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By: Gavin Brown
Aaron Turner is not a man to sit back and rest on his laurels despite all he has achieved in his rich and varied career in music. This is a man who is constantly creating and with an upcoming Sumac album as well as a new Mamiffer record, he is as busy as he has ever been and relishing the opportunity to create further musical genius. Aaron took time out from his busy schedule to have a chat with Gavin Brown about the insight of both the stunning new Sumac and Mammifer records as well as Isis and his many other musical projects, Hydra Head Records, the physicality of sound and a whole lot more.
(((o))): The new Sumac album What One Becomes is out in June and sounds just as furious and epic as your first album. How did the recording of the album go and did you write together as a band again?
Aaron: The writing process for me began as a solitary endeavour, which is pretty much how the first record began too. I had a long writing period, intensive is a better word actually, of about eight months or so, working out individual parts and then building songs around those as I worked out the structures. I made very rough, guitar only demos and sent those to Nick [Yacyshyn] and Brian [Cook] so they had an idea of the firms I had in mind and then we had a quick, but also very intensive writing session together. First it was just Nick and I mapping out different sections and then, again making rough demos and sending those to Brian and then gathering them all together close to the recording session itself, finishing the structures and fine tuning all the parts so it was kind of a multi-part process that began with me and ended as a group effort.
(((o))): How did the inception of Sumac come together?
Aaron: I had ideas and a way of writing songs and structuring music and kind of a sound I was hearing in my head that started some time ago, when I was still in Isis. At the time I was hoping it was the direction that Isis was going to take, but I didn’t have the tools I needed to write in this way that I was imagining and also the collective effort of Isis just led us in a different direction. But the concept of how I wanted to write this music, that eventually became Sumac, started probably in the early 2000s, but I didn’t really start writing this specific material until 2011 or 2012 I think and it didn’t really begin in a very focussed fashion. It came out of playing guitar and finding parts that I liked, I also needed a break from being in a full time band of my own although I had been playing in Mamiffer and Old Man Gloom. Neither of those bands were as concentrated as Isis was, not was I the primary songwriter either so I think I just needed some time for ideas to percolate without actively pursuing them.
Sometime in 2013, I started thinking about other people I wanted to play with and I wanted to find exactly the right people who would fit aesthetically what I was thinking of and bringing their own creativity to the table, but also to get behind the very specific idea I had for what the music was going to sound like. I first started looking for a drummer as I knew that was going to be the biggest and most important piece of the puzzle and it took me quite some time to find the right person and it ended up being Nick after I saw him play in Baptists in Seattle and then a year later, I made contact with him through our mutual friend Kurt Ballou and that was sort of the beginning of forming the line-up. Shortly after that, I asked Brian about playing bass, he and I have been friends for a long time and he played on quite a few of the Mamiffer records and we were talking about doing some sort of project together for a while. I knew his sound and also his way of thinking about music would be very appropriate for Sumac and that solidified the line-up.
(((o))): Sumac have a very raw and heavy sound, was it your intention to be as heavy as you could?
Aaron: Yeah, I think I want to push it even further, the density that I want to try and achieve and the sonic quality of the sound that we make, and I definitely wanted to try and achieve that kind of weight and depth with a very limited line-up. I felt like less was definitely more in this instance and everybody’s playing and specific way if playing was a crucial part of creating this kind of sonic quality. I keep pushing myself further and the idea is not to make something extreme for the sake of extremity, but to find new ways of playing, new techniques and developing sound that incorporates some level of musicality, but also just something that is even more physical, just about the physical quality of the impact of the sound. In that sense, it’s as much of a physical experience as it is a musical experience.
(((o))): It seems like maybe the heavier Amphetamine Reptile bands would be a significant reference point for the Sumac sound, is that the case?
Aaron: I wasn’t thinking necessarily of AmRep bands per se, but that type of song writing that became more prevalent in the 90s and maybe early 2000s would have had an impact on the way that I was thinking about this music and beyond the AmRep kind of realm so Caspar Brötzmann Massaker, Swans, stuff like that, that was coming from the intersection between modern composition, noise music and visceral rock n roll. That was very much the well spring of a lot of the ideas that eventually coalesced into Sumac.
