Hey Jeremy! How are you? What are you up to right now?
Hi Ian! It’s 1am and as usual, I’m finishing up some work with a bit of wine, listening to my cat snore, and wondering if I should tell the other members of my band about this interview.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background in terms of music. What was your first instrument? Why did you start playing said instrument?
I started playing clarinet in Grade 4, joined the school orchestra and learned to read and interpret music monotonally before entering the realm of the guitar where all of a sudden chords and a variety of octaves are available at one’s fingertips. Ian grew up playing piano, but also learned drums and guitar and dabbled on bass. Ian studied classical and jazz, I really didn’t study formally on the guitar beyond jamming for hours on end with my favorite records. I’ve known Jesse for most of my life, but Ian and I met in university in Montreal and started playing music together in a ton of different short-lived projects, one such project being, getting ridiculously drunk and “fight-jamming” with our roommates, which meant one would have to improvise while trying to kick the other person out of their chair to win. As for Jesse, who played bass, sang and did a lot of electronic processing, he moved up to Montreal a few years later and we all decided to “start a band” as one does, when a friend in Boston invited us to open for the dance-mashup DJ Girl Talk. We were all doing solo stuff and making very lo-fi experimental music on-the-cheap (we were college students after all), so the three of us hopped in a car, called ourselves Les Chiens d’aveugles (the seeing-eye dogs) and attempted to make a Shalabi Effect-inspired noise raga improvisation thing happen, having never shared a stage together in our lives. It was a disaster, but it ignited a flame to start taking music seriously, so we recruited like 8 more people and started writing music for a noisey modern classical ensemble we ended up calling [the] Slowest Runner [in all the world].
From there, just getting really interested in the avant-garde, reading and immersing ourselves in both theoretical and abstract approaches to sonic treatment, acoustic properties, sound and music sharing a space together in musique concrete and minimalism, etc. led to the type of stuff we wanted to experiment with in Sontag Shogun. The rock band was tightly composed, very instrumental in nature, and required a ton of rehearsal and composition, whereas Sontag gave us the opportunity to think non-musically about our sound. We thought (and still do think) about objects, resonance, memory, abstract emotive triggers, space, density. Eventually the music started to take shape a bit more traditionally, and where we find ourselves now is, I think, at the most interesting intersection of where solo piano composition meets dreamscape sonic environments.
How did you come up with the group name (which I love by the way)?
Almost every title in the Sontag (& Slowest Runner) canon has come out of a stream-of-consciousness process of attributing meaning to something by way of naming it spontaneously, and intuitively. I wouldn’t say we live and die by this technique, but it does serve to impart a sort of nothingness to everything we touch. Our song titles are basically just words on a page to signify the change of a track or variation. (“Hungarian Wheat”, “Staircases to Madagascar”, “Chariots of Reggie”?) We take a lot of pride in what we do, but naming things isn’t high on our priority list. So Sontag Shogun has almost no meaning other than to call to reference Susan Sontag’s deep and unendingly wealthy body of work, and then to reimagine her fighting as a samurai in a feudal Japanese battle.
The secret name for Sontag Shogun is actually A Living Photo-Notational Diary of the Lifework of Dr. Bern’rd Hoffmann of New York, and it’s written in invisible ink on all of our album covers.
How did you find yourself working with moskitoo?
We met Sanae in Tokyo in 2015, the night that we shared a bill with minamo. We’ve always been fans of her music so it led to some conversations about one day collaborating. These things often don’t pan out so we didn’t put too much stock in that conversation, but luckily, later that year we ended up with a great opportunity to get back in touch and she was super open and happy to contribute her input and voice to some recordings we were working on. We started orchestrating some tracks with a string quartet, the results of which have sort of been shelved indefinitely unfortunately. But these two tracks stood out as needing, or begging for, something different, something out of the box. There has always been this lingering “should we? could we?” question nagging us when we go to record in terms of using a vocalist, using lyrics, beyond Jesse’s wonderful approach to vocal collage-making, and so with these two tracks, we just decided to throw some ideas at the wall and see what might happen if we let someone we trust take over the vision for them. Sanae was in every way, our top choice, and the first and only person we ever contacted. She took a bit of a minimal, lighter approach to “The Things We Let Fall Apart” (previously titled “Unfinished Idea 021”) but the way she tackled “The Thunderswan” made us reconsider and rework the structure of the song entirely! All of a sudden, not only were we mixing and arranging music and texture to voice, but we had a hook! Sontag having a hook, that’s a new one. Her work on this material has honestly influenced and affected the way we orient our written pieces ever since this experience.
