The Will To Reach: A Conversation with Aaron Turner of SUMAC

With the imminent release of SUMAC's fourth studio album, May You Be Held, we had the chance to speak with Aaron Turner about the new album and to try and understand how the band achieves their unique balance of sonic destruction and personal reflection.

Photograph by Reid Haithcock

Words by Rohan (@manvsplaylist):


SUMAC's new record May You Be Held finds the group pushing themselves further in each sonic and creative direction than they have previously ventured to date. Much like the band's prior studio work, the intricate layers and hidden details buried within this latest offering will take many more listens to reveal themselves. Knowing full well that this process was far from complete to our own ears, we approached this conversation with Aaron Turner as a way of trying to gain some insight into how the band creates these avalanches of sound, perspective that may hopefully aid our connection to & appreciation of this latest complex beast of a record.


Connecting via phone from a recently smoke-engulfed region of the pacific north-west, what follows is a free flowing conversation with one of extreme music's most uninhibited creative forces:

SUMAC’s music is a fascinating balance between free form experimentation and tightly woven, intricate passages. To my ear, it’s always sounded like your guitar work serves as a perimeter, or a boundary to the songs, with Nick (Yacyshyn, drums) and Brian (Cook, bass) adding different tempo & rhythmic dynamics, sonic heft and other flashes of color - so I’m curious as to how these songs actually come together. Can you describe how you collectively craft these pieces?


Turner: Guitar has always been my primary instrument ever since entering the world of music. It has always been my point of focus and has never really wavered at all, and a lot of the music that I enjoyed from even from an early age up until my current age has been guitar centric. Most of the bands I’ve been in have been pretty guitar centric as well. However, with the 3-piece format what I was really trying to pursue with greater depth what can be done with one guitar in a band. How just having a solo guitar allows the nuances of my playing to really come out, and really forces me to think about how I write a lot differently. Working with less means learning more, essentially.


In thinking about SUMAC prior to actually starting the band, there were some pretty significant touchstones for me in terms of what was inspiring, and some of them even go back to my early roots. One of them being JIMI HENDRIX, and the other being METALLICA, as far as early influences go. HENDRIX representing the more wild end of my early interest in playing, obviously a great emphasis on soloing in his playing, a lot of texture in his playing, a lot of melody and soulfulness, and although he was an extremely adept rhythm playing – his rhythm was very fluid, it wasn’t that kind of very marshal approach to playing rhythm guitar there was a lot of ebb & flow and push & pull to his guitar playing and that was very intriguing to me. And then obviously he heavily incorporated feedback into whatever it is he was doing, and that was heavily intriguing to me when I was young too. I didn’t understand the mechanics of it at the time, but the effect on me as a listener was pretty profound. And then going over to the METALLICA side of things – so much of what those early records were centered around was rhythmic patterns, clearly there’s a lot of harmonic elements in it as well. But that really forceful, rhythmic approach to playing interested me. Even though there’s two guitars in that band, Hetfield‘s rhythm playing is really the focal point of many of the songs. So those two things were very formative for me.


And then fast forwarding a little bit, in the past 10-15 years I got really into a lot of different things that were also guitar centric. GLENN BRANCA is one, and even though his approach to writing involves in some cases many many guitars, the idea that the guitar could be used in this more almost classical way of composing interested me. And then CASPAR BRÖTZMANN would be another one, where his playing is so much about the single guitar and all about the minute details and physical expressions in his playing and just hearing how much he was able to do, and Massaker really had a big impact on me also. None of those things are necessarily overt influences throughout SUMAC, although some are to a degree or another, but those are the types of things that are in the background DNA that shaped my eventual song writing for SUMAC.


