Montreal-based experimental noise outfit SUUNS has never been one to stick to the script. In their thirteen years as a band, they’ve put out four full length albums, each one a different exploration of sound. They released their fifth full length record The Witness last Thursday, the band’s first on Joyful Noise Recordings, and it’s yet another departure from the expected in more ways than one.
A lot has changed for the band since 2018’s album Felt. Singer and guitarist Ben Schemie moved to Paris, and longtime bassist & keyboardist Max Henry went back to school to study music psychology, which drummer Liam O’Neill says “is much more of what he’s supposed to do.” With these changes, the group decided to slow the very same touring schedule that informed much of their writing.
“I feel like the philosophy with the band for ten years was just, tour as hard as we can, and as soon as we’re done touring a record, we make another one when we get home, and then take a breath for like six months in Montreal, and then get back on the road as soon as our new record is done,” O’Neill explained. But with Schemie’s move and Henry’s departure, he continues: “We basically made the decision to not work so hard, or just tour at the expense of everything else in our lives. It was a good decision to make. We were a bit exhausted by that hamster wheel.”
And then COVID happened. Even if they hadn’t wanted to slow down, they would have been forced to. If anything, the uncertainty of 2020 compelled them to double down on their new philosophy.
With Schemie an ocean away and unable to travel to Montreal to record, they had to reevaluate the way they wrote music at all. When the band’s members all lived in Montreal, they would craft and produce whole albums in an intense two-week long recording stints, but now entire cities separate them, and the intermittency of the recordings allowed for a greater level of thoughtfulness and intentionality to seep in. With the pandemic added to the equation, the writing and recording of The Witness magnifies this.
“This was extra slow, because in between sessions we would be geographically separated, and of course recording in COVID was just weird,” O’Neill said. “But it was cool, and the sound reflects our commitment to this new, slower pace, as well. It’s a lot more spacious, expansive.”
Expansive it is, as The Witness, more than any other SUUNS record, employs a jazz mentality of designing a continuous vibe over the notion of separate chapters. O’Neill expands on this: “I think it really reflects our mental state when we talk about how we’ve been going so hard, and our previous records were just these relentless barrages of songs, whereas we wanted this one to feel like one long song, and give ourselves that feeling of spaciousness.”
SUUNS is a unique band in that their method of recording an album and the tools used to record it articulate the message almost more than the lyrics itself, what O’Neill describes as, “The medium is the message.” 2016’s Hold/Still was about “extra minimalist exploration,” whereas Felt was about improvising – a technique they realized was vital to the band when they grew tired of playing the same songs repeatedly.
“It almost started to feel rote, or administrative, but there were moments in those sets where we would improvise transitions between songs,” he said. “We had been talking about those moments, and how those were our favorite moments to play, both because it felt new, and not like we were going down this list of songs we had to perform for the audience, and because it was slower. It reflected a feeling that we were all craving.”
They craved it to the point that they discussed never playing old material after recording The Witness, which O’Neill says he thinks won’t happen. What’s more likely is that they make “the entire set feel like those improvised moments.” Either way, the disguised blessing of time provided by the last year allowed them to at least float the idea, the same way so many other people were able to stop, take a breath and evaluate what they really wanted out of life.
And also like so many other people, SUUNS’ members don’t want to go back to the way things were before. As a band they have no desire to be confined to the album cycle, something I imagine will infuse their live performances with something special: An energy imparted by intentionality and the fact that they are doing exactly what they want to do.
SUUNS are slated to perform in Canada and tour Europe in October and November, respectively; however, with the Delta variant piercing its way through the population, the tour may be canceled. But, to worry excessively would defeat the band’s whole new philosophy.
“I’m not too bummed out about it,” O’Neill said. “I really miss performing, and touring is fun. We get to eat hot dogs in the morning. But we were going to release [The Witness] over a year ago. It’s been ready for a long time, and so what’s another couple months? It’s okay.” And even if it wasn’t “okay,” it may not be a choice. In the spirit of The Witness, acceptance is what’s crucial.