SBTS Interview

The Complex Minimalism of Suuns | The SBTS Interview

April 11, 2016
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Photo: Nick Helderman

The third album from Suuns is titled Hold/Still – a command that we, as listeners, have no choice but to obey. Impeccably crafted, it holds the listener’s attention captive with its unpredictable unfolding of sound. Bursts of dissonance explode through minimalist soundscapes and then suddenly vanish, replaced by sparse, soothing guitar tones. An almost tense duality of abrasive instrumentation and seductive grooves makes for a collection of music that is refreshingly complex.

For the production of Hold/Still, the band travelled to Dallas, TX to work with Grammy-winning producer John Congleton (The War On Drugs, St. Vincent, Sleater-Kinney). Congleton, a fan of Suuns before working with them on this project, knew their sound and wanted to capture it on the album. Over the course of three intense weeks, they recorded the material live in the studio with only vocals recorded separately. The result is a raw yet pristine minimalist record speckled with crescendos, pulsing industrial rock synths, and distant, hazy vocals reminiscent of Thom Yorke.

Hailing from Montréal, Suuns (pronounced “soons”) formed in 2007 and have spent the last 13 years developing their genre-defying sound. Some of the tracks on the record are songs that the band had been reworking for years. Versions of “Translate”, the first single from Hold/Still, almost appeared on the previous Suuns albums and actually came close to being left off this album as well. “I always knew that song was a jam,” says lead singer Ben Shemie, “but sometimes it’s hard to get it on tape.” When commenting on its appointment as the album’s first single, Shemie said, “I mean, to me, that song is very definitive to what we sound like as a band. It has all of the hallmarks of a Suuns song – it has that schizo guitar and synth rolling bass so it seems to sound the most like us.”

The video for “Translate” is part of a trilogy of videos directed by longtime Suuns collaborator Charles-André Coderre for Hold/Still. The third single, “Brainwash” has an interactive virtual reality music video, also directed by Coderre. Viewers can download the app produced by the band off the YouTube video for the full interactive experience. “Brainwash” is the product of the evolution of a song that Suuns had written back before the release of their first album. “[‘Brainwash’] is kind of interesting,” says Shemie, “because in our early, early days, for our first record, we did a song called “Zeroes Theme” – which didn’t make the album and it’s hilarious to listen to it now – but it was very ambitious and kind of huge-sounding. I don’t know how geek we want to get here, but there was this band called Cardiacs. They were a weird U.K. band that aren’t around anymore but they had this song called “The Alphabet Business Concern” and that was the inspiration of “Zeroes Theme” which was this really over-the-top, kind of like, fanfare thing. I think subconsciously, the chords [of “Brainwash”] came out of “Zeroes Theme”. It has a similar harmony and lots of chord changes that are kind of cyclical. At the time, I didn’t think that, but now, I can see that it’s very similar and you can see that there’s a lineage between those songs.”

Lead vocalist/guitarist Ben Shemie and guitarist Joe Yarmush sat down with Stories Behind The Songs and reflected on how proud they are of the new album. “We’re almost heartbreakingly lucky to be doing what we do,” said Shemie. “You know, that people pay attention to the music that we make and we can do what we want artistically, which is a super huge privilege, and you almost feel like you don’t really deserve this kind of opportunity. So it’s kind of like a dream. And knowing that about yourself and what you’re doing… that’s intense. That’s a heavy… heavy trip to be on.”


Tiny Icon Logo  Did you have a specific intention for this album?


Ben:  For us, this record is in continuation of what we’ve always done. I think the big difference on this record is that we wanted to work with a producer and he really pushed us to sound like who we really are. We didn’t really sugar coat anything. We made really uncompromising decisions on the album that are maybe not as easy for people to get into the record because there’s less entry points. And we played everything live when we recorded it so there’s not really any overdubbing. So I think, contrary to our last record, this is more of a statement. When we normally would’ve softened an edge so that transitions would go smoother, we didn’t do that this time because the less smoke and mirrors is how we would actually play it. It’s less of a studio album. Our last record was more of an expansive production and this is, in a way, much more stripped down. Even though our stuff is always really minimal, this is even more so. So I think it’s kind of intense.


Tiny Icon Logo  Hold/Still is described by your label as a “universe of high tension – resistance and surrender…” How do those feelings translate onto the album?

B:  Well, certainly tension is something that’s pretty present in all of our music. Building tension and being almost kind of uncomfortable, especially in a live setting. That’s kind of something that we play with in all of our songs especially since the songs are pretty minimal so we’re working with very few building blocks.


Tiny Icon Logo  What was the experience of working with John Congleton in Dallas like? I know that you worked 3 weeks straight and I’m sure there were challenges. Have you ever recorded live like that before?

Joe:  It felt a bit more like recording our first album, that same style. A lot of first takes and second takes.

B:  Yeah, we had never recorded with a producer before so were were like, “What’s this guy gonna do?” and in a way it was much more subtle than I thought, but also much more present than I thought. I thought he was going to be like, “No, no, maybe change this, maybe you should play a B flat instead of that, but it was more like a work-flow thing like, “Okay, that’s good, let’s move on” instead of getting caught up on things. And this whole one take thing, I don’t think that was planned. We just played it and he was like, “Okay, cool. Let’s go to the next song.”


Tiny Icon Logo  Whether it was intentional or not, it seems like by doing that, he’d keep the flow of everything moving without halting and interrupting things.

