Influenced: Absolutely's George Anachev on Unwound's Perfect Imperfections
In a lot of ways, Milwaukee's Absolutely stand out from of their peers. They don’t use synthesizers or offer folk balladry or Miramar-ready mosh breakdowns. Yet for the last five years, the trio has continued to be a solid live act, playing all ages DIY venues and clubs city and nationwide. On the cusp of completing their second full length, singer and guitarist George Anachev talked with us about his personal connection to another band who sounded nothing like their hometown peers in Olympia, Wash: Unwound.
Let’s talk about growing up. Everyone else that I’ve talked to up until this point grew up here, but that isn’t the case with you.
Yeah. I moved here in 1997 from Russia when I was seven. It was all very surreal. I don’t remember listening to a lot of music there, but I have a few memories of my dad and relatives playing acoustic Russian folk music called Bard that dates back to prison time. Vladamir Vysotsky is like the most famous Bard singer, and that music tends to be performed when people drink, taking shots of vodka and chasing them with a pickle.
So did you listen to recordings of Bard music or was that mainly experienced through performance?
It was just through watching my family play the songs. The only real memory I have of listening to recorded music was when I was living with my mom in Poland for a few months. She had a Walkman and gave me a cassette of the Scorpions to listen to, and I remember walking around listening to that. I think I was about six years old at the time, and the part of Poland I was living in was particularly anti-Russian, so all I had to do there was walk around and listen to that Scorpions cassette.
What else do you remember hearing from that time?
Definitely a lot of ’80s stuff like Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe, even after we moved here. My first concert was actually Mötley Crüe and The Scorpions at Alpine Valley, but we left before the Crüe finished because they swore too much [laughs]. I also distinctly remember hearing a lot of Pink Floyd in the car on road trips. Those records were long and took up a lot of travel time, so I have some memories of hearing Animals and Wish You Were Here in the car. Even now, I still listen to Animals and Obscured by Clouds.
So when did you start making your own choices in relation to what you listened to?
I had a Guns N Roses phase for a bit that my mom wasn’t too thrilled about. Metallica’s Black Album was big for me, too. Around the time that the whole pop punk thing was happening, I got really into the Foo Fighters. When I got a little older, I got caught up in that whole Myspace/Warped Tour “hardcore” stuff, and then I started playing in bands and playing basement shows and stuff. This was around 7th grade or so. Things started to get more interesting when I heard Botch’s We are the Romans album. It was around then that I started hanging around the kids in Cougar Den, and a few years later, started Absolutely.
So what was the bridge between listening to hardcore and discovering Unwound?
At the time I was listening to bands that were definitely contemporaries of theirs-bands like Shellac, Fugazi and Faraquet. I think I came across them on last.fm. The first thing I ever heard from them was “Corpse Pose,” and I immediately was just like, “What the hell is this?” I checked out that album Repetition almost immediately. It was interesting, too, because I immediately started asking my friends if they were into them, and most of them had never even heard of them before. And then I just started to work backward. I checked out Fake Train and then Leaves Turn Inside You.
Interesting choice. That record is great, but it’s definitely a bit different from Repetition.
The first song I heard off it was “Look a Ghost.” Once I heard it within the context of the rest of the album, especially, I really dug it. That album starts with those weird tones that almost sound like a hearing test, just kind of cascading into one another, and the song that follows is kinda shoegazey, and then “Look a Ghost” comes on and it’s like, “Ok, there’s where Unwound went.”
Definitely, but at the same time it sounds different. It’s like introducing the “new” Unwound album as opposed to just “another” Unwound album.
Yeah, totally. There’s a lot less distortion than there is on any of their other albums, and they’d developed even further as songwriters, and it made sense. They took three years to make it, they built their own studio and I think they started to see that there were a lot of things they could do that they hadn’t done previously, like synthesizers for example.
Yeah, and I love that, especially because their use of synthesizers wasn’t upfront, it was way more textural.
Yeah, it filled up the sound. Sometimes you don’t even notice them.
Kind of like the vocals, in a way. The vocals and lyrics aren’t super front and center in relation to everything else.
Lyrically they’re interesting. They’re kind of apolitical in a way. They sang about society and community, but in this kind of observational sort of way. Phenomenology, that’s like the study of subjective experiences and that’s what they were-how you see the world through your own eyes. It’s not political in the traditional way that punk rock tends to be, it’s more based on personal experience. And that can apply to the music too, not just the lyrics. The songs feel that way.
