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Sunken Seas

Sunken Seas

Interviewed by
Di McCauley
Tuesday 13th October, 2015 11:04AM

Following on from their intense, dissonant debut album Null Hour, and the brooding EP Cataclysm, shoegaze group Sunken Seas are back with their second full-length album, Glass. The nine-track record continues the band’s ongoing themes of disenchantment, with claustrophobic guitars, propulsive rhythms and ominous vocals nestled into dark, foreboding soundscapes. However, this new offering sees them delve into deeper territory thanks to the catalytic cabin fever generated by writing in a freezing lodge located in the middle of nowhere. After which, they headed to Wellington’s Munki Studios to put the songs to tape with help from producer James Goldsmith.

To support the release of Glass, the band  have lined up a four-date national tour that kicks off this weekend. But despite their hectic rehearsal schedule, they kindly took the time to talk with UnderTheRadar about life as Sunken Seas, including the merits of frozen isolation, cabin fever creativity, and their competitive “sad-offs”...

UTR: For this album, you have drummer Jordan Puryer, and guitarist David Provan, on board, alongside original members guitarist Luke Kavanagh and vocalist Ryan Harte. You all have a long history of being in different bands, so how did you end up being in the same band?

After Cataclysm, our drummer Craig Rattray left for overseas, and we had the Shocking And Stunning guys temporarily join us. Playing as a four-piece added so much extra punch to our sound, we decided to stay as a four-piece.

Jordan and David had played in the bands 1995, No Why and Mellow Grave. We were all staunch supporters of each other's bands, and whenever possible we would play our gigs together. Craig and Jordan were great drumming mates, and the timing felt right so we asked Jordan to join us. Besides being an brilliant guitarist, David was also our band’s audio guy, he always toured with us. David has an amazing critical ear, and being in charge of the PA system, he knew our sounds better than we did.

So instead of four people coming together to work out the dynamics, it was more like two pairs, and because of our respective band history, a lot of the questions about each other were already answered and we could just get on with being the band.

Your first album Null Hour and your Cataclysm EP are well-known for their foreboding, sinister, soundscapes, their intimidating undertones. The overall feel of Glass is still just as grim and bleak in it’s nature, but it also strikes me as being a more anguished, paranoid and melancholic album.

It’s the two layers of music we typically sit with, if we’re not playing serious, powerful, heavy songs, then we’re doing the sad songs. A lot of the anguish feeling comes from the textures that Dave brings into the band, he’s always pushed for the minor chords. Minors are the saddest kind of chord you can possibly do and that boosts the emotive quality. We tend to lean towards that. When we’re jamming, staying up late, listening to music, we usually end up playing “sad-offs” against each other – seeing which one of us can play the saddest song. Luke and Dave are the kings of coming up with the most plaintive sounds. When you’re getting lost in the moment, jamming away, Luke will come out with the most needling chord that stabs you in the heartstrings, giving you chills at the back of your neck. It happens every time.

You went into the depths of Aorangi Forest, at the coldest time of the year, staying at remote Waikuku Lodge, in order to compose and write Glass. What was the motive behind that?

Ryan: Years back, I’d wanted to try the concept of locking yourself in a room for seven days, in the middle of nowhere, and keep on jamming and writing until you reach cabin fever level. And when everyone’s going a bit nuts, that’s when you start coming up with the really interesting stuff, and pushing yourselves into a different mindset. The chance to try this out didn’t happen with Cataclysm, so when we had enough ideas, and felt ready to work on Glass, I said “hey guys, let’s go out to the middle of nowhere, with no cellphone reception, and write this album”.

As a band we were very green at that stage, so being in complete isolation was also giving us the time to bond. It was one of those situations where we were all just left with each other, there was no one else around. We had some rows and stuff, and we had to sort it out, but it was also a really cool, really creative time. It did a lot of good. We even bought along a smoke machine, a film projector, put a sheet on a wall, watched films, the Skeptics’ Sheen of Gold for instance, for inspiration.

Working in this environment must have impacted significantly on the direction of your album then?

