Interview: Sumac

Aaron Turner chats about his acclaimed new project, art metal duo Sumac

Interview: Sumac The heavy music world knits together, granted not always in a neat and orderly fashion. When Aaron Turner, ex-Isis guitarist and vocalist, decided it was time to make a change he ventured out onto his own; better stated, he ventured inward. Turner delved into his music and his creative process, emerging with a batch of rough songs that needed dimension. In order to best honor that vision, he gathered others, Baptists drummer Nick Yacychyn and bassist Brian Cook. Those disparate threads wove back together, becoming the powerhouse, Sumac.

Sumac’s new album, The Deal issued to excellent reviews back in February I consider to be the textured, aggressive record on the very short list for best heavy music projects of the young year. Time has done nothing besides season that point of view. Songs like “Thorn In The Lion’s Paw” and “Hollow King” are fierce, but they’re also nuanced, well crafted and evocative in a far deeper sense than simple recitations of frightening myth and warding story. I had the unique opportunity to talk with Aaron about how Sumac came to be, and what comes next for his ambitious new project.

Bearded: A few reports stated that you set out to create the heaviest music of your career with Sumac. Where did that need to go even further come from?

Aaron: I didn’t necessarily set out to write the heaviest record of my career. My main intention was to make something that would be challenging and visceral on several levels. I certainly wanted it to be heavy, and more importantly I needed it to be emotionally resonant and forcefully so.

In some of the other rock-based groups I’ve been in I felt that the emotional impact on the music was subdued because there was so much compromise happening in order to make songs everyone involved could agree on and play comfortably. In the case of Sumac, I wanted to be able to write an album unhindered by considerations for what other people might think of the material or be willing to play. There were no restraints in terms of complexity, duration, repetition, abstraction, and this was crucial for me. In order for the aesthetic and spiritual concepts to come through unfiltered, I needed to write exactly the way I felt compelled to, and it was necessary to start fresh in order to do so. I didn’t want to know who or what I was writing for at first so it could just be about the songs themselves and nothing else.

After coming out of a seminal band like ISIS, it seems like you spent a few years really feeling around for the next big project. Is that true?

I wanted to have some down time away from being in rigidly structured band such as ISIS was. The way we operated was, after a time, constraining and tiring. I didn’t feel the need to jump right back into another band-type situation, and needed some time to carefully consider what my creative priorities were and how to approach them.

Being in bands or projects that were stylistically very different, operating on a more casual level was really refreshing for me, and offered a portal to creative renewal. With the exception of Mamiffer, with whom I’ve been consistently active even prior to the dissolution of ISIS, all of these projects were studio only, or seldom active in terms of live shows. All of which was exactly what I wanted. During that period I knew I’d start another band again, something more “regular”, I just needed to store up some energy for the material and find the right people to make it happen with, and I was in no rush to do so.

Discuss the genesis of Sumac and the desire to make it a full time endeavor rather than just a side project?

Towards the end of 2013 and into the early part of 2014 I had been working on some new guitar material, and knew it was time to put together a band to give it a body. I’d been thinking about a particular approach to song writing for years, even during ISIS, but couldn’t yet articulate what I wanted or how to go about making it. The ideas needed to gestate for a while, and perhaps I just needed to find different people to help build these pieces with as well.

Whatever the case, I finally figured out how to reconstruct the sounds I’d been imagining all that time, and I reached out to a few different people that I thought could help bring this stuff into being. Because of how I felt about the material, and knowing it would be very effective in the live setting, I wanted this to be something that operated beyond just being a studio or file trading project. For it to realize its full potential it needed to become a more full operational band, and really this is just the first stage of what I hope it will become. More time and exploration is necessary in order to see what is possible on this path we’ve set out on.

Talk about recording with Mell Dettmer?

Mell is someone I’ve known for a while and is exceedingly easy to work with. She is great at making things happen quickly in the studio, offering ideas when necessary, and listening to input without needing to graft her own ego or aesthetic onto a project in an overbearing fashion. We knew exactly what we wanted to do and we needed someone who could help us document the music in an accurate and efficient way.

