Interview: Aaron Turner (SUMAC)

Photo by Faith Coloccia. Sumac L-R: Aaron Turner, Brian Cook, Nick Yacyshyn

Isis were an incredibly important band for me. I was 14 when I initially heard their 2004 record “Panopticon”, and found myself appreciating – for the first time – how rock music could harness the qualities of patience and open space. I was particularly transfixed by how the guitars of “Backlit” traded phrases back and forth across the stereo frame, like daydreamers finishing eachother’s sentences. As someone who grew up with the impatient, all-or-nothing angst of metal music, I suddenly found myself amidst a soundscape of mindful grace and eternally-redressed balance.

For me, Aaron Turner’s music has always made potent use of movement and weight like this. Along with his work in Isis, his band Old Man Gloom create alternations in forces: accumulating potential energy via levitational passages of noise and ambience, before letting the sound crash to the floor in bursts of sludge and ugly hardcore. Lotus Eaters hang guitar improvisations from the ceiling like pendulumic sculptures, fixating as much on the emptiness on either side as on the gentle sway of the object itself. With the bludgeoning, chicaning rock compositions of his new band SUMAC, Turner seems to be pushing back against the path of inevitability: sudden shifts in speed, sudden swerves in stylistic intent, sudden explosions of volume. “What One Becomes” is the second SUMAC record after last year’s “The Deal”, and furthers the trio’s experiments in sabotaging their own momentum. Below, Turner and I discuss the importance of being scared by one’s own output, and how being the primary creative drive of the group is as much a burden as it is a liberation.

How are you doing?

Good. I’m a couple of days away from the start of our next tour. I’m feeling a little bit crazed at the moment, but I’m also looking forward to heading out on the road and getting to play our music live again.

Why do you feel crazed? Because of all of the preparation?

I have a tendency to over-commit myself, and often find that I can’t accomplish half the amount of things I need to. That’s just my normal mode of operating, and it just gets compounded any time I leave for a trip. That said, I enjoy all of the things I get to do – I just need to learn to be a bit better to saying no to certain things, and maybe also learning how to manage my time a bit better.

I guess there are pros and cons to that. I can imagine that you find yourself presented with some great opportunities because you promise so much to your future self, even it can all get on top of you.

Yeah. Like I said I have a hard time saying no to things, but I also have a bad habit of initiating projects with all kinds of different people – all due to a massive enthusiasm for being connected to people and music, and releasing records that I feel strongly about. It all comes from a good place.

For as long as I’ve been listening to your music you’ve been incredibly prolific, but there’s never been a sense that you’ve been spreading yourself too thinly. All of the albums you release feel so invested and rich. I know that some artists in your position would feel as though they’re taking on too many projects to allow for adequate focus on each individually – is that not a concern for you?

I think the place that it becomes apparent that I’m spreading myself too thinly is at home, where I start to stress about not being able to do everything that I’m supposed to be doing. Or it might be apparent in my email inbox, where there are tons of unanswered messages. But as far as music is concerned, I’m compelled to do things to the best of my ability, or the best that I feel I can do them. With maybe a few exceptions, I’ve never let anything go until it’s reached the point where I feel good about it, and I feel that I’ve pushed the ideas as far I can. So in that way, I’m pretty devoted to the work. I wouldn’t say I have a perfectionist streak as I don’t believe in the idea that a work or a song could be perfect, but I do believe that I have to follow an idea through – however long it takes – to a conclusion that feels satisfying to me.

For how long does that feeling persist? Do you ever look back on these works and wonder whether things could have been done differently, or do they feel as satisfying as they did at the time of release?

There are often things that I can look back on and wish that I’d done differently. I realise that part of that is that I continue to evolve as a person and continue to grow as a creative. If everything felt good in perpetuity, I think it would be a sign that something was wrong. That would mean that I hadn’t progressed past the point I was at when something was being created. I look at all of these things as momentary expressions of what was happening at that time, and what I was capable of at the moment, and what I was experiencing and feeling and thinking at the moment. Those things inevitably change as soon as the moment is gone.

