Text and Photos: Brian Sepanzyk
When Nick Yacyshyn told me where SUMAC was going to record their next album, What One Becomes, the first thing I thought was, ‘Someone needs to document this.’ Nick sent me a text with a link to a place called the Unknown: an old church that has been converted into a recording studio in Anacortes, WA. It was a Catholic Church built sometime between 1908-1920, used for various things in the early 70’s, then was acquired in 2010 and turned into the Unknown. I could just imagine the sounds a band could get recording in the giant open room, let alone SUMAC. One thing that caught my eye on the website was that going into the ‘crying room’ or bell tower was not recommended. Crying Room?? Amazing. Adding to this, they were flying out Kurt Ballou to record the album. I should probably go check this out.
After talking to the gents, I was invited/kind of invited myself, and so I made the two hour trek from Vancouver and spent two days there as they recorded. It was a surreal experience to watch all of these guys in one room doing what they do in such an incredible setting. I recorded some video as well as took some photos while I was there, and thought it would be cool to do an interview with the band as well as Kurt to talk about recording the new album.
Aaron, how did you find the Unknown?
Aaron: My SIGE Records/Mamiffer partner Faith Coloccia (who I am also lucky enough to be married to) found it while looking at the website which relates to The Unknown and all the various activities connected to it – The Unknown Music Series, the studio, the label run by Unknown co-owner Phil Elverum, etc. I think she’d heard about the studio itself and we had a bit of awareness about the music community in Anacortes of which The Unknown is a part. After looking at the pictures of the space, I thought it would be the perfect place for SUMAC to record – it seemed it would lend itself well to atmospheric creation due to it’s dimensions as well as its history. I also thought it’d be a good idea to take ourselves away from familiar surroundings in order to become further immersed in the recording experience and to draw inspiration from the immediate environment – both Anacortes and the studio itself. The studio and the town are both inviting and also somehow possess an uncanny spirit; so, pretty much the perfect place to be for making a record.
Nick, Brian – what were your reactions when Aaron sent you the location for where you were going to record next?
Nick: The concept of recording an album in an unconventional room or space is very appealing to me, so I was pretty excited when The Unknown was chosen for this album. I was stoked to be tracking in a massive, open room and to get the biggest natural drum sounds possible, and to be tracking more or less live with Aaron and Brian altogether. The website also said there was some scary confessional booths, a bell tower and a crying room… that sounded like a pretty welcoming environment to record some crazy music. Also – having Kurt come out to the PNW and record us outside of his own studio was very exciting as well!
Brian: More than anything, I was just really excited to be recording together. The Deal was tracked with Aaron and Nick fleshing everything out in the studio and the bass being tracked in a different studio weeks later. That’s not an unusual way to make a record these days, but I really wanted to have the experience of all being in one room at the same time and banging it out together. So I was really excited about the prospect of playing in a big open room like The Unknown in Anacortes. It’s not an entirely live record, but we were able to all lay down basic tracks together, and I think that definitely shaped the sound and vibe of the album. I was also excited to record in an unfamiliar town. It minimized distractions, which was good given our tight schedule.
What was the approach for this record? Was there anything in particular that was different than the last? Individually and as a group?
Aaron: The basic construction of the music was similar to last time – I devised basic outlines for all the parts and arrangements on my own, made rudimentary demos and sent them off to Nick and Brian for consideration. Then, in a couple of brief and very intensive sessions, we finished up the material as a group – at first just Nick and I, and then all three of us together. This was definitely a bit more group-oriented in its construction than The Deal, since all of us were able to play together prior to recording. This benefitted the songs greatly and also allowed for a stronger cohesion between us as individuals and as players.
As far as the initial writing process, for me it was a bit less abstract, as I knew the group that this material was being written for, whereas with The Deal I was just writing on my own with no idea how or who this stuff would be played with. In both cases, I felt uninhibited in terms of what I wanted to write, though on What One Becomes I had a better grasp of how it might all actually sound once everyone began working on it collectively. Because of that knowledge, I was even more adventurous with the structures, knowing how we could all come together to deliver the more abstract ideas. In that sense, some of the songs are more about sound, texture and impact rather than pre-arranged riffs or strong adherence to structure.
Brian: The Deal was written and recorded before we’d played together as a full band. Creatively, Aaron is still the one that spearheads everything, but with What One Becomes we were able to actually play around with some of the ideas as a full unit, which I think is pretty crucial to the interactive instrumentation of this band.
