Q&A: Sontag Shogun On Playing Visual Art Installations, Lionel Richie, And Susan Sontag
There's a tangible loneliness to Sontag Shogun's music, but there's a wistful loveliness present, too. The Brooklyn trio assumes a sort of songwriting assembly line, with Ian Temple's emotive, tremulous piano figures falling prey to Jesse Perlstein's legion of atmospheric, laptop-catalogue samples and the oscillator/tapes/electronic militia at Jeremy Young's command. Borne thereof are instrumentals that hover somewhere between quiet-storm raucous and New Age quiescent: giggly ivory-tickles brush elbows with industrial found sounds; funny-bone effects trill like cicadas or fireworks or distant slide whistles; sonatas and pitch-shifted drones suck face. Unlikely antecedents turn up in this mournful and meditative melee; the core melody "Hungarian Wheat," from the recently-issued-on-disc Absent Warrior, Abandoned Battlefield (Palaver Music) winks at Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." (The band counts composers like Arvo Part, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Philip Glass, and Max Richter among their influences.) Perhaps it's just that they seem to, for succumbing to a Sontag Shogun song is like wandering into a mist or thinny in a mystery novel: the first few seconds are universally objective, but beyond that, the experience is colored by what the listener brings to the table.
SOTC emailed with Sontag Shogun about Absent Warrior and the contextual nature of the band's music.
When and how did you guys start playing together as Sontag Shogun?
Jeremy Young: We all went to university in Montreal together, which is where we began playing music together in a large ensemble called [the] slowest runner [in all the world] about six years ago. The music from this project was very composed and calculated, orchestral rock, and I think the three of us were craving a more free-form and exploratory musical outlet on the side.
Besides the Absent Warrior, Abandoned Battlefield EP, all of our past performances and recorded material was improvised, though not necessarily unscripted. Sontag developed in the direction of "designing" or "staging" site-specific performances and it became our "arty" project, so we would get invited to play at openings and launches and stuff.
What were you guys majoring in?
JY: We all went to either McGill or Concordia. Jesse studied creative writing, I studied media/film studies and Ian did international development. So we were pretty much all over the grid.
Are you guys big Susan Sontag fans?
JY: We were all pretty heavily- teeped in literary/film and political theory while at school, so she was definitely on our minds, but I don't think any of us actually meant for this project to be an homagemore just a catchy and confusing mixture of words and imagery.
So I should I not ask which of her books or essays is your favorite?
JY: Not that it has anything to do with our music, but I've read On Photography about five times, and in the past five years I've read quite a bit of her fiction, my favorite novel being In America.
Aspects of "Untitled 3" from your self-titled album remind me of "Hello" by Lionel Richie.
JY: Actually it's funny you say that, because Ian frequently looks to Uncle Lionel for advice both musical and personal.
Ian is definitely not alone in that regard.
JY: OK, obviously the connection to Lionel Richie is random. But I think the fact that you picked up on this speaks to the fact that even though we have been mostly improvising throughout this group's history, our bend has always been towards a sort of "sentimental and solitary" landscape of noise. There are definitely these washes of emotion in the music we make, and it's interesting that the same feelings come out of our music whether we're improvising or composing.
That track is a great example, because it sounds so similar to the stuff we're writing now. And we have always gone back to the sentimental stuff, no matter how dark our sound can get.