Speaking of the sense of investment in your work; I’ve been enjoying this new SUMAC record a lot. It seems to have come out incredibly quickly on the back of last year’s debut, The Deal. Is that indicative of the momentum within SUMAC at present?

Yeah, absolutely. There’s a sense of immediacy about pursuing it, and maybe the other two members feel that to a certain extent as well. I’m the person who’s spearheading it and pushing it along, especially as far as the songwriting is concerned. After The Deal came out we were able to do some touring, but due to the schedules and commitments all three of us had, we weren’t able to do as much as we perhaps would have liked it. In lieu of doing a lot of live performances, I just went straight back into writing another record.

Through the process of writing both records, I just felt like there was this well of ideas. Whenever I sat down to play the guitar, they just kept coming out – it was almost as though I couldn’t keep up with the stream. It was basically just a process of trying to capture each idea as it came out and refining it to some extent, although not a great extent – I want these things to remain a little bit raw and unprocessed – and then immediately moving on to the next piece. While I feel there’s a good amount of careful composition going on in these songs, I also feel like there’s a lot of emphasis on capturing an idea as soon as it comes out; not second-guessing it too much and just trusting in the idea, and trusting the subconscious internal narrative that’s helping bring these things out.

SUMAC

To what extent was the creation process of What One Becomes guided by your experience creating The Deal? This new record sounds like a more complicated record to me; there are a lot more subversive turns and chicanes in the narrative of each track.

The process was similar. Again, this goes back to what we were talking about in terms of what was going on at that moment. When I was writing The Deal, I was really trying to push myself as a songwriter and a guitar player in terms of thinking about how the song structures were built. In some ways it was all theoretical, because at least half that record was written before I even had bandmates to play the music with. It was just about writing the music I really wanted to hear and really wanted to play, and hoping that I’d find the write people to make it with. In that sense The Deal was truly an experiment, both in terms of what I might be capable of as a songwriter, and also what would happen with this completely untested group of people playing together. Nick [Yacyshyn, drums] and I did a fair amount of work together leading up to The Deal, but Brian [Cook, bass] didn’t get a chance to play with us until he actually went into the studio to play his bass tracks for that record. It was all very much about rooting around in the dark and hoping for the best.

When it was time to write What One Becomes, I feel that I had a better grasp on what our group chemistry was and what each of us was capable of. In some way, as challenging as The Deal was, I feel like this record upped the ante – we knew what we had done already, and this was a chance to push it even further on all levels. For me, this record feels more dangerous in the sense that there was more of a potential for failure, because it’s so complex and so loose in certain areas. There’s a purposeful combining of carefully-constructed stuff and then totally chaotic, almost totally improvised stuff as well. In that way, this is a more dangerous and anxiety-inducing record. But because of all that, it’s an even more interesting record. I feel like I need to write and play stuff that scares me, otherwise I become detached from the work and it feels too safe. I can easily predict what’s going to come out of it.

“Scare” is an interesting word. What do you mean by that?

I don’t want to fail at playing music, and I don’t want to fail at achieving the goals I’ve set for myself. But I also know where my limitations are, and I often try to push myself beyond those limitations. I do get scared about fucking up or making a bad song, or playing that song poorly live. There’s a degree of self-consciousness about it, where I know that I’m putting myself on the line and in a vulnerable position. I think that’s good – that kind of risk is necessary.

There’s another facet of that too, which has more to do with the lyrics and the conceptual end of the music. To some extent with The Deal but even more so with this record, I dug into some personal issues that are really challenging. They’re at the heart of my greatest difficulties and obstacles in life, and I was trying to address them more openly than I ever have before. So in that way there’s also an element of fear; not so much in what I expose to other people, but more in terms of what kind of headspace and heartspace I bring myself to by delving into that stuff.

I was going to bring up the concept of the record. I understand that it’s to do with wanting to avoid a reliance on using music as a means of cathartic release. Why is this something you want to aim for?

