Montréal band Suuns’ fourth album represents a turning point in the band’s approach of writing and recording an album, and assembling its sonic elements, which were created in a “closed committee,” without the help of a producer. It was also developed with a much greater level of spontaneity. The result is a vivid and lively album “not unlike a mixtape,” says drummer Liam O’Neil, speaking with us about about bells, team spirit, and the late Jaki Liebezeit, before embarking on the European leg of the band’s tour.
Felt doesn’t open with a bang, but rather, with a ding-dong. A concert of church bells, as it were, introduces the highly visceral “Look No Further.” One could hardly get any more “Montréal” than that. Yet those bells were recorded in Graz, Austria. “The funny thing is, I’m the one who recorded those with my iPhone,” says O’Neil. “We’d just finished our sound-check, and when we stepped out of the venue, all those bells were ringing, as if giving a concert. It lasted for almost an hour.”
This reference to the “city of a hundred steeples”, a moniker some attribute to Mark Twain during a visit to Montréal in 1888, is totally fortuitous, the drummer assures us. “But I’m glad you made the connection,” he says. “This album was made in the spirit of sound collages, by splicing together various recorded tracks and studio experiments, as well as stuff found on YouTube, and other miscellaneous stuff we had on our phones. If you listen carefully, there’s a whole lot of those, all over the record.”
Therein lies Felt’s “mixtape” spirit, according to O’Neil. “Well, not a mixtape as known in the hip-hop world,” he says. “I don’t think anyone who listens to Felt feels like they’re listening to an actual mixtape. It’s more like an experimental rock record. What I associate with a mixtape, in this case, is the somewhat incongruous nature of the hand-made collage of found material. That said, we do listen to a lot of rap, even the biggest current hits. What I’ve noticed is that they go through a wide array of emotions, sounds and grooves.” Not unlike the colourful Felt, which seems to represent a turning point for this band, one that’s often deemed austere and cold, hence the “goth” label some have given it.
For the recording process of the first three albums, the quartet rehearsed the songs in the studio until they were exactly as the band wanted them, before committing them to tape, “which usually took about five or six days,” says O’Neil. “This time around, we recorded over five or six sessions that each lasted several days, in what I call our ‘home studio’, Breakglass Studio.” Singer and guitarist Ben Shemie is the main songwriter, inasmuch as he’s the one who sows the seeds of a song in his bandmates’ minds. “A theme, a melody,” says O’Neil. “We build upon that, we expand the scope of that idea. The lyrics generally come after the music is complete.”
Without any specific game plan to start with, the four musicians let themselves be guided by the moment, “to record demos for the next album and see where that would take us,” says O’Neil. “We intended to hire a producer to guide us, but everything was flowing so smoothly that by the third or fourth session, the album just materialized. That was it. It fit with our notion, with the ethos, of a mixtape that reveals itself; just the four of us in the studio working with whatever we have.” The previous album’s producer, John Congleton – who’s worked with such luminaries as Angel Olsen, St. Vincent, Erykah Badu, and The War on Drugs, among many more – was tapped at the tail end of the sessions, not as a producer, but as a mixing engineer. ‘He came to Montréal and wrapped everything in four days,” says O’Neil.
Felt gives off a certain nervous energy, thanks to its eclectic sound collages, abrupt rhythmic changes, and very tense main thread, alternating between calm, minimalist grooves and rhythmic explosions. “We spent a large part of our career being perceived as a ‘serious’ band,” says O’Neil. “Yet seeing us live is a very entertaining experience, and in some ways, this album is closer to what we give people in concert: it’s more varied and fun.”
As a matter of fact, Suuns has set a rule for itself that the band tries to respect on each album: don’t overload the composition, and ensure each track, each detail, will be playable by the four musicians on stage. “That’s what attracted me when I started working with this band [around 2009],” says O’Neil. “This feeling I’d be able to explore different musical avenues, to experiment. Our musical range is extremely wide.”
This is very much in line with one of the band’s heroes and influences, the late, great drummer Jaki Liebezeit, a founding member of German combo Can, who passed away last year. “I discovered his work at a time where being in a rock group was starting to sound corny and uncool,” says O’Neil. “The John Bonham [Led Zeppelin] style of drumming just wasn’t me… I discovered Jaki at the same time as I did Mick Fleetwood who, in my opinion, has a similar sound. There’s something haunting about the way they play. And thanks to Jaki, all of a sudden I understood that it’s possible to mix rock drumming and electronic sounds. I could now imagine playing with a rock group without it sounding like ‘big rock,’ by playing in a modern way.”