Interview with Ben Shemie from Suuns - February 2011

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

Suuns On 20th February 2011 it was Canadian band Suuns’ first ever gig in the UK at Brighton pub, The Hope, and a long anticipated moment for those crammed in the upstairs room. The set was short but packed-full of energy. ‘20th February 2011, Suuns at The Hope’ may not be recorded in the annals of rock and roll next to Sex Pistols’ gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 but, for me, it was certainly significant, for different reasons, some of which are increasingly evident. It is evident that Canada is producing some of the best independent and alternative music at the moment. I’m not talking about the Arcade Fire here, but about the others like Wolf Parade, Thee Silver Mt Zion, Basia Bulat, Stars, The Sadies, Elliott Brood, Feist, Holy F_ck, Broken Social Scene, The Hidden Cameras, Metric, Crystal Castles, The Mountains and the Trees, Wintersleep and Postdata, etc… Suuns is the latest band I have added to this exciting list and probably the band that encapsulates so many of my favourite sounds in one, which represents quite an achievement! What I love about Suuns is their clever mix of post punk, post rock, noise, pop melodies and electro-beats. Music critics have described Suuns’ music as minimalist, but if their music may appear, at times, stripped down to its most fundamental features with the repetition of sound bites and beats, it is actually built on complex layers. Ben Shemie’s soft vocals masterly bring these layers together, on the album as well as live, to create a delicate balance between noise/discords and melody. Shemie’s stage persona reminds me of Guy Picciotto from Fugazi: Hunched over his guitar he plays with the same intensity, passion and rage. I had not seen such enthusiasm and authentic passion for a long time… The last time must have been… Fugazi live in 1995… in Brighton.

A few days before their gig, Ben Shemie took the time to answer some questions I had sent….

How did the overall sound of ‘Zeroes QC’ come together, i.e. was it a conscious decision or did it just happen due to the dynamics of the people in the band?

Ben: A little bit of both. We are very conscious of the music we make, how we sound, how we arrange the songs etc... it’s definitely calculated. Everyone in the band has their own sound thus contributing to our sonic range. As conscious as it may be, it’s also very casual and impulsive and we let our good taste and experience guide us.

I loved your sound straight away. Probably because on top of encompassing different styles that I love there is a dark narrative to them… Where is the darkness coming from?

Ben: I don't know where the darkness comes from. It’s an aesthetic thing, it’s the way songs are composed, the way the harmony jives. It feels right, so we don't try and question it too much.

When you wrote/composed ‘Zeroes QC’ what did you set out to achieve… personally and more generally in terms of your musical contribution to the wider musical genre(s)?

Ben: Again, I think it's important to feel that we are moving forward as a musical project and by extension moving music forward in the tiny little way we can. I don't think we had an objective per se, when we were putting the record together, the most important thing was that we felt that the music was honest and that it pleased us. We were very confident that we had recorded a great album, that's as much as we could really ask for. I think we succeeded in laying a solid foundation for Suuns, a first step in the right direction. I hope we have maybe inspired some people and pushed the envelope a little, that's really what we want.

Would you, yourselves, characterize your music as minimalist? Why?

Ben: It's not minimalist in the traditional sense of the word - but it’s minimal. It is the bare bones of the tunes with a little rock and roll flair. I do subscribe to the idea that less-is-more. The songs can have a really striking tension based on these little musical building blocks. Minimalism is inherently interesting, and because the songs are 'simple', it is easy to digest and understand and yet retains a certain cerebral quality.

Repetitive instrumental structures are an essential component part of your music… What interests you in the repetitive aspect of music?

Ben: Repetition makes you want to dance.

I love this quote by John Cage that reads ‘When we ignore it (noise), it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating’. What’s your favourite noise that you like listening to?

Ben: I don't really have a fave noise. I don't really listen to noise, or at least, when I hear 'noise' in a musical context it doesn't really strike me a noise, rather it sounds like music. That is to say, if we make 'noise' in our songs it doesn't feel like some foreign sound, but an appropriate musical texture of rhythm or melody for the songs.

If you set out to write a pop song entirely made of noise, where would you start?

Ben: I don't think it would be called a pop song. But I guess I would start with a beat, and then just give up.

‘Arena’ has a great dance beat to it but also some guitar and bass sounds that remind me of the British new-wave 1980’s sound, especially Bauhaus. Has this particular scene been an influence on you? By the way I’m currently listening to Double Dare by Bauhaus and Arena at the same time, this happened by accident, but it actually sounds superb!

Ben: Cool. But no, not really influenced by Bauhaus. Great band. I mean, it’s not directly influenced by that scene. But I guess every scene has had an influence on us. Even Bryan Adams, who is the farthest thing from our music, has had an influence on us. We are Canadian, we grew up listening to that shit. I still love it in its own way, so every music we have experimented with or aspired to create as kids, or adults reveals itself somewhere.

You cover a Fugazi track (‘Long Division’)… how influential is the music of Fugazi? How influential are the politics of Fugazi to you?

Ben: To me personally, I love Fugazi, but Joe (bass, guitar) is the real skater in the band. Long Division was his idea, and it’s a great tune. In a way, that style of song is very similar to the way we put songs together. I also love the vibe. The vibe is palpable in Fugazi which is just magic. As far as the politics go, not really. I appreciate it and I dig the energy and spirit, that’s what I take from it.

For more photos, visit… Aline Giordano's other website

For more details, visit… Suuns' website

Photograph © Aline Giordano 2011