"New York in the '80s was lawless and f**ked-up": How heroin, hardcore and a headless corpse inspired Unsane's insane early adventures in Gotham

(Image credit: Jens Jurgensen)

Formed in 1988 in New York, Unsane are one of the most influential and enduring noise-rock bands in the world. Reformed with a new line-up in the summer of 2021, the band have been reissuing their early material on vocalist/guitarist Chris Spencer's own Lamb Unlimited label, and will undertake an 'Early Cuts' tour of Europe next month, including a stop at DesertFest in London.

Louder spoke with Spencer for a trip down memory lane, or perhaps more accurately a trip down a NYC back alley populated by junkies, fuck-ups, punks and freaks... Unsane people, basically.

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Before Unsane, was there one specific record or gig that made you want to play music?
“Oh, well, when I was a kid I went to see some giant arena rock shows, like I saw Aerosmith when I was really young, and I realised that really sucked. So I started going to punk rock shows that were much smaller and more accessible and much more fun, where you’d be standing right next to the band. So then me and a couple of guys from my school starting playing music together in basement spaces, and when we were 15 or 16 I said to the others, Hey, if one of us sings, we could actually play a show. And nobody wanted to sing, so that kinda got forced upon me.”

Do you remember the first Unsane show?
“I can’t remember the name of the venue, but we played some shit-hole club on the Lower East Side with a ‘scum rock’ band called The Reverb Motherfuckers, to maybe 20 people. The Reverb Motherfuckers were very enthusiastic about our show, and wanted to do more gigs with us, so that set the ball rolling. We had a practice space with The Honeymoon Killers and Jon Spencer’s band Pussy Galore, because Charlie [Ondras], our drummer at the time, met Jon and his girlfriend Christina (Martinez, future Boss Hog vocalist) at a Billy Idol show and Jon offered to let us share their space. We played with Pussy Galore, and Mudhoney, and just took loads of shitty shows around the Lower East Side until we started getting our own crowd.”

You mentioned going to punk shows as a teen: did punk come into your life via the Pistols, Clash and Ramones, or via hardcore bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat and Bad Brains?
“As a kid I was listening to Flipper and Black Flag, but before that it was the Ramones, the Pistols, the Cramps and The Clash: I was a huge Clash fan. Buying English punk rock records on vinyl on import was the foundations for all this.”

New York in the '80s was super lawless and fucked-up

Chris Spencer

When people from outside New York think of the grime and squalor and violence of the city in the 1970s and ‘80s they have Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver as a reference point. You were a taxi driver in the late ‘80s when Unsane started out, so what was the reality of New York for you in those days?
“I drove a cab out in Queens, as did Pete [Shore] our bass player, and I ended up driving a lot of people to the projects to buy drugs. New York at that time was super lawless and fucked-up and in my neighbourhood, which was Alphabet City, it was kinda like that scene in [Alex Cox’s 1986 biopic] Sid And Nancy where people just lined up night and day outside burned out buildings to buy whatever drugs they wanted.”

I remember reading an interview with Harley Flanagan from The Cro-Mags where he spoke about walking around Alphabet City with pool balls inside a sock in the ‘80s, beating up the English tourists queuing up to buy heroin… did you get into any scrapes in those days?
“I had a knife held to my throat one day, I got chased out of places, I had to jump from roof to roof sometimes when cops busted drug houses… a lot of shit went down. But I was no Harley Flanagan, I was a skinny kid with a bad attitude who just wanted to take drugs. I was the one getting beat up rather than beating people up.”

When you had a knife held to your throat, was that during a drug deal gone wrong, or was that just a common-or-garden Lower East Side mugging?
“Just a standard mugging, about half a block from our apartment on Avenue B. What happened was that my girlfriend at the time had just got off work, and she had a bunch of money on her, and I’d just got back from touring Canada so I only had Canadian dollars on me, so when these three guys crossed the street towards us, and I knew what was going to happen, I told her to run to the apartment and let me stall these guys, so that she could get away with her money. So when they put a knife to my throat I was like, Hey man, I don’t have shit, all I have are these Canadian dollars and you can take them. They were pissed, but they didn’t fuck me up. I never got stabbed back then, but there were definitely close calls." 

You mentioned the scene in New York when Unsane started. There were some great bands in the city at that time, such as Cop Shoot Cop, Surgery and Helmet, so did it feel like a genuine community?
“Oh, totally. I was really good friends with the Surgery guys, Sean [McDonell, Surgery vocalist] was a good friend of mine, and Cop Shoot Cop actually moved into our practice space, so we got to know those guys well too. Our practice space was four or five blocks from CBGBs, and ABC No Rios and the Pyramid Club were super close too, so our whole world was super tight-knit. We’d go see each others bands, and drink beer in paper bags outside the venues, and it was a really cool scene, super creative and really supportive. I don’t think we quite realised at the time what a great scene it was, because it was just our normality.

"Helmet were kinda different though: I remember talking to (vocalist/guitarist) Page Hamilton super early on and him telling me that they were gonna play like three shows, as big as possible, and then hit up a label for a lot of money. Which was not our style at all."

So what were your aspirations at that point? Because by the late ‘80s, early ‘90s - even before grunge broke - it seemed like it was possible for ‘underground’ bands to sell records, tour the US and Europe, and keep their heads above water, for a time at least. 
“We didn’t have much of a plan, we just wanted to play all the time. After a while though we realised that we couldn’t keep playing New York every week, so I got a piece of shit van, and we started heading out on eight, nine week tours.”

