Unsane, the noise-rock power trio, created music straight out of the abyss of NYC in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The city was in the last throes of decay before Giuliani’s gentrifying years when Unsane recorded a debut album, Improvised Munitions. The album was never released when the label went belly up and its founder disappeared. The band carried on into the 1990s, amassing a large, devoted international following, but that album was long thought lost forever. A chance encounter at a record store changed all that. Jordan N. Mamone picks up the story from there for PKM.
The 1970s and 1980s in New York City have been romanticized to death. Not that those decades don’t deserve it. But too often, casual chroniclers jump from an idealized portrait of Koch-era grit to the law-and-order Giuliani epoch while ignoring the history in between. The city in the early 1990s burned brighter and seedier than most people will admit. The murder rate peaked, crack raged unchecked, and race riots scarred Crown Heights. The upside, however, was the cultural fertility of slowly gentrifying squalor. Recession-friendly rent, food, and studios meant that artists and musicians didn’t yet need bottomless pockets or 40-hour work weeks. An impending sanitization notwithstanding, New York still felt like New York.
It’s in this precarious environment that Unsane conceived Improvised Munitions, slated to be the noise-rock power trio’s longform debut. Recorded in November 1989 and scheduled for release by the ill-fated Circuit label, the mini-album set a searing template; the band’s subsequent LPs for marquee imprints such as Matador, Amphetamine Reptile, and Alternative Tentacles, respectively, tweaked the recipe, but they wouldn’t quite match the unrelenting abrasiveness of this seven-song rush of jarring guitar screeches, Tilt-A-Whirl rhythms, and staticky, distorted vocals. The sonic equivalent of an Abel Ferrara film, Improvised Munitions perfectly evokes the time and place that forged it.
But something sordid transpired on Unsane’s way to post-hardcore, pre-grunge eminence: Circuit’s shadowy boss, Ernie, began drowning in a snowdrift of cocaine and debt. Three or so test pressings were made, but the company and its founder literally disappeared before Improvised Munitions could be manufactured. Nobody’s certain whether the poor jerk OD’d, pissed off the wrong dealer, or hastily fled the state. Circuit’s inventory of stuff by Cop Shoot Cop, Surgery, and Monster Magnet sold out, and future plans ground to a halt. The sole evidence of the Unsane 12-inch was a troika of missing reference copies not intended for public consumption. Until now.
But first, a personal detour to 1994. Rudolph Giuliani had just been elected mayor, but Times Square continued to stink of pimp hustle instead of Elmo funk. I was a journalism student and guitarist in Manhattan’s East Village, occupying a windowless $400 per month room. Improvised Munitions was merely collector folklore. Its existence was doubtful—or so I thought. On an unremarkable day spent perusing Stooz, a local record store, I noticed a generic, white DJ sleeve bearing a hand-scrawled sticker. The words “Unsane Test Press Never Released” sandwiched a typed catalog number: CIRCUIT-006. I was astonished. The asking price, perhaps $30, seemed slightly steep; back then, a few sawbucks bought you a couple nights of debauchery. In retrospect, of course, it was a goddamn steal. I hemmed and hawed, despite my admiration for Unsane’s scalding live shows, particularly those prior to the 1992 passing of frenetic drummer Charlie Ondras. Ultimately, the object’s scarcity won me over. So I took my prize home and gingerly laid it on the turntable. Holy shit! It positively smoked.
As the decades wore on, Unsane fans learned of my purchase and occasionally hunted me down online. At some point, I was offered $750 for my copy. I declined. I also rejected pleas to file-share the tracks, agreeing only to tape them on archaic cassettes for trustworthy souls. Recently, I received a surprise message from a guy in Europe, who inquired if he could send my contact info to Unsane’s singer and guitarist, Chris Spencer. Sure, go ahead. The front man soon emailed me directly. He told me that he sought to reissue his oeuvre via his own Lamb Unlimited label, and he wondered if I’d kept my test pressing. He didn’t have one. Might his production team borrow mine, remaster it, and officially introduce Improvised Munitions to the masses? I was honored to oblige, free of charge.