So – that’s a long-winded pre-cursor to getting up to the point where I wanted to start writing music for SUMAC. I knew that I wanted to start a new band, and to have it be a bit more of a regular thing, not to the extent where we were touring all the time but just to be a more active band. And I also knew that I wanted it to be a 3-piece, with the intent that my guitar playing and the way I was dealing with my instrument would be a big foundational factor for the way that we approach music writing. So with each SUMAC song we have written, it has started around guitar demos that I have made on my own. Those initial musical sketches are in a lot of ways pretty accurate or parallel to the final form of the songs, there’s not a whole lot of deviation from what I start with to where the band ultimately ends up, at least as far as arrangements or parts go. Clearly Nick and Brian add a whole wider spectrum of color and emphasis to what’s happening, but the actual composition all starts with solo guitar, so that’s kind of why when you hear the recordings it comes across, as you said, where the guitar is almost like the container or the shaping element in the music.


When you record those guitar demos, are you providing any additional rhythmic elements or programmed drum tracks underneath it?


Turner: No, uh uh. It’s guitar only. I have never been adept at drum programming and it doesn’t really interest me to learn. And as soon as Nick and I agreed to play together, it was clear to me that I could give him a little bit of direction here or there if I was hearing something, but fortunately and more interestingly, he was able to come up with his own ideas that were very complementary to what I was writing. We had a pretty good chemistry from our first jam session of playing together, and so from that point forward it was really just me showing Nick the parts and then allowing him to go from there in terms of what he added to it, or how he arranged the drum patterns around my guitar playing.


It’s interesting how you guys came to be, obviously you’ve got a lot of history with Brian and your paths have crossed over many years, how did the connection with Nick come about? When I hear him play on BAPTISTS it doesn’t necessarily appear that he’d be a logical fit to mold in with the type of style you’ve created with SUMAC, so how did that come about with him joining this band?


Turner: In some ways it was a shot in the dark, but in some ways me seeing BAPTISTS was the catalyst for us playing together. They opened a show in Seattle in 2012 or 2013 that I happened to be at, and I had never heard BAPTISTS but as soon as I saw and heard Nick playing I was immediately just blown away by his approach, his physicality, his intensity and his ideas. And even within the context of BAPTISTS, whose structures are more traditional than SUMAC, he takes a lot of creative paths with what he does within those stylistic parameters. More importantly though was the energy that he displayed – he had so much heart and so much power in his playing that it immediately left an impression on me. And at that time I was thinking about starting another band and I thought to myself “this is the kind of person I want to play with”! However I knew they were Canadian, and it didn’t really even occur to me at the time to ask him. Fast forward around a year from there and I was still thinking about and trying to find someone to play with, and I asked Kurt Ballou, a long-time friend of mine and obviously someone we’ve worked with a lot, about drummers and he said that Nick was one of his favorite drummers, and I said “well, put me in touch please! coz I really liked his playing, and who knows maybe it’ll work out”. And that’s how it all started. So maybe a month or two after that after I’d sent some demos to Nick and we’d talked some more, I went up to Vancouver to play together and we recorded some rudimentary demos there, and that was it pretty much! We both felt very positive about that initial musical meeting and started building from there.


After you’ve made these demos, and after the guys have brought their ideas to the table, how does this album compare to others, as far as along the spectrum of the songs being formed and arranged versus things that are more free form and improvisation led once you’re in the studio and recording?


Turner: The improv element in what we’ve done has grown in its ration to the composed material, and that’s where I feel our roles have become a little more balanced. In some way, I’m still directing us in a particular way, at the same time it relies a lot more on our intuitive ability to connect with each other in the moment. And though at times we have set basic parameters before beginning an improv piece, very often we deviate significantly from where we thought we were going to go, it really is just about response in the moment that things are happening.


So in the case of this record in particular, there were passages that were built into the two longest songs (“May You Be Held” and “Consumed”) where we knew we were gonna leave them open for interpretation. And then the other three pieces were all spur of the moment improvisations that happened in the studio. There was some shaping after the fact that kind of reinforced the initial things that we laid down, but ultimately the first, last and middle tracks are all built around just these completely free things that we did all at the end of the session after we had finished tracking the other basic pieces.

Photograph by Reid Haithcock

As a listener your music often takes considerable time to reveal itself, to unravel and to create a bond with it. As a creator of the piece does it take a similar time for the music to reveal itself to you as its composer? During its creation, at what point does that revelation usually take place with you?


