Suicide may have lit the torch in the mid-'70s, but one could argue that by decade's end, its carriers lived on the other side of the country -- in San Francisco. Sure, L.A. had the Screamers and some other odd ducks. But SF hosted an impressive number of bent bands who used synths, tape machines and other electrical apparatus to extend punk's mutated left end by leaps/bounds. Informed by avant garde composers and performance artists, fueled by apocalyptic abandon and paranoid pop twitch, groups like Tuxedomoon, Nervous Gender, the Residents, Factrix, Minimal Man, Chrome, and Pink Section would release timeless slabs of aggresively bizarre noise -- as would the Units, whose Digital Stimulation LP (415 Records, 1980) remains a personal favorite. The album's a lush and moody salvo if there ever was one, and I was thrilled to ask former lead synth player and vocalist Scott Ryser (right) a few questions about the band and its M.O. by e-mail last week.
WFMU: Can you speak a bit about the genesis of the band?
SR: The Units started in San Francisco in 1977 as a performance art group that my high school pal Tim Ennis had organized. We incorporated dance, music, sound effects, poetry, and signs with slogans on them that moved across the room on motorized wires. One of our pieces included props like big garbage-bag hot-air-balloons, kept aloft by hair dryers. At that time we called ourselves the “Normalcy Roulette School of Performance."
There were a bunch of people in the group, including Randy Dunagan, Lori Lorenzo, Amy Weiss, Ron Lance, Jay Derrah, Tim Ennis and myself. We were working on some great projects but having a hell of a time finding places to perform them. One of the members of our group, Ron Lance, just happened to be the stage manager at the Mabuhay Gardens, a Philipino bar and restaurant on Broadway that had started putting on punk rock shows. It was the west coast equivalent of CBGB's.
The club had become a huge success, and Ron was there every night. He's a musician, sound engineer, and hard-core music fan with a great record collection. He does audio for network TV in New York City now. He kept telling us to come down to hear all these great new groups like Devo, The Screamers, Dils, and everyone. Ennis and I hadn't been that interested in the British punk movement, but I have to admit that our minds were blown away by the early punk bands we saw at the Mabuhay.
Some of these “bands” were doing performances that were similar to what our “performance group” was doing. Only, they were calling themselves bands, and THEY HAD A PLACE TO PERFORM! It was really a no-brainer after that. The fucking stage manager of Mabuhay Gardens was in our performance group! We changed our name to The Units and started calling ourselves a band instead of a performance group and all of a sudden we had shows up the ass.
Somehow, by the end of '78 the Units had condensed down to the killer core of Ennis and I on synths, Richard Driscoll on Drums, Rachel Webber (who I'd met through TuxedoMoon) doing multimedia and Ron Lance doing sound for us. Rachel was going to the San Francisco Art Institute at the time and had a lot of performance art connections, including the infamous Mike Osterhout. In January of '79 Osterhout organized a big performance piece in the display windows of the JC Pennys store in downtown San Francisco. He invited Rachel to do some performances there, and she brought The Units in to be part of it.
Because of all the television, radio and newspaper attention it generated, that event seemed to pretty much define people’s ideas about The Units from that point on.
WFMU: What's the story on the "Unit Training Film"? How closely tied was the band to performance artists and other creative folks who weren't necessarily involved in music?
SR: I created the original Unit Training Film from a bunch of other films I had been working on before The Units started playing live. It’s a satirical, instructional film, critical of conformity and consumerism, compiled from found footage, educational and industrial training films, home movies, obsolete instructional shorts, with a dose of soft porn. My intent was to “re-direct” institutional training into a fragmented and subversive direction.
Since The Units original intent was to do multi media performance art, it seemed a no-brainer to incorporate the film behind us. It also served a second purpose … that was to take the focus away from the “front man formula” that so many bands had used up to that point. As I say in “The History of The Units” booklet, I didn’t want “the same old sound with Mr. Fabulous MC Song & Danceman Tap-dancing Entertainer.” I didn’t want the band to look like some shrink wrapped product designed by a committee. The film could express ideas that the music couldn’t. I was really lucky that Rachel was doing video art at the time. Once we got together we started collaborating on producing all the Training Films together and using them for The Units live shows.
As luck would have it, Rick Prelinger (one of the founders of the Internet Archive) was a frequent contributor and occasional projectionist at The Units live performances in San Francisco as early as 1979. Prelinger later donated over 60,000 public domain films to the Internet Archive, but even back in ’79 he had a great collection of “instructional” films that he would let me use.
There was never a set length or definitive “finished version” of the original Unit Training Film. Just the current version. The film varied in length from about 10 to 45 minutes, depending on how long the Units set was on any particular night. Clips were constantly being added and others were deleted and discarded once their condition became too poor to project any longer. The film was constantly breaking, and the projectionists always kept a roll of Scotch Tape nearby for timely repairs.
