For decades, Aaron Turner has been a renegade of the wide-ranging heavy-music scene, conquering the landscape with constant reinvention and a blueprint-deconstructing mindset. His long journey began in the forward-thinking post-metal outfit Isis, which journeyed into uncharted sonic realms by melding oceanic ambient textures into its shapeshifting metal-centric assault.
Also to Turner’s immeasurable credit are Old Man Gloom, purveyor of a scorched-earth hardcore, doom, and psychedelia hybrid, and Hydra Head, the groundbreaking record label he’s run for more than 20 years. Turner joined his partner Faith Coloccia in the experimental outfit Mamiffer a decade ago; together, the two run another record label, Sige, from their home in Washington state.
In Sumac, joined by bassist Brian Cook (Russian Circles) and drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists), Turner works on the fringes of extreme-music, doom, and free-improvisation. The band creates an ecstatic heaviness that can invoke the bludgeon of Swans, the noisescapes of Daniel Menche, and the “Japanoise” brutality of Keiji Haino and Merzbow. Since 2015, Sumac has shaken the metal world with two records, 2015’s The Deal and the following year’s What One Becomes, both face-melting sprawls that ran the gamut from slow-burning sludge-metal to brutal, ear-piercing noise.
This year has seen Sumac melding metal with free improvisation. Earlier this year, the band released American Dollar Bill – Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous To Look At Face On, its collaboration with Haino, on Thrill Jockey. On Sept. 21, the label will issue Sumac’s third record, Love in Shadow. Comprised of four epic songs ranging from 12 minutes to 22, Love in Shadow is part deafeningly loud, part minimalist beast of time signature-rattling insanity, gnarly riffs and caterwauling howls, and otherworldly free-improv trips.
National Sawdust Log caught Turner at home while he was prepping for tour, to talk about Love in Shadow, collaborating with Haino, improvisational metal, and more.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Sumac has a pair of gigs here in New York, one at Saint Vitus and another the following night at National Sawdust. It seems to make sense for this band to play a metal hub and a venue that entertains avant-garde and experimental music, because Sumac seems to lean both ways—especially on the new record and the collaboration with Keiji Haino. Was that an intentional piece of booking on your part?
AARON TURNER: That was actually our booking agent’s idea, and I think it comes out of some conversations we’ve had with him because we do straddle some different lines and we don’t want to get stuck in any particular sector. Being able to traverse some different worlds, and hopefully bring different people along with us as we do that traversing, is going to be an ongoing and hopefully successful effort for us.
The background of everybody in Sumac, at least from an early age, definitely comes from the worlds of metal and punk and hardcore. That’s obviously informed our music a lot, and in some way that energy is really at the core of what we do. But it’s also been augmented by other things which came to us a little later in life but in a no less formative way. I think at various ages all of us have gotten into stuff well outside of metal and have listened to if not played a lot of other music besides metal and hardcore.
While Sumac is trying to do something that’s very cohesive in its aesthetic and intent, it is informed by a lot of different kinds of music that are being synthesized into this thing that we’re doing. I’m hoping that people who have either similar backgrounds – or maybe or even just sort of peripherally aware of some of these worlds that we’re a part of or interested in – are going to connect with the music. Hopefully, metal people who maybe aren’t normally listening to anything with any kind of improv elements can latch onto the more visceral and gnarly side of what we do, and maybe people who are more interested in sort of the experimental avant-garde world might find our approach to metal somehow more accessible or more approachable because it’s not just occupying the sort of stereotypical zone that metal occupies of being really macho—and, at this point, kind of stuck in that that sort of narrow scope of what’s generally considered heavy metal.
It seems like a lot of bands, like Sumac, are bridging the gap of metal and free improv. Is that something you’re seeing in the metal world?
I do, and I would also say that there’s some things that I’ve picked up on for a long time, and then I’ve also talked about with other people over the years. I remember talking to some guys that I got to be friends with in the late ’90s when I first moved to Boston—I guess that was mid-to-late ’90s. These are guys who are playing in metal and hardcore bands, but they were really into stuff like Swans, Glenn Branca, and Caspar Brötzmann and that kind of stuff. And even though what they were doing maybe didn’t necessarily sound like that stuff, it was there, sort of, in the background.
