Aaron Turner: The Former Clarity Interview

Talking about the new SUMAC album, tattooing, art, and what drives him to keep pushing forward.

Aaron Turner: The Former Clarity Interview
SUMAC (Turner, right) by Nate Newton

If there's one thing I could tell you going into an interview with Aaron Tuner, it's this: It'll be the cleanest transcript you've ever seen. Throughout our hour-long interview, there wasn't a single "umm," "like," or any other filler word uttered on his part even once. Why is that notable? Because there's something truly profound about asking someone about their work and getting thoughtful, fully considered responses back. In the few moments where he did pause, he'd lean back in his chair and look toward the ceiling, pausing until he had room to fully contemplate, and truly understand, what he wanted to say.

I mention all of this because I feel like those things explain so much of why I've always resonated with his art. From the post-metal legends ISIS to his current avant-garde metal band SUMAC, and all the various projects in between, I've always felt that Aaron's output was deeply considered and supremely focused. Even with SUMAC, where improvisation is baked into the whole thing, I've never once felt like those were aimless expeditions. Each one was an honest distillation of creative impulse and personal emotion, rendering them, even at their most esoteric, as distinctly human exercises. In addition to his music, Aaron's visual art, which has graced album covers and T-shirts for decades, has always carried a distinct mark. Now, as he's made his way into tattooing, his unique visual style stands in stark contrast to what traditional tattoo artists would ever consider placing into someone else's skin.

On June 21, SUMAC will release The Healer on Thrill Jockey Records. For my money, it's the best encapsulation of SUMAC to date. But, as great as their albums are, SUMAC is first and foremost a live band. Just last week, director Damien Neva released a 15-minute documentary, chronicling the time surrounding a recent SUMAC live performance, and it's as good as a document of their live shows as I've seen so far. If you've not had the good fortune to see them live yet, consider this a small taste of what such an experience is like.

In interviewing Aaron, I didn't want to attempt to have him put words to the expressions behind The Healer. Instead, I wanted to talk to him about what drives him to still make things and to continually challenge himself as a creative individual when he could so easily coast on the back of former glories. In a world where art is being produced via inhuman means, it's refreshing to commune with something that snaps you into someone's lived experience and lets the art do the talking. With that, here's my interview with Aaron Turner.

A thing I get asked about a lot as I get older is how I make time for new music. And not just how I make time, but how I still get excited about it. From the outside looking in, you’re someone who still seems to be tracking what’s happening in the creative worlds that interest you. But is it an active process or does it still come naturally to you?

Aaron Turner: It’s definitely a natural thing. I think it’s largely born out of an innate curiosity and also an interest in artistic evolution, my own and that of others, as well. I think, as I’ve gotten older, I have noticed that kind of entropy that occurs sometimes with people I know, and sometimes with people I’m peripherally aware of, where there does seem to be a decrease in interest as far as intentionally seeking things out. I think there are a whole lot of contributing factors to that. But as far as my own personal investigation of music is concerned, I’d say the curiosity is just limitless.

The most profound moments of change for me, and of inspiration, have often come through encountering something for the first time, or digging into something deeply and discovering a world of music, whether it be something that centers around one musician or the discography of a band. A good example is a person who is now a friend of mine, Jussi [Lehtisalo] from the band Circle, who also runs the label Ektro. When I first discovered Circle’s music, that was captivating. Then I learned there was also this whole context around it. 

I’m curious about people. I’m curious about life. I’m curious about all kinds of music. A lot of people, as they get older, they tend to think that what happened in the past is better and that there’s not anything new that’s intriguing to them, and that’s the source of frustration for them. For me, the source of frustration is that there’s too much out there and I want to hear all of it. 

Does being open to so many different forms of art make it easier for you to not grow cynical toward any one specific style?

Aaron: I don’t think of it that way, necessarily. I guess I’m never at a loss for where to look for things. That’s hard for me to answer because I’ve never really thought about it in that way. 

I think the problem for me, or maybe one of the challenges I face in terms of my own personal listening, is carving out the time and space in which to listen to something. I find that my environment is kind of at odds with what I hope to achieve as a listener and that is attention to whatever it is I’m listening to. I think that’s partially just about the demands of life as an adult and as a person with a family. As a parent, there isn’t ever a dedicated time I can just sit and listen to music. If that does arise, it’s very seldom. It’s often on a plane ride or something like that. 

