Dismantling the mystery of Dunes: An interview with Sutrah
Tech death wizards of Sutrah sat down with the Toilet ov Hell in this fun interview about their debut, the amazing Dunes.
For many metalheads, Dunes, the debut album from Canadians magicians Sutrah was a well-received breath of fresh air to the progressive genre. The inquisitive exploration of technical density inside the vessel of an Eastern philosophy chest became one of the revelations of last years, so it was matter of time the release went under some lists.
We, here in the Toilet ov Hell, built a temple to these savage monks. Our readers received very well their music, so I had to contact with the band, in order to reveal new secrets of their sacred scrolls.
I sat moons ago with Claude Leduc and Alex Bao, with extra help from Laurent Bellemare, through a telepathic spell and I had the honor to chat a little with them about the recording of Dunes, their lyrics concepts and the grace of the elephants. Are you ready to explore the arcane mysteries of Sutrah? Then, bear with us until the end of this great interview to know more!
Greetings, fellow magicians, and welcome to the Toilet ov Hell. How are you doing these days?
Claude: I’m very well! Keeping myself busy enough to evade my staring contest with the void. Good times.
Alex Bao: I am well despite the glee of winter here in Quebec, with the perennial shoveling and mandatory layering of clothes, thank you. And you? I could even start talking about elephants if I wanted to. But don’t worry, I won’t. Promise.
Well, I am very good, too! Thanks for asking, bands these days does not worry to ask the interviewer how they are, jajaja. And we can talk about elephants later! But, first, let’s get straight to the core: Sutrah’s debut, Dunes, has been around our airwaves frequencies since months ago. So far, how has been the reception in both Canada and the rest of the world?
CL: We’ve been quite amazed with the reception so far. We’ve managed to appear on a few end of year lists in the company of some pretty crazy acts releasing some of their best work. It’s been flattering! Personally I’ve been getting a kick out of paying attention to how other people hear the music, which bands they think we sound like, etc. Some comparisons have been pretty surprising or funny and others, again, pretty flattering.
AB: We’re also very grateful for the manner that our fans have reacted and spread the word about Dunes. It’s amazing to see how closely knit and supportive the community is, and the treatment they give to the music they are passionate about is phenomenal.
It seems you had plenty of time to refine the album. Can you tell us how the process to create Dunes was?
CL: Initially I had a difficult time settling into what we were producing musically and just letting the songs be what they are, so in that regard Dunes was a hell of a personal learning experience. Although we worked on this album for many years, a solid majority of it was written in the couple years surrounding the release of the Effervesce demo. I think, finally getting some songs out into the world gave us the momentum we needed to get Dunes done within a decent time frame.
The writing or creative part of the music is pretty continuous and we were still making changes to the songs well into recording. I even remember adding some last second harmonies on the title track the day before sending the songs off in the studio, because I wasn’t getting the particular vibe I was hoping to hear out of this one section. From a larger perspective, realizing the band’s sound or vision is similarly a continuous work in progress and we’ll keep moving towards our visions in future releases.
AB: Typically, Claude would send me the guitar parts and I would write the bass for it and we’d discuss structure and arrangement. I really wanted to create a new sonic dimension that would either stretch the harmonic tension or highlight some of the sick melodic lines buried in Claude’s dense guitar harmonies. The lyrics and the themes of the album were the accumulation and amalgamation of interests that captured our attention over the years. It was sort of natural to delve into oriental culture because we were exploring their world, and weaving their sounds and instruments into the album became that much easier because of Laurent’s academic studies and expertise.
Didn’t know about the academic studies of Laurent! What is he studying?
CL: I’ll let the man himself answer that one.
LB: I have a 2-year collegial diploma in jazz drumming. Right now I’m finishing a bachelor’s in Musicology, which includes music history, sociology of music, music analysis, physics of sound and ethnomusicology, among other things. The program doesn’t focus on making music per se, but provides a theoretical framework to understand and research music.
I see those studies as an extension of my “geekiness” and curiosity, especially when it comes to non-western music. Studying ethnomusicology along with joining a Balinese orchestra (gamelan) in Montreal allowed me to be more and more involved with various types of music from Indonesia. I also recently spent a sabbatical year studying gamelan and the Indonesian language in Bali, and exploring other islands, furthering my appreciation for Indonesian culture.
Well, that is impressive. I wish you the best of the best with the end of the studies! Guys, the record is very dense and complex, but I felt it still breathe between parts here and there. The dynamic production values helped too, but, how could achieve that compact and cohesive sound in both mixing and composition?
CL: As far as production and mixing goes, we owe a great depth to our friend and sound engineer Hugues Deslauriers. He really helped us figure out what our recorded sound was, what aspects of our playing we wanted to bring out. I always had an idea in mind of what this record should sound like production-wise but sometimes the path to your destination can be a much unexpected one. More than ever I feel like particular features of the music, which guitar tone works, where the bass sits in the mix, the space the vocals take up, how present the extra ornamentation is and so on are so integral to the realization of one’s musical vision, especially in this style.