Then sort of on the flip side. I think there’s been some ways in which metal was really radical at various points in its evolution without necessarily intending to be avant-garde but it did end up being just because of its adventurous nature. Like some of the early death metal and black metal stuff, it’s so bent and almost, in a way, like outsider art that it ends up being very avant-garde, simply because the minds and personas of the people making it were so idiosyncratic. Or even sometimes the means which were used to make the music, like people recording on very limited setups ended up developing – unintentionally, or at least only partly intentionally – a very warped aesthetic.
This has been an ongoing thing and there have been times where there’s been an intentional crossover, and then there just been times where people are tapping into similar energies that are just manifesting in different contexts. Going back to Glenn Branca, who’s partly been on my mind because he passed recently, but also because that music is just important to me: when I listen to that, it has the same kind of momentum and energy and almost like head-banging quality that a lot of metal does. It just happens that it’s coming from a very different context.
I think this is not necessarily a new thing but I think that that it’s something that’s happening more frequently now and maybe coming to the fore a bit more. Anything specifically talking about free improv, while there’s been some improv stuff that’s very aggressive in nature, there haven’t been a lot of metal bands that I’ve heard that have embraced that in a really interesting way. It’s happened here and there, but I feel like there’s a lot of unexplored territory still in that sort of territory between those worlds.
Is that aesthetic something that Sumac is going for intentionally or is it happening organically?
It’s very much intentional. My first impulse for playing anything, or the initial connection, has to be with the music itself: feeling like the music is invigorating to me, and awakening some kind of connection with the inner world. That transcends ideas about genre or style, and has to do with something that’s maybe just a bit more intuitive. That’s kind of the first level of engagement that I want to be at when making music: Does this music feel resonant to me, and does it feel important to me, and does it feel emotionally satisfying? The secondary level is, how is it going to take shape, or what form does it take? I think because metal and free-improv stuff has been so resonant for me, and playing it is so much fun for me, it made a lot of sense to try to combine the two in some way or another.
It’s been happening in increments with Sumac, where I think at the beginning, the improv element of what we’re doing was a somewhat small ratio of the overall makeup of our albums or our live set. But as time has gone on, we’ve gotten more confident in that realm and also just more comfortable with each other as players, that is starting to occupy more and more space within our music.
I was actually going to ask you how vital the free-improv influence was when you first started Sumac.
It’s not that I was hesitant to introduce it, but given the personnel involved and what our common ground was, it needed to be introduced slowly. We had to use some more familiar foundations to start on and then could begin branching outward from there—and that’s still an ongoing process. I don’t know entirely how it’s going to evolve from here; I don’t want to abandon structured music entirely, because that has a lot of interest for me still. There’s things that you can do with structured music that are very different in terms of how they feel and what they imply than doing just free improv all the time.
I do feel like it’s a very interesting moment for us, because we now have more fluidity to cross back and forth between the more structured parts of what we do and the totally free parts of what we do. That kind of fluidity is something that I really was striving for from the beginning, and I knew it was going to take some time to get there.
It seems like Love in Shadow has that perfect combination of structured music and free improvisation.
I’m glad to hear it. I think it’s just going to be a continual process of change for us. That’s part of what the impetus behind doing this band was: to start out with a clear notion of how I wanted it to sound, while also remaining open to change and intentionally making that a part of our makeup. And a willingness to embrace new things and purposely push ourselves into territories that aren’t immediately comfortable, and that desire to explore the unknown and to try things that are, if not intimidating, at least a little bit anxiety-inducing, as a part of the creative satisfaction that we derive from doing it.
How much is Love in Shadow composed versus improvised?
I’d have to like do a track-by-track to figure it out but I would say it’s probably about two thirds composed and one third improv. There’s these parts of the record where we had a very loose guideline as far as where in the song you’re going to have these departures take place. But beyond that, what we played within those sections was and remains open to constant reinterpretation.
I read the album was recorded with all of you together in a single room. Did you operate like a free-jazz group, where you had composed parts but then would go off in an improvised way?
