Music is best served with a strong message, and that’s exactly what the North Carolina natives in Unifier have been bringing to the table recently. The release of their latest EP, “Gutted”, is laced entirely with a tales of change, new beginnings and total reinvention. The meaning behind it all? I spoke with guitarist/vocalist Aslan Freeman to get a closer look.
1. Did each of you start out knowing music was your calling; or was it something that grew as your experience did?
I actually grew up in the theatre – literally. My dad was the sound and lighting tech at the local community theatre where I grew up and also helped a lot with set design and some occasional acting, and my godfather did a lot of directing and acting there, and taught theatre at the high school. So after school most days I would end up at the theatre with my dad and pretty much as soon as I could talk my godfather had me start playing the child roles in whatever he was putting on. I stuck with that right up until the end of high school when I realized I had been enjoying playing drums in school band more than being in plays and I had more fun on stage singing with my band than I did acting. So instead of auditioning for the acting program, I took a few months of classical guitar lessons over the summer and auditioned for the guitar studio after I had already gotten to school and started taking music classes, just hoping they’d actually take me haha. They were already full since there was only one guitar teacher, and I was terrible at classical guitar but they let me in anyway for some reason. I actually switched to composition after a couple of years though. I knew if I wasn’t playing in a band I wanted to run a recording studio and produce music or write for film and TV, so I figured it would be a much more helpful degree than continuing my path to being a stunningly mediocre classical guitarist. I know for Mike it was more of an instant epiphany – he said one day he just came home and walked up to his parents and said “I need a drum set.” When they asked why, I think he just told them he didn’t know, he just did and so they bought him one haha. He just started telling people he played drums even though he couldn’t at all yet, and some kids had him come join their band. Apparently he didn’t even play the kick drum for the first year or so of learning how to play – he’d mainly just bang out beats with floor tom and snare. I think from that point on he was just hooked and had to keep playing. He did quit completely for a few years and tried to get out of music but couldn’t do it, and we started the band right around the time he was deciding to start playing again. I think Luke had the more natural experience of just starting to play guitar in bands with friends in middle and high school and figuring out that he liked it and wanted to keep doing it – I’m not sure if he had a specific moment where he just realized music was what he was meant to do. He’s a super talented photographer and graphic designer as well, which has become more of his actual career path. Luckily it goes hand in hand with being in a band, so we just end up saving a lot of money not always having to pay other people to do that stuff haha. Music is definitely a calling for all of us at this point though – I remember one interview we did where the guy was talking about the “gift of music” and how it must be great to have it and be able to play instruments and are family and friends ever envious, etc. and Luke just responded with something like, “Music isn’t a gift, it’s a curse. It’s like an addiction – we couldn’t quit if we wanted to.” Obviously we all love it and don’t view it that morbidly all the time, but it’s totally true. Like I said, Mike’s even tried and couldn’t do it haha.
2. Where did you find inspiration for the “Break” music video in terms of the photograph/real time comparison?
We had gotten some other video treatment ideas from a different director and were sitting around at practice discussing them and sort of coming to the conclusion that none of them were really what we were looking for, but trying to figure out why. In the course of the discussion things would come up like, “Yea, I see the idea but that’s just not the right direction, maybe it would work better if it went more this other way,” and somebody brought up Memento as a sort of reference for the point they were trying to make, and it was just that lightbulb moment of “Polaroids! We should set up the scenes with Polaroids!” From there it was a pretty natural progression to making the video about our memories of friends and the part of being a small touring band that happens when you’re not at the venue.
3. What was the first song you’d say, as a whole, you finished and then looked at each other and thought “Oh yeah. This is it. This is us” ?
I guess probably “Spotless.” It was definitely the first song we finished that really felt like a song we could go somewhere with, and that felt “done.” “Distiller” was actually the first song Chris (our original guitarist) and I ever wrote together, but obviously that’s not really the direction we ended up taking the band, and we brought it to Mike and our bassist at the time already pretty done, so it was less driven by being in a room playing together trying to figure each other (and the song) out. “Grace” was also written before “Spotless,” but we made some major arrangement changes to it in the studio after Mike and Brooks (our producer on the first EP) and I had spent a night doing pre-production and we kind of started to see how things were shaping up with the songs as a group, and what direction we needed to go in as a band. “Spotless” definitely had a lot to do with that, and had considerably less changes to it from the time we wrote it to the version that we released to the world.
4. What was your original goal with the release of your newest EP “Gutted”, and do you feel as though it’s been accomplished since?
Our main goal was for Gutted to be the first step in a new direction, sonically and visually – not entirely off the path we’ve been on, but maybe down a bit of a side trail haha. I think we definitely accomplished that based on the feedback from friends and fans and reviewers so far, and we’re looking forward to getting more heavily into our next batch of writing to see where this new direction can go.
5. Do you feel as though you’ve settled into your identity as a band, or may there be big changes for you still?
I think those aren’t really decisions you get to make as an artist, if you’re truly approaching music from that direction. I don’t mean that calculated decisions are bad or wrong or that there isn’t great music made as a direct result of them, but when you talk about the collective identity of a group, it’s going to be affected by each individual’s identity and how those change within the group. Our tastes and desires and goals are always changing as we experience things in our personal lives, but of course they change at different times and rates, so if we want to make music that WE want to make, and that sounds like us as a band, we have to take those changes into consideration and sort of ask, “Well, what DO we want to make?” Sometimes, we want to make calculated music with a specific goal in mind, and we end up with Colorado, other times we want to be a bit more creative and just see what happens, and we end up with Gutted. We love all the songs on both releases, and they both serve as totally accurate musical snapshots of us as people and as a band at that time, and that’s all we really want to continue to settle into. We may not make as much of a change again as we made from Colorado to Gutted, but who knows, we may make an even bigger one, and we want to be open to that. I can say two things with certainty: First, that we’re very happy and excited about our identity on Gutted and the direction it’s taking us, and second – our next record won’t sound like our last.