Aaron Turner and Tashi Dorji performing at Turn! Turn! Turn!, Portland, Oregon, September 2018.
If I had stepped onstage at a metal concert in the late ’80s and announced to the audience that in the future they would be listening to all-synthesizer metal albums, I’d have had enough beer thrown at me to turn in my outfit for a bottle deposit. The metal and noise genres are reputed to be intrinsically rigid, but that’s what makes them so fun, so compelling and infuriating. Nowhere is this more evident than when surveying the totality of Aaron Turner’s work as an artist, musician, and founder of the heavy, influential, and (mostly) defunct label Hydra Head Records. Turner’s present band SUMAC—since its inception on a nonstop tear of activity, including a recent collaboration with Keiji Haino—just released May You Be Held, the latest planet on their horizon of metal.
As for Tashi Dorji, I’ll come right out and say that we are friends and have done some playing together as well. I met Dorji when I booked his first NYC show at Spectacle Theater, a microcinema in Brooklyn. It was an improvised live score to a short film, and I was absolutely knocked off of whatever couch I am usually lounging on (sighing) when you approach me about some guy holding a guitar. Dorji inspires admiration not only with his individualized musicianly stuff but also with how his real-life values and beliefs enrich his knotty nonfigurative expeditions. No better place to hear a distinctive rumination on the sounds, songs, and lore of the guitar—that quintessential instrument of American music—than Dorji’s latest: Stateless.
This past fall, Turner and Dorji conducted a conversation over Zoom from their respective quarantines, swapping talk about the lives lived while making work, the concepts and convictions weaving in and around their respective new albums, and maybe some thoughts about the music itself as well.
—C. Spencer Yeh
Aaron TurnerNice to see your face, Tashi.
Tashi DorjiNice to see you, too. How have things been?
ATThings are okay. This is the answer I give everyone. Things in our personal sphere are good. My family is healthy and getting along well, and I think this prolonged period of being together during quarantine has actually been good for us. What about you guys?
TDWe’re locked down in the country and it feels good. We moved outside of Asheville, North Carolina last October. We were not planning on anything, but then this house got offered and we moved. Now we look back and it’s like, Wow, this was a timely change. When you have two little ones that want to move constantly, it’s hard living in a small place in a city.
TDSo, it’s been good even when it’s sometimes hard homeschooling a five-year-old and a two-year-old. Meredith, my partner, is in full-time grad school, and she’s mostly studying online in this little room, but the kids of course know that she’s here. We live in the woods, so we go on the trails right behind our house.
But the larger context, the pandemic and the uprisings—it’s so overwhelming how it’s completely shifted things for everybody. The Black Lives Matter uprisings have been really powerful but at the same time there’s this volatility. Right-wing militias with rifles on the streets; I didn’t know this was possible here! Being a non-Black Brown person, I was always aware of that threat, but I never felt that I had to be worried about it. Now the threat is very palpable to me. It’s out in the open and so intense.
ATWe had previous conversations about Bhutan and what your place of origin means to you. In the midst of everything that’s happening right now, I wonder, has there been a moment when you were like, Fuck, I’ve got to get out of here. I want to go back to Bhutan?
TD(laughter) Last year I felt like I needed a respite. I needed my language and my culture for survival—it’s vital for anyone bilingual. Language has a larger meaning—here, I don’t even laugh the way I laugh with my Bhutanese friends. I’m missing that part, the jokes and my culture. So, a year ago, before Meredith got into grad school, we wanted to leave. But now, in this moment of desperation and explosiveness, I’m glad I’m here because there is also this immensity of people’s power. This country’s history and the strength of folks, especially Black and Indigenous, and Brown and White folks who, in solidarity, have risen up and are fighting—I’d rather be here than in Europe right now.
ATWas the title of the record Stateless a reference to being separated from your homeland?
TDI think so. I wrote the album more as an hour-long improvisation. I wanted to make a punk record without being in a punk band. I was thinking, Okay, as a person close to radical political theories for a long time, how can I write—although I don’t write songs or sing—an album that weaves a narrative of political and anarchic tendencies? “Stateless” refers to this hybridity, the liminality of being an immigrant or a person in a diaspora—where you come from one culture and are embedded in another. I’ve been in the US almost as long as I’ve lived in Bhutan. But there’s this feeling of neither being here nor there. The album’s title basically sums up that liminal existence.
