"Hold on, I'm buying tequila."
These are the first words that Unwritten Law singer Scott Russo says after answering his phone for a New Times interview. In the background he asks a liquor store clerk for advice on the bottle that offers the best bang for his buck and ultimately deciding to go with the recommendation: Camarena.
"We have chocolate mushrooms and we're going to Disneyland -- it's going to be awesome," Russo tells me -- plus, tequila now too, apparently. "Oh, Hollywood," he adds, wryly.
Russo wastes no time in revealing the other member of "we" in his planned psilocybin-and-blue agave Disneyland caper: "I'm with my ex-girlfriend, Tara Holt, right now; do you ever watch that show Californication? She's Melanie in Californication," he says before putting Holt on the phone.
"Nobody knows," Holt says when I ask her what in the world she's doing with Russo, "but it's provocative!"
Later in our conversation Russo elaborates further on his evening by saying that mushrooms are a heavy commitment and that "I have to be in a secure place to even do mushrooms as a whole, but these little chocolate joeys are amazing." It is, however, with that perfect rock 'n' roll-esque salutation that I am first introduced to Russo. It served as a great prologue for the ensuing conversation, during which we examined the more than two-decade history of his pop-punk/rock quartet, Unwritten Law -- featuring Russo, founding member and recently returned drummer Wade Youman, guitarist Chris Lewis, and bassist Jonny Grill -- born and bred in San Diego, California.
Unwritten Law left their high-water mark on commercial music charts in the early 2000s with their subsequent LP singles "Seein' Red" and "Save Me," and while the band hasn't appeared in the mainstream limelight since then, a devout fan base has kept them alive and well.
The end of this month will mark the fourth anniversary of Unwritten Law's last album, Swan -- the last time the rockers released any new music. For a band that has already seen a hefty number of lineup changes in its tenure (19 different musicians have come and gone from the band over the years) Swan brought yet another transition for Russo, the one constant member of UL. After a fight broke out between Russo and then-guitarist Steve Morris during the US tour for Swan, UL essentially disbanded. Russo admits that with his heavy work schedule producing other acts, he would have put down UL indefinitely were it not for the formation of his current lineup.
Unwritten Law has yet to tour extensively together with this latest lineup, unless it is what Russo refers to as "vacation touring" when the band can go overseas and play shows part-time and relax for the remainder of the trip. They do, however, have a new double acoustic album in the hopper ready to release this summer called Dubwritten Law.
For me, UL has a special place in my mental catalog. Their music spent its share of time on the soundtrack to my past, but even more so, one of the most memorable live performances I have seen was a UL show in Tempe, AZ several years ago when Russo informed the crowd partway through the set that his mother passed away the night before. She requested that he still play that show and the song "Rest of My Life" for her. It was a night that Russo, who is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, remembers well, and those in the crowd will not soon forget.
Now, after a long wait, UL is finally going to reappear in Phoenix when they take part in Viva PHX, the monstrous downtown festival this Saturday, March 14. UL is scheduled for the 11pm slot at the Monarch Theatre that evening, and prior to their performance Up on the Sun had plenty of questions for Russo when we caught up with him.
It's been a long time since you guys came through Phoenix. What has the band been doing and more specifically you?
It's a long story, man. With the band, we don't tour much anymore unless it's what I call vacation touring. I'll go to like Japan, Australia, Europe or somewhere that is pretty dope, and then it's half work and half play.
I've been wanting to hit up Arizona, but we just don't venture out very often. It'll be nice to get back out there; [you guys] are always good to us.
I just finished recording an acoustic record. We were on Suburban Noize, but a lot of shit happened with [them]. They were suing each other, so I pulled my band out of the label, and I am now currently shopping for a label to have the record come out on.
It's been done for about four months. We're considering maybe even not using a label and just putting it out ourselves. I've been on, like, five major labels, so I'm kind of thinking now, "Do I really want to give anyone 50 percent?" Either way, we're just looking for the right fit, and if there is a label that comes at the right time and says the right thing.
We want it out by June, since it's already finished. So, my managers are just looking to see what the best fit for the record is.
