Screamo powergroup United Nations have made plenty of headline-worthy moves from their official debut in 2008 to now. Their first album bore a rather controversial version of The Beatles’ famed Abbey Road album cover with a few slight changes including the Fab Four being engulfed in flames. Things got more offensive when they performed in past American president-faced masks. They were met with further obstacles when the actual United Nations institution found legal grounds to take action against a band sharing the same moniker and a similar logo. In all matters of drama, the group still persevered and only made changes when necessary. Some cases required no further action, and they were able to move onward and upward. Though the group has seen its fair share of members rotating in and out as well, they now operate as a quintet consisting of Geoff Rickly, Lukas Previn, Jonah Bayer, David Halk and Zac Sewell. While at SXSW this year, we sat down with cofounders Geoff, Lukas and Jonah to get a sense of their feelings on their progression over the years and why all the drama.
mxdwn: What’s your favorite part of SX?
Jonah: Just like seeing old friends. Running into people you haven’t seen in a long time.
Geoff: Seeing Andy yesterday was so good.
Lukas: I think this life leads itself to having a lot of scattered friendships and not a lot at home. So when things like this happen, it feels like a family reunion of sorts. There are also a couple of family members you don’t want to see.
Geoff: That’s how family goes right?
mxdwn: You guys have been touring a lot the past couple of years. The Next Four Years came out in July. How do you feel your sound has progressed from album to album?
Geoff: I think this is by far our best. I don’t even really think about it. I don’t feel like anybody has ever said anything to me about any others being better than this. People just love this record. I love this record. I don’t even know how, but it came together pretty easily. There were only a few spots where we got to butt heads. That was just on the vinyl version of it. There are a couple different endings to one song because the vinyl has a couple different grooves that it can fall into and you get different endings depending on which way the needle goes. That was probably the hardest moment on the record to figure out, but other than that it was pretty natural.
Lukas: Super organic! Almost unnaturally organic. I know that that doesn’t make any sense, but all the writing was so fluid that it almost was scary. I think there was a little bit in all of us of, “Did we not take our time with this?”
Geoff: Yeah, I was afraid it wasn’t going to be a good record while I was recording the vocals because I was like, “It’s just happening so quickly.” Until I was singing a song, I didn’t really have an idea of what the song sounded like. So I’d be listening to it and be like, “Well, this one’s really good, I just don’t know about the others.” And then with the next one, I’d be like, “Well, this one’s great too. I don’t know about the others.” By the time I was done, I was like, “I think this a good record.” Then I put it together and I was like, “Shit! This record slams! It’s so good.”
Lukas: Yeah. Super proud of it. It’s rare that I like anything I’ve ever done, and I can say that I love this record. I’m really, really proud of it.
Jonah: Yeah, same things these guys said. I felt like we didn’t really, aside from some of the stuff that Geoff and I did, like conceptual stuff, we didn’t really over think a lot of it. I think that’s kind of why it turned out the way it did.
Geoff: I think we over thought it where you should over think it and left the playing to be super the way it should be.
Jonah: I think it was kind of the first thing we did where it felt like a real band sound with a solid lineup. In the past it was random guys coming in and out and friends and stuff. I felt like this record was the five of us all working together which was cool.
mxdwn: “Serious Business” has getting a lot of positive reception. Pitchfork named it one of the “Best New Tracks.” Tell me about how the album translated into the live setting on tour. How did that go?
Geoff: We are just so much heavier live. I think that’s to be expected. We can try and record it heavier, but there’s really not any point. It sounds like us on the record, but you just can’t move that kind of air in somebody’s living room that you can live. It has to be a physical experience or else you don’t get how fast and heavy it is. So I think that’s just something you can’t really control on record. You know what I mean? It’s just better to see it. This kid came up to me yesterday and was like, “I’ve never been that close to anything that heavy before. It’s religious being in front of the amps.” It’s super loud and super heavy. It’s physical – that’s what it’s meant for. It’s funny to me like Pitchfork named it “Best Track.” Most people that read Pitchfork are just going to click on it and be like, “Nope. Nah. I’m not going to listen to that.”
mxdwn: So you need to see it to believe it?
Geoff: Yeah, and then when you see it, you’re like, “Oh shit! That’s really cool!”
mxdwn: Do you think those feelings are mutual?
Lukas: I’ll say that I definitely agree. I will say that I am shocked at how many plays “Serious Business” got over the course of the coming out stuff. That kind of blew me away that that many people listened to it.
Geoff: It is shocking to me. I really didn’t think it was like a record for people. I was like sure weirdoes like heavy music. They’ll love it, but how many of those are there?
Lukas: It’s translated really well. I think that was the most unexpected thing about the record was probably like how well it’s translated to people who don’t listen to exclusively heavy music or grindcore or grew up in the 90s with bands like Orchid or Reversal of Man. Me and Geoff were like, we love that music. Let’s do a band like that. Jonah was doing it with him already, and it was like, alright this works.
Jonah: That sound specifically I felt like if you listened to it when we started writing, if you listen to the original demos it was clean guitar. There was some Italian screamo band that we were listening to a lot. It’s crazy to listen to that because that sound wasn’t super heavy when it started and then we all came together and it just became this other thing.