(((o))): This will be the second Sumac album released in just over a year, did you want to get the material out there as soon as you could?
Aaron: Yeah, there definitely is an urgency to it and as I mentioned, I spent some time away from directing my own band and once I got started again, I was really enjoying it and enjoying playing with Nick and Brian. I also felt that this was a pretty fertile time for song writing for me, the material, once it started coming felt kind of endless and I wanted to tap that source while I had access to it. I felt like the practice of playing music regularly helps keep that going, but it was also a matter of time and place and inspiration so I’m taking advantage of it while it’s there. The other factor is that we haven’t been able to play live and tour very frequently so that allowed more room and time for writing more music that I think is a very good trade off.
(((o))): The new Mamiffer album The World Unseen is stunning and beautiful. What were some of the inspirations for this record?
Aaron: That question would be better posed for Faith [Coloccia] as she’s the primary songwriter in Mamiffer, but I can tell you that a lot of it is drawn directly from life experiences that Faith and secondly I had been through together and these kind of profound life experienced shaped not only the ideas behind the revised, but also the way in which the record was made. A lot of it was made at home, there was a lot of shaping the record over a long period of time and I think that process of reflection and living through the process of making the record, what the record was about had a big impact on the way it eventually was finalised. As I said, Faith is the primary songwriter and my role initially is some sort of an advisory role. She would come up with parts and ask me about structuring and what she was heating in her head, I could offer feedback and when it came to start fleshing out the songs, I started adding my pieces and giving her feedback on how I was contributing songs and what more was needed, what could be dispensed with and just having a dialogue with her and us with the music itself, listening to it and following the lead to where it was pointing.
(((o))): As with the previous Mamiffer releases, there is an extremely haunting atmospheric feel to the new album and also a lot of rich harmonies, but it feels heavier in an emotional way. Was that the type of sound and effect you were looking for?
Aaron: I’d say so, yeah. We were talking about this yesterday because we’re rehearsing for a Mamiffer tour right now and a lot of what defines the sound of Mamiffer has as much to do with the tonal quality of our instruments and texture and atmosphere as it does actual specific parts and technique or anything of that nature. So in that sense it is more about sound sculpture at times than it is about more conventional musical composition. There’s a lot of subtlety and sensitivity in the playing, where, again less is more, creating space and allowing fewer notes to have more room to breathe is definitely a focal point and I think it deepens the impact of the music.
(((o))): You’ve got your Sumac bandmate Brian Cook in as a third member of Mamiffer for your upcoming tour. Did he play on the new album as well?
Aaron: He didn’t play on this record though he did play on two of the previous Mamiffer full lengths as well as one of our collaborative albums, one we made with Locrian so he’s very familiar with how we make music. We get along great with him on a personal level and obviously, live we like the way he plays and thinks about music so it was a really seamless integration to have Brian come in and out of what we’re doing, whether it’s in the studio or in this instance, the live setting.
(((o))): What is it he brings to the band’s sound in a live setting?
Aaron: There’s a heavy emphasis on low end in Mamiffer and that is certainly Brian’s area of everyone, again just talking about the sonic quality of what we’re going for, Brian sits very well into that. He’s got a great, gritty sound and a lot of low end death to his bass sound and he is also an incredibly patient player. He’s able to be restrained and make very considered choices rather than needing to fill up the space in that rather judicious approach to playing combined with a great ear for tone and texture, he’s pretty much the ideal candidate.
(((o))): What are your upcoming live plans at the moment?