More than 30 years since it was shelved, Unsane’s lost debut album is finally available, lengthened by four scrappy bonuses from a 1988 demo. It’s a splendid thing to behold. I discussed its bizarre saga with Spencer, who has returned to the city after an extended break. He currently plays in Human Impact with ex-members of Swans and Cop Shoot Cop. Bassist and intermittent vocalist Pete Shore, who left Unsane in 1994, added his take, from his residence in Queens.
PKM: You suspect the test pressing I found was your personal copy. Mind recapping that story?
Chris Spencer: One night at the Pyramid Club, Ernie showed up and gave me a copy. Next thing you know, he just disappears. I had it for a little while, until I was living in this basement space down on Clinton and Stanton [streets]. Total pit. My roommates and all these other people would do tons of drugs and everybody would be passed out for like three days. I had stashed all my shit in my room, which had no door. I got in the van with Charlie and Pete, and we went on tour. I came back and everything, all my vinyl, was gone: our first single and the test pressing.
PKM: When did you stop living with these people who’d stolen your stuff?
Chris Spencer: This one girl came from Minneapolis, where one of my roommates was from, and kind of took over our living room. She got abducted by these Puerto Rican guys, who she was getting drugs from, and tied to a chair in a room, naked, for three days. And finally, murdered. I left soon after that. It just got to be a really bad scene.
PKM: To put it mildly.
Chris Spencer: And then our neighbors were these Colombian cocaine dealers. One day, I came home and there was blood leaking from under their door, by the garbage cans. It just got weirdly, scarily violent.
PKM: People forget how intense the early ’90s were.
Chris Spencer: Totally. Lines down the block to buy coke and dope on Attorney Street, Second Street, Avenue D. But that was old-school New York. You could drink beer out front of shows, from a paper bag.
PKM: Looking back, that era seems nuts. But at the time, I didn’t think twice about it.
Chris Spencer: I just thought of it as, “This is awesome! We can do whatever the fuck we want. There are shit tons of drugs all over the place, you can drink wherever you want, nobody cards anybody.” It was kind of great.
Pete Shore: It was fun, terrorizing, and inspiring. I’m a firm believer that hard times and struggle breed the best art and music. Not to sound too corny, but we, and many other bands of the time, were simply a reflection of our surroundings.
PKM: Any particularly fucked-up things you experienced?
Pete Shore: Being robbed at gunpoint, on the traffic island on Houston [Street] between avenues A and B. There were cars everywhere, I had a gun to my belly, and felt about as helpless as one can feel. The most disturbing thing happened [another time], when I was walking back to my apartment: On the corner of 11th Street was a man holding his belly, and blood was gushing out all over the place. I remember approaching the man, seeing if there was something I could do to help him, and he turned to me, looked me right in the eye, and basically threatened me and told me to keep walking. Which I did.
PKM: The drug culture at the time was heavy. Any regrets?
Pete Shore: I definitely fucked myself over many times because of my drug use, but whatever regrets I had were mostly self-inflicted. If things didn’t happen the way they did, I might not have the family and kids I treasure and love now. I know this is a cliché, but once you hit rock bottom enough times, the only direction is up.
Chris Spencer: I came through it OK. Pete came through it OK. We all holed up with our girlfriends and smoked coke and shot drugs. It seemed strangely normal. It was a good time for a few years. Then Charlie OD’d and died in Jon [Spencer, from Pussy Galore, the Blues Explosion, and Boss Hog] and [Boss Hog singer] Cristina [Martinez’s] old apartment, on Eighth Street and Avenue D, that they let Charlie take. I was crashing there on a piece of foam, on the floor with the cockroaches. In the lobby, people sold heroin from three in the morning until 11 in the morning. Bars closed at four. Charlie would just grab shit in the lobby, come upstairs, and do some dope before he went to sleep.
Pete Shore: Charlie was a real rocker and would stay up entire nights, partying. I think his body was already racked from a night of drinking, and the bag of dope he did was enough to push him over the edge. In the ensuing years, we also lost our good friend Sean [McDonnell], [the singer] from Surgery. That was a very sad time, I have to admit.
Chris Spencer: But Charlie was just out there having fun. He was really good-natured. I don’t want to put a shadow over him at all.
PKM: He was such a beloved figure. And an inimitable drummer, with a loose and swinging yet fast and pummeling style.
