CVLT Nation Interviews Aaron Turner (ISIS, Old Man Gloom, Sumac)
Banner photo: Samantha Marble
Aaron, first off I want to say thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. That being said, let’s cut the shit and get down to business. Your newest offering in this sunless land of underground music is entitled “The Deal,” under the moniker of a new project entitled Sumac. For those who might be unaware of this project, can you give a run down of it’s inception and concept?
I had an idea for a certain sound, a certain kind of songwriting, that goes back as far as the early days of ISIS. Some part of that idea was realized in ISIS, and some of it was not – collectively we took a different direction altogether over the course of our existence. The imagined possibilities of that particular path were left unexplored, but never faded out of my mind. So, many years later, I started thinking about how I could pursue this sound, and starting a new band was the answer – I had some pretty specific ideas about what kind of players might help flesh out the concept. Took me a while to find the right people and figure it out. I had known Brian for some time, he’d played on a bunch of Mamiffer stuff, and I knew if I started a heavy rock band he’d be perfect to play with, assuming he was into it. The drummer was a bigger concern – this was a really defining factor for how the band would be shaped and was the first piece of the puzzle to figure out. I wasn’t in a hurry to make it happen, so I casually looked around for drummers for a couple years before finally making the connection with Nick [Yacyshyn]. After that foundation was laid early last year, everything else fell into place pretty quickly. I already had much of the music written and we were able to quickly build from that foundation.
What I first noticed upon my initial digestion of Sumac’s debut – and I hope no offense is taken by this – is how much it sounds like your earlier work with ISIS, specifically Celestial and Signal >5. Not to say that it sounds as if you’re repeating ideas or concepts, but the album just has this intense, almost primal sound that those records also contained. An almost bestial roar that still maintains a level of musical complexity that has been missing for sometime in underground metal honestly, in my opinion. That being said, was there a certain focus on going back to the drawing board in terms of writing dynamic, but almost simple, stripped-down moments? Was there anything in particular that helped shape your vision for what these songs were to become?
Working with a limited palette was part of the idea – having a concise line up, using very little in terms of pedals and gadgets, and recording as “live” as possible with few overdubs, etc. I wanted to see how I could maximize my own potential as a player and our collective potential as a group. The basic ideas could shine more brightly if left unobscured by layers and extraneous ornamentation. In thinking about how to approach the band, I was also inspired by a few different trios operating in different genres – rock, jazz, etc. The freedom you have when fewer people are involved is really appealing to me. Given that some of our music is improv-based, I figured we would be more effective in that capacity because of the smaller line up – no need to clutter up space with more voices – just three singular instruments and minds working towards a communal goal. As far as the heavy/primal factor, that was also intentional. I felt something was missing in my musical world and needed this specific kind of music and feeling in order to be more creatively fulfilled. Striving for emotional connection and sonic heaviness has been my ultimate journey since beginning to play music. In that sense, SUMAC is as close as I’ve come in years to achieving the kind of balance and musical alchemy I’ve been seeking – at least in a setting where I’m the principle songwriter.
So let’s discuss, Nick Yacyshyn for a moment. There has been this almost flag-bearing consistency for bands akin to your previous projects to have a drummer that, while not super flashy, still maintains his chops and holds the ship’s rudder, so to speak. With Yacyshyn, it seem’s that you might have a found a kindred spirit that can drop sonic hammers just as easily as what you conjure forth from your guitar. The man is beast behind the drum kit and brought forth an amazing side to the music that isn’t really heard within “slower-paced” bands. For the sake of an insight into Sumac’s conception, can you recall when and how you came to realize that Nick was the partner in crime you craved?