Aaron: If everything comes together, as we hope it will, we’ve got this Mamiffer tour starting, it seems pretty concrete. Other than that, we have a Sumac tour in May for a couple of weeks in the U.S. then I think we’ve got about three or four weeks at home and then Sumac and Mamiffer are going to go to Europe together for a short run, probably only about a week’s worth of shows because of the ways our lives go and the complexities of everybody’s schedule. We have a tendency to do a lot of shorter bursts rather than longer tours so right now we’re looking at this Europe trip as a good introduction for Sumac, a good boost for Mamiffer and the new album we’ll be supporting so we’ll be doing that and then a little bit later in the year, I think Sumac will do a different part of the U.S., in August or round about there and a couple of festival things here and there. So there’s quite a bit in the works and a lot of it is being solidified and we’re going to try and hit as many places as we can and if we can only do them for a shorter period of time each.
(((o))): Will that tour be teaching the UK at all?
Aaron: Yes, we’re definitely planning Sumac and Mamiffer’s London show currently and trying to figure that out, we’re investigating, certainly for London if it’s a better idea to have Mamiffer and Sumac do separate shows or whether it’s a better idea to combine them, how it’s best to approach that so hopefully we’ll be able to share news if that in the coming weeks.
(((o))): Will there be any activity from Isis in the future? Is it a case of never say never or a definite finality from the band?
Aaron: Yeah, I would say there definitely no specific plans to do anything. I would at this point say that everybody is pretty focussed on the other things that they’ve been doing since Isis disbanded, but I’m old enough to know now that saying never is a good way to shoot yourself in the foot later on as I’ve certainly seen other bands and artists I know and respect say they were never going to do something again and sure enough, down the road, there they are. So yeah, I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up as there’s the possibility it may never happen again, but we’re all still friends and that music was incredibly meaningful to us and during that period of time that we were making it. If there’s an opportunity where everyone feels like it’s a good idea and agree on how to approach it then we would consider it. I suppose that’s my long winded way of saying probably not, but you never know!
(((o))): Isis were influenced by the likes of Swans, Godflesh, Neurosis, Tool and Melvins. How does it feel that Isis are talked about in the same revered fashion by bands as you did with the aforementioned groups?
Aaron: I feel very lucky for that and I also feel grateful to have achieved one of the goals that I had all along, which is to make music that has touched people to the extent that music has touched me. It’s an understatement to say that, I’d say music has shaped my life, not only in the way I see the world, but also in the connections that I’ve made and the friends that I have, even Faith and I getting married and basically becoming family to one another has all come out of the network of music that I’ve been involved with and out of the music itself. I can say that it makes me very happy that Isis in one way or another and even some of the other things that I’ve been a part of have really impacted people and opened up their ideas about what music could be and benefitted people’s lives. I think that’s really, really important. Music has given me hope and strength at times in my life where I didn’t have much else to turn to so I hope that it’s done that for some other people as well.
(((o))): Talking of Godflesh, you also worked with the legendary Justin K. Broadrick on the Greymachine project. That must have been amazing working with someone as influential as him. How did you hook up?
Aaron: Isis and Jesu toured Europe and the States together. Hydra Head released multiple albums for Jesu and our relationship just developed over a long period of years, getting to know each other and playing together. We first came into contact because of the Isis remix that Justin did in 2001 I believe, the SGNL>05 record that we released and that was kind of how contact was made and everything spun out from there. I don’t remember exactly how the Greymachine idea came up, I think Justin was working on the raw tracks for that and he was trying to make something that was as ugly and filthy as possible and asked if I wanted to contribute and I said that sounds great. It was a very easy thing to say yes to and a very fun thing to be a part of.
(((o))): Will there be any further activity with Greymachine?
Aaron: I hope so, we’ve been talking about it for years, the roadblock is basically that we’re both hyper productive people and can just easily get immersed in whatever is right in front of us. Sometimes getting a long distance project together and get motivated and carve up the time to do it, that takes a lot of effort so I would say it’s likely, but when it will happen is still very much an unknown.
(((o))): What about Old Man Gloom, will there be any new material in the near future?
Aaron: I hope so too, that’s another project where unlike a fully functional band we do it when we have the time and inclination to do it. We’re all spread out in multiple bands or have other things that demand our attention. We had a lot of fun playing together in the last few years. I’m really happy about the music we’ve made and don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t do that again. We don’t have much planned upcoming. We’re doing a couple of festivals in the U.S. later in the year to we’ll have to wait and see!