The interesting thing about Unwound is that they didn’t really sound like other bands from Olympia. If anything, they fit in more on the east coast.
Speaking as a geographer, I think that location definitely has an effect on the art that is created there. There’s something specific about the northwest that influences a lot of the music that comes out of there.
Yeah, there’s definitely a sad side to some of the music from the northwest, be it Built to Spill or Elliott Smith or Nirvana. Even though Unwound sounded like they were from DC or San Diego or whatever, there’s definitely an undercurrent of melancholy there as well.
There are so many different factors that influence any particular scene, whether it’s population and culture or the amount of all ages spaces and labels or whatever. In the case of the northwest, it has that particular type of climate that can definitely influence mood and emotion.
Unwound and Slint tend to be the bands that people compare most to Absolutely.
I heard Unwound right around the time that Absolutely was just getting started. People compare us to them a lot, but I don’t think that Learns to Love Mistakes sounds like them all that much. When I heard them, it seemed like he couldn’t sing a rhythm that was different to his guitar playing. Like if you think about it, especially with those earlier records, the two tend to match up a lot of the time. I’ve always had trouble with that, too, so I think that parallel is there and perhaps that’s what people are hearing and picking up on. They’ve influenced me in the way I write guitar lines, though. That slow arpeggio that I love to use so much, that’s totally from Unwound.
On a related note, I’m glad we’re talking about Unwound and not Slint.
So you’re saying that you wouldn’t go see an Unwound reunion show?
I used to say that I would fly or drive to Seattle to see one, but I wouldn’t do it now. Based on what I’ve read, it’s doubtful that they ever will reunite, and I respect them a lot for doing that. They’ve said that they were different people when they were playing music together than they are now. Every band has the period of time that they existed, and it’s awesome that we have their records to listen to. That’s the difference between live and recorded music. Recorded music is a document frozen in time and it’s going to sound the same every single time and you can’t change that. I think after seeing Slint it kind of made me reconsider reunions. It’s just not the same, it’s not going to affect you in that way. It’s totally subjective, but that’s just how I feel.
So with so many albums to pick from, and with a lot of them sounding pretty different from each other, which one is your favorite?
Leaves Turn Inside you is super special and will always be my favorite Unwound album, and part of it has to do with the fact that it’s imperfect. It’s not recorded particularly well, there are mistakes on there and stuff. There are times on there where Justin’s vocals don’t sound particularly great, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that he’s not that great of a singer to begin with. Those songs called for a more melodic vocal approach, and he wrote them and sang them the best he could, even if he could have very well done a better job with them.
There’s something to be said about a band that leaves mistakes on an album, though. A lot of work goes into recording, and the fact that they could have very well corrected those mistakes is kind of interesting.
That album took them three years to make, which is the longest they took with any album. They built a studio and pretty much did it on their own terms, and the fact that they did everything themselves is fantastic. There was no need to do anything else after that record, and I’m glad that they didn’t. The LP was out of print by the time I heard it, so I sought it out online and dropped like $30 on it. It’s the most prized album in my collection.
Why are we talking about Unwound?
Sometimes something hits you in a certain way, you know? It hits you and stays with you. Unwound kept hitting me after hearing each album, and they’re always going to stick with me. It seems like the people who are into them are either really into them or not into them at all, you know? It’s like they’re prone to that sort of fanaticism. On the other hand, that they tend to go overlooked, so that’s part of it too. For me, they’ll always hold a special place in my heart and I’ll always have a personal relationship with them. Those albums are intimate in that I don’t ever really listen to them with anyone else. They’re like my sad girlfriend that I don’t leave the house with or something [laughs].
I recently read this interview where two of the members talked about how the DIY/punk community can be both liberating as well as limiting in terms of what people expect of you and then how you behave based on the opinions and ethics of others, and how that influences what you write, how you sound, how you book and tour etc. Unwound somehow managed to stay independent for their whole career but still progress as a band and not repeat themselves or try to please their audience, all the while making some great, great records. That’s why we’re talking about Unwound.
Absolutely will appear with Animal Lover at Quarters Rock N Roll Palace on June 1.