In Conversation: Suuns Discuss Pursuing New Ideas on Their Experimental “Fiction” EP
Ben Shemie and Liam O’Neill talk covering Zappa, becoming a conceptual band, and the restrictions of the LP format.
For over a decade, Montreal’s Suuns have been formulating a mixture of krautrock, jazz, post-punk, and noise rock, resulting in atmospheric and enthralling compositions. But after releasing and touring 2018’s Felt, founding member Max Henry departed the group in order to pursue a scholastic path, setting off a series of massive changes. The rest of the group—singer Ben Shemie, drummer Liam O’Neill, and guitarist Joseph Yarmush—underwent an experimental metamorphosis, performing with various pals to see who could fill Henry’s place.
“We would try new stuff out as it’s coming in on tour, or during shows, to test out some things,” Shemie explains, calling from Paris. “That was much more difficult because we were trying different people out to play. That made the whole process a lot more arduous in terms of having to learn all this material that the three of us knew so well, and then try to teach it to new people,” O’Neill, calling from the other side of the Atlantic in Montreal, chimes in. “At this point we’d been working so long together, it’s second nature in a way. It’s a place where you can navigate the creative process. It’s not a thing you can ever teach. You have to experience that.”
For a band whose live shows are integral to their process and development of ideas, a global pandemic forced them to rework a release schedule that had become somewhat routine over the past decade. “In the history of our band, and for most working bands, you’re on this hamster wheel the whole time,” O’Neill says. “You’re working and doing that endless cycle of recording and touring and then recording again.” After finding keyboard replacement Mathieu Charbonneau, Suuns were preparing to release and tour their fifth album this year, which COVID halted; the hamster wheel broke.
In lieu of Felt’s follow-up, they’ve released two live albums to commemorate the departure of Henry, and a remix album of their breakthrough 2013 single “2020.” Their latest offering to tide us over until next year’s full-length is a six-track EP, composed of some older reworked tracks and a few newer songs that didn’t make the forthcoming album. It’s their most diverse collection yet, with bits of ambient noise, bouncing hip-hop inflections, and bursts of processional drums. We chatted about how Fiction creatively energized the band and made them rethink their process.
When I listen to Fiction, it doesn’t necessarily feel like an EP to me until I get to the last song, which is a cover of Frank Zappa’s “Trouble Every Day.”
Ben Shemie: You do feel a certain kind of obligation, maybe, to have a certain number of minutes for it to count [as an EP.] Then you have these things where, well, “I don’t want to put on this song just to put minutes on.” The thing with an EP, it could be two songs. It could be one song that is really long. I think records are becoming shorter, across the board, or they’re getting extremely long. There’s a certain kind of brevity these days and I think that’s definitely due to the way we consume music now.
In terms of the cover at the end of the EP, we definitely had a discussion: Does this fit, and do we want to keep this on? It definitely is a different look at the end. If it was a full-length, I don’t think we would’ve put that on. Because it is an EP, we kind of have a little bit more agency to fuck it up a bit more. It’s a little less “serious,” whatever that means. It’s cool that an EP does give you some kind of liberty—even if it’s just in your mind—to kind of mix it up in a way that you wouldn’t normally do on a full-length.
Liam O’Neill: I look forward to the time when—and I think we’re in it right now—you could be doing an “LP” and still be treating it like that, or have it be as long or as short as you want. First of all, no one knows what an LP is. Ask a kid in high school what an LP is and they will have no idea what you’re talking about. They’re like, “I go on Spotify, listen to these songs.” I think musicians prior to this era made full-lengths because it was the only way you could viably get your music out. The only thing that labels were willing to release were full-lengths, because there’s a physical thing and you have to have a lot of music in order to justify producing all these copies. I feel like right now, you work for three years on this long-ass full-length and then two songs go on a Spotify playlist, and it’s around on the internet for a few days, and basically gets washed downstream with everything else.
Going back to Zappa, how did that come up? It’s a song that feels eerily timely.