(((o))): You are incredibly consistent with you output, with the likes of Lotus Eaters, House Of Low Culture and Split Cranium as well as the bands we previously discussed. How do you make time for all your projects?
Aaron: It’s difficult in the sense of the practicalities of it. It’s very easy in the sense that I just really enjoy making music and making music with people I respect and have deep friendships with so the motivational side of it is easy. The scheduling side of it proves a little more difficult and sometimes I just let the practical aspects of life fall by the wayside and throw myself into the process of making music and of course there’s consequences to that. Unanswered emails, unpaid bills, a dirty kitchen! But those are all things that can remedied so I feel like once in a while, I have to neglect so called regular life and just immerse myself in the process of making art and that’s kinda the only way I can see myself living, the only thing that makes sense to me so it’s just a part of being alive as far as I’m concerned.
(((o))): Your musical output is also aesthetically extremely varied. Is there any type of sounds that you would be willing to explore in the future?
Aaron: I think that the new Mamiffer stuff that Faith has been writing goes in a more traditional direction, sort of a dark Americana in a way and I’m really looking forward to diving into that. I love the songs that Faith has been developing and I’m already hearing a lot of ideas that I can contribute to, which I think will be recognised as both her voice and my voice, which is pushed in a slightly different direction so I’m looking forward to that. And I’m a voracious consumer of music. I’m always listening to new things and seeking new things out and while I know there are certain things I know I don’t need to try my hand at, I’m always feeling inspired by what I come in contact with so that being the case, I feel like there’s many directions I could go. It’s hard to predict from this point and I wouldn’t have been able to predict all the stuff I’ve done thus far and that’s party of the adventure, exploring the unknown.
(((o))): You are also a big fan of hip hop and electronic artists. What is it about them that type of music that interests you?
Aaron: I think again, the physicality of that stuff is amazing, just the devotion to low end battery and I would say, at times almost inhuman sound is very interesting. Something about the rigidity of music made by machines, but manipulated by humans is very intriguing, again that’s part of the quest for knowledge of the unknown and I think electronic music and hip hop has been inarguably one of the greatest adverts of musical evolution in the last few decades and it comes from people’s willingness to kind of disregard the prior rules of what music is supposed to be and embrace ideas that would probably have been considered completely unmusical or even dangerous or subversive, and I think that disregard for convention is really important and it brings a spirit and a vigour to the music that’s very apparent. So I think that’s my interest in it and it doesn’t pertain just to that music, it pertains to any genre where people are pushing beyond the borders and willing to take risks and risk failure. I think that willingness to fail is really, really important and that’s where a lot of the most important advancements have come from.
(((o))): You have done the cover artwork for your bands as well as many others from Converge and Agoraphobic Nosebleed to Jesu and Torche. Is this something you still do when you have the time?
Aaron: I try and do it for my own bands as often as possible and these days that’s all I’ve got time for. I would love to be able to do artwork for other people, but that’s one of the things I’ve had to kind of sacrifice in order to be able to spend time with my own work. I think that there’s a period of time for me where I was younger that I really wanted to be involved with other people’s work to a really large extent, both in terms of artwork and releasing other people’s records and while I still do that stuff and still feel invigorated by it, my needs as an artist myself have pushed me in a different direction, the way I want to make music and the attention it requires has grown and do my ability to do stuff for other people has diminished in relation to that.
(((o))): And finally, What has been your proudest moment as the owner of Hydra Head Records?
Aaron: Oh, that would be very hard to sum up in one event or one album. I think I’m just very happy to have been a part of so many amazing records and I’ve said this before so at the risk of repeating myself, just getting to release albums by so many of my favourite artists is, I would say a huge highlight of my life in music. Initially it started out as bands I liked who were in close proximity and that eventually grew into being able to work with bands that I absolutely loved and who were making the music that I wanted to hear. So what more could I have asked for as a record label operator than to be able to release my favourite bands?