How SUMAC Arrived at Its Experi-Metal Bludgeon
The cred that Aaron Turner has earned via his contributions to the pantheon of heavy music over the last two decades is unassailable. In ISIS, the free-thinking Turner and company deconstructed the metal template, finessing the genre into unexplored atmospheric territories, while supergroup Old Man Gloom — featuring pals from Converge and Cave In — have whipped up noxious hardcore, psych and doom mania over their tenure. Then there’s Mamiffer, the band he shares with partner Faith Coloccia, and, of course, the trailblazing metal-centric, experimental and noise label he helmed from 1993 until its untimely demise in 2012, Hydra Head.
While Turner has kept busy label-wise with Hydra Head’s back catalog and with SIGE Records (the imprint he runs with Coloccia), he’s found the time to convene with drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) and bassist Brian Cook (Russian Circles, These Arms Are Snakes, Botch) to unleash the sonically brutal heaviosity of SUMAC.
The trio tore out of the gate with The Deal (via Profound Lore) only last year, and quickly dropped its follow-up, the excellent What One Becomes, arguably the heaviest slab Turner has vomited out over his career arc. As it turns out, Turner found kindred spirits in Yacyshyn and Cook, and the mangled, noise-bathed, riff-heavy odyssey that is What One Becomes is a forward-thinking beast in its mashing of doom with experimental music: namely the influence of Turner heroes like Daniel Menche, Swans and Merzbow.
Not only do SUMAC already have two LPs in the can in just over a year; they are traversing even more experi-metal terrain with the recent release of Before You I Appear, an EP of shape-shifting remixes fed through the proverbial grinder by such sound-manipulating luminaries as Kevin Drumm, Bleed Turquoise (James Ginzburg of Emptyset), Samuel Kerridge and Japan's ENDON.
CLRVYNT caught Turner at home in Washington to talk SUMAC, record labels, Swans, Merzbow and more.
Thrill Jockey has been amassing a killer stable of metal-centric bands. How did the jump from Profound Lore to TJ go down?
It’s hard to say exactly where the relationship started, because I think the first contact I ever had with them was trading records with Bettina [Richards], the owner of Thrill Jockey. That was maybe six or seven years ago. We were put in contact through a mutual friend, and that was sort of the beginning of it. Not too long after that, my partner Faith and I started a label called SIGE. SIGE was centered around initially just doing releases for the projects that we were directly involved with, starting with Mamiffer, House of Low Culture and Greymachine; then we expanded from there. We knew that we were going to need some distribution help. I reached out to Thrill Jockey because they were doing some exclusive distro for a handful of other labels which had sort of an eclectic or left-of-center focus to their output, and that was what attracted me to working with them. I had a feeling just based off of my limited contact with them that they'd have a direct knowledge of our area of interest, and also a reach that expanded beyond the boundaries of the metal world.
Yeah, TJ has a very forward-thinking metal presence with the Body, Liturgy, Helen Money, Oozing Wound, Music Blues and others. Their roster is all over the place.
That’s one of the things that I’ve liked about them over the years. Long before having contact with them, I was very familiar with their roster and liked a lot of their artists. Oval and Radian and some of the other more electronic or electro-acoustic type of stuff that they were doing. Then I also took note of when they started doing some stuff that was more metal in nature. I think maybe the first thing I noticed in that area was the KTL release they did. It was a very natural progression in our relationship that eventually led us to working together on this SUMAC record.
I’ve enjoyed getting to know the Thrill Jockey people. I really like the way they do business, and their focus on the creative aspect of music-making. It’s clear they’re not interested in artists who are easily pigeonholed. In fact, they’re working very much in the opposite direction, where every artist they have might have obvious roots in some realm or another, but is also doing a lot to push the boundaries of wherever they're coming from, which is exactly what I feel SUMAC is doing. So, it seemed like it was a very good fit in that way.
Obviously, you’ve run your own labels. When you sign on with a Thrill Jockey or a Profound Lore, do you feel like you’ve lost a sense of control that you normally would have had?
