Human Impact – An Interview With Chris Spencer & Jim Coleman

Born from the wreckage of some of New York finest, noisiest acts, namely Unsane and Cop Shoot Cop, and featuring ex-members of Swans and Xiu Xiu, Human Impact were always going to be a rough proposition with a hell of a lot to live up to. Somehow, though, they’ve not only managed to meet expectations but to utterly flatten them, delivering a debut of gritty industrial rock that steeped in the grime of New York, and of every sprawling urban metropolis that we’ve ever set foot in. We managed to grab some time with Chris Spencer (guitar/vocals) and Jim Coleman (samples/electronics) to find out why this is the sound of a band decades in the making.

Human Impact

Thanks for giving me your time, it’s appreciated and it’s a big honour, and congratulations on the album, it’s truly killer. You announced that the band was happening in the second half of last year but how long had this really been in the works?

Jim: A couple of years, in a way. Roughly two years. That was from the time that Chris and I started talking about doing something together, and starting to work on some ideas. We’ve been through three or four recording sessions now, so in a way two years, but in another way 20 years because Chris and I met way back when, and we’d been interested in making music for many, many years. It just took this long for things to align to be able to do it.

How was it that things aligned? Was it scheduling, finding the right people to be involved with…

Jim: I think what maybe kicked it off was that I went to an Unsane show and hit Chris up afterwards. We hadn’t seen each other or talked for quite a while and maybe that was the time we thought about doing something for real. I’d been working with Phil (Puleo) for some years; since Cop, we’d continued to make music together, so that’s always been there. I’d been investigating making some music with Phil and Chris Pravdica, and it just seemed like that was going to be the right fit, with the four of us together.

Chris: Like Jim said, we’ve been friends forever, from before Unsane and Cop Shoot Cop really started, or in the really foetal stages, and I had always wanted to play with him. In one point, perhaps in ’97 or ’98, Cop Shoot Cop broke up and I had actually approached the guys in Unsane if we could have Jim join and do samples and noise stuff with us but they wanted to stay a three-piece. So I tried to get him into Unsane at one point but the whole ‘power trio’ thing? There’s something to be said for just three guys, and they wanted to keep it that way.

What goal did you have in mind with the recording of this? Was there one, or did you just want to see what happened when you got together?

Chris: It was pretty much just getting together and seeing what happens. We were wide open as to what we were going to do. At first, we had no idea where this was going. Jim said it’s been two years but it’s sort of been a little less. There was definitely a period of finding our footing. He’d send me ideas, I would send him ideas and we had to establish a communication within what we’re doing. It took a little while to really hone the sound. In the beginning, it was me and Jim trying some different shit with drum machines and stuff and then once the other guys got in and we started hanging out, it really solidified.

You already did one show back in August, not long after the band was announced. How much of the record’s material did you already have written at that point?

Jim: I think the record was done in August. It’s been done for a while. From the recording sessions that led up to the album, there are three or four songs that didn’t make it onto the record but are fully mastered. We just kept making music and this week, we’re actually going to be mixing another handful of songs.

Human Impact 'Human Impact'

It seems like you’ve really streamlined the process within the band in terms of writing and recording. What is the dynamic like for construction?

Chris: It works in different ways. Some of it was written in the studio with the guys. There was one point where Jim was fielding a phone call with a family thing and Chris Pravdica came up with a thing, and that just became a song in maybe an hour, or 30 minutes – that was ‘E605’. That one just formed in the studio. Me and Jim like writing a lot so we’re constantly sending ideas back and forth, just between the two of us and then we bring it into the studio. Then there are times where I’ll just show up with a wide open mind and see what we come up with in the studio. So yeah, there are a few different ways.

Jim: We don’t have the luxury of having a rehearsal space where we all get together. I’m outside of New York, Chris is West Coast, Phil’s in Chicago, so it’s been an interesting process.

Am I right in thinking that all of you are originally New York natives?

Jim: Well, not natives. What is a New York native? There’s not too many out there, but we all came of age in New York in the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s. All of us have that commonality for sure.

What does that commonality mean for you? Do you find it gives you all a similar mindset?