I think back to when I was quite a bit younger before I had this set of responsibilities I have now, I would just lay in bed and listen to something continuously for an hour, uninterrupted. I think, for me, that’s the thing I’m looking for, that time and space to listen more deeply. 

In your interview with The Creative Independent, they asked you what came first: drawing or music. But in your answer, you talked about how drawing allowed you a similar space to listen while focusing on the creative practice. Given that you’re tattooing now, and there’s always music playing in tattoo shops, do you feel like that offers you something similar? 

Aaron: It can offer that, and there have been moments where I’ve been in that work environment and it’s been a really great combo of factors, where I get to work on something I enjoy and, if it happens to be in a situation where I feel some kind of personal resonance with the client I have, that adds a nice factor. The music can play a part in that, too. I can think of a couple instances where that whole combination of elements resulted in something that is what I strive for in any artistic or creative setting, which is some sort of transcendence, where there’s this parallel resonance between all the things that are occurring. 

On the flip side, it is a situation where I can’t always concentrate solely on the music or the combo of, in this case, music and making tattoos. Because my responsibility is to be attentive to my client. There’s definitely a difference between sitting alone working on a drawing and sitting in a room with the person I’m tattooing, and sometimes with other people that are getting tattooed and tattooing, so it’s not the same kind of dedicated listening space. 

I will say that these days, a lot of my listening time tends to occur in those settings, and I am grateful for that. It is one of the instances in my life where I’m stationary for a period of time and can listen to a record from beginning to end, even if I can’t always focus on it. 

Coming at it from the client side, I’ve always been curious about how tattoo artists view the process. To some degree, it’s collaborative in making something fit a person’s body and then going through that process together. For you, as someone who seems to enjoy working in collaborative environments with certain musical projects, how does it feel to you? 

Aaron: I would say no, it’s not an extension of what I’m doing musically in that it’s a more commercial pursuit. It’s something where I am essentially selling a service to clients. That is just out of necessity, or because of the circumstances of that, it’s inherently less personal to me than making music. I very much enjoy the process of connecting with clients, and I do like the process and collaborative nature of it, where I get to know someone a little bit and find out more about them, and what the process of being tattooed is like for them, or what the tattoo itself might mean to them, but it is something I’m doing for other people. While I also hope that my music serves a function for other people, it first has to serve the function of gratifying me as the creator behind it. 

I guess there are some loosely related themes in terms of what I deal with in my tattoo imagery versus what I do with music. But again, the pursuit is more, in respect to tattooing, it is more commercial. I’m not making stuff as idiosyncratic and abstract and personal for tattooing as what I’m usually doing for music. There are some exceptions to that but I definitely see a distinction between the two. I put everything I can into the process of tattooing and I hope that it can ascend to a level that’s meaningful for me and the client but, at the same time, it will never go as deep for me as making music does. It’s peripherally related but, ultimately, a very different thing. 

I’m going to paraphrase Dan Higgs here, but there was a quote from him after he quit tattooing about how it was an impure art. I always read that as him commenting on it, not on some moralist grounds, but more on that direct tie to consumerism. So with that, would you say that music is much more of a pure expression for you?

Aaron: I would say so. In terms of the contrast, while I want to offer my people my own vision, to a degree, through what I am doing with tattoos, I don’t want to impose too much of myself onto that process. That kind of obliterates my consideration of what a client may want. 

With music, I think of it differently in that, if it is meaningful to me, and that’s the starting point, hopefully, there will be another part of the creative process in which what I’ve made, in conjunction with my bandmates, will resonate with other people. But that’s secondary to that process. 

The aspect of commerce is complicated, and it makes any form of art complicated; at least any form of art that enters the public domain. It is impossible, I think, to entirely separate the two. For instance, making a record the way we want to make it requires recording it in a studio, which requires paying for that time and paying for the space and paying for a person to engineer it. Which then means whoever is paying for it, in our case Thrill Jockey, has expectations of being able to make that money back. So that’s just one facet of how commerce plays into the art-making process. However, at the same time, at least the writing portion of making a record and just playing, which is the first step, is not entirely pure or entirely divorced from commerce, but it’s quite a few steps removed from it. 

Yellow Dawn, by SUMAC
from the album The Healer

A thing I’ve always appreciated is your attention to detail. When I get a new SUMAC record, or something from SIGE, or even just see your art, what I’m struck by is that, even at its most abstract, everything feels very intentional. Does it ever get daunting to have your hands in all those various pieces? 