There's definitely some pros and cons to it. You do give up a fair degree of control. That said, every label that I’ve had a deeper relationship with in the last 10 or 15 years — from Ipecac to Profound Lore to Thrill Jockey — are all labels that I knew were very artist-friendly in their approach, or very hands-off in terms of whatever input sometimes can transpire between label and artist. That is one of the things that’s been certainly a criteria for me when opting to work with labels that I’m not a part of running. And there’s a bit of compromise that always has to happen. There’s the process of getting to know one another, and there’s push and pull in that. But I feel like it’s ultimately a good thing. The process of deeply communicating with the people in the other end of the deal is essential to having a good relationship, knowing where each other are coming from, what works and what doesn’t, and having a willingness to not engage in conflict, but a willingness to be really upfront about what you want and what you need and what works and what doesn’t.
So, that’s definitely been the case with those labels that I mentioned, where there’s some trepidation on my part because I do like to be very much in control of the creative projects I’m involved with. But there’s also the benefit for me where I can focus mostly on just the creative part of an album and let go of the rest. And, to be honest, the administrative part of running a record label has decreasing appeal to me as years go on. I want less and less to do with the business end.
When you first started doing Hydra Head way back when, what labels did you look up to?
Some of the early ones were definitely in the DIY punk underground. Labels like Gravity, Vermiform and Ebullition — usually labels that were run by one of two people that were focused on interesting packaging and presentation, often handmade stuff, things with a very prominent aesthetic and vision behind them. Those were the kinds of labels that I thought were really interesting from the point of view of someone who was, at that point, more of a record buyer than a record releaser. I always felt very captivated by and even energized by records that I got, most of which I was mail-ordering because I was living in a place that didn’t have any record stores to speak of.
Let’s hit on SUMAC. Is there any thought process behind putting the name in all caps?
It’s partially an aesthetic thing. From my earliest exposure to metal, I was really drawn towards what people were doing with letters and symbols. I responded to things on a visual level almost to the same degree that I was responding to the music itself. To me, that has continued to bear a lot of weight and importance in terms of what I do and how I present things. The way letters are used is very important to me — the way that they look and the way a certain letter might feel when you see it is very important. Even going back to ISIS, for instance, I remember the way we were spelling out the name and realizing that the all-caps just looked better. It seemed bolder and stronger. The letters, though they had a linguistic connotation, also became a symbol that operated on its own independent level. So, that was something I wanted to apply to SUMAC as well. There have been certain other bands that have been influential for me as well that utilized similar tactics: Swans, Godflesh, things like that, where the iconography of what they were doing was very bold, very clean, very precise. That’s left a lasting impact on me, and I realized I can put these ideas to use as well. Although hopefully in my own way and through my own means.
Speaking of Swans, they have those epic songs, and so do SUMAC. I’m wondering is that connected in a way, the 10-to-15-minute marathons?
For sure, long-form composition has always been more satisfying to me than the standard rock 'n' roll first-course structure. Even going back to some of the first things that I started actively seeking out, when I was 10 or 11, [they] were often things that were quite epic in nature. My older brother gave me a bunch of mix tapes of stuff that he liked. The most intriguing to me there were Hendrix and Zeppelin. I didn’t want to admit it at the time, but my dad’s listening had a big impact on me as well. He was really into jazz, and to a lesser extent classical, and those song forms are obviously often quite long and drawn-out in nature, and go through a lot of different movements. I think a lot of that had an impact on me. Even talking about Zeppelin, for instance — some of their really long songs where things got spacey and deconstructed were fascinating to me. They went beyond music and almost into the exploration of sound as its own phenomenon. Then talking about things that became interesting to me later on, Swans would be a notable one; Neurosis would be another; or even something like Earth, which was more deconstructed than those two at times. They all played with drawing ideas out, really focused minimalism in arrangements. What happens to your perception of sound and what happens to your body physically when you’re exposed to a cyclic movement over and over again? All of that stuff has a transcendental power that has become a big area of focus for me.
You mentioned being exposed to jazz. What made an impression on you? Coltrane?
Yeah, Coltrane was kind of my gateway. It wasn’t until I actually started smoking pot again. I had smoked pot when I was an early teen, and then stopped when straight-edge became something I knew about and was interested in. It was kind of smoking pot that became my gateway into jazz. I remember the first time where I got high and listened to a Coltrane record.