I’d say the band was very closely tied to performance artists and other creative folks who weren’t necessarily involved in music. I was a part of the independent film scene along with filmmakers like Bruce Conner, George Kuchar, Patrick Miller, Mike Conners and Richard Gaikowski among others. Gaikowski actually created “One Way Films” and was responsible for organizing a lot of us and having our films show at local movie theaters.
We did quite a few collaborations with performance artists like Tony Labat, Tony Oursler, Mike Osterhout and others. Rachel took classes with Karen Finley at the Art Institute. Rachel’s brother, Joel Webber, was probably one of the first to put out a L.P. record called “The Uproar Tapes” that featured just performance artists, including Karen Finley, Ann Magnuson, Eric Bogosian, Richard Price, David Calle and Ethyl Eichelberger.
Tim Ennis and I both had our own street acts on Fisherman’s Wharf in SF prior to the Units. Tim was also involved in the local comedy scene and did “improv” with the likes of Robin Williams at San Francisco's famous “Old Spaghetti Factory."
Believe me, we weren’t the only band with connections like this … half the fun of the scene at that time was that it seemed like it had less to do with “music” than it had to do with creativity and art.
WFMU: In San Francisco's late '70s punk scene, the Units were obviously part of a pretty heterogeneous group. You've spoken at length about the band sharing bills with the Dead Kennedys, the Mutants, and other mainly guitar-based bands -- not to mention Noh Mercy, who toyed with convention to form something much less "rock." Though the scene was initially somewhat diverse, did you notice a sort of uniformity occurring in SF as the '70s gave way to the '80s? Were audiences suddenly distinguishing between new wave or electronic bands and much more conventionally structured "punk" as the media brought attention to the scene?
SR: The scene was very diverse up until 1979. All types of performers could share the same stage and all people cared about was originality. In January of ’79 Jeff Jarvis wrote an article for the S.F. Examiner called “PUNK UNDER GLASS." It was the first time I recall seeing the word “punk” in the local establishment newspaper … and oddly enough, the band he was calling “punk” was us! The Units! It’s weird to me now, that NOBODY at that time ever mentioned how he had used the wrong word to describe us. We were an all synthesizer band showing films and putting up sarcastic advertising signs … not exactly the Ramones.
But by April of 1980 another article came out in “New West” Magazine with the words “NEW WAVE” featured on it’s cover. I found this idea really depressing … that now you had to decide if you were “punk” or “new wave”. They were kind enough to call us “electronic punk that works” and sandwiched us between The Avengers and the Dead Kennedys … but I knew that before the day was out, that we would most likely be thought of as “New Wave."
I’ll tell you why it mattered to me. Punk was rebellion, New Wave was commerce.
Before 1979 you made your own “anti-fashion” clothes. After 1980 you went to a “New Wave fashion store” and bought them.
WFMU: What were your thoughts on bands like the Sex Pistols -- bands who seemed much less interested in experimentation and sculpting sound than they did merely "rocking," making money and getting laid? On the other hand, how did you think you compared to bands like Throbbing Gristle, (early) Human League, etc.?
SR: I actually like the Sex Pistols for several reasons. First off, I don’t think Malcolm McLaren, the guy that put them together, did it just to make money. Just like the New York Dolls, that McLaren put together in 1971, were shocking, so were the Pistols in ’75. Too shocking at the time, to make a lot of dough. Malcolm was into the Situationist movement, particularly King Mob, which promoted absurdist and provocative actions as a way of enacting social change. He took part in a student occupation of Croydon Art School as early as 1968. True, he was a fashion designer and boutique owner … but I happen to think he was a good one.
I must say, Malcolm had an eye for talent. There just aren’t that many Johnny Rottens out there. Tomata from the Screamers and Jello from the D.K.’s are the only two I can think of. Johnny may not have sculpted sound in the Sex Pistols … but look what he went on to do with Public Image … in ’78!
I also like the early Human League and Throbbing Gristle. I know the Human League’s lyrics can be totally stupid (“don’t you love me, baby”!) … but saying you don’t like that song is like saying you don’t like a good Diana Ross & the Supremes love song. It’s a great song. And Human League’s early instrumental stuff sounds a lot like The Units. But when it comes down to it, we were punk (political), and they were New Wave (cash). They set out to make money, and they did. I’m happy for them.
I think The Units were probably more like Throbbing Gristle. Interesting but difficult to listen to.
WFMU: The most frequent comparison people make to the Units has been Devo, though I know you were playing well before you aware of Devo's existence. What are your thoughts on Devo? More specifically, how would you compare the Units to Devo?
SR: We were already playing shows in the late 70s when I first heard of and saw Devo live at the Mabuhay in SF. You have to remember, this was before MTV and the internet … the punk scene was very regional. It wasn’t easy to see or hear early punk bands from opposite coasts unless you traveled across the country. It’s weird because part of Devo’s first album Are We Not Men? was recorded at Different Fur Recording in S.F., in ’78. The same place we recorded some of our stuff … and I didn’t even know it until a few years ago. My first reaction when I saw them live was “Shit, they are doing kind of what we are doing, only they are better at it. They have perfected the black humor critique of how our culture worships conformity and technology.”
