Honest, earnest, frank and philosophical – Aaron Turner man of singular talent and insight. A gentleman to boot and an absolute pleasure to speak with. We are here today to talk shop. About his latest band SUMAC and their astounding album What One Becomes and to talk about his life and experiences in music and as a record label head. A man of singular perspective, shared with only a few truly worthy people the world over, my feelings of his importance as a hero to me are secondary right now to my curiosity and need to dig around inside this geniuses mind. Here’s our interview with Aaron Turner of SUMAC.
Honestly this is a huge privilege for me and an honour, so I’m kind of stoked to be able to talk to you. So thank you very much. I have actually been listening to the Sumac album all afternoon, it’s pretty dazzling!
Well that’s a good thing to hear.
It’s certainly kind of heavier than I was expecting, I have been a fan of yours for a while with Isis and Old Man Gloom and I got a lot of my friends into Split Cranium when it came out, so it’s nice to see the evolution kind of play out quite so sonically.
Yeah, well there is definitely a continuum running through all those things but a lot of variation between them as well, but it’s good if there is some recognisable continuity from the listener standpoint.
So basically, starting where we are right now in the present with Sumac. How did that come in to being and what/if any connection is there with the previous bands i.e. like an evolution from Split Cranium which was, am I right in thinking, that was your most recent other band?
Yeah, that one, although we are working on another record, it is much more project oriented, it was never intended to be more than a studio endeavour. I mean there is always the possibility we might play live, but as far as that goes I put a lot of effort in to my contribution, all of the songwriting was done by Jussi who was kind of my main collaborator for that project. So, more than anything I was just lending my vocal ideas to a framework that he had already built. So that happened, I can’t even remember when we started that, but it must have been at least 4 years ago now, maybe even more and there has been other stuff in the interim since then. I have been pretty busy with Mamiffer although again I play a secondary role in that context and pretty busy with Old Man Gloom too since we reactivated in 2012, we released a couple of records a year and half ago or so and did some touring on that, so it’s hard for me to even keep my own chronology straight, there is always so many things going on. But with the exception of Mamiffer all of those things have been pretty intermittent in terms of the level of activity and Sumac is something that I started with the intent of being a more full time pursuit, a more rigorously touring band and something that I wanted to build out a little bit more seriously, you know, on the studio product level of things.
That’s good to hear because like you said with the Split Cranium it was more a studio based project, obviously there wasn’t a great deal of activity with it, I mean you played a few gigs did you not?
Oh no, we haven’t, I think we had talked about it at some point, but being that most of the band is in Finland and I am here it’s a little bit difficult to coordinate.
Okay, so Sumac is definitely something you are looking to take on the road and showcase and show off as it where?
Yeah, I mean I really enjoyed the writing and recording process, but for us to play live is a great importance I think. The music to me has a kind of energy that is really best served in the live setting and has thus far been a lot of fun to present in that context. We haven’t done a great amount of touring, but we did do some dates in Japan, some in Canada and a handful in the US so far and we have got some more shows lined up for the US and Europe this summer, so I think we are going to be about as active as we can, given all three of us are in other bands that are at least somewhat functional or in Brian’s case, pretty full-time. I really love playing live with this band and the three of us get along quite well and have a great time on the road together, so, we are going to make it work as often as we can and try to hit as many territories as we possibly can.
The Sumac sound is very dense and it’s kind of heavy and unrelenting. In my experience of bands like this, there is usually a lot more work that happens in the background than what you would really pay attention to or notice on the surface, until you really start listening to it more and more. What is the process you find with the songwriting in a band like this, for you personally?
I wanted to use a very minimal palette, just a few players and really try to work in a way that would challenge everybody to push their separate instruments to their widest degree of capability and I think using that kind of restrained set of parameters to work in had the effect we intended. I think all of us have been well challenged to write and think and play in a way that makes the greatest use possible of our ideas, of our physical bodies and of our instruments themselves. For me, when working on the songs I was approaching them knowing that this is a band with only one guitar in it, so I was purposely trying to come up with chord configurations and compositional structure that would be really effective without having to resort to a lot of studio trickery or writing second guitar parts, so it was really very intentional on my part to create a lot of density and depth that would be possible to recreate in the live setting and wouldn’t just be something that sounded heavy and deep on a record. I have always really appreciated bands that have more minimal line ups, for the reason that you can hear some more of the character of each individual player and the nuances in their playing coming through to a greater extent than you can with a more expanded line up. So, that is not to say that this is necessarily what I view as the ultimate approach to constructing a band, it was just the one that was chosen in this instance.
“I want it to be linear and I want all the pieces to float together and feel like a seamless whole, but I also don’t want to adhere to the expected conventions of verse, chorus song construction.”
