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Interview with Suuns’ Liam O’Neill

By Jeff Kingsbury on February 27, 2017

102651Suuns released their third album Hold/Still in April 2016 and bring their second North American tour for that album back to Ottawa. After a packed show at St. Alban’s Church on the week of Hold/Still‘s release, the band return to the familiar club atmosphere of Zaphod’s. an event that is certain to stand as a candidate for show-of-the-year.

The band, predominantly of a rock ilk but informed by Kraut, hard-bop, late jazz and a wide array of electronic/experimental music, thrives in a variety of live settings. Recent videos show them entertaining a couple dozen passersby in the middle of a park… or mesmerizing festival crowds with thousands in attendance. Their live show is dark, scary, and unrelenting – but somehow still upbeat and danceable. The performance level is incredibly high.

The band’s drummer Liam O’Neill answered a few questions for Apt613 before their Ottawa stop this week.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Apt613: When working on a song at the group level, how do you decide what stays and what gets chopped off of a track? Do you try to point toward an existing aesthetic that’s really moving you lately? Like a really sick Can song or whatever? Or is it more a culmination of what you think sounds good in the moment?

Liam O’Neill: It’s different for every song. There are songs in which the elements just present themselves to you, all wrapped up in a nice, neat little package. Those are of course the easiest. And then there are songs where you really have to fight to make them work. In the case of the latter, our tried-and-true principle is: less is more (duh). It’s like we have the Oblique Strategies deck but all the cards just say that.

As for moving toward existing aesthetics, our creative process usually goes something like this: Ben wordlessly presents us with a new and interesting demo or idea for a song. We wordlessly play it a few times. One of us says, “aha… like this,” and plays a recording he likes. We go down that road, using our redundant Oblique Strategy until it no longer resembles that recording at all. In the end it’s like, “does this sound dope?” But the road to that is a both existing aesthetics and things that feel right in the moment, like cooking or arranging your room.

What music, new and old, are you listening to at the moment? What’s the best live set you’ve seen lately?

Speaking for myself, new: $uccessor by Dedekind Cut. Old: Landfall by Martin Carthy. There’s always so much going around between all of us in the van and elsewhere that it’s impossible to pick any two things that are representative. We’re omnivorous.

Live set? Hmm. Again, I could pick any one of a thousand awesome sets we saw last year, but I guess I’ll mention Le Guess Who?, a festival in Utrecht that we helped curate last year: Patrick Higgins, Pauline Oliveros, RP Boo, J-Lin, Swans… the list goes on.

Something I really admire about Suuns is what you’re able to do with your live set. It grows to a seemingly unlimited level of intensity without sacrificing nuance and restraint. Clearly you’re no strangers to jazz practice. Who are your main influences as far as the live show is concerned?

Thank you. We are indeed no strangers to jazz. No Stranger to Jazz is a possible record title, or maybe, No Stranger Than Jazz. I dunno. We all have different ways of imagining how the show should go, which is probably part of the tension that makes it interesting. Once in a blue moon, we’ll witness a live band together, say Portishead, and look at each other knowingly, like “yes this idea would work for us,” but in a lot of ways we now think about the show in terms of questions like “what would Suuns do?” We’ve been playing long enough that we can think about that now.

“We all have different ways of imagining how the show should go, which is probably part of the tension that makes it interesting.”

Is there anyone in the band that takes charge in the rehearsal process, or is it fairly democratic?

I can be rather vocal in rehearsal. Mostly just to get the ball rolling though. Ben and Joe, with a combined lived experience of 73 years, have uttered between them a total of 473 words. In their lives. Just think about that.

With this record, [producer/engineer] John Congleton seems to have brought the recorded version of the band a lot closer to the visceral, unrelenting live version – without sacrificing the cohesiveness of the final product. That’s not to say that Images or Zeroes lack anything… just that they’re very conceptually tight. Has that made the recorded version of Suuns less of a necessary evil for you guys, or have you always enjoyed the process?

I don’t know if John intended to make us sound more like we do live or not, but that’s certainly how it came out. John likes to work quickly and to not second-guess musical decisions, so I guess that approach mimics the improvisatory, come-what-may aspect of a live performance. It was nice to make a record where we more-or-less played the songs down, without production to speak of, and to have them work surprisingly well. John’s good at that.

As for necessary evil. Ha. I think we used to think about it like that, but for our upcoming record we’re doing a lot of writing in the studio, which is a very different experience that makes the music more fundamentally tied to the recorded version. It’s fun.

Your music is meditative in nature, even at its darkest, most intense moments. There is a world of thought in the silences, informed by the sound and the words. Is meditation part of your guys’ lives? Or at least, mad chillin’?

Hmm. I think Ben meditates. I do, inconsistently. Joe forgot about it. Max, are you fucking kidding me… We all practise the domestic arts though, and smoke fat bats, which, there is something to be said for all that. Wine is so nice.

“Any cool bands reading this hit us up.”

Does the band collaborate with other projects outside of Suuns or say Suuns x Jerusalem In My Heart? Freaky cover bands, side projects?

We talk about collabs like all the time, but Jerusalem has been the only viable one so far, mostly because we spend so much time with Radwan anyway. Any cool bands reading this hit us up. But we all get around quite a bit on our own too. Jazz, new music compositions, producing, playing on our friends’ records, you name it.

Besides the relative financial ease that Montreal brings to full-time artist life, what else about that city keeps your roots planted there?

It has good ratio of accessibility to quality. That is, a city like New York has such high quality shit everywhere, but you get to experience so little of it due to the size and price of the place. Montreal doesn’t have quite as much as New York, but it still has a lot, and the possibility of getting to experience a high percentage of it is pretty realistic. The brutality of winter gives you real character, and oh that first day of summer where everyone looks at each other like they all just had babies. I like to think it’s a place that really invests in itself and cares about its humanity. That is to say, it’s a good community.


Suuns play with Sarah Davachi on Thursday March 2 at Zaphod Beeblebrox (27 York St). Tickets cost $15 and are available online at www.spectrasonic.com as well as Vertigo Records and at both Compact Music locations.

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