I’ve always been drawn to bands that are original, highly creative, innovative, provocative, funny and courageous—all the things that The Units are. They’re one of my favourite bands. Starting out life as a multimedia performance art group in San Francisco at the tail end of the ’70s they went on to be known as one of the pioneering synthpunk acts. They were the first punk band in SF performing just using synths and have shared the bill with acts like the Dead Kennedys, Screamers, Dead Boys, the Bags, Noh Mercy and Sparks (all bands that I think are pretty neat). I recently caught up with The Units’ Scott Ryser to give me a little insight into the band, his musical journey and what he’s been up to since activity in The Units’ camp went quiet. I was super stoked he shared with me a story of an out-of-body experience he had which contributed to him starting The Units. I’d definitely consider this one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever had the pleasure of doing.
What in your life do you think led you to music? I know you were in a band when you were a teen with your two younger brothers and some neighbourhood kids called, The Brothers and The Others.
SCOTT RYSER: Music is one of the few things in life that gives me hope that we are not a doomed species…and that we can do something together besides hunt like a pack of wolves. My experience of the world, and especially childhood, reminds me of the novel “Lord of the Flies” …people congregating out of fear…always on the verge of slipping into some kind of chaotic mob mentality…people yearning to be part of the groupthink instead of nurturing individuality…and the will to power overcoming the will to help each other.
Music has the power to light up dark, lonely and dangerous places…and give a comforting order, feelings and personality to chaos. Playing music made me feel like I could finally communicate…not just with people…but with “life” in general. When I played music, even as a kid in a small town, it was the only way I could escape the predictable, predetermined, assembly line fate of my future.
Playing in a band helped me with my social awkwardness…and allowed me to be a part of civilization on my own terms.
The “Brothers and the Others” was the first band I was in. I was 12, my brother Ken was 11, and my brother Tom was 9. There were two other neighbourhood kids in the band too. At first we were really more of a gang than a band. We all dressed in the same exact clothes and we went everywhere together. We thought it was especially fun to go to a movie theatre and take up almost a whole row of seats. None of us knew how to play, but somehow we figured out three chords and based all of our songs on those three chords. We played a few gigs at our local elementary school…those kind of school dances where a teacher with a ruler makes sure you’re at least 3 inches away from your dancing partner.
It was great therapy…it made us all feel soooo cool.
Can you tell us about the first piece of performance art that you can remember witnessing? What did it mean to you?
SR: I remember seeing Spaulding Grey do a monologue in the mid ‘70’s just after he’d founded the Wooster Group in NYC. It was in a very small place with about 20 people in the room. What it meant to me, was that you/I could be scared/sensitive/fragile/vulnerable…and if you had the courage, you could still pull off a really great performance. In contrast to someone like Chris Burden (who I also admire) shooting himself, or crucifying himself…sometimes it takes more courage to confront something less obvious…like stage fright…and not trying to hide how vulnerable you are.
It helped me value and even get power from my vulnerability before I’d go on stage. If you’re talented and totally confident in your art, it becomes almost fun to walk onstage like a lamb and go out like a lion.
How did synthesizers manifest themselves in your life?
SR: In 1971, prior to the time Tim Ennis and I started The Units, we were working the graveyard shift at our little town’s lumber mill. The lumber mill was in a horribly desolate little redneck area of northern California…an all day’s ride away from any kind of city…and it seemed like we couldn’t make it through the night without some cowboy or lumberjack taunting us. We’d been out of high school for about a year…and we definitely, without a doubt…had no future. I guess it was that sense of hopelessness and despair that inspired us to sneak in the life-sized plastic baby dolls…and send them down the log assembly line to be sawed and chopped up in the wood chipper.
Our little statement on how we felt people in our culture were similar to identical conveyor belt products. We thought it was pretty funny at the time, but the boss and the rest of the crew didn’t see it our way. We were 19 years old, and we were lumber mill history. It was time to reinvent ourselves. We decided to drive to San Francisco with our lumber mill money, so I could buy this new synthesizer that I had been reading about.
