This piece is part of our Jan. 7, 2018, Reflection Issue, in which we take a step back from the daily onslaught of news and controversy and try to get some perspective by reexamining the past. We gathered newsmakers who took part in pivotal Washington moments over the past 30 years and asked them to talk about those experiences and possibly unearth new lessons and new ways of looking at the present. Almost all of the events were related to elections or governing. But we all need a break from politics sometimes. Since many of the moments discussed in the issue took place in the ’90s, we made a detour into D.C.’s thriving indie rock scene at the time. Chris Richards, The Washington Post’s pop music critic, chatted with one of that era’s most beloved local acts, the now-defunct trio Unrest.
Ever listen to Unrest? Back in the early ’90s, they were indie rock’s most indomitable pinball — a band perpetually bouncing between weirdo love songs and lovely weirdo songs, delivering a gust of fresh air to the American underground. But to founder Mark Robinson, “It seemed like nothing was going on. Like nobody was paying attention.”
Therein lies the unhappy truth about any rock band ahead of its time — the time itself wasn’t nearly as fun as the music. And Unrest’s music still sounds like a blast. Alongside bassist Bridget Cross and drummer Phil Krauth, Robinson, the trio’s guitarist, wrote skittish ditties about tentative first smooches (“Make Out Club”), high-speed odes to unsung punk heroes (“Cath Carroll”), and plenty of awkward songs about sex that, among other things, did justice to the awkwardness of sex. This was a band that could cover Kiss or the Rutles without winking or blinking — which is all to say that Unrest took its absurdity quite seriously, whipping its freakiest influences and wildest impulses into a frothy anti-style. If you could get on that wavelength, the music sounded like pure freedom. If you couldn’t, it sounded like an identity crisis.
“But what’s wrong with an identity crisis?” asks Cross. “I think we probably were in an identity crisis at that age.”
Unrest split up more than two decades ago, but I sat down with its members at our offices in October to reflect on the band’s atypical rise and precipitous fall. Robinson and Krauth formed the band in Arlington, Va., way back in 1983 when they were still teens, and once Cross came aboard in 1990, the band recorded its two most prismatic records: 1992’s “Imperial f.f.r.r.” (for Robinson’s esteemed indie-pop label, Teen-Beat), and 1993’s “Perfect Teeth” (for the big-deal British label 4AD).
“In Unrest, you could go in any direction you wanted to,” Krauth says. “There was no style or image to uphold. If I wanted to play a swing beat — which would be something totally uncool to do at CBGB’s — I could do that. ... So it was always invigorating because we never knew what we were going to be doing next.”
The band’s anything-goes approach to writing songs ran parallel to its everything-goes approach to listening in general. Robinson, Cross and Krauth loved switching one another on to stray strands of pop — the left-field funk of ESG, the ballads of Burt Bacharach, random novelty recordings, whatever. The more disparate the better. “Phil and Bridget were always listening to the cool new bands,” Robinson says. “Where I would, like, bring tapes of Paul Williams into the van. And they’d bring Stereolab’s first album.”
“And then we turned into Paul Williams fans,” Krauth says.
Whatever allowed the members of Unrest to be curious around one another was the same thing that allowed them to be earnest, vulnerable and ridiculous together. The band also rehearsed doggedly, playing certain songs on a loop for 30 minutes at a time. This might explain why, despite all of the band’s aesthetic zigzags, everything always sounded so bright, clear, fine and tight.
But many critics didn’t know what to make of them. “Reviewers tore us apart,” Krauth says. “They’d say how this band was all over the place and nonsensical.”
In 1992, veteran rock critic Robert Christgau wrote that “Imperial f.f.r.r.” embodied the worst practices of indie rock’s golden age: “Cool people whose hobby is inept bands seem to think these whatchamacallems apotheosize self-consciously amateurish charm. If you’re among them, call me when you get a life.”
But bad reviews didn’t kill the band. The road did. With one foot still planted in DIY indie culture, Unrest struggled to acquiesce to the demands of the ’90s alterna-rock hype machine that followed the success of Nirvana. And no matter how devout the band’s underground following became, it never felt big enough to qualify as a proper cult. “It really did become a job,” Cross says. “Show up at this place and talk to these people who don’t know who you are and don’t care. It was exhausting, doing all of these interviews with people who didn’t really like us.”
After one particularly grueling road trip, Robinson decided that he wanted to quit the band, then promptly called Cross and Krauth on the phone to inform them that Unrest was kaput. “It’s too bad,” Robinson says of his hasty decision. “I think, retrospectively, I shouldn’t have done that.”
There wasn’t much of a mourning period. Robinson, Cross and Krauth quickly went on to play in other groups, and in the years that followed, the three spread out across the country. Today Robinson lives in Massachusetts, where he works as a designer. Cross is finishing a graduate degree in Alaska — she’s studying to become a psychotherapist. Krauth teaches high school English in Northern Virginia. And while Unrest has done two reunions over the years — one in 2005 and another in 2010, both to relatively elated response — the trio has no plans to re-form again.
One reason is geography. “Alaska is far away,” Robinson says. Another has to do with honoring the time they spent together turning their youthful confusion into music. “What we did together will always be ours,” Cross says. “And it will always have its own way of being that’s irreplaceable.”
Chris Richards is The Post’s pop music critic.