By Rich Black of Under The Volcano Magazine
Over the last nine years, The Unseen has put in a lot of time on the road, appeared on more than two dozen compilations and released well-received albums on revered punk labels like A-F Records and BYO. On State of Discontent, the Boston band's debut for Hellcat, razor-sharp guitar buzzes in between Mark's Unseen's half-spat, half-screamed vox, and the choruses become the object of obsession. The album is one paint-peeling hardcore punk anthem after another, with the ever-present threat of complete chaos kept in check by Ken Casey's expert production.
Anytime I've talked to Mark Unseen in the past, I've come away impressed by how polite and good-natured he is---not what one expects from the singer of a band that includes songs like "Scream Out" in its repertoire.
While doing research for this interview, I came across a quote that said something to the effect of: "The Unseen is largely credited with kick-starting the punk resurgence in Boston." How does that make you feel? Might someone having that perception place a certain amount of responsibility on your collective shoulders? If so, how?
Well... I don't know. There were a lot of great bands that started when we did. There was Unseen, The Trouble, Ducky Boys, August Spies, Toxic Narcotic, Blood For Blood, The Bruisers, etc. ALL those bands helped build Boston. Then a few years later, Dropkick Murphys and A Global Threat also started. I think it was ALL of the bands that built our town. I don't want to take credit; it was a collective thing.
Is being from Boston more a mindset or a matter of geography for you? It seems that over the last ten years or so, the entire area has enjoyed some recognition due to an especially cooperative DIY spirit that transcends musical boundaries. For instance, Ramallah, one of the bands from the area you've done some dates with, is probably perceived to be more a hardcore band than a punk band, but then Ramallah also has connections to bands like the Ducky Boys and even Converge. Are Bostonian scenesters just more accepting of different musical styles, or is there some type of unspoken code of conduct for Boston area bands? Or, better yet, are Boston area bands working in collusion to dominate the music industry?
[laughs] Well honestly, in Boston everyone is friends . When I was younger, I booked a lot of gigs along with Bill from Toxic Narcotic and Mark [Lind] from Ducky Boys. A typical show would have all kinds of punk: hardcore, political, street punk, whatever. Kids just wanted to hang out at The Rat [a legendary Boston club] and have fun at a show. So I guess you could say, yeah, Boston, for the most part, is accepting of different music styles. I think it shows in our music. People have always said we look punk but sound hardcore. Where we come from there are a lot of different styles; we always tried to incorporate that into our albums.
Was the song "Boston United" a reaction to members of a scene already pooling their resources, or was it more a declaration of scene pride and what you hoped you become reality?
That was a goofy song I wrote when I was eighteen. It was just a Boston pride unity song.
Speaking of the camaraderie apparent in the Boston punk scene, Ken Casey from Dropkick Murphys produced State of Discontent. How far back in time do your ties with Ken go, and how did he end up getting on board for this album?
Well, we've known Ken for---fuck---probably nine years. Boston is small... if you're in a band or go to shows you meet people. One of the Dropkick's first gigs was Unseen, Swingin' Utters, and Dropkicks in basement in Rhode Island. We kept in touch over the years. We did two or three tours with Dropkick Murphys in '03 / '04. When we started talking to Epitaph and Hellcat, the idea [of Ken being involved] came up. Brett Gurewitz came up with the idea. He was like, "Fuck, you guys should team up with Ken." We asked Ken, and he was into it. It made sense; we're friends, we respect Ken, and he lives right in our area. Also, the great thing was that Unseen and Dropkick Murphys have been recording at the same studio for years, so we were all familiar with how it would work.
How did you end up going from BYO to Hellcat?
Well, we did two albums with BYO, and after Explode, other labels started expressing interest. We figured, okay, we can stay on BYO or try something else. BYO was great; the Sterns have done so much for us, and I respect them to the fullest. But, we said, "Fuck, let's try Hellcat---the worst that can happen is we'll sell the same amount of records as we did on BYO." Hellcat seemed the place for us to go, so we made the jump.
Brett Gurewitz ended up mixing State of Discontent after you had mixing problems at Outpost Studio. What exactly happened?
Well, I'm not gonna go into specifics. All I'll say is we mixed for songs with Jim Seigel and Ken Casey at the Outpost, then we found out we couldn't finish the album in the Outpost. We were in a state of panic; we had no clue [as to] what we were gonna do. Then, next thing I know, we get a call from Mr. Brett and he says, "I would love to mix this album." So we say, "Hmm... a guy we idolize wants to mix our album...the guitarist and main song writer from Bad Religion, one of the best bands ever. The fuckin' guy who mixes some of punk's best-sounding albums..." We couldn't believe it. We made plans, and next thing I know, we're in the studio with Brett. It was amazing; not only is he incredible at what he does, but he turned out to be a great guy. It was also good to get to know the man who co-runs our label with Tim Armstrong.
Dicky Barrett from Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Lars from Rancid both contributed vocals on this record. The Lars connection is pretty obvious being that you're on Hellcat now, and Barrett is an obvious Boston connection. How did Barrett end up getting involved? Was that through Casey?
