www.theunknown.us. Home of Cleveland's favorite punk pop band the Unknown.
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THE UNKNOWN AT BAND CAMP
I got an email from an old friend/fan of the band from the late 80s. He sent me a link to a copy of one of our original demos that he had digitized. Sheesh. Like I needed to hear that. Wow. But aside from how bad it was, it was nice to hear it and to know that someone cared enough to digitize it and send it to me. Thanks Deli. (Now let's delete that file eh?)
Then I realized its been 20 years this year that the band began. 20 years. 20. ... YEARS ... I thought, most people don't know about the origins of the Unknown. Hell most people have never heard of us even after 20 years of existence, but nonetheless, those who care don't know the real story about this band, where we've been, what we've done and where we are today.
I've spent half of my life in this band. As I write this I am 36 years old and 20 years removed from the first practices of the band that would eventually become the Unknown. It's so weird. I have had so many ups and downs with this band over the years. Some days I can't stand the music, and I wish it never existed, other days I lament the fact that we didn't "make it." Some will say that we did make it to some degree. Most days I hate the name. No, actually I hate it every day.
Listening back to that first demo, I can hear that its just a bunch of little kids. I'm amazed that it did get to levels that it eventually did. And I know there are people out there that care too. This wesbsite gets a crazy amount of hits and people are constantly downloading the freebie songs we have in the music section of the site.
When I was in high school I was asked if I wanted to be in a band. At 16, I was like, "Huh? Be in a band? Can I do that?" I was pretty naive and at a loss when it came to music. I liked bands, and I liked the whole scene I was in, but be in a band? That seemed crazy. But like a lot of kids back then, it turned out it wasn't that crazy. Punk rock was a way for any kid to be in band. So I said yes. I was told I'd be the singer. Great. I didn't know how to play any instruments anyway so this would be perfect.
I eventually went to my first band practice, and it was a life changing experience. The guy who had asked me to be in this band was a guy named Fitz. He played guiter. Another guy named John Piche played drums and a guy named Pete (not Ahn) played bass. We met. We played. We did some covers. The only song I remember for sure is Social Distortion's "Telling Them." It was fun.
But that was it. I don't think we ever played again. If we did, I don't remember it. I don't know what happened. Hell I can barely remember anything about 1988.
So that was it, that was my first band. In a way that was the first Unknown. Kinda...
Later Fitz came back and said he had a new band in the works. He needed me to sing and he had this guy named Jim to play bass. Great. Allright, here we go. So we met, the three of us and we went over some songs in a bedroom.
Some time passed again. This time I was like, "man, band people are flakes." (Something I say to this day...) Ah but I did get another call back. In retrospect, this is hilarious because I never even sang in my life let alone in a band.
This time it was Jim Lee. He called and said the band was moving on and he had moved to guitar and got a guy named Pete Ahn to play bass and a guy named Pete Miraldi to play drums. It was funny cause Pete Ahn went to my high school, and I didn't know who he was (he was three years younger). I remember finding him one day out in the commons and saying something like "Hey you're in my band."
And finally, finally, we had a practice. A real practice with real original songs in a basement in a house in Westlake, OH. That was sometime around October of 1989. It was a whole year in the making but nonetheless it happened.
Those first months were fun. I was the oldest in the band at 17 with the rest of the guys being 15 and 16 if I recall correctly. The funny thing was these little kids were pretty good, damn good actually. I think they had played together a few times before getting me back in the fold. We already had a name. Hell it was already spray-painted on Jim's basement floor -- The Unknown. They told me how it was originally the Unknown Peace and then shortened to just the Unknown. Totally great for a bunch of kids in a basement. (Ug. Horrible now. If only to know about the internet in the late 80s...)
We were playing a weird mix of 80s punk (think 7 seconds and Angry Samoans) meets the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I was your typical kid into the former and Jim and Pete were into the latter. It made for an interesting band. At least at first. We played our first "show" at the Avon Lake battle of the bands in March of 1990. By that time we had already switched drummers and Jeff Ottenbacher was now our guy. We were ecstatic to win 3rd place and be in the local paper. It was shortly after this show that we recorded the demo I spoke of at the beginning of this scribble.