Robert Moog had just introduced a portable synthesizer called the Minimoog, and according to the salesman at the music store, I turned out to be the first one in SF to buy one. I had been reading about the Minimoog, and the idea of being able to create new sounds with it, in new ways, intrigued me.
I was tired of the sound of the “guitar boy band” formula. I wanted to create a new look and a new sound, and the only way I thought I could do that was with a new/different instrument.
Synthesizers seemed like the perfect instrument. You could create new sounds completely from scratch. They were a very D.I.Y., Punk idea to me…because any amateur could play one and sound as good as a 4 handed pro, if they had good ideas. They could automate sounds and riffs that you didn’t have the dexterity to play in real time…speed up and slow down time…in real time!
Up until the Minimoog came out, synthesizers were too big, heavy and expensive to afford or use. Only big institutions had them. But the Minimoog was portable and affordable. It really democratized electronic music. You no longer had to go to a university to get your hands on one. And you didn’t have to be “taught” how to use it “correctly”. You could pioneer whatever sounds you wanted.
I couldn’t help but extend the idea. Just the name alone was full of possibilities. “Synthesizer”. The ability to create or re-create yourself and remix the world. One that synthesizes. A wizard. Some definitions of synthesis I like are; “the combining of often diverse conceptions into a coherent whole”, and “the dialectic combination of thesis and antithesis into a higher stage of truth.” That’s what being a synthesizer means to me. Remixing the life you are given, recreating it as you see fit, and creating a higher stage of truth.
Being able to find some kind of coherent whole, some kind of personal meaning in all this swirling chaos. No wonder we applied it to create synthpunk and to punk up disco and the music industry. It was the perfect instrument to reinvent the status quo.
So it seemed like perfect timing to me, that perhaps the most famous synthesizer player of the time, Walter Carlos (Switched on Bach, Clockwork Orange soundtrack), would take this idea to its extreme…by not only synthesizing his sound…but by synthesizing himself! And changing his body from a man to a woman.
Carlos’s first public appearance after her gender transition was in an interview in the May 1979 issue of Playboy magazine, a decision she regrets because of the unwelcome publicity it brought to her personal life. It was the same month that we were bashing images of cops on the hood of a Cadillac as our synths played on autopilot.
The (musical instrument) synthesizer itself is defined as a “computerized electronic apparatus for the production and control of sound (as for producing music).” But I’m afraid that definition just doesn’t cut it. A better definition would be: a “computerized electronic apparatus capable of reinventing music”. NEW YORK CITY – 1979.
You’re a self-taught musician. What do you feel are the greatest things about being self-taught?
SR: The best thing about being self-taught, is that you can write songs in a key that you can sing in. It also helps you connect with, and express, your inner feelings. Puts you in touch with your intuition. When I have some strong feeling come over me, I’ll go to my piano or synth and just start playing. I don’t even have a melody in my head when I put my hands on the keys. The melody comes out of my hands…not my head. It’s weird to talk about your body in such an outsider kind of way…but I think there is a body-mind divide…and sometimes it feels really good show your body some faith and respect, and let your mind take a rest.
What is your most beloved piece of musical equipment? What significance does it have to you?
SR: Definitely my Minimoog. It has taken me on a great adventure and given me a voice that I can use to express myself, in a more understandable way sometimes, than that of my own.
I understand that back in the beginning days of The Units you viewed guitars as a “negative symbol” that represented socially acceptable rebellion for young people. Was there a catalyst for this realisation? Do you still view them this way three decades on? Have things changed?
SR: I don’t have anything against guitars as a musical instrument. But it annoys me that in popular culture, many musicians and the music industry have taken the politics and good intentions Woody Guthrie had with his guitar, the one with “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on it, and turned the future of it into a commodity and a fashion statement.
The entertainment/advertising industry has homogenized the piss out of guitars until they might as well be the symbol for Coke, Budweiser or Marlboro. The USA media is great at taking confrontation and dissent against the status quo, and repackaging it, and selling it back to the masses as sex, entertainment and fashion. That’s what happened to the guitar heroes…for the most part, it’s all just posing now. I felt like in order to make a new statement of dissent, I would have to accompany it with an instrument that didn’t come pre-tagged as a symbol of sex and entertainment.