Yeah, it’s almost like the album is the story of that whole week. We‘d put ourselves in this freezing, isolated place, and that cemented the feel of the album, it’s where the cold atmosphere, the paranoia and the angst all stems from.

The lodge had limited solar power, we constantly had to watch the meter and we rationed as much power as we could for our amps. We had to chop a lot of wood for the fire because it was so cold. We refined a lot of our songs there, but a few of the songs on the album actually came out of that time – ‘Poppy’, ‘Metasoma’, ‘Wesley’ – with us being in our total cabin fever mode.

The video for ‘Clear’ is based on a time when we were using candles for our lighting, the smoke machine was filling up the tiny room, and then the fire alarm went off. We couldn’t see anything and then one of our faces would just loom into view, freaking out the others.

Are you prepared to share any stories behind the songs?

Our song ‘Clear’ came about from the first time all four of us actually jammed together in the same room – three of us were here practicing, sorting out the rhythm section, and then Luke just turns up straight from the airport, plugs in his guitar and plays over the top. Once Luke got involved it just made the song.

Our intro song ‘Mirage’ was originally left in the Too Hard Basket. We knew it had really cool guitars, but the rhythm just wasn’t working, we weren’t sure how it should develop. At Munki Studios we finally had to face up to it, and had to completely rethink it. In the space of a couple of hours it went from the last song we wanted to deal with to immediately thinking “Let’s make this our first song, it’ll be a great intro song.” It was a time when we just got on to it, thinking on our feet as a band, solving the problem and just getting it done.

At the time we were writing Metasoma at the lodge, there was a guy on the loose with a gun around the Martinborough area. We had reached our cabin fever mode and were not thinking logically, and we had this complete moment of paranoia when we thought someone was outside. Then Dave says “I don’t think we should worry, if anyone’s out there, with this place all dark, candles glowing, smoke machine going hard out, and weird, heavy music thumping, they’re not going to come in. They’ll be more scared of us.”

Your band are well known for their accompanying visuals. Glass feels like a soundtrack to an epic movie, and Ryan’s a film director. Following in Cataclysm’s footsteps, are you planning on making a film or a visual story to accompany Glass?

Ryan: Yes, we actually have another video sitting ready to go, it’s completely finished. I’ve also been in talks with Alex Hoyles, who worked with me directing Cataclysm, so we’re planning a lot more.

I loved doing music videos for other people’s bands but now I’m concentrating on my own band. I’ve always got my mind ticking over, and when the spark’s there and something makes sense, I throw the idea at the other guys, to see what they think. We have nothing to lose – we have the equipment, the technical knowledge, the ability to make them, and we all generate the ideas.

We made the ‘Clear’ video ourselves which is as DIY as it gets. We just cycled round who was doing what - one person playing, one person filming the person who’s playing, one person on the lights and one person on the smoke machine. We had the idea, decided to just get on with it and so we made it.

So the ideas for videos aren’t always from Ryan, everyone else gets involved as well?

Totally, it’s not just for videos it’s the same with our songs, everyone throws an idea in the air and we all just feed off it. That’s the beauty of this band – none of us are in control, we’re a complete collective.

One of the coolest things that developed from being holed up in Waikuku Lodge for a week, is that our band’s got to the level where we can say if something’s great, or it’s bad, or it won’t work, and no one gets offended. There’s not a lot of emo vibes in this band with the music, if we have any criticism of anything, it’s just way more practical and efficient that we’re straight up and constructive, and then we just move on.

So the album was fresh, the recording had been done, what caused the delay in getting the album released?

There were two songs still needing their lyrics, waiting for the inspiration to hit, for these vocals to really flow and that couldn’t be forced. By the time the vocals were ready, James was booked out, so it took some hustling to get Glass completed and that caused the delay. There was a lot of deliberation over the arrangement of the songs on Glass. It’s a passion of ours, having different types of songs on our albums: Some are intro songs, some are foggy and ambient, then other songs are hard and grab your attention. They’re all strategically placed so the album as a whole is just as important as the individual songs. It’s all a bit of a ride.

Sunken Seas are kicking off their album release tour this weekend, head over here for more information and to buy tickets.


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