‘A point of departure’
Metal impresario Aaron Turner finds sonic refuge in Sumac
“I need to be doing a lot of things at any given time.”
This won’t surprise anyone familiar with Sumac guitarist/vocalist Aaron Turner’s career. The 38-year-old founded the venerable Hydra Head Records in 1993 while he was still in high school. He went on to form ambient sludge metal band Isis just a few years later. Those are just a couple of Turner’s projects. He’s played in a number of bands—House of Low Culture, Old Man Gloom and Mamiffer, to name a few.
Turner’s seemingly endless body of work leads to Sumac. In 2015, the band—rounded out by drummer Nick Yacyshyn and bassist Brian Cook (also of Botch)—released its debut LP The Deal, which boiled all of the aggression and noise inside Turner’s head into one streamlined steamroller.
“I wanted to maximize a small set of tools to create texture and feeling; having this world that people—and us, too—can be consumed by,” Turner said during a recent telephone interview. “Just made in a simple way.”
That philosophy continues on the band’s forthcoming album, What One Becomes, out June 10 on the dependably eclectic and out-there Thrill Jockey Records. The record is fantastically intense and soothing. Songs like “Clutch of Oblivion” and the sprawling 17-minute “Blackout” will indeed engulf listeners, sometimes taking them on journeys without resolutions.
Turner says that while the material he writes for Sumac consists of more calculated pieces, most of it springs up out of improvisation. He recalls his father listening to jazz when Turner was a kid growing up in Santa Fe, N.M. The music seemed foreign at the time, but the influence of jazz and modern composition has crept into Sumac’s music as much as metal or post-punk. Turner says he likes the uncertainty of it all.
“Jazz introduces a theme before it dissolves and comes back into focus,” he explained. “There are anchor parts to grab onto, but sometimes they’re just out of reach. It’s a good analog of what life can be like.”
A lot of the spatial elements in Sumac’s music can be traced to Turner’s formative years in Santa Fe. There was an arts scene there, for sure, but he says a lot of it was aimed at tourism and maximum commerciality. More important to him was the city’s connection to Spanish and Native American history.
“I had a tangible connection to history that deeply played into a sense of place,” said Turner, who added that the spacious landscapes of New Mexico play into his songwriting. “I carried that with me the rest of my life.”
Sense of place and environment are recurring themes—Turner has seen the world at its most serene, and also at its most insane. He spent his last couple of years of high school in Boston, where he formed Hydra Head and then Isis. He moved operations to the bustle of Los Angeles soon after, where he lived for years. Turner even spent some time in Japan, where he notes that as stimulus-gorged as the country might be, the people there still know how to find refuge in a temple or even at a restaurant.
Turner and his wife, Faith Coloccia (whom he plays with in Mamiffer), have taken up residence on Vashon-Maury Island, in Washington’s Puget Sound, where he writes and records ideas for Sumac at their home. Turner says he’s been more creative there than he was during his many years in L.A.
Ironically, his need to be working on something at all times doesn’t translate to the more deliberate pace of Sumac. It’s his escape; and likely that of those who listen.
“My hope is that people will hear some, and then want to hear some more,” said Turner. “I hope our music will offer a point of departure from their otherwise busy lives.”