As for the writing itself, the idea was to mix extremes and make music that was at once extremely violent and urgent but also vibrant and colorful without it suffocating under the weight of its own density – something that can too easily happen in this style of music. I’m not sure yet if we’ve managed this to the extent that we wish – or if we ever can – but this desire to reconcile these extremes will continue to be a primary driving force in Sutrah’s music. At the end of the day we just want to write an awesome song!
AB: I think there’s always something interesting going on at any given time in the songs, the trick is to not have that “something” be the same every time (for example, the use of solos or other such gimmicks). It’s definitely a matter of choosing which spots to let a given instrument shine and finding the methods in which we can do so. The mixing to me is somewhat of a miracle; it was a lot of work but I think Hughes really understood what we were going for and worked his magic to make sense of the chaos. If it still breathes after having crammed all of the elaborate instrumental elements, it’s quite a relief, and I would agree that Mr. Deslauriers deserves much credit to that extent.
I saw that Kevin Paradis (formerly from Svart Crown) played wonderfully the drums as a session musician. How was the recording with him?
CL: Kevin did a pretty ridiculous job on the record. It’s even more impressive when one considers that for 4 songs out of 6 he only had written notes to go by when it came to knowing how we heard the songs in our minds and what we expected from the drum arrangement. He took less than a month to listen, digest, learn the songs and record all his parts for the entire album. I would joke about how he’s more machine than the drums we had on the demo, but that would be a disservice to Kevin’s rather fluid and dynamic playing style.
AB: He was a real gentleman, and quite frankly I hope we find a way to play with him one day (we’ll get you a visa Kevin, just pack your bags and don’t google “Montreal winters”). It’s absurd just how quickly he wrote and recorded these songs, and we were often surprised by some sheerly ludicrous parts which surpassed our expectations. He gave us exactly what we wanted.
That’s very nice of you. Drums were one of my favorite aspects of the album, for sure. The other thing was, of course, lyrics. Can you explain us the topics behind Dunes? I am really interested to know more about the lyrical themes by the creator team!
CL: In some ways we’ve alluded to some of the themes already in the discussion on songwriting and the creative process. For example, this obsession with reconciling extremes within the music, with marrying violence and beauty, is fittingly symbolized in the image of the sun, at once the source of all life and one of the most sublimely violent cosmic entities. It’s also a very apt symbol for both secular and sacred or spiritual conceptions of the origins of life and the cosmos, as both science and spirituality have at points reserved some kind of mystical quality for the stars. The topics we tackle in Dunes, at the very least aesthetically, fit within this zone of blurred boundaries between skepticism based in reason and self-knowledge grounded in mysticism. The whole album generally flows from one story to another, where every song represents personal musings on a specific way of thinking about self-growth; each new song being a collection of thoughts armed with the baggage of older experiences.
AB: I can give a small glimpse of the thought process behind some of the songs. The lyrics on Dunes arose from the reality we must face in our modern predilection. We were raised without religion, and I believe that that can leave the mind vulnerable to the overwhelming boundlessness of the cosmos — if you are open to it and observant — but it also frees the individual to discover his own truth.
The song “Dunes” is a vague resolution to that confrontation. Where, although violent and deranged, the solution is to dream of returning to the blazing source instead of suffering the pain of severance and being victim to the indifferent laws of the universe. The passage from the Bhagavad Gita is peppered in to flesh out the metaphor of God as the sun, our relationship to that entity, and how the mind buckles under the weight of the sublime, but it’s also given our fans the impression that our themes revolve around oriental folklore haha.
Similarly, holding on to no creed can leave you afloat in a sea of chaos in which you feel you have no control. Yet, looking around, one finds all of these people screaming into the void, declaring their own decree of the truth and demanding obedience to their self-created laws. “Babel” is a certain development of such a cynical mind as it struggles between its internal dialogue and the voices it suffers to hear in the world. What then is the answer if humanity is a doomed prisoner to its own impudence? And what may the skeptical individual do when observing the world drives him into an ever-swelling nihilism? We are lucky that some mystics have seen past organized ideologies and religions and have drawn maps that we can depend upon to lead us to some degree of inner peace.
I think Sutrah is interested in how we can put these maps into practice — in whichever flawed way possible to us — from one existential point to another.
Ohhh, so the Elephants are part of the record too! It is still uncommon for metal bands to talk about these kind of stuff. From a conceptual standpoint, I sensed vibes similar to bands like Cynic and Lykathea Aflame. You seem to be in that style of “light and dark” mediations, seasoned with a nice dose of spiritualism. What do you think is the key point to push this dark genre into that philosophical or spiritualist area?
CL: I’m not sure if there’s any specific way to make it happen, and if there were it would likely go stale very quickly. I mean death metal is such a malleable and diverse style of music, both from a musical and conceptual standpoint. It can dabble into any color, aesthetic, theme, or topic, so long as one remembers where it comes from. Because it’s so malleable it’s easy to get caught up in trying to be ‘original’ or ‘different’ and either face plant or end up with something that just isn’t death metal anymore.
