In this interview originally published at Blurt blogger Tim Hinely’s long-running Dagger Zine, the synth-punk visionary holds forth on his legendary San Francisco outfit and the Seventies and Eighties scene that spawned it, not to mention the surrounding contemporary culture of art, music, politics and sexuality.
BY DAVID ENSMINGER / COURTESY DAGGER ‘ZINE
Tunes by the UNITS, like “Cannibal” and “High Pressure Days” represent some of the smart, manic, foreboding, wrenching, and percolating synth punk that emerged in the 1970s in the grime of San Francisco and foreshadowed portions of the rave, dark wave, techno, and electro scenes.
The UNITS represent the kind of genre-warping music that made San Francisco such a hotbed of experimentation during the late 1970s-1980s. Though they mirror some of the spastic energy and artcore of bands like the Screamers who were stirring Los Angeles, the UNITS were a different beast. They seem to borrow hints from prog rock, sci-fi soundtracks, deep theory, and conceptual art: on the surface, they might have seemed like a West Coast mutant version of Gary Numan and Kraftwerk. But they were actually fellow travelers with local luminaries like Z’EV and Tuxedo Moon, bands that stretched the parameters of punk while invading outsider spaces like the legendary Deaf Club. Now, Futurismo has just offered up their buried-in-history, unreleased second album, Animals They Dream About, which proves their appeal to a new generation.
(Below: History of the UNITS membership, as rendered by Ryser, to help you keep score, because this story’s gonna be a long one. -Ed)
DAVID: In liner notes, you have bemoaned the sense of “sameness” and “lack of choice” that seemed to define the zeitgeist of the late-1970, a kind of monolithic consumerism in which even rebellion (now “condoned”) was bought and sold in the form of guitars. What do you think happened to all the possibilities embedded in 1960’s counterculture, from street theater, pranksters, situationism, and be-ins to insurgent free jazz and Captain Beefheart? Were they simply forgotten or ignored?
SCOTT: The possibilities embedded in 1960’s counterculture, from street theater, pranksters, Situationism, and be-ins to insurgent free jazz weren’t forgotten or ignored. They were all incorporated into the early punk scene on some level. California has a history of counterculture and protest/resistance movements, and many of the people in the emerging S.F. punk scene were well aware of what came before them. What happened to the movements that came before the punk movement was that they had all been absorbed into the larger culture of America and transformed into commodities.
Dating back to the original Boston Tea Party in 1773, America has always had a tradition of rebelliousness that many people are inspired by. The problem is that once the rebellion becomes apparent, big business identifies it as a mass market and inevitably cashes in on it.
The very essence and main goal of our capitalistic country from its very foundation was making money … at the expense of all else. The story of European settlers pulling one over on the Native Americans by purchasing Manhattan for $24 worth of trinkets and beads pretty much set the standard of how it’s OK to take away the environment and culture of the owners or creators of something, in the pursuit of making a handful of rich and powerful guys from outside the community, even richer and more powerful. It’s always been all about money grabbing instead of being about helping to develop the wellbeing, equality, and culture of the community.
The idea of “freedom of religion” was a good sales job … the only problem is that the founders seemed to implicitly include “freedom from morality” along with it. So, it was cool for them to pretend like they were standing on some moral high ground while they were taking away Native American’s land, putting chains on slaves, and denying women the right to vote.
Our country has a history of taking confrontation and dissent against the status quo, and repackaging it, and selling it back to the masses as sex, entertainment, and fashion. As far as the guitars you mentioned, that repackaging is what happened to the well-meaning political intentions of Woody Guthrie in the 1940s, the working class musician that had “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on his guitar. The music business turned the future of the guitar into a commodity and a fashion statement. They homogenized the piss out of it until it might as well be the symbol for Coke, Budweiser, or Marlboro. That’s why back in the late 70s we figured that in order to make a musical critique of our culture, we’d have to do it with an instrument that wasn’t already defined as an entertainment tool. Not only did we create an all synthesizer band to make the music, we repurposed the guitar by cutting up stacks of them out of plywood and using them to smash projected images of other products and authority figures.
The counterculture has been alive and well for a long time. It seems to flow through time like some underground river that surfaces once in a while, but never really dries up and goes away. We simply tapped into that … and I hope that we will inspire kids in the future to do the same.
The same repackaging thing happened to the Beat Generation in the 50s. The Beat Generation was a group of nonconformists who rejected what they felt were unauthentic, prepackaged lives (much like the Punks). They sought spiritual meaning in life instead of going along with America’s newfound affluence and quest for materialism. Of course, the media sold it as a simplified, inaccurate stereotype that obscured the Beat message of restoring the human community to spirituality and authenticity and transformed the Beats into cartoon characters called beatniks, used to promote TV shows, coffee houses, cellar nightclubs, and help sell newspapers, records, clothing, and other accessories.