So we did what most kid bands did, played shows in front of all of our friends and played battle of the bands at local high schools. We got a good local following and started to play at the clubs. We had shows at Peabody's in Cleveland and the Phantasy in Lakewood with close to 500 kids. It was really weird. Although it makes sense. Back then it was a way different scene. Most kids at shows came cause they liked to go to shows. Most of them were not in bands. These days everyone is in a band and everyone is so critical of each other. During this time we eventually lost Jeff and Wayne Roscoe became the drummer for our show on Nov 9th, 1990. Wayne was the drummer for the local punk band FFS (Freedom From Speech). A band that I thought kicked major ass and a band that was doing music more like what I wanted the Unknown to play. We recorded two more demos with Wayne, Jim, Pete and I.
Once Wayne joined the band I started to feel more comfortable in my role as frontman, and slowly I was having more say in what we did. As time moved on it was clear that the direction Wayne and I wanted to go was toward a pop punk sound. This was in 1991 before the Green Day explosion. I had been into the pop scene of the Descendents, ALL, Big Drill Car, Dag Nasty and the like for years and Wayne was big into the UK scene of bands like Radio Birdman and the Buzzcocks. This eventually led to us parting ways with Jim and welcoming a very talented guitarist named Mike Vaughn into the band in 1991.
It was at this time we made our first fatal mistake. We didn't change the name of the band. Jim wanted us to, I wanted us to, but Wayne and a slew of our followers said not to. So we didn't. We stayed the Unknown. A decision I have regretted ever since. Mike and I even had new band names thought up and one even had a logo (Last Name First).
By the time we got around to recording what would be our first full-length release we were already on our third drummer and second guitarist. It was the latter half of 1992 when we finished a 10 song cassette entitled Change. It was named after the fact that we were changing the direction of the band, and it was also the name of one of the FFS songs from Wayne's old band. We put it out on our own label Jiffi Pop. We called it our first album. But really, when I listen back, it was just another demo. At this point it had been 4 years since the inception of the band and all we had were 4 demos one being a 10 song tape. The Cleveland scene we were a part of included bands like the Hostile Omish, One Beat Off and the Beatnik Termites.
Change was a good effort on our part, but still marred but some of the old songs we still had in the set. Subsequently it was a really bizarre record. We re-released it on Boss Tuneage Records in 1999 on CD with a bunch of live tracks, but it really should have just died in 1993. It did have a couple of songs that lived on for a lot of the band's live sets: Stay, My Kind and Change. We talked about moving to California at this time but we just didn't have the guts.
It was after releasing this cassette that we got some press in zines like Maximum Rock n Roll. Actually got a whole full page interview. We went on our first tour in 1993 soon after. It was a fun first tour, boked almost exclusively with the zine "Book Your Own Fuckin Life." We did 2 weeks from Ohio to the east coast and back. We traveled in a Dodge Diplomat with a trailer affectionately nicknamed "Failer." And it failed us many times. We came back with a lot of stories and a lot of new material for new songs. Mike and I penned "Seems So Real" later in this year, and we had our first real record, a split 7" release with Detroit's Dirt Merchants. Seems was our first true classic song. It survived in sets all the way until 2006.
But amazingly the stylistic differences would come back to haunt us again as Pete and Mike would both leave the band in 1994. They both were bored of the pop-punk we were working on. I was beyond frustrated. I finally had us going down the road I intended, and it was pulled out from under me again. Luckily for us Wayne's brother Chris was a guitarist lookin for a band and in 1994 the three of us wrote and recorded the On Our Own 7." This got us back on track and the Unknown survived.
The two songs on the record were easily the best the band had ever done. "Never Be The Same" might be our best song period. And this was the true beginning of the band people know today as the Unknown. It's too bad it took us 5 years to get Chris in the band. During the recording of On Our Own, Mike re-joined the band. To play live we would need a bass player and Thom Janini became the second bassist in the Unknown. He responded to a flyer I posted at Kent State. I think he was the third or fourth person we tried out.