Turner: It depends, there’s some things that are very immediate, and that applies to both the structured and unstructured things. There have been riffs that I come up that just happened the moment I sat down with my guitar, that I just KNEW that that particular idea was a keeper. And then there are other things that have evolved after hours of sitting and playing guitar where I just record a bunch of ideas, step away from them for a moment and then go back to review what seems compelling and what doesn’t. The biggest signifier for me with anything, whether it’s a structured part or a more improvised thing, is if I get some emotional charge from playing it. There has to be that feeling of emotional resonance and vibrancy and even a physical bodily response that feels like the music is doing something to me. And that’s often the best indicator that it’s a good idea to keep pursuing whatever it is that’s happening at that moment. There are times though that we have gone through improv stuff and just been mystified at the end of it as to whether or not it was any good or even having any idea in particular as to what had just happened. And sometimes it does take a while of sitting with those pieces and listening to them repeatedly before determining which ones are worth pursuing and which ones were merely just exercises in getting to an idea. That also applies even to the records we’ve done with Keiji Haino, where we did extensive sessions or long live sets, and then reviewed everything and really selected what seemed like the most potent moments and dispensed with some of the things that were more lacking that necessary vitality.

Cover art by Aaron Turner

What an opportunity and a step up for an improvisation effort to get in a room and a space with him! I mean shit, that’s got to be pretty intimidating!


Turner: It was terrifying to be honest! Although I will say, his demeanor immediately upon entering the studio with him set us at ease. He can be very serious, but he’s also a very amiable and often a very funny person. So that might not be apparent from his public persona, but was immediately apparent in person. So that really helped us feel more relaxed, and being relaxed in a setting where you have to improvise and really trust one another is helpful.

Cover art by Aaron Turner

How important was that experience for the three of you in recording those more free form improvisation components with a man like him, to then go on to incorporate more of that style into more of your own SUMAC recordings?


Turner: I think it was crucial. Even from the first record we have incorporated elements of improv into what we were doing, and it was always the intention that those elements could and should be expanded upon. So each thing that we have done, from record to record and tour to tour and then in playing with Haino, has been part of developing those skills. Sometimes part of developing a skill is taking a giant leap and being willing to see what happens as a result of that step. Whether its success or catastrophe or a mix of the two! So I think that the willingness on our part and just the experiences themselves have been part of our ability to become a more fluidly improvisational unit.


So when you’re in this more improvisational space, the people that you’re working with to record the tracks also play a pretty important role. Now on this record, you’re working again with Matt Bayles in recording of this work, it’s been some time since you’ve worked with him, Brian’s had experience recording with him but under much different formats and circumstances. So now that you’re in this space, with this work, what’s the relationship or balance between taking guidance from someone like him that you obviously have a working, and collaborative relationship with, versus feeling like you have to do some form of shepherding or protecting of the pieces that you’re trying to get to?


Turner: We’re very self-directed for the most part. With Matt or Kurt or anybody else that we’ve worked with, where we go has always been entirely of our making. What we rely on engineers for is, especially when it comes to structured parts, listening to the performances and letting us know if they hear things that they think could be better. I think that both Kurt and Matt have been very good in that sense. When it comes to the improvisational elements, I wouldn’t say that Matt or Kurt is particularly geared in that direction, so they’re basically just completely hands off when we get to those zones, and have left it up to our discretion to figure out what we like and don’t like.


SUMAC is not a band that requires a producer in the full definition of what that word means – we do however enjoy working with people who have particular skill sets that we feel like are valuable to what our end goal is. With Matt, I’ve always liked how he approaches recording, and I feel like he particularly excels at capturing sounds and drum sounds in particular. Kurt has a knack in the mixing stage that I find very compelling, in that he is able to translate a lot of energy into the final mix. For us that is crucial because so much of our source of power is derived from the physical aspect of our playing. So being able to find a way to transmit that through the final recording itself is crucial.


As far as your comment about Kurt goes - that’s the understatement of the year! Kurt’s work to my ears is just incredible, across the breadth of artists that he works with, and the unique sound that he can capture for each of them, it's just staggering right?!


