The Light at the End of the Tunnel is a Train

I often make a distinction between my favorite bands and the bands I think are the best. Unwound is one of the few bands for which that distinction means nothing: They are both one of my all-time favorite bands and one of the best to ever do it. Unwound have now been apart longer than they were together, but every time I listen to one of their records, I am reminded just how great they were. Numero Group’s extensive new boxset leaves no doubt that they still deserve more attention.

— Unwound down the coast at Off The Record in San Diego, 1997.
[Photo by Dave Young]
Having moved to the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 1993, I was trying to ease myself into the then-exploding local music scene. Their recent national attention had me already familiar with many bands and labels, but there were many more that only had fame and notoriety in their home region. I was digging deeper. That’s when I found Unwound.

On a trip to Alaska that winter, I bought Fake Train (Kill Rock Stars, 1993). I still have vivid memories of falling asleep to it on headphones every night during that trip, immersed in basement darkness and new sounds. Some of my favorite songs are from that initial exposure. I was hooked. I bought New Plastic Ideas (Kill Rock Stars, 1994) on vinyl at Mother Records in Tacoma the day it came out.

In the What Was Wound book, David Wilcox writes that The Future of What (Kill Rock Stars, 1995) “would prove to be not so much a radical departure as the sound of a band growing restless, clinging to their past even as they lashed out against it…” (p. 131). Oddly, this is what all of their records sounded like to me, each at the time that it came out. As Justin told me in 1998, “Well, sometimes you go into the studio with an idea, and you come out with something totally different. At least that’s what usually happens to me. Every one of our records has its own purpose. I don’t think we’ve aimed too high, and I don’t think any of our records are perfect.”

Unwound started out with a different drummer. Brandt Sandeno had been their drummer when he, Justin Trosper (guitar/vocals), and Vern Rumsey (bass) were called Giant Henry. Brandt moved on about the same time the band was moving on to something larger, more definitive. They recorded one record as Unwound, but it wouldn’t be released until they’d become a sonic force beyond their 3-piece aspirations. Something special was emerging. The missing piece was Sara Lund.

Everyone involved — even Brandt — will admit that Unwound wasn’t truly Unwound until Sara started playing drums. Like most great bands, the Justin/Vern/Sara line-up didn’t waver until the three were no longer a band.

The new, commemorative box, What Was Wound (Numero Group, 2016), includes 10 CDs, a DVD, and the aforementioned 256-page, hardback book. The DVD includes various live and candid clips of Unwound from throughout their 11-year lifespan, including footage from the one time I saw them play (pictured above): April 10, 1994 at the Capitol Theater in Olympia, Washington. Unwound was opening for Jawbreaker while the latter was touring their last good record, 24-Hour Revenge Therapy (Tupelo/Communion, 1994).

These home movies from all phases of Unwound’s existence illustrate not only their unsung greatness but also just how hard they worked at it. What Was Wound is the definitive history of one of the best bands to push sounds through speakers and commit those sounds to tape.