Sumac — the powerhouse trio of singer-guitarist Aaron Turner (ISIS, Old Man Gloom), bassist Brian Cook (Russian Circles, Botch) and drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) — have been nothing if not prolific since their formation in 2014, releasing four studio albums, two collaborative LPs with Keiji Haino, a pair of live albums and a remix EP. Their latest full-length is the captivating and confounding May You Be Held, released by Thrill Jockey in October. Over a year earlier, on August 9th 2019, Paulo Gonzalez visited the band at The Unknown in Anacortes, Washington, during a recording session for the album. He took candid photos of Turner and Nick Yacyshyn at work, and sat down with the former for the revealing, in-depth conversation below.
YOU ARE IN THE PROCESS OF RECORDING YOUR FOURTH LP WITH MATT BAYLES AND KURT BALLOU. ARE THERE DIFFERENCES IN THEIR ENGINEERING STYLES? DURING THE RECORDING PROCESS, DO YOU LET THE RECORDING ENGINEER WORK IN A PROCESS THAT'S MORE HANDS-ON, OR DO YOU ALL AS A BAND COME IN KNOWING WHAT YOU ARE EXACTLY GOING TO DO WITH THE DIRECTION OF THE SOUND THAT YOU WANT?
AARON TURNER We're pretty self-directed. I think we all have pretty clear ideas. Sometimes it's helpful to have some purely practical advice, like, about performance stuff. Just to have somebody else listening and listening for accuracy of playing, and I think Kurt is more hands-off that way so we have to be a little bit more vigilant about our own playing.
Matt is very diligent and I think he almost even errs on the side of perfectionism, and that's actually really helpful for me because sometimes it's really hard to be that objective about something when I'm in the middle of it. To have someone else really listening in that way is helpful for me, but in both cases, I think they're both capable of producing in a more classic sense of helping people really develop a sound for an album. As far as what we're trying to do, I think we really have a sound that we have in mind and it's not so much that we're looking for pure documentation of what we're doing because there are stylistic things that they bring to the way they do stuff. That's part of the reason I like working with both of them, but really I just kinda want to have someone to be there who's gonna facilitate our vision. I've known both of them for a really long time. To have that long-standing relationship makes the working process a little bit easier. It's not like there is this process of getting to know someone, and knowing how they communicate. You can just kinda go right into it.
THERE ARE MANY MOMENTS OF REPETITIONS THROUGHOUT SUMAC'S MUSIC. WHAT IS THE INTENT BEHIND STRUCTURING A SONG LIKE THIS? IS THERE POWER IN REPETITION? TO ME, IT FEELS PRIMITIVE AND MINIMAL. CAN YOU EXPAND ON THIS?
Minimalism and primitivism are both aspects of the music, for sure, and I think that there is an element in music that I'm constantly searching for that I hear in a lot of other music, so I feel like this is my opportunity to create the things that I want to hear and it's not like there's no precedent for what we're doing because obviously we've been influenced by a lot of things.
I really feel like with a lot of heavy music, there is not a lot of emphasis placed on the power of minimalism. In lots of things that are supposed to be aggressive, there is something inherently macho about it. I feel like I'm trying to dispense with the macho aspect of it, but embrace the animalistic aspect of it, and I think that there's definitely a difference there. It's not about being "tough" — it's about embracing something that's like an inherent part of our humanness, so I feel like [the music is] trying to tap into that. In lots of different kinds of music that I've listened to throughout my life, plus the music that I've been a part of making, there is something about the transcendental potential that can be achieved through repetition. I feel like with a lot of stuff, you really have to dig into it for a while before you can start to break through that sort of rational mind barrier and sink to the deeper levels of consciousness. I feel like playing in a minimalist and repetitious way is a good way to try to get to that other state of being.
