How Sumac Are Trying To Unite People With Deafening Heaviness

Photo by Reid Haithcock

When given the option, Sumac will choose the path of most resistance. The avant-garde metal trio — comprising guitarist/vocalist Aaron Turner, bassist Brian Cook and drummer Nick Yacyshyn — create heavy music that’s not bound by traditional structures, balancing moments of punishing sludge with open-ended pursuits of ambient improvisation. They also have a tendency to pack an entire album’s worth of ideas into a single track — their fourth album, May You Be Held, is anchored by two monolithic 17-plus-minute tracks, “May You Be Held” and “Consumed,” each of which showcases a broad spectrum that stretches from a triumphant roar to a haunting openness, without ever broadcasting clearly where they’re set to go next. It’s chaos sculpted into art, with inspiration taken from sometimes unlikely sources.

“A lot of records that I really loved and admired and found sort of mysterious and fascinating — like the Can records or Khanate records, or electric Miles Davis records — they’re records I listen to, flabbergasted and fascinated by how someone would stumble upon those ideas,” says Cook. “They’re improvisations that are sort of edited down and pared—it’s really inspiring.”

May You Be Held, out October 2 via Thrill Jockey, takes the ideas explored on 2018’s Love in Shadow and the band’s collaborations with noise maestro Keiji Haino, and pushes them further into both immediacy and abstraction while embracing a vulnerability that’s often rare for music this heavy. Heavy music can be a force that brings people together, and Sumac want to emphasize that as much as they can. 

“It’s about building a sense of community and finding kinship with other humans,” Cook says. “Let’s not use this music as a vehicle for division.”

With May You Be Held, as well as with Love In Shadow, Sumac increasingly seem to be moving away from traditional song structure. What draws you to this sort of deconstructive approach?

I think a big part of the Sumac approach is trying to give this sense of collapse to the music. Having things feel like they’re always on the verge of falling apart, but then also sort of counterbalancing that with moments that are meticulously pieced together. You’re always sort of listening to it, wondering if it’s gonna fall apart. It’s always part of that tightrope walk, or that tension. Do they really know what they’re doing? Is this composed, or are they making shit up? We’re always playing with that dynamic of order and structure versus chaos. Figuring out different ways of conveying that duality. 

To what degree does improvisation play a role in your music?

An increasingly large amount. It’s always something that Aaron wanted to push and I think early on in the band, we were trying to figure out how to do that. There are free moments in the first record, The Deal, but I feel like back then it was like, ‘Alright, we have this section here, and on this section, we’ll see what happens.’ With each record, we got a better handle on how to do that and how to have those moments and also have a clarity of purpose in how we approach those moments. It’s easy to listen to really noisy, abrasive improv music and write it off as dudes noodling and being aimless and directionless. It can be thrilling in a short-term kind of way, but to have a listener come back to it, it has to have some sort of direction to it. Listening to a lot of improvised music, for me, it’s finding the different players navigating their way and landing on something and finding their footing. It’s the excitement of watching that creative unity happening in real time. So, as we’ve developed as a band, it’s a matter of finding new ways of navigating that and figuring out how to find our footing together, but doing it in ways that seem new and interesting and somewhat methodical in their approach.

Photo by Reid Haithcock

Have you become more intuitive with each other as musicians as a result of this?

I think so. I think we all have a better handle on how to navigate the improvised parts. It’s interesting, when we were touring on our last record Love in Shadow, we found there were nights where you play and all the very rigorously composed and structured parts were really satisfying. Like when you’re laying into the really chuggy caveman riff parts, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re feeling this tonight.’ Then you get to the more open and unstructured bits and it’s difficult to find the footing. We tried not to fall into a rut where we’re doing the same thing every night, so we tried to push ourselves and put ourselves into that headspace where we push things into new directions. We’re a band that plays at a really loud volume, and a lot of times the resonant frequencies of the room, the way the sound interacts with the environment, the way things like feedback play out on stage — I don’t know, there’s just some rooms where, acoustically, a whole new door opens, and you kind of get that phenomenon where the music sort of takes over. The whole cliche of channeling something is kind of overused, but there are moments where that sort of happens, and all the frequencies are playing in your favor. 

So there’s sort of a more psychic or spiritual aspect to it?

Yeah, I think that’s what all music is trying to tap into—that religious experience of like, unity between people and this almost sort of invisible hand that’s guiding everything. And you can do that with composition and there’s all kinds of variables that can help make that happen. I’m an old hardcore kid so I definitely know that feeling where you’re playing a youth crew anthem, and everyone’s singing along and piling on top of each other. So there are these beautiful moments from my youth, but as an old guy it’s exciting to find a new dimension to music where I feel like we’re creating magic in real time. And it’s not necessarily something that we’re in full control of or something that we completely understand, but that almost makes it more exciting because there’s an element of mystery to it.

The title May You Be Held has connotations of vulnerability, and there’s an openness to some of the themes in Sumac’s music—is that, in some way, a reaction to some of the more aggressive thematic elements of heavy music?

The themes of the record are always discussed amongst the band, even though it’s ultimately Aaron’s vision. But we’re all big metalheads, and it’s something that plays a huge component in our sound. But there’s something about metal where it thrives so much on nihilism and this celebration of death. On some level I find that satisfying in a teenage way, I think. I love a lot of really ignorant death metal and buy into the aesthetics — it’s kind of steeling ourselves up for tragedy and reminding ourselves that life isn’t perfect but finding some kind of solace in that tragedy. But that negativity is a kind of a war cry. I understand why it’s empowering and it serves that function in my life, but we’re all also getting older and feeling like being more mindful of what kind of energy we put out into the world. For us, we want to lay into discord and noise and things that are abrasive, but we don’t necessarily feel like we need to accompany that with a bunch of sociopathic imagery and nihilism. The world is dark enough as it is that we don’t need to dig deeper into that. There’s plenty of bands that do that and do it well, and I don’t feel like we need to be vying for space in that territory. 

Do you feel that the ideas expressed in Sumac’s music are a more honest reflection of who you are on a personal level?

I would say so. I think it’s a bit of a balancing act because, on the one hand, I don’t want to create something super theatrical and a complete construction of fiction. If you look at Cannibal Corpse — I love Cannibal Corpse, so no diss on them, but that horror movie aesthetic that’s just over-the-top gross imagery, obviously these dudes aren’t shoveling heads off. It’s just cartoonish imagery, and I appreciate the adherence to that aesthetic. That’s their vibe and that’s fun, and campy in its own way and it’s great. But it’s also fiction and these weird theatrics. It doesn’t really feel all that edgy once the initial shock of it wears off. On the flip side, as a hardcore kid in the ‘90s, some of that shit was so earnest that it doesn’t age well. I related to that stuff when I was 18 years old but I don’t need to read the lyrics of an 18-year-old. We all get bummed out, we all feel sad, we all feel betrayed, but we don’t need to make it so transparent. I do want some level of removal and artistry. Someone telling you how sad they are doesn’t make me feel empathetic. You’re a writer, you know the whole show-don’t-tell thing. Let’s have more show, less tell. 

Sumac’s May You Be Held comes out Friday, October 2nd via Thrill Jockey, and is available for preorder.

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Words by Jeff Terich