Earlier this year, in our Fossil Records column, I covered The Units’ seminal but unfortunately more or less impossible to find Digital Stimulation, trumpeting it as not only a founding document of synthpunk but also a legendary album long overdue for a new release. Not long after, I got my wish, as Futurismo Inc. reissued the album for the first time in decades. I was also extremely fortunate in that my essay caught the eye of Units frontman Scott Ryser, who reached out to me on Twitter and consented to an interview about the origins of the Units, their impact on the current electronic music scene and what led them to finally reemerge after decades of hibernation. What follows is an extremely in-depth perspective not just on the Units’ history but the avant musical climate of the late ’70s, when the Units emerged alongside likeminded contemporaries The Screamers, DEVO and Suicide. I hope you will find this interview as fascinating as I did to conduct it.
Nick Hanover for Loser City: Contemporary electronic music fans might not know it, but The Units are one of the pioneering synth punk bands and still a huge influence on the modern scene, as HEALTH’s recent cover of “High Pressure Days” shows. Yet the band still remains a bit of a mystery, with much of your work out of print. What’s the secret origin of The Units? Did the idea of the band come from the influence of contemporary acts like Suicide and DEVO? Or did San Francisco’s contemporary art scene have a more direct influence?
Scott Ryser of The Units: The San Francisco art scene definitely had more of an effect on the idea of the band than any other contemporary music act. The music scene was VERY regional back then in 1977 – 1980. There was no MTV or Youtube…and the internet as we know it today wouldn’t come along for another 15 years. The only way you could hear any music was on local radio, which played pretty much all Top 40 pop songs, news or cowboy music. If you lived in a college town, sometimes the college radio would play alternative music. If you lived in a big city like S.F., L.A., or NYC, you go could go see live acts. But it was a rare and sometimes expensive treat to see bands from across the country perform in the city you lived in.
I had already written “High Pressure Days,” “I-Night,” “Warm Moving Bodies” and other songs before I even heard about Devo and Suicide. I probably heard Suicide around ’77 and Devo around ’78. I like both of them… but I don’t consider either of them “Synthpunk” like I think of the Units. The Units made a very conscious decision to use synthesizers in place of guitars– unlike Devo that started with guitars and Suicide that, forgive me, used kind of an old school NYC scene, “Beat” poetry rant over organ music. Kind of like a cool Patti Smith “Horses” thing… only with keyboards. Don’t get me wrong, I love them both, but I don’t consider them “synthpunk.”
My influences were from real synthesizer players like Wendy Carlos, who wrote Switched-On Bach (1968), Sonic Seasonings (1972) and performed scores for two Stanley Kubrick movies, A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980).
Wendy Carlos’ score for A Clockwork Orange arguably became as influential to post-punk culture as the film’s fashion and dialogue.
In fact, there was a large group of pioneering synthesizer players in the Bay Area at the time that influenced me. It’s interesting that at the same time the synthpunk thing was happening in SF, you had the League of Automatic Music Composers working on experimental electronic music across the bay in Oakland, at Mills College and an American experimental music tradition, as represented by fellow Californian’s John Cage and Henry Cowell among others. Part of this California electronic music tradition also included Terry Riley who studied at San Francisco State University (where I went), and the San Francisco Conservatory (where several of the Units’ drummers went) before earning an MA in composition at the University of California. Terry was involved in the experimental San Francisco Tape Music Center working with Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, and Ramon Sender. All of these people influenced me more than Suicide or Devo or the English synthesizer bands we shared bills with. In my mind, “synthpunk” originated in California. And I say that having lived in NYC for the last 36 years. We shared bills with a long list of English bands that used synthesizers, and I would not call a single one of them “synthpunk.”
I didn’t just want an all synthesizer band back then. I wanted the FIRST all synthesizer band that kicked ass. I didn’t want a “Pretty as Pink” Floyd band… and I didn’t want an elevator music Kraftwerk band.
I wanted a PUNK synthesizer band. We started out as a performance group. I wanted something that would shake up the status quo and be new and confrontational and anti-establishment. I wanted to break the mold. That’s why we did multimedia performances featuring multiple projections of satirical, instructional films critical of conformity and consumerism as we were playing our synthesizers. We painted all of equipment battleship grey to get rid of the corporate logos and put up ironic advertising slogans. We tried to get away from the “front man formula” where a band gets some handsome crooner to dazzle and “entertain” the crowd. We were definitely art punk. It was a big “fuck you” to the big business record industry at the time, and that’s why Bill Graham probably blacklisted us from playing his venues in California after we refused to sign a recording deal with a label he was affiliated with at the time … and that’s why Rachel and I moved to NY in 1984.
