This cover story first appeared on the Indie Rocks! Magazine 10th anniversary number. Text by yours truly. Photographs are courtesy of the band.
Prior to the Canadian band’s second presentation in Mexico, we spoke to guitarist Joe Yarmush about their new album Hold/Still, working with John Congleton and being clueless about the future.
It’s August 11th, 2016. When Joe Yarmush picks up the phone he’s in Montreal getting ready for the next leg of touring for Hold/Still. It’s been over two years since their last visit to Mexico (they played Festival Ceremonia in 2014) and we are barely a month and a half shy from their presentation at the Indie Rocks! forum.
A good friend of mine once described Suuns’ music as “the soundtrack for OD’ing on ketamine”. I’ve certainly not had the opportunity to find out if that experience actually sounds like one of their records. But their music is so hypnotic, deeply sedative and chillingly uneasy at times, that I’ve held on to that description more than to what the press usually says about them.
Nevertheless, these fours boys from Montreal have certainly received their fair share of critical acclaim on each one of their internationally-released full lengths. 2010’s Zeroes QC is an album that makes you realize how inexistent the line between rock and electronic music is these days. Images Du Futur (2014) toyed with taking everything into more intense, dark and even dissonant territories, while still keeping it mostly danceable.
Now, with the release of Hold/Still the consensus seems to be that this is Suuns’ boldest record to date. That’s a pretty…err, bold statement… if you consider how unconventional each of their albums has proven to be. About that, Joe Yarmush had a pretty modest explanation:
“I think we just trusted our instincts more on this recording. We worked on it really quickly and didn’t have time to overthink our record. In my mind it sounds more like our band does live. It’s not a perfectly performed record but it has more of the spirit of the band. That’s a pretty fundamental thing but you kind of lose track with decisions on microphones and amps and synths…and that stuff’s important on some degree but we tried to avoid getting lost in that and just simplify everything to create the best performances.”
Capturing the Spirit of Suuns
For the recording of Hold/Still, the band members decided to change their tried and tested approach of recording at home in Montreal. Instead, they decamped to Dallas, TX to have John Congleton (St. Vincent, Wild Beasts) handle production duties.
The way of recording Suuns is simple; the four band members set up in a room and play the songs from start to finish, sometimes making subtle arrangements or modifications in the process. “A lot of the songs weren’t finished by the time we got to recording them. We just sort of left them open. Like leaving that room there for something magical to happen… or something terrible.”, says Joe.
About working that way with Congleton, Joe mentioned: “…he works extremely fast, totally the opposite of us. He doesn’t want to dwell on anything, ever. That helped us a lot, just to realize when to move on to something else. Sometimes he would trick us though. He would be like, ‘okay we’ll come back to this and fix it up or something’, but what he was really doing was making us go on to something else because he thought the other part was already good. Then, when we would come back to it a few days later, we would all be like ‘oh yeah, this is great.’”
That way of working allowed the band to finish things that they had kept in the shelf as far back as 2007. “Translate”, for example, evolved from the song “Optimist”. The latter appeared on their 2010 debut EP. Joe explained: “We recorded it for every album since then and it never really worked properly until this one. Even on this album it almost got left off, which is crazy to me”.
Another example was “Infinity”, the closing track on the new album. “It was kind of a different song before and it had a different middle part and there was more guitar, more like a classic rock song. We were pretty happy with that song and we were playing it live and at one point he came in and was like ‘it´s boring, you guys can do better on this song. I´ll give you 45 minutes to fix it and then we move on.’”
And they did! To our general benefit, Suuns is one of those bands where the members are capable of letting go of their egos and follow the vision of the producer. After all, they chose him to do precisely that type of thing. As Joe explained, “It’s always been a big thing with our band to just trust the producer. Musicians can get too attached to their songs or even clouded. But with John, we quickly got to a point of trusting him a lot. A person with his musical ability is great to have as an outside voice.”
Comfortable in Ambiguity
As far as the meaning in their music goes, one day previous to the release of Hold/Still drummer Liam O’Neil published an article in The Line Of Best Fit where he wrote: “If Kim Gordon is right, and I’m worth any of my salt as a musician, I’d like to go on record and believe in myself enough to admit unknowing, leave meaning inexplicit, leave it to you.”
Without a doubt, that’s a philosophy that seems to have been present in Suuns from the very beginning. I don’t think I’ve ever heard them go into details about the meaning behind one of their songs, let alone a whole record. It would also seem like there isn’t much verbalizing meaning or musical direction between the members themselves either. Somehow, the four of them just know it.
In Josh’s words, “We try not to overthink that part. We definitely like a lot of different things and we are very different people day to day, but whenever we tap into something or hit into something musically, we know if it’s right for us, even though we might don´t know how to say it. I mean, we’ve been playing and recording and writing songs together for over 9 years so we kind of know when we are onto something, and that includes taking on new directions too. It´s a weird thing.”
Back in Mexico
The band doesn’t seem very calculating about their live performances either. About their second time ever playing in Mexico, Joe had to say: “I feel like this is gonna be a lot different than the Ceremonia show, just because it’s in a club and not a huge outdoor show. Also with crowds, we never really know what’s going to happen but the first time we felt very welcomed, it was a big crowd even though it was pretty early in the day. But I think this time it’s gonna be nighttime in a smaller club and that’s really where we can take it to the next level.”
Pas d’Image du Futur
Taking it to another level certainly sounds like what Suuns has done in their latest album, and what they will probably keep on doing. The interesting thing lies in not knowing exactly what that level will be. As Joe explained:
“We have a lot of songs that are sort of in the Bad Brains or The Stooges kind of world. It would be fun to just to make an EP of those songs. We record a lot of them but they never make it on the albums. That’s like another side of the band, the fast and quick songs that we haven’t been doing lately. We’ve sort of been doing more of the electronic kind of drone out slow jams, Portishead kinda…slow stuff. But that´s the Suuns thing, we are kind of everywhere musically and I don’t know what will come next, at all. No clue.”
Hold/Still was released via Secretly Canadian on April 15th, 2016. You can read the Indie Rocks! review for it here.