Big biz turned many of my Beat Generation heroes like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Charles Bukowski into funny jokes, not to be taken seriously, turning them into bongo playing “Beatnik” characters in Beach Blanket Bingo movies or Maynard G. Krebs, the “beatnik” sidekick on the Dobie Gillis T.V. show. Another influential Beat poet was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the co-founder of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. City Lights was the place to go to get all kinds of counterculture reading material and it was located within walking distance of the Mabuhay Gardens, the S.F. Art Institute, and the UNITS’ rehearsal studio. Many of the punks in the late ‘70’s would hang out there. V.Vale started his punk rock fanzine Search & Destroy (1977-1979) with $200 that the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti gave him.
It happened again to the “mind expanding” 1960’s counterculture “hippies” that challenged the status quo in San Francisco. In the beginning the free-form music, art, antiestablishment clothes, lifestyle, and drugs like LSD and mushrooms were a way to have a transcendent experience. It was a way to look at the world and the human race as if you were an alien, looking at the boxed in conformity and thought process of our culture. Once again, big biz turned it into a groovy fashion statement and an entertainment spectacle, making something serious look like it was a joke, like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In T.V. show or an Austin Powers movie.
But the 1960’s counterculture definitely had an influence on the punk scene in the late ‘70s — the escapades of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, probably inspired the prank driven sense of humor that the punks that came later had. The Hippie’s creative poster art probably inspired the DIY punks to get creative with their own flyers. Most people these days seem to mainly remember the bands doing flyers, but there were also artists and anarchists putting them up that were more political and had nothing to do with music. Along with the street art in ’79, you had guerrilla art attacks on billboards all over the city, where someone would climb up on a giant Marlboro cigarette billboard and spray paint some funny slogan over the original advertising slogan — subvertising it.
It’s also interesting to note that the co-founder of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs, was adopted at birth in San Francisco, and raised in the hotbed of the counterculture during the 1960s. Along with dropping out of college, Jobs told a reporter once that taking LSD was “one of the two or three most important things” he did in his life.
Fluxus artists kind of led to the performance art that punks were doing in the 70s. Of course, the big museum, Institutional Art World, dismissed all of this at the time as they did at first with the punks’ performance art. As far as Street Theater, the UNITS’ Tim Ennis and I actually supported ourselves for a while doing Street Theater before we started the synth punk UNITS. All of those movements I’ve talked about inspired aspects of the early punk movement on some level.
A lot of punks at that time were sick of the same old big-business music we were being force fed, the commodification and uniformity of fashion … the predictability of one’s life and the oppression of the soul … sick of the conformity and all the advertising lies. We didn’t give a shit what happened next, as long as it wasn’t the same old shit. I don’t think that “doing the practical thing” had worked out for any of us up to that point. In fact, I’d say that a lot of us were at the end of our rope, and we just wanted to rebel, scream out some truth, have some fun, live in a different kind of world and make fun of the one we were living in. Luckily, we were able to create our own little community where we could do that.
The word “taxidermy” comes to mind when I think about this topic. “Stuffing, and mounting the skin of an animal with lifelike effect.” Unfortunately, the stuffed animal of punk we’re talking about now is totally taken out of the context of the community that gave it its life. The only thing that made the UNITS relevant was our fellow comrades in the scene at the time, that understood the inside joke, that understood the political and cultural critique of what we were all doing. People in the scene knew that none of us were trying to be musicians, or doing it for the money, or to achieve “success with the status quo.” I think everyone in the scene in the early days thought of it as fighting a rebellion against the institution of America. Only we used art, music, and humor instead of guns … and the rebellion became a party.
At that time the word “new wave” hadn’t been invented yet, and “punk” had not been rigidly defined. Punk wasn’t relegated to a guitar, black leather jacket, tight pants and safety pins uniform (although I wore those things sometimes). Nobody wanted to be a “rock-n-roll star” or a “professional entertainer” like those desperate contestants you see on TV shows like Star Search. That’s not what it was about.
A lot of us hadn’t played a musical instrument before. It didn’t matter. I can’t think of anyone that had a “good voice.” It didn’t’ matter! It was all about being anti-institutional, anti-authoritarian, anyone can do it, Do-It- Yourself, being creative, artsy, funny, daring, provocative, innovative … and most importantly, ORIGINAL. Most of the “music venues” that popped up were just re-purposed spaces where creative anarchists could perform. The weirder the better.
The bands people loved were the ones that DIDN’T COPY ANYONE ELSE! We were all those things, and for that reason we were well liked. The punks in the scene at that time didn’t WANT us to be the D.K.s … They wanted us to be the UNITS! You might see a show with the D.K.s, the UNITS, and Z’ev (just one guy on percussion) … or Noh Mercy (a woman singer and a woman drummer), on the same bill. (Below: 1979 article about the UNITS that appeared in the SF Examiner)
When the Dead Kennedys started, people in the scene didn’t just like them because they were a “guitar band.” People liked them because they were very creative and original and funny, from their “anti-fashion” down to their lyrics. Not only was Jello very political, he also had the ability to break down preconceived notions of the frontman formula and the audience/performer relationship. We could share a bill with them at that time because people weren’t looking for “punk uniforms” … people in the scene were looking for craziness and business-as-UNusual.
