Sunburned Hand of the Man: Interview
Caught in the Crosshairs

That rumble you hear is the beat of a different drum. Coming together for the
music (and possibly the drugs), Sunburned Hand of the Man are one of the most
exciting collectives playing music today, for the shear fact that they don't
give a fuck what you think. If you get it, quit your job, sell your house, and
start wearing some pirate gear.

As the band releases its latest and first "proper" CD, Rare Wood, they
were kind enough to answer some questions to reflect on a year in which they
turned from a group of unknown New England gypsies into a slightly better-known
group of New England gypsies. Give it up for Sunburned Hand of the Man!

TMT: When
I approached you guys about an interview, I asked about the new album Rare Wood.
John said that "it's our first real CD." Was there a real desire to take
Sunburned Hand of the Man to the proverbial "next level?"

John: Naw,
man we just felt the need to put somethin' on CD so the folks without turntables
could get a crack at us without having to fuck around with our CD-Rs. We're
already at the next level.

Rich: If you
mean "next level" in terms of climbing up the rock and roll ladder so to speak
from DIY releases to indie label releases to major label releases... then no. In
terms of music, I think we're always trying to expand and keep things fresh and
new for ourselves. This way we're always kept excited and surprised, and
hopefully other folks will be as well.

Mike: It
seemed like the world was being so good to us we'd give it a little gift.

Phil: The
"next level" is death/heaven... so yeah, we're gonna take it there.

TMT: In
support of Rare Wood, you're going on tour with Four Tet and playing some
conventional rock venues in what can be seen as a proper tour. Coming from such
a free environment that the band has been associated with, do you feel you might
have to abandon some of the ideas that brought the band together in the first
place? Is their a conscious effort to grow the band while keeping the core
elements intact?
 

Paul: NONONONONO... Freedom and abandon are the same thing... everything
must be destroyed in every moment in order to move forward freely.

John: Hell
no, we never thought much about why the band was together in the first place.
There's a slight, "wherever this takes us" feeling to the whole project.  We
don't grip the wheel that tight. There's no conscious effort to grow the band.
We're like a dangerous weed that grows and fucks up your lawn without any
tending to. We could also croak like if someone took a piss on us or if the sun
never came out again.

Rich:
We won't need to abandon anything. We toured the states with NNCK in '99, and
the west coast and Europe last year. We've played plenty of conventional venues
and know what to expect and have learned to play comfortably in all types [of]
situations. Although, if we had the option of playing a show at our loft instead
of a club, we'd prefer that. Having a slightly less structured environment is
always more relaxed for everybody.

Mike: We
have no ideas to abandon. It's all just happening with us. We're just rollin'
with it all. The decisions we make are based on what will secure this good time
of mindful sounds & unsound minds.

Phil: The
only thing growing is the insanity.

"We will be gracious guests wherever we are invited & no
matter what we break." -Mike

TMT: A
lot of the musicians that can be loosely associated with the band are regional
phenomenons to a degree. With No Neck Blues Band in New York and Cerberus Shoal
in Maine, etc... do you feel it's time to expand and play for more audiences?

John:
Yeah it's time to get out there and hit it while it's hot and while we have the
energy and while folks are interested. Plus, it's a great way to travel.

Rich: I
don't think there's any musical or other genre where the artist doesn't want an
audience. If our audience were to expand, then that would be great. At the same
time, we don't have any interest in second guessing what people want to hear and
making music for the sole purpose of selling records. We do think about how a
record is going to sound to people or about what we'll do in front of a live
audience, so we're conscious and aware of how and what we're putting forth
sonically and not ignoring the folks who are listening, but we're not out here
to win any popularity contests. 

Mike: We
will be gracious guests wherever we are invited & no matter what we break.

TMT: Despite recording for years, it would be fair to say that last year's feature
and cover story in Wire (August 2003) exposed your music to tons of like-minded
listeners. Were you surprised by the attention it received? Do you think it
caught a lot of music fans by surprise to find a UK magazine exposing an
American band that's been in existence for some time?

Rich:

Receiving attention after the Wire cover wasn't surprising but being
chosen for the cover was. The other surprise wasn't so much finding a UK
magazine exposing a long running US band, but a focusing on band that had a
very, very low profile. 

John: Yeah,
Wire was a surprise and a treat at the same time.  I thought they were
crazy to put a band on the cover of their magazine who doesn't have a release
you can buy in any store, but within the context of Dave Keenan's story it made
perfect sense.  There is an incredibly interesting movement in music right now,
so Wire was really just focusing on that. Wire's definitely opened
some doors for us; it's made it a hell of a lot easier to go on tour. 

Mike: We
could sense something in the air, through the smoke. Eyes & ears... perhaps? We
are not seeing so much attention. Once there is news of a growing population of
gypsies & pirates, then we'll know we're having some effect.

Phil: We
were nobodies then. The only difference now is that more people know it.

TMT: How
has the reaction been in the UK? Do they relate to your music and message like
American audiences do?

John: The
reaction in Europe was great. We met some amazing people and made some great new
friends. The crowds were very into the music. I wouldn't compare European and
American audiences though. Its the same when we play in front of any new
audience... there's always someone in the crowd who gets turned on to something
they never thought they were capable of being into and that is a reaction that
makes this whole project worthwhile and a source of constant surprises.  

Mike: Yeah,
they're pretty much the same beast of prey.

Rich:
Audiences everywhere has been great and I haven't seen much of a difference
between reaction in the US and other countries. For a bunch of drug-addled,
besotted, oft obnoxious louts, we seem to attract the interest of people who are
nothing but warm and intelligent
.