Was it Interstellar Space or one of his latter-day free jazz records?
No, I wasn’t that advanced yet. That would have been a little too heady for me at the time. It was Blue Train. I remember hearing the introductory bars ... where the song was being introduced. Coltrane takes the first solo, and it was this beautiful progression where the melody was reintroduced and then began to morph into something else entirely. I think that was something I was maybe preconditioned to absorb by listening to a lot of Hendrix, you know? Especially the live recordings of his songs would start with the known song, and then completely change to whatever the band chose to follow, or whatever Hendrix chose to follow, and those around him followed in time.
Is the music you make with SUMAC thought of in free jazz terms, like free structure and things? Is that an influence on you?
Yeah, sure. Other things, too. This came a little later for me, too, but I was very drawn to things that were sonically harsh. I think one of the first things that sucked me in was the Neurosis Enemy of the Sun record, especially the second half. It just became so atonal and churning that it almost dispenses with any musicality whatsoever. Then from that point, starting to get into things that were loosely connected to metal, things like Earth or Mick Harris’ Lull project that still felt very heavy and atmospherically akin to metal, but beyond that didn’t bear much resemblance. Those things eventually led to Merzbow and Masonna and some of that super-extreme noise stuff. That eventually impacted the way I started thinking about guitar. It wasn’t just a vehicle to write riffs with; it was an instrument that was very pliable and was capable of a lot more than just conveying a core progression. I would say my interest in the adventurous forms of music — like harsh noise and free jazz, and even some of the metal stuff like Neurosis — led me to dismantle my idea of what rock music should be, what a guitar should be, and just follow it as a more intuitive tool for exploration. Emotional invocation.
The Deal and What One Becomes came out a year apart, pretty much. How did you knock those two records out so quickly?
There was a long incubation process for me before SUMAC actually started. The ideas that I eventually turned into SUMAC were percolating long before I knew who I was going to make this music with, or even before I had the formalized idea of doing another, more focused band. So, in that way, I feel like there is a lot more energy for me. It didn’t take a lot for me to get all this out. I’d been thinking about it for so long — been driving towards these kinds of ideas and these kinds of songs long before I actually got around to make them in a band setting.
Some of what I wanted to do in ISIS and, to some extent, in Old Man Gloom, was part of the process for me at arriving to SUMAC. There are some things that I learned about playing with those people and playing in those contexts about what worked for me and what didn’t. It gave me some clearer sense of what I wanted to do when I actually started another band again.
SUMAC is pretty heavy. Were you in a heavy music frame of mind that you then conveyed in SUMAC’s vision?
I’d say that’s definitely a big component of it. That kind of sonic density and intensity is really important to me, and it was something that I felt I wasn’t able to get across, especially in the later years of ISIS. The common ground that we could all find to unite on didn't really allow for that kind of thing to happen. So, when it came time to start something from the ground up again, I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew that I needed to find people that were willing to go that direction with me.
Heavy music has always been my primary area of interest. I use the term “heavy” to encompass things from Kevin Drumm to Metallica. They have a weight to them and a sonic aggression to them. That’s been my passion in many ways from the music that I’ve made to the music I’ve released. Though [there are] a lot of other things that are far more gentle and placid that I also find appealing, it’s really my main goal to continue exploring stuff in what could loosely termed the “heavy,” the realm of the “heavy.”
Was there other stuff that played a role in the direction you’ve taken SUMAC in?
There are other things along the way that have impacted me that aren’t really at all metal, but still carry that kind of weight for me, like the hip-hop band dälek. When I first saw them, I was just completely entranced by how they were taking these really abrasive textures and really hypnotic, rhythmic forms and making something that had so much emotional heft to it. That combo to me is very compelling, and something that I’ve looked for across many genres of music. So, when it came time to do my own band again where I knew that I was going to be the person in charge and guiding the creative focus, I knew that I wanted it to be energetically and emotionally and sonically very intense. Maybe in some way, SUMAC is the most emotionally direct band. I feel like I’m drawing from some very deep places and being very direct and vulnerable in the process, where I’m not holding anything back. I’m purposely trying to dig into the things that, for me, are not necessarily painful, but are hidden or otherwise inaccessible to me.
