New Brookland Tavern: Saturday, April 6
The story behind the title of The Unawares’ latest recording, Absinthe Acres, is a telling one.
“I was singing ‘Green Acres’ at Goatfeathers,” explains drummer Rhett Berger. “Then I saw a bottle of absinthe and started singing the words ‘absinthe acres,’ just free-associating.”
On the other side of the country, the band’s friend Tommy Bishop, an illustrator who has done the artwork for all of the group’s previous releases, was reading old recipe books in search of traditional absinthe recipes.
“There was a lot of synchronicity there, so we went with it,” Berger laughs.
And when you get right down to it, that combination of synchronicity and free association defines The Unawares, a band that barrels through songs at a two-minute punk-rock pace, while at the same time punctuating its tunes with idiosyncratic breaks, counterpoint melodies and the at-times surreal lyrics of singer and guitarist John Watkins.
Over the course of four albums, the band has managed to craft a sound that, while indebted to early 1980s punk rockers like Hüsker Dü and Minutemen, is uniquely its own. The band professes a love of classic rock as much as punk, and counts progressive rock, jazz and classical influences filtering through its three-minute rumbles.
But there is “no jamming,” Watkins says, adamantly. “No jamming at all.” Instead, the songs start with distinct ideas written by the guitarist, who records a guitar part and a vocal idea on a voice recorder and then brings it in to the band.
These ideas are usually a little unusual, as Watkins favors heavily augmented chords. (“I’m trying for the most ridiculous chord you’ve ever heard,” he says.) The process is further complicated by bassist James Wallace, who studiously assembles a bass line based on Watkin’s chord structure.
“I ask him specifically what he is playing and notate that, then I try to figure out the best interval that works for the song” he explains. “Or an interesting counterpoint or countermelody.”
Berger, who works his part out in conjunction with Wallace, likes to keep things simple.
“I try not to do anything too fancy, just kind of keep it locked in,” he says.
The end result is an enigmatic rock band — Berger refers to the groups as “weird” — that Columbia has grown to love.
Things get weirder when you turn to the recording process. For each release, local analog recording guru Chris Wenner has recorded the band live, on tape, and in mono, using anachronistic techniques to capture the feel and energy of the group in ways that are antithetical to the modern, Pro Tools-centered recording process.
The band also doesn’t spend much time analyzing the process. The A-side of Absinthe Acres, consisting of six new songs, was recorded in a single day; the B-side was recorded the next, as the group tore through a re-energized version of its first EP (and second release), Tooth Dip.
“We stay pretty focused on being able to duplicate the songs on stage,” Watkins says by way of explanation. Berger chimes in with a food metaphor: “We like to make the cheeseburger as tasty as possible without the condiments.”
Still, the group is particularly proud of Absinthe Acres, its first vinyl release.
“We’ve wanted to put every record we’ve ever done with Chris out on vinyl,” Wallace explains. “We just finally had the means to do it this time.”
The vinyl release completes the band’s commitment to an all-analog, no-computers process.
“There is no digital transfer, no changes from analog to digital,” says Watkins. “All we have is a little tube compression.”
The 12-inch format also gets to show off the Bishop’s excellent artwork, replete with a 1912 recipe for absinthe in the original recipe book font. The illustrator’s work is so striking, Berger says, that somebody who hadn’t even heard the band yet bought a copy before a recent show in Charleston.
What shines through most as they talk about the record, though, is just how passionate these guys are about making music.
“We’re just a bunch of old guys in their 40s who have been music fans for a long time,” Berger notes, reflectively. And a little triumphantly.
The New Brookland Tavern is at 122 State St. in West Columbia. Doors open at 7 p.m.; admission is $7. With Modern Man, Company, Wage Slaves. Call 791-4413 or visit newbrooklandtavern.com for more information.
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