Well, the Lars thing happened because The Bastards were playing Boston while we were recording. I asked Ken if Lars would wanna do it. He called Lars, and Lars said, "Yeah, I'm in." I always loved the way that guy could scream---that song "Dead Bodies" by Rancid is amazing. Lars sings on a song called "We Are All That We Have," and also on some backups.
Dicky was Ken's idea. We recorded "Paint It Black" by the Stones, and Ken kept saying it was missing something. Well, when we went to California to mix with Brett, Ken called and said, "I got it! I'll call Dicky---he lives in California now." So Ken called him, and for whatever reason he [Dicky] wanted in. That was also great. Everyone from Boston respects Dicky; he was a founder of the Boston hardcore scene. His voice on the track makes it.
So, okay...a LOT of powerful people in the music "industry" obviously think very highly of you, and have invested time and energy on the band's behalf. Is there a lot more pressure now on the band to meet these people's expectations? As a band, did you feel it necessary to push yourselves harder than you ever have, for instance? Or, maybe did some of the personalities involved along the way to releasing this particular record instill you with a new confidence in yourselves?
Well, I still can't believe it: Ken, Brett Gurewitz, Tim Armstrong, Dicky, Lars... a bunch of older punks have helped us. I think we deserve it; fuck, we've been busting our asses and touring for nine years. We did work very hard on this album, but we always do. I do think I have a bit more confidence now; having Brett tell us we made a killer record was something I never thought would happen.
What are some of the things you've learned in dealing with personalities like Barrett or Casey?
They're just regular dudes. They're both successful because they work very hard at what they do.
Members of The Unseen have contributed to the punk scene on many levels over the years. Band members have also played in bands like A Global Threat and Self Destruct, for instance, put out splits with bands like Toxic Narcotic, ADD Records [Mark's label] has released genre-defining comps like The Sound of Rebellion. Now that The Unseen has to consume so much of your time, how active are these other projects?
Well, I was in A Global Threat for like, two years. I left the band because I was too busy with The Unseen and I could only tour with one band at a time. I didn't wanna hold them back. I did two albums with Global Theat: What the Fuck Will Change? and Until We Die. I'm very proud to be on those CDs.
As for Self Destruct, me and Scott wanted to write some music that at the time was a bit different from what The Unseen was doing, so we got a few buddies from Global Threat and hit the studio. I think Self Destruct was great, because it helped me change my lyrics a bit, and in a way it helped The Unseen. Self Destruct is a bit like the newer Unseen. I think of it as a bridge that filled Anger and the Truth and Explode.
Will there ever be another Self Destruct EP?
Some day there will be a CD. It's just tough because the Unseen is so busy.
What's the status of A Global Threat?
Global Threat is at the moment coming up with new songs. It's Bryan on guitar and vocals, Mike on drums and Jon on bass. Their last EP is fuckin' awesome---pick it up.
How active is ADD Records these days? Are there any releases planned for the future?
It's not too active. Again, I'm so fuckin' active with The Unseen it eats up all of my time. I did a CD for Career Soldiers last year; they're a great young band from San Diego. The purpose of ADD right now is to help younger bands that I think are good. I'm also working with a great new band from Philly called The Ghouls.
I've noticed that Cops and Robbers and Clit 45, two bands that started out on ADD, are now working with Bridge Nine and BYO...did The Unseen have a hand in directing the bands to these labels?
No, they did it on their own. Cops and Robbers broke up a few years ago...
You've included some cover songs on previous albums with. How do you go about picking the song you're going to cover? How was it decided that "Paint It Black" would close State of Discontent? It seems like a more "serious" choice of cover when considering you've done a version of "Beat It" and a Poison song.
[laughs] Fuck, I hate those covers. We did the songs years ago to show kids we had a sense of humor. A lot of the lyrics were really political, and we figured, "Let's joke around at the end so people know we can have fun." As for the new record and doing "Paint It Black," we were doing it at practice and Ken heard it; it was his idea. I like it. I've always thought the lyrics to that song were morbid. I think it fits well with State of Discontent.
Not to detract from your previous releases, but State of Discontent is probably the most all-around complete representation of the band to date. What are some of the ingredients that went into making this particular record that were absent or still yet to be formed on earlier outings?
Well, this record was worked on for a long time. Everyone was focused, and we all had our role. In the past, on records I played drums and sang half the album. I would think of how to sing and what to play on drums . This record is Scott on guitar, Tripp on bass, me just singing, and Pat on drums.
I read somewhere that this is the first record where you didn't have to play drums. Can you expand on that a bit?
Well, on every other album I played drums on half of the songs. When we did Explode a few years back Pat joined us for half the album, and he's been with us since. When we started the new songs Tripp said, "Why don't you just sing and have Pat play drums?" It works way better because Pat is an incredible drummer. He's really been a key role in us becoming a better band.
How does having two lyricists in the band work?