As I mentioned previously, I wasn’t in a hurry to put a band together – I was much more concerned with finding the right people. The first time I saw Nick play with Baptists, I thought “that is exactly the kind of drummer I’m looking for” – authoritative in his approach, ferocious in his intensity, and very creative in his playing decisions. In my mind, drums should play a supporting role and provide a rhythmic anchor, and should also add color the music without being overly flashy. Nick does all those things and has a good mind for songwriting as well. He can discern what each individual part needs and also how to create flow between them – a very important factor in terms of making something sound like a song rather than a jumble of parts slapped together. In some ways, my guitar playing is more textural or rhythmic and his playing is almost melodic at times; in that way, the two approaches are a highly complimentary reversal. I didn’t know it would work as well as it has when I first saw him play, but I had at least an inkling that our combined strengths could point the music in the right direction.
In terms of writing the album, did you have a majority of it written before Nick’s involvement, or was this more a collaboration in terms of content? Also, once the tracks were recorded and mixed, what was your initial reaction upon hearing Nick’s drums accompanying your guitar and vocal work?
I wrote all of the basic parts and structures both before and after starting to play with Nick. He helped refine the compositions and define them in a way that dictated the placement and feel of the vocals and bass that would come later. Though I did majority of the basic compositions alone, it’s very much a collaboration – the final shape of the songs has as much to do with my original ideas as it does with how they were augmented by Nick’s playing, and Brian’s as well. I knew the songs were good, though as usual I went through some periods of doubt, and in the end they came out even better than I’d hoped. What I thought was possible with the original idea for the band was manifested fully and powerfully in the final recording – I had high expectations, and they were exceeded.
Overall, how long had you been sitting on the idea of undertaking another musical project? Between Old Man Gloom releasing their newest album and life in general, was it hard to imagine making time for it? Or was it just something that needed to be created and brought forth?
It had to happen – I knew it was just a matter of time. I also knew I could make room for it since I was properly motivated. Old Man Gloom only functions part time and I need to be more active than that in my pursuit of heavy music. Mamiffer is also full time, though I don’t write music in that band and aesthetically it’s quite different, so SUMAC is intended as my primary outlet as a songwriter and also for playing live. I am busy and I commit to too many things which is sometimes a problem; that said, I don’t see making time for SUMAC as an issue, in fact, I hope to make it one of the prime areas of focus in my life in the years upcoming.
Sumac has done a few shows over the last few months. What was that feeling like to be on the stage again, playing new material alongside Nick for the first time? Is playing live something you enjoy as an artist, or is just another necessary part of this business?
Playing live is as much or more satisfying to me than making records. There is an energy and a level of emotional intensity that I can only find playing live. We’ll do as much as we can, and given the initial results I think we all feel it’s a very worthwhile benefit of playing together. The first shows were nerve-racking and somewhat disorienting – it was the first time playing live with a “new” band in years for both Brian and I, and maybe Nick as well. We were totally untested in that arena and just made the leap with very little time to prepare. There was enough collective trust in each other’s abilities that made it seem possible, though, and we’d already recorded the album and were thus aware of the potential the music had. Once again I had high hopes (laced with prickling doubts), and was pleasantly surprised by how well it all went. I am certainly looking forward to more.
Now that the reviews are pouring in and you’ve had the finished product in your hands for some time, what are your overall feelings towards the record as a whole?
I wouldn’t change a thing. It stands as a great document of what we intended to do and contains the right kind of visceral energy we wanted to get across. I can still listen to it and feel excited, which is a very good sign as far as I’m concerned. Sometimes by the end of a project I don’t feel compelled to listen to it anymore, and while I’m not sitting around listening to SUMAC everyday, every time I do hear it I feel excited and grateful that we were able to make this piece of music together.
Some bands just seem to pick their name out of a hat, with more concern for how the logo will look on an album cover or merchandise. With your choice of the name “Sumac,” which is a broad term used to describe the genus “Rhus,” which can be applied to up to 35 flowering plants that are in the family Anacardiaceae (credit has to go to Wikipedia on that one) – was there a reason behind the choice of this name? Is there something that you might have found intriguing about these plants that merited the band being named after it?
