An Interview With Aaron Turner

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Aaron Turner, a founding member of the legendary Isis (the band, not the terrorist organization) and Hydra Head Records, is probably most notable for not only coining the phrase "thinking man's metal" but totally embodying it.

Chances are if you've heard anything that can be reasonably categorized as both "metal" and "critically-acclaimed" in the past 10 years, Turner's musical fingerprints are all over it.

Ever since the release of Isis' landmark album Oceanic in 2002, countless bands have been aping its juxtaposition of gargantuan riffing and ambient bliss.

Not only this but, a couple of years after that release, it wasn't hard to see Turner's (who was meticulously involved in Hydra Head's packaging and promo material) influence everywhere - t-shirts, album covers, you name it.

Turner has been keeping busy since both Isis and Hydra Head folded in the past couple of years. Last year, he released The Ape of God with the reactivated Old Man Gloom and Statu Nascendi with Mamiffer, a project with his wife, Faith Coloccia.

Turner spoke to Empty Lighthouse primarily about his new project, SUMAC, with Nick Yachysn of Baptists and Brian Cook of Botch, These Arms are Snakes, and Russian Circles. Check out the full exchange below.

Q: The press release announcing SUMAC to the world made it clear that it is to be a full-time project, but Brian Cook isn't listed as a "core member." Are there any plans to bring a full-time bassist into the fold?

We're going to work with Brian as often as possible - in fact we consider him a core member in the sense that we plan on doing all further writing and recording with him as a direct participant.

As far as touring goes we'll happily take Brian along for whatever he can make time for - otherwise we'll try to find some poor soul who can tolerate us and fill Brian's rather formidable shoes.

Q: With Old Man Gloom, and now SUMAC, there's a whole narrative about, you know, how "Aaron Turner has returned to Celestial-era heaviness." Is this something you agree with, or is it missing the point?

My interest in the realm of heavy riff-oriented music has never wavered, though there have been periods where my creative energies have been focused in other areas. There is a direct connection to my past work with what I'm doing in SUMAC, something which may be more overtly apparent to those with an outside perspective. That said, from the inside I can easily identify recurrent aesthetic and conceptual threads running through just about everything I've done - heavy emphasis on atmospheric development, textural layering, long-form compositions, juxtaposition of structure and improvisation, striving for deep emotional resonance, etc.

If people make a connection between what I'm doing now and what came before, great.

If they're taking this as it's own separate entity that's great too. As long as the music finds people to whom it speaks, that's all I'm really after.

Q: On a related note, the aforementioned press release says that The Deal will "rekindle that classic Hydra Head Records forward-thinking sound and feel." It goes without saying that that particular sound and feel has been plagiarized ad infinitum since the real landmark Hydra Head releases.

Does your legacy, in any way, ever feel like a burden while writing?

"Classic" and "forward-thinking" being used in the same sentence is a bit contradictory, though in reference to the "Hydra Head sound" not entirely inappropriate. There is something of that whole history tied up in this music - that's the music that shaped my life in many ways. Beyond being influenced by many of the musicians who released records on HHR, I also view a lot of them as contemporaries who've occupied and pioneered the territories that SUMAC is delving into.

I recognize and honor that artistic heritage, and also want acknowledge our desire to build something beyond that, to forge something new. I wouldn't be who I am now if it weren't for the experience of running Hydra Head and that has left an indelible mark on me personally and creatively.

If there could be a concise summation for what I was curating for HHR it would be along the lines of adventurous explorations in heavy music - and certainly the same intent lies behind the music of SUMAC.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about where the title The Deal comes from?

The title pertains to the idea that all people enter into unconscious and sometimes unwilling arrangements with others we grow up and become socialized. We trade away our freedom and the ability to truly individuate ourselves in favor of safety, acceptance and a secure position in our macro and micro social hierarchies.

The Deal is about the process of rendering these arrangements conscious and shattering them - thus allowing us to evolve in the context of our own lives, and to connect to deeper and more expansive modes of existence.

Q: What's immediately striking about Nick Yacyshyn's drumming on The Deal is how many notes he can pack in without getting overly flashy and while still allowing the songs to breathe.

The end of "Blight's End Angel" would probably be a pretty good example of this. How'd you two end up working together? Were the songs written individually or collectively?

Seeing Nick play live with his band Baptists was what first sparked the idea of working together, though Nick had no idea at the time. I was inspired by his intensity and creative approach to drumming - both being qualities I was seeking in a drummer. At that time I didn't consider the option seriously as I knew Baptists were from Vancouver and I was hoping to find someone more local. I also had no connection to Nick and thus no easy way to initiate a conversation about playing together. About a year later Nick's name came up in a conversation I had with Kurt Ballou when we were working on the most recent Old Man Gloom album(s).

I said I was looking for someone to start a new band with and Kurt suggested putting me in touch with Nick - discussions and rehearsals ensued from there. As far as the writing went, after seeing Nick play and after our introductory rehearsal, I knew he was the right guy and I could trust his playing and decisions to be appropriate for the sound I had in my head.

I wrote all the individual parts and basic arrangements, Nick helped turn them into finished pieces with his ideas, playing and structural contributions.

The process flowed easily as we seemed to be on the same page creatively from pretty much the first time we played together.

Q: In the various roles throughout your career, you've always made a compelling case for buying physical albums simply by releasing well-designed products and, as far as I can tell, have avoided wading into the politics of the whole illegal downloading issue.

Do music fans have a responsibility to purchase music, or do artists have an obligation to do some extra-musical work to make us feel like we're missing something if we only have the mp3 files?

I can't deny that the way people consume music has and is changing - and I've accepted that there are a lot of people who feel entitled to take music without paying for it. I don't agree with it, yet I'm also happy to have the music I'm a part of spread as far as possible - via illegal downloading, or through legitimate purchase. If it touches people and it means something to them that's the most important thing.

It is frustrating however, how casual music consumption has become and the way in which it's made music more disposable - hard not to feel somewhat disappointed with the diminishing profile of music in our culture and the decreasing attention span many people seem to have for it. However, it has always been my intent to try to make records that transcend the status of product, even prior to the advent of downloading.

If anything my goals in that regard have only been reaffirmed in this time of increasingly disposable music - that is, for people who want something more than just a catchy hook that'll occupy their field of attention for a moment, making thoughtful, passionate and visually rich albums is an even more meaningful pursuit.

Q: Will SUMAC be touring any time soon?

We have a very short 5 date tour in March - nothing concrete after that. One way or another we'll find a way to play more of North America this year and hopefully Europe as well.

We plan to do as much as we can and we're doing everything in our power to make that possible.

Q: Thanks so much for speaking with us! Feel free to add anything!

Thank you!

The Deal is out February 17th through Profound Lore Records.

Check out SUMAC on Facebook.