Jim: In a way. I think a shared history, even geographically, benefits and has some kind of bearing on the sound of what we’re doing. On the other hand, our differences can be our strengths too. When Chris and I are forming something or working on a song, say we have a potential bassline or a drum machine thing, we’ll bring it in and Phil might be playing something we didn’t even think of on drums. That’s a strength.

How did you go about constructing the samples and loops for this record?

Jim: It varies. Sometimes I’ll start off with a rough idea of a synth line and a drum pattern, and I’ll send that off to Chris. He’ll do the same thing with a bassline or a drum beat and immediately, there’s something to react to. It builds up. That’s what both of us love about collaboration. It makes us respond, and be creative in unexpected ways. It’s very much the interplay.

How does this dynamic stack against the bands that you’d been in before, especially given that it’s something that you’d been wanting to do for decades?

Jim: Yes. We both have had different experiences with our bands. Cop was like a real family for years, the family that we chose, but it got really difficult; each time there was a difference in opinion, or a difference in what we were hearing. It was a real uphill battle at times. Maybe that was what fuelled the band. There was a tension in there that, even though it was difficult to be in the middle of, added to the sound. Especially at the end, though, at times it got to be combative. I’ve done other projects, both solo and different collaborations since then but they’ve been outside the soundscape or genre of Human Impact. I’m finding that what we’re doing here, the collaboration is real easy and organic. It’s a pleasure to be doing this.

Chris: When Unsane reached the 30 year mark, I was super-proud of what we did. I think we’d accomplished our goal but towards the end, I was writing the majority of the material – about 90-95% of the last record. I didn’t want to be the only guy doing everything, being the only one writing and handling the artwork. I like being in a band where I can collaborate with people. This is really an example of the polar opposite. We all work together, everybody is very open to ideas. In Unsane, by the end it was a case of, ‘Okay guys, let’s get together. Here are our songs. What do you think?’,  ‘Oh yeah, that’s fine, let’s do it.’ I’m really proud of it, its mission accomplished in my book. I’ve done other bands for this reason; that I was looking to have collaboration. That had really dropped off in Unsane by the end, so I’m glad to be doing this.

Human Impact

Was it challenging to have to start a project from scratch again, having no rules or agenda?

Chris: For me, it’s amazing to start again. Jim opened up a new avenue of sounds and treatments that, in a 3-piece, you just don’t have. You were limited to guitar-bass-drums, and maybe I would add some samples, things that I would go around New York and record with microphones on my wrists, city sounds to add atmosphere within the song that I really thought it would need. As much as I love punk rock and DIY minimalism, those sounds really add stuff. When I start working with Jim, all of a sudden there’s this huge new catalogue of sounds and atmosphere for everything. For me it’s been great.

Jim: Likewise. For me, the ability to move into a new project where we didn’t know what we were doing was very freeing. I’ve been a fan of what Chris does on guitar, and vocally, for many years so it’s an honour to be joining forces.

Chris: Oh, thanks, Jim!

Did you feel that you had to adjust your own styles and techniques to better match the players that were involved?

Chris: No, it actually made me want to expand my techniques. It made me want to go outside of the same shit. Like I was saying, it opened up new sounds and a new vision of what’s possible, so it’s great.

Jim: For me, I’ve been working with Phil ongoingly for quite some years so that… vocabulary? That’s not quite the right word, but I’m familiar with how he plays. He’s a unique drummer and then Chris on bass, he’s brought some stuff that I wouldn’t even know to think of. The way he approaches bass is kind of unique. Like that thing at the beginning of November, where he’s running his bass through some kind of micro-loop-thing… I don’t know what the hell he’s doing!

Chris: It’s like a delayed feedback loop kinda-thing. It’s pretty cool, and when he did that I was shocked.

That tone is utterly fantastic! I can’t think of anywhere else that I’d heard anything even remotely like it. How are you geared up for the launch show, and the Yob tour as well?

Jim: Looking forward to it for sure. This type of music demands to be played live and the more we can do it, the better.

Chris: Yeah, we’ve got that show and then 9 shows with Yob on the West Coast. Then me and Jim are going into the studio this week to wrap up for new ones, and then we get to the shows.

