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.

[pagebreak]

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 —

(all laugh)

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.

KB: Thanks!

  

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