John Doe of the band X caught the immediacy of the moment very well in his new book Under the Big Black Sun. Talking about the Screamers, he says: “… their jagged, distorted performance, it didn’t matter what the sounds were, whether they were good or smart or accomplished. It didn’t matter if they were pretty or polished. They had an edge & were cool & probably dangerous. You could just tell.”
It’s weird. My two kids are both in fairly popular bands now. I consider both of their bands to be art-punk, and if you could send them back in time to 1979, their bands would fit right into the scene and they would probably be very popular then too. The difference is, both of their bands sell “merch” (tapes, records & T-shirts) at a merch table at their shows. That’s something that bands didn’t even think of doing back then. I’m not quite sure exactly why nobody did it or wanted to do it. If it was because the audience was kind of anti-fashion, or if it was because we liked all the bands, not just one band? If we wanted to retain our “fashion” individuality and make our own clothes? If we didn’t want to appear as if we were pushing a product? I really don’t know. We just never even thought about it and nobody did it. Somehow, nobody seemed to want a memento, what we wanted was an experience.
It’s funny, because now I would love to have an the Offs T-shirt, or one by Tuxedomoon, Z’EV, Pink Section, Voice Farm, Noh Mercy, etc., and not the fake knock-off bootleg T’s they sell now, but a shirt from back then, one that they made … only it never crossed my mind back then … and none of the bands made T-shirts to sell.
NYC, especially Brooklyn, has a thriving art/punk music scene going on right now. It’s also very DIY. It’s hard to believe, but these new bands usually don’t get paid any more money for their shows than we got paid for our shows 36 years ago! They make and distribute their own flyers, do the art design on the tapes and records they put out, and design and often screen print their own T-shirts, print their own Zines with info on all the latest stuff happening. All the while knowing that the “music business” is for shit right now! The only music business you can protest is the likes of Spotify, Pandora, and Apple ripping you off! It’s even worse now than the Major Label Record Companies that were ripping us off back in 1979! So, it isn’t like these new kids are in it for the money any more than we were back in our time. These days, you don’t even have THE OPPORTUNITY to “sell out” to a major label, like some of us did back then. In a way, the new generation is taking a more holistic approach to their art and lifestyle than we did.
All I can do is wonder … maybe back in the late ‘70s it was more about the immediacy of the moment, this new experience, this new phenomenon that was happening, the new relationship and lack of boundaries between the audience and the performers. The new and strange environment and the unusual performances. Not knowing what to expect next, and not wanting to know what would happen next.
Back then, buying the band’s record was something you would do later. Kind of divorced from your experience at the show. A thing unto itself. You would go to your obscure local record store, and after you had checked out the latest music magazines and local punk zines, you might ask if they had the UNITS new single, and then pick it up and look at the artwork on it, and if you liked it, you’d buy it for $2 (after the UNITS had gone to the store themselves and given them 10 records on consignment) … which was another cool experience and an event. And if you wanted the Screamers new single you were shit out of luck. Because they never even made a record! Or a T-shirt! Years later, somebody would knock off Gary Panter’s iconic “Screamers flyer” image and start making bootleg T-shirts with it … and now, 36 years later, you can sit in your bedroom wearing a bootleg Screamers T-shirt while listening to a bootleg recording of the band on your iPhone.
Getting back to your question, I don’t think counterculture movements become “forgotten or ignored” … they just become institutional footnotes in history … taxidermied movements that get stuffed into Dead Kennedys T-shirts, devoid of life. But the underground river of counterculture thinking continues to flow and influence young minds.
David: The band worked with Karen Finley, Tony Labat, and Tony Oursler (above). Were you aware of the cross-over between punk and performance art in places like England, with bands like Throbbing Gristle, whose members like Genesis P. Orridge had a foot in both worlds? What propelled you to seek out your own collaborations?
Scott: The punk music scene was extremely regional at that time. The first mass produced personal computer didn’t even come out until 1977. The internet as we know it wouldn’t come along for another 20 years. If you were away from home, you had to go to a coin-operated public “phone booth” to make a phone call. Shit, we had fans that would actually write us real letters back then … you know, like with a pen and paper … and then go to the post office and put a stamp on it and mail it to us! The “Walkman cassette tape player” didn’t even hit the market until 1980! Sony didn’t release the first consumer video camcorder until 1983. It was way before the internet, before MTV, and before “music videos.” Punk bands weren’t shown on TV. There was very limited access to any kind of radio station that might play “punk” music … if they did it was usually a local college radio station that would play it at odd late night hours. The way you would discover new artsy punk bands was through fanzines or your friends’ mixtapes.
Although people on the West Coast had heard of some of the most popular East Coast pre-punk bands like Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Suicide, Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers, N.Y. Dolls, etc. (due to the prevalence of the media on the East Coast I think), I don’t think you could say the reverse was true.