ATI hear that in the music. Some of the pieces in your new album are very meditative, with a strong rhythmic foundation that feels like it’s coming from a grounded interior place, but then some of it sounds fractured and hovering in a state of uncertainty.
TDWell, yeah. Thank you. When I write, I’m not thinking about anything in particular but in the process of playing, things sort of erupt and lead the way. They can be emotions, fragments of sound memory, inspiration, anger, et cetera. To me, improvisation as a practice moves toward this powerful and also volatile energy that has no place for control or hierarchized notions of what music can or should become. It’s constantly becoming—but with that amplified spontaneity of danger that weaves into my larger political stance.
ATYour choice of making the record an acoustic album was interesting. Being a solo performer means being vulnerable. Relying on amplification and pedals offers the possibility of layering, volume, and embellishment—a sort of costume, you know what I mean? But you’ve stripped all of that away.
ATStateless is arguably your record with the most public prominence, and it’s also a completely vulnerable record. So, I was wondering, Was this the record you needed to make right now? Was it a choice to totally reveal yourself on this larger platform?
TDWell, I don’t know if I remember this correctly, but Dan from Drag City and I had talked about possibly doing a record, and they liked my acoustic stuff and I said, “Okay, that’s what I had in mind.” But I wasn’t really thinking, like a lot of these improvisations, they’re just there, they just happen. This music is not geared toward larger audiences, even with acoustic guitar. It’s weird stuff—fragmented, disjointed, without melodicism. It sort of disappears and reappears. People might listen to it and be like, What? But I feel that this kind of music should exist at this time and age. Music shouldn’t be this powerful commodity. Music, at least for me, is just there. My solo guitar improvisations are volatile and unstable. And I like that instability and imperfection.
I am really awkward around solo guitar playing—I am not proficient, and I have no technical prowess. I never studied music. I mean, I try to do well, but my playing has no technicality that you can associate with any form of musical aesthetics. So this leaves me with a playing style where improvisation becomes this navigation of chaos.
ATI liked that about your music from the first time I heard it. That frenetic quality in your work has always stuck out to me, and it is very appropriate for this moment.
You said that when you’re improvising, it’s about inhabiting that horizontal moment of creation. So, it’s not that you’re writing a political song in and of itself, but at the same time, it’s a reflection of what to me feels like an overarching atmosphere that everybody is inhabiting. A lot of people want to turn away from that, which is understandable to a degree—humans want comfort, and even in the midst of all we are in, many people want some semblance of normalcy. But the immediacy of what I hear in your music is like an anchor to the present moment. There’s nothing to hold on to, there’s no song structure to wrap one’s mind around. But precisely because of that, it does anchor me to the moment. I can’t tune out reality. Reality is impossible to ignore. So, it’s like a call to be aware of the present moment. Being in the world that we’re in right now, living in this moment of uncertainty and chaos and upheaval and change and transition.
TDThat connects to the notion of liminality. For us, as touring musicians, the reality of boundaries like countries and borders—and especially with the carceral aspect of borders—it’s all relevant, right? Because when you tour, the horizontal nature of knowing people from all around the world as allies and friends exists regardless of borders. The comradeship is always there. Just like connecting with you despite all this. In my view, that’s one of the most radical things and the closest to me—the collective nature of music and how that bond stretches beyond hierarchies or fixed ideas of how things should be.
ATYeah, that’s a beautiful summation. I’ve thought about that connection a lot in this era of non-touring. Of course, I miss live performance; it’s a vital part of my existence. I also realize how much
of what excites me about going on tour is that it allowed me to connect with so many people who are like—
I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic—my soul people. Do you know what I mean? This is a community—I feel like we have a spiritual resonation in our friendship and love. I’ve always counted on touring as a way of being physically present with those people all over the world, not all the time but every year or two we would reconnect on tour. I’m finding that hard to deal with in this time of travel restrictions. There are so many people, you included, with whom I would set up a tour, and I was like, Cool, I get to see Tashi in March!
TDWe get to record some music!
ATBut then came the pandemic. So I’ve been really missing people. As important as Zoom meetings and being in touch with each other are, it’s no substitute for having that in-person contact with people. I’m looking forward to that returning.