I liked watching (The Who’s) Pete Townshend smash his guitar during old footage of ‘My Generation’. But at the same time I thought, “Fuck your generation, Pete, if all it’s going to do is smash guitars on a stage instead of on a symbol of Margaret Thatcher’s head.” I wanted MY generation to take it a step further. Do you see what I’m getting at here? I have nothing against Margaret Thatcher personally, but you know what I mean? There are PLENTY of things to be angry about …why not point a few of them out! If you are so angry that you feel like you have to smash a guitar, why not do it on an image of George Bush! So that’s what we did!
We cut out stacks of life-sized plywood guitars and smashed them on images of George Bush and other corrupt politicians and symbols of authority…that we were projecting on a metal Cadillac car hood that we were using as a movie screen, not only because it sounded like a big gong, it was like smashing the auto industry and the music industry and at the same time saying “We’re tired of all the lies and bullshit you’re selling us.” (Our synths would be playing at full blast, on autopilot, in the background while we were doing this.)
We weren’t just putting on some show…we were pissed! Our country is made up of an exclusive, white, corporate, good-ole-boys club of rich bastards…fucking the millions of the poor! Raping the earth and trying to strong arm third world countries out of their natural resources. What did you want us to do? Sing ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” like the Beatles?
Oh dear…I sound like such a grouchy old man here…
The guitars were a convenient symbol. That’s all. A lot of people still don’t get it. Including my own kids!
Things have changed over 30 years…but I still prefer guitars being played by people that preceded Woody Guthrie …ok…throw [Bob] Dylan and Neil Young and Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson into the mix too.
So much has changed in the last 34 years. Back in 1978, The Units were called the first “all synthesizer” band in San Francisco…and along with Suicide in NYC and The Screamers in LA, we were one of the first all synth bands in the USA. None of us got any airplay on commercial radio stations…and MTV and the internet hadn’t even been invented yet. It would another 20 years before the word “synthpunk” would even be invented. The word “Electronica” would not become a music category for another 20 years. Now, in 2013, there are 693 radio stations on iTunes radio alone, that ONLY play “Electronica”, (all synth music). So as you can see…these days I have very little to rebel against…when it comes to guitars having a monopoly on popular culture.
Who are the artists that you find interesting? Do the artists that move you have any commonalities?
SR: I have a very eclectic taste in music. I like classical music, jazz, folk, blues, funk, reggae, rock, punk…pretty much the best of everything. I can listen to Beethoven’s 5th followed by Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, followed by Diana Ross and the Supremes, followed by Jimi Hendrix, followed by Jay Retard & Terror Visions, followed by Philip Glass, followed by John Coltrane, followed by Kitchen and the Plastic Spoons. I have poor taste in synthesizer bands …I like them all.
I guess the common thread with bands I like is that they all have to have a lot of originality and a “wow” factor. The musical artists that most influenced my playing and songwriting were probably Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Jimi Hendrix for my synth chops, Hank Williams and the Beach Boys for my singing, John Cage, Meredith Monk, Terry Riley, Philip Glass & Steve Reich for experimentation, The Troggs, The Modern Lovers & Iggy Pop for fun.
As to the last part of your question, what I find interesting about these artists is their differences rather than their commonalities.
I’ve read that back in the 70s you didn’t just have problems with popular music but also with our culture in general. You’ve commented that “It seemed like I was swimming in an assembly line river of advertising and products.” I can really identify with that and personally feel the same way today, to me it seems like things have gotten worse in that regards not better. What are your thoughts and feelings on this?
SR: Yes, I think that in some ways it has become worse. The vibe I get from advertising and the world of entertainment is that they’re trying to convince us that you can solve all your problems by getting a shiny new surface image. Now we have all these TV shows we didn’t have back then. Really popular shows like “What Not To Wear”, “Project Runway”, “American Idol”, etc., etc….Shows that focus on teaching people how to conform to the status quo. How to win the hearts of industry leaders. God forbid you are an “individual” and stray too far from the status quo. Along with a multitude of commercials for “whitening your teeth”, “growing your hair”, “breath fresheners”, “erection helpers” …on and on. It can make you feel like you’re being processed, packaged and being sent down an assembly line.