THIS IS THE FOURTH SUMAC ALBUM THAT YOU'RE RECORDING. HOW DO YOU FIND WAYS TO AVOID SUMAC'S SOUND AND PROCESS FROM BECOMING FORMULAIC, OR IS THIS SOMETHING THAT YOU WANT THAT? ARE THERE CERTAIN STRATEGIES THAT GO INTO THE RECORDING PROCESS EVERY TIME?
I guess there are two things: I want to embrace the potential for growth and evolution [but] I also don't want to stray too far outside of the parameters that I had in mind when the band started.
The basic idea was a three-piece, minimal instrumentation, and then sort of a maximalist approach to that format. Meaning that each of us, as individuals and as a collective, would be working to push the boundaries of what our respective instruments do. We're working with a limited palette of tools but trying to make the biggest sonic variation, using those minimalist tools.
I like the idea of a rock-based format but also subverting that through the way that we play doing a lot of improvised stuff, doing some things that really border more on the abstract noise rather than rock parts, really kind of blurring the lines between sound and music, non-musical and musical things co-existing or interwoven with each other. Those were sort of the basic set of principles I set out with when I was thinking Sumac and how to begin this band. I never want to be a band that goes into the studio and does all this extra stuff you know — unless we're collaborating with someone. That is a thing that I want to continue to do, is to allow the door open for collaborating with other artists. I don't ever want to be one of those bands that just labors in the studio and just adds all this stuff that isn't really a part of what we do. I like the idea of the core unit kind of using what we have, and not really augmenting that with all this stuff that isn't present in our normal operation as a band.
When it comes to making a record — though we do certain little embellishments and obviously there's stuff like fixing certain performance things in the studio — ultimately I want what we do in the studio to be translated fluidly to the live environment. I don't think that the structures of the songs need to stay the same — in fact, I like the idea that there is variance there — but just in terms of the way we sound, I want the records to be a fairly parallel incarnation of what we do, and if anything I feel like our strength lies in our power as a live band and as in a group of people playing together, so when it comes to making the record, it is trying to find a good way to translate that energy into the recorded format. The process is very different. It is kind of disjointed to try to make music this way, and make it sound powerful and energetic when it's like piecing things together, and sometimes people are playing separately. It's a much more convoluted thing.
It's different to play in a room with headphones on, and you're not hearing everything the way you're used to hearing it, and getting that reciprocal energy from being in front of an audience. It's trying to find ways to kinda compensate for that so there can be the same kind of energy in a recording that you that we feel and try to invoke when we're playing.
As far as how our songwriting evolves, I'm not terribly concerned with making each record different from the last. In fact, I don't want to think that way. I don't want to be, like, "Oh, well, our last record was this kind of statement. This time, we need to make this kind of statement." I think what I'm trying to do, and what we're trying to do as a group, is just write the music that's the most sincere incarnation of who we are as a group and what feels good as players, so it's more like a process of being guided by an intuition rather than intellectualizing the music. There's obviously a certain amount of thought that has to be put into it in terms of how we want the music to sound, but at the same time let the songwriting process really be guided more by what seems like is wanting to come out — acting as a conduit for something rather than trying to, you know, intellectually form something the way I think it should be.
WHEN YOU'RE PERFORMING LIVE, ARE YOU AWARE OF YOUR SORT OF BODY AND BODILY GESTURES AND STAGE PRESENCE IN THE MIDST OF IT? IS IT A BODY EXPERIENCE VS. A CEREBRAL ONE? IS IT BOTH?
