dissent against the status quo, and repackaging it, and selling it back to the masses as sex, entertainment and fashion. That’s what happened to the guitar heroes…for the most part, it’s all just posing now. I felt like in order to make a new statement of dissent, I would have to accompany it with an instrument that didn’t come pre-tagged as a symbol of sex and entertainment.
I liked watching (The Who’s) Pete Townshend smash his guitar during old footage of ‘My Generation’. But at the same time I thought, “Fuck your generation, Pete, if all it’s going to do is smash guitars on a stage instead of on a symbol of Margaret Thatcher’s head.” I wanted MY generation to take it a step further. Do you see what I’m getting at here? I have nothing against Margaret Thatcher personally, but you know what I mean? There are PLENTY of things to be angry about …why not point a few of them out! If you are so angry that you feel like you have to smash a guitar, why not do it on an image of George Bush! So that’s what we did!
We cut out stacks of life-sized plywood guitars and smashed them on images of George Bush and other corrupt politicians and symbols of authority…that we were projecting on a metal Cadillac car hood that we were using as a movie screen, not only because it sounded like a big gong, it was like smashing the auto industry and the music industry and at the same time saying “We’re tired of all the lies and bullshit you’re selling us.” (Our synths would be playing at full blast, on autopilot, in the background while we were doing this.)
We weren’t just putting on some show…we were pissed! Our country is made up of an exclusive, white, corporate, good-ole-boys club of rich bastards…fucking the millions of the poor! Raping the earth and trying to strong arm third world countries out of their natural resources. What did you want us to do? Sing ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” like the Beatles?
Oh dear…I sound like such a grouchy old man here…
The guitars were a convenient symbol. That’s all. A lot of people still don’t get it. Including my own kids!
Things have changed over 30 years…but I still prefer guitars being played by people that preceded Woody Guthrie …ok…throw [Bob] Dylan and Neil Young and Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson into the mix too.
So much has changed in the last 34 years. Back in 1978, The Units were called the first “all synthesizer” band in San Francisco…and along with Suicide in NYC and The Screamers in LA, we were one of the first all synth bands in the USA. None of us got any airplay on commercial radio stations…and MTV and the internet hadn’t even been invented yet. It would another 20 years before the word “synthpunk” would even be invented. The word “Electronica” would not become a music category for another 20 years. Now, in 2013, there are 693 radio stations on iTunes radio alone, that ONLY play “Electronica”, (all synth music). So as you can see…these days I have very little to rebel against…when it comes to guitars having a monopoly on popular culture.
Who are the artists that you find interesting? Do the artists that move you have any commonalities?
SR: I have a very eclectic taste in music. I like classical music, jazz, folk, blues, funk, reggae, rock, punk…pretty much the best of everything. I can listen to Beethoven’s 5th followed by Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, followed by Diana Ross and the Supremes, followed by Jimi Hendrix, followed by Jay Retard & Terror Visions, followed by Philip Glass, followed by John Coltrane, followed by Kitchen and the Plastic Spoons. I have poor taste in synthesizer bands …I like them all.
I guess the common thread with bands I like is that they all have to have a lot of originality and a “wow” factor. The musical artists that most influenced my playing and songwriting were probably Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Jimi Hendrix for my synth chops, Hank Williams and the Beach Boys for my singing, John Cage, Meredith Monk, Terry Riley, Philip Glass & Steve Reich for experimentation, The Troggs, The Modern Lovers & Iggy Pop for fun.
As to the last part of your question, what I find interesting about these artists is their differences rather than their commonalities.
I’ve read that back in the 70s you didn’t just have problems with popular music but also with our culture in general. You’ve commented that “It seemed like I was swimming in an assembly line river of advertising and products.” I can really identify with that and personally feel the same way today, to me it seems like things have gotten worse in that regards not better. What are your thoughts and feelings on this?
