The Units: Programmed for Success

BAM Magzine, 10-10-1980

Susan Klein
SAN FRANCISCO - It is 1973, and the glitter band Ace jet Is onstage in their full platform-shoe regalia. If you were in the audience and guessed that one band member-the one dodging smoke-bombs and Roman candles- looked rather disenchanted behind his strange electronic instrument, you were right. The synthesizer player was Scott Ryser, who would one day go on to bigger things: namely, found San Francisco's Units. one of the first innovative synthesizer rock bands in the area and one of the first of its type any- where.

Though Ryser and the other Units- bass synthesizer player Rachel Webber and drummer Brad Saunders-can laugh about Scott's roots ("I used to get the glitter stuck all over the contacts"), Ryser's involvement with the marriage of electronic synthesizer music and rock has evolved enormously since he purchased one of the first mini-Moogs to arrive at Don Wehr's shop eleven years ago. Units music, which features Scott's lead synthesizer work (comprised of a mini-Moog, a Sequential Circuits Sequencer, and Fender Rhodes Piano all run through a fuzz box with other footgear run through the piano), Rachel's Arp Axxe synthesizer work and harmony vocals, and Brad's Third World-influenced, polyrhythmic drumming, is surprisingly up-beat and ballsy; the opposite of what we've grown accustomed to from more main- stream synthsizer bands. Where Gary Numan drones about the safe feeling he gets from cars, The Units sing a song about driving so fast you become a blur.

Moreover, Scott's performance puts to bed the notion that synthesizer players must exhibit physical reserve when standing at the keyboards. He has built all his footgear into his piano to free his body as much as possible, because as he states matter-of-factly, 'I've got to move when I'm singing.'

The exuberance of The Units' live show is perhaps the last remaining link to Scott's glitter roots. Although, the synchronized visual collage of video, slides, graphs, charts, schematics, stock and "found' footage that is shown at each performance is an idea whose lineage can be traced from David Bowie's onstage rock fantasies back through Bill Ham's original Carousel Ballroom psychedelic light shows of fifteen years ago. The Units' films are accumulated and edited by Scott and Rachel (who graduated with a degree in Video Art from the SF Art Institute), with occasional contributions from friends, and are often custom re-edited just prior to each show. ("The glue is always wet when the film goes on the projector," Rachel jokes.) They may in- clude everything from factory efficiency-training films to brain research textbook charts to Safety Council public service footage, all spliced together to encourage the audience to mentally free-associate during performances.

'A lot of people link synthesizer music with outer-space stuff,' says Rachel. 'We're not necessarily into that."

Scott agrees, "We're more Into struc- tural systems, realistic systems. For ex- ample, we try to show the structural comparisons between a city lay-out and a transistor chip; between a synthesizer lay-out and the human nervous system and a subway track system." When the reels are thrown up behind Scott, Rachel and Brad, illustrating a song like "Digital Stimulation" (title track of their just-released 415 Records album), which depicts the problems of a man who decides to desensitize himself to human relationships, an exciting effect is produced; laughter Is often elicited, along with think-to-the-beat moments of self-recognition.

One of San Francisco's seminal new- wave bands, and along with Voice Farm, perhaps the only one to totally abandon electric guitar in deference to lead synthesizer, The Units were formed in the late '70s. An early Units aggregate included several guitarists who left before they got any live gigs, "and when the bass player, Tim Ennis' bass got stolen," says Scott, "he bought a synthesizer instead and there it was." With Ennis (now the drummer for 84 Rooms) and Scott on synthesizers, The Units were later joined by Brad, a childhood friend of Scott's from Redding, California. When Ennis left, Rachel, former vocalist with The Mummers & the Poppes (members of which now comprise Romeo Void) joined the band, and today all three collaborate on music, lyrics and arrangements. The band thrives on the complex pre-preparation that makes up each live performance, and Scott explains how even a step toward simplification can got complicated when synthesizers are involved. "Before each gig I have to program my sequencer (which can produce sixteen different patterns of sixteen notes), to a clic-track, so it'll be right on. If it becomes unplugged any time before the show, like If there's a sound check for another band, it totally loses its memory and must be reprogrammed. So the Dead Kennedys or somebody is up there playing and I'm behind them trying to reprogram! So lately, I've been sort of cheating by putting the sequencer parts on tape. It frees me to play additional leads or rhythms."

Rachel looks forward to computerizing the films and slides to avoid live production difficulties, perhaps by sound-synching them to Brad's drum beats. There may be problems with this plan, however, Scott explains, because Brad doesn't keep time to the extent that he plays melodically.

Composing, too, is a matter that in- volves the entire band. "We do a lot of composing with modules; with varia- tions on modules," says Brad. "What we get is embellishments and variations on motifs, similar to what is done in Japanese, Balinese or African music. We start with a simple structure and allow time for different things to hap- pen."

Yet for all the rigorous planning and high technology that makes up a Units show, the audience reaction is decidedly more physical than intellectual. A strikingly visceral rock sound is carefully maintained, beyond all the electronics. And even though The Units think their performance will be viable and appealing in large venues, you will never see Scott and Rachel lost behind a hop bank of blinking lights.

"I hate seeing a band on Rock Concert with seven or eight sets of keyboards, and the guy isn't even playing anything," says Scott. "I'd rather keep it simple, keep just one mini-Moog as the lead instrument."

Though the now album, with a cover designed by Rachel, includes solely original material. the spirit of accessibility-beyond-pop and DEVO-with-soul is carried through. One Units lyric tells us to "turn off the sentence, turn on the senses," an attitude the band neatly illustrated at a recent show by encoring with a raunchy rave-up of "Wild Thing."

"When you listen to a recording of African music," Scott says, "you can tell that the people are happy. I think that's important. The Units have more of a party, folksy attitude. It's music for the whole person-not just for the brain."