It's an acoustic record, and it's actually a double EP. There is one record which is just me and a guitar, and doing acoustic songs. Then the other record is acoustic as well, but it has beats and it has been produced -- we kind of refurbished some old songs and changed chord progressions. So yeah, it's a double EP -- one for my satisfaction, and one for the fan's satisfaction.
That begins to answer my next question of you when you write your music do you write it directed toward your fans, or is it written for you and you hope the fans fall in line with it.
It's definitely the latter. I mean, I always hope the fans fall in line, but I've never created a piece of work to try and appease anyone other than myself.
I also produce a lot of other acts, and I ghostwrite for a lot of other acts. So, I do a lot of weird shit, but the point being that when I create a piece of music I have one general law and that is to be able to play it in front of my friends and my family without any disclaimers. I think with any artist, you have to create what you feel, and if it's received well then that is a blessing. Maybe that's the longevity of Unwritten Law, because I've never created the same piece two times in a row. It might be similar thoughts, but never the same thing.
I think one of the similar thoughts between Unwritten Law albums is the dark undertones. Whether it's suicide in "Teenage Suicide" or drug abuse and abortion in "Shoulda Known Better", it is openly discussed. Do you live out the songs that you write and get inspiration for those themes through personal experience?
I definitely don't make shit up. I think in the first two records I was learning how to write, and then I wrote the song "Cailin," and that was the first song that I really meant it when I wrote it. It's not my best song, but it was my first single, and it's the first song that really connected.
The first two records I was just writing stuff that sounded cool or rhymed, but since "Cailin", I've written everything from my soul and my heart. So yeah, the answer would be yes, all the songs are very tight-knitted to my life, for sure.
Speaking of the song "Cailin," about your daughter, as you grew older and became a parent, how do you balance the two lifestyles of parenthood coupled with a music career in a genre aimed at a youthful audience?
Well, there are two answers to this question. One, I was a baby when I had my baby -- I was 19. And the second is that I always had this trick up my sleeve that as they got older I could tune in to their interests because they are very hip kids. They have their finger on the pulse of what is dope. I can go back and forth with them on if something is cool or if it's not, and they keep me youthful in their own right. At no point did I ever regret that; my glass is always half-full.
What can the fans expect from the Unwritten Law show at Viva PHX?
That's such a difficult question, because I think one of the cool things with Unwritten Law is that you never know what the fuck you're going to get when you see us. Fuck, we might not even make it there [laughs].
Wade [Youman] is back in the band, which is good. I don't know. Weird shit has just always happened with our band on stage like getting in fistfights or getting arrested or getting in fights with the bouncer. You never can tell with this band. I do know that if we're in good form that we'll be throwing down, and I think that is what Unwritten Law is known best for is our live set.
We will play songs that we like to hear, and obviously we will be playing some of the fan favorites. Again, at this stage in my career I don't like to play any songs that I don't believe in. I like my set to be filled with songs that I'm passionate about. That way I can push that energy out.
I'm really excited to see Andrew WK, and Coolio. Also, Fishbone, I grew up on Fishbone. However, I just saw a picture of the band playing somewhere and I didn't see Angelo [Moore] in the band. Do you know anything about that? Is Angelo still in the band?
I don't know one way or the other [I researched it later and yes, Angelo is still in the band]. You better make sure that Unwritten Law makes it out here and then you can question those guys in person.
[Laughs] Right? We're a bit more mature now -- a very little bit -- and we're going to come out a day early to make sure that we make it to the stage.
We will all appreciate that. You mentioned that Wade Youman is back in the band, along with Jonny Grill and Chris Lewis, who are both new in the last few years. Has it been difficult to kick start the band again with new members? It's a combination of several things. We'll start with Wade. So, Dylan [Howard; Unwritten Law's former drummer] had gotten a gig with Trapt because he is so good. For me, I'm thinking, "ah fuck, I've gone through two drummers, and I can't do it again."
Wade has always been my brother, but he was heavily addicted to drugs for a long time to the point that it made him insane, and he had to leave the band.
When I decided I wanted to still [play], I only wanted to do it with Wade. I love Unwritten Law, and I will play for as long as people want to see it, but I have five other acts that I participate in, and then I produce and ghostwrite. So, I have my job, and Unwritten Law is my baby. So if I was going to still do it, my thought process was this: By bringing Wade back into the band, the fans will be super stoked. He's my brother, and I made him a deal that if he can continue to stay sober and pull it off, I will bring you back into the band and we will continue on.