In 1989 Unsane signed to Circuit records, who’d put out music by Monster Magnet and Cop Shoot Cop and Surgery, and recorded songs for release as the Improvised Munitions album… which didn’t see the light of day until 2021. What happened?
“I honestly still don’t know what happened to those fucking master tapes. We recorded it, and I gave Ernie from Circuit a DAT tape of the songs, and I remember him giving me a test pressing at the Pyramid Club one night and I was like, Oh, this is awesome, our first record! This is going to be so great! And I took that home, and never heard from Ernie again! He just fucking disappeared off the planet. He had a massive cocaine habit, and it was rumoured that he went into serious debt and was killed… who knows? So then I went on tour and my junkie room-mate sold every piece of vinyl in my room, including that test pressing, so when I came back, I didn’t even have that anymore. So that record just disappeared.

"Cut to 20 years later and I find out that a guy has a cassette of that record, and talking to him led me to a guy from my neighbourhood who had bought my test pressing in 1991 at a used record store three blocks from my apartment. So then I remastered it, added some super early songs from cassette tapes, dug out the old artwork, and got to finally release it, decades later. A crazy story."


(Image credit: Jens Jurgensen)

What do you remember about the recording of the self-titled album?
“That was fucking awesome. One night we’d played after Sonic Youth at CBGBs, doing the ‘graveyard slot’ at 2am after they headlined, when almost everyone had gone home, but Gerard Cosley from Matador was one of the people who stuck around, and he liked us, and offered us a record deal. We’d already recorded a lot of the songs for Improvised Munitions, and I’d got all these cassettes of our live shows, where we were using all this looped noise between songs, so we added that in, and basically recorded live in [producer] Wharton Tiers’ basement. It was a more developed record than the intended debut, and we were really happy with it.”

We were scum rock from the Lower East Side of Manhattan: it didn’t seem like ‘making it’ was an option

Chris Spencer

Unsane was released after Nirvana's Nevermind: obviously Nevermind didn’t explode immediately, but were you aware that the underground rock scene was changing at that point?
“Yeah, I was, because my girlfriend at that time, Debbie, actually worked at Sub Pop, and she answered a lot of Nirvana’s fan mail. So, yeah, a lot of shit was changing, but to me, Unsane was never a band with any viable commercial potential, we were scum rock from the drug-addled, violent, Lower East Side of Manhattan, it didn’t seem like ‘making it’ was an option for us.

"I wouldn’t say we were anti-success, actually, when Matador got bought out by Atlantic, we were pretty bummed and pissed, because we never wanted to be on a major label. The one benefit which came from that was that they said we could make a video, so we made one for a song called Body Bomb, where [Jack] Natz from Cop Shoot Cop straps a bomb on his body and goes down and blows up the World Trade Centre. The email we got back from MTV was, 'Don’t like the band. Don’t like the video.' [Laughs]. The whole idea of being successful seemed ridiculous to me."

I mean, the record had a photo of a decapitated corpse on the cover, it was pretty clear you weren't aiming for Guns N' Roses / Metallica-level crossover success...
"Hahaha. Right. Pete had a friend who worked as a photographer for the New York Police Department and he'd given him that photo years previously. It's a real photo, and it kinda spoke to the harsh nature of the record."

You had your own tragedy shortly after the release of the record with the 1992 death of your drummer Charlie following a heroin overdose: were you aware that he was using?
"Well, we shared an apartment, so I was fully aware of everything that was going on, but at the time, I was more of a daily user, a junkie, honestly, whereas Charlie was a guy who went out to parties, and drank a bunch, and then might go further. We lived in this really shitty building on 8th and D, where from two in the morning 'til 10 in the morning, in the lobby of our building, a bunch of guys hung out and sold heroin. So Charlie would go out, get all drunk, and see these guys when he got home and be like, 'Oh, hey, whatever!' He was an occasional user, not a junkie, which is probably why it killed him: he didn't have the physical stamina for that kind of behaviour, if you know what I mean. I knew what was going on in our building, but you never think that your friend is going to die."

Was that a wake-up call for you?
"Not really, not immediately. But I reached a point where it was, do I wanna play music, or do I want to be a junkie lifer on the Lower East Side until I die? So I chose to get in the van and get away from it."

We're talking here about Unsane's early years, but just to finish up, you guys became unlikely MTV stars in the mid-'90s when the station picked up on your video for Scrape: did that come as a surprise?
"Oh, totally, how could that not be a surprise! At the time I lived at the back of this art gallery on Ludlow Street that exhibited all this skateboard art, and one day we were sitting around doing bong hits and watching skate videos, and I turned to my friend and said, Could we make a skate video where everybody gets hurt? And so we decided to do that, with, like, six seconds of us playing live. It was made for $169, for fun, and our own personal pleasure, so you'd never expect anything like that to do well."

Do you look back now on Unsane's early days with warmth, or are the memories of the hard times uppermost in your thoughts?
"It's a little bitter-sweet, to be honest. I mean, looking back, I was super shocked that anyone else would like our kind of music, even though I love it. So it was awesome that people could relate to us, and that we could go out and play to those people. But, at the same time, there was shit-tons of drugs, and fucked up shit, with the violence and people dying, and so much negative stuff. It's cool that it all worked out,  but I don't think I'd want to go through all this again."

Unsane will kick off their Early Cuts European tour at the fabulously-named Osnabruck Bastard Club in Germany on May 4, and play DesertFest in London on May 6 as the first show of a nine-date UK and Ireland tour. 

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.