When Survival Knife played at The Echo a couple of weeks ago, I was stoked to see so many friends coming out of the woodwork to check them out. People that hardly go to shows any more, and they not only stood by the stage but also lined up to buy merch afterward. Yet it was anything but shocking. The Olympia band’s debut LP is equally noisy and beautiful, with layers of texture and riffs that recall the patient geometry of Hot Snakes as much as the power of Unwound, the band that singer and guitarist Justin Trosper and guitarist Brandt Sandeno previously formed in 1991. (Need I mention that a certain demographic loves Unwound just like they do Fugazi or Shellac?) So their reuniting after 20 years and recharging with rhythm unit Meg and Kris Cunningham is a big deal. I couldn’t not corner Justin when the band blew through L.A.
MW: Survival Knife has a really tight, solid sound. The band is new to a lot of us but it seems like you four have been honing the songs and chemistry for a while…
JT: The band started in 2011 and practiced for about a year until playing a show–we weren’t in a hurry! The combination of people is an interesting dynamic with Brandt and myself having a musical history that goes back about 25 years, playing with Kris, who has a separate but equally lengthy musical experience of his own, and Meg, who is a relatively newcomer to being in bands. So the songs go through a variety of filters before becoming what they are. We all have preconceptions and habits that need to be questioned, but I think it works out for the most part. The editing table gets a lot of use, although people might not believe me since we have songs that are eight minutes long!
MW: How did your time away from music after Unwound broke up in 2002 affect you as a musician? Do you see it or approach it differently now?
JT: From high school to about the age of 30, I was headlong into the music scene and bands. My identity was very much attached to all that. So walking away was actually pretty challenging but ultimately a better thing for me as an individual and citizen of the world, so to speak. Even though bands can be a special thing, in long-term situations they can turn people into grumpy old dads with misanthropic tendencies, who are a chore to be around.
MW: Was it easy to recover your groove? Did you have a ton of energy and ideas ready to unload on the world or was there some rust?
JT: It feels easy for me. I’m in better physical and mental shape than I was before and, yes, I had a bunch of creative energy bottled up. I don’t have enough time to get it all out there so I’m trying to figure out a way to manage that. Planning ahead is more important for me now so I don’t lose ideas and energy. It’s exciting to be doing Survival Knife but, like before, I need a separate outlet to work on other stuff. So I have another thing that doesn’t have a name or an overriding concept. It’s waiting to emerge…
MW: What was it like getting back onstage?
JT: Playing live is one of the things I’ve done most in my life, so it felt pretty natural. I do have some of the same bad habits and weaknesses, and I try to be more aware of that. Though some younger folks might scoff at the idea, you can get better at this stuff as you age but you have to work harder–which most people probably aren’t willing to do. Doing it in a more limited capacity also makes it more fresh. 20 times a year instead of 200 or whatever.
MW: I read somewhere that going back to Olympia got you back into music. What is it about the town? And can you really go back?
JT: I can’t really say that going back to Olympia got me into music… For me, and I mean from my perspective, it is a different place than it was in the ’90s when I was very active in a music scene there. These days, as much as I appreciate what people are doing and contributing, my input is pretty minimal and the music I’m making is way less attached to any scene. I wouldn’t be able to do a band if Olympia was my only outlet or audience because I would suffocate very quickly. But there is still a bunch of stuff happening there, which is cool.
MW: Survival Knife is a rad name for band. Do you actually carry one? If so, what type and why?
JT: Funny, I do appreciate knives. The name kind of just popped up–like it is sort of this teenage boy thing like skateboarding, heavy metal, and watching bad action movies. “Survival Knife” is more Tarantino, if you catch my drift. The other good thing is when you put it in a search engine, weird stuff pops up.
So, probably the best survival knife one can get is actually a machete, like the military issue ones from a surplus store. They are cheap and you can actually do just about everything with them, especially paired up with any old little Swiss Army or little pocket knife. Most of the fancy bigger knives don’t get used that much, even though they look cool! A pair of needle nose pliers and screwdriver is nice to have on the road, so the Leatherman type thing is the rock-n-roll survival knife.
MW: It must be so much easier to tour these days with iPhones, Yelp, and so on, but is there anything you miss about ye olden days when you were out there in the wild?
JT: I welcome some of the technology we have, for sure… Although it feels a bit the same with touring: You still have long drives and waiting around for the fun to start and getting bad-quality sleep. The thing that seems easier is actually setting up the DIY-type shows. That is way easier. Is the adventure lost? Maybe a little. I look for adventure in places other than punk rock, though. Music is my mind adventure; the extramusical show/party shenanigans (“shonanigans”) and all that just usually makes me laugh. But, no, I wouldn’t want to have to do the early ’90s style traveling all over again.
MW: Can’t not bring up the Unwound reissues… For us fans it’s been really cool to revisit the old songs/sounds under new light. What was it like for you to hear them again? Time travel? Therapy?
JT: It’s an honor for us with the way the reissues have come out, I couldn’t ask for something so cool. Listening back is both positive and negative, of course. I’m really glad we have remastered the material. Wait until The Future of What version comes out–that one sounds the best so far. We haven’t remixed any of the records except for some stuff that was unmixed and the original demo, which I think was justifiable because we mixed it in an afternoon and had more potential. Believe me, it sounds way better! Fake Train is the only other one I would remix, but I also don’t want to reinvent what happened.