Canadian art rockers SUUNS so strongly intertwine rock and electronic music, that you can never really tell which came first. `Dance music that rocks and viceversa’, one reviewer called it, but it was never as simple as that. They got many labels over the 12 years they’ve been playing together; they neither reject them entirely, nor do they allow these labels to fence them in. Never mere fusionists, even when they experiment as much as they did with the muddier, noisier ‘Felt’ (2018 record), SUUNS still sound like SUUNS.
They melt together beauty and ugliness, emotion and noise, the familiar and the surprising. „It’s pop music, but in this evil space”, guitarist Joe Yarmusch famously wrote, but these days not even he could tell you why.
Control Club hosted a very memorable SUUNS show on the 13th April, so we caught up with vocal Ben Shemie and guitarist Joe Yarmusch sometime between the soundcheck and the gig itself.
Alexandra: One of your older songs is called ‘Music won’t save you’. Do you genuinely believe that?
Ben: I used to believe it, but I no longer like being so negative all the time, so I’m gonna say it’s different for everybody. It’s a very pessimistic song, which is why it works really well, ‘cause it’s very frank. But I don’t know if I necessarily believe it. It depends on the day. I don’t know…
Joe: I have a different relation to that song, ‘cause I didn’t write any lyrics to it. As a general concept, I’m sure music could save people if they’re really down and out. Anything can save anyone. I don’t know what that even means. What are we talking about? Drugs can save you too. I think songs don’t need to be analyzed so specific to what they’re saying. That’s not gonna do anyone any favors. That won’t save anyone. It’s cool to leave some mystery with the songs. And that’s what it’s great about music, for me anyways. I don’t know what half of the songs that I really love are about. I have no clue. That’s kind of what I feel.
Alexandra: ‘Felt’ is the first album you recorded on your own. Talk me through the process of making this new record and how you approached it differently from your previous albums.
Ben: In the past we did a more traditional style: you get a studio for two or three weeks, and you just do it all in one shot. But we did this new one over a few months, just a few days at a time, with some time to think about it and write more. It was different for us and more fun in a way, because there wasn’t as much pressure to produce a record right away. Originally we just started doing demos, but they just turned into an album. It wasn’t planned that way, it’s just how it happened.
Alexandra: What impact did being more involved in the production have on the final product?
Joe: It’s hard to know, because you only do it one time per record. It just felt easier, it felt like there was less pressure. It had less impact on our lives basically. We could just walk to the studio and we didn’t have to finish it at any given moment, so we could just go into it until we felt like it was done. It was great for us. Like Ben said, we kind of accidentally did it that way. And we will probably keep doing it that way, at least for the next one.
Alexandra: You were usually quite minimal in terms of adding noise, but ‘Felt’ sounds a bit muddier, a bit noisier. How did you come to this new approach?
Ben: I don’t know, maybe because we produced it ourselves. And we had more confidence as a band to do it ourselves and indulge certain ideas. The songs on this record are a bit more song-like, there’s a few songs that are more traditional-style so that might make it seem like it’s less minimal. It’s not based around necessarily a musical idea, it’s more based around a composition.
Joe: I think you’re right. A lot of our older songs are this one idea that just does the whole thing. There’s a lot more changes in this one. And you just kind of feel more comfortable adding stuff, and not just for the sake of adding. But in the past we were always taking it away, just because it felt unnecessary. This time we just felt like we’re making a louder record or something more alive, rather than an analogue, electronic record. It felt more like a band playing a show in many ways. These are vague answers, I’m sorry!
Alexandra: Just a bit, but that’s OK. How long did it take for you to translate the studio album into the live show? Did you come across any challenges?
Ben: Oh, yeah, definitely. I don’t know if you can put a timeline on it. It’s not like it took a week or it took a month.
Joe: We’re still working on it.
