Aaron Turner has been a member of some of heavy music’s least conventional, most boundary-pushing bands of the past two decades. From the late ’90s up through their dissolution in 2010, he fronted atmospheric metal band Isis, whose fluid mixture of crushing volume and gracefully intricate instrumentation made them an influential figure in post-millennial metal. He’s released several albums with Mamiffer, his wife Faith Coloccia’s band, which lean in a considerably different direction, favoring drone and dark ambient textures over outright devastation. In between, he’s done work with the sludgy Old Man Gloom, black metal collective Twilight and ambient drone outfit Jodis. It’s a pretty lengthy resume.
Turner’s newest band, Sumac (which also features Russian Circles’ Brian Cook and Baptists’ Nick Yacyshyn), marked yet another change in musical direction for the veteran musician and songwriter, their 2015 Profound Lore-released debut The Deal showcasing an epic, yet grimy take on sludge metal that strips away the ethereal instrumental passages in favor of raw, varnish-free expression. It’s the kind of music that elicits feelings with every rumble of a bass note or every shriek of feedback—and those feelings aren’t always so easy to pinpoint, but their exorcism is intentional.
“My guide for writing music is how strong the feelings are that are elicited in the process of writing,” Turner says in an interview from his home in Washington. “If something I’m working on makes me feel energized, makes me feel emotional, makes me feel like I’m connected to some kinetic force, then I feel like I’m going in the right direction.”
That pursuit of kinetic force has led to What One Becomes, the band’s second album and first for Thrill Jockey. It’s an even deeper exploration of anxiety, pain, claustrophobia and uncertainty, with five colossal tracks that split the difference between metal’s visceral, primal power and the elegant abstraction of avant garde composition. I caught up with Turner to discuss the album, its themes and potential healing power.
Treble: You and Nick and Brian, individually, have pretty long and impressive histories of playing music. When you’re playing together, is there a natural chemistry between the three of you?
Aaron Turner: Yeah, definitely. That was one of the things that’s allowed us to make the music that’s really satisfying and to work at a really quick pace. The first record started with just Nick and I, all the basic stuff as a duo during the first round of recordings. Then Brian came into the studio without ever having played with Nick and I in the same room, and then put his stuff down in addition to what we had already done. In that way, the process was kind of a patchwork layering of all of our stuff, bit by bit. It worked surprisingly well.
I didn’t want it to sound like a project, I wanted it to sound like a band that had a very palpable chemistry and worked together as a unit. After that record was done and we started playing together as a trio in preparation to play live, it felt surprisingly fluid and worked really easily. We developed kind of a personal camaraderie pretty quickly, which is very helpful, of course. But the process of playing together felt very natural too, more than some bands I’ve been in that worked together over months or years. Some of that might just be coincidental, we just happened to put together a good group of people. But it’s not always easy to get on the same page as people. It seemed like everything fell into place and we were mutually excited about and focused on what we were playing.
Treble: What’s the meaning behind the phrase What One Becomes?
One thing that has been very interesting-slash-frustrating for me, on a personal level, is what I would describe as feeling out of control in circumstances that in some way trigger or agitate me. I have, in my life, adopted a way of operating where I want to maintain this highly controlled facade at all times and feel like I have a good grasp on who I am and what I’m doing and my immediate environment. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that’s a very unrealistic approach to living life, and especially in circumstances where I’m challenged in one way or another, it’s more of a hindrance than something that helps me. Part of what’s behind the title is that in challenging circumstances, something comes out of me, and I think this is a pretty common experience… there are things that come out of me, or come out of us, that we don’t have a firm grip on, that reveal latent parts of our nature that we might keep hidden or try to keep under wraps. The things we don’t like about ourselves or don’t want others to see. They may not necessarily be bad things, but they’re things we have trouble accepting about ourselves. It’s a statement about that. What happens when that facade of control disappears and our messy selves come spilling out. In a more positive or growth-oriented aspect to the title, there’s the idea that we do have a choice about how we grow as people and how we are able to deal with challenging circumstances or how we allow ourselves to look into darker corners of ourselves, which we’re not always willing to do. We can use that to become more comfortable with who we are…and become better able to deal with the things that provoke us and agitate us, and allow us to become stronger, more fully realized people.
Treble: What One Becomes deals pretty heavily in themes of anxiety and discomfort, and at times the abrasion or the pacing of the music seems to mirror that. Is that by design?
Aaron Turner: It was highly intentional. I think i’ve always used music as a way to explore and reflect my life experiences. In many cases to dig out those things I have no other way of accessing or no other way of expressing. A lot of the things that have happened to me in my life are things I can’t find words for or I find very uncomfortable to talk about or in some way deal with in relation to other people. So in that way music is kind of an experience of who I am and what it feels like to be who I am. And hopefully it’s a universal expression in some way. I don’t by any means think that my struggles are unique to me. That’s one of the important aspects of this music specifically and music in general, is that music is very connective.
That’s what’s going on with this music—trying to find what things I can in my life that have a lot of depth and richness to them, and bring them to the music so I can have an understanding of or at least a connection to those experiences and hope, through that, that I can connect to others who are having similar experiences in their own lives. The music is very aggressive and harsh, and in that way, I feel a potential meaning people could take from it is that it’s trying to make people feel aggressive or purposely elicit negative feelings. But I feel like this is actually kind of the opposite of what can happen and hopefully what does happen. I feel like, if anything, it acts more as a release for the things that otherwise might remain hidden… and maybe as a counterbalance to anger and sadness and those sorts of things. If you find a way not only to let those things out but look at them and examine them and what they mean, it has a beneficial effect.
Treble: Given the inherent discomfort of the music, is there anything you’d hope that listeners would take away from listening to it?
Aaron Turner: I feel uncomfortable saying this because it’s something that I didn’t even recognize for years with what I was trying to do with music. At the very root of music, and just being a musician, is a love of life. I don’t know how to put it any more succinctly than that. Music is very much about being alive and sharing your passion for a living. If there’s something for people to get from the music or understand about it is that it comes from a place of love and loving life.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.