When did you get the deal to work with Ipecac?

Chris: We had the skeleton of a record, and initially I thought Ipecac as they had been really cool when they put out Visqueen for Unsane, so I thought them or Amphetamine Reptile, Tom Hazelmyer in Minneapolis, so I sent out two emails. It turns out I had this really ancient email address for Tom Hazelmyer, so he didn’t actually get what I sent but Greg Workman from Ipecac did. For me, I thought they were something of a Hail Mary. I didn’t expect them to respond right away, but they did. I just wondered who would be the optimal label for this kind of thing, I hit them up and Greg got right back to me. I was in Thailand at the time and he got back to me within a few hours. They were psyched to do it, and I’m sure glad they are.

Jim: It’s awesome working with them.

Human Impact

Will the new material that you’re heading to record this week be for a new album or an EP release?

Jim: It’s not even specifically for either. I’m sure it’ll find its way onto a release but it seems like the current way of releasing stuff is different. Like, before this album release there’ll already be 3 or 4 singles and then the full album. Then after that album, we’ve got a number of tracks that we can release as singles that’ll lead up to whatever the next release is.

How do you find that way of working, where people have already heard half of an album before it’s even been released?

Jim: It’s interesting. It’s definitely fuelled by keeping peoples’ interest due to social media and this virtual presence. It’s the weird world we live in, right? One thing that’s suffered is the idea of the album as a whole, and that’s an important thing. I’m sure we’re not the only musicians who put a lot of thought into how it works as a whole entity. A lot of people don’t hear it that way.

Is there a drive from the label to have music that works as a standalone, and that can be put out there without the context of the album as a whole?

Jim: We like doing it, it’s nice to have this way of releasing things that is real-time. That’s cool, right? It’s kind of rewarding to shorten the time distance between recording a song, mixing and mastering it and getting it out without having to wait another 5 months for the album, so there is an upside. There are pros and cons.

Chris: I think it’s great because the four that we’re doing this week could potentially be coming out next month. Even though the record is just out, we can put another new song out immediately. It keeps the ball rolling creatively, so I like that.

Does it feel like a throwback to the days of ‘singles clubs’?

Chris: <laughs> Kind of! A lot of times, like with Unsane’s early stuff, the singles were re-recorded for the record. We’d do a little mini-session, like go to Steve Albini’s house and do four songs, then put two of them out as a single, then release another two later, and maybe Matador would put out a singles collection because those recordings weren’t actually what was on the album. All those songs were considered as a full-length album and recorded as such, not just done in little chunks like that. So yes, in a way but now, when we do the new ideas, I like to have them really finished and thought of in terms of what you’re doing with the full-length at the end of it.

So how has the reaction been for what you’ve put out so far?

Chris: For me, I just wanted to write songs with Jim, Chris and Phil and see how it felt but the response has been much better than I ever would have thought. There’s a lot of stuff going on now and it would normally take a year or two to get this kind of exposure. Ipecac has been great and kicked us right into action. There’s a little bit of lag because they have a backlog of other things to release but we’re there, the record is almost out so the response has been great.

The press release for the record seemed to push the NYC angle – is this a New York record to you?

Chris: I think it’s a record by guys from New York. Me and Jim were youngsters in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s of New York, with all the drugs and violence and noise, and the crap that went with it. I’d say it’s more of a record with a global outlook. Times have changed, things aren’t as local as they used to be.

Jim: I think the topics and themes of the record are global in their focus. The kind of times that we’re in now are affecting everyone.

I know it’s a cliché but was there an aim of making a ‘globally conscious’ record?

Jim: In a way, I think that’s by default because of the way that the world has shrunk in terms of how things are joined with economies, social media, politics… The struggles that we find in life in New York are going to be similar to those we find in other parts of the world. Of course there’re different realities – my daily life is going to be drastically different from someone that’s trying to get 20 cents a day in India – but as far as both of our realities are looking at in terms of something like climate change, we’re kind of in the same boat, but that’s just one example.

Human Impact’s self-titled debut album is out now via Ipecac Recordings.

Label: Ipecac Recordings
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram

Interviewed by: Dave Bowes