Whenever bands undergo major lineup changes it raises questions about the validity of continuing to use the same name. Is a band defined by its main songwriting force, or is it the interaction between a particular group of individuals that forms its essence? San Diego pop-punk powerhouse Unwritten Law have seen members frequently come and go in their 20-year existence, but vocalist/songwriter Scott Russo is the band’s mainstay.
“Me in it makes it Unwritten Law,” Russo says. “But when the band changes, it is a new band. There’s no two ways about that.”
Unwritten Law have issued six full-length albums since forming in 1990, and each one (except for second LP Oz Factor) has been preceded by a slight personnel alteration.
“When shit gets stale or when you can’t get along with somebody, it’s just like any other relationship – sometimes you have to move on with your life,” Russo explains. “When new, dope people – whether it’s in my band or it’s in my life in general – enter my life, of course it’s refreshing and revitalising. That could be some of the reason why Unwritten Law is still around.”
The band first gathered momentum during San Diego’s punk resurgence of the ’90s, which also birthed the likes of Blink-182 and Sprung Monkey. Then a major breakthrough came in 1998 with the release of Unwritten Law’s self-titled third LP. The album’s lead singles ‘Cailin’ and ‘Lonesome’ pushed the group well beyond the underground and those songs remain fan favourites today.
“I think the self-titled record was our first real record – our first good record,” Russo says. “The [earlier] records are more like demos – learning how to craft a song. [When] the ‘Black Record’ came out, we’d all finally got our chops good enough to make a real piece of art.”
Next month a freshly revised four-piece incarnation of Unwritten Law will head down under for the Hits & Pits Festival tour, and the setlist will showcase the self-titled LP. Although Russo clearly recognises the significance of the album, he doesn’t believe it’s his greatest achievement.
“There’s a couple of good [songs], there’s a couple of bad ones. I’ve definitely grown musically and [with] songcrafting. If I’m going to be fucking playing songs, I’m going to play some songs that I like as well,” he laughs.
In fact, despite its magnetic impact, Unwritten Law basically marked the end of the first phase in the band’s stylistic trajectory. By the time the follow-up record Elva came around in 2002, Russo was more interested in a slower-paced and harder-hitting alternative rock sound.
“I had been influenced by different music and wanted to make something that was not what was going on,” he says. “I remember at that time every band was sounding the same. That whole punk rock boom was getting oversaturated, and I didn’t want to make another record that would just fit in that category. That’s kind of how every record’s been since the Black Record. I wanted to change and evolve as a songwriter and as an artist.”
By now a large number of Unwritten Law’s ’90s contemporaries have either flatlined trying to reignite their former glory or called it quits entirely. Russo admits there have been times when he’s questioned the future of the band, but he keeps finding ways to revive enthusiasm. “Each piece of music that I do, I want to make it next level and fresh. I don’t really write songs that are B-sides, either. If a song’s starting to suck as I’m writing it, I’ll just throw it away and start with a new song. Songs and records, they’re like chapters. Once you put them out they never go away. They’re always there for someone to hear and to judge and whatever. I want all my shit to be fucking dope so when I’m dead and gone and my kids look back at my discography they’re like, ‘Daddy was dope.’
“When I become uncomfortable and unhappy doing it,” Russo adds, “then I’m not going to do it anymore. For now, Unwritten Law’s a huge part of my life and I love the fans and I love playing the music that I’ve created.”
In addition to the ongoing fan support, Russo anticipates a prosperous future with the band’s latest lineup. The four-piece actually features another founding member, drummer Wade Youman, who rejoined earlier this year after a ten-year absence.
“He was a big part when we started,” Russo says. “Due to several circumstances we had to go our separate ways. Now that everyone’s a lot healthier and happier, it’s really comforting – like going back to your mum’s house and eating Christmas dinner. It’s homey-feeling.
“My brother [Jonny Grill] plays bass and he’s ridiculously good. He’d like to think he’s better looking than me, but I disagree. He’s a talented kid and he’s been in so many bands. He was in Civet for a long time, on Hellcat Records, and he toured the world. This particular lineup feels dope, just with Wade and my brother, it’s awesome. It’s like travelling with my family and playing music.”