Feature The Unawares at the Tin Roof (photo by Ballard Lesemann)

Published on March 18th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann


The Unawares Capture the Weird Rock Moments on ‘Absinthe Acres’

When it comes to writing, recording, and performing weird rock music, indie power trio the Unawares prefers to dodge the mainstream and do things their own way. The Columbia-based band has been making joyful noises since forming in 2006. They’ve fine-tuned their racket into a super-tight, manic, energetic blast of punk, garage-rock, and pop.

This week, singer/guitarist John Watkins, bassist James Wallace, and drummer Rhett Berger celebrate the release of their latest collection, Absinthe Acres — a collection of originals tracked and mixed entirely on analog (non-digital) gear with no overdubs.

“We realized after our first home studio recording that our live sound changed dramatically from the give-and-take with the audience,” Wallace says of the making of Absinthe Acres. “At that point, it made more sense to record live to tape to capture the energy of the music without any overdubs.”

Columbia-based engineer/producer Chris Wenner recorded the trio’s latest slab on four-track, mixed it down to two-track, then sent the tapes to United Record Pressing where they mastered it to vinyl. Wenner and the band had worked together since the trio’s early days, so an artistic and technical understanding was already well developed.


The Unawares: Rhett Berger, John Watkins, and James Wallace (photo by Hammond)

“Chris saw us in our early days, and he approached us after a gig to offer his services,” Wallace says. “He wanted to record onto tape, and that was something hat we immediately felt that was a good idea. We’ve worked with him on the past four releases, including this new one. We’d all talked music and recording techniques for a while, so it’s something that fits very well.”

The Tooth Dip EP, released in November 2007, was the first collaboration between the Unawares and Wenner. Absinthe Acres follows the band’s 2011’s 15-track album When The Trees Are Empty, which Wenner tracked live and edited with ProTools — a digital method common among most rock bands these days. There was no ProTools or computer enhancements this time around, though. The band aimed for an honest, “live” sound and feel by setting up and playing directly into the boards and tapes.

“One thing we did different this time was singing live with monitor speakers staring straight right me,” singer/guitarist Watkins says. “We had a dynamic highball microphone, which didn’t pick up much from the speakers behind it. I think it helped this time to do that, compared to having to wear headphones. We never worried about bleed [from other instruments].

“There are always challenges, but we basically learned how to make the most out of what we had,” he adds. “Now, we look forward to making the next one with a similar approach — with doing limited takes and trying to play really tight on each one. We never do more than three takes in these sessions.”

The all-analog/no-overdubs experience helped the band make upgrades with their instruments, equipment, and techniques.

“It helped us improve our playing and overall band sound as well,” Wallace says. “We finally landed on the rock sound that we’ve been searching for.”

Absinthe AcresLP

The jerky groove and whiskey-tinged vibe of album opener “Gold Box” is guided by Wallace’s seemingly indecisive bassline (he climbs and descends through chord progressions in strange ways). Some of Berger’s most explosive and precise snare and tom rolls and fills push the highly syncopated 6/8 jam “I Gotta Have Ya.”

With a straighter 4/4 beat, “Barfighting Nothings” pulsates with the rhythm section’s steady rhythms and Watkins’ choppy jazz-chord accents and Fender-tone riffs. “Be a Farmer,” another upbeat and hectic number, features some of coolest walking basslines of the collection, building up from the lowest notes on the four-string to unexpectedly high-toned licks. Watkins sounds like a man at the end of his rope as he hollers, “Gotta go now!” between verses with a grinningly demented sneer. Compared to the fast stuff, the mid-tempo “Half the Way” comes off like an elegant and dynamic power anthem. “Take it Away” waltzes from delicate to abrasive rock territories.

There’s plenty of weird nervous energy throughout Absinthe Acres, especially from Watkins’ howling, high-toned singing style. It complements the punky edginess of the songs. There’s nothing muffled, muted, or choked about the sound or the songs, either. It’s all effectively lively and loose in a cool way.

“Being arty or weird is not something that we consciously strive for; it’s just something that comes from the unique ingredients within the band,” Watkins says. “Somebody from the Columbia Free Times once said something about the band’s sound being like you’re about to drive off the road, like you’re waiting for an accident to happen or something. But ever since the beginning, we’ve just said that the Unawares is simply rock ‘n’ roll. When people say they need a description, we just tell them we’re a rock ‘n’ roll trio with songs that are three minutes or less with hardly any guitar solos.”

Watkins notes that the critics and fans often compare the band’s style to the Minutemen, Talking Heads, Wire, the Gun Cub, the Fall, and other Punk/New Wave-era acts. The quirkiness, shrillness, and of vintage “arty” groups like Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, and Mission of Burma pop up on one side of the music, but the other side has hints of off-kilter power-pop by way of the Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and the Pixies. Their most pleasingly abrasive moments might remind some listeners of such clangy No Wave acts as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks or Arto Lindsay.

“One of the cool things John has going for him as a guitarist and songwriter is being a lefty guitarist,” jokes bassist Wallace. “Being a southpaw and coming from that other hemisphere might lead him to playing some really wacked-out chords. I try to create something interesting around that.”

Watkins agrees that the Unawares naturally lean into odd directions. “We’ve all had so many years of being music fans and musicians that we know what works for us, but our inspiration from home doesn’t necessarily inform what we do as a band,” Watkins adds. “But we never try to define ourselves as ‘art punk.’ That might be where we’re at, but we’ll never admit that to anybody.”

The Unawares celebrate the release of the vinyl version of their new album with an opening set before Sans Jose at the Tin Roof at 10 p.m. on Wed. March 23. Admission is $5. The Unawares perform at the Art Bar in Columbia on Sat. March 23. They perform their official “record release show” at the New Brookland Tavern in Columbia on Sat April 6. Visit theunawares.com for more.

Top photo by Ballard Lesemann. Video clip below: “Barfighting Nothings” live at the Tin Roof, 2012.

The Unawares at the Tin Roof (photo by Ballard Lesemann)

The Unawares at the Tin Roof (photo by Ballard Lesemann)




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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.

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