Turner: Yeah – I think it’s awesome! He is ideal in being able to strike a balance of imparting some of his own aesthetic on any given project while also, in the case of bands who have a very well-established personality, allowing that personality to come to the fore. And I think that’s really the art of being a good engineer, producer or mixer, in being able to strike that balance.

On “May You Be Held” the sound is just monstrous. Once you get that first mix back, what’s your reaction it??


Turner: If I laugh while I’m listening to it – that’s a good sign!! I really want it to be preposterously huge, and menacing, or physical sounding. I really like when a mix sounds like you are in a space and you are inhabiting that and the music has created a world that envelopes you – and that’s the main thing I want when I hear a mix. Sometimes it’s really hard because as a performer, I can get really myopic in my vision and just focus on performance aspects of the playing and that’s where I feel like I can kind of lose my own way. So again it’s all about balance, in trying to find a way in which I can listen to the music critically but also appreciate and understand what it is that the mixing engineer has done and whether or not it is parallel to the kind of sound that I had hoped for or that I heard in my head essentially before anything was ever laid down.

I want to touch on your own vocal performance for a moment. If it’s even possible – it sounds like your voice is even more visceral and powerful than ever on this record. How have you approached practicing and experimenting with your voice over the years and leading up to this record?

Turner: That’s where the process of recording myself has come in very useful. I don’t like the idea of being able to labor over something for prolonged periods of time, I think that’s where a home studio can be a pitfall, because you can just end up tinkering with something until it becomes devoid of any of the original spirit. However, recording vocals and performing vocals is such an intense experience on a mind, body, spirit level that it’s been historically difficult for me to get to where I want to go with other people around. It’s fine in a live setting, that’s totally a different context for me, I’m not exactly sure why except for that having an audience and feeling like you’re participating in a collective thing makes a difference. But when you’re in a studio and recording vocals and there’s nobody else playing and you know someone else may be hearing your vocals with no music – that’s just a very vulnerable spot! And as much as I’d like to be comfortable with that, I’m not!


I have accepted that I do better doing that on my own. So in a way, just being able to go in and inhabit my own space while I’m doing that is very helpful for me in terms of being able to dig really deeply into my vocal practice. Without revealing too much…I can say that it just gets pretty feral in that process!! Haha! I don’t like wearing clothes for the most part, it gets very sweaty, there’s a lot of spit, it is a very physical experience! To be able to push myself in that way, I have to go there, and that’s much easier to do in a closed dark room where no one else is around.


For the artwork that stands alongside each of your albums, how do these pieces come together? Does it take place during your writing recording process, before or after?

Turner: Rarely before, sometimes during, almost always after. I am in some ways a visual artist first, in that that was my first creative outlet for many years, it was my main interest that had only to do with my interests outside of my interest in social life or going to school, so in that sense it does occupy a primary spot in my life. However, when it comes to making a record it necessarily needs to come after the music, most of the time. Sometimes during the process of making a record I’ll be thinking about visuals and even just steeping myself in the atmosphere that we are busy constructing is helpful in laying some sort of subliminal groundwork for the artwork I feel. Thinking about thematic ideas, listening to the music, just living with what will be the album helps me arrive at a place I feel mentally prepared to begin the artwork stage of the process. I think it would definitely be counter-intuitive for me to try to paint a cover before a record was done.


There are cases where I have generated artwork that has not served a particular purpose, or has been part of process of developing visuals for a record that never ends up getting used, and then later on I’ll go back and look at that and see if it has some resonance to what I’m working on currently, and sometimes that works. I think the reason it works is because everything I do creatively is all coming from the same inner well. So in some way or another all the things that I am interested in are going to have an overlap independent of how they may be manifesting themselves. A lot of the things I do visually have a parallel to my musical practice as well: there’s an aspect of chance and there is a process of building and then knowingly destroying something; there is the private aspect of what I am doing, in that an idea can only happen in isolation and then being able to have that private space really allows that idea to come out.


