Montreal-based electronic krautrock group SUUNS have established a celebrated cult following throughout the last decade with their undulating bass grooves, minimalist production, and gratifying ability to work tension and release into soaring compositions. Over the course of the pandemic, like most of us, they’ve had time to take pause and look inward, which is what makes their new album, The Witness, that much more exhilarating.
Flipping the script in a voyeuristic fashion, the trio has been going through unexpected changes while also consciously evolving. With primary synth man Max Henry having left the group and Ben Shemie recently moving to Paris, the sun is shining a little bit differently on the now trio of collaborators. Confronted with these forced evolutions, SUUNS have responded with their most mature work to date.
The Witness carries a reflective mood, its songs linked together in a musical arch that flows smoothly from start to finish. It’s the sound of a group contemplating their existence and the world at large from a distance. And it’s from this vantage point that they explore stylistic choices in bold new ways.
We spoke to drummer Liam O’Neil from his home in Montreal to learn more about the making of The Witness and how its themes are perhaps informed by the concept that we are all spectators in a time of great change.
What does it feel like to put out an album just as the world of live shows is slowly returning?
Uncertain, as you’d imagine. There’s a feeling in normal times that putting out your album is a “big deal,” and in this environment it feels more relaxed. In the rat race that many bands find themselves in, you rely on the momentum that the “big deal” your record release provides to fuel the energy for your tour, which is how you make a living. Many musicians have put out records in the last year that, in terms of that calculus, were kind of “lost.” So in one way it can feel disappointing, but in another way it’s nice to be freed from that expectation and just be releasing a piece of music that we made.
You’ve gone through a lineup change since your last LP. How has that affected the band’s sound?
Pretty significantly. Max Henry had a very unique approach to synthesizers, which is something that you really only notice when he’s not there doing his thing. There was a very specific role that was carved out for him and his sense of fullness-vs-space. So there is that aspect, which is more stylistic or technical, but then of course there is the fact of his absence in the band dynamic, and his leaving functioning as a marker of our long history together as a band. When he left, there was a collective admiration of all that we’ve done together combined with the question of “what now?” It sparked this more contemplative sound we have going on with The Witness. You can hear us considering, I think.
There’s a definitive continuity heard throughout the album. Was that intentional?
Yes. I think this is the first album we’ve made where we explicitly talked about how we wanted it to be, as opposed to just seeing what comes out song-to-song. When Max left, we thought about our years and years on the road, playing night after night, song after song. We felt exhausted, and the list of shows started to feel like our list of songs, just banging down the list relentlessly. We wanted to make a record whose sound reflected our desire to slow down, to stretch out and explore, like how it felt on our best nights playing live where everything feels relaxed and like one long song.
Are there any social or political commentaries that we might be missing in regards to the album title?
Perhaps it’s the idea of the collective witness, the hyper-plugged-in way that we are spectators in a time of great change. It can be an experience of community, of shared experience, but also implicates us, the witnesses, as potentially culpable, accountable, like a witness in court who is obliged to testify.
Was self-producing always the plan?
I think so. We discovered that way of working when we recorded Felt and it was really fun, not having to look over someone’s shoulder and badger them about some effect you’d like on the drums. You can just do it yourself as you hear it.
Would you say that you are minimalists in other areas of life?
We are poor, if that’s what you mean. Ha. Minimalism is the best though. I think of all the best art as minimalist, even if it doesn’t present itself as what we talk about when we talk about minimalism. Minimalist in that: it has only what it needs, and it couldn’t be any other way.
Are you excited to go out on tour to promote the new album?
Lots of my friends have asked me this. I think despite myself, I have to admit that I am excited. Though I did enjoy being home, and I feel more healthy and sane than usual, I really do miss going to different and interesting places around the world, playing shows. It’s very stimulating.
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