Although the UNITs were known in S.F. and L.A., not many people knew of us in N.Y., let alone England, or Europe in general, in the early days. The opposite was also true. I hadn’t heard of Throbbing Gristle or the Severed Heads or any other synth/performance art bands until a while after our first record came out in ‘79. I think T.G.’s first show in S.F. was in 1981, and it turned out to be their last show (until they reformed in 2004). So, the answer to the first part of your question would be no, I hadn’t heard of cross-over performance art/punk bands from Europe like that.
Fortunately, the UNITS didn’t need to seek out collaborations with other performance artists — it all just happened on its own like a whirlpool of creative people getting sucked down into the same little space. The UNITS actually started out as a performance art group. We originally called ourselves The Normalcy Roulette School of Performance, and there were five or six of us in the group. During the day, the UNITS’ Tim Ennis and I supported ourselves by working in street acts.
We performed a lot on Fisherman’s Wharf, working at the ferry boat turn-around, Ghirardelli Square, The Cannery, Pier 39, and The Anchorage. Ennis, and his partner Randy Dunagan had a vaudeville/commedia del arte kind of street act with fake mind reading, a ventriloquist act called Professor X and His Mystery Dummy (Tim was the dummy), chain and rope escapes, prop comedy, fake fights, juggling of fire, swords, rubber chickens, etc. Tim and Randy also did improve comedy at the Old Spaghetti Factory in S.F. with the likes of a young Robin Williams.
I did my street act with a friend by the name of Bob Dean (r.i.p.). It was kind of a Brecht-ian Three Penny Opera knock off. We both wore huge Papier-mâché heads that we had made so that our face would be visible through the mouth of the head, along with wearing bathrobes we had cut up to look like old topcoats. The act included a big storyboard with illustrations of the songs that we sang. I played accordion: we sang Kurt Weil songs and our own angsty ones like “Trapped Inside of My Head.” Bob would walk around and waving his cane or point it at the storyboard illustrations. I’m not sure if people weren’t throwing much money “into the hat” because they didn’t realize we were performers … or if they were worried about getting hit by the whirlybird cane. (Below: Ryser’s street act in 1978)
Another member of our performance group, Ron Lantz, was working as the stage manager of the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino bar and restaurant on Broadway where Ennis and Dunagan had previously performed in a Dadaist revue along with the feminist satirical performance art troupe, Les Nickelettes. When Dunagan and Ennis had done comedy there, the famous punk-rock impresario Dirk Dirksen was running up and down Broadway in a full gorilla suit trying to get tourists into the place to see this crazy, subversive revue. Needless to say, there was no crowd and no money, but they did get some good adobo and lumpia dinners out of the deal…
I’m not sure how it happened exactly, but Dirksen had lucked into punk rock, the club became a huge success, and Ron was there every night, soon to be running the soundboard for the UNITS.
The UNITS’ Rachel Webber (below; note plywood guitar) was going to the S.F. Art Institute at the time. It was within walking distance of the underground parking garage that Tim Ennis and I were living and rehearsing in. I met Rachel when she drove Blaine from Tuxedomoon over to our place so he could borrow some equipment for a gig.
The performance artist, Chris Burden, was teaching at the Art Institute at the time and Rachel was one of his students. Chris Burden was known as the ” Evel Knievel of contemporary art.” In the mid ’70s, he had been using his own body as an art object in some pretty outrageous acts that included allowing himself to be shot, crucified, almost drowned, and electrocuted. I think he was a big influence on the scene.
Karen Finley, Tony Labat, Mike Osterhout, Deborah Iyall (of Romeo Void), Phillip (the Puds) and many other performance artists and a lot of “punk musicians” were all taking classes at the Art Institute at the time and Rachel got to know most of them … and pretty soon it seemed like we were all seeing each other around a lot and many of us started collaborating on things.
As I said before, at that time “Punk” wasn’t defined as three or four cute boys in leather jackets, pretending to be tough and playing melodic three chord songs with guitars on a stage that separated them from the crowd. At that time, punk was a crazy free-for-all where you could do whatever the fuck you wanted, as long as it was original, and you didn’t copy anyone else. Half the time you didn’t know who was in the audience, who was in the band, or even if it was a band … or a performance art piece.
Within two weeks after I met Rachel, we were collaborating and living together.
David: A few years earlier, Suicide emerged in NYC, and bands like the Screamers appeared as your contemporaries in Los Angeles, both which also seem to shun “music as usual” (and in the case of Suicide, even piss off punk fans of the Clash) and a reliance on guitars. Was this irrelevant, or unknown to you, or did you really feel closer to San Francisco Tape Music Center and the League of Automatic Music Composers than you did to Soft Cell and OMD?
Scott: I loved Suicide and the Screamers back then. I felt like we were all in the same camp, the “shun music and entertainment as usual, including no guitars” camp. None of us got any airplay on commercial radio stations at the time … and like I said before, MTV and the internet hadn’t been invented. The word “synthpunk” and the music category “Electronica” wouldn’t come into existence for another 20 years.