B:  I think his vibe is like that. I think he comes from that old-school kind of way where if you sound like this, this is what we’re going to record. We’re not going to change it because you’re in the studio or manipulate it so you have the perfect vocal take. It’s like, that’s what you sound like so we’re not going to edit it or stitch it together.

J:  It was hard to do it though, at the time. It didn’t feel like it was easy. It was a new experience all around, like, travelling, spending a lot of money, being kind of isolated… and not knowing the guy at all. At all. So, we had no idea what it was going to be like. And you know, you kind of have self-doubt when you’re doing it. You’re like, “Is this going to be a disaster?” the whole time but then the next day you’re like, “This is insanely awesome.”


Tiny Icon Logo  So was the energy throughout the recording process always changing?


B:  It was pretty intense. I mean, when we recorded in the past, we might do two days of like, drums, so like, as a guitar player, you just don’t do anything for two days. Like, literally nothing. So there’s all these ups and downs. And then it’s your turn and the drummer fucks off, you know what I mean? Whereas, with this, there was nowhere to go. We were in this little studio in the middle of nowhere and you’re playing all the time. I thought I was going to like, smoke joints half the time and just listen to like, the snare drum over and over again but the entire time we were like GO. ON.

J:  We didn’t even drink in the studio. We were like 9-5, 10-6 literally.



Tiny Icon Logo  How important are lyrics to Suuns?


B:  They’ve become more important than before. I think our first record was like, half lyrics, half cool sounding full voice things, and then it got a bit more interesting on our last record, and then this one, it’s like all lyrics. It’s not ambiguous at all. That’s kind of partly a confidence thing and it’s just another interesting angle of the band that just adds another layer to it. Personally speaking, I want to have something deeper there, you know? So, I think it’s become more important over the years.


Tiny Icon Logo  And you, Ben, solely write the lyrics?


B:  Yeah. Except, actually, “Translate”. Joe wrote those lyrics. But yeah, generally speaking, I write the lyrics.


Tiny Icon Logo  When I was listening to the album, I was waiting to hear some tracks without lyrics – just based on the sound of the record. I expected there to be some completely instrumental songs and I was surprised when none came. With your minimalist sound, it’s interesting that you choose to add the instrument of the voice into that.

B:  In the past, our songs had much less singing. I do notice when I listen to this record that I really sing a lot and I really sing within the first ten seconds of the song. So it’s like these kind of song songs. Whereas, in the past, five minutes would go by on the record where I would’ve sung something and then there’d be this long outro and then there’d be a long intro to the next song and then I’d sing for a little bit. So it was just a lot less vocal in general. It’s funny – that’s an observation I only made after it was all finished. 


Tiny Icon Logo  What inspired the spiritual and sexual lyrical themes throughout the album?


B:  Well, I think the spiritual stuff has kind of been bubbling for a while in our lyrics in the past and with touring so much and going to different places. It’s not like, religious at all, but as an aesthetic starting point, you kind of need stuff to work with when you’re writing. I think the easiest way to explain it is that, you know, you’re travelling a lot so you end up going to some cathedral and you read stuff on the wall and it’s super heavy and that’s the seed that impregnates itself in a lot of the music. So it’s kind of like an aesthetic decision to use biblical references which kind of illustrates these bigger themes – the spiritual and sexual. What I like about it, is that they’re universal themes. And that is what appeals to me anyway. I feel like it’s something that I can sing about and it resonates with me and that I think everyone, in one way or another, can relate.


Tiny Icon Logo  Do lyrics come easily for you?


B:  No. Sometimes I start with a melody first, and like… noise. But it can be tricky because you get hooked on this thing and it’s really hard to fit words within this musical structure you’ve already built. So, that’s part of the reason that it’s hard, because I really get attached to the line and I’m like, “No, I can’t use that word because it doesn’t have an ‘o’ in it.” You know what I mean? It’s like surgery. So it takes a long time but it’s fun working away.


Tiny Icon Logo  The last thing you hear on the album are the words “Do it”. Is there a message there?


B:  Well, I don’t want to break the illusion… [laughs] No, no, no, I mean, I think it’s an evocative thing to say. I think because it ends in this kind of infinity, open-ended question. Again, something that came after the fact – the name of the album is Hold/Still which to me, conjures a kind of clinical thing. When I think of that, I think of someone injecting somebody with something, and I think throughout the record, there’s this, “We are administering this to you” thing. Again, not on purpose. In retrospect, a lot of the songs are talking about “You” as though we are commanding you to do something in a weird way. So, [throughout the album] there’s a lot of this preacher [role] giving advice or telling you how to be and it kind of wraps up that way too which is kind of cool.


Tiny Icon Logo  Where did the name Suuns come from? I know that it means “zeroes” in Thai, but how did that identity get chosen?


J:  Well, we used to be called Zeroes and when our first album was going to come out, someone had copyrighted that name so we just had to switch it before anything was released properly. We liked our name and we thought it suited our band. We had been living with it for three years, playing with it, so we were attached. So when we had to switch, which was like 6 years ago, we felt like we had to keep some sort of thing going. It’s really hard to change names though. It’s like, really hard. But a lot of bands have to do it. But it’s also good. But it was ultimately very good for us.


Suuns are featured in SBTS Standouts: The March Collection | SBTS Playlist Series

Follow Suuns:

Twitter: @suunsband    Instagram: @suuns_mtl


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