White Suns: Interview
“If there’s a problem that I’m exploring with my lyrics, I’m always confronting the problem, rather than avoiding it to paint a nicer picture.”

White Suns’ command of noise belies any sort of mere passing interest or flippancy. Theirs is a sound that leads one to think of more nuanced and texturally rich noise manipulations, like Kevin Drumm circa Sheer Hellish Miasma merged with, say, early-/mid-career Unwound. Throughout Sinews, the newest Load-released LP from this Brooklyn-based trio (and one of our favorites of the year), droning tonality boils over into visceral post-hardcore release, masterfully navigating the spaces between “noise” and “rock” with disquieting restraint. The extended feedback tones that wind album opener “Fire Sermon” into a harrowing death crawl, for example, are legitimately discomforting. Any band can unleash chaos, but to draw such threatening agitation into a statement as patiently assured as Sinews… I knew I had to talk to these guys.

Shortly before interviewing Kevin Barry (vocals, guitars), Dana Matthiessen (drums, electronics), and Rick Visser (electronics, etc.), we tried to establish a video chat. Due to technical difficulties, they were able to see me, but I couldn’t see them.


When did you start working on Sinews?

Dana Matthiessen: Didn’t we record it last May?

Kevin Barry: We recorded it last year but we had been writing those songs previous to that. I guess we were writing those songs in 2010 — the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011. So they’re all kind of old to us at this point.

Had you been performing these songs much, or were they something you were working on in private?

Rick Visser: We had progressively played them once we learned them – I don’t know. We have an ongoing songwriting process where we don’t [write] in batches or choose to start playing songs, we just kind of keep coming up with one, then get rid of one — like a cycle.

KB: We don’t really hold anything back. As soon as something is almost ready, or even not really quite ready, we immediately test it, trial by fire, at a show, because we usually play shows pretty often. Things get scrapped after they’re botched at a show.

The focus and restraint throughout Sinews is striking. Did you spend much time working and re-working how these songs were put together?

RV: Yeah, it’s like we were saying about the way we play them — I guess we kind of use the audience as something like a mirror or litmus test for the song. Or not so much the audience as just playing the song live, and having to present it in some venue other than our shitty little practice space.

KB: It’s easier to feel time playing live than it is to feel time while you’re creating a song, because your perception of time is heightened, I think — at least for me — when you play a show. For example, if we’re standing up there and just holding some feedback tones for a minute, in the practice space, when we’re just practicing with each other, a minute feels like half that time. But at a live show, a minute feels like twice that time.

DM: That’s in part just because the context of each space. If we’re playing live we’re usually aiming to only be there for 20 to 25 minutes, whereas when we’re practicing, we’re usually in the same room for two hours or more. We definitely end up compressing the songs a lot after we play them live. We want things to at least move, change, or alter themselves once a certain element has, we think, been stated fully, if that makes sense.

The way that you guys merge electronics and more traditional rock instrumentation is — I mean, maybe it’s easier to discern live, but the way the sounds merge on record suggests a background in solo electronic noise, or at least an understanding of it, and it makes me think of this effort to find a spot between solo electronic noise and the more rock-oriented aspect. Does this seem accurate?

KB: I think we all bring something a little different to the band, and Rick and Dana have done a lot more solo work than I have, so maybe they can speak a bit on that. I play guitar and I sing, and I really don’t do anything outside of that, but Rick and Dana do a lot more with their gear than I do.

DM: Part of my initial interest in something that is a common link in terms of our own aesthetic preferences is that, when we were [younger] we listened to a lot of noise stuff, and all agreed that we were into it, and interested in it. Rick and I fucked around with various electronics, computer programs, circuit bending and stuff like that, and spent plenty of time focusing on something like that other than say, the drums or the bass guitar, or any more traditional rock instruments. So we ended up finding ways to incorporate that into what we do, even though White Suns utilizes it in a rock band format a lot of the time.

RV: I think that for me it was like, you guys were already doing rocky stuff, but at the same time that I was fucking around with a lot of different things. I had joined the band after they had started and had been playing for a year or so —

KB: Yeah, it’s a long time ago now, but Rick came into the picture about a year after we started.