With the paintings for this record, there was definitely an element of control where I was trying to give the paintings an overall shape and form; at the same time there was a lot of it where I let my hand and my body move more freely to see what would come out in a way that wasn’t so controlled and was based more on impulse and sort of imparted some of that same feral energy that the music has.

The artwork that has been created for this record seems to be quite complementary to Love In Shadow (2018). Was that by design or was that by accident?

Turner: It's both. In some ways I cannot escape myself, and in many ways that’s good! I feel like so much of my creative practice has been trying to figure out who I am and what’s important to me and trying to get my bearings in the world. Making art and music helps me externalize a lot of things that I don’t really have another means for saying or writing or otherwise communicating. So I need to make art and music in order to balance myself and as I said, find my way in the world.


That actually serves as the perfect entry way into my last topic that I wanted to get to, and that is talking about the relationship between your own personal growth and your artistic growth. Is there a push/pull type of relationship there or do you view them as one and the same?

Turner: I formerly did not view them as one and the same. I think I had a very compartmentalized existence for many years. And though that may have been helpful for me early on, it eventually became a stumbling block, and I’ll explain it this way: becoming a musician and gathering together with musical peers, touring and recording, I now see as part of my process of individuating and leaving the home I grew up in. Part of that was necessary on almost a primal level, because in our culture there are no rights of initiation into adulthood, we basically have to make them up because we no longer – most of us, I should say – no longer belong to any kind of spiritual order or tribal society that has those things built in. So in a way I feel like the creative process for me, was that – it was part of my own initiation into the world that I necessarily needed to do that in order to literally and figuratively leave home.


The problematic side of that is that there is an extended juvenile sort of life that can be perpetuated through the process of just being a musician. Just going on tour all the time necessarily means that you abandon many other of the responsibilities that you might otherwise have to shoulder. For me, at least for a significant period of my 20's, it meant getting away from personal relationships that were difficult for me and that I didn’t really have the tools to navigate in a mature way. So it was kind of like I was often using my musical life as a means to escape a personal life. Obviously, there’s a personal aspect to being in a band that’s also pretty deep, in that you’re with the same people all the time and that brings with it a whole other set of complexities to it. But as I aged and especially after I got involved with my partner Faith, who I’ve now been with for 12 years, and after we had a child, I realized there was a necessary integration that needed to happen between my creative life and my home life. Trying to keep the two separate was causing a pretty painful schism for me internally and also a schism between me and my partner, because I couldn’t easily traverse the two worlds without having these periods of upset that occurred between transitions of working on a project or going on a tour, and then coming home.

I also realized there was a necessary integration of my own consciousness that needed to happen too, where a lot of what I did in my 20's and even early 30's was happening on a level that I couldn’t quite comprehend. Like I would write lyrics and not really understand what they were about entirely, and then 5 or 10 years later, it would be apparent to me what I was actually trying to get at there. So it was like a lot of the stuff I wasn’t willing to look at, couldn’t look at, didn’t have the tools to access, was manifesting in my art and in my music but not in a way that I was necessarily intending or even conscious of. Now I would say that though there are still aspects of my own art that are mysterious to me, and that’s a good thing ultimately, I’m also much more intentional in my practice and I feel as a result I’m able to get more authentic and deep reaching results out of what I’m doing.

Something about holding your own child that changes the way we look at the world, right??!!

Turner: It absolutely does! It changes the way I have looked at the world. It also has allowed me again, to access some things that within myself have long been buried. It has definitely increased my empathy for, and understanding of, humanity on a broader scale too. I think obviously parenthood isn’t for everyone, and there’s lots of people who don’t want to go that route, and I believe there are other ways to achieve those same kinds of understanding, however – as I referenced earlier, there’s a lack of ritual and a lack of ceremony in most peoples lives, and I think those things might allow for increased understanding of self and world, and if you don’t have those things then parenthood can, and hopefully in most cases, IS, a way to deepen your experience and access those things that you can’t otherwise.

May You Be Held arrives on October 2nd via Thrill Jockey Records. Order yours HERE.

Cover art by Aaron Turner

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