Sumac, the metal band featuring Aaron Turner, Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists), and Brian Cook (Russian Circles), will be releasing their second full-length album in as many years on June 10 through Thrill Jockey Records. The album, entitled What One Becomes, marks a push towards an even heavier and more human-sounding record for the trio. Sumac’s 2015 debut, The Deal, was named Bearded Gentlemen Music’s best metal album of the year in our annual lists and they are looking to defend their title with yet another incredible release. I had the huge honor to talk to lead singer and guitarist, Aaron Turner, about the upcoming album as well as his busy life on the road with his other full-time project, Mamiffer, and some of his creative influences and processes.
Cody Davis: It seems you’re quite the busy man at the moment. Faith ( Coloccia) and yourself released a brilliant new Mamiffer album (The World Unseen) and toured throughout the United States. You, Nick, and Brian just finished up a new SUMAC album (What One Becomes), which I have had the privilege of listening to and it is phenomenal. Please let me start out by thanking you for your time, man. This means a lot.
Aaron Turner: Thanks, Cody – much appreciated from this end as well. Very glad to hear you’re enjoying our varied output as well.
Cody Davis: Mamiffer and SUMAC are your two full-time projects and they exist in two very different realms of music. As someone observing the timeline of your projects, it appears that the recording process for both of these albums may have overlapped slightly or one started almost immediately after the other. Do you ever come across any issues trying to switch creative mindsets for these projects?
Aaron Turner: They did overlap a little, though not in a way that presented any real difficulty for me. I find the best way to get something done with the best results and the most creative satisfaction in the process, is to do things one at a time, see them through to completion, or barring that, at least to well-defined stopping points where it makes sense to step away and take a break/move on to something else. The more consecutive days I have to work on an idea, sit down with an instrument, work on a painting, etc, the deeper in I can reach and the richer the work becomes. That said, there are times when there’s enough going on that I just have to force myself into a fairly rigid system of time division where I give each project or duty an allotted number of hours and then move on to the next thing. I can’t seem to slow down in terms of my output or in the various projects I take on – occasionally it’s maddening, though most often it’s invigorating. When I go through periods of working only on the administrative side of things, answering email, paying bills, etc. I find my mood darkens and my ability to stay motivated lessens. So really, the more I’m able to devote myself to my various creative practices, the more productive I am in all areas, and I’m certainly happier that way as well. Of course, there’re times where a break is needed, but I can never stay away from an instrument or a pen or brush for very long without getting antsy.
Cody Davis: You now have one SUMAC album circuit under your belt and you have had the opportunity to spend extended time together with Nick and Brian. Now going into this circuit for What One Becomes, is there anything markedly different you are doing, this time, around outside of working with Thrill Jockey for the release?
Aaron Turner: Well, for one thing, we now have a lot of songs to choose from when it comes to constructing a set, whereas before we could really only rearrange the order of songs from The Deal if we needed variation in the set. An expanded catalog of songs is now a great luxury and almost difficult in another way as I want to be able to play all of them. Another interesting facet of our development is that our ability to improvise more freely and more comfortably is expanding – and this was a huge goal from the outset. The rigidity of prearranged songs feels confining to me, and we’ve purposely left sections of quite a few songs open-ended to allow for constant reinterpretation and play. The ability to surprise myself and to be surprised by my bandmates is essential to maintaining a visceral connection to the music – it allows for a deepened sense of awareness and for the songs to have an evolving life of their own rather than being stunted in their development.
Cody Davis: You, Nick, and Brian have teamed up with your Jodis bandmate, James Plotkin, for the mastering of the album which is a bit of a switch from Kurt Ballou on The Deal. What One Becomes does seem to have some other influences in it (the desert rock-like intro to “Clutch of Oblivion” for one instance). Was the utilization of some of these other styles something the three of you wanted to do going into the album or did James bring some of these ideas into the mix?
Aaron Turner: James actually mastered the vinyl version of The Deal as well as all formats of What One Becomes, and Kurt mixed both albums so it’s not really that big of a switch. The major difference on this album is that Kurt engineered and mixed the new one, whereas we had Mell Dettmer engineer the first album before giving it to Kurt to mix. They were also recorded in different studios as well, which definitely had an impact on the final results. In both instances we wanted the music to sound vital and present – we recorded as much of the material live as we could and kept overdubs and corrections to a minimum. The human element needs to be very palpable in our recordings in order for people to connect with it the way we want them to. Though the only way we can bring people into the room with us is to go out and play shows, the recordings are intended to be as live and energetic as possible. There’s nothing more disappointing to me than reaching the end of a recording process and feeling like all the life has been drained from the music from excessive tidying and processing. The best result for a recording to me is that it sound like what the music sounds like in the room while we’re playing altogether. We did, however, take a few liberties here and there which are not only fun but also compensates for the fact that people aren’t hearing the music live and getting the physical effect that that experience affords.
As far as outside input about songwriting from Kurt or anyone else, that doesn’t happen – we might look to him for observations about tone, performance, etc, and that’s it. This is very personal music and I wouldn’t want someone else meddling in it to that degree.
Cody Davis: What One Becomes feels like a heavier and more chaotic album than The Deal, you’ve mentioned in the past that SUMAC is an outlet to explore your desires to create heavier sounds. However, there are references to the Japanese avant-garde band Les Rallizes Dénudés and guitarist Caspar Brotzmann and his band Caspar Brotzmann Massaker in the press text for the album. Could you shed some light on how you discovered these bands and how they’ve influenced What One Becomes?
Aaron Turner: I’ve never actually heard Les Rallizes Dénudés, though after seeing them referenced in our bio I’ve been meaning to check them out. Caspar Brotzmann on the other hand as well as other adventurous musicians who’ve focused on guitar – i.e. Bill Orcutt/Harry Pussy, Keiji Haino, Glenn Branca, etc. – have certainly had an impact on the way I write and perceive the guitar as an instrument and a songwriting tool. From an early age, I naturally gravitated towards guitar-oriented music, the heavier and wilder the better. This began with lighter fare like the Beastie Boys, Motley Crue, etc. and then slowly evolved towards more and more challenging/creatively substantial music. Hendrix would certainly have been the first of many guitarists I admired that seemed willing to embrace traditional song form, at times, and completely abandon/subvert/destroy it at others. His uninhibited explorations into dissonance, feedback and distortion paved the way for my later interests in an artist like those mentioned above. To harness the power of rock music though the electric guitar and also to welcome the chance and chaos inherent in its form is central to my goals as a musician. Additionally, guitar being used as a compositional tool in more classically oriented structures/contexts has become of great interest to me since discovering the guitar based works of Branca, as well as works by 20th century composers like Scelsi, Penderecki, Ligeti – their music often possess the same passionate energy and dissonance as the most effective rock and noise music, albeit coming from a very different realm.
Cody Davis: I read in a statement that What One Becomes deals with “…working to convey living with the sustained presence of anxiety, and avoiding reliance on musical devices of cathartic release to provide an escape from this condition.” Is this something you find yourself trying to achieve in your personal life? What ways have you found outside of musical devices to escape from anxiety?
Aaron Turner: I don’t know if I conveyed the message clearly enough via our PR release about the album – some of the thematic ideas are about accepting, rather than trying to escape from anxiety – or any form of suffering for that matter. Our culture is so geared towards the idea of escapism, and the arts are often used as a vehicle for that escape. While escapism is fun, and even necessary at times, what I am seeking in our music, or any creative activity I’m involved with, is a more reflective filter through which to perceive, accept and experience my existence. I find that this effort is also empathic in its effect – the more I am attuned to and aware of myself, the more connected I am to others. Connective experience through art/music is essential to living, and so are many of my day to day experience outside of creative practices – cooking, eating, living with animals, walks in the woods, close communication with my wife/partner, shared experiences with others. While some parts of making art require being alone, I’m finding more and more that the idea of the individualistic artist is a myth and that one of the main benefits to both artist and viewer/listener is an awareness of shared experience and connection.
Cody Davis: What One Becomes follows in a similar suit as The Deal when it comes to song structure. There are five, roughly ten-plus minute songs on the album. Each song is amazingly dense and layered, there are giant walls of feedback and distortion, and more. There are only three of you guys and three instruments, so I know you have got some cool toys and gadgets to help create these sounds. Do you have a favorite piece of equipment at the moment? Something that has some sentimental value or something you had wanted for a while?
Aaron Turner: Some of the density and sonic extremity of the music has to do with our equipment, and some of it with the physical approach to our playing. We are extending the possibilities of our instruments through the heavy exertion of our bodies while playing, and by exploiting the some of the extra-musical capabilities of them as objects. Being able to interact with an instrument in a way they’re not really intended for is part of the fun of exploration in this band. Some of the most exciting moments for me are when we reach a point where what’s happening sounds more elemental or like a heavy mechanical malfunction. We’re working towards the construction of non-musical forms through the use of musical apparatuses. That’s not necessarily the main goal, though the juxtaposition of melody and harmony with dissonance and “noise” is certainly central in our aesthetic.
Cody Davis: Bearded Gentlemen Music named The Deal the best metal album of 2015, are you prepared to try and live up to such lofty expectations again this year? It is quite the prestigious award, Mr. Turner.
Aaron Turner: Accolades are welcome and appreciated, though no more than a peripheral concern for our operation. My own need to push myself as a songwriter and performer is far more demanding than any critical reception of the work. I think we’re all very happy about how well received the music has been so far and we make this stuff in order to be able to share it with others, Yet the final result of this new album would’ve been very much the same regardless of how outsiders perceived its predecessor. We want to keep making better and better albums and we want to reach more and more people over time – and most importantly we want to make music that we are directly engaged with on a mental/physical/emotional level.
Cody Davis: I like to ask this next question because I think it sheds some light into where some musical inspirations come. If you could construct a dream tour for yourself and any of your projects who would be on this tour with you? It could be any currently active or defunct bands or musicians.
Aaron Turner: There isn’t one ideal as there are just too many special bands/musicians/people I know and/or have admired from afar that there’s no way one tour grouping could adequately represent everything I wish to be a part of through playing music live. My ideal tour is the one that’s happening now – the present moment is in my understanding of reality, the only moment that we really have and thus the one that’s most important. Anytime I get to play music I enjoy, with people I enjoy playing music with, for other people is a worthwhile and nourishing experience. I feel very lucky to have toured with so many great musicians and had my music take me to so many places – and I’m exceptionally grateful to be able to continue doing this.
Cody Davis: I was lucky enough to see you guys in Chapel Hill, North Carolina last year with Neurosis and Brothers of the Sonic Cloth. It was, by miles, the best show I saw last year. Do you guys have any tour plans set up following the release of this new album? I know once everyone begins to hear it, they’ll be asking you the same thing.
Aaron Turner: We’re currently in the middle of a tour of the west coast/southwest in the US. Shortly following this we’ll be headed to Europe with Mamiffer for a small run of shows. Then, not too long after that we’ll be touring the US again heading out to the east coast and some of the south. We have to split up our tours into shorter 1-2 week runs due to the nature of our lives, so well just keep hitting as many territories as we can one region at a time.
Cody Davis: Thank you so very much for your answers, Aaron. I greatly appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. It means a lot to me personally. You have been my favorite musician for quite some time. I continue to be a huge fan of all of your projects. This has been something I have wanted to do for quite some time now. Best of luck finishing up the Mamiffer tour and the release of What One Becomes. I am sure you are excited for the release much more than I am!
Aaron Turner: Thanks, Cody – much appreciated!
Knows he doesn’t look like he listens to metal, but trust him. He does. He spends an overwhelming majority of his day listening to it. When he isn’t busy becoming a physical therapist at Duke University, he splits his time as a writer for not only Bearded Gentlemen Music but at Metal Injection, Noisey, and Treble as well. Cody can be found on Twitter or Instagram and if you ever see him in person, please buy him a cup of coffee.