Wednesday, February 18, 2015

TREEFORT 2015: The Evening Class Interview With SUN BLOOD STORIES

Photo: Kate Grosswiler
I first heard Sun Blood Stories while waiting in line for a street taco at Treefort 2013. A virile guttural howling was haunting the air from the Main Stage and it drew me front and center to catch the band's rendition of "Barfly Blues." I was smitten by their tribal affects: war paint streaked on their cheeks and foreheads, post-psychedelia hair-dos, and their feral, provocative, eroticism. Case in point, they billed their gig as a "ritual." Hypnotic, tribal, eerie, this wasn't music I necessarily wanted to dance to; but, I was transfixed, swaying in place like a hypnotized mongoose in a cobra grip, ready to leap for safety if (most likely) necessary. My transfixion has carried over these past two years watching the band morph away from vocals to sonic textures that they themselves have described as "desert ghost music", "glitter witch nightmares" and—most currently—as "slow motion, echo-nightmare sounds you'd hear on ancient alien radio, while you're stranded in the middle of a ghost desert on Mars, summoning the spirits of the Ancient Ones."

Okay (gulp)! I'm game?!!

As the band has morphed, so has its members, and with last Fall's reconfiguration with the addition of three new band members, I felt it was time to sit down and talk with the group shortly before leaving to San Francisco for the winter.

Ben Kirby

Photo: Amber Pollard
Ben Kirby played Sun Blood Stories as a solo act for almost a year, putting out an EP on his own (that included the tune "Barfly Blues" that originally hooked me in). He had gone over to a friend's house to add keyboards to his friend's song and they recorded "Barfly Blues" with an available Fender Rhodes "that was all out of tune."

He came up with the name Sun Blood Stories in response to that time of year, Boise's Summer inversion, when the smoke from forest fires gets captured in the valley discoloring the sky to a pinkish-brown and transforming the low-setting sun into a blood red. Self-effacing to this side of cool, Ben drolly admitted he had to come up with a band name and that seemed as good as any.

He'd always wanted a band but it took him a long time to put it together because at heart he wanted to feel part of a tribe and it's hard to have a tribal interaction with every musician you play with. Fortunately, he found himself playing with musicians whose sounds he already liked. He could write a song and know that each of them would bring their own sound to it without his having to write out their individual parts. He could draft out a skeletal melody on which they could each layer their piece. As the members of the band found each other, they entered into the project knowing they wanted to create a sound resonant with echoes and attentive to shifting tempo and rhythm.

As for bringing on Judah Claffey, Nik Kososik and John Füst as the newest members of Sun Blood Stories, Ben asserted the metamorphasis was organic, if not accidental. It wasn't that he had sought them out individually. Ben and I both met Nik at the High Note Cafe the day he approached Ben to see if Sun Blood Stories needed a bass player? Ben couldn't include him just yet because they had already written the music without a bass player for their latest set and they could only tour with two or three people in the car. But after finishing their tour last July, they began working on new material and Ben invited Nik to jam with them.

He'd already spent a lot of time with Judah at that point, loved the way he played viola, and offered to hook him through echo and reverb pedals to accentuate a spacey sound. Then he and Amber Pollard joined Nik and Judah for three or four jams, which turned out "nice." (Ben says "nice" like it's something warm and dangerous poured over ice or, for that matter, chugged straight from the bottle.) Ben was pleased with how Nik and Judah learned songs so quickly and how each came with their own visions to help him develop the songs. When Brett Nicholas Hawkins left the group, John Füst stepped in as drummer. Ben had already worked with John in previous band incarnations, specifically his first two bands.

In high school, Ben got his hands on a guitar and sat down in his basement for weeks and taught himself how to play it. When he graduated from high school he didn't know what he was going to do and didn't have a band or anything but decided he would learn even more about the basics of music before jumping out into the world and trying to figure everything out, so he went to music school for two years, which taught him a lot about music theory and ear training. "That was cool. But then I got out of music school before it ruined me. You have to go in to music school, learn stuff, and leave before it ruins you," he grins.

As for the band's future goals, they've been gradually spiraling out on tour in the Northwest ritualizing gigs in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana, doing whatever they could in two to three day ventures. With the band's new configuration, Ben feels good knowing they can replicate that tour, take advantage of the foundation they've built and play where they're already liked, and explore outwards from there.

Amber Pollard

Photo: Ben Kirby
Bewitchingly beautiful with eyes full of glinting fire, Amber recounted how—after playing solo for a year—Ben began soliciting members for Sun Blood Stories. She first saw Ben when he was playing with John and Danny Kerr in a popular band called Talk Math to Me and instantly fell in love with all of them because they were amazing. She and Ben partnered.