Pete Shore: Charlie was a super well-read, super intelligent guy, who could be really funny and incredibly self-deprecating. He came with no pretenses at all, so the people who knew him loved him dearly. He also had a great knowledge of all music, from classical to punk rock, and it was evident in his style.
Chris Spencer: He was influenced by [Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer] Mitch Mitchell and [Cream’s] Ginger Baker, and he could play sort of like those guys. When we started, we didn’t want to have anybody’s personality out front; I didn’t mind lyrically expressing myself, but nobody wanted to be the singer. So we would just face Charlie and do a wall-of-noise thing.
Pete Shore: We didn’t want to be melodic. We didn’t want people to necessarily even enjoy us. You have to remember, Mötley Crüe, Poison, and bands like that are what was on the radio and popular. In our early days, we used to gauge the success of a show by how many people we were able to blast out of the space. I remember many shows would start with a crowd and end with a couple of maniacs enjoying themselves. I don’t think anyone had dreams of making a living as a musician.I felt like we had made it because we spent two weeks on the road, and some kids in Buttfuck, Nowhere, loved our music.
PKM: Unsane formed in 1988, at Sarah Lawrence College, in Yonkers. That school was not exactly a hotbed of brutal noise rock. How did you find each other?
Pete Shore: We were somewhat outsiders. We originally met Charlie because he had this huge bag of weed we would all smoke. We tried to play with him [before Unsane], but he wasn’t all that amazing; his timing was all over the place. He then went to Bali for a year, where he did all sorts of crazy shit: lived in rice paddies with locals and was a part of drum circles. When he came back, he was a completely different drummer.
You have to remember, Mötley Crüe, Poison, and bands like that are what was on the radio and popular. In our early days, we used to gauge the success of a show by how many people we were able to blast out of the space. I remember many shows would start with a crowd and end with a couple of maniacs enjoying themselves.
PKM: How did moving into the city influence you?
Pete Shore: I was raised in Long Island, on the border of Queens, so I started coming to the city as early as my parents would let me, when I was 13.
Chris Spencer: We just wanted to embrace extreme volume and feedback and machine sounds. And then just being surrounded by the total chaos of the Lower East Side in ’88: car alarms, people screaming, crazy crap happening. Our neighborhood was noisy. We were all kind of overstimulated.
PKM: Nowadays, people consider driving while feuding on social media to be the height of overstimulation.
Chris Spencer: That’s all so homogenized. This would be the equivalent of people doing snuff scenes on TikTok: really harsh, fucked-up shit. A lot of it would not happen these days. Now, they’re gonna find you. Back then, there was no camera on your phone.
PKM: How did you meet likeminded bands?
Pete Shore: The first downtown noise band we ever met, who gave us an opening slot on their bill, was the Reverb Motherfuckers. After that, Pussy Galore gave us opening slots and eventually, Jon asked us if we wanted to share their practice space, on Avenue B. It seemed like every band within our circle was there at one point or another. The thing that attracted all these bands wasn’t that we played similar music; we just shared in the idea of rejecting the current, popular music of that time. Also, bands were very supportive. Everyone would go to everyone else’s shows and, over time, a small community was formed.
PKM: What do you remember about the sessions for Improvised Munitions?
Chris Spencer: [The engineer] Wharton Tiers was a super nice guy. We were like, “Holy crap, it’s maybe 20 or 40 bucks an hour to record with the guy who recorded Sonic Youth!” The studio was in his basement. We would just do things in one take. If there were little mistakes, we didn’t give a shit. We were just trying to capture the momentum. It was almost like being in our practice space.
PKM: The lyrics to “My Right” and “Concrete Bed” are like something from Taxi Driver. What are the stories behind them?
Chris Spencer: “Concrete Bed” was about this guy who slept on the cement outside our practice space. For “My Right,” Pete wanted us to write a gun-rights song. I’d grown up around guns my whole life; my grandparents lived in East Texas, next to this swamp. I used to really like going fishing in this canoe. My grandfather would hand me a .30-.30 [Winchester rifle] and say, “If you see an alligator or a nutria, shoot it.” So there’s a lot of lyrical content about killing shit and shooting.
Pete Shore: I was more of a sport shooter. I started when I was in the Cub Scouts and was an adamant trap shooter with my father.