It is really surprising listening to the album, how few songs are on it. It plays mind games with you because the composition and the way the songs are laid out, they are very long tracks. It does almost play like a concerto with different movements and the way you think maybe another song has begun, you are actually only half way through.
That is good to hear and again that was very intentional. We are working with semi traditional rock instrumentation, again we are trying to subvert those conventional notions of what a guitar orientated rock band can be and I do feel that a lot of the music that I have listened to that isn’t rock music, whether it is abstract, electronics or twentieth century composition has definitely rubbed off on how I approached the song writing in Sumac. I want it to be linear and I want all the pieces to float together and feel like a seamless whole, but I also don’t want to adhere to the expected conventions of verse, chorus song construction. For me as well, beyond a person playing and writing this material, as a listener I really find myself gravitating towards song structure that does defy that and does leave a lot of room for unexpected movement.
There is a lot of rebellious nature in music recently, with people of your pedigree and age group as well. Especially the hardcore scene, I have noticed it a lot more where people are not wanting to stick to convention and it is really nice to see it go through multiple genre’s and heavy music also feels like its rediscovering itself again.
You mentioned earlier the continuity between various projects and I feel what is happening with Sumac is something that I strove for all along, including in much of the music that Isis made. In some way it didn’t always go as far as I wanted it to, we definitely tried to push it beyond the expectations of what was at that point considered hardcore and metal. That is not to say that we were without predecessors because we were definitely influenced by a lot of other bands that have taken that approach, but we tried to take those influences and push them further and that has definitely been a continued journey that has been happening and evolving in Sumac. A part of what happened and the formation of the band that I think was crucial to this way of being able to operate was finding other people who were willing to experiment to a pretty extreme degree and I hope that we will be able to go even further into unknown territory and work on the balance between composed ideas and more free-form improvisation because I think there is a lot of interesting ground to be explored there.
With Isis, you are always going to have that pop up. I know a lot of musicians from doing previous interviews and working with touring bands from Europe quite often, who have got one band in their closet who they are always going to be remembered for. Isis, a band that people hold incredibly high esteem for, is there any kind of room for more to say with that band or would you consider that to be something at the moment which is a chapter closed?
I feel that it’s a closed chapter. I am cognisant of the fact that may be the band that I am best remembered for and I certainly know many of my peers who are in somewhat similar positions; Justin Broadrick coming to mind. He has had many successful projects and it always seems that the one people go back to or highlight the most from his career is Godflesh. That said, that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to evolve and push himself further with a bunch of other bands and projects in the wake of that and that is certainly my intention as well.
I consider myself quite lucky with someone like Justin where I actually discovered him during Jesu and that is the band I remember him from. He supported you at the Birmingham date that I was talking about, and I listened to Godflesh after that and it passed me by completely and I discovered Isis around the end of your time together and went straight into things like Old Man Gloom and Split Cranium so, it was quite nice discovering your back catalogue retrospectively.
I hope that will continually be the case for a lot of people and I hope that there will be people who will maybe discover Sumac without knowing anything about my history and will explore the rest of my discography, because I do feel that there is a palpable connection between all of those things. There are certain projects that I have been involved with that have become more consuming, but all of them are important to me and I hope that I can be a career artist in the sense that I will be able to function and be lucky enough to function in a lot of different bands and projects without being completely overshadowed by one accomplishment. I already feel that’s somewhat the case, I feel like a lot of the other projects I have been involved with have gained an equal level of appreciation, if not an equal level of popularity in comparison to Isis. Probably like a lot of other artists too, I tend to feel the most connected to what I am working on in the present moment, the past work is important and something I still feel good about having been involved with, but the things that I am doing now I think are most reflective of what I want to be doing.
That is nice to hear. I mean, it certainly sounds like a hungry, passionate album with a lot more to say. I got towards the end of the album and “Blackout” has pretty much become my new jam. I was just dazzled by it completely. It does sound like a track that is going to connect you to the next step. You know you find those songs in albums where you can hear what is to come, it may or not be the case, but as a music fan you can certainly hear a journey to be continued there, which is nice when you know that, it sounds like there are points of ellipsis at the end and this is to be continued.
Well, I certainly felt that way as a songwriter too, working on any given piece of music and hearing what could be suggested in terms of a direction to follow after that piece of music. There is already things that I can see in this new Sumac album that I want to explore and push further with the next round of writing.
Amazing. Without needing to say, you are a collaborative spirit and from all your bands previously you’ve got the pedigree of the musicians that you’ve worked with, it seems like you are hungry to collaborate with kindred spirits and obviously like you say, with Jussi from Split Cranium, Old Man Gloom with Santos and Caleb, and then the work you are doing with – please excuse me if I am incorrect – your wife now isn’t it?
