Sun Araw: Interview
“Glowing iconography in the mythology.”
Cameron Stallones used to live in Austin, but he now lives in Long Beach, where he chills and records both solo as Sun Araw and as part of smoked-out psych group Magic Lantern. He also pours on the mutant James Brown riffs in Vibes, a vertiable “supergroup” of Not Not Fun, a label and general posse whose tie-dye drone cassettes and tropical fuzz LPs have recently contained a buttload of great sounds. Sun Araw's solo Neo-Primitive hits and neon pyramids fit right at home on the imprint alongside the likes of Pocahaunted (on whose recent Passage LP he contributed to), Mythical Beast, Ducktails, and Robedoor, but Sun Araw's sonics have got to be the most visual.
The palm tree and jungle collages (who's that hiding amidst the vines on the cover of the Boat Trip LP? O.V. Wright?) reflect his plastic organics and mishmash of old and new imagery, splicing more familiar tropes of lo-fi with half-remembered '70s hits. We exchanged a few e-mails regarding his new record Heavy Deeds, those peyote aesthetics, classic rock, and Californian DIY after a UK/Europe tour with Pocahaunted.
Did you start making your own music before playing with Magic Lantern? What sort of stuff did you first start out doing?
In a way. William and Phil and I had been exploring jams in various incarnations since early college days. A few years of going on some separate journeys kind of brought us full circle into a joyful union again, and Magic Lantern emerged from that, bearing the good fruit. Sun Araw came into being while trying to make some Magic Lantern demos by myself that didn't seem to be on the same frequency as that stuff. So it split off and became a separate entity. Those demos were the foundations of The Phynx.
Is your recording process generally fairly improvised?
Completely. I try to really drop-in/drop-out for a good chunk of time, wade through whatever tones are hanging around in the air, usually something asserts itself, and that will become the foundation for whatever comes next. Then I usually spend a couple of weeks attempting to build that single point into a resonant field. Sometimes it happens very quickly, other times it can be more of a struggle, but for me it has to start from a point of allowing yourself to be flooded, then basking in the glow for a while. Next comes speaking the word, and then you offer the fruit in thanksgiving.
Your job at the film archives sounds pretty rad; do you notice much influence from film and that part of your time coming through?
Film-space has a profound influence on the way I approach the process. At the single point stage, the camera is in deep focus, the object you've retrieved from that depth of field has to be assigned language. And so slowly, as you build on that point, narrative enters the process, and that narrative for me almost always has a visual component. Watching a lot of film really has the same positive effect that listening to a lot of records has: it broadens my palette, and sparks ideas for that narrative building stage. I'm pretty enthusiastic about long-take filmmakers like Tarkovsky, Altman, Rivette, Bela Tarr, etc., and I think that my interest in that sort of camera movement through space, the slowly shifting perspective, has become a big part of my music. It (thankfully) undermines the whole concept of detached third-person perspective, the myth of a fixed point of view, which I try to avoid in my jams at all costs.
"I think those that are staying alert, making sure to crest the wave, are already ecstatic in the ways they have found to re-order those energies for their benefit and the furthering of psychedelic and tuned-in living."
You also said you'd way prefer to be jamming at home in your studio even though it's a fun job; how much of your time does music take up?
I just moved into a new place that has a little more room, so now I'm able have a permanent studio space. Since then, I've been trying to play something almost every day. It's a blessing to have a zone where you can enter these sorts of processes without much logistical thought, setting up or putting away gear, etc. I'd say music takes up most of my free time these days, between working on the new Magic Lantern LP, Pocahaunted, Vibes, and a few other projects.
It feels super-obvious asking you about the heat or tropicalness of a lot of your stuff (even if something like The Phynx is on a way darker vibe), but do you think there's anything in particular that means yr into this warm feeling? It's a distinct one, a faded poster-y kind of sunset.
When you're speaking the word, that's when the narrative self re-enters the process in a direct way. Once I start overdubbing onto the initial elements, the jam usually becomes emotionally fueled by some reference, album, or song. "Horse Steppin'," for instance, is actually a tribute to Neil Young.Â The beach vibes on Beach Head are all sort of channeling Zuma for me, though I think that's a little foggy.Â The new album Heavy Deeds is all flowing from Fela Kuti zones, '70s African funk, etc., but in the same way that Beach Head was flowing from Zuma, which is to say, vaguely.Â It's not an afrobeat record by any stretch, just faded impressions, some tone inspiration overlapping the sort of psychedelic modes I try to dwell in.
