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SUMAC: More Human Than Human

Ten years in, the post-sludge trio is still searching through the layers of friendship and communication that make them whole. 

by Sebastian Buzzalino

Photo by Paulo Gonzales

Eight minutes into The Healer, the latest album from primordial post-sludge improvisationalists SUMAC, Aaron Turner tortures out a strangled howl: “hearts shine.” The incantation breaks through the heavy fog of the trio’s cacophonous, long-form noise, exhorting a return to a creative humanity as Turner’s clarion call stains white hearts red across the land. They’re doing the destructive work of razing the earth with their relentless march over the horizon; it’s up to us, they suggest, to do the essential work of making meaning and connection with ourselves in their wake. 

“Our survival is dependent on it… I really feel that people need one another,” says Turner. During the interview, we barely get into details about the album itself — the supergroup’s fifth release — or the accompanying mini tour doc, Six Hours 42 Minutes with SUMAC (dir. Damien Neva). Instead, we dive headlong into the ‘why’ of it all in the face of an uncaring world. 

Across its 76-minute runtime, spread across four tracks, The Healer opens up and operates in a liminal space of melody and drone where contradictions headbang against each other. Each end of a supposed binary untangles from its opposite in order to revel in the parallel experiences of construction and destruction, healing and pain, life and death. The world is falling apart — we are falling apart — and maybe that’s a good thing, as long as we’re able to get back to a communal, creative humanity forged on the connections we build between ourselves.


Photo: Mitchell Wojcik


In stark contrast to the oppressive brutality of The Healer, the process during the creation of the album was mostly emancipatory for Turner and his bandmates. They took the opportunity in the studio to really dig into their 10-year history together as a band and work through new ways of communicating and connecting with each other, especially when they were struggling with wrangling some of the more difficult parts of the process. 

“The recording process itself was really gratifying for me and, I think, for the others, too,” Turner says. “We talked about this quote a bit: we started with a very good foundation of friendship and communication and, as we’ve gone on, that has really deepened. So now, we’re able to talk with each other pretty openly and with greater fluidity about a lot of things, personal as well as creative. It allowed us to approach these songs with a lot of flexibility and playfulness, which is crucial, too.

“We need to be with each other and we need to find a way to connect with each other,” he continues. “Boiling it down to some of the basic fundamentals, music has been at the centre of many ritual practices for humans’ celebrations since the very beginning — ceremonial as well as casual. Art, in general, goes back to the very beginnings of our becoming human.”

“I think playing music and making art is sacred. And it’s even more critical at this particular moment… I’m trying to make art in a way and present it in a way which will hopefully allow people to really, deeply engage with it.”

Human connection is critical. For SUMAC, it is “critical to play live.” During Neva’s Six Hours 42 Minutes, there’s a moment when the band is walking back to the venue after getting some food and Turner underscores that importance: playing in a room full (or not) of people, making those connections that can only happen when we share space as bodies in communion. It’s a message of vitality and optimism, shafts of light piercing the otherwise apprehensive shadows that continuously encroach. 

“One of the greatest mysteries we have to investigate is who we are and what the worlds are that live inside us,” he says. “We’ll never get to the bottom of it. So that’s part of why this music is so exploratory: it’s not that it’s necessarily trying to reach some definitive point of understanding, but at least it’s getting down in there to some other layer that I can’t get through otherwise.”

Sumac perform on June 21 at Fortune Sound Club (Vancouver, BC) as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival | TICKETS & INFO