SR: Yes, I think that in some ways it has become worse. The vibe I get from advertising and the world of entertainment is that they’re trying to convince us that you can solve all your problems by getting a shiny new surface image. Now we have all these TV shows we didn’t have back then. Really popular shows like “What Not To Wear”, “Project Runway”, “American Idol”, etc., etc….Shows that focus on teaching people how to conform to the status quo. How to win the hearts of industry leaders. God forbid you are an “individual” and stray too far from the status quo. Along with a multitude of commercials for “whitening your teeth”, “growing your hair”, “breath fresheners”, “erection helpers” …on and on. It can make you feel like you’re being processed, packaged and being sent down an assembly line.
Do you think there are any solutions? Where do we go from here? Are there things you do in your life to counterbalance this?
SR: I think this is the solution, blogs like this…people making creative statements, art and music. It can take as little as a child crying out (as in The Emperor’s New Clothes), “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
Correct me if I’m wrong but, I think I read somewhere that you and your wife and band mate Rachel, decided to leave music in 1984? What inspired this change of path? Can you tell us a little about the time that followed please? Was music still a major part of your lives in anyway?
SR: By 1984 the system that we were trying to subvert was feasting on our band. We had signed to Epic, and they wanted to repackage our music as mediocre shiny bullshit. We were trying to record a new album in England and the A&R guy kept showing up and telling us to change our music to sound more like Michael Jackson, or Cyndi Lauper. We had two albums shelved because they weren’t “commercial enough”. When we toured we were now the opening act for a lot of big bands …which was great, but we weren’t allowed to show our films anymore …which we considered half of our show.
Within this year our manager, who happened to be Rachel’s brother, died of a drug overdose. I got a call from the S.F. police department and a detective told me a former Units roadie was being investigated for a string of murders. Because we hadn’t renewed a deal with a Bill Graham influenced label, The Units had been banned from playing Bill Graham venues on the West Coast. As you can see, all of a sudden, “The Music Business” started to feel really dirty…and playing music was no longer fun or meaningful.
We moved to NYC and started a family and a successful design business…and in retrospect, it turned out to be a really good decision. Between the business and raising two kids we were really busy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even though we always listened to a lot of music, it wasn’t until my kids went to college that I’ve had time to get back into playing and recording music.
You’ve been married for over 30 years, congratulations! What’s it been like to share your journey with Rachel? What does she bring to your life? How does she inspire you?
SR: My life with Rachel has been wonderful and exciting since the first time I laid eyes on her. I couldn’t be more fortunate. You’re lucky if you find someone you love, but it’s even better to share your life with someone that’s a partner, a best friend, and someone that will take risks, back you up, and collaborate with you on everything you do. I can’t imagine how different my life might have turned out, without her. She balances all my weaknesses and inspires me to take risks and be creative.
Could you tell us about the work that Rachel does with Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School?
SR:Rachel is the executive director of Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School. It is an academic enrichment program, mostly serving low-income black kids living in the projects, in the Downtown Brooklyn area. It’s a free program that provides the academic support that these children need to stay on grade level (compared to their more affluent peers). The program also teaches the kids art and music…and how to swim. You know how most kids hate school. Well, it’s unbelievable how much these kids love it.
Your son, Sam, is in a punk band called Crazy Spirit. Have you been to one of his shows?
SR: Yes, I’ve been to a few of his shows…even filmed them. They’re very popular here in NYC, and have toured the USA and Europe. All the guys in the band are artists as well as musicians. They screenprint all their record covers and inserts, posters and t-shirts. They are very DIY and punk. They’re great.
My 18 year old daughter Nina is also in a band and has a 7” EP out called “Nina Ryser – September” that was put out by a record label in Mexico. Unlike me, Nina can actually read and write music for other instruments. Needless to say, I’m very proud of both of them and we have lots to talk about.
I know that your style of humour is a little darker/has a dark bent than most; what’s something that’s amused you lately?
SR: I just saw this picture of former president George Bush standing in front of some paintings he did of dogs…poodles and such. I always got a good laugh out of what an idiot the guy was as he was destroying our country…but I found this especially funny. Like Hitler’s paintings…what is it with these guys. It just makes no sense to me…it’s funny and frightening…all at the same time.
