In a technological age where you should be able to explore all facets of music with ease, it seems that we’ve become more obsessed with genres than we’ve ever been. As such, bands are quickly labelled in an effort to place them in a clear context but this can often be at the expense of any true sense of cohesion. Particularly difficult is the label ‘Progressive’. Intended to denote music that moves beyond the status quo, somewhere along the way it seems to have become a term for any band that apes the music of Pink Floyd, Genesis or King Crimson with little thought as to where the progression in such behaviour lies. However, for those for whom Progressive is still linked to, well, progress, Sumer could be loosely covered by such a term. Drawing on myriad influences from Tool to Anathema, Sumer are an intriguing proposition on record (their epic ‘the animal you are’ is a gloriously varied journey across an imaginative soundscape) and a ferocious act on stage, gleefully expanding the harder edge of their music and winning over legions of fans in the process (enough to have them appear at Bloodstock this year as part of the opening line-up following their exceptional performance in 2015).
A hard-working live band, Sumer have spent a good deal of the last two years taking their show around the UK, alternating between intimate venue shows and blowing the collective minds of festival crowds, so it’s no surprise that a follow-up, whilst desired by many, has yet to appear. However, with the aptly-titled ‘End of sense’ tour fast approaching, we gladly took the opportunity to have a chat with Ian Hill, one of the band’s two vocalist / guitar players, about the forthcoming tour, the lengthy wait for new material (a question which the good-natured frontman clearly gets asked a lot, although he’s decent enough to contain the inevitable sigh when asked) and the process of writing the band engage in. A lengthy discussion, it paints a picture of a band driven by a clear passion for the music they play, eschewing the seemingly endless fascination for celebrity that seems to dog some acts and focusing on the one thing that’s important – creating something that is truly challenging and original. If you’ve seen or heard Sumer, you’ll know that they have already achieved that goal with the tough riffs and exquisite melodies of ‘the animal you are’; if you have yet to check out the band, cease reading my interminable intro and head here to have a listen before going any further – this is a band you have to hear…
It’s been two years since you released ‘the animal you are’. The lyrics relate to both personal and societal relationships and the damage that we can do to one another, and it seems that the content of the album has proved depressingly prescient in the last few months – have you noticed people, particularly in light of recent events, digging more into the lyrical content of the album?
You know what, as much as it is quite topical at the moment with what’s going on and the current state of affairs in the world, a lot of it is personal relationships that we’ve gone through and surprisingly not many people delve into it that much. I’ve been asked about it a couple of times and Tim and I have different writing styles. He’s more sort of politically aware, I’d say, and his lyrics lean more towards the current state of affairs or the shit-storm that we might very well be in at the moment, whereas mine are more about the personal relationships that I’ve encountered, whether that’s… I don’t know, it’s just that that is easier to write about for me.
Recently, we shared a video of our Bloodstock performance, ‘the end of sense’, which Tim put up on the Facebook page saying that it’s strangely relevant at this point in time. Which is… yeah… “the end of sense”… shit’s been going down recently! It’s a mess. It seems like a distant memory now, when we wrote those lyrics I think, but they’re very topical, certainly.
It struck me as very apt, particularly, because the tour you’re about to embark on is named ‘the end of sense’…
Absolutely and, again, I think it was Tim’s idea to throw that name in the bag. That makes perfect sense.
With the album, one thing that surprised me was an interview (which may have been with you or Tim, I’m not sure), in which you said a lot of the material was tracked live, which is surprising given its complexity. How much time went into developing the material in rehearsal in order to do that?
Well, certainly with the first album, there were about four songs written before I even got my head in the room to be honest. They were a kind of instrumental outfit, penning the musicality of it all and trying to sort that out and then I came in and started toying with lyrics and so on.
But yeah, we worked on it a lot… Just recently, it’s a case of getting in a room (we rehearse every week) and ideas just come to the table. Literally it can just be someone coming to band practice with an idea in their head and asking what people think and… sometimes it’ll fall flat on its face! Other times we just start playing – literally just start jamming around it. Up until recently we had, probably quite a bad habit of not trying to hone that, or not putting anything down. Recently we’ve put a few bits and pieces together so we can record every practice. That we weren’t doing that in the first instance is just ludicrous, but we’d often say “that’s a cool idea”, or we’d start jamming on what may have been some cool, epic bit and then we’d realise we had no idea how to play it and maybe it’d be long gone and we’d never remember it. Now we can just cut bits and reference back a day later and that, even in the last few months, has spurred things on a lot, which is amazing.