Nick: This time we had Brian! Like on the last album, Aaron wrote all the songs and sent us ideas to work on, but this time Brian was actually there while we pieced the songs together the couple days leading up to tracking. Having the three of us contributing and functioning as a ‘band unit’ was a huge asset to the recording process and to the album itself. Pre-production (learning the songs, writing our parts, arranging forms, jamming) was only a week, and then we tracked it all over the next 4 days, so it was another very fast experience, but having all of us involved was a wonderful thing.
There are five songs on the new album, what’s the shortest song you have on this one?
Aaron: Haha… um, 9:49 it looks like. That’s as concise as we could be given what the songs demanded. Longform composition has been a big goal with this band – to see to what length ideas could be stretched out and still retain their energy and impact. The further we go with this, the more satisfying it becomes – and the more challenging. Continuous momentum with an emphasis on hypnotic submission and wide dynamic fluctuations will continue to be an ongoing point of investigation for us for the foreseeable future.
You played recently in Vancouver with some amazing bands, one of them being Endon. Let’s talk about how awesome they are for a minute. Did you guys discover them while on tour in Japan earlier this year or before that?
Aaron: I think Brian was the first to see them on a trip to Japan. Shortly after I heard about them from him, I heard about them from some other mutual friends and from Tadashi Hamada, who releases our records in Japan, and who also manages ENDON. They are without a doubt one of the best bands I have seen and heard in recent years, and I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to play with them on multiple occasions now. Their energy, intensity and inventiveness is truly inspiring, and in some ways I feel there’s a kinship between ENDON and SUMAC. There’s definitely a shared interest in the collision of noise vs harmony, structure and improvisation, musical tradition and the abandonment thereof. I think they’ll be working on a remix of one of our songs soon and we’re going to attempt some touring together again next year at some point.
Brian: I first saw Endon in July of 2014 when Russian Circles played with them in Japan. They’d been described to me the night before as “the most extreme band in Tokyo,” and they definitely lived up to that description.
Nick: Yeah, that was the first time I’d seen or heard Endon before, and boy did it leave an impression! They were one of those bands that was so extreme and unrelenting that I couldn’t help but laugh and yell in appreciation/excitement throughout their set. Those guys rule!
Aaron: Aside from playing with ENDON at any given opportunity, we’ve got a bunch of other things in the works. It looks like we’re curating an EP of remixes of tracks from What One Becomes, including contributions from Kevin Drumm, Kerridge, James Ginzburg (Emptyset), and … ENDON. We’re in the middle of a tour of the west coast/southwest, which wraps up on June 3. Shortly after that, the album will be out and we’ll head to Europe for a tour with Mamiffer, and then another tour in the US on the east coast/midwest. Beyond that, I’m already concocting ideas for the next album, though it may be a while before we actually get to work on them as we’ve got plenty to keep us busy for a while.
Kurt, what was your approach knowing that you were going to record these guys in an old church?
Kurt: That place had about 2.5 seconds of natural reverb, so I tried to set up some baffles around everything, so at the least the close drum mics wouldn’t be too washy. I also tried to keep the close drum mics as well as the guitar and bass mics on the brighter side, to give me the clarity to cut through the ambient mud. Nick helped me out by hitting hard and using Ludwig Vistalites, which are pretty bright drums. But Aaron’s die-hard neck pickup vibe required a lot of extra EQ.
Did you have to bring much to add to what was already there?
Kurt: I brought a few mics and pedals, but nothing that was make or break for the record.
Did you go in the “crying room”?
Kurt: I was afraid to go in there.
Kurt, anything else you’d like to add or mention?
Kurt: Nich from The Unknown still has my stereo mic bar. Send it back Nich!!!
When people ask, how do you guys describe SUMAC?
Brian: I tell people it’s difficult. I don’t think it’s the kind of music that can be appreciated with a cursory listen. Melody is almost totally non-existent. The rhythms and timings are fucked up. The song structures are complex. The songs fluctuate between extreme repetition and an almost total absence of repeating parts. Nothing happens an even number of times. Every time Aaron sends me a demo of a song, it gives me a panic attack and a migraine. It’s really an endurance test in ugliness.
Aaron: Experimental metal. Someone at a show the other night said they had their mind erased and all that was left was chaos – I think that is a goal, as well as an apt description.
Nick: I try to keep it simple when I describe us and say something like, “we’re heavy, and we’re kinda scary.” Good enough for me.
Kurt: Three words: “New Man Gloom.”