It's easy. I've been writing words with Tripp for ten years; me and him started this band. It's good because I don't have to come up with all the words. Also, Tripp can sing a few songs and add some diversity.
Unseen lyrics are seething with anger, but in my past dealings with you, you've been a gentleman and a pleasure to work with. In general, do you try to save the battery acid for song-writing? Can you gimme an example of a situation where this pent up fury was unleashed off-stage?
We all go nuts once in a while.. [laughs]... no one is perfect. Let's see.... I don't wanna go into details of insanity, but there was a period where I was on the brink of a breakdown, mostly during the Explode album time frame. I snapped out of it. Basically, music helps me with my sanity---that's what our new song "Scream Out" is about.
Tell me about the last time you screamed FUCK YOU at a cop, kid calling you a sellout or someone that tried to stiff the band after a gig.
I try to keep my composure. Although I did rough a guy up a few moths ago for spitting on me. For the most part, I just ignore people---fuck 'em. I've got nothing to prove to anyone. People can think what they want.
When dealing with you in the past, I know that, like myself, you were broke most of the time, but still struggled to press records for other bands. In the last few years The Unseen has had some records sell pretty nicely, kids can now buy Unseen ring tones for their phones, and I'm sure you sell a shitload of t-shirts at shows. Has the financial situation brightened substantially, or are you just at the point now where you can do this more comfortably full-time?
Ring tones? I don't think so.... if so it's a bootleg [laughs]. Well, honestly, we don't make much money. I could make a lot more working full-time, but don't wanna---I wanna do this. Explode sold 18,000 copies; that's not enough to make anyone wealthy. We have to pay to record, touring costs a lot too... fuck, we probably spent $20,000 maintaining our truck in the past two years. Also keep in mind say we made $18,000 in two years. Now, split that four ways....see where I'm going with this? Fuck, I could make more flipping burgers!
Please humor me here... Let's say State of Discontent ended up selling 225,000 in its first year of release and you were living VERY comfortable financially...would the possibility of living a so-called middle class lifestyle potentially jeopardize The Unseen's ability to write songs based on lower class struggle? I realize it's a completely hypothetical question, but it's an interesting one to consider...
Well, if we sell 225,000, interview me again [laughs]. But no, for real, I come from nothing. I doubt I'll ever have money, but if I do, then I know I'll still hate the way our society lives. I'll still remember where I come from. Rancid, Bad Religion and Social Distortion still rock. They're bands that made it, but never gave up their integrity.
I'm sure you're a HUGE George Bush fan. Tell me a little bit about the song "Weapons of Mass Deception." Did you lift the title from the book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber? If so, did you read the book?
Actually, Tripp wrote those lyrics. I haven't read the book, and I try not to answer questions about other people's words. But, it is a great song.
Have you read anything about the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Credit Protection Act? My understanding is that there will be no limit on credit card interest when a debtor defaults, and that bankruptcy due to medical bills caused by catastrophic illness would be a thing of the past. Of course, Bush received major campaign contributions that can be tied to companies like Citibank and Capitol One...
Fuck, credit cards are evil. When I was younger I got $20,000 in debt pressing CDs for ADD bands. My interest rates were fuckin' insane---I'm still trying to climb out of that hole. It sickens me to watch the news sometimes... it's so fuckin' hard to get by when you have evil fuckin' killers running our nation... Enough---I'm gonna get all worked up!
With more than half of all bankruptcies resulting from catastrophic illness, doesn't it make more sense to implement some type of universal healthcare coverage, to cut the problem at its source?
Healthcare in America is bullshit. I haven't been to a doctor in six years. I can't afford coverage. I wrote about healthcare on our ....Freedom album. I think we should have free care. The fact that some people die because they can't afford medicine is absurd!
You've been on the Rock Against Bush comp and have had albums released on politically active labels like A-F Records. What are some of the direct political actions The Unseen has taken throughout its history?
We've always been somewhat political but not over the top. Rock Against Bush is the biggest thing we've done to say "fuck you" to our leaders. We've done comps to benefit Food Not Bombs or homeless shelters. I mainly try to help younger bands and stuff involved with music rather then be involved with political issues; I think I prefer it because I see direct results. Helping a young band release an album is very rewarding. I remember my first EP coming out---it made my year!
In closing, I'm sure there have been points when times were so tough it was all anyone could do to keep the band going. Right now, the band is prepared to release that'll probably be considered the best album of its career, on one of the biggest punk labels in the world. How did you get through some of those darker times in the past? What did you tell yourself? How did you deal with it?
We never set out to make money; it was a hobby that ended up consuming our lives. This is all we know, so it's all we do. When times were tough we dealt with it. Trust me, we had many a tough time. I'm not expecting much to happen, but if it does then we won't complain. We've come this far by doing shit our way. We never changed our lyrics, or art, or music for anyone. If people catch on, fine; if not, I couldn't care less. X
In addition to publishing Under the Volcano and Horror Garage fanzines, Rich Black occasionally contributes to cool publications like AMP. Check out Under the Volcano on the web at www.underthevolcano.net