On Unwound's Live Leaves and the Healing from Breaking Up

KEXP 50, Local Music
Martin Douglas
Photo by Ben Clark

As part of our celebration of the year 2001 this week, KEXP features writer and columnist Martin Douglas shares a personal story of listening to Live Leaves, Unwound's unearthed and long-delayed live album of recordings from their 2001 tour. Be sure to check out next month's Throwaway Style — dropping next Friday, April 8th — for a full critical overview of Unwound's studio albums. Read or listen to the essay below.

I’m wracked, my body sluggish and uncomfortable after lying in bed for half of a literal entire day and only getting three hours of sleep. Half a night ago: On my computer at 2:30am, canceling an interview I had been looking forward to for weeks and practically begging my editor for a mental health day at a time where no one in the world is on Slack. I’m on the freeway, perhaps rather inadvisably, trying to get some fresh air and to clear my mind after a night of jumbled thoughts.

My eyelids are as heavy as my soul usually is. 

These thoughts came rushing like the river stream just before the waterfall. My dad getting murdered in 2015, his killer recently accepting a plea deal that reduced his charge to manslaughter with a deadly weapon (time served on that gun already), a long con coming to fruition where I got snaked, completely shut out of my pop’s estate. In my choppy, fleeting dreams, an anonymous hand firmly holds my head underwater as the current gets stronger. I don’t know anybody with hands that meaty.

My partner tosses in bed for a second and falls back asleep. In her waking hours after I log my lack of sleep for her, she shoots me a concerned look and puts a gentle hand on my shoulder.

This is what happens when, instead of taking time to process your woes, you bury them underneath all the work you have to do.

I’ve been reading a lot about the final months of Tumwater-bred art-punk heroes Unwound; partly for a feature you’ll be able to read soon and partly because they’re the only thing I want to listen to, even when I’m not working. Bands breaking up more often than not comes from burying woes under mounds of work and creativity and performances instead of processing them.

Collected from shows originally performed in September and October 2001 — yes, in the days before and weeks after this century’s biggest toll on civilian American lives — Live Leaves is a document of Unwound’s final album, Leaves Turn Inside You, on the verge of the band’s April 1, 2002 demise. Hell, they tried to break up two weeks into this tour, with 9/11 cited as one of the reasons (but far from the only). It was a project originally slated for release after wrapping up their touring behind their critically acclaimed seventh album, but — whoops! — their final tour was truncated and they decided the band would break up before their final shows in 2002. The live album would eventually see the light of day in 2012 as Unwound began the process of, as drummer Sara Lund once said, “admitting [they] existed.”

Leaves Turn Inside You was reportedly a document benefiting from the time and experimentation afforded when a band builds their own studio, but leave it to an absolutely sensational live band to reconfigure the arrangements as they see fit. The harmonious drone that begins opener “We Invent You” is replaced with 3 ½ minutes of grinding, distorted guitar noise. “December” sounds even more pummeling than its studio version and “Terminus” crawls past the ten-minute mark in its live iteration. Of course they stray from the beaten path by playing the songs out of order as it relates to the studio LP, and they present additional treats to their audience, like “Corpse Pose,” arguably the most widely beloved song they’d ever recorded.

What I don’t get to note in my upcoming critical overview of their studio work is just how good a live band Unwound was, and that’s just going off of documents of their performance (whether officially released or bootlegged) — because I can’t claim to have been cool enough to had seen them as a recent high school graduate in the fall of 2001. They’re a kinetic force in a live setting; loud, lock-step, kind of pissy, most certainly not precious about their arrangements in recorded form. Pretty much everything I look for in a punk band.

There are things that are just too personal to open up here about, and I apologize if this comes across as a cryptic mess. Healing is difficult. Breaking off from people you’ve grown up with, from people you’ve experienced tragedy with, is hard to do. I’ve always been the scapegoat, always been relied upon to take the high road. By virtue of the person I am, I’m expected to treat people better than they treat me. We fall into these patterns of interpersonal relationships where we think the rope that has been dipped in toxic waste is strong enough to hold us to people who never really thought much of us to begin with.

I guess that’s why I realize a band breaking up, a couple getting divorced, a person freeing themselves from the toxic codependency of a family unit are all worthy of a “congratulations” and not an “I’m sorry.” The divorce is not a failure; it’s the break away from the failure.

They say a band is like a family, but it’s still easier to cut ties from your bandmates than your blood. I thought grieving my beloved stepmom sudden passing and the murder of my father barely a year later, along with the passage of time, would make me a better person. But it just made me aware of how little forgiveness I have stored for the people who have wronged me. Forgiveness is an act of letting go, and I'm not there yet. 

Related News & Reviews

Throwaway Style Rewind Local Music Album Reviews

Throwaway Style: On THEESatisfaction's Sub Pop Albums and the Loneliness of Being First

To celebrate International Women's History Month, the impending arrival of our Black Constellation podcast, and the 10-year anniversary of awE naturalE, Martin Douglas basks in the brilliance of Stas and Cat's two Sub Pop-issued albums.

Read More
Throwaway Style Interviews Local Music

Throwaway Style: Catching Up with Bujemane

Four years ago, the Tacoma artist proclaimed he was quitting the rat race of being a rapper. He made good on his promise and became one of Tacoma's most multitalented artists. Martin Douglas explores.

Read More
Local Music Music News

R.I.P. Vern Rumsey of Unwound

The powerhouse bassist passed away at his home outside Olympia, Washington at the age of 47.

Read More