Although Andy Rayborn was away at college finishing up his degree, it was always understood that when he returned to Boise, he would be a member of the band. About a month before Andy was scheduled to return to Idaho, Amber and Ben met Brett Nicholas Hawkins at Tour de Fat 2012. They were dressed up as animals for a drum beat dance performance and Brett walked up to them, also dressed up as an animal, told them he was drummer and asked if he could play with them? So he became a member of the band. Then Andy returned from school and joined the band, as intended.

Amber was managing the business side of things and handling the marketing. They went on their first weekend tour and "it was so fucking awful." Accounting for the general fact that almost every band's first tour out of town is awful because you leave your comfort zone of playing for friends who dig you and end up somewhere you don't know playing for nobody, they wasted their money; but, fortunately, it was only for three days. On the final day of that short weekend tour, at their final scheduled performance, the venue was awful, the managers were awful, the show was canceled two weeks before they got there and no one had notified them, and—determined to make the best of it—they found another show at another place at the very last minute "which ended up being the very best part of the whole weekend." While they were getting ready, happy that they had found a show to play in, Andy and Brett both suggested that Amber play along with them. "I did. And I've never stopped."

Amber concurs Sun Blood Stories has been continually evolving since they first formed. First it was bar rock, then blues bar rock, then alien noise, and now it's weird echo dream music. "It's like the music you hear when you're falling asleep. You're not quite awake and you're not quite asleep. You know there are things happening around you but you can't really put them into place." In that mid-point between reality and dream, Sun Blood Stories fits their sound.

I asked how she recognized the band's new members as part of the Sun Blood Stories tribe. Judah has always been a part of the tribe, Amber asserted, as has John without any of them actually knowing it. Nik was someone they'd seen play with other people and they always wanted to hang out with him but never got the chance because they were so busy touring, recording, working, parenting. They'd been playing with Judah in Ancient Psychic and other projects and he'd been a good friend of their's for a really long time; but, when they started rewriting the music and decided they wanted to take Sun Blood Stories into a new musical direction, they knew they could add the low end bass, and Judah was an obvious choice to "add an extra sparkle" to everything. Having his beautiful viola playing underneath everything was perfect. There was no question. They started rewriting the music and they brought on Judah, they brought on Nik and they jammed for the first time, which Amber whispered suggestively "was like having sex."

Refusing to describe herself as a vocalist, Amber clarifies that the vocals incorporated into the band's sound skirt lyrics and instead provide sonic texture to songs that are, in essence, incarnations of dreams they've had or jams they've played. "Our vocals tend to be just another piece to the music rather than lyricist—'I'm singing so everybody shut up; my vocals are happening'—they're more like any other instrument that you would layer into a piece to make a complete sound." Within that aesthetic, she has been layering in more vocalizing because she's writing more for the band and the songs are in her style; she feels more comfortable contributing that way. She describes her style as "witchy, slow, nightmare music." That's definitely closer to the music she would use if she could cut her own album. It's been great for her to work with a group of musicians eager to make similar sounds. She looks forward to recording their new album, which should come out late Spring 2015, and then going back on tour with that album, hoping to extend down into California this year.

Judah Claffey

Photo: Amber Pollard
At 24, Judah Claffey is a musician who has been fortunate to find a singular voice with his favored instrument, the viola. Judah's mother homeschooled her children and wanted all of them to play classical music, so they all began learning young. Judah learned the violin when he was five, and from six to nine he played the cello, which he learned from his older brother. He began to realize that he would always be following in his siblings' footsteps, learning their instruments, so he decided instead to subvert the trend and learn the viola. His mother had once played the viola and she kept the instrument in her room and he had always been fascinated with—not only the word "viola"—but the instrument itself.

His instinct was to play the viola shoulder-held and not lap-held between his legs. He favored its alto cleft (when the C-clef is placed on the third line of the stave; in other words, when the middle line is middle C—"Need I say more?"), making for a symmetrical instrument.

Though homeschooled, he did have private music tutors from the age of 10-11, though—because they lived out of town—he couldn't participate in school orchestras. He did audition-only for orchestras. He had three older siblings who played oboe, violin and cello and—by the time he came along with his viola—they had claimed their place in the classical music world, inspiring him to do something different, though he wasn't exactly sure what he wanted to do. He auditioned for a performance scholarship to attend BSU and won it, which was an important affirmation, specifically after being home schooled, getting his GED, and then being accepted into a college. But he was still restless.

He moved to Sun Valley, Idaho to study dance and take a break from playing viola. He lost a lot of weight and gained confidence in himself as a person. But he worked so hard at being a dancer, that it almost ruined him emotionally and physically. Even though it was something he loved very much, it became almost grating after a while, because it was his body as an instrument on display. That made him remember how hard he had worked on the viola and how much talent he had with that instrument and how much he still had to express with it. He wanted to be a practiced musician and good at his trade but he didn't really want to play classical music anymore. He set out to join an alternative music scene. He intuited the viola would be a perfect contrast to a customary rock band.

