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Q&A: Sontag Shogun On Playing Visual Art Installations, Lionel Richie, And Susan Sontag

There's a tangible loneliness to Sontag Shogun's music, but there's a wistful loveliness present, too. The Brooklyn trio assumes a sort of songwriting assembly line, with Ian Temple's emotive, tremulous piano figures falling prey to Jesse Perlstein's legion of atmospheric, laptop-catalogue samples and the oscillator/tapes/electronic militia at Jeremy Young's command. Borne thereof are instrumentals that hover somewhere between quiet-storm raucous and New Age quiescent: giggly ivory-tickles brush elbows with industrial found sounds; funny-bone effects trill like cicadas or fireworks or distant slide whistles; sonatas and pitch-shifted drones suck face. Unlikely antecedents turn up in this mournful and meditative melee; the core melody "Hungarian Wheat," from the recently-issued-on-disc Absent Warrior, Abandoned Battlefield (Palaver Music) winks at Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." (The band counts composers like Arvo Part, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Philip Glass, and Max Richter among their influences.) Perhaps it's just that they seem to, for succumbing to a Sontag Shogun song is like wandering into a mist or thinny in a mystery novel: the first few seconds are universally objective, but beyond that, the experience is colored by what the listener brings to the table.

SOTC emailed with Sontag Shogun about Absent Warrior and the contextual nature of the band's music.

When and how did you guys start playing together as Sontag Shogun?

Jeremy Young: We all went to university in Montreal together, which is where we began playing music together in a large ensemble called [the] slowest runner [in all the world] about six years ago. The music from this project was very composed and calculated, orchestral rock, and I think the three of us were craving a more free-form and exploratory musical outlet on the side. Besides the Absent Warrior, Abandoned Battlefield EP, all of our past performances and recorded material was improvised, though not necessarily unscripted. Sontag developed in the direction of "designing" or "staging" site-specific performances and it became our "arty" project, so we would get invited to play at openings and launches and stuff.

What were you guys majoring in?

JY: We all went to either McGill or Concordia. Jesse studied creative writing, I studied media/film studies and Ian did international development. So we were pretty much all over the grid.

Are you guys big Susan Sontag fans?

JY: We were all pretty heavily- teeped in literary/film and political theory while at school, so she was definitely on our minds, but I don't think any of us actually meant for this project to be an homage—more just a catchy and confusing mixture of words and imagery.

So I should I not ask which of her books or essays is your favorite?

JY: Not that it has anything to do with our music, but I've read On Photography about five times, and in the past five years I've read quite a bit of her fiction, my favorite novel being In America.

Aspects of "Untitled 3" from your self-titled album remind me of "Hello" by Lionel Richie.

JY: Actually it's funny you say that, because Ian frequently looks to Uncle Lionel for advice both musical and personal.

Ian is definitely not alone in that regard.

JY: OK, obviously the connection to Lionel Richie is random. But I think the fact that you picked up on this speaks to the fact that even though we have been mostly improvising throughout this group's history, our bend has always been towards a sort of "sentimental and solitary" landscape of noise. There are definitely these washes of emotion in the music we make, and it's interesting that the same feelings come out of our music whether we're improvising or composing.

That track is a great example, because it sounds so similar to the stuff we're writing now. And we have always gone back to the sentimental stuff, no matter how dark our sound can get.

 

Sontag Shogun/SRTrio split

Do you remember the first song you guys wrote as Sontag Shogun—the sense that you'd stumbled upon a new form of expression—and the feeling of it?

Jesse Perlstein: As we had begun by improvising all of our material, most of our past recordings and shows are just us sitting down, trying something new, and then walking away from it. All of our old albums are pieces we have never replayed. For us at first, Sontag was a chance to explore new ground constantly. It was a welcomed sabbatical from song-writing and definitely a stress-free environment.

Ian Temple: I also remember just loving playing around as roommates. We got an opportunity to open for Girl Talk in Boston a bunch of years ago, we didn't have an actual band then, but that kind of brought us together to start something real. That was really the genesis of our music-making.

As the pianist, the improvisation really challenged me at first: how to come up with accessible ideas that both challenge and reward the listener. And then not entirely being in control of what I'm doing. I've always loved the power of collaboration, coming in with an idea and seeing others turn it into their own, add their own twist. With Sontag, we took this tendency and made it literal as my piano signal became the "instrument" of the other two musicians, who would process it and add effects. In the beginning, this is how Sontag operated, with one piano creating three musicians-worth of sound. But at heart, I always love composition best. I love honing a simple and beautiful idea until it stands on its own and conveys a powerful story, thought or feeling."

JY: Agreed. This new album feels so organic in that these songs come from that same musical connection the three of us have shared for a while, but it's definitely a new phase of this group entirely.

How did Absent Warrior originate? What led you guys to adopt a more compositional approach?

JY: "Absent Warrior," as a title, came from a poem that Jesse wrote; he also shot the photographs in the forthcoming album artwork. Both are based on experiences and revelations he had while spending time in the Cambodian killing fields. Jesse has a work-in-progress solo project these days that he calls Absent Warrior as well, which makes sense. But we like to draw these links between the art we create and the experiences we have in our personal lives. Our other group, Slowest Runner, did an album called "We, Burning Giraffes" which registered inspiration from Dali's paintings, particularly the one with the giraffe on fire in the corner. It's the idea that all this epic and beautiful stuff is happening in the margins.

Absent Warrior is interesting in that there's still fuzz and abstraction embedded in the music, but now the melodies within are very definite, and they're allowed to breath. The songs are like wandering randomly through forests, then winding up in clearings filled with weird treasure.