Ben: Still working on some parts a bit. Some parts of what we did on the record are technically more difficult than what we did in the past, so Joe and I had to buy a special guitar, pedal and bass for that sound, I’m doing some new things with the vocals, so that requires a special piece of gear. And that’s a lot of troubleshooting, you know? It’s synchronizing. It’s a lot more like electronic music that way: synchronizing everything in time with each other, and it’s fun to do that. I’m not sure how long it took. It took as long as it took to play the first show.
Alexandra: And then you kept figuring it out.
Ben: Yeah, because every night is different: something is wrong, or something changed and it’s kind of cool in a different way that you didn’t plan.
Alexandra: When you are working on a new song, how do you decide what stays and what gets cut?
Ben: We fight a lot, yeah. Well, usually it was in the studio. We were playing and you can usually feel when something is missing or when is too much. And generally speaking we all feel more or less the same way: in a specific circumstance of a song, certain things kind of make sense. And certain things don’t make sense. And it’s not always like that, but generally speaking, it’s the aesthetic decisions that you’re making, that are more or often pretty easy to make. Because a certain guitar sounds a certain way and that kind of defines it a certain way. So certain things just don’t work with that. Or certain things really do work.
Alexandra: But what if you really disagree on something?
Ben: You know what happens? We record the songs and then we never play them. So we compromise by never playing them live.
Alexandra: What kind of music do you listen to these days?
Ben: I listen to a lot of electronic music, hip hop, whatever my friends are listening to, whatever gets recommended.
Joe: I never know what to answer ‘cause I don’t remember.
Alexandra: Do you ever become obsessed with an album or an artist, and spend weeks listening to that?
Ben: Yeah. Definitely. Used to happen a lot more often when I was younger. Now I think it’s more difficult because there’s so much more music thrown at you. In a weird way you don’t really listen to music the same way you used to, it’s not as precious in a way. It’s unfortunate, for me anyway, to be a bit overwhelmed by how much new music you’re exposed to. I’m sure that there are some records that I probably would like more if I listened to them more often or if I gave them more of a chance, but because I don’t, maybe is something that I just missed. I feel like that happens a lot.
Joe: I don’t have specific names. I don’t listen to challenging music or weirder music that much unless it’s on my headphones, because I don’t wanna piss people off. I listen to heavy music too. Everyone listens to hip hop basically.
Alexandra: You can’t escape it.
Joe: You don’t even try to escape it.
Alexandra: What are some of the things that inspire you outside of the music world?
Ben: Inspiration? Food! We talk a lot about food, I like cooking a lot, I find that very inspiring. And what everybody likes: watching movies, reading a good book.
Joe: I like doing work, like building shit, trying to fix stuff at my house. Badly. Just trying to learn how to do that stuff. It’s what I like to do these days. I feel like my whole day is going to: get this, fix that, trying to fix something on my car. I’m not saying I can do that properly, but I like doing that kind of stuff. I feel that it clears my mind for other things. I like my days to be filled up with doing shit, being productive. I won’t bore you with the details, but I wake up at 7 a. m. everyday. What else? Going to see people play.
Alexandra: How did being from Montreal influence your musical careers? Did it have an impact on what you do as musicians?
Ben: Definitely. Because it’s like a really big scene and we all met each other through that scene, and it’s also a really good city to live for playing in a band. It’s facilitated the whole thing, made it possible in a way. I don’t know if it would be possible to do what we do in the way that we do it in other cities. The thing that I realize more and more is how important it is to be part of a community, a part of a scene, how difficult it would be to be a musician in a small town or a place where you didn’t have a community of other people that you could talk with or collaborate or anything. I think it’s really alienating to do that, especially the older you get. Montreal is really good that way, ‘cause there’s a lot of people doing what we do.
Alexandra: How is the music culture there different than the European one?
Ben: I don’t know… Europe is so different everywhere you go. Is Montreal representative of North American Culture? Not really either.