TDMe, too. So, since you sent me the link to SUMAC’s May You Be Held—oh my God (laughter), I’ve been listening to it for the last week or so. It’s an incredible album.
TDAnd it seems to be your most improvised. The title song is twenty minutes long!
ATYeah, there are two long tracks on the record: “Consumed” and “May You Be Held.”
TDI always felt that SUMAC’s records were really emotional. I remember when we first connected, my dad had just passed. I had been traveling to Bhutan for his last few days, and my friend sent me SUMAC’s What One Becomes. I was like, Whoa, this is amazing music. It was something I had never heard before—it was emotional, incredibly heavy, and it felt structured, but it also felt like things were unstable and falling apart. And I thought, This is not just some metal band, there is something else that is happening.
Aaron Turner performing with SUMAC at National Sawdust, Brooklyn, September 2018. Photo by AF Cortes.
ATI always knew that improv needed to be a factor in making the music. But there are certain things you can do in writing structured parts to create impact or form. At the same time, the constant repetition of pre-existing compositions for me is incredibly tiring, to the point of being aggravating after a while. So, I knew that we needed to incorporate some kind of parameters that would allow things to morph to keep them interesting. And that was combined with the direct intention that this had to be very visceral music. I don’t think violent is the right word, although that is a component of it—
I think volatile is a better word. It really needed to have that urgency to it, and part of that is just coming from how
I wanted to write, and it also came out of finding people to play with.
I remember the first time I saw Nick [Yacyshyn] play drums. It was a Baptists show in Seattle in 2013 or so, and he was just going for it. He was always on the verge of collapse, like he was going to combust while playing, and I could tell that he was just in the moment. And I said, “That is how I want to play and that is how playing feels most satisfying to me and that is what I want in finding someone else to play with.” And when he and I first started playing, it just happened. We could walk into things but also push so hard and push so many ideas through so quickly that I felt like I was constantly hovering on the precipice of destruction.
ATAnd that’s part of what’s kept it so interesting, always playing at the limit of our abilities, like, Can we do this? Can we push it a little further? I feel like that’s absolutely necessary to the vitality and the longevity of the band. With many other people’s music, when they’re hovering at the edge of not being able to contain themselves, you don’t know if they’re going to make it to the next minute of whatever they’re playing. That kind of urgency and willingness to put yourself on that edge is definitely the core of what we’re trying to do with SUMAC. Any time complacency or comfort sets in, you’ve got to push away from it.
TDHow did the sequence of the songs come about and in what order did you write them?
ATThis was our most scattered working process. There was no premeditation. There’s one song from the record, “Consumed,” that was recorded during the Love in Shadow sessions but didn’t feel right in that context. The title track, “May You Be Held,” was written specifically for this record. My original intention was to take “Consumed” and write one more song and have a two-song EP, but then “May You Be Held” became a twenty-minute track. While we were in the studio we said, “Okay, we’ve still got some time, let’s do some improv stuff.” And that became “The Iron Chair” and “Laughter and Silence,” which are tracks 3 and 5. Those were straight-up improv pieces. The album’s opening piece was literally recorded in the last hour before we packed up. Nick was like, “Hey, I really want to try this vibraphone. I always wanted to bow vibraphone and I have something in my mind.” And I said, “Go for it!”
TDNick’s bowing a vibraphone! I didn’t know that. Wow!
ATYeah, it was a real spur-of-the-moment thing. He was coming up with these melodic refrains that were just awesome. So, I was like, Let me do some feedback stuff to this, and we recorded another track of me doing the feedback. Then I went back and added vocals and Brian [Cook] did a bass track later. Oddly enough, when we recorded a previous album, What One Becomes, in the same studio, the opening track was also an improv piece that happened at the very end of the session. These last-minute things on both records ended up being the most exciting parts. So, to answer your question: the sequence of the record seemed to dictate itself, once all the tracks were done. And that’s the most gratifying part of creating: you know that it can have no other form—it’s this or it’s nothing.