This 5 piece line-up would write and record what I consider our first real record, Rocket Pop. The recording took place over most of 1995 with local engineer and producer Chris Keffer, and it was released in March of 1996. I was proud of this effort. I felt like I really got the Unknown to do what I wanted. I still have fond thoughts of this CD today even with all its musical flaws. Its got a feel to it that just says fun, and it really defined what we were. The signature song on Rocket Pop was Annie Mae, a song about a comic book girl. The title comes from the Japanese word for comic, anime. Both Wayne and Chris had an infatuation with Japanese culture. We named the record Rocket Pop to reflect the style of music and it fit well. It was also the first record to have "pop" in the title. Every other full-length record after that would also have "pop" in the title. The records in between would be named after songs on the record. (Change-Rocket Pop-Still Unknown-Pop Art-Radio Lied to Me-Unpopular)
But just as our history had always dictated, this wasn't meant to last. Both Thom and Mike would soon leave for personal reasons. And again we got lucky. One of our local contemporaries, the Beatnik Termites, had just parted ways with their longtime bassist, Brian McCafferty. Brian stepped in at the first practice with perfect bass lines and perfect harmonies. He was the perfect fit. He brought a new dimension to the songs.
We toured more after Brian joined. Lots of weekend shows, midwest trips. More and more opening spots for bigger touring bands. The band really started to gell and the live recordings from this era are really great. We never really caught on at home though. I mean we had our die-hard fans, but Cleveland is known for being gritty and dirty and rock n roll. We didn't fit that bill. We never really did. Thus, we were never consider very highly among the media around here.
We recorded some singles with the 4 piece of me, Wayne, Brian and Chris, most notably the Who Are We 7" where we dressed up as people in 4 different genres of music. I was the 50s guy, Brian the punk, Wayne the glam rocker and Chris the new waver. That was fun. I've seen that 7" on Ebay for stupid amounts of money.
We decided to record our next CD with a long time friend of mine, Jerry Jones of the Fiendz. To do this we had to trek out to NY and New Jersey for tracking. In retrospect, it was a bad idea. Jerry was great, the studio was great, but as a band we were still new. Even after 7 years, we were a new band. The four of us never recorded together. What we needed was a producer who knew us like Keffer did and that wasn't the case. The resulting CD, Still Unknown, was inconsistent. It had some really great songs on it (Puzzles, Whether, Stare, Self Control) but the performance was blah. The back and forth to NY took its toll and we ended up settling for a finished product that was far from finished. It was our 4th full-length effort.
During the years between Rocket Pop and Pop Art ('96-'00) I had begun correspondence with a UK label, Boss Tuneage, and I was distributing our records with them overseas. That was essentially the smartest move I made in our history. Aston, the BT owner, would eventually be one of our biggest supporters and release all of our subsequent CDs and records starting with the Puzzles 7" in 1999. Without Aston I don't know wheat we would have done with our career.
We rebounded from the Still Unknown era, we got smart, and we learned from our mistakes. The next CD Pop Art was recorded back home with Keffer and it was our most solid release to that point with songs such as Disappear, Listen to Me and Leave Me Now. We figured out how to record our songs and we made a pretty darn good record. Boss Tuneage released Pop Art and in 2000 we made our first trip overseas to tour the UK. We did a 2 week stretch in England and Scotland and we had an amazing time paving the way for us to return two more times later in the decade.
After Pop Art came out we finally started to get some recognition at home. We won the Free Times award for best punk band in 2001 and 2002, played with All at Stockage in '02 and '03 and really started to have a good fan base regionally and at home. In 2002 we released the Real Thing, a CDEP with original songs plus a cover of Group Think, a song written by our 2000 touring mates Scarper. The Real Thing was the slickest CD of our career.
Chris announced he would be leaving the band to move to Japan so we planned to record one more record with him and that's where 2003's Radio Lied To Me fits in. This record was the first to be recorded by local Cleveland musician/producer Tommy Rich. Tommy took over the producing role for us after Chris Keffer closed his studio business. Radio Lied to Me was another step up in recording for us. Again we felt like we still were progressing as a band and as writers. This CD had Merry Go Round on it and that was my favorite up to that point.
Soon after Radio was released, I hooked us up withe the Rumblefish licensing company and since then they have been getting the Unknown's music into movies, TV shows, commercials and all kinds of things. Although I have never had the luck to hear any of the songs being used, I have had many people tell me about the AMC promos and the Fuel TV spots. Without Rumblefish there would not have been "Unpopular."
