Southwest Terror Fest Spotlight: Aaron Turner of SUMAC on the motifs behind 'What One Becomes'
Interview by Parisa Eshrati
Ahead of SUMAC's highly anticipated set at Southwest Terror Fest, Aaron Turner spoke with T&E Collective about the central themes behind their sophomore release, What One Becomes. We discussed Jungian philosophy, how music can allow listeners to discover their true identity, the evolved dynamics between bandmates, and more.
You draw a lot of inspiration from Carl Jung, and he states that “music represents the movement, development, and transformation of motifs of the collective unconscious.” I know a lot of your music stems from an internal origin, but do you feel that you also source your creativity and inspiration from the collective unconscious during your writing process?
I think so. I think part of the reason music is so effective as a form of communication is that is has some archetypal power that’s inherent in it. I think it’s something that has been a thread of continuity throughout cultures for a long period of time, even more so than language, because people can instinctively relate to melody and rhythm without having to understand a specific language. As a young teenager, music seemed to be the best outlet for expression and the thing I gravitated to most strongly. I think a part of that was there were ways in which that I felt, thought and perceived the world that couldn’t be adequately mirrored by words. Music was much more direct for me in that way. In terms of making music myself, there is something I tap into that feels very internal but also feels like it’s coming from somewhere else as well. I like to think the individual is a siphon or filter, but the energy that is passing through that filter is universal in nature.
You’ve stated how the concept behind What One Becomes is to fully accept and experience our fear-driven emotions in order to rid ourselves of our perceived identity. How do you suggest listeners can use music as a tool to undergo that process rather than use it as an escape mechanism?
Again, drawing form personal experience, listening to music allowed me to tap into the things that I didn’t normally have access to. I think a part of that was already due to conditioning. Children of both genders are taught to behave in certain ways, but male children especially are taught to hide their emotions, especially emotions like sadness which aren’t’ considered inherently male. I think that when sadness goes unrecognized or becomes covered up for a long period of time, it eventually turns into anger. For me, discovering metal was really important because both of those emotions, sadness and anger, seemed to run through the music that resonated the strongest with me and allowed me to access those emotions that I didn’t have any other way of accessing…or at least not comfortably.
There’s some process that happens when you're listening to a record by yourself , or perhaps it’s more direct in the context of performance. The act of seeing music being played allows the person watching to have a more direct experience with the music, and the physicality of the music helps break down social barriers. You see people behave really differently at shows and notice things you normally wouldn’t see in other rigid social contexts. I think that behavior is a good indicator of the effectiveness of music and how it can reach beyond our fabricated, circus identities and touch on something a bit deeper.
As far as digging into something that’s beyond the surface level and deals with our interior experience rather than escaping, I think it has to do with the subjective experience of the listener as well as the content and form of the music itself. There are some forms of music that are confrontational and don’t allow the listener to escape so easily. For me, that’s the music that is abrasive in nature or forceful in some way, which doesn’t necessarily mean metal because there is music that’s very soft which has the same impact. There is some music that I would call “fun” music for a lack of a better word, and a lot of pop music falls into that category. It functions in the same way as other forms of pop entertainment, like prime time television. There’s a lot of quick movements, a lot of colors, a lot of flash…but not a lot of content or intent in terms of what the creators are trying to do aside from distracting and placating the viewers.
There’s a willingness that listeners must have to engage with music that requires more of them than just tuning out and bouncing along to a catchy chorus. I think what SUMAC does belongs with people who have that willingness to engage more deeply and allow themselves to experience that inner world and connect with other people through that willingness to open up.
I’d like to discuss how the tempo of this album reflects that process of breaking down and rebuilding your identity. The track “Blackout” specifically carries a lot more physical space than we’ve seen on the previous SUMAC release. What aspect does that spaciousness represent in the process of finding your identity?
For me, it has to do with moments of suspended anxiety. By that I mean having to sit with a situation that has no immediate resolve or out. I’ve found that those moments are the most illuminating in that they often reveal something which has been long hidden or avoided. The spacious moments in this record are intended to reflect that. There are these long intervals between events and in those moments you have to sit with the space that exists. I find that those kind of moments of sustained musical tension can elicit that same kind of emotional or intellectual tension for me as a musician and listener.
It’s a very effective tool to experience the things that we often try to avoid experiencing. There’s a tendency in our culture to turn away from the things that are difficult or uncomfortable, but I think that desire to turn away from those thoughts perpetuates and aggravates them. It’s a disciplinary and therapeutic tool to finally embrace the stuff that we don’t want to -- and that’s what actually brings us closer to those real experiences of who we are. Bringing attention to where we’ve been wounded or endured painful circumstances can help us heal from those experiences and deal with them more effectively.
The writing and recording process for What One Becomes also differed from The Deal in that it was a much more interactive process between you all. Can you elaborate on how the improvisational energy helped push the thematic elements of this album?
The development of chemistry between us has been really fun and interesting. In the beginning of the band, I knew what I had in mind aesthetically for how it should feel and sound, but I didn’t know exactly how it would come together. The first step into getting it to where I wanted it to be was finding people that I intuited would be good for the project, and Nick [Yacyshyn] and Brian [Cook] seemed to be ultimate example of what I was looking for. Brian was less of an unknown for me because I’ve known him for so long and played with him in other contexts. I knew we had some common ground on a personal and creative level. Nick, on the other hand, was someone I approached who I didn’t know prior and hoped that it would work out based on what I thought of his playing.
