For 10 years, Justin Trosper didn’t play a single live show. He didn’t release any albums, either. And he barely even picked up his guitar during a hefty chunk of the ’00s. At 30 years old, the musician from Olympia, Washington, went into a state of semi-retirement.
This is significant, given how prolific Trosper was in his 20s. From 1991 to 2002, he fronted Unwound—an influential post-hardcore trio that released seven albums and toured frequently. Then, after a tour in support of their most highly acclaimed— and best—album, Leaves Turn Inside You, Unwound split up and Trosper hung up his axe. He didn’t step away from music entirely, having recorded a handful of albums for other bands here and there. But most of the decade that unfolded was spent on personal matters, including finishing college.
Twelve years later, he’s returned to the stage with a new band—Survival Knife— and as he explains in an interview from his home in Olympia, he needed to spend some time away from music before he was ready to plug into his Marshall stack again.
“I stopped playing shows in 2002 and didn’t play another one for 10 years,” he says. “I did a little recording here and there for other people. I didn’t do any bands or anything. I kind of decided I wanted to try to do things beside music. I was so music-focused for basically my whole 20s, so I just focused on other stuff in my life.”
Survival Knife, which formed in 2012, is a considerably different band than Unwound. While it features two of that band’s original members—Trosper and second guitarist Brandt Sandeno (plus bassist Meg Cunningham and drummer Kris Cunningham)—the new band only occasionally deals in abstract, muscular post-hardcore. Survival Knife’s 2013 debut 7-inch single, “Name That Tune,” is plenty abrasive, but it compresses their punk-rock energy into a more accessible package, reminiscent of Hot Snakes and The Wipers. The second single, “Divine Mob,” which opens their debut album, Loose Power, is the closest the band comes to classic new-wave punk.
They’ve expanded their sound dramatically since the release of their first couple of singles, but when they began playing together, there was only one definite idea on the table: Don’t repeat the past.
“A lot of the time when you start a band, you have some ideas. And I think, to some degree, I wasn’t really too concerned or could predict really what we were doing,” Trosper says. “In the back of my mind, I was probably thinking, I don’t want to start a band that’s just Unwound Part 2. And so I think we’ve approached songwriting a little bit differently. We’re older, and we have different skills, and our brains are a little bit different.
“There’s… a melodic sort of interplay that is, I think, pretty drastically different,” he adds.
Survival Knife—who’ll play at Soda Bar on Saturday, May 10—released Loose Power on April 29. The album builds on the momentum of the two singles and stretches out the band’s boundaries a bit, bolstering their punk-rock edge with the ambitious progressive-rock influence of groups like King Crimson, which materializes in eight-minute-plus epics like “Cut the Quick” and “Heaven Has No Eyes.” But prog-rock isn’t the only kind of progressive agenda that’s emerged in the band’s music; the latter song features some of the most explicit sociopolitical lyrics Trosper’s ever written. The track features a repeated chant of “Too big to fail,” and the title comes from a Chinese idiom: “[It] sort of means… people that profit from other people’s suffering. Because if that can happen, then Heaven is looking the other way,” Trosper says.
“I was just trying to describe institutions—these big institutions, whether it’s the church or the government or banks that are set up so, even when they fail, they’re not allowed to fail,” he continues. “It’s not just the banking thing. I think, like, colleges can be too big to fail. They’re broken models that aren’t allowed to revolutionize.”
The four members of Survival Knife have decades of experience playing music between them, but, as a band, they’re more about pursuing new ideas than rehashing what’s familiar. And while they just released a new album and will tour the country in support of it, Trosper explains that there’s another radical idea he’s come to embrace in the decade since Unwound called it quits: There’s more to life than being in a band.
“I was younger, and that was very much the center of my existence,” he says. “Everything I did with all of my effort as if it was the most important thing in the world. Now it’s a little more compartmentalized. I do music with a lot of effort and put a lot of time and energy into it. But it’s not the whole focus of my life, nor can it be. It has a lot to do with where you are in your life at 25 versus when you’re 40.
“The center of the world kind of shifts.”