Joe: For us it’s better to play in Europe. We have more options and places to go to, so that makes it worthwhile on a practical level, like there are more people that come to our shows. There are certain big cities in North America that are good, but they seem to be further away, they keep getting further away. So it’s harder. We have a lot more options in Europe as a whole. But in Romania we haven’t been in five years, so what does that mean? Why not?
Alexandra: Why not?
Joe: I don’t know why. No one knows why. It’s a lot of moving parts in touring, a lot of things that need to come together, to make that possible. For us to make an European tour, many people have to do a lot of work.
Ben: It’s denser in Europe too, more people being closer together. It has always felt like people are a bit more supportive or interested in alternative music. I don’t know if that’s even true anymore. That’s just been our experience. But I don’t know if it’s the same for everybody.
Joe: Many of our friends who are musicians do well in different places than we do.
Ben: But you know what is kind of indicative? Festivals, for example. A lot of the festivals that we are interested in, that have really cool lineups and we wanna play at or go to, are in Europe. There aren’t that many of them in North America. So that is kind of indicative of the kind of market that there is for experimental music or avantgarde music or even jazz music.
Alexandra: What are your thoughts at the end of this Balkan tour?
Ben: It’s been a very challenging tour, but for no fault of the Balkans, just on our end. There’s been a lot of ups and downs technically. And also drama, but all good, all positive. It’s been really interesting in terms of being in these countries that we’ve never been before, these cities we’ve never played. We played in Kosovo, I never thought we’d ever play there.
Joe: And it’s great to come back in Bucharest, ‘cause we have a good memory of the first show. It’s a lot of places that people from where we’re from don’t really get to go to. It’s easier to tour in France, in Italy, but it’s more unique to be in the Balkans. Every day is just different. A lot of borders, a lot of crazy roads, and mountains.
Alexandra: Especially today, coming from Sofia to Bucharest must have been awful.
Joe: The roads are bad. But if you do it once every 10 years, it’s fine. We don’t have nice roads where we’re from, so it’s not about that. It’s a very different tour for us. Being on tour is really fun and cool, but it’s also quite boring sometimes. It can be the same thing over and over, unless you make it interesting somehow.
Alexandra: But you changed the scene everyday, so…
Ben: But it’s still the same day everyday.
Joe: Everything happens the same way. But in the Balkans there are lots of different things happening all the time, different languages, interesting stuff.
Alexandra: How much do you change the setlist from a gig to another?
Ben: Normally we do. This tour we haven’t been changing it that much. Just a little bit here and there.
Joe: We have a new keyboard player, so we stick to a certain amount of songs. We kind of get into a mode and play that for a while. You think you have time to work out other songs on tour, but you don’t. So in terms of getting our keyboard player up to speed, it’s easier if we stick to the same songs every night.
Alexandra: Why do you have a new keyboard player?
Joe: A sad story.
Ben: We lost the other one, we can’t find him.
Joe: We left him in Kosovo. Actually, he left the band in December. He’s in school now, being an academic. He’s changing his lifestyle a little bit. It’s been 12 years so it’s pretty normal. It’s a long time to be in a band for anybody, and we’ve never taken a break so he’s never had a chance to do something else, maybe this is what he figured out he wanted to do, so…
Alexandra: Did you guys ever think about taking a break as well?
Joe: Well, we kind of do…
Ben: We’ve never actually taken a break. But you definitely have these periods, in the album cycles, where it feels like you are kind of on a break, but you are not really.
Joe: One year we tour live, one year we record maybe, so it’s different. And it’s our jobs too. So you have to sort of keep the momentum, unless you decided that this is it. But we haven’t decided that yet.
Alexandra: Joe, you once wrote in a band bio that ‘It’s pop music, but in this evil space’.
Joe: Yeah, that’a crazy quote. Sure, I guess so….
Alexandra: Was it just a thing you said because it sounded cool?