After having taken the two years off from playing the viola, he picked it back up about three years ago to accompany friends playing guitar and found himself really enjoying it again. He had never tried playing the instrument as his own voice, had always played reading music, but decided to explore his own musical voice in efforts by local musicians. These people came into his life and inspired him to continue finding his voice. Improvising with them proved awesome.

He was already playing with Ancient Psychic when they attended Camp Days in Missoula, Montana. That tour marked many personal changes and much drama among the musicians within the group and he found himself driving back with Ben, Amber, Aubrey and Toba the dog. They visited Craters of the Moon, stopped to have food at a roadside Mexican restaurant, and it was a wonderful day. They kept saying to each other how glad they were it was happening and that they were fostering their friendship. Ben and Amber kept telling him how well he fit in with them and—by the end of that road trip—Ben said that anytime Judah wanted to play music with them, he was more than welcome to come by their house and hang out. "So not only was it like Ben welcoming me into their band; they welcomed me into their family, their tribe. The act of togetherness is a powerful thing. And to feel that music is our human call. And to feel that someone wants to hear you howl is really beautiful."

His involvement with Sun Blood Stories has felt like "letting his animal out." As to how it differentiates from his involvement with Ancient Psychic or his duo act Tisper (with Samwise Carlson), Judah couldn't quite put a finger on that. The various projects are part of a musical bundle of evolving self-expression. His involvement with each project is an innate response to the unique combination of individuals. "The act of playing music with your tribe is more invigorating, stimulating, exciting and beautiful to me personally. Some artists get everything out of mastering a particular piece of music." He gets such a joy out of doing his own thing within a group dynamic, improvising with his viola, and not regurgitating what others have done before.

Nik Kososik

Photo: Tony Merrick
At 17, Nik played bass for his friends' bands in high school. He kept practicing and then joined Limbosa, which gave him the chance to learn a lot. He had heard Sun Blood Stories play live in Hyde Park and was blown away by their cool, creepy, haunting sound so he hit Ben up to sit down to talk to him about music. They had similar tastes. Knowing they were without a bass player, he volunteered. The idea was shelved for a bit while the band went on tour but then Ben and Amber ended up moving literally two blocks away from where he lived, making it easy for them to get together to jam.

In terms of a tribal aesthetic, playing with Sun Blood Stories has definitely affected his bass playing, especially with John's essentially tribal drumming style.  He's the youngest member of the group and eager to participate.

John Füst

Photo: Kate Grosswiler
John originally met Ben Kirby responding to an ad on Craig's List. Ben was in a band called Ashley & the Astronauts with his ex-wife Ashley and they were looking for a drummer. That gig lasted for six months to a year, he can't remember exactly, and then he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for a while, which was where he'd originally grown up. He moved to Boise in 2008 when he was about 15-16. He was upset at first about having to move to Idaho and leaving his friends behind so that's what precipitated his returning when Ashley & The Astronauts disbanded. But then he returned to Boise and he and Ben started up another project called Talk Math to Me, which included Danny Kerr (from Atomic Mama, Brother Dan), which went along well for about eight months, but then—still nostalgic for California—he left Boise and returned to California so that was the end of that. But, once again, he came back to Boise and has finally come to terms with liking it, especially now that he's joined Sun Blood Stories. John agrees that Boise has a powerful independent music scene that has grown quite a bit. There's a lot of great bands, the community's tight-knit and welcoming, it's friendly, everybody knows everybody. It's contributed to his wanting to stay.

In just the few months he's been playing with Sun Blood Stories, he's enjoyed their working towards a noisy "wall of sound" with lots of echo and reverb and he's been incorporating their dissonance into his personal style. If the music is dissonant, hanging out with the members of the band is resonant, they're like a family, which is nothing to be taken as a given. Several bands he's been in have not shared that tribal quality. They've been more down-to-business, showing up for practice, doing gigs, little else.

He knew he'd fit in with Ben, he was familiar with Sun Blood's music, and it was a natural transition for him to come on board. Working with them has been different in that, with other bands you show up and they give you the chords to play or the structure of the song, but Ben makes it more about shapes—"You want to do a big swell here and then come down"—so it's different. As the drummer, he feels he has the most freedom in the band. He can do whatever he wants and be as weird as he wants and the others follow his lead. It isn't exactly that he's "guiding" them along but his drumming style for the group is open and free. Adjusting to the band has been a natural process, there hasn't been a lot he's had to learn, other than for some basic templates. The band is shaping itself as it goes along.

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You can listen to Sun Blood Stories at Soundcloud and Bandcamp and know where to show up to be abducted by aliens at their Facebook page, and on their Twitter and Instagram feeds. Future rituals include the upcoming premiere of their original soundtrack to Georges Méliès most famous silent film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), as part of the "Boise Likes to Score" series at Crazy Horse on February 28 and March 1, 2015. And, of course, they'll be performing ritual at Treefort 2015 (schedule TBA).