Part of the choice of the name SUMAC was aesthetic – the word looks and sounds good, and that is a factor for me when choosing names and titles – aesthetic strength draws people in, hopefully long enough to absorb content. Beyond that, the name has quite a few interesting connotations, which also parallel intentions behind the band itself. It is a plant, a living thing, and the music we make is very much about embodying the life force. Along those lines, the roots of the word also mean “red” in several different languages – signifying blood and passion. Additionally, the plant in it’s various strains can be used as sustenance, medicine and poison – again mirroring the multifaceted character of our music and lyrics.
I could go on and on about how much I love the debut by Sumac. It’s a really damn good album, in case you haven’t been paying attention to the press reviews. But for this question, what I really want to know about is the recent prank that the Old Man Gloom crew pulled on the metal press with the “fake” Ape of God album. An absolutely brilliant move that brought even more spotlight to a fantastic release. Was there a heavy debate about doing a “fake” press release? More so, how hard was it to keep this entire thing a secret?
There was no debate amongst the band members about our plan, or even with Chris from Profound Lore. We just brought up the idea, passed it along and that was that. We did have a harder time keeping it secret, and it was kept under wraps longer than we expected, actually. In the end, it served the concept of the album well, and supported the overall ideology behind the band. There was some animosity directed our way due to the presentation, and occasionally back from our direction, but for the most part, it was a positive and exciting experiment.
Photo: Samantha Marble
In regards to Old Man Gloom again, what’s the initial discussion like when you guys decide to unite once again? Is it a pre-planned event or more of an answering the summons that the gods of metal have issued forth?
Gloom never really officially disbanded – we just stopped functioning for a while. Life, distance and other commitments caused us to refrain from our racket for a few years. We talked about various plans during that interim and just never quite got it together to put anything in motion. Looking back, that gap seems a lot shorter than it actually was. Us coming together again was a very casual thing really – we just asked each other about doing something when the timing was right and off we went once again. The fun we had and the reception we received gave us incentive to keep it going, and here were are now, three albums later….
Is there a conversation had between the various members of OMG about different ideas that you’re all bringing to the table, or is it more of bouncing ideas off one another over the course of time and practices?
We just do it and don’t ask questions. It’s very impulsive and uncontrolled. There are aspects of what we do that go through somewhat more deliberate periods of development, but for the most part, we just go through brief and energetic group expulsions and let it all come together spontaneously. Our goal is to have fun and to subvert the process of making music, recording it, releasing it, and even trying to disintegrate our own notions about what’s OK and what isn’t. It really is play in that sense – make a mess and see what happens.
I also know that you and the members of OMG have known each other and been playing together for some time, in various forms and outfits. When you guys get together to practice and even more so to play live, is it a special feeling for everyone involved? To be playing music with three other like minded individuals, that get each other is a rare gift for any artist. How exciting is it for you and the other members to assemble again under the Old Man Gloom banner?
The basic bond is friendship – we love the music we make together as well, and it’s our long standing relationships with each other that gives us a platform on which to do that. We’re actually all quite different from one another and sometimes it surprises me that we function as well as we do. Then again, part of our strength is in our differences, and it’s always a refreshing surprise to find out how we make music together in a way that feels creatively successful and coherent. We shouldn’t really agree on anything, we’re all pretty strong personalities, and yet we still seem to have some kind of glue that keeps us together – personally and creatively. One of the other most important unifying factors is laughter and a shared affinity for the absurd – to be able to share that with each other, and even heighten those latent aspects of our personalities as a result of our group activities, is a true gift indeed. We’re serious about laughing; it’s goal number one in the OMG rulebook.
Finally, I discovered from a bit of research that you’re a David Lynch fan. Lynch made some news lately in that he will be delving back into the Twin Peaks world yet again. Care to share any thoughts to this announcement? Also, does anyone really give a fuck about what James is up to in 2015? Cause I mean really, fuck James.
All I can say is that I’m excited. Some are skeptical, though I can’t imagine how this news could be a bad thing. Lynch has rarely misstepped over his lengthy career and I see no indication that he’ll do so now. I’m not wishing time away as every day is precious, but I’ll be happy when that premiere rolls around.
OLD MAN GLOOM comes to Vancouver on Feb 26th, 2015!