For whatever indescribable and terrible reason, Sumac’s catastrophic and incendiary debut album The Deal didn’t make our year-end list, but rest assured that it’s one of the finest pieces of post/sludge/whatever-else-that’s-slow metal to come out in the past five years. Now after just a year since this incredible new group dropped a complete bomb in the form of six tracks, they’ve returned with another hour of Aaron Turner & Co’s most punishing and musically-demanding material yet. It won’t be out until June, but just know that What One Becomes is a hulking monstrosity of an album featuring some of the most lumbering and burdensome material any of Sumac’s three musicians have ever been involved with. I got a chance to chat with Aaron Turner, a man of many talents and bands alike, this past Monday about the future of Sumac, what inspires his writing process, and getting to the bottom of knowing whether Old Man Gloom will always trick us. Check it out below!
So how’s your day been going, man?
So far, so good. Monday always starts with plenty of things to do.
Oh yeah? Like what have you been working on?
Um…morning time is usually reserved for answering email and doing internet stuff that’s basically the administrative side of being in a band and running record labels. The afternoon is mostly when I get to do the things I enjoy doing a bit more, actually working on music and doing other creative things.
Later today are you going to be working on Sumac stuff, or Old Man Gloom stuff, or…
Yeah, I’m currently getting prepped for the Sumac tour that starts on Friday, so I’ve been practicing for that and also working on artwork for the next Oxbow record.
Yeah mostly some design and some guitar playing, so it should be enjoyable.
So I got a chance to hear the new Sumac record, and it’s fucking amazing, by the way!
Oh, cool! Thank you!
Oh yeah, absolutely man. Are you guys mostly going to be focusing on that, or do you think you’ll be mixing it up with some stuff from The Deal? Or has that not been figured out quite yet?
I think we’re going to do half and half. We’d like to play most of both albums, but we can’t do that and keep our set at a reasonable length. So we may try and switch some songs out in the set every night or just do a couple of different sets and just alternate them. I’d like to do four or five songs and do two or three from each album depending on the night, I suppose. We’ve had some discussions but haven’t figured it out quite yet. The one thing I did say to Nick [Yacyshyn, drums] when we were talking about it was it’s not often that I want to play every song that I’ve written in a band, and with Sumac that definitely feels like the case. I’m happy to play any song that we have so far, so it definitely makes it not easy when you have to choose which songs to play.
That’s awesome! Did these songs, when maybe compared to the stuff on The Deal, has it been more challenging to put together? Or are you guys gelling together easier? How’s the live process been going?
The songs are definitely more complex and a bit more challenging to play but we’ve also, as you said, have had an opportunity to play together much more than we did prior to making the first album, so I think that group chemistry is definitely there now, whereas in the beginning it was just us putting the pieces together and waiting to see what would come out of that. We’ve only played one show so far where we played any of the new stuff live, and I think we were all pretty nervous about it because the songs are so challenging. But it felt good and it flowed together well and it wasn’t as nerve-racking as we had anticipated. So I’d say that’s a good sign.
I was just about to say, because you were talking about stuff being challenging…I felt like a lot of stuff from just listening to the new record definitely feels more technical than the last one. I don’t know how to play the songs so I couldn’t say definitively, but it felt like there was a lot of even “understated” technicality. Was that something you did on purpose, or did it just come out that way working with Nick and Brian [Cook, bass]?
We definitely don’t write songs with the intent of them being technical. The technicality of a part or of a song structure really is not important at all. What’s important is that we feel that we’re connected to the stuff that we’re playing. That said, I think that Nick and Brian and I have all been playing long enough now and have been involved in enough different bands that maybe we just have a natural inclination towards somewhat difficult music. Therefore, in order to maintain a connection and keep interest in the music we’re playing we just need to write music that’s complex, and at times abstract, and in some ways very difficult. I think that keeps us engaged, and that’s a very important part of why we do this.
I definitely think it helps break the songs up, especially in a song like “Blackout.” I mean, it’s the longest song on the record, but during the middle there’s this two minute chunk or so that’s really dizzying and I felt that it helped break it up. I was always curious as to how you arrange parts and decide when something needs to be insane or more drawn out. Is it just pure instinct?
It’s definitely an intuitive process. Every song starts with a germinating seed, and it’s usually one riff or one idea and everything just gets built off of that. For me, the songwriting process has often been about narrative suggestion. When I listen to a part I try to imagine what might come after that and then try to figure out some way to make that idea that I’m hearing. Occasionally, there’s something that comes through the process of playing where I’ll just play a part over and over, and then somehow I start playing something different and it very much is an intuitive thing. It’s almost as if my conscious brain is shut off and something on a more unconscious level takes over. Or maybe it’s even the muscles in my arms and fingers start to take over and going other places on the fretboard. I just have to follow along.
So I feel like with any song that we’ve written or that I’ve written, there’s a very intentional process to it where one part suggests another and there’s this kind of dialogue between me and the song. I don’t really keep a catalog of riffs and just try to pick them and piece them together. One thing is really written for another. As far as the duration and the dynamics of the songs, again, that’s also intuitive too. I feel in my body when and where a song needs to change. You just know when something else needs to happen, and I think that’s part of the collective process for Nick and Brian and I, too. Even though I come up with a lot of the basic structures, the three of us, at least for this album, did all of the fine tuning together. Talking about how long things needed to go on for or when they needed to change.