The Deal was an experiment to see if the three of us together could make what I had hope we could make, and much to my pleasant surprise it worked out very well. That said, the end result wasn’t very far removed from my original idea. It was all pretty much what I had in mind and Nick and Brian filled it out as effectively as they could without a lot of time to develop what the central ideas were. I just presented them in straightforward fashion. Even though we didn’t have an extended period of time to work together for this second album, we had already laid the groundwork for the group by recording the first album and touring a lot subsequently. We had built up this level of commodity and musical chemistry that allowed us to go into the process of recording on this album with a greater understanding of who we are as a collective and how we relate to one another. I think there’s something that develops in a group that’s in tune with working together that’s not necessarily telepathic, but certainly deeply intuitive. The process of working on that first record together and touring helped us forge a much deeper connection.
There’s a 12” EP coming out soon featuring remixes from an incredible lineup of folks: Bleed Turquoise, Samuel Kerridge, ENDON and Kevin Drumm. How did this remix idea come into fruition? Do you feel that listening to your music through their lens will offer you a new way to reflect back on your own music?
As far as the latter part of the question, definitely. The point on collaborating with others for me is to keep on learning and growing as a musician. So when I have to bring specific ideas about what I want to do in music, that energy and ideas don’t just come from a vacuum. All of it has been from cumulative life experiences and my own drive and momentum to create, and the people and music that I’ve come into contact with. I’ve had an almost compulsive pattern of making connections with people and wanting to work with them ever since my mid-high school years.. A lot of the experiences from ages 15 to 20 or so was really just trying to make connections and failing. Then, I started making tentative connections by mail order and zine trading to more direct contact with bands when I moved to the east coast and started making more connections with like-minded individuals. Anyway, this quest for connection has been very central to my reason for being a musician aside from wanting to express my own ideas. Connecting with people through music has been very important and very nourishing.
Collaborating with others has also expanded my horizons. I’ve learned about so many different kinds of music and ways of perceiving sounds, and by extension I’ve even learned about other parts of the world and cultures through the portal of music. I want to continue that process through SUMAC and outside of it. In relation to this EP specifically, I just wanted to find some musicians who were making music that I felt somehow shared similar aesthetic properties without being of the same genre. Some of these people have been on my radar for a long time, like Kevin Drum for instance. I’ve been enjoying his music for years and years. More recently I’ve discovered Samuel Kerridge, and I felt like an immediate resonance with his music. I really appreciate the sparseness and physicality of it, as well as his distended way of composing songs with abstraction and texture. It has the chaotic nature of distortion and noise when it’s left to its own devices. These are all things that we’re trying to do with SUMAC as well. With the case of all of these people, I felt that there was some sympathetic connection in some way or another.
There’s another facet to this that I thought was interesting. My intention with SUMAC was to be the leader of the band and to direct where we were going and how the songs were shaped without being totally dictating. There is a need for control that’s a part of creating which is both important and also neurotic. It’s been a really good exercise in letting go to turn over these pieces of music that I’ve labored over intensively and have created with a very specific idea in mind. I find that both alarming and satisfying in equal measure. I think that willingness to let go and let other people have their hand in this project is something I see as very precious because it means I recognize the futility in trying to control things, and control really is an illusion by and large. That willingness to just let go and the willingness to see something in a different way makes me more flexible as a person, a thinker and creator…and I think it’s very important to keep doing that.
What have been the most Spinal Tap moments for SUMAC, either on tour or in the studio?
That’s a good question. Though the music itself is fairly serious, I feel like we’re laughing a lot of the time. I think the humor is what makes this all worthwhile. As far as particular Spinal Tap moments, there is one really good one that comes to mind. We were invited to play this festival in Europe called Roskilde, which is this huge event that happens every year. We got a very generous fee for the show, probably a lot more than we’re worth, and it facilitated a European tour for us. In some way it felt like a big deal. Bands of our size up to Black Sabbath were on the lineup, so it felt cool to play this internationally renowned fest that’ll help us do our first European tour. After we confirmed the show, we were informed that we were gonna be the last band on the small stage on the last day of the fest. It’s still no big deal for us and we’re still willing to play small galleries in art towns to big festivals in Europe. We don’t have any stipulations about having anything specific or cushy circumstances, so we were still stoked to play this festival.
We got there, ended up eating at midnight, and then going on at two am or whatever…and we were literally the mop up band in the dark corner of the fest. I feel like most of the festival goers were already drained at the point and were stumbling through mud to get to their tents and wearily eyeing us before quickly deciding that we weren’t for them. It was a really funny moment in that this supposedly big festival ended up being a totally dismal affair. We were on the stage with big lights and a huge sound system and practically nobody was watching. We did what we always do, played how we wanted to play and had a lot of fun. The people who were attentive appreciated it but also felt like we were the band to drive everyone out of the festival grounds so the crew could lock up for the night [laughs[.
Lastly, I just want to congratulate you on becoming a father!
Thank you! Speaking of letting go of control, changing perception, and learning to be a less rigid person – I think this is going to be the greatest lesson in that department.
For more info and tickets for Southwest Terror Fest:
For more info and tour dates for SUMAC:
10/20/2016 11:31:32 pm
This was a great interview. Questions are all in place, really tailored for a person being interviewed. From the Aaron side, I personally find him one of probably greatest thinkers in metal music. Expiriences he had, pushing him self beyond the states of confort, deliberating the most tense and emotionaly intensive aspects of life enabled him to present the reall intrinsic purpose of music and our willingnes to make it and listen to it.
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