That’s really interesting to note how this is a very unique work for both Sontag Shogun and moskitoo. Most people associate moskitoo with her glitchy-ambient-pop work for 12k of course, and yourselves for more experimental work. The feedback we’ve received is one of very pleasant surprise at just how direct and accessible this work is. In terms of the influence of working with an artist like moskitoo and the way you now write work, how would you specifically say this has changed or developed?
Its true about moskitoo being known for the glitch and her absolutely straight-up bad ass production. What’s been interesting to learn in this process is that when you take away the incredible sonic worlds she creates around her voice, her voice is still just as pretty and powerful. I feel like sometimes artists hide their voice behind their beats, but Sanae is able to transmit the same level of intimacy and depth in a single melody as she is with all the tools available in her laptop. We don’t really write for voice necessarily, well, yet, so its hard to say how this process of working with her might shape future work and collaboration. But I definitely think the future of Sontag will welcome more artistic and production collaborations, more abstract environments of thought, less living room piano perhaps.
We worked together on this 7″ vinyl release, but you basically undertook all the design and packaging, thank you by the way! Is there a story behind the artwork and can you tell me how you think the layout lends itself to the sound of this record?
Thanks, man! Obviously as the music is pretty subdued we didn’t want to create an over-designed product. I wanted the hand-written text to kind of disarm any listening pretexts because this really is an album of lightweight living room collaboration, the music is pretty raw and under-processed as far as Sontag’s music goes. But this sculpture on the cover is really something. It was created by a New York metal artist named Stephen Somple, who we’ve wanted to work with for a long time (and now that the flood gates have opened, Jesse’s actually creating sonic sculptures with him for an exhibition opening in December!). So, he creates these metal sculptures out of oxidized brass, and then drops objects on them at random to create these unpredictable, accidental forms. I love his work because even though they’re made of metal, it’s more about the air around the metal, as if the dense, solid mass in front of you really only serves to make a comment about the thinness of light and space it folds itself into. And there’s a beautiful coincidental, imperfect aspect to this work too which absolutely reflects back to the record. This is this, in a moment in time, let’s polish it up and leave it to look at later.
And I don’t know if you’ve noticed but Sontag’s in a bit of a “circle” phase right now. Well, off-circle I guess.
This kind of brings up the fact that Sontag Shogun is mostly focused on working improvisationally. How does this affect the process of your work? Does it lend itself to a far more open approach and if so, could you give any specifics?
We compose collaboratively, and in doing so, each performer/composer needs to be able to be comfortable leaving a ton of space open in the kind of “environment of play”. And by that I mean, one needs to be comfortable pushing hard on some of their ideas, while leaving other ideas open in the community space to be altered or removed entirely by the others. It’s all about sharing a mental space of interaction as much as a musical one. So the fact that our long friendship has created a pathway for this open and malleable interpersonal dynamic is absolutely part of it, and allows us to be comfortable sharing the improvisational leadership roles throughout a live set, or the recording process (ie: which one of us is leading while the others follow, changes I think every couple of minutes in performance). Anyway, to answer your question though, I think letting this kind of dynamic dictate the path of the project is both chancey and exciting, and one of the reasons our growth has been so organic, albeit pretty slow. As I mentioned earlier, we’re a live project, not really a studio one, so whatever ideas we bring into recording, are basically 100% informed by the choices we’ve made in a performance environment leading up to that, the conversations we have, the energy circulating between us, the artists we’ve played with and what we feel has worked to transmit something to an audience, versus what may have fallen flat.