That faded impressions idea is real interesting in the way that Heavy Deeds sounds so much swampier and toiled than both Beach Head and those afro-funk reference points; they sound really nicely tangential to me. So you're particularly drawn to putting new and personal energy and ideas into the older things you hear?
Exactly. That's the fun part of speaking the word: you have to choose a language. And so once the idea has enough structure to step into language, that's when the record geek and film geek parts of me really flourish. An organ idea from Steve Reich's “Four Organs,” or a guitar tone off a Big Star record, or a rhythmic idea from The Pyramids, or something like that becomes the wrapping for the idea that came from basking [in] the glow. It's important to me that the idea itself comes from beyond all that, but once the idea has been retrieved, it's a joyful celebration to deck it out in subtle hints and tributes to music, film, any cultural artifacts that I love. Those artifacts get fused with zones you've placed them in, and become important, glowing iconography in the mythology, and they help you find your way back there when you want to go.
Actually, The Phynx seems to quite actively combine older '70s sounds and newer feelings often associated with noise and drone; was it a concious effort to bring the two together?
I guess I'd have to say it is subconscious, but still conscious. Most of the music that inspires Sun Araw jams was created in the '60s and '70s, so once the process of shaping a song starts, I think there is some effort to channel some of those tones, because they appeal to me. Also, like most musicians, I am heavily influenced by the gear I have, the room tones where I record, things like that. Right before I started recording Beach Head I got this Farfisa VIP 345 Combo Organ (Phil plays it in Lantern, too). I was hoping when I bought it for something really creamy, but it's actually got a really rough and scratchy spectrum of tones. I feel like Sun Araw vibes reverberate straight out of that beast. Heavy Deeds has a lot of organ.
"... for me it has to start from a point of allowing yourself to be flooded, then basking in the glow for a while. Next comes speaking the word, and then you offer the fruit in thanksgiving."
There's that scorched '70s element on the recent stuff too; how much do you think you take from playing with Magic Lantern to your solo stuff?
Most definitely. I am not a very skilled guitar player, but I think Magic Lantern helped me become more comfortable with the sorts of modes I can comfortably stretch out and kick-back in. The way Magic Lantern creates music is necessarily way less narrative and way less personal: heavy communal vibes, and thankfully hard to steer. So I think that it also helped me to become more adept at really opening myself up to that first zone of the process, the improvisational and generative aspects that undergird everything we do.
I would have thought it'd be easy to get influenced by all the sounds that seem to be happening in the Not Not Fun posse and California in general, is this the case? Do you jam with a wide variety of people?
I certainly like to hear everything that's going on locally, there's some amazing stuff here in LA, but for the most part Magic Lantern/Sun Araw/Super Minerals were all conceived in a pretty insular situation. We're a little set apart down in our Long Beach habitat (about 30 minutes from LA proper), and we have the peculiar coastal vibes to contend with. We met Britt and Manda when we sent them some Magic Lantern recordings a few years ago. Since then they've become really important people in my life, true friends in a way that it's rare to make past a certain age, I think. We approach music really differently in some ways, and very similarly in others, so working with them on projects has really changed and broadened the sorts of zones I'm comfortable in. I worked pretty heavily on the Pocahaunted LP Passage, and I think that was a really beautiful instance of some mutual blessing of material. The jams they gave me (beautifully recorded by Bobb Bruno) were one thing that was sort of surprising to me, and so I tried to give them back as something else. And what came out was something unique from either of us. That sort of inter-personal dialogue is really incredible to me, true forces-beyond at work. But our work with Bobb, with Ged Gengras, Andrew and Helga (of Metal Rouge), has all been hyper-formative and incredibly fruitful. You know the good guys when you sit down in a room and things just start to blossom. You can't fake that bliss, it just illustrates when someone's on the right team.
Was there anything you found interesting about the differences in audience on your recent UK/Europe tour compared with those in the U.S.?