The thing that attracted all these bands wasn’t that we played similar music; we just shared in the idea of rejecting the current, popular music of that time. Also, bands were very supportive. Everyone would go to everyone else’s shows and, over time, a small community was formed.
PKM: Did you get any shit about it from your fellow downtown musicians?
Chris Spencer: Not in the slightest. There was a bizarre fascination with it in some circles. We took [the filmmaker and photographer] Richard Kern out to the gun range a few times. We took Bruce Pavitt [cofounder of] Sub Pop [Records]. There was this gun range out on Long Island, where you could shoot TVs and shit. I still have a bunch of guns, but I don’t really shoot them that much, honestly.
Pete Shore: At the time, being a gun owner wasn’t immediately associated with any political or societal beliefs, as it often is now. So most reactions were just fascination and curiosity. I still own guns and love to shoot, but I have never carried a gun and am actually a firm believer that guns should not be used for self-defense. I think when you buy a firearm with self-defense in mind, you are buying it with violence in mind. I am very comfortable around firearms, but I don’t have it in me to shoot someone nor would I ever want to. A police officer once gave me the best advice: Give them your money, swallow your pride, and if you have the opportunity, run your ass off and get the fuck away from trouble. I am strictly a sport shooter and enjoy a good slingshot as much as I do a rifle.
PKM: How did you meet Ernie, who ran Circuit? What was he like?
Chris Spencer: We were friends with the guys from Surgery. Sean was kind of the A&R guy for Circuit. Compared to us, Ernie was a little suburban. He seemed like a bridge-and-tunnel guy. He had the long, curly, permed hair.
PKM: The poodle cut! No kidding.
Pete Shore: Ernie was some schmuck from the South Shore [of Long Island]. Scumbag with a hint of douchebag. I did find it weird that this was who was putting out our record. He could have worked in a used car lot and it would have been the same character.
Chris Spencer: We were all a bunch of fucked-up musicians, and Ernie was kind of our money man. He saw this crazy noise-rock scene going on in the East Village and Lower East Side, and decided to start a label. And apparently, developed a hefty cocaine habit. And did not pay his bills. Who knows what the hell happened to Ernie? Maybe he ended up in major debt and got totally freaked out. Once the guy who’s supposed to put your record out disappears, you start asking around. I did everything short of getting a private investigator. He just had vanished.
PKM: Pete, you were driving a cab in those days. I read that you went by Ernie’s house on Long Island, and it was empty.
Pete Shore: A gun store I still frequent is just blocks from there. I don’t know if I was driving the cab, but I do remember seeing the house up for sale. I drove a taxi for pretty much my entire Unsane career. I was able to avoid anything life-threatening or being robbed, but it was about the worst job I ever had: 14-hour days, sometimes bringing home chump change.
Chris Spencer: I spent a year and a half driving for that same car service. It was Friendly Car Service, which was like the meanest group of people you could ever meet! It was pretty funny. On the radio, the dispatcher would be like, “Fuck these people! I fucking hate them!” Just ballistic. That had a major impact on me and Pete in terms of our negative attitude towards humanity: just a lot of drunks that you had to drive home. One woman tried to climb into the front seat and grab me. Stupid shit like that. Or I would drive people to the projects, and they would go to cop drugs. I would sit in the car, with a shoebox full of money under my seat, while a bunch of guys were staring at me. Luckily, I never got fucked with.
PKM: You and Pete were really into grindhouse cinema. What were your favorite films?
Chris Spencer: [Italian ’70s and ’80s gore director] Lucio Fulci. We used to watch a lot of Hong Kong cinema, too. Horror marathons. [Ruggero Deodato’s] Cannibal Holocaust [from 1980], [Umberto Lenzi’s] Cannibal Ferox [aka Make Them Die Slowly, from 1981]. All the classic grade-Z shit. The ’80s were a great time for horror movies. We used to go to the Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street.
Pete Shore: Times Square theaters and the Essex [Theatre], on Grand Street, showed the worst-of-the-worst movies and some great ones. Often it would be a triple bill, with one known director or film and two more-obscure ones. That is where we saw Dario Argento’s [1982 film] Unsane and got our name. My favorite was when they played [Robert Houston’s] Shogun Assassin [from 1980], a movie that was an amalgamation of the [Japanese] Lone Wolf and Cub movies [from the early ’70s, directed by Kenji Misumi and based on manga]. That was the most blood I had ever seen in a movie.