It’s not so much that I don’t want to rely on it as a therapeutic outlet, because that’s what it is for me. I guess what I’m trying to avoid is the continual process of cathartic release. Partially because I feel like that’s a cliché that can be associated with the music and mirrored in musical structure; the idea of constant tension and release, building to climax and climactic release. Even though those are part of the music, what’s interesting to me now is the idea of sustained tension. Partially because it’s an interesting musical device, but also because it’s an interesting parallel to personal experience. I want music to be, in some ways, an accurate reflection of my life experiences. Life is, especially as an adult, a lot more complicated and multi-faceted than just a simple idea of “build and release”.

There are a lot of times in life where there is sustained uncertainty. There are these prolonged periods where I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m uncomfortable with that and don’t know how to deal with it. In thinking about the music, I wanted to be able to reflect that, and also think about what it means to confront unresolvable issues – things that don’t have easy answers. I think a lot of aspects of our culture are geared toward solution and resolve, and I don’t think that’s really a realistic way to live – to think that there’s always going to be a way out, or a way to immediately feel better, or a way to fix your problems. I think this ultimately leads to more suffering rather than the opposite. In some ways, this has a lot to do with being able to live in uncomfortable circumstances and accept them, and also accept my own limitations in terms of how I can feel with those things and what kind of person I can be in difficult circumstances.

So do you find that the creation of music, and this album in particular, helps to generate that reflection and acceptance?

Yes, it does. Going back to when you asked about being scared and being fearful – I think that being able to live with, look at and confront the more difficult sides of experience is a really healthy thing to do. In doing that with the music…it’s like the idea of immersion therapy, where you allow yourself to feel the feelings that you don’t want to feel in order to deal with them and let go of them. So yes – I think the music is a reflection of that at times, where I purposefully write stuff that makes me uncomfortable and keeps me in a state of suspended tension, and doesn’t offer easy resolve. Or at times it goes in a direction that is completely unexpected, which is another accurate reflection of how life goes for me. Even difficult things can lead to results that, if not what you wanted, are what you needed.

Given that you’re the primary creative drive in SUMAC, what’s it like to be able to confront this sort of subject matter without having to negotiate with other creative forces in the band?

Well, it’s liberating but it’s sometimes a burden. It’s liberating in that I don’t feel confined by needing to cater to other people. Brian and Nick have both basically said that they trust me in terms of interaction, and that they’re on board with the overall plan. In that sense it’s not a total dictatorship – there’s still flexibility and fluidity in terms of the songwriting process – but I also feel that they do trust me, and that this is the kind of situation I wanted. I wanted to be able to direct the band and shape the sound in a way. So that’s nice, because there are no constraints in the writing, and I don’t have to justify what I’m doing to them. I do go into some detail as to what my intentions are in the songwriting process at times, but for the most part I feel that they totally get it. At some level, they must derive a similar experience and a similar satisfaction from the process. I think that’s part of the reason that it’s worked as well as it has; we’re all looking for the same things, and have the same sort of goals in terms of what we want to get out of music.

The occasional burden for me is that I do second-guess myself. Given that this isn’t a completely democratic process, I can’t rely on them to totally help me shape the music, or I can’t defer responsibility for what’s happening. I just have to have faith in my ideas and try to remind myself that these are risks worth taking, and that they’ve signed on for it – if I lead us down a wrong path in a song here or there, it’s not the end of the world. So far, that doesn’t seem to have happened.

BY FAITH COLOCCIA

BY FAITH COLOCCIA

There are quite a few moments on this record that are very sudden and unexpected. In particular, I’m thinking of those blastbeats in the closing moments of “Will To Reach”; I was really taken aback by such a subversion of pace arriving so late into the record. How much of that is part of a deliberate desire to tug the rug from beneath the listener?

I would say that a lot of it is deliberate. I don’t like predictable songwriting. As far back as I can remember, I’ve tried to make song structures that avoid conventional rock paradigms. For me, that’s not so much about defying audience expectations – although I do like to keep people on their toes, as I think it’s important to keep people engaged – but it’s more so for me as a player. The older I get and the more I play music, the less inclined I am towards repetitive performances of ideas. I find that I need those harsh juxtapositions at times. I like the idea of things flowing together, and there’s a time and a place for that for that in music as well. Sometimes I just need those hard left turns into unexpected spaces. It keeps me engaged in the music.