IT: I really like that analogy. Personally, I was definitely influenced by Riceboy Sleeps— but I also have always been attracted to the simple melodies of pop and soul. I love it when a melody seems to just appear, kind of like a wave receding down a beach and revealing this trove of beautiful shells or something beneath it. Then even when the wave comes back, your eyes still trick you into thinking you can see the shells in the waves—their imprint remains. That's kind of what I feel like with the melodies that emerge from a Sontag song.

JP: Overplaying was a tendency we wanted to stay away from. We don't want to lambast the listener. We want listeners to be rewarded for having a patient ear.

I guess this can happen with any artist or any song, but Absent just hides these odd little surprises in plain sight. I was just listening to "Paper Canes" for probably the dozenth time, and it hit me that the sort of melancholy piano reminds me of daytime soap opera music as experiences on a rainy day or something. But what's great, too, is how much other stuff is going on in there: the samples that imply the dragging of chains, machinery sounds, maybe somebody issuing orders on a film set or having a loud conversation a distance away from the recorder. Can you tell me a little about "Canes," how it took shape and where you drew sonic sources from?

JP: Well, I can't account for Ian's piano, but when dealing with a lot of the sonic loops I use, it's kind of an experiment. I find or record a ton of sounds and then just test them out by myself and then in practice. I like to use a lot of sounds that sound ominous and ghostly and mechanical that stand out but don't distract too much. I like to think of these things as a static collage.

IT: With the piano line, I was actually going for a bit more of a traditional song on this one. I think I maybe even wrote the line initially to be played alongside cello and violin, but then loved the way it kind of springs in from nothing. I remember it started because I was playing around with the idea of a really light-weight melody that kind of trips and stumbles into a deep rolling background texture. Also, I get such a kick from Jeremy's buzzing oscillator on this song—it really fills some of the space left open by the piano and subsumes much of the noise toward the end.

JY: What I love about "Paper Canes" is how the stray sounds melt away at the end and all you hear are these ghostly echoes, especially the echoing piano notes. The piano starts out as this central element, up front and in charge, and then it gets taken under and spat back out through loops and echoes so that it becomes merely textural, and haunted. A lot of our songs tend to peak in the middle and then there's this slow burn ending, like a vamp in stasis until something from the next tune or melody picks up, but recently we've been trying to make something of these long trailing endings and subject them to the same "sea change" type transformation as the songs themselves. Like, we might build it back up again before the song really ends, or at least start to let some of those hidden sonic elements shine through a little bit before they disappear.

 

Sontag Shogun, "Jubokku"

Given the subtle, delicate nature of your music, does playing in a traditional venue way—where the band is the focal point—ever feel awkward? Does the audience respect what's happening?

JY: Yeah, I think in terms of respect from the audience, it's always like that. When you play in a bar, nobody cares but then you play in a concert hall and every eyeball in the joint is glued to you for an hour. But with Sontag, we've always felt more comfortable playing in smaller, more intimate art spaces, not for the respect but more for the context. Traditional venues tend to imply that the music is merely for entertainment. Subtle, maybe, but I don't think our music is that delicate; in fact, sometimes it's aggressive. I think there are intricacies to look out for in our process, where sounds come from and how they get translated through the various avenues of our electronics, and so we enjoy when people pick up on this. We're not out to make harsh noise and obliterate sound until it's a wad of nothing, we leave some clean feeds in the mix as a way of presenting audiences with a very literal "dialogue" of sound-performance.

I would say hands-down the most amazing space for all of our groups was this place Monkey Town, which closed in 2010. We played there a bunch of times with various groups, and it was such a haven for live music that people really just listened to. It was a square room with couches lining the walls, so that the bands performed on a carpet in the middle, the speakers were above you and all four walls had projectors. This space was really all about the full experience of watching music be performed, and there hasn't been anything like it in Brooklyn since.

Who are some of the artists whose installations or events you've played? When you're composing, do you conceive of Sontag Shogun music in a visual way?

JY: We've performed with a visiting group of video artists from the waiting room gallery in Tokyo. We did an opening in the Lower East Side where the art benefitted a mural project in Liberia. We did a few magazine launches in Montreal.

We have played with live video improvisations by Zak Sherzad, slide projections and "scent-scapes" by Alex Beth Shapiro, a live fashion designer creating a dress, poetry readings, and potlucks. Also, we've improvised with musicians such as Tom Carter, Matana Roberts, and Aki Onda.

IT: A lot of what we do is evocative of a certain feeling—and yet there's very little melody that can be easily grasped onto. The visual can sometimes act as a kind of anchor that catches and centers the floating ambiance of our music.

Sontag Shogun w/Tom Carter (live in Philadelphia, 2011)

Following along from that, when you're composing, do you conceive of Sontag Shogun music in a visual way?

JP: Well, actually, when we are writing the music we take improvisations, or sketches, and then trim the fat. While trimming the fat, Jeremy likes to create these visual maps on pen and paper that look a little like an idiot savant's treasure map. It's fun to pan out songs visually with shapes and words with coded meaning. The visuals that stem from our sound always come after though.

We never sit down and say "hey, let's make a song that sounds like a woman on her death bed." It's more like, "Whoa, that song we made kind of sounds like a woman in the throes of death saying goodbye to her family." The music precedes the imagery.

Sontag Shogun will play a release party for Absent Warrior, Abandoned Battlefield tonight at Zebulon with Maica Mia, Liam Singer, and Burls.

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