“I feel like right now, you work for three years on this long-ass full-length and then two songs go on a Spotify playlist, and it’s around on the internet for a few days, and basically gets washed downstream with everything else.” —Liam O’Neill
Shemie: I’ve been talking about the song for years, saying that we should cover it, or we should do something. It’s unique and so different than what you associate with his catalog. Certainly it’s political. It seemed like an opportune time to do it. It was like, how do we cover that song when your natural inclination is to do a blues-rock jam? Because that’s what it is. Now is a good opportunity, as we said with the EP, and it’s like an actual political statement that, like you said, is eerily pertinent right now. Everything seemed to make a lot of sense in that way.
In terms of my relationship with Frank Zappa, I’ve always been a fan. I’m not a huge fan like some people I know. I admire the dedication to an idea. To me, Frank Zappa [is for] when I feel kind of down about music, and I’m like, what’s the point of this? I’ll listen to some of that shit. It’s so brilliant and so ridiculous at the same time that it takes the piss out of the whole thing. But at the same time kind of takes things really fucking seriously. It’s a big joke, but the joke is incredibly crafted.
It’s not a straightforward cover, it’s definitely a reinterpretation. It reads less satiric and more intense.
Shemie: It’s an intense song. As an arranger, the more you adhere to verse/chorus or the original song, the less intense it becomes. But if you spit it out almost as a rant, then it seems more contemporary.
Why was it your decision to put it last? Do you worry that it would color the rest of the EP as more intense?
O’Neill: That was more of a curatorial decision that feels a certain way and there’s a punctuation at the end.
Shemie: We’re certainly not a very political band, publically at least. To do something like this I wouldn’t say is difficult for us, but it’s different. Maybe that’s somewhat of a big step to take. I don’t think if we put it fucking first, we’d be comfortable with that.
O’Neill: Had the world not been in the special turmoil that it is and was while we were curating it, we still probably would’ve recorded that song and put it on the EP. Whatever media you end up encountering, you’re seeing through this lens because that’s front of mind for everyone right now. You often use music as an echo chamber or reflection or a kind of journal for your own thoughts. It’s really effective at that. Of course the Zappa song is pretty explicit, but I do think there is an added receptivity about those kinds of messages.
“We’re certainly not a very political band, publically at least. To do something like this I wouldn’t say is difficult for us, but it’s different. Maybe that’s somewhat of a big step to take.” —Ben Shemie
It sounds like this EP was very liberating for you guys. Has it influenced the forthcoming album?
Shemie: I think that for our next record, it maybe has given us a bit more confidence to go with a bigger idea, a throughline idea, and not deviate from that.
A couple other things that struck me about Fiction were the themes of truth and belief. I didn’t know if those were improvised ideas, unconscious things.
Shemie: We should talk again next year when our record comes out because it’s way more like that. I feel that the music we’re putting out now is more conceptual than when we started. That’s partly about getting better at it, I hope.
O’Neill: It’s more of an intentional vision. It’s funny that you talk about that because for us the EP was more kind of fun. That’s how I saw it—the opportunity to do something fun that felt good. Those things end up happening because they’re fixations that you have throughout your career, that despite yourself you can never exactly get rid of. It is true that the things we’re currently working on are much more in the vein of what you’re talking about than the EP was.
Going back to what Liam was saying about this as a fun project, was that because of the collaborations with Amber Webber and Jerusalem in My Heart?
Shemie: We went back and listened to a lot of things like “Pray” that don’t fit on this [forthcoming] record. But then you know when you take some time away, you listen, you’re like, “This is so dope. I don’t know why we didn’t put it on our record.” There was some stuff that we’d done with Jerusalem that was so live and lo-fi that it was almost too much at the time. The song with Amber, we’re friends with Black Mountain and the Lightning Dust crew. It’s something we probably wouldn’t have done in the past in isolation for a track. It totally works and makes that jam something different that we wouldn’t have done again if it were a record.
O’Neill: We never would have done that. You’re looking for this kind of uniformity, and I feel like the EP is a real opportunity to not go for that. We suspected Amber would do a great job—and she did—but we didn’t know about that. It was an experiment. We had a track and said, “Why don’t you try something?” There are a lot of things on this record where we felt a bit more emboldened to do whatever we wanted. FL