The ultimate goal in playing live is to forget and to leave the sort of normal, rational mind behind, or to even like dismantle. I think that there is a way in which I felt inhibited a lot in my life — like I'm uncomfortable just dancing. I'm not a person who dances. I've also been fairly reserved socially. I'm not like a — I don't know — like a really exuberant, excitable person in terms of human interaction on a social level. So, for me, being able to play live is a kinda opportunity to release things and behave in a way that I don't feel comfortable doing in the other facets of my life. So again, it's kinda like that idea of embracing some sort of ritualistic and even animalistic part of my existence that really there isn't any other outlet for. I was always pretty attracted to the people that just seemed like freaks, you know? That couldn't help but being themselves. Like I know part of Hendrix was a stage show, but I also really feel like he just was in the moment. He had to smash shit and play with his teeth and light shit on fire. He stopped doing that later because he was like, I don't want that to be a shtick. He was like, I did that because I wanted to do it. Then later I was just like, I want to play my fucking guitar. I've always been drawn to that: Like, there's just some people that when I've seen them as performers or listened to them as musicians, I'm like, "Man, this person can't help it — this is the thing that has to come out." And I feel like that for me, that's always the goal.
It's to get to that point where all these things that I feel like I have to restrain to be a normal person in society are allowed to come out that way. Music is the only way I've been able to find that space to do that in and not feel like I'm a fucking freak that's gonna alienate people, you know?
I always feel like I am doing it for myself, to a degree, in the sense that I wouldn't be doing this if there wasn't pleasure in playing it for me. At the same time, I am conscious of the audience in that, like, I have this one hour to do this thing and there are all these people who've set aside their time to be participants in that, pay money for it, and so that is a part of my mentality when going into a show. This is it — I'm gonna put fucking everything I have into this because I wanna feel connected to the people I'm playing with. I wanna feel connected to the audience I wanna help fucking take people to another place. I feel like there definitely is an intent on my part to really just put everything I have into doing that for that time.
AT THE END OF SOME SUMAC PERFORMANCES THAT I'VE SEEN, YOU'VE ANNOUNCED THAT SUMAC'S MUSIC COMES FROM A PLACE OF LOVE. HOW DO YOU SORTA RECONCILE THAT WHILE PLAYING LOUD AND ARGUABLY AGGRESSIVE MUSIC?
I think there's this oppositional dichotomy between the idea of supposedly aggressive music and the idea of love, but that is only kind of like a surface-level reading that's based off of cultural values.
I think back on this quote I read from Merzbow, a lot which I think is applicable here to a certain degree. He was interviewed about noise music and the meaning of noise music and he's like, "Well, if noise is being defined as an unpleasant and unwanted noise, then pop music is noise for me." So it's like, it's all about the conditioning of the intellect of the person that's experiencing the art. A lot of people have been basically enculturated to see metal music as aggressive and negative and hateful. When I first listened to metal that wasn't how it felt to me — like, the feeling I got when I first listened to metal was exuberance, like I just felt stoked, you know?
I was like, Oh man, here is this energy that I've been looking for and it's coming from this sound and it made me happy. I've thought about it a lot, and of course, there are aspects of a lot of kind of metal that's super negative in a way, and I purposely stay away from those themes, lyrically. That's not to say that I stay away from things that are thematically dark, but negative for the sake of negativity or the glorification of violence and death is not central to what I want to be doing with this.
There's a part of me that just wants to make the music and have the music be a statement in of itself, and I was kinda drawn to a lot of artists who did that, but didn't necessarily explain their art. In this current climate we're living in, I feel like I have to express a statement. I don't want there to be anything ambiguous about what we're doing. I don't need to explain the lyrics line by line, but I want people to know that this music is about connectivity, it's about learning how to love yourself, love other people, and finding things that are at the base of all of us, that make that connection possible, rather than this idea of that's often been associated with metal where it's just a rejection of a lot of things; this is about embracing things.
I think that the idea of love is it's often portrayed in pop culture is either like a saccharine thing of like lovey-dovey romanticism, or it's like this thing of dejected, love lost, lovelorn people, lovers spurned, all that kind of stuff or it's like this thing that's all just about carnal love. Certainly, all those things are part of love, but I think that there's just like a much deeper and broader definition of what it is, and sometimes love is turbulent, or even violent or it drags people through difficult experiences. So in that way, I feel like I'm trying to present and embody a more holistic experience of what love is.