I never saw Suicide play live, but I loved their music and originality. On the other hand, the UNITS shared the stage with the Screamers, and we played in most of the same venues. I think the Screamers were the best punk band I’ve ever seen. All three bands are similar but different.
The UNITS were really focused on using synthesizers. Synthesizers had limitless possibilities not just as musical instruments but also as sound/noise generators. As long as you are creative, you don’t necessarily have to be a great musician to play one because they can automate a lot of technical skills. They seemed like the perfect DIY punk instrument to me. You didn’t have to be a trained musician in order to play one.
Suicide primarily used that Wurlitzer organ that Martin played along with a drum machine while Vega sang. The UNITS were a bit more like the Screamers. We both used a Fender Rhodes piano run through a fuzz box, and we both used synthesizers, along with a real drummer. The idea of the synthesizer is a big deal for me. I didn’t want a guitar band. I wanted a synthesizer band. So anyone in the UNITS that wasn’t playing drums was playing a synthesizer.
The big difference between the UNITS and the Screamers was that the UNITS wanted to de-emphasize the “front man formula” that most bands have, where some guy’s charisma (or sex appeal) is more important than the message. That’s half the problem in life — people idolizing some guy’s glowing image. Be it political, religious, or military. Putting all their faith into some front man instead of looking behind the wizard’s curtain and taking care of business themselves. That’s why we projected the films and didn’t spotlight ourselves. When it comes right down to it, most humans are herd animals that want to follow somebody … even if it’s off a cliff.
When I first saw the Screamers play though, I realized that Tomata du Plenty was an exception to that “front man formula” rule. By acting crazy, jumping in the crowd and insulting them, he had broken the mold of the typical “entertainer.”
Suicide probably broke the ice for the UNITS and the Screamers as far as taking punches. People spit on us in the beginning and occasionally someone would throw something … but nobody ever threw an axe at us, or all the other stuff they threw at Suicide. All the bands in the early punk scene were playing in unruly places and there was always a certain amount of pushing and shoving, crowd diving, spitting and whatnot going on at shows back then…but sometimes it got out of hand … especially from out of town kids that didn’t know the limits, didn’t know how to keep it fun. 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 guy’s face on the stage for the same reason. It was common for audience members to be on the stage (if there was a stage) with the bands in some of the small clubs … and it wasn’t like we had bodyguards or stagehands to deal with crazy people … so sometimes you had to take matters into your own hands. (Below: Tim, Scott & Richard, 1978)
Spitting was pretty common in ’78. It didn’t mean the audience didn’t like you … that’s just what people did back then. I remember seeing the Sex Pistols play in what must have been an old opera house with balconies around the stage. It looked like a scene out of the movie Singing in the Rain with Johnny Rotten dancing around the stage like Gene Kelly in a blizzard of spit coming down off the balconies. It was like audience participation. I was glad when the spitting thing became passé.
We were playing a gig in Texas one time where people in the club were shooting off handguns … luckily, they were shooting them into the ceiling and not at us. I think it was at that club that the owner refused to pay us until we threatened him with violence. Luckily, at that time our drummer’s day job happened to be that of a bodyguard that packed heat. He was also a former Israeli commando. One look at the dude would entice you to empty your pockets … which the club owner finally did.
I lost my temper a few times and jumped on some people and threw some punches … but I don’t think it had anything to do with the fact that we were playing synthesizers instead of guitars. The drugs in the audience didn’t help. One guy that I repeatedly kicked for fucking with me onstage in Boston came backstage afterwards and apologized and said he was our biggest fan. I found out later that he was on PCP. I don’t like being physically violent, and I don’t condone it. I’m normally very introverted and shy and keep to myself. But I was so confident in our music that at times I felt invincible when I was on stage. I have to admit that as good as it felt when some of these incidents were happening, I felt terribly guilty afterwards.
Even though the guys in Suicide have a great sense of humor, I think they set out to piss people off. It was like a goal of theirs. Whereas we, through our films, set out to project more of a sense of humor in the way we made fun of the status quo. Tomata from the Screamers would insult the crowd, but he did it in a way that made everyone laugh rather than throw axes at him. He had a background with a performance troupe called Ze Whiz Kidz that blended counterculture comedy with drag theater … so, I think he had some experience at how to get people to laugh instead of throwing axes at him.
The other electronic groups you mentioned I would either consider Academic Electronic Wankers, in the case of the SF Tape Center and the League of Automatic Music Composers … or Entertaining Pop Music for the Masses Music, in the case of Soft Cell and OMD (both of whom we’ve opened for). Don’t get me wrong, I still like those bands. I love listening to Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, and the musicians at the Tape Center. They all gave me inspiration to experiment with the synthesizer. I also like the music of the British synth bands that I hadn’t heard of until after we started the UNITS. Synth bands like Soft Cell, OMD, Gary Numan, Ultravox, Human League, Eurythmics, etc. It was just never our intention when we created the UNITS to go in either of those directions.