Do you think there are any solutions? Where do we go from here? Are there things you do in your life to counterbalance this?
SR: I think this is the solution, blogs like this…people making creative statements, art and music. It can take as little as a child crying out (as in The Emperor’s New Clothes), “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
Correct me if I’m wrong but, I think I read somewhere that you and your wife and band mate Rachel, decided to leave music in 1984? What inspired this change of path? Can you tell us a little about the time that followed please? Was music still a major part of your lives in anyway?
SR: By 1984 the system that we were trying to subvert was feasting on our band. We had signed to Epic, and they wanted to repackage our music as mediocre shiny bullshit. We were trying to record a new album in England and the A&R guy kept showing up and telling us to change our music to sound more like Michael Jackson, or Cyndi Lauper. We had two albums shelved because they weren’t “commercial enough”. When we toured we were now the opening act for a lot of big bands …which was great, but we weren’t allowed to show our films anymore …which we considered half of our show.
Within this year our manager, who happened to be Rachel’s brother, died of a drug overdose. I got a call from the S.F. police department and a detective told me a former Units roadie was being investigated for a string of murders. Because we hadn’t renewed a deal with a Bill Graham influenced label, The Units had been banned from playing Bill Graham venues on the West Coast. As you can see, all of a sudden, “The Music Business” started to feel really dirty…and playing music was no longer fun or meaningful.
We moved to NYC and started a family and a successful design business…and in retrospect, it turned out to be a really good decision. Between the business and raising two kids we were really busy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even though we always listened to a lot of music, it wasn’t until my kids went to college that I’ve had time to get back into playing and recording music.
You’ve been married for over 30 years, congratulations! What’s it been like to share your journey with Rachel? What does she bring to your life? How does she inspire you?
SR: My life with Rachel has been wonderful and exciting since the first time I laid eyes on her. I couldn’t be more fortunate. You’re lucky if you find someone you love, but it’s even better to share your life with someone that’s a partner, a best friend, and someone that will take risks, back you up, and collaborate with you on everything you do. I can’t imagine how different my life might have turned out, without her. She balances all my weaknesses and inspires me to take risks and be creative.
Could you tell us about the work that Rachel does with Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School?
SR: Rachel is the executive director of Horizons at Brooklyn Friends School. It is an academic enrichment program, mostly serving low-income black kids living in the projects, in the Downtown Brooklyn area. It’s a free program that provides the academic support that these children need to stay on grade level (compared to their more affluent peers). The program also teaches the kids art and music…and how to swim. You know how most kids hate school. Well, it’s unbelievable how much these kids love it.
Your son, Sam, is in a punk band called Crazy Spirit. Have you been to one of his shows?
SR: Yes, I’ve been to a few of his shows…even filmed them. They’re very popular here in NYC, and have toured the USA and Europe. All the guys in the band are artists as well as musicians. They screenprint all their record covers and inserts, posters and t-shirts. They are very DIY and punk. They’re great.
My 18 year old daughter Nina is also in a band and has a 7” EP out called “Nina Ryser – September” that was put out by a record label in Mexico. Unlike me, Nina can actually read and write music for other instruments. Needless to say, I’m very proud of both of them and we have lots to talk about.
I know that your style of humour is a little darker/has a dark bent than most; what’s something that’s amused you lately?
SR: I just saw this picture of former president George Bush standing in front of some paintings he did of dogs…poodles and such. I always got a good laugh out of what an idiot the guy was as he was destroying our country…but I found this especially funny. Like Hitler’s paintings…what is it with these guys. It just makes no sense to me…it’s funny and frightening…all at the same time. Here’s the link to it.
Have you ever had a really life changing moment that you could share with us?
SR: I’ve always had bad social phobia…fear of being in groups of people. One time I was in this new college class at SF State University…and all the students had to sit in a big circle…and one by one…tell the class your name and what you wanted from the class. I was so anxious, that when it came to my turn to speak, I had an out-of-body experience. My consciousness actually floated up to the ceiling and I could look down at myself and the classroom. “I” was up on the ceiling, invisible, calmly looking down at this body that used to be mine. Obviously, it’s a weird feeling to look at humanity as if you are viewing it from the outside. I wrote the song “i Night” that night, quit the class the next day…and started the Units.
