“Swan,” Unwritten Law’s latest album, was originally supposed to be called “Swansong” and, as that title would imply, be the band’s final record. After writing it, though, front man Scott Russo and his band mates decided that the quality was simply too high for it to signify the end of Unwritten Law. Russo took a few minutes Saturday to talk about the day’s heat, “Swan,” the history of Unwritten Law and his songwriting.
How do you guys deal with the heat?
It’s definitely been a factor this whole tour. What I do personally is I drink tons of beer, ice cold beer, and as lame as it looks, I walk around with an umbrella so I don’t sit in the sun all day. I gotta tell you, under the umbrella it’s at least 10 degrees cooler than it is outside under the sun. So the kiddies are trying to beat the heat, drink tons of water. Don’t do as daddy does, do as daddy says. So drink tons of water and bring an umbrella, get out of the sun. That’s the only way that you’re gonna make it through and not overheat.
Has it affected you on the stage at all?
There was one day in, I wanna say, it was like Kansas or something where it was like 115 with humidity and we were facing the sun at 3 o’clock, and that was the only day where it took a toll and it was like, “Oh, man, I might be hurting myself.” Other than that, it’s like we’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve definitely played a million outdoor summer festivals so it’s like we’re kind of used to it, we kind of know what to do. . . .For me, I’m pretty much smart enough to stay out of the sun long enough so I can handle a 30-minute set and get back out of the sun.
How have you tried to keep everything fresh for 22 years?
New band members. No, so for me personally, it’s about the music. So when we started this band 22 years ago, we were making punk-rock music for punkers and that’s before punk even happened. So when punk rock really snapped, what changed for me is I wanted to be away from what was big and cool … For me, what keeps it fresh is creating a new piece of art. Every record we write or put out, everything I write is different from what I put out previously. I never want to paint the same mural twice. . . . It’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel, but we are reinventing the Law.
So do you turn to different influences for each album, then?
That’s kind of the thing. Unwritten Law also releases a record every four or five years where most bands release one every one or two years. So during that four or five years, there’s always a band or two or three or four or five that come out and really affect me and my writing and influence me. And subliminally, that influence comes out in my writing. So for sure that plays a huge factor.
What are some of the bands that affected “Swan”?
For this record cycle, Die Antwoord from South Africa, but Muse played a big part like three years ago when I was writing stuff. There’s so many bands that come into play that really change my whole scope of things. A lot of different producers, too, like Mark Ronson -- I’ll listen to his production and steal stuff.
You guys put out a greatest hits record a few years ago. At what point do you decide, “OK, we have enough, we can put out a greatest hits record?”
It really wasn’t our decision to do a best-of record. What happened was the label that we signed to wanted — this is the thing about Unwritten Law. Unwritten Law has five top 20 singles and all the crowd favorites on one record so there’d be some kind of connection. So that was the real reason to put out that record.
You guys originally came out of San Diego when the city was just booming with punk music. Why do you think that happened all at one time?
It was timing, it was culture. It was surf, skate and snow culture. It was wherever you’re from. It was the beginning of Warped Tour and punk and just before Green Day and just after Bad Religion and just before Offspring, just before NOFX. So those things were hitting LA and we had our own scene in San Diego. So L.A. was like NOFX, Pennywise and Bad Religion and in San Diego it was like Unwritten Law, blink-182, Sprung Monkey, P.O.D. Those were the bands that were really moving tickets.
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You have had some turmoil with band members over the years. How have you weathered that and tried to use it to your advantage?
This is what it is. I think that with anything we do — again, our band has been around for 21 years so you can imagine that this becomes a job and a family all mixed into one thing. So when people don’t believe in it anymore, people start getting addicted to drugs and stuff starts getting twisted, the main focus for me is to make sure the ship sails on. The songwriting is basically done by me, so for me if someone’s screwing up or screwing up the chance of me feeding my family or screwing with my fans, then they gotta go. So that’s really what it comes down to. We’ve lost some members to drug addictions, we’ve lost some members to violence, and that’s pretty much where it is. Once again, what keeps it fresh for us is if someone’s not into it — you know, if [current band members] Steve and PK were doing it for a paycheck, that’s just disgusting. Obviously we’d all like to get paid for this thing, but if you’re getting up there and faking it onstage because you want some kind of check at the end of it and I’m the one writing the songs and you’re riding on my coattails, that’s unacceptable.
What’s different about the new record?
“Swan” is my masterpiece. The band took a five-year hiatus. We got approached to do a new record and were like, “Yeah, let’s do it. We’ll call it “Swansong,” the band didn’t want to tour anymore. Steve and PK didn’t want to tour and I was onto writing and cowriting and producing for other artists, all across the board. Anya Marina, Swayze, cowriting with Mike Posner. So I’m everywhere and I’m writing for a lot of artists. For me, Unwritten Law is my baby. It’s like my calling card, my business card. It was like, “Cool, let’s make this record.” And this time — I kept all the publishing because I write the songs — this last record, we were like, ‘Cool, let’s split it up. You write four songs, you write four songs, you write four songs and I’ll write four songs.” That way we would split the publishing evenly. When we went into the recording cycle, we did this kind of stuff. When we started tracking the record, we got about six songs into it and I was like, “I can’t put my name on it because the songs are all B-sides. Either we scratch this whole thing and I’m gonna rewrite the whole record or we’re gonna bury this record.” . .. They all agreed that they wanted to put out another record, so we went back to the drawing board. I spent four months writing and recording the record that is now “Swan.” We got about nine songs into it and we told our manager, “Everyone’s like this can’t be our last record.” . . . I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote songs until they were perfect. I wanted to make sure there were no B-sides, no filler, 11 hits in a row, Weezer’s first record. Every song is gonna get you.