David: No doubt you felt alienated from, and in turn protested, the Fordism of everyday American life – “the assembly line of river of advertising and products,” you’ve described in liner notes. Yet, genres you embodied – synth punk, industrial, pre-rave music – have now long been incorporated into that same advertising assembly line and become sonic wallpaper. Does that irony mean much to you – someone who covered the corporate logos on your equipment with a heavy smattering of spray paint?
Scott: Yeah. The irony. Who would have guessed back then that the whole synthesizer thing would have turned out to be so popular! That our sound would become part of the status quo. Now, in 2016, there are about a thousand radio stations on iTunes radio alone that ONLY play synthesizer music. So as you can see … these days I have nothing to rebel against when it comes to guitars having a monopoly on popular culture.
I guess I find it kind of funny and weird now. But the fact that synthesizer music became so popular definitely contributed to us putting an end to the UNITS. Rachel and I realized, that to our surprise, we had accomplished what we had set out to do. It was never our intention to become major label rock stars for the masses. Somehow our little performance piece had turned into a big Broadway Play. (Below: Units find an alternative venue for performing)
Music and the venues it was being played in had changed and the new music we were writing was starting to change with it. We were starting to have hits on the Billboard Dance Charts. Not only were there synthesizer bands, there were really popular synthesizer bands that you could hear on the radio and see on the internet and TV every day. All of a sudden, instead of being the confrontational, D.I.Y., weird instrument band, that was playing crazy little punk clubs and projecting old fashioned “films,” we had become a “professional” synth band playing on big stages in front of large, polite crowds with Soft Cell, OMD, Ultravox, Gary Numan, and others.
Somehow we had become repackaged as entertainment, sex, and fashion! Record stores were buying units of UNITS records and pigeonholing us into a bin with UNITS written above it. Everything that we had originally protested against had come up and bitten us in the ass! We had become the Status Quo! YIKES!
Even though we thought our music was becoming more mainstream, the major record label that had signed us kept sending out their A&R guys to ask us why we couldn’t sound even MORE commercial, a little more like our label mates Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper, right down to the “beats per minute” … and they refused to release, or even sell back to us, two albums that took a long time to write and record. At the time, it was a real pisser. In retrospect though, it was probably for the best. The only reason we became somewhat popular in the first place was because we were good at being experimental and strange, at a specific time in history, to a group of people that were on the fringe of popular culture. We weren’t good at making mass market “synthesizer love songs” to have sex by. Frankly, I don’t know what the hell Epic Records was thinking when they threw a lot of money at us and signed us in the first place. It was a good time for us to move on and do other new things, and that’s what we did. Rachel and I moved to N.Y.C., started a very successful design company and decided to have some kids. Punk was no longer the cutting edge of music. If you wanted to hear some really cutting edge music at that time you’d be better off to go and listen to some new underground hip hop or DJs scratching up the status quo with remixes.
I’m surprised and grateful that we still have fans. I’m also happy that in the last few years some cool independent record labels have re-released some our early recordings. But I’ve also had to sue Grand Theft Auto 5 and Vice Media for using our songs on games or movies they sell without compensating us or asking our permission. I like our music to be heard, I just don’t like getting ripped off. Don’t even get me started on how I feel about Spotify, Pandora, iTunes radio, YouTube, etc. At least the people that did vinyl bootlegs of our records were fans of ours and had to put some money into it. These music services probably don’t even have a clue of who the UNITS are and have allowed hundreds of thousands of downloads of our songs that they attach their advertising to and literally pay us pennies … without even asking us if it’s ok! It’s cool that people post videos or songs of bands they like … but why should some big company be the only one that profits off it?
David: To me, what’s exceptional in tunes like “I-Night” and “High Pressure Days” is that they feel time-out-of-time, undated, transcendent, especially when tweaked by extended remixes (which you compare to graffiti), given a second life. This happened as early as 1979 by the Italian Cosmic DJ Daniele Baldelli. Is it important for you to give up control of the music and let new forms be molded? (Above: chart of the various UNITS remixers, as rendered by Scott)
Scott: Yes, I think of the songs I’ve written as visions that I was lucky enough to see, experience, and re-create in my own way. I do my best to re-create the experiences, but I don’t feel like I own the idea of them … they still exist on their own as far as I’m concerned … just like the wind or a river … always moving and changing. When we played our songs live, we would improvise a lot. We would do different versions of them out of choice and sometimes out of necessity. In the early days, I had to program the sequencer on the noisy stage before the gig. If it got unplugged, everything got erased. So, I’d have to quickly re-play it and hope for the best. The timing of the sequence was always a little different, and it was common for the drummer to get out of sync with it. Our Moogs would frequently drift out of tune during the song we were playing … so you would just have to adjust to it. I love improvisation, and it’s very inspiring to listen to good jazz bands do it or even some rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix going off on a wild, uncharted solo. I’m attracted to the idea of not doing the same thing over and over.
