Suuns’ moody, messy art rock emerges from Montreal’s Mile End
Words and Interview Shirine Saad.
Hailing from the hometown of Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Arcade Fire, Suuns’s dark experimentations are hauntingly poetic. They have been compared to Sonic Youth, booked on Secretly Canadian, and toured with the Crystal Castles and Black Angels. At Pop Montreal just a few weeks ago, the band premiered the film Sweet Nothing, inspired by their first tour in Europe. We had a contemplative chat with singer-songwriter Ben Shemie, who trained classically and had his first musical revelation at a Metallica concert. But we’ll have to wait with baited breath until the next album to see what he’s truly thinking of right now…
You actually attended McGill University to study jazz. How did your training affect the music?
When I was about 17 I had musical ambitions and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to play the guitar. My teacher made me work really hard to get into McGill. At the time I loved Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Cream, The Rolling Stones, stuff from my parents’ record collection. So going to school was perhaps an extension of that fantasy. But it was really difficult; it was a really introspective and hard thing to do. It’s not a really healthy way of studying music; when you’re young you’re very impressionable. It was a real struggle because it was really hard to scrutinize yourself and examine your progress, and living up to these fantastic ideals that don’t even exist, really.
How did you end up in a rock band?
I had been out of school and wanted to start playing rock’n'roll because that was the first thing I identified with. All the band members come from similar music backgrounds; we liked ACDC, Bryan Adams, U2, all the stuff that was popular in the early ’90s. That’s what started everything. I don’t think my training has affected the music at all, I don’t think it’s at all intellectual in that way. Our training mostly comes in in the way we rehearse, because we can articulate things clearly.
I read you had your first rock awakening at a Metallica concert?
I went at 12 and it changed the way I thought about everything. It was the first rock show I’d ever been to. I was terrified when I went in. Metallica was at the height of their popularity and when you’re 12 you associate it to bad things — drugs, sex, things you don’t understand. But it was just a big party, it was amazing. It was really loud. The guitar player was amazing and it was a big crazy rock show. We don’t really see shows like that that often. They certainly encapsulated everything; a fantasy of heavy metal, rock’n'roll, all the adoration and ego that goes into these kinds of things which is attractive, especially when you’re really young.
What do you write and sing about?
Some of the songs, like “Arena,” is kind of like a dance song. Or a song like “Sweet Nothing” is a little narrative about being in a band in Quebec, the difference in culture, creating a little snapshot story about what it means to be in a band here. “Armed for Peace” is pretty representative of what we do. It says, “It’s all because we’ve gone and taken it all/And I know that it’s up to you.” It’s kind of about music, not taking anything too seriously. It has an anthemic vibe to it. It’s actually really hard to play.
Some people find it hard to label your band.
I think it’s a compliment. I feel like our band is really polarizing. People either really really like it or really really don’t. It’s hard to label it and talk about it but we do have a common style that you can identify as us. It’s difficult to talk about what we do and put a name on it but it’s not really my problem. It makes it a bit less accessible but that’s ok. The album is structured like a playlist, it has an arc to it which is important. You have slow songs first, jam songs in the middle. Some people will dance cause they like it, but it’s not like our intention. We just want to put on a good show, play really well — it’s entertainment. We try to have a good time ourselves and play the shit out of the songs. We do justice to the songs. We work really hard as a band, so a lot of time there’s a lot of sweat that goes into it. So that’s kind of a privilege; we want it to be good.
So is it more post-punk? Art rock?
I understand why people say that because it’s not pop, it is cerebral in a way. It works for people that are into rock music, aggressive music, minimal music, dance music, also a bit more interested in something a bit more cerebral. It’s more important to be interesting than to be good. There are a lot of good bands but if it’s not interesting and if there’s nothing…. It’s one thing to write pleasant songs that people will like. We get compared a lot to Krautrock bands, which is totally cool because it’s minimal and repetitive, but until we got compared to them I hadn’t really listened to them.
From basement stages to Secretly Canadian. Tell me the story.
We started playing here, our first show was at a loft party. Our first legitimate show was during Pop Montreal in 2007, when we hadn’t even played that much. I was really nervous and stuff. We played first of six bands so there weren’t that many people and stuff. Even at that stage we had never really recorded anything, we weren’t even really a band. And then we just started playing a lot. Small shows. Did that for like three years. There was no reaction. We didn’t really get any press or play for anyone else than our friends. In Toronto, people started enjoying it. We never got any press in Montreal because there are so many bands living and working here, and you’re one of many, many bands that have to prove themselves. Very, very few of those bands get past the local scene that we live in.
Then we recorded with Jace Lasek of the Besnard Lakes at Breakglass Studios. We recorded this album that he liked and he saw something there. Literally, it was almost like a dream. We printed 200 CDs with a crappy little cover, and the same day it arrived in the mail I got an email from Secretly Canadian. We didn’t really try — it just fell in our laps, which never happens. We just got really lucky. They endorsed us and immediately within two weeks we had a lawyer, a booking manager— it became professional very quickly. Summer 2010. Literally overnight it became legit. Media would listen to us; people would take our band seriously. It just makes the process of playing shows easier; you’re not an indie band struggling in Montreal. But it’s fucking hard…. One thing you learn is that the music industry is exactly that, an industry. You see that it’s a business. It kind of commodifies your music and you become more ambitious which makes it so much more of a product. It changed the way we operate as a band and what a successful show becomes. Our expectations are higher now.
Want to see who else is popping on the Canadian Music scene? Want to discover other artists from Montreal that are ready to blow? Read MTV Iggy’s Special report here.