That's a big part of what SUMAC offers me as its creator: an opportunity to look at things that are maybe difficult to encounter and figure out what those things have to say and how I can translate that in a way that feels effective to me and hopefully will resonate with other people who are encountering it. There’s also something ... which I’m sometimes hesitant to explain, because I want people to get this just from the experience of listening: I often feel that metal for most people has a negative connotation, and the only read that they get from it is that it’s angry. That is definitely a component for SUMAC. However, there is also something about this music that is extremely joyful and ecstatic. It happens to be created in a form that is, for some people, very abrasive. But for me, this is the form that most clearly and effectively taps into my passion for living and the physical experience of being alive.
What about the noise factor?
I use that term loosely. I think that a lot of people who operate in that realm would definitely bristle at being so easily codified under that banner. Another person that comes to mind, especially with that particular comment, is Daniel Menche. I’ve been lucky enough to get to know him in the last few years. Daniel’s music — and I’ve had conversations with him about this — is, he hates being lumped in with the noise world because there’s a lot of connotations that come along with that, that he has no ideology tie to. In that way, what he does isn’t that. At the same time, some of my favorite records of his are records that are quite abrasive, totally textural, almost without any element of melody or musicality. I guess that’s kind of what I mean when I talk about noise: something that’s kind of extra-musical that doesn't necessarily even incorporate traditional instrumentation much of the time.
So, in that way, SUMAC is a lot of fun for me, and also a challenge to take these very traditional rock elements and instruments and figure out how to mangle them and mangle the forms into something that is more akin to noise music or really sonically aggressive electro-acoustic music. That was a very purposeful move in my part and our part in making this record. From the recording itself to the way we played the instruments to the tools that we were using. Again, that’s been a goal for me probably since I started playing guitar. I just thought, “This is cool, but I want to push it further,” and it’s taken me a long time to figure out how to do that. I’m still figuring out how to do that, and I’m already theorizing how to do that with the next record. What can I do to retain the things I like about the guitar and making riffs is a big part of that, and also build upon that and beyond it. Through to the point where something doesn’t even resemble guitar anymore, and has such more the wall of sounds, sonic density that Daniel Menche’s records might have.
There is the implementation of harsh noise on What One Becomes, more so than the first record.
I think about this quote pretty often that I read in an interview with Masami Akita, a.k.a. Merzbow. Someone was asking him why he chooses to make noise music and his basic response was, “I don’t really know how you’re using the term ‘noise.’ If you mean ‘noise’ as in something that is uncomfortable and hard to listen to, then pop music is noise for me.”
I thought that that was a great way of talking about how people’s perception of things and people’s conditioning really colors the meaning of sound and music. So, for me, yes, SUMAC is heavy; yes, it’s abrasive in some ways and aggressive; and yes, there is rage in the music. But for me, there’s also this very palpable and very important aspect of joy and passion that’s probably more of a focal point than trying to write something that’s gonna come across as the heaviest riff ever made.
Do you think SUMAC is the band that defines you, more so than your other projects?
Yes. In some ways, this is for me the ultimate creative statement, and I feel like it is what I have been striving for a very long time. In some way, I feel hesitant to say that, because I feel proud of most of the work I’ve been a participant in. There’s other things that I’ve been a part of that are equally important to me for other reasons, but in terms of the statement I hope to make as an artist, SUMAC is for me the closest I’ve ever come to making the music I most want to hear and most want to play. It’s the closest I’ve come to finding a group to play with that really captures the sound of what I want to do as I hear it and as I envision it. There are so many times and other instances where I’ve had an idea for a song or a part and I’ve been able to come with the basic form, but when it came time to translate that idea to and with other people, it didn’t come out the way I had envisioned it. Sometimes it came out in the way where I was like, “Wow, this wasn’t what I was expecting and that’s great.” But there are also cases where it was disappointing to me, where I thought, “Wow, I thought this thing could be this, and it’s not that. It’s not there; it’s not where I want it to be.”