There are definitely a lot of things that can happen in that process. Some parts get played so long with the intent that they become almost meditative and hypnotic. Other things are used as kind of a spatial distancing tool within the context of a really overwhelming song. You mentioned “Blackout” earlier…
Yeah! I was just about to say, the last six or seven minutes definitely feel meditative because it’s just the constant looping. I really get that sort of vibe.
Yeah, and even prior to that there’s a pretty spacious part of the song and I feel like that offered some really important breathing room because so much of the rest of the song is so claustrophobic and overbearing in its feeling. There’s a wide range that we try to explore that I feel keeps the songs interesting for us and hopefully interesting for listeners as well.
Cool! So I saw the pictures of the place where you recorded the new record at with that huge open space, which I thought was pretty awesome to see. It got me really excited for the album. Did that contribute to the creative process or the writing process in any way? Having that big environment with sound bouncing off the walls, in any way did that influence the songwriting?
It didn’t influence the songwriting because the songs were already really well fleshed out by the time we reached the studio. There wasn’t anything that we changed significantly by the time we got in there. We had a very short amount of time to record everything, so we had to have a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to do. That said, I definitely feel like the environment of the studio added something to the process. The size of the room and just the spaciousness of it and the way it sound travels around it, I think it comes across in the recording, but it was also inspiring during the process of playing. It was really enjoyable to hear these sounds as they were transmitted through that space. The space itself definitely had a character of its own, and for me, trying to create atmosphere during a recording is really important. It’s something that suggests a world of its own; I think that studio space helped us achieve that. It created that sense of place and that sense of being, and the feeling of being inside the sound.
That was part of the reason why that particular studio was so intriguing and why we went there. We had never been in it before we recorded there, but we had seen pictures of it and had been to the town it was located in. It seemed like a good, inspiring place to be. The space itself could lend something to the process and it took us out of any of our normal comfort zones. We were all away from home in a somewhat unknown place, and I think that was really good for us to feel more focused on the work and less distracted by our normal day-to-day stuff.
You guys seem like you enjoyed that experience then. Do you think that you would want to go back and do something else there again either with Sumac or another one of your bands? Or do you think that was just kind of an experiment?
Yeah, I would love to go back. We’ve already talked about doing some Mamiffer stuff there, and if it’s possible Sumac may go back there as well. My feeling with Sumac is that I’d like to record the next record in a different place specifically because I feel like recording in a different place lends different characteristics to the record. I would like each one to have its own unique presence. But I also felt like it was so fun to be there even just between takes when we were messing around it seemed like the place was suggesting ideas or ways of playing. So it’s quite possible that we may go back there again.
Also speaking about albums carrying a certain feel or having a certain vibe to it, this concerns the artwork more than anything. It definitely feels different than The Deal, but it also kind of reminded me of those big landscapes that you had with like [Isis’] Panopticon or Oceanic back in the day with this big land mass. Was there anything you were trying to convey with that? Did you just want to leave it open-ended? What was the inspiration for that, and how did it tie into the music, if it does?
Again, a big part of the process is just intuitive. I try to listen to the music and feel it out and see if it suggests anything from the way it sounds. Very often it starts with something very elemental and simple, like even just a color scheme. That’s where both the artwork for the new one and The Deal started; they felt like certain colors. So that was the starting point for this particular record. The secondary step from that was trying to think about what kind of images seemed like a good analog or parallel for the music, and I just started seeing these really jagged, broken shapes that were abstract but also iconic. It seemed to be a good parallel for the music, which to me is very identifiable in a certain way but also something that isn’t easy to get a firm grasp on. So that was something else that I wanted to convey with the artwork.
Then there are some more specific reasons behind using the particular images I did or the materials that I chose, and hopefully those are the kind of things that will become apparent to people who really dig into the record and listen to it and read some of the lyrics. It’s all part of a grand design that I hope will come across to people who will spend some time getting into it.
So you’ve got that tour coming up…that’s with Cult Leader, right?
No, that was in February and we had to cancel that. We’re now doing that exact same tour starting at the end of this week, but it’s with a different lineup this time around but hitting all the same spots we were supposed to hit on that last tour.
Do you guys think you’ll be doing anything else later in the year, whether it’s a support or headline run? Or have you not mapped out the rest of 2016 yet?
We’ve gotten pretty far actually through the end of the year. After this west coast/southwest tour, we’ve got a short run in Europe at the end of June and beginning of July. Then in August, we’re heading out to the east coast and a little bit of the south while we’re there. I think that’s kind of the bulk of our activities as far as live stuff is concerned, although we’re doing Southwest Terror Fest in October and we might do another one-off here or there later in the year.
Awesome! Well I hope you guys are coming by North Carolina. I live in Raleigh.
Yeah! We will. We’re definitely headed that way.
Well I’ll definitely come and hang out, man! I saw you guys last year with Neurosis when you played at Cat’s Cradle. I had heard The Deal once before, but then once I saw you guys live I totally latched onto it.
That’s awesome! That was definitely one of the highlights of that tour, that show in particular.
So the rest of the guys at Heavy Blog have one question they wanted me to ask: will you always trick us?
Um…(Laughs), as far as Old Man Gloom goes, yeah, for sure. Everything else is going to be played pretty straight. Sumac and Mamiffer don’t have much of a sense of humor in public, although definitely on a personal level. But Old Man Gloom is definitely going to continue to do our best to plague people. We’re working on some things right now, so it’ll be good.