Yeah, I think so—and I don’t think jazz is a bad reference point. That was one of my first encounters with the balance between structured and improvised music. I was exposed to jazz growing up. My dad had a pretty extensive jazz record collection, and I realized a lot of what was going on with many of these records was that a written theme would be introduced and played a couple times in the beginning of a piece, then it would kind of just go into solo territory until the end of the song and then maybe the introductory refrain or some modulated version of it would return. That was a very different way of thinking about music for me when I first started to understand what was going on, when it stopped being background noise and started to make more sense to me.
A lot of the other music that I listened to, or that I was actively interested in, was more traditionally pop-oriented in its structure—you know, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge type things. Maybe the one exception to that, or kind of the other interesting perspective-altering encounter for me, was Hendrix. Some of the studio stuff but particularly the live stuff, where again, he would play these recognizable pieces of his studio tracks, and then the band would just kind of go wherever during the middle of the song and sometimes never return or sometimes return much later. It was that willingness to kind of tear apart something that the artists themselves had built, and just abandon it and free fall, that I was initially kind of weirded out by but later deeply intrigued by.
That was my initial exposure to that way of thinking, where you can have these recognizable themes within your music but you can move them around and alter them, and the freedom to be able to do that eliminates the possibility of stagnation, or at least diminishes it. Personally, that’s crucial at this point in my career. I don’t want to just be a performer that plays the same song over and over again; I want to be able to act with that music in the moment that’s happening, and honor it as a living thing that existed at that moment in time rather than just a recapitulation of something that’s already happened.
Would you say Hendrix and the jazz you discovered in your dad’s collection started your dive into fusing composed music with free improv? I recall reading Coltrane’s Blue Trane was crucial for you.
That was one of the big first eye-openers for me, and then getting into his later stuff where it became even freer and more wild and dissonant was the continuation of that interest for me. Later, like in my late teens and early 20s, when I started listening to more experimental stuff and some harsh noise and things like that, that was oftentimes people just completely abandoning structure altogether, and in many cases it wasn’t even in the realm of rock anymore at all. It was often solo performers and people using very non-traditional instrumentation, and that was yet another perspective-altering discovery for me. That, too, has come to inform what I do in Sumac, and is part of our ongoing process of making sound that starts in the realm of rock and moves outward from there.
You mentioned Branca earlier. When did you get into his music?
When I was in Isis, some of our very early shows were with a band from Boston called Anodyne, and people from that band were also in another band called 27, who Isis toured with fairly frequently, and they also went on to a bunch of different bands—anyway, it was part of that whole Boston family. I remember those guys all worked at the same place, or many of them worked at the same place that a lot of the members of Isis did, which was the Newbury Comics warehouse. It’s a chain of record stores and they branched out since then, but it was one of the only indie chains in the Northeast that carried a lot of different kinds of weird music, hardcore and metal and all that stuff. Some of those people were my first exposure to Glenn Branca.
Another big one for me was Harvey Milk. One of the guys in Anodyne who was also in 27, Ayal Naor, put out the first Harvey Milk record. That record is not improv, necessarily, but the way that music was structured was really interesting to me: there was a lot of space in it and a lot of tempo fluctuation. I remember being really…not put off by Harvey Milk the first time I heard it, but I just didn’t know what to make of it. The more I listened to it the more intriguing I found it. I later learned a lot of their music was written out, like actually notated. There were some classical music applications going on there, and in retrospect, that makes a lot of sense in terms of why I found it intriguing; it was because it was like heavy rock music that was being informed by something else entirely.
The late ’90s were really important time for me discovering a lot of different kinds of more out-there music. I think that I may have even been open to that at an earlier age, but those were the pre-internet years and I just got to hear and latched onto what I was exposed to in my peer group growing up. I was really into metal and then when I heard hardcore and punk and some of the stuff that was more out-there in that realm, that was really interesting to me. It was just a matter of exposure—like the more adventurous music I heard, the more adventurous I became as a listener and as a player.
All that said, it must have been a thrill for you to collaborate with Haino on American Dollar Bill – Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous To Look At Face On. But I understand Love in Shadow was actually written before Sumac and Haino played together? What was the actual timeline with those two records?