Aaron: I think it’s almost a necessity in a certain way. To sort of reverse engineer this answer, I think back to the stuff I found really compelling as a listener when I was younger, and often it was music that was being made by people who had a totality of vision in their presentation. They were writing the music, writing the lyrics, often doing the artwork and developing the iconography that went along with it and, in some cases, even releasing the records themselves. I think that approach was very intriguing to me because it inferred to me a deeper meaning beyond the mere desire to entertain. It was about providing a portal into a world that had a complete realization to it. When I got to the stage of making my own records, or participating in making records and then making sleeves for them, it seemed to make the most sense that someone who made the music should also make the artwork because who could possibly understand it better than the people who were directly connected to its creation?

I know that there are instances where a whole collective of musicians may not have anyone in their ranks who feels inclined toward doing that. Or, in some cases, it might be easier to delegate that opportunity to someone outside the group so that no one in the band feels like some lack of representation in some part of the presentation of the art. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule that everything needs to be done by the people making the music, however, I am drawn to the albums and the bands and the artists who seem to want to have a very intentional and, often, almost obsessive process to making and presenting what they do. 

With the recent SUMAC covers, especially Love In Shadow onward, it’s been interesting to see how the artwork has taken on a similar approach but I think have evoked very different emotions. When you’re sitting down to create those pieces, what is that process like for you?

Aaron: It varies, for sure. It’s rare that I have artwork underway before our record is completely finished. Part of that is just because I feel like I need to focus on one segment of making a record at a time. It’s really hard for me to do multiple things at once. I feel that I need to focus on the writing and then, once the writing is done, focus on really learning the material and becoming intimate with it, then recording it. Once that’s complete, I feel like I can shift gears and start to contemplate the artwork. Or start to work on it in a more concrete way. 

There have been times when I’ve been working on a record and I’ll have images that come to mind or sometimes a color scheme or I’ll come across something that I’ve done, or artwork that someone else has done, and that becomes the seed of an idea that germinates as the music is continuing to be constructed. And then there are other times where the record is done and I’ll have had no real concrete vision for what the art is supposed to be and I’ll just have to start on it and flail around for a while until I lock onto something that has resonance to me and that’s indicative of a good idea and feel like an appropriate pairing between music and visuals. 

I do sometimes listen to a record that I’m constructing artwork for while I’m actually making the art itself but it’s not necessary. By the time I get to working on the artwork, I’ve got a really good idea of what the music is. I occasionally even need distance from it where I’m not engaging with it. It really is, like so many other things in my creative life, where I work on something until I feel that spark of excitement about it and I feel like I’m building an atmosphere that has a parallel to the music and there’s a momentum that builds up behind an idea. That relates to this belief I have of artists, some artists, being conduits for an energy or an idea rather than the controlling force for the creation of something. An idea that takes hold feels like something that has its own, not sentience, but its own momentum, and I have to get on board at that moment and follow through on that idea. 

Well, that leads me to a question I have about how SUMAC functionally operates. I know it takes many forms, from structured pieces to improvisation to collaboration, but where does it begin? I’m sure it’s different every time, but how are you able to find that creative momentum while working with others? 

Aaron: There was a pretty strong concept for the music during the time that the band was being formed and I presented this idea to the other people involved with the position that I wanted to be the controlling voice within the band. That was not necessarily out of a need to control as much as it was the desire to have this really concise vision that wasn’t diluted by opening up the creative process to full democracy. In my experience, that open door policy of everyone having equal say in anything that transpires is really difficult to maintain and uphold. 

If you look at the trajectory that a lot of bands take, and you find out a bit about them, the bands that seem to eventually become compromised and, in some cases fall apart, start out with the directorship of one person then, for whatever reason, whether it’s the demands of the other people in the band or a waning attention span on the part of the original director, when things start to involve every single person having their say, it definitely becomes more convoluted. I don’t think that’s true across the board, I’m sure there are exceptions to that but, again, going back to our earlier conversation about what kind of things appeal to me as a listener, I really do gravitate towards a lot of artists that seem to be, if they were collectives, there was very clearly someone who was largely in charge of steering the ship. And again, that’s not true for everything, but a lot of things. 

When it comes to SUMAC specifically, I didn’t approach this from the perspective of ruling with an iron fist. I’m very much interested in what my collaborators, Nick [Yacyshyn, drums] and Brian [Cook, bass], have to say about what we’re doing, and I’m very much a fan of their individual creative voices, which is why I work with them. At the same time, it’s been creatively successful I think, in part, because there was a creative vision which we’ve adhered to. While there’s room for growth and evolution around that central focal point, it’s important to me that the original concept be honored. 