Improvising with other people helps speed this stuff up too, it can get a bit clogged continually performing with the same humans. In the past few years we’ve obviously done a bunch of work with visual artists, and now we’re touring with a “scentscape” artist which is incredible, but we’ve improvised with people like Oren Ambarchi, Julia Kent, Aki Onda, Matana Roberts, Tom Carter, Greg Fox, all of whom are like, top-tier improvisers and musicians, so we’ve learned a lot about moving through sound and finding pathways so that we’re not just creating dense blobs of noise all the time. Everything informs everything else, one night on stage can change the entire direction of the project, and I feel like that’s happened in a thousand subtle ways ever since we started playing together.
You’ve toured in Japan before. Do you have any particularly fond memories? Would you like to go back?
Okay yes, we are desperately trying to get back to Japan as soon as we can! In 2015, we had one of the most incredible tours of our life there, every single moment in that country was a memory. From the afternoon omakases to the late night Izakayas, from quiet temple performances to ear-shattering rock venue sound systems, and from the most respectful and excited audiences we’ve ever played for, to the acidhead chaos and vice that lurks around dark urban corners, Japan is a place of contrasts. The very thought of it gets us tingling for more. Plus we just wanna get back there to hang out with some great friends of ours!
You guys seem to play lots of shows and tour a fair amount. What do you enjoy about touring mostly? Where have you played this year? Any tour plans for the imminent future?
We used to hit the road a lot more actually, before we had marriages, babies and various other responsibilities like owning a company. But admittedly, we’re completely addicted to touring. The places we’ve been fortunate enough to get to visit, and all the thousands of people around the world who, whether they dug us or not, we’ve had the pleasure of being in their company, is unbelievable. I get why a lot of musicians feel more comfortable making music in their homes than live because of all the unpredictability in a performance environment, and you have the ability to chisel something until its perfect, but that’s never really been a priority or a concern of ours at all. We really do only want to be making music for and with other people to experience together. It’s really special to share a space with complete strangers and create something ephemeral and delicate that is as much inspired by the architecture of the space and the energy of the moment, the chance elements, as it is by what we’ve planned or set out to do, and what’s going on in our own heads.
What are some albums you’ve been enjoying recently?
I’m personally really into this debut album from Le Fruit Vert, the Montreal/Kentucky-based collaboration between Marie-Douce St-Jacques and Andrea-Jane Cornell, I’ve been listening a lot to the new albums by Circuit Des Yeux, Greg Fox, Mike Cooper, Thundercat, Jessica Moss, Midori Takada, and many more.
If you had to pick one piece of gear from your studio that you just could not live without, what would it be?
This is a weird question for me, I’m trying to think about it with regards to Sontag Shogun and the answer would probably have to be one of the 8 Uher tape players I own, and use for pretty much everything. But since we’re really not a gear-oriented project, I think the most correct answer is that if I had to live with no gear, I’d simply live with no gear. In a lot of ways, all audio gear, especially electronic audio equipment, serves the same function. It’s all replication and mimesis, translating what occurs naturally in sound into electricity and then back again. This is why I gravitate so fluidly to soundwalks, deep listening and meditation I think. If you want to submit an artist to a true test of their craft in sound, take them out of their studio with no gear and ask them to create the next work in their oeuvre. You know what I’m saying? All of the sound we will ever buy on records for the rest of our lives already exists in the world to be listened to in full resolution whenever we step out and interact with people, objects and spaces in real time.
Enormous thanks to Dan at Fluid Radio for his support with these series of interviews in conjunction with Home Normal, and of course thanks to Jeremy Young for taking the time to talk.
Sontag Shogun and Moskitoo’s double A-side 7” vinyl release ‘The Things We Let Fall Apart / The Thunderswan’ is out on November 15th and can be ordered HERE. Thank you.
- Images by WOS Festival