It’s nice to hear a band really going for it in that way in the studio because it seems that more and more bands are polishing the hell out of their sound… You lose so much personality through it.
Yeah it does seem like that and I think we started on the last record with that in mind. We wanted to go bang into Pro Tolls and we suddenly stopped because we were in a really cool studio with vintage mics, vintage recording material, access to great recording equipment and we just ended up on a reel-to-reel… some old school machine that just appealed to us massively. But it was very much the case that we had to get everything bang on. So there was a lot of going through different takes, but certainly the outcome of it, it just made us all much happier. It just sounds much nicer, yeah, like you say, it’s got that clinical approach to… With other bands that can work and it has to be incredibly clinical and precise but with this it has to be a bit more spacey, a bit more proggy and I think it lends itself well to that kind of feel. I think we’re obviously pretty pleased with the outcome and I think we’re going to work with the same producer again because he’s just awesome. Hopefully we’ll go through that thing again, but who knows.
One of the things that I always pick up on with the records that I love is the way that they flow from start to finish so that you have a journey rather than a collection of tracks that happen to be gathered together on a CD. One of the things that I believe is challenging for a band is sequencing an album effectively and I was wondering how you approached that?
Well, originally the tunes we wrote for that album just had numbers whereas the tunes we’ve written recently have been named or given working titles… ridiculous working titles I hasten to add… but all the tunes up to a point were just 1,2,3,4… so we didn’t write them to go an in order. I think we literally had a body of work and tried to consider how it would flow.
I can’t remember how we actually went about deciding what was what but it just felt right, I think. ‘End of sense’ has always felt like a natural set ender, for us, so it just felt like a natural thing to bung at the end but we didn’t have any real method to it, it was just, as you say, what sits nicely. And there are little segue parts that Sean helped us out with and Toby did the intro track – that’s all him, his vocal parts and stuff, and then there’s little bits and pieces in between with just little sounds here and there to help it blend together. So, yeah, I’m glad you said that!
Well, for me, it’s one of the things that makes an album stand out – that the artist has taken the trouble to blend everything together.
Well, I think when it went out, a friend (a promoter) piped up and said “oh God, I hate it when bands put these stupid intro bits on albums and stuff and fill ins…” and we were like “Oh god, I hope that’s not us they’re talking about!” They claimed it wasn’t but… But you know, sometimes they’re the kind of tracks when you decide to skip over and go to the nuts and bolts of it, but I think it gives it a feeling. Like you say it’s kind of a journey. It makes it flow nicely. I don’t know how we’re going to approach the next one though – we’ll see.
I also really liked the physical packaging you did – the art work for that album is really cool, who did it and how did it come about being the cover?
That’s from a very good friend of mine, actually. AS little as I have to with a lot of stuff [laughs] – I’m actually just playing – a friend of mine called Nick Cordell is a graphic designer, and I’d spoken to him and I was really keen for him to help us out. He’s got a cool way of looking at things and we pretty much left him to it. We gave him a bit of a brief but we basically said “see what you can do”. I think he had some ideas in his head anyway, but he came back with a few ideas and we homed in on that one because it’s just a striking album cover, it sits well in iTunes and it looks nice. It’s a bold looking cover, I think it’s wicked, I’m well chuffed with it, and hopefully we’ll work with him again and he’s a good friend. He’s done an outstanding job. Tim had an input on what was written inside but it was all put together and designed by Nick.
I like the way it’s quite stripped back as well. There’s a sense of mystery to it rather than a bunch of photo shopped images of the band filling up the space.
Well, God, nobody wants to see us, for a start! But yeah, it wasn’t really about… it was pretty simple and you know, budget was an issue – I think it’s difficult for anyone playing music these days, it’s tricky to pull the funds together to do things – I was talking to a chap who was a record producer and I think he bought the album, certainly we sent him a copy, and it turned up smashed. I think we saw him at Bloodstock and he was like “what is that? What’s going on with the artwork there?” and he just didn’t like the fact that it was an inlay card and we were like “man, we couldn’t afford it! We couldn’t afford a book!” We’d have gone with a digi-pack, but we were just doing it ourselves, out of our own pocket with no management and it was always about the content of the actual CD and not the material that went with it.