Phil: Those
European people are usually really smart and have great taste in music, so it's
really surprising that we snuck by them...


"We're like a dangerous
weed that grows and fucks up your lawn without any tending to. We could also
croak like if someone took a piss on us or if the sun never came out again." -
John


TMT:
I'm always surprised by the reactions I get when I play Sunburned Hand of the
Man's music for other people. Even those that aren't interested in this type of
music find something primal and rhythmic in it. Unlike some of your
contemporaries operating in a similar space, do you feel that your music appeals
to a wider audience?

Rich: Rob or
Dave was just saying how upon hearing us for the first time, someone was
pleasantly surprised because she always assumed we were "a shitty jam band." I
don't know if we appeal to a wider audience, but we do have a rhythmic element
that's not always a part of other bands, and that's a component that figures
into my enjoyment of our music. It's just as important to work the ass as the
third eye. We're also always having a good time and don't overly intellectualize
the music. We're earnest and serious about what we do, but we laugh a lot. I
don't think any of us would want to do it if it wasn't fun. And even in our most
abstract moments there's some spark that's missing in a lot of contemporary
experimental music.

Paul: The beat is the pathway to the other eye... we're all chasing the
same fox into different holes which wind up leading into the same diamond flash
beam cavern.

John:

No I wouldn't say that we stick out from the crowd in a magazine article; you'll
have to come by the loft for an off-the-record session. You can meet the
"oracle" and consult with the white wizard in a white powder truth session and
then you'll know the truth which is ultimately up to you. We throw good parties
though.  

Mike:
It seems to appeal more to a writhing audience.

TMT: It's
interesting to hear your music and guess your influences. On some tracks I hear
Can and This Heat... primal grooves mixed with experimentation. And then there
is a mountain of African influences present... along with jazz, dub and
electronic music. How do you take all of those influences and mix them together
so well? What other artists have influenced the sound of the band?

John: We
mix things really well because we don't give a fuck about influences. Geekin' out
about what we want to play or who we want it to sound like is lame, so we just
concentrate on the mixing of drugs with alcohol.  We like all kinds of music,
Rap, Metal, etc.  

Phil:
Cocaine, pot, LSD, heroin, ketamine, crystal meth, alcohol, poppers, ecstasy,
the list goes on...

Rich:

Everything is an influence. First, a lot of us are avid record collectors and
even those of us who don't scour the bins have wide tastes and diverse knowledge
of lots of music. Second, who we are as people, where we've come from, and what
we've experienced is a factor. Finally, we're not crafting pop songs; we're
making the music up as we go. With an approach like that, it's impossible for
every part of life not to influence what we do.

"Everything must be destroyed in every moment in order to
move forward freely" -Paul

TMT: Unlike most bands, Sunburned Hand of the Man seems to be constantly growing
musically and not set in its ways. You really get a sense that you're taking
chances and seeing what comes of them. Are there any new directions you see the
music going? Anything you'd like to try given a larger recording budget?

Rich: Given
the amount of stuff we've put out, its unlikely that some of it isn't going to
sound similar or like paths we've gone down before. But we are always trying to
push our boundaries and see what happens. Its not always 100% gold, but it's
always worth it. We've done some studio stuff and will be doing some more. I
don't think an unlimited budget in a major studio or backing us with the
Philharmonic would be very fruitful. Going someplace where we can just kick
back, hang out and play for a while with a sympathetic engineer is more like it.
The best possible environment though, is the loft. If we had a larger recording
budget, I'd want to see it in the form of really good mics and recording gear at
HQ.  

Paul: Bigger budget means more coke.

John: Well,
we like to keep it moving.  We can go through phases of musical styles.  We did
a lot of rock angles on the last tour which got a little played out. This winter
we've been listening to a load of metal, so that may come out. A lot more voices
too.  Everyone's on the voice tip. We've been messing around with some recording
and just the other day

Mike got
hooked up with a 32 track recorder whip which we'll be looking into later in the
year. 

TMT:
Up
until this point, the Internet has really been where Sunburned Hand of the Man
has been allowed to proliferate. With file sharing, web-board chats and online
sites such as Tiny Mix Tapes, do you think the band would be as popular without
the online support?

Rich: The
internet has without a doubt brought far greater exposure for us.

John: It
would be safe to say that things would be a hell of a lot different without the
Internet, but we ain't into fantasy or role playing games.

"For a bunch of drug-addled, besotted, oft obnoxious
louts, we seem to attract the interest of people who are nothing but warm and
intelligent." -Rich

TMT:
Where do you see the band headed? Is Rare Wood a test in some ways to see what
the band is capable of?

Mike:
Rare
Wood
is more
a test to see what the listeners are capable of. We've already lived it.


John:

I see the band headed to Chicago, Cleveland, Oberlin, Columbus, Buffalo, NYC,
Philly Cheese Steak, Baltimore, North Carolina, Atlanta, Nashville, and
Louisville then back home, then to Europe, then to Chicago in August and then to
the west coast in the fall.  Rare Wood is a card up our sleeve, a drop in
the bucket, and a rabbit out of our hat. We got a lot more left in us. Stay
tuned.  

Rich:
I
honestly can't say. When we made "Mind of a Brother" in '98, I could not have
imagined some of the avenues we've since explored. The form and spirit of the
music has grown exponentially and appears to be continually expanding. Our
capacity is far greater than when we started and hopefully will be even greater
in the future. I see "Rare Wood" as just another chapter in the book.

  

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