The Units were known for their incendiary liveshows, where they would mix not just electronics but video and performance art.
I just got into kind of a squabble with someone on my UNITS Facebook page about this.
I posted that I was pissed that Wikipedia had changed the music genre of “Synthpunk” to “Electropunk” and that they include a multitude of bands that I don’t think qualify.
I had mentioned that I didn’t consider any of the UK synth bands “synthpunk.” Right from the start the Human League and Gary Numan were trying for commercial success and a major label deal, whereas on the West Coast, The Screamers, Units, Nervous Gender and other “all synth” punk bands were rebelling AGAINST commercial success. None of us “shopped” our records to major labels. We put out our own records… or in the Screamers case… never even put out a record. That’s what being synthpunk meant. Now, Punk has been absorbed into our culture as if it were just some fashion statement that the clothing designer Malcolm McLaren had cooked up for the Sex Pistols, and punk music and the punk culture is interchangeable with pop music and pop culture. I don’t think kids today have any idea of how anti-conformity, anti-status quo, and how individualistic and creative the scene was back then. Back in the day, the beauty of the scene was it’s antiestablishment ethos and it’s creative DIY approach to appearance, politics, advertising, art and performance. The breaking down of boundaries and the humorous pranks incorporated into protesting authority. The whole synthpunk ethos was to say fuck you to everything that a band was “expected” to be … including hiring a handsome frontman singer so you could get a big recording contract.
In the beginning, we were definitely part of the California art/punk scene. The scene was open to and supportive of a wide range of unique and unusual sounding bands. We played shows (and even shared members) with SF and LA bands like the Dead Kennedys, Crime, Tuxedo Moon, Screamers, Voice Farm, Mutants, Go Gos, Romeo Void, Offs, and many others. Michael Cotten, the synth player from the SF band The Tubes produced a couple of our songs and their drummer Prarie Prince played drums on a few of our records. We also played shows and shared a drummer with the (now) film score pros, Mark Isham and Patrick O’Hearn when they were playing in Group 87 in the Bay Area at the time. We recorded some of our records at the pioneering synth player, Patrick Gleeson’s, Different Fur Studio (as did DEVO).
On top of that we did a lot of performance art collaborations with the likes of Karen Finley, Tony Labat, Tony Ousler, and others. We played in the windows of downtown JC Pennys there, played the National Anthem at a “(real) boxing match for artists” at Kezar Stadium. Rachel (Webber, synths and vocals) and I showed our Unit Training Film at local movie theaters, and were involved with local experimental film makers like Bruce Conner who was living there and would hang out at our gigs.
An updated version of the original Unit Training Film that Scott Ryser created, rereleased on YouTube in 2010.
I know I’m sounding a bit intense here at times. But you asked about the “origin of The Units”, and honestly, the origin was no fucking joke … we knew exactly what we were doing and we were serious about it.
LC: Given the importance of that performance art and video background to The Units, was it difficult to communicate that grandness of vision during the recording process for your first few singles and Digital Stimulation? How did 415 Records enter the picture, and is that the Bill Graham-affiliated label you ran into issues with later on?
Scott Ryser: It was a little difficult trying to represent the visual/performance art, black humor aspect of the band on vinyl recordings, but we tried out best through the record artwork to get the idea across. Now you could just include a DVD of our Unit Training Films, or a link on the internet… but they didn’t exist back then.
On our first 7” EP we tried to get away from the typical mass produced record cover jacket by making a rubber stamp with the band’s name “UNITS” on it, and then hand stamping that on the record cover inner sleeve… and just using that as the cover. Instead of mass producing a printed insert, we made a collage art insert of some of our flyers and interviews… including cover titles from the performance art magazine “High Performance” and “Search and Destroy” magazine… which we proceeded to Xerox on regular paper. Then we folded them and stuck them in the record sleeves. We included a photo of the band with one of our famous satirical advertising signs in the background.
An early Units sleeve complete with rubber stamped logo
On our first album, Digital Stimulation, Rachel designed a back cover that had clips of film strips that we would project for each individual song in our live sets. I think those images help get across the humor and satire when viewed while listening to the music.
