United Nations are a band that wraps visceral hardcore in a smartly conceptual package. Whether they’re creating an alternate history of themselves as a band (as on 2014’s The Next Four Years) or riffing on the aesthetics of late-period Beatles albums (as on their self-titled debut, reissued this year), they leave a listener with plenty to consider, even as the group’s music taps into something more primal. Last month, I talked with Jonah Bayer and Lukas Previn about the new version of their debut, hardcore’s place in musical history, and more.
What prompted the reissue of your debut? Was it Collect Records happening; the release of the second album; or something else entirely?
Lukas Previn: This was the first time that the band’s really taken off, in the way that it’s stopped being such a side project and more of a main focus for a lot of us. And with it, we made the new record and toured more than we ever have before, and are taking on a lot more of an outward position as a band. The old record was burned by Hot Topic and thrown away by other places, and so we figured that we’d get good reactions from it. Kids always said that they couldn’t find it anywhere. It was probably a really good reason to bring it back out and give kids something to have that’s tangible and not just a digital copy, which loses some of its luster for us. That’s what we wanted to get across with the package, the whole deal.
Between the album cover art and some of the titles, there’s something of a Beatles theme going on. What was the impetus for all of that?
Lukas: I think it started out on a commentary on what the Beatles became, and what it turned them into, and how it finally all fell apart. But it turned into more of an A & B–what is classic and what matters and what is disposable, and whether or not they work in the modern paradigm of music, with Paul McCartney doing these crazy songs with Kanye West and things like that. Are we watering down the past? Is there something that we should be holding more sacred?
Do you see any parallels there between that and hardcore? As a genre, it’s several decades old; Minor Threat is now further in the past than the Beatles were when I was starting to get into hardcore. Is there that aspect of it, too?
Jonah Bayer: ….you’re just making me feel super-old right now. I’m letting that sink in.
I mean, I’m 38, so….I try not to think about that too much.
Lukas: Weezer’s Blue Album turning 20 just ruined my whole life. There’s definitely parallels with old hardcore: how it was approached then and how it was a little more pure. And now, how we are dealing with a very commodified scene, and a very flashy neon corporate t-shirt atmosphere, where it used to be far more about music and less about the scene. Even though it had its own cliquey thing to it, it was very insular, and now it seems like it’s watered-down from the initial intent by such a huge degree. Now, the only way to bring it back is to be super-offensive with it.
On both records, there is a very conceptual aspect, and there’s a very visceral aspect. From your perspective, when you play those songs, how do you factor in that extra element?
Jonah: Conceptually, I would say that it’s always different. We came up with some of the more unorthodox ideas on the second record. The first record was mostly written in the studio. We would go in there and record all day and whatever came out, came out. This record, we were a lot more prepared. And the songs, like “Revolutions at Varying Speeds,” work them on different levels. That, conceptually, Geoff [Rickly] will come up with an interesting idea and present it to us, and we’ll come up with a way to make it work. We run into different challenges along the way.
Lukas: We definitely sought out, with this next record, to move a little further away from 45-second blastbeat songs. Make it a little more personal. While it’s very tongue-in-cheek, it’s also a pretty sad record. And I think that, having David and Zac from Pianos [Become the Teeth] come on board and having us in the same place during the writing gave us a little more room to explore what the band should be, to make a bigger package. And getting together in a room and figuring out if we could even play together, because it was a whole new setup, the sound formation took its own shape. I look back the writing process and I can’t even remember writing anything.
Jonah: I was going to say the same thing. I don’t really remember it.
Lukas: It felt very otherworldly.
What was the experience of your first tour behind the new album?
Jonah: The record came out on July 15th last year, and we did a tour in August with Frameworks.
Lukas: We released the record; the first show that we played after it had come out was at St. Vitus in New York. I don’t think anybody had any idea of what the reception was going to be. It was different–we had been a side project for so long, who knew what was going to happen? It was a sold-out show, and the last song on the record was the last song we played that night, and the entire place was singing along. It was crazy. The feeling was insane. It was so unexpected, the feeling to have everyone know all of the lyrics to such a deep cut, and have it be a very organic experience… I don’t think any of us were expecting it to quite resonate the way it did. The rest of the tour, we kept running into that same great non-problem: “Wow, kids have really found a connection with parts of that!” That was incredible. The first tour off the record was surprising, in the best of ways.
Are audiences generally people who know you best through your other bands? Does United Nations have more of its own audience at this point?