We prepared for Chris' departure by asking Pete Woodward to join the band before Chris actually left. Pete was a long time friend of ours who played in Dreyfus and Sidecar. Pete makes an appearance on Radio Lied to Me as does fellow Dreyfus member, Pugsley. We had a huge going away party for Chris on Jan 11, 2003 and welcomed back past members Pete Ahn, Mike Vaughn and Thom Janini to play with Wayne, Brian, Chris, Pete and I for a 2 hour set covering the entire catalog at the time. The Fun Machine (the first band to cover an Unknown song) Scott Reynolds and the Pavers joined us for the festivities.
Later that year we made our second trip to Europe with Pete as our guitarist, this time hitting the mainland. We left the day the war in Iraq began. The 03 tour was probably our best tour ever, and we made some incredible friends and connections. Our touring agents Martine and Paolo, the Guildford kids, K-Line, Barefoot, Demzel and of course Aston from BT were just fabulous people and they made it an unforgettable experience. 2004 mimicked '03 with another return trip to the EU. We gained a following over in Europe that we never could manage here at home. We've played in London more times than we have played Columbus or Pittsburgh, cities only two hours away.
Since then things slowed down. We worked slowly and diligently on the Unpopular record for over 2 years, and it finally was released in December of '06. Tommy Rich produced and we recorded a slew of songs with 12 making the final CD. This was the first time in our careers we recorded more than we used and to this day there are about 5 outtakes unreleased. Mike Vaughn returns on the Unpopular record to guest solo on the final song. Unpopular holds some of the most emotional and true songs we ever wrote. It was also true collaborative effort in the songwriting with half the music being written by me, half by Pete and one each by Wayne and Brian. We did a show in Cleveland celebrating the CD and our 17th anniversary.
And for now that was the last show we played. It will be three years later this year since then. There was no break-up.
In that time Wayne moved down to Columbus, and we haven't been in the same room together since that show. There hasn't been a breakup or anything, we just haven't had the chance to play. Wayne is due to finish his schooling soon and may return home. Brian plays regularly in a number of bands, most notably Rainy Day Saints, Bluto's Revenge, Vital Mines and the 609ers too. He is still a Cleveland fire fighter. Pete has been less active but still writing and building pedals in his free time. I got married, had a kid, and I play in a band called K-Ration with Jeremy McLellan and Pugsley. I stay at home during the days and work as a freelance photographer. The other former members are spread out all over the place. Pete Ahn is currently in Korea, Jim is in California, Mike is here in Cleveland with his family and kids and Thom and Jeff are on the east coast last I heard.
Its hard to believe that its been 20 years this year. I am stunned in fact. Its strange that things are the way they are. I still talk with people weekly about the band via myspace or email. And we still are active publishers with our music being played all over the country in TV shows and commercials. The last song on Radio Lied to Me was meant to be a fond farewell, but we didn't say goodbye then. It's hard to say goodbye now too. In fact, I don't know that I can really. So I won't.
Reflecting back on everything is fun. It's fun to see what we accomplished, and what we did on our own for all those years. I really believe we released some great songs. I also know we released some shit. But hey. We never said we were gonna be anything in particular, just a band, just some guys playing some cool tunes.
Some things I will never forget:
- seeing London as we rode in in the back of an illegal van in 2003
- driving in a blinding thunderstorm through Pennsylvania with a failing trailer and rain filling the car up to our ankles in 1993
- playing Group Think in London with over 20 people on stage singing along in 2003
- seeing the Seems So Real 7"s for the first time in 1993
- jumping up and down when we won the Westlake battle of the bands in 1990 and again when we won the free times awards in '01
- playing with ALL in '03 and '04 at Stockage.
- reading a quote from Scott Reynolds saying we were more All than All ever was. (ha)
- hanging out with people all over the world
- being asked by a kid in Canton if we "had any tips"
- over 20 shows with ROD/The Story Changes
- kid with man head
- the fiendz
- seeing a kid arrested and carried out of a store by cops in Indiana in '98
- seeing the fun machine perform 'whether'
- louis and dan and all their hard work as our main roadies
- putting together CD after CD after CD after CD after CD
- a guy named Hog Love Dog
- the tours
Its a shame we were called the Unknown. If we could only have seen the future and see how hard it would be to search for our band online, or how many other bands have used, use, or will use the name we thought of as little kids back in 1988.
But I guess there's no use in crying over spilt milk now is there.
If you want to comment on this, head over to our myspace page - I'll post this as a blog.
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