One of the incredible things about European audiences is that for the most part, I just got the sense that these were real appreciators of music. There's a tendency in certain scenes in the U.S. to get a lot of dudes with arms folded with kind of a “what's this all about?” attitude. I understand the scepticism, I guess, and I know I've been guilty of it, but it seems that over here people are just a lot more ready to listen, a lot more eager to have a good experience. We were blown away, the Pocahaunted stuff we have been playing on tour is very danceable (that's the idea, anyway) and at our first shows in Dublin and Glasgow people would just immediately start dancing, and dance all the way through the set. And it's not even that it came across as some huge compliment to your music as much as just an indication that these people were in the mood to let music move them and have a good time and would seize the opportunity. That would never happen in LA. People were even dancing during the Sun Araw set, which blew my mind. You could definitely get used to playing over here, haha.
"An organ idea from Steve Reich's “Four Organs,” or a guitar tone off a Big Star record, or a rhythmic idea from The Pyramids, or something like that becomes the wrapping for the idea that came from basking the glow."
Your stuff often feels to me like searching for this super ancient culture that you haven't seen before, kind of like looking through faded national geographic photos of Incans or something. Kind of like, a pretend or plastic sort of ritual. (I don't mean to sound like I'm detracting from the soul and energy that I also think is very much at the heart of your stuff!). Is this an aesthetic quality yr interested in?
Radical! Yeah I'm glad that there is a sense of searching in the music, that's definitely something I feel on my end. Neo-primitive vibes seem to pervade like-minded voyagers these days, but rather than just see it as some re-appropriation trend, I think it's a pretty hopeful sign. Most tuned-in people are sensing the sorts of resonances that are emerging and fundamentally re-ordering our existence. I think those that are staying alert, making sure to crest the wave, are already ecstatic in the ways they have found to re-order those energies for their benefit and the furthering of psychedelic and tuned-in living. Even the fact that bands like us are managing to put together a European tour is already a sign of the ways you can use this kind of reckless-mounting connectedness to spread out in a positive way that would not have been possible even five years ago. But I think keeping in that positive zone is getting harder and harder, and the build-up of really hostile and inhuman energies throughout those systems and the demands they make on the human mind require constant alertness.
How much do your live shows vary in terms of the vibe/material? More improvised and noise-based than say, the songs on Beach Head?
It was kind of a hard decision when I was trying to figure out how to do Sun Araw live, but I realized that to go back to the generative process in a live setting just couldn't take these jams into the fullness, the intended zones. So I had to go back to the recordings and strip them down to their essentials, and then make some cassette tape loops. William helps me out live, to get where I'm going, and we improvise in the modes that are established, to bring the ideas full circle. It's a deconstruction of the music into really basic or even cliched forms, and then flooding it with a psychedelic ethos of transcendence through repetition. But mostly, the records are about the vibrations, and live it's about feeling good. It's great to take these individual contemplations and infuse them with a heavy dose of brotherhood; then we're just pushing those same buttons over and over until something new comes out.
I love the tension that I find between organic textures and electric feelings, like, "Hey Mandala" on the Predator Vision split has a weird mix of the ravaged and calm/blissed out. Like swampy or beachy atmospheres inside a warehouse space or something. Is there anything in particular yr enjoying tapping into at the moment?
Yeah man! The images and situations which music evokes are really important, but also completely personal. Like everyone, I have really intense emotional relationships to albums because of where and when I've listened to them, and I cherish those relationships, but it's not something you can prescribe. I think you put the vibes out there, shake 'em around, and hope people understand well enough to build a suitable environment around the record, but you can't control it or maybe you weren't clear enough. And I'm all for people creating their own zones anyhow. I guess I can say that the new record is definitely more of a night-time record, it's sort of themed around that space. Nights full of heavy deeds.
What are you working on next?
The new studio space has been named Sun Ark studios, and so I'm working on a 7” called “Sun Ark.” I had about a three-month spell after finishing “Heavy Deeds” where I didn't do much Sun Araw stuff, we were really working a lot on new Magic Lantern material. But since we got back from Europe I've been recording a lot, already starting to form basic patterns and structures for the next LP. Excitement city.