I think Devo took a more comedic approach than us … they were able to critique art as commodity… while still making money off it as a commodity! Kind of like Jeff Koons, they packaged their critique in a great pop culture way, and frankly, the packaging helped it sell better to the masses. We took a weirder, more alienated, “outsider art” approach to it.
I continually struggle with the idea of the relativity of things, and of the parts of something versus the whole of something… and whether or not you feel the part that you are playing in that whole is helpful, valid, or rewarding. So for me, it’s hard to reveal an artistic revelation about our culture and consistently present it in a humorous way. Sometimes I don’t want to disguise the anger and loneliness. I guess I’m probably better at writing tragedy!
I envy Devo for their simplicity. What I love about them, is how “American” they are, in the face of all the European synth bands.
WFMU: How did artists like Terry Riley and John Cage help inform the Units' sound? I hear some elements of their experimentation in the layers present on your records, but the Units seemed to harness a much more immediate, nervous -- almost apocalyptic -- use of electronics. How did you differ from these folks, in your mind?
SR: It’s interesting that at the same time the Synthpunk thing was happening in LA and SF, you had the League of Automatic Music Composers working on experimental electronic music across the bay in Oakland, at Mills College, and an American experimental music tradition, as represented by fellow Californians John Cage and Henry Cowell among others.
Part of this California electronic music tradition also included Terry Riley who studied at San Francisco State University (where I went), and the San Francisco Conservatory (where several of the Units drummers went) before earning an MA in composition at the University of California. Terry was also involved in the experimental San Francisco Tape Music Center working with Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender and Patrick Gleeson.
We admired and emulated all of these people for their experimentation … in my mind, we were trying to break away from musical convention in many of the same ways they were … but in a less academic way. We wanted to take it out of the universities and into the streets … and that’s what we did.
WFMU: Who, in your mind, were the unheralded bands from the late '70s that you played with or whose records you enjoyed?
SR: The Screamers, The Offs, TuxedoMoon, Noh Mercy, Voice Farm, Zev, Pink Section, The Mutants, Ike Yard, The Dils, Avengers, Nervous Gender, Minimal Man, Factrix, X, Wilma, The Puds, Flipper, Killing Joke, Raincoats, Suburban Lawns, X-Ray Spex, Bow Wow Wow, Liquid Liquid, Bill Nelson, Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire, Bush Tetras, DAF, Echo and the Bunnymen, Japan, Wall of Voodoo, The Psychedelic Furs, Tears For Fears, Yazoo, Yello, Severed Heads … lots more …
WFMU: There've been a few remixed Units songs released in recent years. What's your opinion of other artists' renditions of your songs?
It’s always an honor to have someone else take the time and spend the money to remix and press a song you wrote … even if you don’t like the way it sounds. I love the idea of remixes. 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. Like Sid Vicious covering Frank Sinatra’s 'My Way'. It can be very funny and ironic. Like graffiti, but in a musical way. It opens your eyes to concepts you take for granted and it makes you re-think why it is you like things in a particular way.
I love the way Tom Ellard from the Severed Heads takes TV commercials and “remixes” them in funny ways. It seems like remixes are usually reserved for disco or dance songs. I don’t really consider The Units disco artists, but I love it when people remix Units songs for the dance floor. I also like hearing ideas that I hadn’t thought of or was incapable of doing well myself.
The people that were the first to start re-mixing the Units were actually some of the cornerstone trailblazers of the Italo Disco scene way back around 1980. 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, 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.
I’ve always loved the creative, outrageous and funny, gay disco music scene in SF, especially in the pre-AIDs era. Many times it had a better sense of humor than punk. Those gay dance clubs were definitely anti-institutional. The best remixes to me are similar to graffiti, in that they re-direct the message, like a guerilla artist might do by spray painting a different subversive message over the original of a corporate advertising billboard. Or sometimes, just bringing out the potential soul of a song.
All that being said, the originals have sort of an imperfect, outsider art quality to them that I like. They’re all slightly out of tune and off beat. They’re mongrel dogs.
WFMU: What's your opinion of the modern state of electronic music? And the very clear-cut division between guitar rock and synth sounds these days?
SR: I love what is going on with electronic music now. It’s all over the place. It was a really big deal back in the late ‘70s when you heard an “electronic” song on the radio, sandwiched in between a million guitar songs. Now on iTunes there are over 600 radio stations that ONLY play electronica. As far as the division between guitar rock and synth sounds … I still prefer the synths … but unlike the late ‘70s, I don’t feel like I have to be a pioneer that creates an alternative world of synth music. That world is here now.