Rachel and I had been friends with the founders of 415 Records, Howie Klein and Chris Knab, long before 415 released the label’s first album, Units – Digital Stimulation. We used to see them at shows and hang out with them. Chris Knab’s Aquarius Records on Castro Street was the “go to” place for punk records. Howie wrote articles in several papers about the local music scene. Chris and Howie also worked together on various radio shows around the Bay Area, including an alternative radio show on KSAN, and they started recording and promoting local musicians out of Chris Knab’s Aquarius Records store. When we put out our first self produced and recorded singles we would also market and promote them ourselves. I would go over to Howie’s apartment and he would give me long lists of radio stations and stores across the country that would play or sell them. He also knew of venues across the country where our band could get gigs. He did all this for us, for free, because we were friends. The Units had originally decided to put the album out ourselves like we had done with the 7 inches. Once the album was recorded, I played it to Howie, and he asked if he and Chris could put it out on their label. Since I knew those guys really understood and were good at the whole punk marketing scene, it was kind of a no brainer. I wrote the three page licensing contract myself, and Howie signed it. To answer your last question, yes, that was the Bill Graham-affiliated label we ran into issues with later on… afterwards, 415 was sold to Columbia Records, giving Columbia first rights of refusal to produce, manufacture, and promote their artists’ recordings. Columbia offered us a shitty deal to continue with them, so we walked. The next day our booking agent dropped us and we couldn’t get a gig at any big venue in California.
We had just finished recording an album that Bill Nelson [Be-Bop Deluxe member and future Gary Numan producer] had produced (thinking it would be for 415). Bill had flown out to SF from the UK on his own dime and slept on our couch for two weeks while we were recording and mixing. Columbia (or whoever owns Columbia now, I think it’s Sony) still owns the recordings, but they can’t put them out because they have no contract with us. We can’t put them out because 415/Columbia paid for the recordings. It was probably for the best. Punk was dead at that point. It had been bought and sold.
LC: Something that has always stood out to me about Digital Stimulation is its frank, clever commentary on sex in its lyrics, beginning with its double entendre title and extending to everything from the conception ode that is “Warm Moving Bodies” to the cheeky instrumental “Tight Fit.” Plus the whole double entendre of the name The Units itself. You mentioned that you didn’t want The Units to be an elevator music band like Kraftwerk, so was the sex humor aspect of The Units a conscious effort to be both musically and lyrically fun by contrast? Or was this more a matter of San Francisco’s sex positive nature influencing the music?
Scott Ryser: Once again, we were trying to shake up the status quo and break away from traditional pop music formula with our lyrics. Love songs had been commodified and overused as song lyrics up to that point. I wanted to look at love and sex under a magnifying glass and talk about it in a scientific, satirical, funny way. I’ve always thought it bizarre and funny that when kids are taught about human reproduction, the teaching and the images are so devoid of any kind of feelings. We used to show “educational” films of some of the charts and graphs about sex and reproduction that schools would use, interspersed with some soft porn films. Always good for a few laughs.
Lyrically, “Warm Moving Bodies” is perhaps the Units’ most sex-focused track and its sibling ‘training’ film follows suit
The “sex humor aspect” of our lyrics was definitely a conscious effort to be fun. But it was also a matter of San Francisco’s sex positive nature influencing the music. I’ve always loved the creative, outrageous and funny, gay club music scene in S.F. Especially in the pre-AIDs era. Many times it had a better sense of humor than punk. Those gay dance clubs were definitely “anti institutional”.
LC: The Units’ history with record labels seems like a history of frustration and missed opportunities. In the era that the band operated, labels were especially important for financing the recording careers of artists but today labels are almost a thing of the past. Do you think The Units would have been better suited to the modern music distribution climate? How is it that Futurismo Inc became the first label to finally give Digital Stimulation a proper release in more than three decades?
Scott Ryser: I/we never aspired to be on a major label. We were rebelling against that big biz thing. We paid for, recorded and self released our first two records in 1979 and the same thing with our first album in 1980… and then, as I said before, we agreed to have our friends at the local indie label 415 release the album. I knew how much work it was to promote and distribute a record and at that point I felt like I’d rather spend my time writing and performing new music rather than being a salesman and shipping person. We were getting too popular and it was just too much work to do it all.
Fast forward to the present day… both of my kids are in pretty popular bands and I see how different it is. Their bands have toured across the USA and my son’s band has toured around the world. They’ve both put out several records and they sell their merch at their shows and online … records, t-shirts, pins, books of flyers, the works. That was unheard of back in my time. No “punk” band had a “merch” table at a show… or the ability to sell things on the web. It was just not cool to “sell” yourself at a show back then. We never even thought about it.
Sure. I think The Units would have been better suited to the modern music distribution climate… but I don’t regret a major label giving us over six figures to record an album in the UK with Bill Nelson producing (After we walked away from Columbia we signed with Epic)… even though Epic, like Columbia, never released the recordings. I felt like we had robbed a bank and were on the run. We made a lot of dough and had a lot of fun. The fact that they wouldn’t release our album just confirmed to me that we were on still the right track. A few years down the road EMI signed us. Same thing, all over again.