Have you ever had a really life changing moment that you could share with us?
SR: I’ve always had bad social phobia…fear of being in groups of people. One time I was in this new college class at SF State University…and all the students had to sit in a big circle…and one by one…tell the class your name and what you wanted from the class. I was so anxious, that when it came to my turn to speak, I had an out-of-body experience. My consciousness actually floated up to the ceiling and I could look down at myself and the classroom. “I” was up on the ceiling, invisible, calmly looking down at this body that used to be mine. Obviously, it’s a weird feeling to look at humanity as if you are viewing it from the outside. I wrote the song “i Night” that night, quit the class the next day…and started the Units.
What does The Units mean to you now?
SR: Pretty much the same as it did in the beginning. I never meant for The Units to be a performance group, or a band, or a film. To me the important thing about it is just the idea of it. The concept.
I’m happy that after all these years, there are some people around the world that still find The Units compelling.
For you, what was the most memorable show that The Units played and why does it stick in your mind?
SR: It was a show we played at the Geary Theatre in 1980. There was always a certain amount of pushing & shoving, crowd diving, spitting and whatnot going on at punk shows back then…but sometimes it got out of hand…especially from out of town kids that didn’t know the limits. I saw Klaus from the Dead Kennedys hit a guy over the head with his bass once because the guy just wouldn’t stop fucking with him…and I saw one of the guys in the Toiling Midgets slam a guys face on the stage for the same reason. At this show at the Geary Theatre we were on a 4 foot high stage, which was unusual compared to other punk venues. The place was big and it was packed, and there were 3 guys in the crowd that kept fucking with Rachel…throwing stuff at her. I got so mad, that right in the middle of the song, I ran and jumped off the stage and on to them as if I were jumping on to a horse. My legs went around their three heads and we all crashed down onto the floor with me still on top of their necks…I’m sure they were stunned…and I started punching them. The horrible thing, that I thought about later, was how good it felt. I had never felt so good…and that is a horrible thing…to realize you have that kind of killer instinct in you. I got up and jumped back on the stage and we finished the song and the rest of the set. Afterwards I was quite worried that I might have really hurt them…and shaken that there was a part of me I had not known about.
Lastly, what’s something other than music that you’re passionate about or would like to raise awareness of?
SR: I’ve always been passionate about politics. I try not to get too discouraged about how long it takes for things to change. But I’ve seen things change in my life so I still hold out hope and continue to vote. I’m happy that we actually have a black president now, and for the advances in women’s and gay rights. I’m glad how the internet has had a democratizing effect throughout the world.
What bothers me most right now is the disparity and inequality of opportunity that happens to children that come from poor families vs. those that come from wealthy families. Because it just perpetuates the status quo…indefinitely.
I really see it through the work Rachel does with her Horizons program. It’s really in your face here in NYC and Brooklyn…kids of millionaires living a few blocks away from poor kids from the projects.
The wealthy kids have tutors, coaches, private lessons, summer programs and usually two parents that are both highly educated, into the arts, read to their kids, and expect their kids to be highly educated. The wealthy kids go to private schools with dedicated college counsellors that have personal connections with the admissions people at Ivy League schools. The kids from the projects have almost none of these opportunities.
I think it’s a crime that public school kids have so few opportunities to do art or music or to learn how to swim. It amazes me to see how empowered a kid becomes when they learn how to swim, or when they do a painting that their parent puts up on the wall, or play some music, or do a dance where everybody applauds for them. No wonder that kids who have none of these opportunities to feel self-confident and empowered end up feeling bored and disinterested at school.
Obviously, the more your parents care about your education, the better you will do. But it’s almost impossibly hard for a single working parent with no money to offer much help, no matter how much they care.
The Horizons program is funded entirely by volunteer donations and private grants. I just wish the city, state and federal government would lend a hand in funding programs like this for low-income kids.