After I’ve written a song, sometimes I’ll think about how Van Gogh, Picasso, Duchamp, Dali, Joseph Cornell or any number of artists or musicians would have captured it. What would their song look like? What would Beethoven, Philip Glass, Louie Armstrong, or Hank Williams have done with my vision?
I like the way old blues and folk songs keep getting reinterpreted. And sometimes I like a cover song better than the original, like Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” compared to Trent Reznor’s, the guy who wrote it.
I love the idea of remixes for the same reason. It’s a very punk idea to me. I love the idea of reconfiguring art and technology and taking it to places that it wasn’t intended to go. Kind of like the S.F. punk scene’s Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Laboratories would take machines and “re-direct” their typical manifestations in practicality, product, or warfare, tuning them into things they weren’t intended to do.
That’s what I did with the Unit Training Films, by taking old educational, factory and military training films and “re-directing” or “re-purposing” them to convey the opposite of what they were intended to do. I would also film TV advertisements and subvertise them and include them in the films. I enjoyed Sid Vicious ironic cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”or Tom Ellard’s (Severed Heads) “remixed” TV commercials.
The legendary Italian Cosmic DJ Daniele Baldelli started re-working our songs way back in 1979 and the early 80s and was responsible for giving us an audience in Italy. This is very interesting to me, because while in the USA, while the punk scene that the Units were part of in the late 70s was rebelling against the conformity and regimentation of disco, some forward thinking Italian DJs were taking a very a different approach … instead of killing disco with a new genre of music, they just punked-up disco. Baldelli would take a disco dance song, but play it at the wrong speed and then add weird space effects to it. He’s got to be one of the pioneers of the mash-up too. Playing slowed down Units songs on top of contemporary Disco. His style became so popular in Italy that people started putting out 12” bootleg records (see below) of Units songs “to be played at slow speed” with the instructions written right on the record label. I can’t help but laugh when I hear them. My voice sounds like Darth Vader from Star Wars. It’s great. I was honored back in 2011, when the Opilec Music label from Italy released a 3 CD box set of UNITS songs that had been remixed or re-worked, by 45 DJs, bands, and producers from 13 different countries. It’s called THE UNITS – CONNECTIONS.
The history of disco is also really interesting in a subversive and political way and there are some connections between the SF Disco scene and the SF Punk scene. As Michel Esteban from ZE Records said in his liner notes to Mutant Disco: A Subtle Dislocation of the Norm: “It is probably difficult to imagine that Club culture was born in a small underground room in the Latin quarter of Paris during the period of German occupation in the Second World War. The Nazis had prohibited jazz (also bebop music and the Jitterbug dance) and closed the Clubs where musicians performed thus forcing music lovers to meet in secret in cellars to listen to their favorite music on 78s (vinyl records). One such place was on Rue de la Huchette and was known as La Discotheque. Historically this was the first time that the name was used to designate a club where people could go to listen to recorded music.”
In the U.S.A, Disco had its roots in clubs that catered to African American, gay, psychedelic, and other communities in New York City and Philadelphia during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Disco was a reaction by New York City’s gays as well as black, and Hispanic or Latino and heterosexuals, against both the domination of rock music and the demonization of dance music by the counterculture during that period.
Why is there a history of cops raiding gay dance clubs and beating people up, taking them to jail and worse? What is the threat of people listening to music and dancing? I have to assume that music has the potential to bring people together, giving them a potential political and cultural power that politicians and the status quo don’t want them to have … or are afraid of.
I want to mention the White Night Riots [seen on the photo gracing the Dead Kennedys first album], which happened due to the light criminal sentence given to the assassin of gay city supervisor Harvey Milk by an ex-cop. It’s interesting that at the same time there was a national backlash against mainstream disco going on, there was a lot of support and a crossover of musicians and musical/performance ideas between the punk clubs and the gay dance clubs in the San Francisco punk scene. Especially between the synthpunk musicians and the electronic gay disco musicians. In S.F. and N.Y.C., gays and punks shared one thing at least … we were both part of the “counterculture.” To give you an idea of how horrible the attitude towards gay people was then, you must realize that it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association decided to remove homosexuality from the official list of mental disorders.
Everybody was very upset about the slap on the wrist Dan White got for killing Harvey Milk. Relations were very tense between the police and the punks and gays. To give you an idea about how the punks felt about the police at that time, three days before the White Night Riots, The Units shared a bill with The Dead Kennedys. It was at that show that The Units first started smashing plywood guitars (that we had cut out of sheets of plywood) on images of police. We projected the police photos onto the giant metal hood of a Cadillac car. The car hood was held upright on a big wooden tripod. Pieces of the guitars would fly into the audience, and they would throw them back up on the stage. We would grab another fresh guitar from the stacks we had cut and continue smashing cops while our synthesizers played factory noises on autopilot. The crowd loved it.
A few days after the riots The Offs and the Blowdryers, among other punk bands, held benefit concerts for the defense fund of the gay club that was attacked. To show you how life goes on in America, it was just a few weeks later that McDonalds introduced the “Happy Meal” in restaurants all over the USA. (Below: Units in 1981. Nice ‘staches!)