TDYeah, that’s truly powerful. The first track really sets the mood. SUMAC’s music feels right for what’s happening right now. There’s so much tension, mourning, at the same time the sense of love and embrace. I was very excited when the first minutes were this complete and beautiful soundscape but then, at the end, one hears you screaming and singing like you’re in a cave, or somewhere far out. It sort of fades in; it’s not coming in to punch the wall away. It carries you into the next track that’s this long sonic navigation through the territories of the unknown but also—it’s emotional. It’s a soundtrack for fucking running down the street with a torch and screaming “This is liberation!” (laughter)
For me, knowing you makes the music even more relevant. Working together and seeing our comradeship evolve into a closer, trusting relationship, I feel like our friendship is authenticated now. I haven’t known you and Nick for very long, and I don’t know Brian, but the friendship becomes a larger thing for the music.
ATFriendship is at the core of SUMAC. I didn’t know Nick at all, so it was a shot in the dark. Fortunately, it worked out and we became great friends. Brian on the other hand was a guy I had known for twenty years, and I loved Brian’s way of playing, but as important was our friendship. I knew Brian was a kind and obviously sensitive person who hadn’t tried to cover that up. In order to make music that has a deep resonance—whether it’s by yourself or with other people—you have to be willing to bare something true about yourself. For me, emotional resonance is the most powerful component of playing. If that emotional stuff isn’t accessible through the music, there’s not a lot of incentive for me to get involved. Through playing with Nick and Brian I realized that all three of us were willing to go there. So instead of metal being this shield of macho defensiveness you put up, it’s more of an openness to let everything out that you would normally not let anybody see. (laughter)
TDKeiji Haino with SUMAC is one of the records I always hoped for—to hear improvisation that’s heavy and scattered all over the place. I love traditional free improv stuff, but my roots, or my tendencies, are more metal and punk rock, but also heavier music. Keiji Haino + SUMAC is really visceral, fucked up, and beautiful. Was that kind of improv something that you’ve always thought about?
ATWell, I wanted SUMAC to be a band with a core membership but also open to full collaborations with other artists. The experience of doing things with Haino really opened us up. Our willingness to go there was a big step for us—we had not been tested to that extent as an improvising unit. Improv had been a part of our music, but it wasn’t the full thrust of what we were doing. With Haino, we went from almost zero to one hundred in a couple days—from a bit of experimenting with short sections of improvising in a few songs to doing an album with a master of improv and then doing it live. I thought, Well, this could be a horrible fucking disaster, or it could be great. Or somewhere in between. I had anxiety dreams for about a month leading up to our trip to Japan. But SUMAC is not about being safe, so if I have fear about what’s going to happen, that’s probably a good thing. (laughter)
The people I’ve become friends with, like you and Nick and Brian, Will from dälek, and my friend Jussi from Circle are people who’ve made some of my most favorite music, music that has impacted me on a deep level. And subsequently because of our mutual interest in each other’s music, we’ve developed friendships. I’ve often wondered if there’s something inherently embedded in the music that draws me to you as people. It’s like I understand something about your being through the music. Even in those very first few days of us touring together, I felt, I don’t really know Tashi, but we’re meant to be friends. I just felt it.
Tashi Dorji performing at Niles Gallery, Lexington, Kentucky, March 2020, Photo by Brian Connors Manke.
ATMost of my really good friendships have been based on connection through art and then this kind of reciprocal cycle builds out of that. There is some sense of kinship through what can be known through art that leads to something else on a personal level.
TDYeah, that’s always been there. I’m thinking in terms of traditional music that allows people to connect on a very deep spiritual level. It comes from how they’re playing, how they’re communicating. For instance, before you start playing with this massive xylophone in the forest with the tribal pygmies or whatever, you need to communicate. Music has this interconnected language. When I first heard SUMAC, the emotive nature felt very authentic and resonated with me. It wasn’t something I’d play myself, but something I deeply understood, you know? That innate darkness and the sense of poetics in that darkness and how that amplifies into loudness and volatility. Because I really like loud heavy music, but what’s often missing for me is the emotional, vulnerable side of it.
TDThere’s this collective, non-hierarchical nature of music, right? Where everybody’s voice—or guitar or drums—is heard distinctly but also together. Going back to SUMAC’s new record, May You Be Held definitely has a deeper, heavier, and almost spiritual stance. It’s introspective.
TDYou recorded this album for an extensive period, right? Like six, seven months?
ATThe sessions were short but really spread out. Some were done in studios and others I finished at home. Brian did some tracking here at our studio, too, so it was very piecemeal in terms of putting everything together.
TDDid y’all talk about the theme of the album?