I had finished writing all of the guitar demos for this most recent Sumac record last April or May, then it was late June or early July that we went over to Japan and did the record with Haino. Getting to work with him was definitely a really special thing for me and for us. I didn’t think he would accept our invitation to collaborate. He’s a guy who collaborates with a lot of people, but most of them are people who are, if not in the world of free improv, at least in most cases are in some other kind of more experimental context. So collaborating with us, who are a fairly full-on metal/rock band, wasn’t something I thought he was going to go for. But fortunately for us, he was into it.
How did working with Haino actually happen?
I made contact through some of our mutual friends in Japan. He knows the people in Boris, and also my friend Stephen O’Malley has worked with him. I had some points of reference when I wrote him. And as far as I know, he doesn’t have much initial direct contact with anybody, so all of our communication initially went through his manager. There was a lot of questions about what our intent was and how we wanted to go about this and just some back and forth to make sure that we were all on the same page. It went pretty smoothly, I have to say. Once we got [to Japan] and got into the studio, we just went straight to work. I think we said all of about ten words to each other before the tape machine got rolling.
The experience was a lot of fun, and surprisingly really fluid. I had some concerns about it just because I really admire his music and I didn’t know how well we would all mesh together. And his persona is kind of intimidating so I was a little bit scared, but it was all good. We joked, had food, and made some really incredible music. That was definitely one of those moments for me that was really important, where I had admired someone’s music from afar and it had a big impact on me, and I got the chance to work with them.
Did you fly out to Japan just to play with Haino, or was Sumac on tour and you and Haino did an off-the-cuff thing?
We purposely set it up to be to coincide with some Japanese dates that we had booked. But it did take some pre-planning, because one of the shows that we ended up playing there was a show with Keiji Haino where we did our own set and then did a live set together with him. We knew when we were trying to set this all up and we were going over there to play and wanted to combine it with, hopefully, the process of working with him, and fortunately it all worked out.
Did you go into the studio with Haino having had riffs or ideas as a launch pad?
No, there was nothing. Nothing had been discussed at all. He got there and we had talked for just a couple of minutes, not even about what we were going to do; it was just kind of chit-chatting and saying hello. That was it. There was no discussion about what we’re going to do. I think maybe before the second or third piece we tracked, he said, “Let’s start quiet,” so we started that one quietly. That was the only direction we had the entire time we were in the studio together.
So it was sort of like a free-improv gig: first takes caught on tape.
We recorded everything we played in there, then we went back and picked some specific sections we liked. We did end up using at least sections of every piece we recorded except one. We were there for a full day, eight or nine hours.
You said you had written all of the guitar parts for Love in Shadow before playing with Haino. Did you go back and change anything after the encounter?
Before going over there, Brian, Nick, and I did some rehearsals where we just did entirely free improv, just to get our minds and bodies limber and prepared for that experience. Even though we had some songs that contains sections of free improv, we at least had the composed parts of the tracks as bookends to contain it. We had never just tried to just play. Part of that was also just the practicalities of our band… I mean, we’re rarely all in the same place at the same time. Thus far, a lot of the writing process has just started with me and Nick hashing things out a weekend here, a weekend there, and then a few days before we go into the studio. We don’t get the opportunity to play a lot as a full band, and usually when we do it in the lead-up to making a record or going on tour.
That was a new experience for us, to just play, and it was really, really liberating and a lot of fun. And I think that was also part of what helped us feel more settled when we got into the studio with Haino, because we knew a bit more about what we are capable of as a trio, and felt like integrating a fourth element coming from a very different place than we were seemed a lot less scary. That rehearsal experience prior to going to Japan, and then the experience of playing with him there and doing the recordings with him there, bolstered our confidence quite a bit. All of that set the stage for us going back into the studio a couple months later to [Love in Shadow]. We were still in the same head space and had had some really good experiences as a group that were very helpful for us in trying to reach into some more exploratory areas when it got time to make our studio record.
Were there things you learned from Haino that you then took back with you into the studio when you recorded Love in Shadow?