The story behind Futurismo being the first label to give Digital Stimulation a proper release in more than three decades is pretty simple. I have been approached by many labels over the years to do it, and I never felt it was right. The reason was that I never liked the original mix we did on Digital Stimulation. We did it ourselves on the cheap and we didn’t know wtf we were doing. I always knew what it could sound like… so I didn’t want to rerelease it again as it was. But then, I started hearing a bunch of bootleg remixes of songs that were on the record… especially “High Pressure Days.” People were selling 12” bootlegs and even CD bootlegs of the whole album on Ebay and of course I wasn’t getting a dime for any of it. Then in 2011, Giancarlo Pandullo from the Opilec Music label in Italy did a huge 3 CD remix box set of ALL the songs from the original Digital Stimulation album by 45 DJs from 13 different countries… with my consent. So all of a sudden I realized, that as bad as I thought it was originally recorded, a lot of people from around the world thought it was good. I also have to mention Garth Wynne-Jones from the USA, Robi Headman from Germany, Rory Phillips from London and Daniele Baldelli from Italy, that all shelled out their own dough to put out their own 12” remixes of songs by the UNTS, prior to the release by Opilec Music. What really helped was when the Community Library label out of Portland, OR released the “History of the Units” LP in 12” vinyl and CD form in 2010. They did an amazing job of selecting and mastering 21 of our best songs, and giving me total artistic control over a 32 page booklet. They were totally on the up and up. (And they actually released it!) Just doesn’t get better than that as a label. Not long after that Futurismo contacted me and I checked the label out. Once I saw the fantastic job they did with the DEVO album they released I decided that if anyone could do a really good job of releasing Digital Stimulation again, it was them.
LC: Would you say the artistic and cultural climate has gotten better or worse since you and Rachel decided to quit music in 1984?
Scott Ryser: I don’t think kids today have any idea of how anti-conformity, individualistic and creative the scene was back then. Back in the day, the wonderful beauty of the scene was its antiestablishment ethos and it’s creative DIY approach to appearance, politics, advertising, art and performance. The breaking down of boundaries and the humorous pranks incorporated into protesting authority. It never ceases to amaze me how good our culture is at taking protest and dissent and turning it into fashion and entertainment.
On the one hand, it’s cheaper and more convenient to create and promote your art/music around the world now with computers and social media. You can record a pretty decent album in your bedroom and editing film/video is soooo much easier and cheaper. But because of that, the sheer numbers of bands you can listen to and see on YouTube is a bit overwhelming. How can I say it… Back in the late 70’s the musical experience felt more real… more of a visceral experience to have to go to a club or a record store in order to hear a new band. And the other thing is, there was nothing else to do! It wasn’t like you could surf the web or see 1,000 channels on TV or Facebook your friends. You actually had to get dressed up and go out! It felt like it was easier in a way to share creative musical and crazy fashion experiences with like minded people, because you would keep seeing them in the same places… in person! You would end up jamming and collaborating with these people. I know you can swap files on the internet… but it’s not the same as jamming or doing performance art with a real person who is standing next to you. Now a lot of the art I experience feels like I’m just going to a movie of it.
It’s weird that you can pretty much get by now with an iPhone, iPad, laptop and TV. For hundreds of years people had collections of real, touchable, material mementos of things that were very meaningful and inspirational to them at some point in their lives… like books and records. Personally, I enjoy sitting in my living room and looking at the book titles sitting on my bookshelves, or at the titles on my records and CDs. Makes me feel like I’m with friends, they remind me of meaningful moments in my life, they remind me of people who had the courage to speak out or look a the world in different ways… as useful as they are, it would be strange to just have a computer or tv screen to google something interesting for a minute… it just seems so transitory… and at least “real” books and records don’t try to sell you something you didn’t choose or don’t want while your reading or listening to them.
The other thing that’s really different, is that it’s so much easier to be “perfect” now. We would project 16mm films behind the band at our live shows and the films were always breaking, the 35mm slides would invariably start melting… and my Minimoog was constantly going out of tune… and people in the band were always getting out of sync with the sequencer… and there was no Autotune to fix your voice. But I miss that “imperfection.” It made things more real than listening to a preprogrammed computer run by a DJ.
I think the music is just as good and creative as it was back then. But not as cutting edge. Back then it rebelled against the status quo … now it IS the status quo. It also bothers me that there isn’t more protesting against the incredible income disparity that we have. The divide between the rich and everyone else is even worse than it was 35 years ago. A lot of early punk was very political protest music, even if it was done in funny ways. At the same time, culturally I think we’ve made progress. Just look at marriage equality, Obamacare and the Confederate flag coming down.