RV: Yeah, I feel that’s when I was just getting my feet wet with the electronic stuff, and messing around. It was kind of like a theatre in White Suns to do whatever with songs that already existed — the format was there, but I could augment with whatever I was doing.

KB: We all have our individual practices that exist outside the band, and Dana and Rick have a more musical life outside White Suns than I do. My time with music outside the band is, if I pick up the guitar it’s for White Suns, but at the same time if I pick up a pen, it’s for White Suns, or it could be for something else. So my individual work is usually based on lyrics, and I think their individual work comes more from music, equipment, tapes and whatever — so when it comes to the equipment and electronics aspect of it, they bring some of that “outside the band” experience to it.

DM: There are two registers of thought that people refer to, I guess, when talking about forms of autism. And I think Kevin might take up the more metaphorical or poetic side, while Rick and I work at the logical end of things — a little more “technical,” in a way.

I guess part of the reason we might not be going full-throttle the entire time comes from an interest in other dynamics or other ways of organizing sound that aren’t strictly, “so loud and painful that it’s connoting brutality through volume or pitch,” solely.

I’ve noticed with the lyrics on Sinews that there are many recurrent images of enveloping darkness — like on “Cenote,” with references to “feeling through the dark,” “the screaming forest,” and so on. Would you care to expand on this, or your lyric writing in general?

KB: Um, I guess that’s… the funny thing is that, I think that a lot of people — well, not that a lot of people even give a fuck about what I’m saying, but the few people that do seem to kind of focus on the darker or more negative aspects of it, but I don’t actually think all the songs have a hopeless or negative conclusion.

Yeah, like “Flesh Vault” seems a bit more sensory and self-aware in that regard to me.

KB: Yeah. There’s definitely some hope in some of those songs, and I guess the recurrent themes of darkness may be something about — I mean, that exists, and one thing I do acknowledge whenever I’m writing is that life is difficult, and instead of sidling past that or using excuses to not deal with it, or not discuss it, or not confront it — I’ve never enjoyed reading things that use those techniques. If there’s something, if there’s a problem that I’m exploring with my lyrics, I’m always confronting the problem, rather than avoiding it to paint a nicer picture.

Musically, I’ve noticed that White Suns’ approach is unlike that of most other noise-rock bands I’ve heard from the past few years, especially from the East Coast — there’s definitely less emphasis on, say, lumbering Brainbombs- or Flipper-styled knuckle-dragging anger, for example. And the thing I really notice on Sinews is the distinct sense of restraint and tension, which gives the album this feeling of foreboding danger. Was this a conscious effort, or some sort of reaction to other bands you were surrounded by, or anything like that?

DM: I think it was your review, but you said we’re not trying to sound like Brainbombs, which is — it just seems kind of easy to have a few lumbering riffs and put five layers of white noise over that, and have somebody screaming and be like, “Alright, lyrics? We’ll just repeat this 10 times, and that’ll be our band.”

RV: What you’re also hearing is the product of a tremendous amount of experimentation on all of our parts — the only person that ever approaches the song with a riff is Kevin, and if that’s how we’re going to write it, then Dana and I spend a lot of time fucking around with stuff, bringing in other ideas that we have to make a part of the song. And then we decide, always, that it’s going on for too long — (all laugh) — and cut it short, so I think maybe that’s the restraint.

KB: Yeah, that and the type of music that you’re referencing I think is really more rock music than noise, like I think the word “noise” has unfortunately been overused a lot the past couple of years. There aren’t actually that many noise bands at all. I don’t think we’re always successful at that either, because it’s a difficult thing to do, but just because you have your distortion pedal on 10 the entire time doesn’t make you a noise band, you know?

DM: I guess part of the reason we might not be going full-throttle the entire time comes from an interest in other dynamics or other ways of organizing sound that aren’t strictly, “so loud and painful that it’s connoting brutality through volume or pitch,” solely. Not that we’re detuned to brutality, but we’re certainly into finding interesting and different ways of making noises with our instruments. It’s something that you see if you watch a lot of improvisational music, for instance, so maybe it’s coming from that side of the spectrum, of “out-there” or avant-garde type music.