The Units: No Tortured Intellectuals

S.F. Chronicle / Examiner, 12-14-1980

By Michael Synder
Fighting a common notion that synthesizer rock groups are overly arty and intellectual, the Units, a San Franciso-based trio that just released its first album is stepping up appearances at Bay Area new wave spots.

Blending films and video into the band's performances, the Units combine the primitive rhythms of the Third World with the relative sophistication of advanced contemporary electronics. "Most people consider synthesizers and the musicians who play them to be cold and emotionless," said Units founder Scott Ryser. "We want to change that attitude."

The band took its novel sound on a recent tour of clubs around Nevada, Arizona and Southern California. "I hope everyone forgets the preconceived notion that synthesizer bands are tortured intellectuals," Ryser continued. "We're into this for the fun. We've played toga parties in Las Vegas and juke joints in Tuscan. Those cowboys get as excited about our music as the fans in San Francisco. Because the response was so good, we're on our way to Texas and the Southeast during Christmas and New Year's."

Ryser drifted into working with synthesizers through his work with film. "I was making films before I got Involved with music," he said. "My work was shown at theaters around town like Intersection and the Roxie. The early movies had actors and plots. Then I got into film collages which lent themselves to fast-paced music. I chose to create my own soundtracks. Later, the films were an integral part of the Units' live shows."

He formed a short-lived version of the Units more than two years ago, but the serious work did not begin until his childhood friend from Redding, drummer Brad Saunders, returned from wandering around Spain and West Africa.

"I went to Africa," Saunders explained, "to study music. On arriving there, I discovered that Ghana was in a state of political and economic chaos, but I was able to connect with a Dagomba master drummer for lessons. Oddly enough, the majority of my ethnic training came studying under Kwaku Dadey and George Marsh, both of whom teach and perform here in the Bay. Spain was nothing but disco music. That's probably what drove me home to become one of the Units."

Once Saunders returned from overseas, Ryser began rehearsal with his longtime associate and Rachel Webber, who plays bass synthesizer and shares lead vocal with Ryser. "Rachel and I met at the Mabuhay two years ago," said Ryser. "She was doing performance pieces with video, and we decided to present a piece with music in a storefront on Market Street. We've been playing together since then."

"I was singing with another band," Webber said, "the Mummers and the Poppers. I was having too much fun," she laughed, "so I joined the Units."

Webber earned a degree In video art from the S.F. Art Institute before hitching up with the band. "Scott and I saw the Units as a chance to combine our interest in the visual arts with music," she said. Rapid-fire images flash on and off two screens on either side of the band during performances, meshing with the band's hard-driving, pulsating songs.

"We try to make our songs visual, too," said Saunders. "Not just in lyrical content, but in the melodies and rhythms used. They can come from sources as diverse as Latin and African music, or even architectural structures. We've translated visual rhythm, the pattern in a building's facade, into scores. You can actually develop polyrhythms based on the horizontal organization of, for example, windows or ornamentation."

There are also classical influences," added Webber, "such as the rhythm line in one of our songs, which we adapted from Stravinsky's 'Rites of Spring.' On the other hand you have a number like 'Mission,' which is pure fun. It was inspired by the fact that Scott and I live across from Mission High School and we've had a steady diet of burritos and low riders. 'Mission' is our tribute to the barrio."

But Ryser still denied any high-minded plans. "My intention was to have a synthesizer band that rocked out," he said. "Other groups with line-ups similar to ours get lost in spacey, metaphysical noise and pretension. The musicians try to imitate guitars or take long, dull synthesizer solos. I don't care if it's 'Switched-On Bach' or robot disco like Gary Numan. All of that stuff lacks soul. Even though synthesizers are machines, we want our blend of sounds to be emotional, not mechanical."

"We never want to be dominated by the machines we use," agreed Webber. "The title cut on our album - 'Digital Stimulation' - is about a person who can't find gratification from human relationships, because he's overcome by technology. If we're lucky, that will never happen to the Units."

The Units will headline at the Mabuhay Gardens, 443 Broadway in San Francisco, on Friday night.