In the year 2013 what does The Units mean to you?
SR: Pretty much the same as it did in the beginning. I never meant for The Units to be a performance group, or a band, or a film. To me the important thing about it is just the idea of it. The concept.
I’m happy that after all these years, there are some people around the world that still find The Units compelling.
Is there any possibility (no matter how remote) that The Units will play shows again?
For you, what was the most memorable show that The Units played and why does it stick in your mind?
SR: It was a show we played at the Geary Theatre in 1980. There was always a certain amount of pushing & shoving, crowd diving, spitting and whatnot going on at punk shows back then…but sometimes it got out of hand…especially from out of town kids that didn’t know the limits. I saw Klaus from the Dead Kennedys hit a guy over the head with his bass once because the guy just wouldn’t stop fucking with him…and I saw one of the guys in the Toiling Midgets slam a guys face on the stage for the same reason. At this show at the Geary Theatre we were on a 4 foot high stage, which was unusual compared to other punk venues. The place was big and it was packed, and there were 3 guys in the crowd that kept fucking with Rachel…throwing stuff at her. I got so mad, that right in the middle of the song, I ran and jumped off the stage and on to them as if I were jumping on to a horse. My legs went around their three heads and we all crashed down onto the floor with me still on top of their necks…I’m sure they were stunned…and I started punching them. The horrible thing, that I thought about later, was how good it felt. I had never felt so good…and that is a horrible thing…to realize you have that kind of killer instinct in you. I got up and jumped back on the stage and we finished the song and the rest of the set. Afterwards I was quite worried that I might have really hurt them…and shaken that there was a part of me I had not known about.
Is there anything that you’re currently focused on or working on?
SR: I just finished that huge 3 CD “The Units – Connections” project that features 50 tracks that were written by The Units between 1977 and 1984, that were remixed/reworked by over 45 international DJs, producers and bands for the dance floor. It’s also on vinyl and digital, with several E.P.s and 12” singles. There’s still a few things going on with that.
Other than that, I’m kind of in between things. Doing a lot of work on my house. Trying to decide if I want to write some more music, work on another film, or just write.
Lastly, what’s something other than music that you’re passionate about or would like to raise awareness of?
SR: I’ve always been passionate about politics. I try not to get too discouraged about how long it takes for things to change. But I’ve seen things change in my life so I still hold out hope and continue to vote. I’m happy that we actually have a black president now, and for the advances in women’s and gay rights. I’m glad how the internet has had a democratizing effect throughout the world.
What bothers me most right now is the disparity and inequality of opportunity that happens to children that come from poor families vs. those that come from wealthy families. Because it just perpetuates the status quo…indefinitely.
I really see it through the work Rachel does with her Horizons program. It’s really in your face here in NYC and Brooklyn…kids of millionaires living a few blocks away from poor kids from the projects. The wealthy kids have tutors, coaches, private lessons, summer programs and usually two parents that are both highly educated, into the arts, read to their kids, and expect their kids to be highly educated. The wealthy kids go to private schools with dedicated college counsellors that have personal connections with the admissions people at Ivy League schools. The kids from the projects have almost none of these opportunities.
I think it’s a crime that public school kids have so few opportunities to do art or music or to learn how to swim. It amazes me to see how empowered a kid becomes when they learn how to swim, or when they do a painting that their parent puts up on the wall, or play some music, or do a dance where everybody applauds for them. No wonder that kids who have none of these opportunities to feel self-confident and empowered end up feeling bored and disinterested at school.
Obviously, the more your parents care about your education, the better you will do. But it’s almost impossibly hard for a single working parent with no money to offer much help, no matter how much they care.
The Horizons program is funded entirely by volunteer donations and private grants. I just wish the city, state and federal government would lend a hand in funding programs like this for low-income kids.
Scott Ryser – Brooklyn – 2013
For more The Units.