I think mostly just attitude, just seeing how relaxed he was and even funny and lighthearted in the studio setting. His music is very heavy and at times almost impenetrable, in a way. And just seeing the ease and his attitude and just willingness to just… go – it’s really inspiring. That’s what drew me to his music to begin with… I kind of just intuited that, and it comes across in the music itself. But to see it in person and interact on that level was another dimension to that. I think more than any specific thing about playing or approach to playing was just the importance of the attitude and the willingness to just dive in and trust your instincts and work on almost more telepathic or energetic levels with the other players, rather than needing to talk about anything outright.
Do you see Sumac doing more collaborative records with other improvisers? For example, The Body has a ton of collaborative records.
I like the idea of this being not a traditional band in that sense, where it is more open to that way of operating. I don’t think we would go down the path that the Melvins have gone down necessarily, where every tour at this point is different membership. I like the idea of being able to meet with other artists and make collaborative recordings, and possibly even do it live as well. We’ve been talking about trying to find the right time and place to do Sumac and Haino again in the live setting. Hopefully, that will transpire at some point in the next year or so. There’s some other people that we talked about the possibility of collaborating with, but nothing has been nothing has been determined yet. I don’t want to talk about what the possibilities are until we know if it’s going to happen.
You’re involved heavily in Sumac’s album art. How does the art for Love in Shadow tie into the conceptual theme of love?
As a music listener, I seem to have been drawn even at a fairly early age to artists and to bands that did a lot of stuff themselves. I found that idea really interesting, because it seemed very logical to me that a band themselves would know the best way to represent their music visually. When I was 13 or 14 and heard Minor Threat for the first time, and then Fugazi, and then heard about Discord and those guys releasing all their own records, and also fostering an independent scene around the world they were from—that way of doing things sounded really appealing to me. It seemed like it put a lot more emphasis on the creative side of doing things, rather than the need to strive for commercial success and the need to capitulate to the demands of other people. Sort of parallel to that, my own creative impulses and outlets had from a very early age been in visual art, and then as a very young teen then also in music; it just made sense to me to combine the two later on—when I got to the point of me being able to have my own bands, or when I started doing a record label, to also do some of that the album art for the things I was releasing.
The connection between art and music – or the visual representation of music through album design – had also been really important to me from an early age. To be honest, that was part of my attraction to metal early on: the album covers, and finding that stuff really fascinating, and copying the album covers and the band logos and all that stuff. That was part of my training ground, really. When it got to the point in my life where I started to have my own bands, I really wanted to do the album art. I felt like I had a really good idea of how things should be presented, and how the look of an album informed or created a greater context for the listener, and how I could augment the atmosphere of what the music was providing. Even something as simple as what color an album was almost implied a mood for the music itself. That’s just been a part of my process ever since, in almost every band I’ve been in. There have been times where I worked with outside artists, or I’ve done the art and had somebody else design it. But for the most part, especially for the records that are of the deepest personal importance to me, I really wanted to have a direct hand in creating artwork.
Without getting necessarily into the specifics of how, say, the front cover image of the new album is supposed to convey the same idea as the lyrics, it’s almost more directly connected to the atmosphere that I think the music already has, and also that I want the listener to pick up on. The lyrics are obviously based in words; a lot of the other aspects of the music come from a place that in me that I feel like is nonverbal or preverbal, and the visuals are coming from the same place.
The fact that I’m thinking about these things and doing them at the same time – like writing the music or recording the music or writing the lyrics and putting them all together – is really contextual in my life. Everything that’s happening to me and that I’m experiencing is going to seep into the music and into the artwork. There may even be facets of it that I don’t understand as it’s happening that will become clearer to me with time, and that’s another part of the process that I find really interesting: what can I learn about myself, and what ideas will become clearer to me with time?
Some of it happens within weeks of the music and art being made and some of it happens years later. There’s lyrics that I wrote and songs that I wrote, like in Isis for instance, that really blew my mind five or seven years after the fact, because I thought I was writing about one thing, and then reading it from a different perspective and in a different time, I realized I was writing about something else entirely. In that way the music and the visuals are a living thing that can change over time, and evolves as I evolve and hopefully as the band evolves, too.