Joe: I definitely didn’t think that much about it. ‘Cause people ask us how would we call the music. And there’s some part of me that just makes up bullshit. I don’t know. What do you call that music? It’s rock music, but some people don’t consider that rock music.
Alexandra: I read a review that said ‘it’s dance music that rocks and viceversa’.
Joe: Yeah, but it’s not. We can play so many different kinds. If we take certain songs, we can play a very rock show. If we take certain songs from all the records, we can play a very electronic-y show, there’d be very little guitars and there’d be all beats. So it’s very hard for us to define it. We don’t really have an interest in it. So I just said that cause it came right to my head.
Alexandra: But how did you manage to find that ‘evil space’? In the beginning of the band, how did you manage to find your sound? Because to me, even when you change things up a lot, like with ‘Felt’, it still sounds like SUUNS.
Ben: I guess it comes from growing up playing rock’n’roll music and that’s kind of how we identify primarily. We have been influenced a lot by electronic music. But we’re not making electronic music. So it’s about being able to identify what is cool, good rock music, and what is cool electronic music, without necessarily doing one or the other entirely. I think it comes down to maybe just having good taste really. It’s like what we talked about before: how you know what to cut and what to keep. It’s a bit like that. You just follow your gut feeling about what works and what doesn’t, what is crossing the line. And now I don’t really feel like I’m playing music anymore, it’s just like electronic. And maybe on this last record, it’s about being able to cross on one side more than we would have allowed ourselves to in the past.
Joe: Yeah, it’s a battle, I mean. Everyone is really good at curating their own stuff and finding new ways to approach music. Also you don’t want to think about it a little bit too much, like how the whole thing comes together, instead you focus on these little bits, these little steps, and usually it’s working. But it is a little different than how we first started. Some of the stuff we did back in the day is almost unlistenable. It’s cool. On every record we try to not repeat what we’ve done. Once you start doing that, you’ll probably be bored. But it’s ok, we’ll be millionaires by then, so…
Alexandra: That’s the plan?
Joe: That is the plan: we’ll just do a reunion of our second album and everyone we’ll be like: `wow’. That’s what bands do now: you just do a 20-year reunion or something. And cash in.
Alexandra: Is there anything that you think about or do right before going up on stage? Do you have some sort of ritual, something to set the mood?
Ben: It depends on the show. If I’m really nervous, and sometimes I get nervous, I need to be alone for just 10 seconds. Probably the only thing that we consistently do together is that we drink before the show. But that’s not like a ritual, it’s just…
Alexandra: …being a musician?
Ben: It’s just part of it. I will say that if we didn’t drink before the show, we’d be really pissed off. I don’t think it would be a good show. It’s like a drug. You don’t need to get drunk, but you need to have a drink. It sounds bad when you say it. But it’s something about playing at nighttime, playing in a club, and you have these expectations that you kind of need in a way. And I don’t get drunk before a show. I can’t play if I’m drunk, but I do need to have a drink. And all of us feel that way for sure.
Joe: I feel like it’s kind of an older approach nowadays. Younger kids, I don’t know what they do.
Alexandra: Probably the same.
Ben: They just get wasted.
Joe: Not all of them. A lot of them are fucking vegans.
Ben: Depends on the band. Some bands just calm down, harmonize, say how much they love each other, I don’t know. We’ve been drinking for so long… So we need a drink. That’s just the bottom line.
Joe: Our show builds and we sort of warm up on stage a bit. We ease into the show, we take our time.
Ben: The show is constructed in a way that we kind of warm up in the beginning, and we can try improvising on the top of the set, to try and feel the mood in the band, and feel the mood in the room. You’re not talking to each other on stage, but it’s almost like having a little meeting in the first five minutes when you’re one the stage, and see how it goes.
Joe: And if you’re prepared, and you know the songs, and the general idea of what you are going to do that night, then… it’s not rocket science. You wanna be loose. You wanna be in the moment. We try to keep it light.