Suuns just released their third studio album called Hold/Still which is one of our favorite records of 2016 so far. For Hold/Still, Suuns tried a new approach. The previous two records were produced by Jace Lasek of The Besnard Lakes in Montreal, but this time, they decided to work with John Congleton, a Grammy winning producer who has worked with St. Vincent, The War On Drugs and Sleater-Kinney. They also setup camp in Congleton’s studio in Dallas, Texas and spent three focused weeks recording the album. Joe Yarmush (guitarist/bassist) explains, “…it felt like we were on a mission. We were looking for something to take us out of our element, or that might seep into our music.” Here they set out to record the album live with minimal overdubs, an impressive and surprising feat given quality of the recordings produced. Under these new conditions, Suuns were also able to finish two songs, ‘Translate’ and ‘Infinity,’ which they had been working on for eight years. Over this span of time, they had recorded three completely different versions, but it wasn’t until the Dallas sessions that they were able to perfect them, as we discovered in our interview.
As with the previous Suuns records, Hold/Still is best listened to at high volume with a good pair of headphones or on a good stereo. If you give the record your time and focus you’re likely to end up in a trance-like state. Hold/Still, perhaps more than their previous records, has a hypnotizing effect that suspends time and transports your mind to wherever you’ll let it take you. As you find yourself completely immersed in Hold/Still you’ll undoubtedly feel a host of emotion. Suuns are masters at using sound to build and release tension, and when it’s released your body will have an uncontrollable urge to dance and move.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Liam O’Neill, drummer of Suuns, to learn more about their approach to Hold/Still and their progression as a band from their last album, Images Du Futur, to now. Read it below the album stream…
Stream Hold/Still in full on Spotify…
[RP] In an interview you did with Beyond the Watch, Joe says that Images Du Futur was more thought out than the first album and he can’t believe some of the takes left on Zeroes QC. How do you feel about Images Du Futur now that it’s been a couple years? Do you feel the same sense of growth as a band from Images Du Futur to Hold/Still?
[LIAM] I still like Images. In a way it’s a bit sad to move on to new material. Like, I’m sad that we will never write “Edie’s Dream” again, cos that was great. But you gotta move. I feel that we’ve grown even more between that record and Hold/Still, in that I still imagine us as kids when we did Images and now I think of us as adults who are all more assertive with our musical tastes and artistic ideas. Open-minded though we are, we are less compromising in our decisions.
[RP] In previous interviews it’s said that Ben writes the songs for Suuns, and they come in a skeletal form and then the band brings their individual sounds to the songs. Some songs come from Jams and a couple come from meticulous thought and tearing apart and putting back together. Can Ben describe his songwriting process?
It’s hard to imagine Ben coming to the group with his guitar…”Alright guys, here’s the verse, chorus, bridge…we play the verse for 4 bars, then the chorus for 2…let’s go!” Has this process changed from Images Du Futur to Hold/Still?
[LIAM] Well actually, it’s weird, but a lot of songs actually do work like the scenario you put in quotation marks. I know the songs seem bizarre to the listener, but they are more planned out than they seem. Then a lot of it is just getting the right sound, the right vibe. Sometimes in the process of finding this vibe, the songs will change, and that happened more on this record than it has in the past. If anything, these songs were built up in a much more complex fashion than what you hear on the record. This time it was much more a process of deconstruction, whereas in the past it was more a process of building.
[RP] Suuns albums are always incredible sounding records. I was kind of surprised to learn you recorded Hold/Still live and didn’t overdub much. How were you able to maintain the sound quality for this album? Were there any special techniques used to achieve such a good sound?
[LIAM] A lot of it is that we’ve worked with great engineers/producers. Jace has done great stuff with our records in the past, and John Congleton made this one sound great too. Hold/Still is a particularly minimal record, instrumentation-wise, even more so than our others, and I think part of why it sounds great is because there are very few elements to listen to and as such, every sound can be appreciated in its “full spectrum”. True, we spend a lot of time with each sound, making sure it’s the right thing. We did isolate things, but we also performed together in one room. But honestly, you never know what John is up to.
[RP] I love listening to Suuns records in good headphones at high volumes and aside from the amazing sound, I’m always impressed by how the album is mixed. I feel like I discover something new each time I listen to your records. Can you describe what the post-recording process looks like? How involved are you guys in the mixing process?
[LIAM] We were less involved on this record than we have been in the past, and I think that was ultimately a good thing. In the past we’ve been there with Jace kind of directing him, which resulted in a sound that was more or less exactly what we wanted. With John, we weren’t around so much and he went where he wanted with the mixes which resulted in a singular vision of how the record sounds. It was kind of scary at first but as the mixing went on I began to see what John was doing and it was very cool.
[RP] I’ve seen the word ‘meticulous’ come up a few times to describe your approach to writing, recording and performing. Do you think that word is fitting? If so, can you elaborate more on how that applies to the band? How do you know when a song or album is “done”?
[LIAM] Ya I’d say that’s about right. A lot of it comes from having such repetitive music. Music like that requires meticulous placement of just the right thing at just the right time in order to keep the momentum going, and it’s also very sound-specific. Sometimes we get ideas from our technology, and sometimes we use technology to chase imagined things. We are all inspired in different ways. When is it done? Very good question.