In the process of making music for SUMAC, it always starts with me sitting down with my instrument and playing until I strike upon something that has a potency to it that I want to explore. From that point, I start to put the pieces together into demos and once I have a construction that feels basically there, that’s the point at which I start sharing it with the other two and getting their feedback on what’s happening. Then when we get together in a room, we can finesse it a little bit more. 

Talking about a feedback process is interesting. It sounds like you’re open to what they have to say, but are there times when you have to tell them that they're going to have to trust you and just go with it?

Aaron: Yeah, for sure. Just as an example, we’ve had discussions about this in the last couple years, the more experimental and improvised part of our practice was not something that either Nick or Brian had a lot of experience with. I’d had some so I guess, in that sense, I was the more experienced improviser in the group at that point. I knew that it was important to push that at a rate which was comfortable for everybody involved. That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges for all of us delving into that world, but I didn’t want to plunge so far into it that anybody would feel entirely lost or completely frustrated by it. But I did also say to them, and especially with Nick, who has a huge role in shaping the music, that this was an important thing to me, I knew it wasn’t what he immediately felt comfortable with or gravitated toward, but I really wanted to pursue it. Fortunately for me, he was open to it and has, over time, developed his own way of approaching that in a pretty specific and interesting way and has developed more of an appreciation for it, and he’s said as much to me. There have been moments where he was just like, “Okay, I’m following you, I don’t know what this is, but I’m going to add what I think is appropriate, and let’s just see what happens.” Now he’s said that, in the beginning, that part of what we were doing was more of a question mark and now it’s one of the things he appreciates most about what we do. 

To pull on that a bit, in previous interviews I’ve read, you’ve said you weren’t trained in guitar in any real sense, and a lot of what you’ve done to develop your voice as a musician has been going out and finding it. When you take these kinds of leaps, where you’re trying something different for the first time, do you feel confident that you’ll be able to find it, because that’s what you’ve always done, or is there still a seed of doubt that creeps in? 

Aaron: There has to be an element of risk most of the time to keep me engaged with what I’m working on. When I feel like I’m treading the same familiar ground over and over, it really saps my energy creatively. I don’t know what to do when I find myself in that zone struggling to break out of old patterns. Doing a lot of things that require some sort of risk on my part is very valuable to me. I approach that with a lot of curiosity and I approach it with the mindset that probably something will come out of it that I find satisfying in some way and I’m more interested in doing something that is risky with the potential for failure than repeating something that I know is going to be recognizably good, in whatever sense that means for my own personal trajectory. 

I have a lot of self-doubt through the whole process, whether I’m doing something that does feel more familiar or I’m trying something that feels more foreign. I think it’s necessary to have that and also to be able to differentiate between what is fear of failure versus feeling like I’m compromising something. There’s a bad feeling that comes from compromising personal artistic integrity versus being afraid of fucking something up because you are taking a risk.

Coming out of that, the last couple times I’ve seen SUMAC, you’ve finished the shows by talking about how these shows, these songs, this band, it’s an expression of love. Listening to The Healer and reading the press materials, there’s talk about this record being informed by using negative experiences to charter positive growth. How has SUMAC become a vessel for you to explore these kinds of emotions, and your personal vulnerabilities, in what most people would describe as pretty aggressive, avant-garde music?

Aaron: I think there is this culturally enforced system around how we recognize and process emotions and ideas of how they’re expressed in art. There’s this pretty rigid set of parameters on how we read something as being positive or negative, or something that’s joyful versus violent, or whatever particular aspect of our experience that we’re talking about. For me, especially as I’ve gotten older, I realize that the human experience is very complex and contradictory. Some of the things that are most challenging in life often end up being the things we learn the most from, grow the most from and, in some cases, end up valuing the most. I think there’s a lot of reward that comes from being challenged and struggling through things, whether we’re talking about daily life or we’re talking about the creative process. 