LC: When you made the switch to a focus on design, it was at a point when design was arguably going through the same revolution as music, becoming more dominated by computers and technology. Do you think your embrace of synthesizers helped prepare you for that technological shift in design? The Units were a very well-designed band from the start, did you carry over a lot of the band’s artistic philosophies to your commercial design work?
Scott Ryser: It probably helped. What drew me to synthesizers was the idea that they could create completely new sounds. That you could build new sounds with them and automate them. That you didn’t have to have great chops or technical ability to sound good on one. So they encouraged you to be creative and to experiment. To become sound designers. That mind set helped when we started a fashion design business in NYC in 1984. I can’t imagine life now without Photoshop, Quark, InDesign, your own personal copy machine and other software programs. We used to do everything with rub-on “Letraset” letters and cut out and glue collaged images together in the days of the UNITS.
Within the first two weeks we started our design company in NYC our merchandise was in the windows of Bergdorf Goodman. Since then we’ve sold products that we’ve designed to Barney’s, Bloomindales, Harrods, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Ave., The Limited, Paul Smith, Neiman Marcus, Henri Bendel, Ann Taylor, Costco, Target and many others. You could sell really wacky stuff back then. We used to joke that you could put a piece of toast on a hook and sell it as an earring. It was much easier to sell weird products at that time than weird music.
It’s interesting that after 36 years, last year was the first time I actually made more money from early Units music than from our design business. So maybe the tables have finally turned.
LC: In an interview with WFMU a few years back, you mentioned that you were impressed with the modern electronic music scene and also relieved that there is no longer a need for a guitar vs. synth divide, remarking that you no longer feel like you have to be “a pioneer that creates an alternative world of synth music.” I’m curious to not only hear which artists you think are especially interesting now, but also to hear what you think the alternative that is being pioneered by artists today.
Scott Ryser: What I liked about the early punk scene was how it challenged preconceived notions of what music should sound and look like. That still holds true. The best thing about what’s going on now is the availability and diversity of synth music.
I like an eclectic mix of synth genres, from synthpunk to synthpop to electronica (there are over 1000 radio stations that just play electronica on iTunes radio now). It’s great to check out EDM playlists on Spotify. I also like Bleep music and think it’s kind of like the new synthpunk.
Remember kids, you don’t have to yell and scream like look like Tomata [du Plenty] of the Screamers to challenge authority. You can make fun of your culture like Devo does so effectively, or you can chop it up and serve it back to The Man in a really intelligent, synthpop way, like Tom Ellard of the Severed Heads does so brilliantly in his videos. Some of my young hard core fans give me shit for liking synthpop bands that were my contemporaries like The Human League or The Eurythmics.
What they don’t understand is that when those bands first came out, their instrumentation and sound was original and unique … and challenged the status quo of popular music. Even in 2015 I can listen to early rehearsal tapes of The Human League made in the late 70’s that sound every bit as original as young bands playing today.
It’s hard to believe that during the entire time we played as the UNITS… there was no INTERNET!
I like some synth artists for their music, but also because they’re friends. I still listen some “famous” bands and to all the old synth bands from the 80’s… but some of the relatively newer ones I listen to are; Terror Visions (w/Jay Reatard, RIP), Bit Shifter, Babyland (synthpunk, junkpunk), Digital Leather, Whitey, Black Bug, Vile Electrodes, Soft Metals, 8 Bit Weapon, ComputeHer, Led Er Est, Xeno & Oaklander, Dark Day, Battery Operated Orchestra, Joakim, Todd Terje, Erol Alkan, Rory Phillips, Headman, Lindstrom, Portable Morla, CatwalkTrash, Devon Disaster, Fever Ray, The Knife, Ping Pong Bitches, I-Robots, XX, Ladytron, Medio Mutante, Eine Kleine Nacht Music, Royksopp, Presets, Further Reductions, Public Service Broadcasting, Mannekin Pis, Palberta, Dawn of Humans, & all those bands from Canada including Ch. 3X4, Twin Crystals, Cheerleader Camp, Dandi Wind, Ice Cream and You Say Party We Say Die & many more (sorry if I left you out this time!)
As for the alternative that is being pioneered by artists today, I’d say it’s Bandcamp and the “Merch Table” and being a musician AND an artist.
For some examples of these contemporary artists combining forces with the Units, check out these remixes of classic Units material:
Bit Shifter remixing “Warm Moving Bodies” https://vimeo.com/58137526
Mannekin Pis remixing “Warm Moving Bodies” https://vimeo.com/28833399
Todd Terje remixing “High Pressure Days” https://vimeo.com/41847083
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover