In A Stream Of Consciousness With SUMAC

This piece originally featured in our fourth issue (available here) and was written in 2018

In January, SUMAC released a collaborative record with cult Japanese free improvisational figure Keiji Haino. For their second album of the year, Love In Shadow, the trio continue to challenge not just their listeners, but themselves…

We were very lucky to make a call with SUMAC vocalist and guitarist Aaron Turner merely a couple of days before the print deadline for this fourth issue of our magazine. The trio are already in the midst of a US tour, but fortunately we found the time to converse during their pit stop in Philadelphia. We began our chat with a good giggle about Turner’s other band Old Man Gloom, who had shared some hilarious and elaborate shitposts on their social media channels, staging a beef between them and next year’s Roadburn curator and At The Gates vocalist Tomas Lindberg. We quickly got into discussing the new SUMAC record Love In Shadow. Always a fascinating person to interview, Turner speaks incredibly profoundly and passionately about music, thinking about all aspects and angles; something that ties into his multi-faceted levels of artistry being a guitarist, vocalist, lyricist, album cover designer and record label manager amongst many other creative endeavours.

Before diving into Love In Shadow, it’s important to establish the context of their fully improvisational collaborative album, American Dollar Bill… with Keiji Haino. “All of the material for Love In Shadow was written prior to our session with Haino. [Collaborating] did contribute to the process of recording, in that the three of us having that opportunity to improvise in greater depth prior was very helpful. We had done some improv sessions in previous songs and as part of our live show, but never to the extent that we did when we went to Japan. Before heading over there we did some rehearsing that was just pure improv, and the session with Haino was just that as well. All those things together helped us feel like we were coming together better as a unit instead of just diving straight into improv without any structural elements at all. That was very helpful for us, playing with someone who has made their career out of improv and watching that ease and fluidity he had in that format was inspiring for us too.”

The majority of Love In Shadow was written, rehearsed and demoed before their recording sessions in Japan, but recorded roughly a month afterwards. Perhaps their fully improvisational collaboration still had to time to inject its influence into their next album… “I think the mindset we went into recording with was much freer and less timid than it might have been had we not done those Haino sessions. If anything, it was a confidence booster for us and set the stage well for us to be able to go into the studio and do that. None of the songs [on Love In Shadow] are pure improv, though there are sections that are. We knew where those sections were going to fall within the songs.”

Much like their prior collaborative album, Love In Shadow was recorded live to tape rather than using multi-track recording. An essential element in enabling SUMAC to fully immerse themselves into a freer, stream-of-consciousness method of capturing their music. “We had everything pretty well mapped out and rehearsed for it, so we knew what was going to happen before we started laying any tracks down. We did the basic fundamentals live, playing in a room together. We kept the majority of what we laid down in those initial live sessions, but we did a couple of overdubs and fixes here and there for the areas specifically that were carefully composed. Those bits need to feel precise – not necessarily in their cleanness in terms of the execution – but precise enough that the ideas carry over to the listener. We don’t all live in the same place so the parts of the songs that are structured, we’ve only played maybe a dozen times together before we went in to record them. As such, sometimes we’ve gotta go back and fix small things here and there to make sure it is a good representation of what we intended with the songs.”

SUMAC by Claudia X Valdes
Pic: Claudia X Valdes

Sonically, Love In Shadow pushes to be even more primal in its execution, yet weaves a narratively complex web, much like love itself. “I didn’t feel hesitant about making love a topic of this record. The two foremost things I wanted to communicate were the idea that even when life is a struggle and maybe when we are feeling overwhelmed by the negative image of humanity, as portrayed by mass media, love can be a pertinent energy that can be used as a foundation to have strength and to move forward with a positive momentum. The other meaning I was intending to evoke with that is what happens when people’s ability and need to love is thwarted, and how it can permutate into these very dark manifestations. That said our music for me isn’t entirely dark, there is a lot of passion and joy and exuberance in it. In a certain way, though love is often idealised as this very happy and romantic emotion or experience, in actuality it is a very complicated aspect of our existence and in some ways contains as much light as it does darkness.”

It is clear that Turner has thought hard about every aspect of this record, right down to the artwork that he has designed. “A lot of my creative process is based on intuition. Following these ideas that often I don’t really understand at the moment they occur to me, and the process of manifesting them, whether it is writing lyrics or making album art or thinking about how to approach the mixing process or whatever. It’s all part of a process of trying to understand what is being said and what is occurring in my consciousness, and what they mean. I trust in my own internal process to make these connections and give them shape, even if I am not able to rationally or consciously make the connections as it is happening.”

One of the most striking things about Love In Shadow is how bravely the album juxtaposes different tones, different shades. Just analysing twenty-plus minute opening track ‘The Task’ reveals fearless twists and turns. Whilst SUMAC haven’t abandoned conventional structure entirely, their semi-anarchic style of writing and performing has allowed for so many surprising moments throughout the album. ‘The Task’ moves through many distinct sections or movements, woven together through unhinged and abrupt changes in rhythm, volume, and pacing that don’t initially sound built up or stringently planned. The album’s four gargantuan tracks are constantly shifting and morphing, unhindered by time and space. “All of this was part of the plan from the very beginning of starting this band. The basic fundamentals were about combining composed and non-composed musical approaches. I think it took us a while to be able to get to where we are now, where a big portion of what we do is improv, or the very least the structures are pretty loose and are constantly reinterpreted. It took a while of us writing together, recording together and having our experience with Haino to fully embrace that. My interests as a listener and also as a player have always had some connection to improvised music and that has increased for me as time has gone on. After being in a band for years where we performed the songs the same way night after night on tour, I really started to feel constrained by that and felt it was inhibiting the creative flow I wanted to experience. I really didn’t want that to be the case with this band, whether in the recorded setting or playing live. The element of the unknown is very intriguing to me, and with the right people on board, it was really the direction I wanted to go in.”

But Keiji Haino wasn’t just the musical inspiration for this found love of improvisational music. “I first encountered the idea of improv in some of the music I was exposed to when I was really young. My dad was and is a big listener of jazz. That’s when I first realised there was a lot of room within music to improvise. Another massive one for me is Hendrix. I first heard it from my older brother when I was eight or nine, and got really into it myself when I was 12 and started playing guitar. In listening to all these different live recordings I realised how different these songs were from one show to another. Sometimes he only got through one or two refrains of the songs before he completely dismantled them and travelled off on to some other path. Again I kind of intuited that before I understood what was going on. The atmosphere that was there and the energy transmitted through that was really exciting to me. Those early exposures to those ways of playing songs had a lot to do with where I am now, as well as my interest in metal as a teen.”

It’s very clear that SUMAC is reflecting the kind of music Aaron Turner wants to make right now, without a need or regard to try and recapture any of the past glories of his most beloved band ISIS. Turner is a man of the moment and is making the music he wants to make, traversing new grounds and taking listeners along for the wild ride. “That’s a part of the reason why improv is so interesting to me as it offers that possibility of surprise, not only for the listeners but also for the people playing. Part of the appeal is that it keeps you much more grounded in the present moment. This music for me is something I want to anchor me into the very moment that is actually occurring and the energy that is flowing between myself, the people that are playing and the people that are listening. I think there is a lot going on culturally that kind of keeps us away from having present moment experiences and this music I hope can be an antidote to that.”

Love In Shadow is out now on Thrill Jockey.

Words: Chris “Frenchie” French

Cover image: Anne Godoneo

Liked it? Take a second to support Astral Noize on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!