I think there’s a richness that comes through creating art that isn’t necessarily more ambiguous in its presentation, but maybe more, to me, reflective of what life is actually like. There’s a large degree of complexity in any given situation with what we may be feeling, thinking, or experiencing on an interior level that could be entirely at odds with what’s happening externally. For me, the practice of making music, especially in the context of something like SUMAC, is an opportunity to question, re-evaluate, and, in some cases, dismantle the cultural training that I’ve received, that we’ve received collectively, maybe what’s been built as a system of rules from family of origin. There are things that we do that may appear in nature as violent or aggressive, and there is an element of that to what we’re doing, but those elements of aggression or musical upheaval are also an opportunity to blow things up and see what’s actually there. To wipe the slate clean in a certain way through a process of being overwhelmed or being really taxed by the physical elements of the music. 

I will also say that there’s a part of this that’s almost intangible in terms of the meaning and the intent behind the music and the experience of making it in that, one of the complexities, or one of the multifaceted aspects of life that I’m interested in, is the things that we can’t understand; the things that are slightly out of reach. That’s another aspect of why this music is captivating to me because there are edges of it that I don’t grasp even as its creator. That’s part of the intrigue for me. 

This doesn’t directly address your question, except to sort of summarize it in that making this music, for me, is part of understanding life in general. It’s understanding who I am, how I relate to the world around me, and the interconnection between myself and others through the creative act. That all has to do with a desire to be a continual participant in life and in the world. 

With music, there’s that interesting balance where after it’s created, you then have to record it and capture it in those moments. To me, I think The Healer is the best-sounding SUMAC release to date. How did you change your approach to recording, if at all? 

Aaron: I think this music, in my mind, was originally constructed with the idea of the live format, first and foremost. Making an album is something I’m interested in, and it’s also a necessary component of being in a band, in a way. But I’ve always wanted this music to be written, constructed, and performed in the way that it’s going to be most effective in the live setting, and then thinking about the recordings as the best possible representation of what that live energy can feel like. Approaching the recording with the idea that it’s going to be fairly stripped down, and there are embellishments here and there but, for the most part, we try to leave it fairly unadorned. 

Scott [Evans]’s approach to recording has two major functions that I find intriguing. One is that it seems to be able to capture the music in a way that’s very clear, full, and sonically rich but without diminishing the energy that the music inherently possesses. I think that’s a really interesting approach and also a very hard balance to strike between having a sonic presentation that’s clear and clean but also doesn’t rob the music of its grit and soul.

The more specific seed as far as working with Scott is concerned was, we were on a tour where our soundman was playing, as part of his process of tuning the PA at any particular venue, he was playing a specific grouping of songs and one of them was a Kowloon Walled City song. Hearing this over and over every night, after that tour, I was taking a walk with Nick before a show. I remember where we were actually, it was some small Swiss town and we were wandering around on the streets in the countryside and we were talking about how we’d done a bunch of records with Kurt [Ballou], and we loved what Kurt had done for us, but it felt like it was time to do something different. He was like, “What about Scott?” And I hadn’t really thought of it at that point even though I loved Scott’s work and liked Scott, as much as I knew of him as a person. Then I was like, “That actually makes a lot of sense. Let me talk to Scott and see what he says.” That was the beginning of our conversation. 

I don’t know that this necessarily changes our trajectory in any major way, I think we will probably continue to do more with Scott, but I also think it’s interesting to hear our music through a different set of ears and through a different filter. I really like the naturalistic approach to making records that Scott has. 

I’d like to ask one question about ISIS as it relates to what we’ve talked about so far. A lot of times, when a person finds success with a certain project, that seems to be used as a yardstick to measure the person’s work for the rest of their career. With where you sit now, have you made peace with that fact? 

Aaron: That was the band with which I learned how to be in a band. All of my formative experiences as a musician, from recording a full-length to going on my first tour to touring other parts of the world, occurred in that context. It also taught me a lot about how to communicate with the other people I’m involved with as band members. It was definitely a part, for me, of gaining a lot of experience and learning what I wanted out of being a musician and also what I didn’t want out of being a musician. Learning about how there is a balance that is very crucial to strike between the practical aspect of being in a band and then, in the latter years of our existence, being in a band off of which we were all making our living while also trying to figure out how to maintain our collective, and individual, creative integrity.

Many of the facets of my life and how it was shaped were defined by being in that band. For me, it’s an indispensable part of my history. At the same time, it existed at those times in my life and, for me, and where I’m at in my life now, it’s something that is a part of the past. I’m happy and surprised by how important it seems to be for so many people, and I’m grateful for all the opportunities that have been afforded to me because of my participation in that band, and I definitely wouldn’t trade it for anything. Even the things that I don’t feel good about in terms of my own behavior and choices within that band, it was all important and necessary.