Again, I think that’s a good parallel for life, in how I want to be able to convey emotion through music. Emotion is very unpredictable, and there have been times where I’ve felt completely sidelined or railroaded by something I wasn’t expecting, and a whole part of my being has been uncovered in a way that I wasn’t at all expecting. That’s kind of shocking, but it’s also a confirmation of awareness and consciousness and being alive. In that sense, the songs are supposed to make people aware of their bodies, what’s going on with them and, at times, calling into question what it means to be aware and be a living, breathing being.

Hearing your thoughts on how this music is designed to conjure an awareness of body and the fluctuations of being, I’d imagine that at least a certain portion of that sentiment is most potently delivered through live performance.

Yeah, definitely. There’s a very physical aspect to the music, and that’s something that would certainly carry over more into the live setting. On both records, I feel that we tried to capture as much of the energy of being in the room as we could, but there’s only so far that can go. I do feel that, first and foremost, this is living music that is best experienced as it’s being made. That goes for us as players and as listeners, as well. I realise that many more people will hear the record than see us live and hopefully that’s enough, but I also hope that we can play out enough – and in enough different places – that people do get to experience this with us, because the physicality of it is a huge factor in its potency.

Speaking of which, you’re playing in Europe and the UK for the first time in June and July. How are you feeling about that? Is there anything unique about taking something completely fresh over to Europe?

I am reminded of the first time I went over with ISIS, which I think was some time around 2003. I was feeling excited about it and unsure as to how it was going to go, and was just grateful that to go somewhere and play shows so far away from where I’m from. That’s the way I’m feeling about this. One of the main reasons I make music in the public form is to share it with people. I really want to do that and I’m excited about it. Getting to do that in Europe is a special privilege.

In many ways, Europe feels like it’s been a really important place for me in terms of my musical development. A lot of the bands I’ve been influenced by have come from Europe, and a lot of the best experiences I’ve had as a touring musician have been there. There are a lot of people over there – friends I’ve met over the years – that I don’t get to see often. Tour is pretty much the only opportunity I have to do that. I’m definitely looking forward to it and I’m curious to see how it goes.

I presume you’ll be forming part of the live Mamiffer lineup, too. What’s it like having to adopt two different headspaces in a single evening? 

I did that a few years ago when Mamiffer supported for ISIS on one of our European tours, and at the time it was a difficult set of circumstances. It was essentially the beginning of my involvement in Mamiffer and towards the end of ISIS. I felt like I was caught between different selves, but that had as much to do with my personal life as it did with my creative life.

So I can’t really say what it’s going to be like for me this time. I will say that all the people involved in these two groups are people that I enjoy travelling with, and we’ve all spent some time together as a group and have gotten along really well. As different as the music is, I don’t feel that it’s going to be a taxing transition to go from one to the next. If anything, I feel that it’ll be invigorating. Part of the reason I’ve been involved in so many projects over the years is that I can’t do one thing – there are too many areas of music I want to explore to confine myself to one band. This is a good opportunity to have a unified but very different experience with two different bands. For one they’re both stylistically different, but also I’m a supporting musician in Mamiffer, whereas I’m the leader of SUMAC. I’d say it’s a good cross-section of ways of seeing music.

In the case of the show in London, I suppose you’ve got Justin Broadrick’s set as JK Flesh to help cleanse yourself in between your two sets, too.

Yeah, it’ll be nice to have a bit of a break. The only unfortunate aspect of that is that I’ve never been able to see JK Flesh live. Of course I’ve seen Justin’s other projects. But I’d like to see JK Flesh purely from a spectator standpoint, which isn’t the easiest thing to do when you’re also playing the show. Hopefully I’ll have enough breathing room to at least absorb a few songs and not be thinking too much about what just happened or what’s coming next.

SUMAC on Facebook – www.facebook.com/SUMACBAND
Aaron Turner’s blog – aaronbturner.blogspot.co.uk
SUMAC / Mamiffer European Tour Dates – sigerecords.blogspot.co.uk