Sure enough, he got clean. He's more passionate than I've ever seen him, or anyone for this band.
As far as Jonny and Chris go, again it goes back to the vacation touring that I explained earlier. I mean, I'm fucking old and I have a great life here [in California], and I make all kinds of music that I really enjoy doing, and I don't have to leave the house to do it. That being said, when it comes to a tour, I'm going to go tour with people that want to be there and that I want to be with. So, I have my brother, Johnny, and Chris Lewis who is the greatest fucking guy. If it was any other group of people, I would have put it down for sure. Now I get to travel the world with my brother and make memories, and it's a very blessed situation to be able to do that.
That is good to hear, because I know a lot of fans were worried when they heard about the altercations with Steve Morris [former UL guitarist] and then PK [Pat Kim, former UL bassist] splitting. It sounds like the band was still able to grow.
It helped me and the brand grow -- not necessarily the band so much, but the brand. The honest truth is that before Swan came out, we broke up before that. We still said, "sure we'll do this one more time and put out the record," but I had ended up spending fifteen months on Swan because I had my name on so many other things, and I couldn't put out a shitty Unwritten Law record. I made sure every song on Swan was fucking dope, and it was the most heartfelt shit I've ever written. I left no stone unturned.
When I put out Swan, we had to talk Steve into going on tour. We went on one full US tour and at the very end the fight altercation happened.
I guess people have to realize that a relationship between two people is fucking difficult, man. After the honeymoon is over, the relationship is work. There are four people total [in our band] and that's a fucking pretty heavy relationship to keep healthy. I mean, you're seeing Blink-182 implode right now, and same thing with the Beatles, man. They made more money than God, and changed the lives of their fans and themselves, but it's just the reality of the situation.
You know how hard it is to get along with your girlfriend all the time; imagine being in that scenario with three other people.
You have still managed to keep Unwritten Law together, in one form or another, for 25 years now. Was that ever your original goal? No, no not at all; all I cared about was skateboarding, honestly. I was a skater. When Unwritten Law was forming and they needed a singer and they asked me to sing I said yeah. At this point I'm eighteen years old, and I'm just thinking yeah cool, I can play parties and be the belle of the ball. I'll get free drugs and alcohol--it'll be dope [laughs].
Everyone has certain music that gives them that "those were the days" feeling; Unwritten Law has a few songs that do that for me. What do you think makes your music evoke that nostalgia, and what music does the same thing for you? Well, I think that's what all music does. It's a time capsule for life. I think that if any band is brought up or listened to, even like Earth Wind and Fire or whatever it is, you remember moments like when you kissed your first chick, or finger blasted your first girl, or whatever it is that you did, you'll remember that.
For instance, that song "With or Without You" came on the radio today, and I'm like, "Oh my God, I lost my virginity to this song." That kind of sums it up in a nutshell. Music can take you back to a moment that it is attached to for you. It's literally a time capsule.
Music is the only pure form of magic. You can't fucking touch it, and you can't see it. It brings out gnarly emotions in human beings whether it's "I wanna fucking kill somebody" when you listen to Korn, or "I wanna fuck somebody" when you listen to Seal or whatever.
You listening to Unwritten Law brought you back to partying wherever you were, and music does that to everybody. It isn't sleight of hand, and it isn't a mathematical equation--it's magic.
As far as the nostalgic feelings, I try to make all of my music epic. Personally, I'm not a fan of my first two or three records. I kind of started walking around Here's to the Mourning, and then Swan to me is my masterpiece. I really meant every fucking thing that I did on Swan. I spent 14-hour days rewriting and rewriting. I'm very proud of that record, and it was the best that I could do with what I had, and being put into a box of making quote unquote "rock music."
I'm into all different types of music, so to me, making rock and roll or making something that has to be inside a box is kind of belittling. When you tag the name Unwritten Law on it, it has to be inside a box, and as an artist that's no place to live.
I like to believe that I'm a pure artist. I'm not fucking around, and I'm not trying to get rich. In reality, I hope people like it, but I have to make sure that I like it so that when I'm dead and gone, and my grandkids hear this shit, they're gonna be like, "fuck, grandpa was a straight G."
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