Chris Spencer: They would do first-run, uncut, hard-core gore movies that were not fine-tuned in terms of editing. And they would show these cuts to this really volatile audience: people smoking crack, drinking heavily, screaming in the theater. Totally shitty. [It cost] $3.50 for three movies. I remember one guy, while he was watching, just screaming, “Kill that white bitch! Kill that white bitch!” But you had to be careful; Pete almost got mugged in the bathroom.
Pete Shore: First, find at least two friends to accompany you.Once you were seated, the smell of crack and weed was everywhere. If you had to go to the bathroom, you all went. I do remember we saw David Cronenberg’s [1986 remake of] The Fly, and many people there gave us that look, which was asking, “Are you lost? Are you fucking crazy?” I think we were just fucking crazy.
Ernie was some schmuck from the South Shore [of Long Island]. Scumbag with a hint of douchebag. I did find it weird that this was who was putting out our record. He could have worked in a used car lot and it would have been the same character.
PKM: How did those movies influence the band?
Chris Spencer: Pete had started doing prosthetics and gore effects. He would show me how to make lungs and do plaster molds and casts. For the cover of Improvised Munitions, we had this whole vision of one single drop of blood. Later, for the [self-titled] album, we had the [photo of the decapitated] guy on the tracks.
Pete Shore: A friend of mine had a friend who was a homicide photographer and years earlier, he had given me the photo. It was as disturbing and off-putting as our music was, so it was a perfect fit.
PKM: You rerecorded some of the Improvised Munitions songs for your 1991 self-titled album for Matador. Why were you determined to keep going?
Chris Spencer: In a way, the lack of release benefitted us because it gave us time to tour. We put out a bunch of singles. And we continued to develop. It gave us a little bit more forethought in how we wanted to approach our first record. Improvised Munitions was just really raw.
Pete Shore: We didn’t view Ernie as a setback. The Matador deal came very soon after, and we just kind of moved forward and didn’t look back. We kept going because we loved playing music.
PKM: The music got tougher and tighter. But that wild, spastic element disappeared after Charlie died, and as Unsane continued. How do you think the music evolved?
Chris Spencer: It got more riff-heavy, more minimalistic. It had gone from wall-of-noise chaos to some heavy shit.
PKM: Chris, your current band, Human Impact, is a departure from Unsane. What made you move in a more nuanced direction?
Chris Spencer: By the end of Unsane [in 2019], I was starting to feel like I was doing calisthenics every day. And I accomplished what I wanted to do. So now, I want to try something else. I like having to really focus on the words, and you can actually hear what I’m saying, which is a change from Unsane. I’m reeling in the guitar a little bit but picking my spots. I don’t have to be playing all the time, because it’s not a three-piece. It’s more musically developed.
PKM: You’re moving back to New York. Any thoughts on that?
Chris Spencer: The whole thing went through massive, massive gentrification. I walk around and think about things that happened in certain spots, and now it’s basically a mall. The corporations win. Which is fine. New York is a place where you get things done. But it’s still a cultural center for the globe; there’s still shit to do and different people to experience.
PKM: You never left, Pete.
Pete Shore: I have yet to find anywhere else, except the sticks, where I would want to live. Before the pandemic, New York was slightly depressing. Every day, some old place you loved would disappear and be replaced with a box store or some shit bar or restaurant, and the city seemed to be more and more ruled by wealth. But the pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into all of it. Out here in Queens, graffiti is back, and some places look like they did in the ’70s. Some of the only people who are left are lifers, like me. And they have no plans on going anywhere. Things have calmed down a little, but for a while, it was definitely beginning to feel like the Wild West again. Maybe in these shit times, some new and great music or art will be made. I certainly hope so.
PKM: Are you less pissed off now?
Chris Spencer: I totally love the raw impact of Unsane. But in a way, I kind of think, “What’s the point of getting so pissed? That’s just fucking with my life.” I would rather do something that I think is cool but not have to fucking spaz out all the time. Life’s too short to spend all of it being pissed off.