Geoff: Totally. 100% it started out like that. When people say “black metal influence” you’re like, “What?!” But now I kind of hear it. You know, we just keep making it louder and louder until it sounds like black metal, but that’s not an influence. Not really. I think also the reason that it’s come across so well is that all the conceptual stuff is so visual. One of the things with heavy music is it’s sort of inside baseball for most people. If you’re into it, then you’re really into it. But if not, it’s just all not for you. It’s just not for you. So when somebody does something outside of that box of dark and blood and shit, just something outside of that box – maybe it’s a joke or something conceptual that you can read about and get – then when you hear it, you’re like, “Oh! I get it. I get what they’re doing. It’s like poking fun at this or it’s doing that.”
mxdwn: You’ve been able to mix up your lineup of members over the years. Are we allowed to say who officially was on the album and on tour?
Geoff: Yeah, it’s all good. It’s me and Lukas here. Lukas was in Thursday with me and… Jonah here. Obviously, he’s been here from the beginning. Then David and Zac joined us on this record from Pianos Become the Teeth.
mxdwn: How have the changes of members affected your sound?
Lukas: I would say that probably David and Zac brought in an angle to it that we needed but didn’t know we needed. The way that they both play is so instinctual and natural. They write so effortlessly with whatever we bring to them. What they add to the songs, like I never know when I have a guitar part that I bring to those guys what I’m going to leave with because it’s always different. Zac has notes in him that I would never play that when he plays them I’m like, “Oh God, Zac! That’s so good it’s ridiculous!” So those two dudes are essential at this point for sure. For what this record’s been, they’ve added more than anyone else, I would say.
mxdwn: You’re really not strangers to controversy and legal issues. How would you say you’ve thrived on the drama?
Geoff: That’s definitely a major component of what I like about this band is the drama. We got sued really early in the band from the first records. We were expecting The Beatles to sue us, but we weren’t expecting United Nations to sue us. People thought it was a gimmick. That’s how crazy it was. You know what I mean – that we actually hadn’t been sued and we were making up this whole thing? But our publicist quit on the first record because he was afraid of it all because he smoked weed and he didn’t want to get in trouble which I still think is the greatest reason. As if United Nations cares at all about your weed smoking! It’s so good to me.
Jonah: I’m glad you think it’s funny. It still makes me so mad.
Geoff: We probably could have made a lot more of the controversy at the time, except our publicist quit. So, nobody really knew what was going on because we didn’t have a publicist. I just still think of him as scared that the UN is going to do something about his stash.
Lukas: I hear you manage a band. Do you also have drugs?
Geoff: In your house in New Jersey, by chance?
Jonah: I think we treated that lawsuit as I try to treat everything in my life like just ignore it and hope it goes away.
Geoff: And it did!
Jonah: It did! My tooth ached and I had to go to the dentist eventually, but this thing actually really did go away.
Geoff: Totally. That is how I treat it. Really good Jonah.
mxdwn: So how would you say you’ve overcome the obstacles?
Geoff: Just by doing that. By just ignoring it.
Jonah: I don’t know. I mean, the only time I think we were really nervous was when were in Belgium and all that stuff was happening. Our first show was Inauguration Day in DC, so I felt (around those shows) a little nervous like we weren’t sure that something is going to happen or someone is going to try to do something, but after that it’s been totally fine. But every time I think we talk about it I feel like we’re baiting it or jinxing it.
Geoff: Oh, totally. Those guys are total wimps. “UN” means nothing.
Lukas: My personal theory is that they saw all the press that came out the gate right away and then they were like, “Oh shit, we’ve got to stop this,” and then they clicked play and were like, “Meh, who cares. We don’t need to bother with this.”
Jonah: I was hoping they would do something with The Postal Service. Hire The Postal Service to do stuff. I was hoping they’d want us to do something together.
Geoff: That’d be great.
Lukas: I was not expecting any licensing from the UN, personally.
mxdwn: So all bands need to band together?
Geoff: I said at the time, “Oh Interpol is allowed? We’re fucked!”
Lukas: The Presidents of the United States of America? What the fuck? How did we get screwed?
mxdwn: Well, would you make the same steps you made before to get to where you are? Would you make any changes?
Geoff: If we could remember the steps we took to get here, we’d take them again, I think. I don’t remember that much.
Lukas: It’s been pretty organic the whole way. I don’t think that we could do it again the same way, but if I could, it would be great.
Jonah: I think it’s cool that you know we did the first sort of diabolically sort of desolate press. I think we’ve dealt with a lot of people. I think it’s been cool. We’ve recorded a lot of different places. I think it’s been interesting. It hasn’t just been the same.
Geoff: Yeah, we change constantly. That’s one thing even more than drama is the change, the constant change that we thrive on.
mxdwn: What’s your favorite part about what you do?
Geoff: You mean this band? Probably David. Just being around David. He’s kind of unpredictable.
Lukas: It’s like those stress rooms that they have in Japan where you can go in and break everything. It’s like going in there with your best friends and knowing you’re not going to hurt anyone. It’s that kind of cathartic outlet I guess. As soon as it’s done, I feel so serene and calm and fine, but beforehand, I have all my regular “life’s difficult…”
Jonah: It goes so fast. As soon as we start, it’s at the last song.
Geoff: Because as soon as you start, the adrenaline starts. It’s so extremely…