Yep, that is correct and our relationship started purely as creative one and then evolved into the personal relationship, but I think that is a good example of how my life has come together in many ways since I started becoming an active musician. I have become really good friends with a lot of the people I play music with and vice versa, a lot of people who I have been long-time friends with have eventually become collaborators, for me there is no better way of working and I think the most profound and meaningful creative output that I have been a part of has come from those really strong and interesting, inspiring relationships so the two go hand in hand as far as I am concerned.
Have you got any plans for a straight, maybe solo project of your own, along the lines of what you are doing at this moment in time but is purely yours?
Hard to say, I mean at this point my plate is pretty full, but I also do think a lot about being able to perform as a solo musician. I like the vulnerability of that idea and also the potential challenge that it presents. I also at times envy some of the people I know, who are solo performers who can, with great ease jump from one place to another to play or record with very few logistical strings attached. It is something that I would like to do and potentially do more of as time goes on and I feel like I have got a lot of ideas as to how I might approach that, it is just a matter of finding the time to explore that possibility.
Do you find it difficult trying to find a balance between running a label like Hydra Head Records and then your work as a musician, as a jobbing musician with bands, playing gigs and things like that. Is it quite a nice balancing act that you have found yourself in?
It is challenging and it is at times a little bit overwhelming. I feel grateful that I have been able to make my life centred around music, whether it is playing it or releasing records by other people, so in that way I find that there is really no other way that I would rather live my life. That said that also I am guilty of saying yes to too many things, overcommitting myself and as a result, at times, feeling a bit crazed. It is a constant thing for me, an ongoing struggle to figure out how I can maintain a balance between all of those things and also feel like I have a personal life that is rewarding and enriching as well. I feel like in the last couple of decades that I have been doing this, there is a lot of my personal life that I have sacrificed and I want to find a bit more time for life outside of being a record label owner and a band person.
“I feel like musicians need to believe in and be immersed in what they are doing to a really deep degree in order to provide that kind of experience for the audience, so it is very much a motivation and a goal and something that I feel very grateful to experience very regularly.”
Have you ever had that thought of, if you had to give up one of them, which would you choose?
That would be the label, no question, it would be the label. I love being able to participate in releasing records and making connections that way, but there is no doubt for me that being a musician and making my own work is more important to me now than facilitating the work of other people and I know that there is plenty of other great labels out there to support others, so I don’t feel obligated to do it necessarily, it’s something that I choose to do because I still find it rewarding. But yeah, it’s no question for me!
It is incredible because I have asked that question to a couple of people and in fact not even in interviews, just with friends. I am friends with Robin from Pelagic Records and The Ocean and I am friends with Jona, formerly of The Ocean who runs Hummus Records. Having the same conversation with them just personally and asking the same question, they have all said the same thing as well. I think the appetite of a musician is pretty insatiable.
I would say so, and running a record label does require a lot of creativity, but it doesn’t offer the same kind of deep reaching creative reward I think.
You say there is a lot of record labels out there doing a lot of great work. Is there any bands that you would say are really doing it for you that aren’t necessarily getting the kudos or attention they deserve?
Yeah and some of them are bands that I am already working with. Endon from Japan, though I think they are starting to get some attention now, I think they are really interesting and I hope that their profile continues to grow. In some way I see it as, not necessarily indebted to lineage of Hydra Head by any means but in some way, connected to that, I feel the same way I do about their music, as I did when I first heard Botch in the mid 90’s. On a slightly more abstract end of the spectrum, there is a band called Black Spirituals that we have released a couple of things for on Sige Records, the label my partner faith and I run together. I feel like their music is also very new, exciting and inspiring and I feel like their approach and their ideas behind it are something that a lot of people could benefit from encountering and feel very excited about. So those are two things that come to mind, on a less connected front there is a female noise artist or electronic flash noise artist from Sweden called Puce Mary that I think is doing really interesting work also.
I think she just played with The Refused, didn’t she?
I don’t know, it is possible, hard to keep tabs on the activities of so many people. That aside, I think her music is very interesting and also part of a lineage that I know, admire and respect but also something that is pushing the boundaries towards the unknown future, which is also exciting to witness from the perspective of an outside listener.
I have got some friends who have been lifelong Isis obsessives and I asked them if they wanted to ask a question because the opportunity was there. One of them has given me a question to ask you and I quite like it actually. It being part of the label and everything as well, Isis like Anthrax, post 9/11 suddenly got a lot of unwanted attention just because of the name without any kind of connotation at all. Have you found that there has been any kind of fall out in the recent kind of political landscape, which has affected the business of that band and with the label connections and everything?
Not really, I mean we don’t sell as many t-shirts as we used to but our records from our back catalogue are still selling fine. We got some strange messages on our Facebook, but for the most part it feels like this thing can continue to exist without too much worry on our part. I would be more concerned if we were still a functioning band due to practical difficulties but it is, for most people, not too difficult to discern the difference between a radical militant political group and a musical entity.