AB: I agree with Claude. For me, it was an opportunity to redefine the ideas and subjects that death metal can confront, but we had to be careful to remember where from this style originated. Metal music, in general, is a blatant refusal to accept and adhere to the status quo. It is fiercely independent and I think the community is most critical and inquisitive; what we do is a continuation of that philosophy. Again, it’s about finding your own path, and for some, that may be about exploring the satanic, gore, or political issues.
I don’t think any band ought to delve into these philosophical or spiritual themes, but for us, it’s been a fascination and a point of interest which we’ve always shared, and so naturally Dunes evolved along the conversations we were having.
Given you said death metal is “malleable”, I am now wondering if you would push the Sutrah philosophical themes into a different subgenre? What do you think of stepping into black metal territory?
CL: I don’t really think of it that way. I certainly enjoy my share of black metal and these influences more than likely find their way into the music, even if it is in a trivial way.
Furthermore, I don’t see the themes of the band attached to any genre specifically; like Alex says it just came about naturally through our desire to connect our interests. The metaphysical, spiritual, and mystical themes certainly sculpt the way we write music since we want everything (lyrics, harmony, structure, aesthetics etc…) to come together in a monolithic manner, where ideally everything flows together as one; and while I certainly have no pretension of having accomplished this, it’s definitely a main goal of ours. My point was that death metal can lend itself to this mindset given its “malleable” nature.
Fair enough! For a novelty act which had to get its name well known in the genre, what do you think it was the most difficult aspect in order to release your first full-length?
AB: We had help from a lot of people, but we tried to do things ourselves as much as possible. It’s a learning process and we’ve had to discuss many decisions which would otherwise have been made by a label for example. I think there’s always a certain amount of doubt and insecurity about having made the right choice or doing it “right” when it’s your first time and you’re figuring it out. If we can be considered as being well-known, our wonderful fans and the individuals who have picked us up and offered invaluable exposure are to praise.
We’re happy that our music resonated so quickly with people, but I think that the fine-tuning process to make sure that connection would become a reality was the most challenging part.
CL: That’s pretty much right on the money. I’d say the biggest challenges to getting this album out were mostly self-imposed…
Besides this, you experimented with some exotic instruments, like a didgeridoo! How was the process in the songwriting when you incorporated these alien noises into your music?
CL: We just wanted to try some things out. With the exception of the Reyongs in “Effervesce” and the throat singing on “Dunes” which in hindsight surprisingly came out naturally, it was a somewhat chaotic process of having an idea in mind, recording some parts, and then screwing around until we heard something we liked. The singing bowl/didgeridoo interludes between the songs were essentially short sound compositions meant to keep the flow of the album while also providing a much needed break between the 8+ minute stupid-high tempo songs!
AB: They were very much separate from the compositions. Aesthetically we thought these instruments sounds badass, and Laurent gave us more than enough material to kind of glue a pastiche of atmospheric sounds in a way that could complement the transition between songs. We had him record his didgeridoo parts in our apartment, and together we worked out ideas he could perform (“make it sound like a hyena laughing” or “try those sporadic rhythmic howls”). We also recorded the singing bowls into separate samples to make them easy to access and play around with. They were fun little freestyle exercises in mixing samples.
Any chance to see you live in 2018? What are the chances to feel the energetic meditation of Sutrah in a live sweaty gig?
CL: We definitely hope so! We’re eager to give life to the Sutrah material in the live environment. We’re still putting a lineup together, and finding a drummer who can both play the material and isn’t in a million other projects is by far the biggest challenge we currently face, but we’re confident that we’ll be able to take this music to the stage very soon!
AB: Fingers crossed. If we’re lucky cloning tech will make its entrance in 2018, but I’m sure we’ll have plenty of opportunities once our lineup is complete.
I really love to ask this in interviews, so you are not going to be safe of this one ! Any bands you would like to recommend to us from your local scene? Shoot some names if you want, please!
CL: Our vocalist Laurent’s main project is the black metal outfit Basalte where he plays drums. They have a new album that just came out and, in my opinion; it’s an incredibly cohesive piece of music. It’s fucking great and will take many people by surprise.
Also, our good friends in Intonate have a great album out and are hard at work on some new material. Having already heard a couple new songs live, I can already tell you it’s going to be fucking awesome. These guys know how to stick to their roots all the while trying something new, make sure to check em out!
AB: I am subbing on bass for a local grind band called RGRSS, spearheaded by one of our friends, and it is criminally undiscovered. Check them out and give them the love they so clearly deserve, and also, a hug.
Awww, that was sweet. Well, that is all for today. Thank you very much for this interview. This last space is for you to tell us anything you want. I really hope you get all the success you deserve.
CL: You’re very welcome and thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to pop our interview cherry!
You are mostly welcome, my friends! See you on the road!
So, that’s all for today. What else would you like to know about Sutrah? Did you like Dunes ? Remember to follow the band on Facebook and buy their debut on their Bandcamp profile. These guys deserve the best!
Many thanks to Claude, Laurent and Alex for taking their time to answer this interview!