SUMAC'S ALBUM ARTWORK, I'VE NOTICED, IS VERY STARK, MINIMAL AND ABSTRACT, BUT IN 2018's LOVE IN SHADOW, I SEE A LITTLE OF A DEPARTURE FROM THAT, IN THE AESTHETICS, AND THERE'S EVEN AN INCLUSION OF SOME COLOR. IS THERE A REASON FOR THIS?
I've always liked bands that seemed to — or not even bands, but musical entities, solo artists or bands — that have some kind of unified aesthetic. Of course, there's some deviation in there but there is a cohesive presentation that goes along with the band. Swans are a good example. Godflesh is another good example. There is some variance in terms of album covers, and different eras are visible, but the correlation between the music and the artwork is a visible evolution. Overall you can see there's this unifying factor that kind of tie an artists catalog together, and also gives you some sense of what the music is. Artists that think about their work on that level of composition, lyrics, visual presentation, live show, and that think about being thorough in every part of what they do is really interesting to me. With Sumac I really wanted to embody that idea. Actually, with most of the bands I've done, it's obvious that every aspect of what is being done has an intention behind it, and that the music should be a reflection of the artwork, and the lyrics should have some kind of emotional and intellectual resonance in the way they relate to the music. All of these things are part of a unified whole. I definitely wanted that to be the case with Sumac. To think about how to put that all together to maintain some thread through everything. That said, what I was saying about the music is also for the artwork where I want to work with a certain set of goals, but also allow for growth and evolution within that. With each record we've done starting with the first one, I try to start picturing what sort of imagery will go along with that music so the music is definitely the seed, the music is always the seed. It is the primary concern out of which the artwork and the lyrics and everything else are. I do try to start integrating the thought process about visuals as an album is in the process of development. I think about colors. I think about shapes. I think about the format, the packaging and how all that will come together. It's like the music sort of allows me to begin a dialogue with myself and also within these different facets of the work and how it comes together. Often what I start with and what I end up with is fairly different and there is a process of change that happens as I start to put the pieces together, but usually there is some kind of thing that just um presents itself to me early on in the process that I just kind of have to flesh out that very initial intuition to something more concrete.
Early on, at least with the first couple of records, I did have a really stark color palette. It just seemed to be what was dictated by the music but I think it was also me figuring out what I was comfortable with and how I could present what I wanted to present visually in a way that felt like it made sense. Once that sort of baseline was established, then I could start to deviate from there or expand on those basic principles. Again, I'm allowing for the opportunity for change, but I do think that the basic things that I start with will continue to be visual principles as the band goes along. I did integrate more color into the layout for the last record and also in the two records we did with Keiji Haino. There's a more vibrant color palette there. I'm still trying to use a certain kind of presentation with fonts. Like very simple bold things. I'm trying to continue to use the same logo in instances where it makes sense and trying to stick with mostly abstract imagery. I don't like the idea of having very literal images in the presentation with the music. I like forms that interest people and maybe even allude to certain things, but without being so specific that people immediately draw a conclusion. I like for people to kinda have to dig into it a little bit, and maybe listen to the music and read the lyrics to try to form an idea of what it's about rather than just explicitly stating something about what it is through visual means.
WHAT EXCITES YOU MOST ABOUT THIS LATEST SUMAC RECORDING?
The excitement stems from the process of discovery. Every time we start on the writing process there's an idea of what it should be or what the basic structures are, but it's really the process of putting it all together and seeing it become an entity that's really exciting to me. I like having the finished recording, as well, but I think the process itself is the most exciting thing for me. Putting it all together and really being in the process of creating. Also, just being able to play stuff live. We have never been a band that's had the practical means to be able to write stuff, play it live and then record it. We don't have enough time. We live so far apart. We really just kinda have to make the records and then we kind of play them live, so I'm excited with this one to finish this record, have these songs be established as well as they are, and then get to start playing live.