It has become noticeable when people mention you, mention Isis when asked what you are listening to. There is that prefix now of “oh it’s a band” and it kind of rankles me a bit because, like the Anthrax issue after 9/11 with the scare, there should be no need to explain it.
I understand, it is part of our cultural landscape now so in some way it is unavoidable that there will be some confusion about it and certainly for people who weren’t followers of Isis, there is the confusion of whether or not this is a new band who have named ourselves after this group from the Middle East. The funny thing for me too is that it is really only in American media and to a slightly lesser extent European media that Isis is referred to as Isis, which isn’t even their functional name at this point. I hope it is one of those things that in five or ten years from now will just kind of dissipate and disappear and be looked back at as an unfortunate coincidence.
Yeah, absolutely. As I said at the beginning of the interview was Custard Factory in Birmingham, it was with you guys and Jesu. It was the first gig I have been to where I have actually foregone any worry of finances, time and personal worry just to fully absorb myself into a band. You had some technical difficulties with monitoring and you went on about 40 minutes later than you should have done. It was without a doubt one of the most captivating things I have ever witnessed. Has there been any gigs that you can recall where you were on stage and you just felt that was it that was the moment that you are going to tie back and remember when you think about that band or that act at the time?
I have played so many shows at this point that it is hard to single out any particular instances. I have striven for as a musician, in every band I have ever been in, reaching some point of elevated consciousness and what I would describe as an enlightenment and I have found that has come through just about every band I have ever been in, at least for a couple of shows if not many. But that is part of my motivation for playing music, is to reach that moment of ecstatic energy and I think making that a goal has also made it a tangible practice. I have figured out how to tap into that energy and how to utilise it. It is now a regular part of my existence as a player. I strive for that for myself but also knowing that if I can achieve that state through playing, it is fairly likely that it will bring listeners to that state as well. I feel like musicians need to believe in and be immersed in what they are doing to a really deep degree in order to provide that kind of experience for the audience, so it is very much a motivation and a goal and something that I feel very grateful to experience very regularly.
Is there anything you do outside of the music which you find is as important as you do in music, that you cling to to get away to clear your head?
I think having a life outside of music is crucial to my survival and I think that they very much balance each other out. I don’t think I am a person who could exist being alone in life, I definitely feel like being connected to other people is crucial to my continued happiness and satisfaction with life. So, friendship is crucial and even more intimately my partnership with Faith, my wife, is really important, the life we have together and having a home that feels like a good grounding place for us as individuals as well as a couple is really important. Beyond that we have made a conscious effort to move out of cities and into nature and though we are not completely isolated we are in a fairly rural area. Being so closely connected to nature is a very grounding thing for me, I like having the ability to get away from crowds and cities and to be more connected to the natural world, plants, animals and I think about that a lot and I also feel that part of my life being so heavily centred around touring is kind of what pushed me into a more secluded lifestyle. Touring is a very social endeavour and it requires being in cities all the time and I have definitely felt the need to move away from that as I have got older, so I feel like this life that Faith and I have here, and what we have made of it is very important for me and does a lot to help balance out the rest of the life that I have involves a lot of email, travel and interfacing with technology and all that kind of stuff.
I have kind of again heard similar things with speaking to Jona from Hummus and Coilguns. I had the good luck of being able to support Coilguns on their UK tour when they were over here and hanging out with the three guys from The Ocean were just like, we just want to go and lay in Iceland in the snow and watch the stars because sometimes it gets crazy on the road and you just want to get away from everything technological. I think with musicians, especially in the capacity of what you do with the label and with the project with your partner as well that kind of escapism is necessary for your own sanity really.
Yeah and for me, I definitely don’t think of it as an escape per se. In a way I feel like a lot of the stuff that humanity is built up around itself is more than escape from real life than anything else. We are so inundated with media, technology and advertising that we forget what life actually is and we lose connection with each other and lose connection with ourselves. In some way I feel like the experience of being alone in nature or being with others in a world or an environment where you are not distracted by phones and computers allows you to remember the more fundamental and spiritual aspects of being alive. I think in a lot of ways technology and the things that people are immersed with are in our world the way it functions now, really corrodes consciousness and spirituality, I feel like it’s good if people can disconnect from that once in a while because I think it does help remind us of what other kind of connections are possible and what the more crucial elements of being alive are actually about because I don’t think the answers lie in technology and in iPhones and the internet. All of those things are supported by a precarious system to say the least. I am not saying that I have an apocalyptic prediction or premonition but I know how fragile all those things are and being able to know what life is without them is important and may even become a necessity.
I completely agree and it is good when you put it in a philosophical way that, above and beyond, makes sense to yourself. You don’t have to justify it to others, it is what you believe in your heart and mind and you can justify it, I think that is the most important part.
Absolutely, I agree.