Each Sumac record seems to carry a theme with it and the underlying theme on Love in Shadow is love. How did that creep into the lyrical content?
I think that love, at least in the context of rock music and pop music, has often been written about in some pretty one-dimensional ways and I think there’s a lot to love that hasn’t been explored on a more complex level in many cases. It is a very complex thing, and it’s also in some ways beyond rational human comprehension—which is another reason it’s interesting to me as a topic. The things that are slightly out of reach or intangible or exist on a spiritual level I think are some of the most interesting things to try to grapple with, because they’re not easily attained and they can’t be they can’t be easily presented and the challenge of doing that is part of the appeal.
Speaking more personally, I think part of my experience as an adult has been about dismantling ideas both cultural and familial of idealized mythical love, and embracing, understanding, and nurturing actual love. That means also sort of dismantling these idealized notions of who I am and the person I think I should be versus the person I actually am.
I think there’s a lot of confusion about that for me and also within our culture just because a lot of what our cultural values are – they tend to be more towards the superficial end of things. Capitalism is definitely geared towards cultivating and preying upon those parts of our humanity that want to be loved and need to be loved, and figuring out ways to sort of commodify those impulses versus what’s actually more important, which is learning how to love and accept ourselves for the people we are and helping to help others do that as well.
That became an even sharper focal point for me in the last couple of years since I became a father. That’s been a real eye-opener for me, and it’s definitely forced a bunch of things into view that perhaps I wouldn’t have otherwise dealt with or looked at. A lot of it does have to do with love and how I love myself – or don’t – and what that means for me as a parent, and bringing another person into the world, and what I can teach him or show him—and that is a very personal thing. I also think it’s very global in the sense that how we love ourselves has a lot to do with how we interact with other people. A lot of problems in the world stem from the fact that people don’t know how to love themselves, and therefore have a very difficult time loving other people.
I think that it’s especially relevant to me right now and during the time that the record was written because there was so much public aggression and hatred coming to the surface, which certainly existed prior to the last couple of years but has become much more apparent in the current political and social climate that we’re living through. From my admittedly sheltered perspective as a young teen and going into my early 20s, I think I had this idealized notion that was partially informed by the relative comfort of the ’90s that everything was basically okay. That was a very sheltered and naïve perspective, and I’ve been made even more keenly aware of how far we still have to go and how much we need to actively work on being compassionate and loving and open and vulnerable as a species—and how crucial that is to approach in a very intentional way at this very moment.
I don’t feel comfortable tackling specific political issues in the context of being a band. I don’t feel well informed enough to do that. However, I have what I consider very human concerns that in some ways are political and at the very least are important for me to try to talk about on a very human level—how I’ve struggled within myself, but also how I feel like people are struggling in general, and how absolutely crucial it is we make whatever effort we can to really connect with one another, and really honor other people’s humanity. It’s an area in which we need a lot of work and a lot of help and a lot of discussion right now.
Touring now in support of Love in Shadow, do you anticipate the songs stretching into more improvised territory?
Yeah, we are. It’s going to just be on a night-to-night basis, and is very much about trying to just be in the moment, and do what feels right in that moment, and sometimes just playing the songs and not necessarily the way they were written. It’s just going to depend on the night and what we feel like doing and what songs we choose to play, and there’s really no set plan. We just want to see how the songs feel and try out a few different songs from the record and find out what works best.
The songs on the new record are epically long, with insane time signatures. It’s like multiple songs in one.
It is definitely our most challenging material so far, and that’s very intentional. I think if we were just doing the same thing over and over it would get boring very quickly—we would be bored, and then the people in the audience would be bored. That would just lead to stagnation and then death, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.
Vivien Schweitzer reviews the opening night National Sawdust's fifth season, a mix of compositions and improvisations honoring Clara Schumann, Meredith Monk, Mary Lou Williams, and other distinguished creators.
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As Jessica Pavone prepares to celebrate the release of her newest album, 'Brick and Mortar,' the improvising violist, composer, and bandleader talks to Steve Dollar about her long path back to ensemble music.
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