John Banfield on how Unhome inspired him to get involved with unlabel
John Banfield the man behind 15 years of Unlabel talks about Unhome and why he found them so inspiring.
My first memory of Unhome is walking in on them rehearsing / soundchecking at The Forum before their first or second gig there. I hadn't heard them before but as a die hard Joeyfat fan I was eager to see what this other band (featuring two of them) was like. Unhome were just as intense then, playing with no lights in an empty venue, as they were when they performed later that night, and every time I saw them after that. They were immediately engaging on every level - everything drew you in. They looked interesting, individually and collectively - two guitarists, one with so much hair and a beautiful Dan Armstrong-esque lucite guitar, the other an incredibly gifted Fender Jazzmaster playing skater. The other two musicians had been the exacting rhythm section of Joeyfat, who I adored. Jason played bass, always with his back to the audience, and Jim's drumming cut through Unhome's dynamic wall of noise with absolute precision - I could watch him hit things for hours. Initially two Alex's fronted the band; Alex H had a delicate tone and cut a striking fragile figure onstage and Alex T had a beautiful voice, like that of a choirboy, which made for an unusual but engaging contrast. Alex Tucker is the one who remained and who is heard on most of their released work.
The first thing I always think of when recalling Unhome's live shows is the overwhelming brightness. They sometimes performed under a mass of still bright white light - the kind given off by big old school filament bulb stage lights, before harsh LEDs were all the rage. These were blindingly bright but also warm and enticing to the eye, and it was different to what pretty much everyone else did in the '90s, with their fancy coloured lighting, and it worked so well for Unhome. In this unforgiving glare there was a sense of tension just from the presence of these five or six visually slightly mis-matched people being on stage together, and then they'd begin to play, very very quietly, with Alex T gently rocking in time to the minimal sound of single guitar notes and Jim's impossibly repetitive drumming. Each song was slowly built into tense washes of beautiful noise and the gradual shift in volume could be staggering. Unhome had their amps up loud, always, but played dynamically, very softly, then building up and up, expertly using the heaviness of their playing as their secret weapon. Another curio was the use of an empty metal beer barrel by Jim as an extra percussion option, which was like a second, louder, more metallic cowbell. It just worked. They barely moved on stage but everything they did held your absolute attention, from the gentlest bass notes that you couldn't see being played, to the complex hypnotic drum patterns that Jim made look so easy, to the trance-like state that Alex T would slip into, his voice effortlessly covering everything from whispered half sentences that made little sense on their own to a bellow that would rival some of the heaviest hardcore bands. Alex often used lighter fluid on stage and to great effect, filling the centre of Jim's China cymbal before setting it alight mid-song, which didn't put him off his stride once. It was a neat trick.
Then there were the records - just two releases while the band were together - 'Par Avion' on the Unlabel Two compilation (the best thing on it), which was played on the radio by John Peel. This was followed a year later by the album A Short History Of Houses, which (and I use the term sparingly), was/is a masterpiece. A number of the songs were inspired by their involvement in writing the score for a production of the life of Alma Mahler for the Muzikansky Theatre Company, where they performed live, uniquely sharing the same stage as the actors on a handful of occasions in the spring of '98. The album was recorded onto tape by Guy at The Granary Studios and sounds every bit as good now as it did almost 20 years ago. It captures the band on impeccable form - dynamic layers, dramatic textures, just right in every detail. For me it's never been background music, it's an album that makes you really listen to it when you put it on. It was beautifully packaged too with much effort put in to create the hand screened artwork and inserts. I could go on for ages about each of the songs but will instead say just go and listen to it and judge for yourself (or re-listen if you're already familiar). It's an all time favourite of mine, perfect from the very first listen - an album of its time, easily rivalling contemporaries, but also in many ways well ahead of its time, up there with the very best of the best.
They later released the beautiful 'Pine Tree' on a split 7" with David Pajo from Slint/Tortoise under his Papa M moniker (which was an honour to put out on my own Awkward Silence label in 2002), and a handful of other tracks / alternate versions have appeared on various Unlabel compilations over the years since. All are worth tracking down.
As a result of A Short History Of Houses, Unhome were likened to Joy Division, Fugazi and Slint by the NME. High praise indeed but entirely justified, as these were all obviously influences, especially live, and somehow Unhome always drove it that bit further, with a distinct sense of unease in their performances.
At their request I DJ'd at what became their last two live performances in 1999, at The Forum, with the wonderful Broadcast, and then at The Bull & Gate in London a few weeks later. Both were incredible shows...
At the time we somehow knew Unhome were very special, and that feeling has never diminished or changed. Looking back, Unhome were unique, important, and influential to those in the know in the years that have followed.
In 20 years of trying I haven't encountered another British band that have made me feel quite the same way Unhome did; it's not pure elation, it's a mix of many emotions and an intensity that's so rarely seen in music nowadays. They made me grin, they made me dance like an idiot and they brought a tear to my eye more than once. They were wonderful.