Nocturnal Habits and the Return of Unwound’s Justin Trosper
You know the first part of this: Justin Trosper played guitar and sang in the acclaimed Olympia-based post-punk band Unwound. Unwound’s final album, Leaves Turn Inside You, marked a massive stylistic shift, juxtaposing angular aggression with naturalistic drone; the band followed it up by calling it quits, and Trosper took something of a break from playing music. In the last few years, Numero Group reissued Unwound’s discography in multiple deluxe-beyond-deluxe editions, and Trosper returned to music with a new band, Survival Knife, in which he reteamed with original Unwound drummer Brandt Sandeno.
The fall of 2016 brings with it New Skin For Old Children, the debut from Trosper’s new project, Nocturnal Habits (dropping October 28 on Glacial Pace). Here, too, he’s working with an old bandmate — in this case, longtime Unwound drummer Sara Lund. Sonically, though, the palette is more expansive than the abrasive sound of Survival Knife, at times veering into the ecstatic, and at times exploring questions of solitude and the natural world. We talked with Trosper (who was periodically interrupted by his dogs’ frenetic barking) about the evolution of this project, his evolving relationship with Olympia and the possible return of a long-dormant recording project.
Check out the premiere of Nocturnal Habits' "New Skin," and pre-order the record.
In a recent interview with NPR, you mentioned that “Wall of Early Morning Light” was an older song. When did this album cohere for you as an album, and when did you realize that certain songs might work better for this group, as opposed to Survival Knife?
This started three years ago or so. Survival Knife was going, and I had a lot of extra stuff. I wanted to make a record or a project that didn’t have anything to do with Survival Knife, and have it [be] open-ended. I didn’t want to have it be a solo project, but I also didn’t want it to be a band. There were a few people I wanted to collaborate with.
Survival Knife was definitely a band, where you’d get together and practice and work out material. It was better, almost, as a live band, because of the collective personality. That’s what emerged from that. Whereas it started as me and Brandt from Unwound playing together, and the way it evolved over a couple of years, it became this loud live band kind of thing. I was working on other stuff that definitely wouldn’t work in that band. The idea had gone back way further.
There was a period of time after Unwound where I was still writing with the intention of making records, which I stopped doing for a few years. I pretty much stopped playing altogether. The idea goes way back, but it didn’t become anything until three years ago, when I started recording these sketches. Making the last Survival Knife record got me a little oriented towards recording with computers. That was something I was very inexperienced and deficient in. That was part of the whole project: learning that by doing a project. The actual recording probably started in the spring of 2014, where I took one of these songs and went to my friend’s house in L.A., and we started recording it.
Do you still see Nocturnal Habits as occupying a gray area between solo project and band, or has it become more solidified since then?
I think it’s still in between. Right now, we’ve put together people on the record to play shows live, so now it’s entering band phase number one. The playing that we’ve done has been really good, so hopefully that lasts for a while. The caveat to the whole thing is that if people have other things to do or aren’t interested any more, I’ll continue doing it in some form. And hopefully it doesn’t stay super-identified with one thing. I anticipate the next recording to be somewhat similar. The last record was put together piece by piece. There’s hardly any live playing, except for drums. I anticipate the next one to be more of a conventional sound — at least, that’s what I’m thinking right now.
I don’t think I’d ever make a record that’s just me doing everything. That’s not that interesting to me. I wanted this to be something that could evolve and wasn’t super-identified with one thing. I don’t think it’s going to be radically different — like, now I’m touring with an orchestra! Now it sounds just like sheets of noise! It’ll still be some sort of similar thing.
The other thing with the songs — the way I was intending them to be was more pop-oriented. Not lots and lots of movements and parts. Survival Knife was kind of like this prog thing, with big movements and lots and lots of interaction. These songs are somewhat simple. Somewhat.
Stylistically, this new album echoes a lot of your back catalog, including the last Unwound record, but it also goes to some places I’ve never heard you go before.
Hopefully that will continue — some familiar threads, but pushing that farther and getting new things, taking more risks. I feel like having other people sing, especially getting female singers doing some of the songs, was a risk that was kind of fun. One thing that I’ve never done — maybe on the next record —would be to collaborate with somebody on lyrics. It’s my Achilles heel: “Whoa, that sounds scary!” So, maybe I should try to do that.
When you’re writing lyrics and you know you’re not going to be singing them, does that have any effect on the way you write them?
It didn’t come into play so much. But the intent [was] to make it less personal. All of the songs are personal, but I’m not writing, “This is exactly who I am.” It’s not all stuff that I’m writing firsthand; there’s some element of character to it. Even on other songs that I’ve written, in Unwound or whatever. Hopefully, that would make that more of a thing — a new voice comes in, and it’s grabbing people’s attention a little bit. And on this record, a lot of it is about male / female dynamics, whether it’s a relationship or a friendship or a sibling relationship. Having the different voices in there from an almost-character perspective was important to make that more obvious.
Did you have that theme in mind from the outset, or did you realize it was there as you started to get a larger sense of the songs you were working on?
It was more of an emergent thing, coming out of the process. Anna [Huff], who’s one of the singers, is someone I’d worked with before, and I always wanted to do another collaboration with her.
Is the title of the album a nod to Leonard Cohen’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony?
He seems to be one of the standards as far as writing songs about men and women are concerned.
It was something I hadn’t really thought about. The title is what I thought I saw. I wasn’t really familiar with that record, and somehow, I came across it. You know how, when you see a sign, you say, “Wait, did that just say….?” And it didn’t say that; it says something else. That’s what I thought it said. I thought, “That’s a good title for a record.” And it also made complete sense to what I wanted to get across. It’s about slow growth; growing as an adult. Growing up late. Myself included in this; people I know grew up in a youth culture, and that’s a burden and a blessing for later in life. Especially for people who don’t end up having kids; they’re stuck in some cycles of childhood. You can get into the psychology of it, I guess. It was a little bit tongue-in-cheek. I’m in my forties, and sometimes I think, “God, how old am I? I’m almost 44, and I just did that?” Or I’ll observe someone else and think, “That’s so childish.” Or how people interact with their own children, and you think, it’s the children leading the children.
I turn 40 at the end of October, and I can relate to that — realizing I’m the oldest person at a show, for example. But it’s also hard to imagine doing anything else.
Certainly, I think things have evolved. When I was a kid, people who were in their 40s and 50s seemed pretty old. It wasn’t because I was a kid; it’s because people back then were older. People live longer now, and they age differently, and how we expect people to behave as adults has changed. To talk about shows, I remember it was pretty unusual to see someone over their mid-30s at a show when I was a teenager. Now, even at an all-ages show, you’ll see a fair number of people who are well over 30. People hang around longer now. I get older as a person, but I still like seeing bands. Just because I’m older doesn’t mean I can’t do this. Though, certainly, some behaviors are different.
Both this project and Survival Knife have involved you playing with musicians who were in Unwound. Do you find that your musical relationship with them has changed, or is it more like falling back into a familiar rhythm?
With Brandt, we were playing a lot together — the actual writing process involved spending a lot of hours together doing that. Whereas with this, me and Sara are playing together literally in the same room just now, in this last summer. All the recording that we did, I gave her the idea and said, “See you in the studio.” She came in and hammered it all out. In that sense, me and her haven’t spent a lot of hours together playing, so that’s evolving.
In terms of the familiarity of that, it’s super easy. I know what you do, you know what I do, I know how to interact with you. The other people who are playing in this lineup are all people who I know, but haven’t played with before. It is nice to have at least one pretty direct connective line to the past. There’s a level of comfort there.
In the song “Ice Islands,” there’s the line “And I can’t believe that I’m still here.” Does that relate back to the sense you talked about in terms of aging and how perceptions of that have changed?
With that song, it’s supposed to be the feeling of someone who’s on a deserted island in life. It’s like you have insomnia, and you have this inner dialogue, and you’re asking yourself questions and thinking about things and processing stuff.
In terms of the band’s social media presence, I saw that you’d posted things from the Forest Service and the NOAA. Does the natural world have any of an influence on the music that you make?
Definitely. The Twitter stuff is more about personal interests and stuff. I have a degree in Environmental Studies, and I work in natural resources. That’s parallel. I don’t know if it influences the music stuff so much, but it definitely seeps in there. In terms of inspirations, topically, you’ll get there. If you go deep into contemplating nature, that definitely plays into the lyrics, too.
As a musician, you’re very associated with Olympia, where there’s been very interesting music happening for a long time. Do you find yourself seeking out a lot of new bands from the area?
I don’t, much. I kind of rely on other people to direct me to something new; I don’t spend that much time going to shows. I’m not very in tune. I usually have to ask advice: “Who should we play with? Okay, cool.” And go from there. I don’t keep up too well. It’s not because I think things are boring or bad or anything. I think I was very saturated with stuff in the '90s, and I spent so much time doing that stuff, the romance is not quite there.
But I love being surprised by somebody that I didn’t know about, or hear their new record. I still listen to a lot of music; I just don’t keep up on the day-to-day stuff very much. It’s probably typical of people my age.
Can you think of the last band that did come out of nowhere and surprised you?
The last band from Olympia or Seattle that I was surprised by was Naomi Punk.I lived in California for a while, and there was a scene that evolved in the area when I wasn’t living here. When I came back, I was surprised that there was this whole thing that was very unrelated to whatever I’d been involved with. Something like Milk Music.
It’s satisfying to know that the music scene there continues under the same spirit. A lot of those people wouldn’t really know about Unwound, for that matter, which is fine. It’s cool that it didn’t completely die. By the time Unwound broke up, I felt like there wasn’t very much going on at that period of time, in the very late '90s and early 2000s. A lot of the people who were my peers were peeling off from music or they were increasing — Sleater-Kinney or Modest Mouse, people that were actually developing careers. It was sort of a black hole for a while there. By the time I came back eight years ago, there was a whole new thing that had nothing to do with me, which was cool.
You mentioned earlier that you’d written some of these songs at the same time as Survival Knife, and that you saw them as a contrast. Do you find yourself writing songs now that don’t necessarily fit with Nocturnal Habits, or is this group more of a catch-all for what you’re writing?
Now it’s kind of a catch-all, because this is all I’m doing. Today, I was starting to whittle down my list of song sketches to make another record: “How does this one fit? How do these fit together?” Starting to put that puzzle together, and picking the best ones and getting how they’re going to be arranged.
At least for me, any involvement with other people, I would rather enhance what they were doing, rather than being the idea-maker. With this thing, I’m the idea-maker, and people come to help me with those ideas. If you have one project like that, it’s hard to get involved in that same role. On the other hand, Brandt and I did that band the Replikants in the '90s, and we’re going to start doing that again. Hopefully, Brandt will have most of the ideas, and I can just come up with stuff. That’ll probably be more of a recording project, though, with a couple of shows a year.