ATWe didn’t when we were writing it. It was more like you said before, that actual dialogue you have with people through playing music. There has to be that willingness to connect, and in the best-case scenario, when the music functions really well, the individual is kind of obliterated and gets enveloped into a unified whole. Whatever lyrical themes came later on, the foundation was that connectedness and sense of immersion. And because I am the sole vocalist, it is essentially up to me to write the lyrics and come up with titles. I did discuss those things with Nick and Brian once I had settled on some themes that made sense to me. You know, I don’t always enjoy a fully democratic creative process. I feel like there has to be, especially in group settings, someone who is guiding things in a certain direction. At least in my experience, that’s been effective. So, I don’t want to co-write lyrics with them, but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to put something forward that they didn’t feel represented them.
ATFor this new album, once I came up with the themes, I wrote out a letter to them explaining where I was coming from, like, “This is what feels relevant to me. What do you guys think about this? Is there anything in here that makes you uncomfortable? Do you feel like this is appropriate for the music that we’ve created as a group?” And that’s been the process every time we’ve made a record. So far, I haven’t gone into any territory that they’ve found questionable. (laughter)
We’re a group that resonates on the same energetic plane. Openness and consensus are important, but there’s also the foundational confidence that we’re all in this together because we trust each other.
TDAnd with Keiji Haino thrown in between the other albums, the music becomes almost rhizomatic. The first album had a tighter structure, and from there it becomes looser. With Keiji Haino, obviously, full-on heavy improvisation. And now, the new album becomes the larger whole of the attributes you’ve acquired; it touches all of those realms. Now I’m like, What’s the next album going to be?
ATYeah, I know—everything should be a stepping-stone to the next thing, right? It’s a statement of where you are at the moment, but it can’t be the totality of your voice. Ideally, it should be an indicator of where things might go. I do feel like that with this record. We set out some parameters early on and we’ve followed them, but it’s also allowed us to move within a pretty wide range. I like the idea of a foundation for what we are as a band, and that we’ve left a lot of room for ourselves to evolve and build on our strengths.
I’m looking forward to the borders reopening so that Nick and Brian and I can actually legally see each other again.
TDI was talking to the guys from Chepang, the Nepali grindcore band. They have a larger collective than SUMAC but there’s a similarity in terms of that open-wide kind of approach. I was listening to one of their interviews and they were like, “We were just playing really fast, we didn’t know grindcore really, but then we became this. We go to the studio and feel full of our potential.” It’s interesting to see these ideas floating in the heavy metal scene. When I was touring with y’all, I watched the audiences, especially the throbbing metal people being really perplexed by that realm of things falling apart and disappearing.
AT(laughter) Yeah, yeah.
TDIt’s like, Alright, things don’t stay the way they are, that’s just the way it is.
ATThe records you do with Tyler [Damon] are not metal records, but there’s a lot of heat and intensity there—something that’s not necessarily aggression but it’s a strong kinetic energy. Thinking about new forms of operation—with the exception of mixed tour packages or odd festivals here and there, there’s not a lot of genre or other forms of integration. But I feel like there is so much connection between various forms of music that most people have mental schisms around. When we were touring with you, and with Divide, and Dissolve—just as an example of three very different bands—there was an obvious connection in terms of the energy that’s being put forth. I’m hopeful that these walls between genres will start to fall away along with other types of cultural segregation. I think that there is only value to be gained by all of these things coming together. On the surface, we could say that our endeavors are very different, but for me, the spirit is the same. I feel connected to so many different kinds of people—people of different backgrounds, races, and political perspectives—and I have seen their divisions or separateness partially dismantled by being in the world of music. I’m not of the mind that music can change the world in this grandiose way, but I can say from my personal experience it has absolutely changed my world. I think the more we purposefully foster these kinds of open communities, the better off we’ll be. And audiences can benefit from it, too.
During those shows we did together, some people were like, “I love Tashi’s music, it’s so cool to see you guys on a bill together!” And I don’t know why that’s surprising to people. It should happen all the time!
TDFor me, the importance of comradeship with you and with the wider community of musicians, has intensified during this uprising. This moment is serious for us as musicians. Although we’re not leading protests, we can lend our voices to amplify larger liberatory projects that are based on allyship and friendship, which is the most important thing to have in life.