That’s exactly what happened. We went in with Mell and two days later all the drums and the bulk of the guitars were complete. I spent a few days at home on vocals, another day with Mell and Brian getting the bass parts done, and then we sent it all off to Kurt for the mixing. A quick process, highly energized and pretty rigorous, and in the end, quite fruitful.

Your debut album The Deal really stands out to me as a unique work. At this juncture, do feel as though you accomplish what you initially set out to do?

Yes. It sounds exactly as I’d hoped, and at the same time beyond what I could have initially imagined. To feel like a piece of work is truly successful, I want to hear and feel something that goes beyond the purely practical aspects of what went into making it. It needs to possess spirit, atmosphere, energy. Those are things that are impossible to plan on in any quantifiable way

I always hope for this when working on something, and Sumac succeeds on this level in a way few other things I’ve been a part of have. I feel lucky and grateful that we were able to make something that resonates as deeply as this does for me.

I like talking about influences. I’ve read about a wide array of influences attributed to your songwriting process, from heavy music and metal acts, all the way over to an opposite side of the spectrum like electronica and hip-hop. Describe how you’re influenced as an artist.

What influences the music I/we make goes well beyond genres, beyond music itself. Any significant life encounters/occurrences somehow filter into the music, art, literature, film, and even more importantly, personal experiences. Hearing works by other musicians that I find interesting or enjoyable is part of what makes me want to play, but the urge to create and to experience sound on a physical/spiritual/emotional level is itself the real impetus for doing it.

There is a relationship between the music being made and the body/mind/spirit making it that creates an energized loop. Enacted effectively, it is a truly transcendental experience that begs for repetition and deeper exploration. Discovering what kinds of musical triggers create this energy cycle influence what and how I play and who with. Without that energetic cycling between music and player, genre and style mean nothing.

Sumac’s first performance was opening for Deafheaven in December 2014. How did it feel to take the stage as a new band?

It was intimidating before it happened, fun while it was happening, and ultimately relieving in the end. I enjoyed it, though I must say I felt a bit stiff throughout. I was thinking more than feeling. I had to though, as it was all so new and I couldn’t let go the way I wanted to.

It took a few more shows to finally loosen up, and now the more we play the more I enjoy it. There is a level of intellectual awareness that had to happen in order to play this music correctly. Now I can move beyond that, knowing the music more fully, and really sink into the experience of being inside it, rather than just observing it objectively.

So much gets made of writer’s terms like “post-rock” and “post-metal”, many of these applied to bands you have fronted. How do you respond to the idea that your music has already somehow transcended its base form?

I know that what we make will be heard and scrutinized on some level, and paying attention to that stuff it takes a toll on me from time to time. I care what people think and I want them to like the music. Most importantly though, I just want it to reach those people for whom it will mean something, regardless of how it appears to them stylistically/aesthetically. If it moves them in some way, that is the best possible reception it could receive. We’re not trying to adhere to one style or another, in fact I hope that the music isn’t easily categorized, though if it helps people to find it one way or another, classification is an acceptable key for discovery.

You have been quite prolific throughout your career. Provided fans are in for (hopefully) at least another Sumac record, what else can they expect to see?

We’re going to tour, we’re going to record some more, and beyond those things I hope not to limit us (or anyone else) with any other expectations about what we’re going to do. I have a sense of where we’re headed, and I’m also remaining open to whatever might define or alter that trajectory. I hope this band will continue to evolve and be a vehicle for all the participants to have deep, unexpected and gratifying experiences, both as musicians and as people.

I hope the same for those who encounter the music. At its best we want it to a be conduit of passionate expression and a catalyst for altered perception and spiritual invigoration. This music and making it has already changed my life for the better, and I hope in whatever ways large or small it can do the same for others. I’m a big believer in the idea that creativity is essential to the nourishment of our human selves.

Music is huge part of my personal creativity and it has largely defined my life, as such I know the power it holds. I hope what we do as Sumac can serve as a portal into the deeper aspects of what it means and how it feels to be alive.

The Deal is out now through Profound Lore Records