David: The lyrical sense of foreboding, dark, and imminent face-offs (“when the sun goes down… surrounded by the smells … the sounds … it’s my time now”) sound a world removed from a punk band namedropping Pol Pot (though I know you loved gigging with the Dead Kennedys!). Did you write songs with the sense that, it’s not about capturing the “now,” but also tomorrow?
Scott: Instead of thinking in a holistic way, we humans have chosen to think with straight line time-lines, going from a one directional “point a” to “point b,” with a thought structure made up of straight lines and boxes. Something extremely rare in the natural world. We take everything out of context and categorize pieces of wholeness. I don’t think so much in terms of the “now” and the “past” and the “future.” I think more about the totality of them.
I wrote songs about breaking out of the every-day, predictable, unit-like box of the “now” that we live in … that usually concluded with the sudden revelation or insight that there was more to life than what we were being taught in school and witnessing in the media. Breaking away from the “Training Film” of how to live. I also wrote about the patterns of our lives, how we do the same routine every day, at the same time, take the same route and do the same things. And then, once you realize that (in the song), I’ll break up the pattern in the music to transcend the routine. I also wrote about how we use technology and products to define and present ourselves. Then I might add a chorus, where I’ll state the simple truth, saying something like “warm, moving, bodies.” So basically, I’m contrasting the way we try to present ourselves with the reality of what/who we are.
The song “I-Night” is about discovering the feeling, having the epiphany, that my self-awareness is no longer confined in the boundaries of my body … that I’m one with the world.
“High Pressure Days” is about the maddening pace of our lives getting in the way of maintaining human relationships: “we’re all moving pretty fast these days, bumping round like bumper cars” and “it’s awful hard to hang on to each other.” Along with the dark thought that we’re “finding that our motions, fit into a pattern.”
“Warm Moving Bodies” is about comparing the sterilized version of what we’re taught about our bodies in school and through advertising to the reality that we are all “warm moving bodies.”
David: I also hear literary shards poke through the narratives – fragments of Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, Harlan Ellison, William Burroughs: classic conflicts, say, of self vs. self, self vs. technology, self vs. society, but explored with speculative glee and gloom. I know you detested being an “electronic experiment in academia” – but were you gleaning from writers?
Scott: I was an English Literature major in college … until the end of my junior year, when I dropped out of school. Most normal dudes at that age would probably have pictures of hot cars or posters of sexy women pinned up on their bedroom walls, but I had pictures of my favorite authors!
As a rebellious kid growing in a small town that was bent on conformity, those writers gave me hope that there was more to life than working in a lumber mill. I didn’t consider most of the writers that influenced me as “academics.” Writers like Walt Whitman, Louis F. Celine, Jean Genet, Gregory Corso and other “Beat” writers, along with J.D. Salinger, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Henry Miller, Dreiser, Hawthorne, Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, on and on. I considered naming one of my early bands after a Horatio Alger novel called “Ragged Dick” … but it proved to be a tough sell to my band mates at the time. Many of the novels I liked were banned at the time they were written. Including Voltaire’s Candide way back in 1759, because it contained religious blasphemy, political sedition, and intellectual hostility hidden under a thin veil of naïveté. My kind of guy!
Novels are my art form of choice. I’ve written one bad, unpublished one. Songs are much easier to write. You don’t have to project a lifetime in them. Sometimes just a moment will do. They’re a little more like a short story, or a good photograph. I was reading about how the photographer Diane Arbus could capture the story of “the outsider” in her photos. Randy Kennedy, the person writing the article about Arbus in the New York Times, compared her style to the short story, by quoting the Irish writer Frank O’Connor. O’Connor: “identified the primary difference between the novel and the short story as one of belonging. Novels, to put it simply, are about people trying to fit into society, while stories are about the loners, the outsiders, the kooks, those to whom society “offers no goals and no answers” and for whom the short story’s ‘intense awareness of human loneliness’ is perfectly suited.”
You could probably apply that thought about “stories” to a lot of the songs I’ve written.
As far as your observation about my not wanting a synthesizer band that sounded like an “electronic experiment in academia,” yet I was “gleaning from writers”, I guess I’d say the same thing about being a writer as I did about making electronic music … I never wanted to TEACH writing … I wanted to WRITE.
The thing about synthesizers, and not wanting to have a synth band that was an experiment in academia, is that until the Minimoog came out in the early ‘70s, synthesizers were huge, heavy, expensive, cumbersome, delicate, and not ideal for live performance. The only place you could find them was in the academic world. You had no choice but to be part of academia in order to use them.
I was lucky enough to be born into a time when all that had suddenly changed. Not only was I able to buy an affordable, portable synthesizer designed for live performance. I was able to experiment with it in my bedroom instead of being “taught” how to play it in a classroom.
I quit school because I didn’t like school. Not because I didn’t like writers … or synthesizers.
To be continued…. go HERE to read Part 2 of our Scott Ryser interview.