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.”
Yeah, I was going to say, your songs often take shapes that are less formal, and are perhaps more incidental or perceptive — as in, not necessarily “jammed out” or totally improvised, but also not in any prescribed verse/chorus/verse approach. How do these sort of loosely perceptive compositions come about?
RV: Can you tell me what you mean by “loosely perceptive”?
I mean that these songs don’t strike me as formally regimented — there’s little-to-no sense of “this is a verse,” or “this part will repeat.”
RV: Oh, I see, right. I’m really glad that comes through! I think that’s one of the things that I like trying to do with our band, is have it less be something that we’re all playing within a rigid number of repetitions where we know exactly when things change, but rather shifting through atmospheres — that’s a good way to put it.
KB: And usually we use repetition as a specific formal technique, rather than something that should happen in every song. On some songs, the repetition of a part is not required, but when we do use repetition, we’re using it consciously. It’s not a crutch that we use to fill time.
DM: Although, everything really comes down to, you know, what we think sounds good. (Laughs).
KB: Which is a nebulous idea that changes every time we meet, so… We really only structure the songs according to our whims. And I don’t use the term “whim” in a light sense, I use it in a way that means whatever we find to be pleasing, basically.
DM: If you’re going to write a song, it’s something where you have to make a decision, or rather make a series of decisions that link together in some way, so we try to be decisive.
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.
The track “Fire Sermon” is quite volatile, especially being right at the beginning of Sinews. Did this song come early in your writing sessions, or was it later?
KB: Yeah, “Temple” and “Fire Sermon” were the two earliest ones. Those have been kicking around for almost two years now.
RV: Why do you ask if that was one of the first that we wrote in the batch?
I’d heard Waking in the Reservoir before Sinews, but I hadn’t heard anything else you’d done, so hearing “Fire Sermon” really took me by surprise with its stark, death-knell feedback sections. Now that I’ve listened to “Mourning Chamber” and the Resurfacing tape it’s like, OK, this kind of thing isn’t totally new for White Suns, but it felt extremely focused and really colored my first impression of Sinews as harrowingly confrontational, and I think it really affects the way the other songs work. Something about “Fire Sermon” strikes me as focused, and even threatening.
RV: It’s really good to hear you say that, because I personally feel that this album was leaps and bounds beyond Waking in the Reservoir. Waking was like, songs since the inception of the band that we’d been playing for years and years without having been released on anything, and [Sinews] was representative of a shorter period of time where the songwriting was a lot more focused and conceptual. I’m very OK with the idea of those as two very distant pieces of music.
DM: I can listen to Sinews now, and I have no fucking interest in listening to Waking in the Reservoir ever again. [Laughs]
I find your sound is very “physical” — like a couple minutes into “Fire Sermon” where the feedback gets dented by a cymbal, there’s this damaging aspect to it. Do you often consider the physical aspect of your music when playing or writing?
KB: Oh, absolutely. That’s a huge part. At least — I can’t speak for everyone, but since I only play the guitar, that’s a huge part of all of our music. I think music that has a physical quality to it — I’ve always liked that kind of music.
RV: I’m sorry to keep asking questions, but what do you mean by “physical”? Just like the way you notice how you’re hearing it while you’re hearing it?
Yeah. Like acknowledging and noticing a physical change to the sound; how it “hits” you differently.
RV: That’s a component of music I’ve always been interested in. One of the people to explore that the best is Alvin Lucier. I had the privilege of seeing some of his concerts in the last few years, and certainly with “Fire Sermon,” that’s part of the idea —
DM: The main idea was different tones, and letting tonality be a part of the song.
KB: And then blowing it up into a rock song.
DM: Yeah, there’s our knuckle-dragging moment.
RV: But we contrast the knuckle-dragging with the Lucier-inspired experimentalism —
DM: If we try to make it a whole song without knuckle-dragging, it’s just not gonna work (laughs).
KB: We can only keep the knuckles about an inch off the ground…
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.
Is this where we start making jokes about “mysterious guy hardcore” really just being about a guy sitting in a room?
KB: Hardcore bands never — they hate playing with White Suns. They’ll never do it.
RV: That’s not entirely true…
KB: Well, most of the time. We’re not part of a hardcore scene at all, we don’t know anything about it.
No background in hardcore whatsoever?
KB: No. I mean, we like it, but as far as being a part of it, that’s never happened, really. The closest thing that happened was a couple years ago in New York — there was a group of bands that included like Drunkdriver and Twin Stumps and us, and all those bands kind of approached hardcore in a sense. But all of those bands also broke up, so that kind of hardcore ghost in the shadows is not there anymore for us.
RV: I mean, I wouldn’t say — although we haven’t been like, participants in any hardcore scene, that doesn’t mean we don’t like some of the bands.
DM: Certainly with my own playing, as the drummer, I’m kind of obviously influenced by a lot of extreme music, like punk and metal drumming. But maybe we come off as being hardcore kids in our music than we ever really have been.
I also noticed that the cover of Sinews is a painting by Alessandro Keegan, from Twin Stumps. What was it about his painting that had you choose it for the album cover?
RV: I think he makes really interesting paintings that are unsettling, but without having to rely on certain visual tropes, like having blood or demons or things.
KB: All that gory, dumb metal shit. We all like Alessandro’s work, and he’s a friend. We were thinking about getting a friend to make a piece of art for the record cover, but then we were looking at some of Alessandro’s work and were like, oh, duh, this is perfect! We all like the painting, and the kind of mood it evokes is very similar to some of the atmospheres conjured by some our songs, I think. I felt like there was — like they weren’t from different worlds. They could have come from the same world; it was not a leap to put them together.
Unless there’s anything else you want to add, that about covers all of my questions.
KB: I just want to make sure that you don’t call us pigfuck in anything that you write, OK?
No worries there. I’m not writing about Robert Christgau.