Jonah: Initially, it was a lot of Thursday fans who wanted to keep up with whatever Geoff was doing. I think that still is an element, but there’s an element… Obviously, Pianos fans are interested in it now. When we were playing with other people, they’ve been interested in their bands. Now, we’re more cohesive as a unit; people are more excited to see what we’re doing as a band, which is cool. People come to us from so many different directions.
Lukas: I think it started with the interest of, “Oh, Glassjaw, Thursday, etc.” It became a “friends told their friends” situation, and I think people started to say, “Oh, you didn’t like Thursday? You might like his new band.” That became the echo of the people, the diehards who came to see us at first.
Jonah: “Is that the guy from the AKAs and The Lovekill in this band? Let’s check ‘em out!”
There’s a very long saxophone solo at the end of one of the songs on the first record–where did the idea for that come from?
Lukas: Geoff had always been a big fan of the saxophone. We’re all huge jazz fans. My father was a jazz musician. It was always something where that style of music has always had a little bit more leeway to bring in insanity, because it was inherently insane. There wasn’t the “only Rocket From the Crypt can have horns” rule embedded in this idea. When that came about, and there was the opportunity to have a crazy, extended, weird jazz solo with a great musician…why not? That’s sort of been the idea of the band: “why not?” If we can pull this off somehow, why shouldn’t we? There’s no reason not to shoot for the weirdest and furthest idea.
Jonah: “F#A#$” on the new record has that long instrumental jazzy part, too. That’s been a running thing along the way.
Have there been any ideas that have been vetoed because you couldn’t logistically pull something off?
Jonah: I don’t think so much in the songs, but we’ve had so many ideas for different types of live shows, and new ways for people to experience music where there isn’t such a big division between the audience and the band. We’ve toyed with a lot of ideas that, logistically, can’t work. Sometimes the timing of the band is hard, with everyone doing other bands. The good news is that all of those ideas are still there. We can always do it down the road, when it works.
As you’ve been touring together more, have there been steps taken towards whatever the next record is going to be?
Lukas: Absolutely. At the end of our West Coast tour–I think we were in Arizona–we were doing one of the end-of-tour photo deals, and our band was left in the parking lot talking with each other for a long time. We talked about what we wanted to do on the next record and which direction we were going to go with it, and what the new element will be, because there is one on every record. We keep pressing forward; we want every record to be a step ahead of the previous one. There’s a lot of ideas in the works. As always, it’s far too early to put it out there, what it’s going to be. But it’s going to be different in the best of ways! And we’ve already recorded one song, which is crazy.
What do you generally listen to when you’re not making music in the band? Is it generally punk and hardcore, or…
Lukas: I would say that punk and hardcore is a central magnetic force in my music listening, but as I get older, I trail further away from it. There’s always a magnetic pull back to it at some point during the month. At least once a month, I’ll go back and listen to something wild and weird from 90s hardcore. As times goes on, not every morning do I want to get super-angry and amped.
Jonah: The last two shows I went to in New York were Face to Face and a David Bazan house show, which I feel like are not very hardcore. I feel the same way as Lukas: those are my roots, but I listen to a lot of other stuff, also.
Is there anything about this forthcoming tour that you’re looking forward to in particular?
Jonah: It’s more like two really short tours. We’re doing three shows with Modern Life is War this weekend, and we’re doing some shows in the Midwest with Coliseum later. We had a great show in Chicago the last time we were there, so we’re excited to get back there. I’m from Cleveland originally, so it’ll be fun to play there.
Lukas: It’s really great to see a band like Modern Life is War come back and be successful, both in terms of the venues that we’re playing and everything like that. It seems like that’s going to be awesome. And since we took Frameworks out on our first tour, those kids became like little brothers to us. We couldn’t love them more. Getting a chance to go on tour with them again is such a treat. They’re such great musicians; our two bands mesh perfectly.
Jonah: Geoff’s known Ryan from Coliseum through his old band Black Cross for a really long time. We’re just excited to see old friends and play some places we don’t get to get to that often, and check in with people and say hi.
What are you reading right now? Any interesting tour reading?
Jonah: I just read Duff McKagan’s memoir, It’s So Easy, which was cool. I’m reading this really awesome book right now; I can’t remember the title, but it’s fiction, and one of the words in the title is “Foxtrot.” (I’m pretty sure he’s talking about David Shafer’s “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” -ed.)
Lukas: I’m reading the travel diaries of Karl Pilkington. Jonah and I are big podcast fans, so that’s my fluffy travel book that I have at the moment. It’s fun. And that’s my dog in the background, getting mad at a vacuum.