[RP] For Hold/Still it sounds like you took a different approach to recording the album. You enlisted a Grammy winning producer, John Congleton, and recorded the album live with almost no overdubbing. Was this a different approach from your previous two albums? How do you think this new approach affected the album? Is this approach something you’d want to continue for the next album or do you plan to try a new approach to see what that inspires?
[LIAM] It was a different approach from our last two, yes. It was less precious, you might even say less meticulous. The spirit of the keeping things moving forward was more important than perfection. So the vocals are complete unedited takes, there is almost no percussion. It’s a leaner sound, less down-the-middle, and more like us live. I’m not sure whether we’ll do that again. You can never really tell with us….
[RP] ‘Translate’ and ‘Infinity’ finally came together for you during your sessions with John. What happened during those sessions that allowed those songs to finally feel right for you guys?
[LIAM] Well Translate has indeed been a long time coming. We’ve recorded 3 (completely different) versions of that song over the past 8 years, and we’ve never really been happy with it. Part of why it came together this time, I think, was due to that ethos of just moving forward with whatever came out on this record: first idea, best idea. We didn’t pick it over in the way we had in the past. So it sounds nice and natural. Infinity, hm, nothing really special there. We wrote it in the year leading up to the record and then recorded it. It sounds fucking great.
[RP] Your albums each have their own identity and are very distinct. I can hear a progression and growth with each new album. Are you able to describe Suun’s evolution and growth over the last few years? (Is it a natural progression just due to the fact that you all naturally grow as musicians over time with playing a lot? Is it a conscious thing to try to push the band forward with each album and not repeat yourself too much?)
[LIAM] I think it’s both of those things. True, we are trying to push ourselves forward and do something daring every time. But that way of working isn’t contrived either – that philosophy is an inextricable part of who we are as musicians. We are all hungry listeners, constantly getting into new things, and what keeps the process fresh for us is to be forever exploring. So whatever you hear us doing is a document of who we are becoming as musicians, and also a conscious effort to keep moving forward.
[RP] In an interview with The Quietus, Max says that the lyrics for Zeroes QC are more of an afterthought and it’s more about how they sound and fit in with the song versus the content. I would have never guess that because I find a lot of thought provoking statements in the lyrics that are especially fitting with the sound/mood of each song. Has that changed at all over time? Even if they are an afterthought, do you still try to come up with a theme or message for each song?
[LIAM] Yes I believe the lyrics have become more important to the songs than they were in the past. Like I said, as it is with the message of the band, the songs aren’t specifically topical. No “message” aside from of course the universal message of creativity and love that music IS. But there are themes that Ben keeps coming back to – evidence of his bizarre fixations.
[RP] How would you describe the way you use traditional instruments like guitars juxtaposed against synthesizers, keyboards and other electronic instruments in Suuns? For example, songs like ‘Careful’ have guitars playing throughout almost the entire track but they’re used in a more percussive and inconspicuous way. Whereas songs like ‘The Fall’ feature guitars up front and center.
[LIAM] Yea it’s always a tricky business. We cover a lot of bases stylistically. So sometimes the guitars act more like percussion, like you said, and sometimes they are the feature. It depends what vibe we’re trying to get across. This record is nice because the rhythm section is especially tek, and the guitars are very natural, very untreated. It’s a confounding combo.
[RP] When I listen to Suuns I have a unique experience that doesn’t happen when I listen to other bands. I find myself entering an almost trance like state, where before I know it the album will be over and I have a hard time remembering what happened (in a good way). Especially in preparing for this interview, I tried to listen with more focus, but kept finding myself being completely overtaken by the music and just experiencing it. Are you aware of how your records can have an entrancing/hypnotic effect on the listener? If so, is that deliberate and is there any method or approach you take to achieve that effect?
[LIAM] Totally. We write music that’s pretty minimal instrumentation/content-wise and use repetition a lot. Or to put it another way, if you are making repetitive music, it works best when harmonic content and overcrowding is at a minimum. We reference electronic music and dance music a lot when structuring our songs, and so yea I guess those are more or less hypnotic/trance points of departure for us.
[RP] Is there a motivation behind Suuns? (Is it to explore and create new sounds? Expand the definition of what a song or album can be? Is there an underlying message you’re trying to communicate?)
[LIAM] We have no definite mandate as such. Mostly it’s a living entity that we all create together and reflects whatever is important to us at the time. But of course behind every decision lies a (pretty earnest) desire to do something that hasn’t been done before. We do try to shed genre-specific elements and combine things that don’t normally fit together. Perhaps this is responsible for the trip you are talking about in question 1.
[RP] Finally, I know you guys are all big fans of music and have a wide range of tastes. I’m always curious about how other people consume music. Do you have a favorite ritual, place or activity while listening to music?
[LIAM] I can only speak for myself, but my favourite listening is done on nice headphones in transit. Walking, taking the train, driving (although sound systems in cars are typically the pits). There’s something about being in motion that allows me to really focus on the music.