Unseen But Not Unheard
[The Unseen] May. 09, 2005
A few years before the Internet was invented, ol' Billy Shakespeare pondered a timeless question: What's in a name? For some, it's a pretty much rhetorical question. Roses would smell as sweet, yadda yadda yadda. For Boston's The Unseen, it's been another matter entirely: For much of its 10-year career, the Boston punks lived up to the promises of invisibility and secrecy its moniker implies, much to the dismay of its radically mohawked singer, Mark Unseen. Despite the band's best efforts -- which included habitually selling out 500-seat venues up and down the East Coast -- The Unseen remained mired in the relative anonymity of the punk underground.
"It came time to put out a record and it was like 'Maybe this time the local magazine will interview us.' We'd try and they'd be like 'No, we're not interested,' or they'd never return your calls," Unseen remembers. "We'd be busting our ass harder than any of these local rock bands, and just because we weren't in the loop with the cool people, we were ignored. Finally once people started paying attention to us, it was a good feeling. It was almost like 'Fuck you, now you're going to pay attention to us?' Fuck you."
With The Unseen's latest, State of Discontent, its Hellcat Records debut, the band ought to get many more opportunities to tell the mainstream media to get fucked. The 14-track album, the band's fifth studio full-length, assaults the ears with everything we've come to expect from a firebrand punk act. The platter overflows with unbridled nihilism, as the band sinks its collective teeth deep into society's dirty underpants. Bass, drum and guitar are so coated with street-punk grime, discontent and anger that is so authentic, were you able to scrape away all its punk-rock detritus (don't even consider attempting it without subcontracting out a backhoe), you'd probably find first-pressing, still-in-the-shrink wrap copies of debuts by Sham 69, Stiff Little Fingers, Crass and Rancid -- all on vinyl, naturally. State of Discontent is direct, impassioned and pointed enough to make you toss out a lifetime's supply of jaded disillusion and briefly indulge the fantasy that pissed-off music alone is enough to change the world to a utopia.
The Unseen -- guitarist Scott, bassist Tripp and drummer Pat round out the lineup behind Mark -- isn't a stranger to working the underground. Operating as a DIY-level punk act for much of its career, it released a couple of albums through Anti-Flag's label, A-F Records, but continued to run the show, meaning taking care of all the details, be it booking tours or organizing merchandise production, on its own. A move to the similarly minded BYO Records took some of the day-to-day pressures off The Unseen, but it wasn't until the band operated as a fully independent act for six years. If it taught the act's members a lesson -- other than working crummy starving-musician day jobs between tours really sucks -- it was that, despite the mainstream's utter indifference to them, The Unseen could find limited success through conviction and hard work alone.
Of course, when any band, even a obnoxious-haircut sporting punk one, gets enough kids to cough up cover charges on a regular basis, people start paying attention. The Warped Tour, long renown for its ability to jump youth-culture trends slightly ahead of the corporate curve, was first to notice. The Unseen played a stint on the 2003 tour to support that year's its Explode (2003). Soon, it was clear the shoe-company marketing teams knew their stuff: Kids quickly began picking up on the band's noise. The Unseen was slowly making a dent, albeit just a tiny pockmark, in the mainstream's consciousness. Then came Fuse TV.
Against even the most long-shot gambler's logic, a low-budget video shot for "Lost Hope" was picked up by the music-video cable network Fuse. The footage was placed on a viewer call-in show and placed up against videos by the household names such as Incubus and G-Unit. Most considered the four little Boston punks doomed -- without the marketing muscle or press clippings to get the band's name in listeners' heads, what chance did it have against major-label pet projects? Apparently much better than anyone, especially The Used, ever figured: On the basis of its tour ethic, word-of-mouth mentions in the underground and the raw power of "Lost Hope," the act won the viewer vote.
"It was just a fluke," Mark laughs. "We shot a video with a friend of ours for free. It got sent out to college shows and Internet sites. For the hell of it, the label sent it out to Fuse and M2. Fuse played it, and they put us on this voting show and we won. We beat Incubus and G-Unit. When that happened, people were like, 'Shit, now we have to pay attention to these guys. See what it's all about. See why people care.'"
By this point, The Unseen was buzzing like a lightsabre -- no thanks to the media that generally ignored the band. And, by the asinine punk rockers theorem, the greater the mainstream interest in the band became, the larger target The Unseen became for the ham-fisted investigations of the self-proclaimed sellout police.
Like any band emerging from the underground, The Unseen faced more and more fans who became embittered at its growing popularity. After supporting the act for years, dreaming about its success, many fans seemed just as determined to sabotage the band's growing success by shit-talking as they were to support it before it became a Warped Tour and Fuse alumnus.
"It's weird. It seems to be a problem mainly in the kind of music we play," Mark says. "In punk rock, kids get into a punk band and they don't want anyone else to like the band. To an extent, I understand it. When I first got into punk, I was like 15 years old and listening to Minor Threat or whatever, I didn't want the local jock to like the same thing as me. I remember when Danzig had a hit song with that song 'Mother,' it was remade on that record. It was a MTV hit. I just remember the captain of the football team in the hallway singing the song. I was like 'Why's this asshole like Danzig? That's not cool.' The older I got, I just realized it's really stupid to expect a band to not succeed. Why do you want a band to not succeed? It baffles me. If you're in a band and you work your ass off and stay true to what you believe in, good for you. Some bands have done it, where they totally changed their style, their lyrics or image to get big. To me, that's selling out and that's a problem. I wouldn't support a band that does that."
Pop in State of Discontent, and there's no worries that The Unseen has gone soft. American Idiot this sure isn't. The band's just as noisy and pissed-off as ever before. Sure, there are a few more traces of melody in the guitar lines and less full-throttle, boot-to-the-head dynamics, but The Unseen hasn't watered itself down. The new wrinkles, Mark says, are simply a matter of the band's songwriting evolving to keep it from falling into a rut.
"If you're a band for 10 years, you're going to change a little bit," he explains. "The only band that was good that didn't change was AC/DC. If you write the same song over and over again and you don't progress at all, there's just something the matter with you. That probably means you're not being true to yourself, that you're just trying to do the same thing over and over. Nobody, I mean nobody, stays the same for 10 years. Whether you're a fan or in a band. Sometimes a kid will say to me 'I like your first record, blah blah blah because of that.' I'm like 'Listen, we're still the same band. We're doing pretty much the same thing.' I'll say to the kid 'What did you look like 10 years ago? What were you doing 10 years ago? I guarantee you weren't the same person you are now.'
"I'd like to think we haven't fallen into a rut," he continues. "I think we've always tried to progress a little bit and still maintain our original sound and what we believe in. We've also always been a band that's had more than one songwriter. I've always written lyrics for this band and our bass player has always written lyrics. We've always had at least two or three different songwriters. It's not like we have to depend upon one person to write the whole album. I know some bands do. Some bands are run by one or two people. It's hard for one person to continually write album after album after album and have it not be stale. Having three or four people who write music and lyrics has definitely helped us."
Chalk it up to the band's work ethic. Credit its unflagging devotion to road-warrior tour schedules. Tip your hat to its powerful songwriting. Whatever the source of The Unseen's power, it's a good bet that The Unseen isn't going remain unseen much longer.
By Matt Schild