It’s horrifically expensive recording as well…
Ah yeah, absolutely man, it’s tough. But I think it’s cool so…. Meh!
As your music sits across a number of genres, although I guess there’s an argument that it’s most closely aligned to prog and post-metal, have you ever found, particularly when starting out, that it was a challenge to find other bands to play with being kind of too heavy for the Indie end of the spectrum and not quite heavy enough for a metal crowd?
It still occurs man, we will find ourselves… more often than not, we’re set with the heavier side of bands I guess… we’ve played with loads of metal bands, possibly not that well, or fitted to what we’re trying to do. But it appeals, certainly, to that kind of crowd. Your basic metallers – you get a lot of metallers who love a bit of prog and a bit of Tool; you’re hard pushed to find a nmetaller who doesn’t… so it certainly fits with that.
But then we’ve been put on with other bands like Mishkin Fitzgerald, her solo stuff, and you know, that was wildly different from what we are… but it’s nice because it gives you that opportunity to cross over and not just go “we’re in with the prog guys and that’s it!” and to be honest, that’s a name we’ve just been given or a genre we’ve fallen into. We didn’t necessarily set out to play that kind of music, it’s just what happened. So now people say “Yeah, you sound like prog… you sound like Genesis!” But, like I say, it gives us that freedom to mix genres and it doesn’t hurt us to play a gig with a metal band or an alternative… pop band. We’re cool with that. It’s interesting for us…
Certainly, you appeal to the metal community because you played Bloodstock 2015 and then you opened up the Thursday this year – do you think that experience has informed the new material that the band are producing because I get the impression you’re edging into slightly heavier pastures?
I don’t know if it’s influenced us in any way. Certainly, we didn’t think “Oooh we’ve played Bloodstock, we must go heavier!” I don’t know. Like I said we just get in a room and jam it out. Things have certainly… certainly the instrumentation sounds quite heavy right now, but then there are really lovely melodies and some nice soft parts to the tracks and hopefully we can maintain the dynamic that we had with the last album, but also we want to push things forward and make things interesting.
Yeah… we’re quite lively when we play and playing the heavy stuff certainly is good fun when you play it live. It’s wicked fun when it’s nice and heavy and you get a good groove. It’s just awesome getting into it. But I don’t think that we ever thought that we ought to do this or that. We just get in a room, play and see what happens… and what’s happening at the moment is that it seems quite heavy… but that could all change – we might put really high falsetto voices all over it. If there’s a load of that in there it might ease it down a bit!!!
You’re also planning a European tour next year I think…
Yeah, that’s very much in its infancy at the moment. We’re talking to people… well Tim’s been talking… Tim’s basically our band manager. He puts a serious amount of work into what we’re doing, he’s seriously driven and he’s good at what he does which is awesome for us, we’re in a debt to him. So, yeah, he’s in talks with a lot of different people. He’s been speaking to Steve Dickson, the organizer of Mammothfest and then chatting to another band who should probably remain nameless right now. But yeah, we’re in talks and hopefully….
Right now, we’ve basically been given a gig next year with a guy called Constantine who’s a big tech-fest fan. He’s wicked, he came over when we played the Monolith gig at Dingwalls with Agent Fresco, so, anyway, we’ve got a gig out in Utrecht in the Netherlands next April, so we’re trying to bolster that with a few more dates in and around Europe. Hopefully that’ll come to fruition because it’ll be amazing.
Is it challenging to try and work the life of the band around the depressing realities of work?
It’s tough, but we love it and if we didn’t we wouldn’t bother! We’ve all got jobs and you just can’t do it without a job, right? To buy your gear and all the bits and pieces you need and, yeah, to get to gigs and get paid peanuts… it’s difficult but it’s what we want to do – we love it and just try to each take a week off and go on tour man, it’s just amazing.
The last question (I’m sorry) is: how far along are you with producing the next record?
Yeah, we’re getting told off now! It recently came up with a few of our friends – we’re getting reminded that the last record is now two years old so, yeah, it’s… we’ve been working at it for quite some time, but as of recently it feels like it’s picked up some momentum and that things have started to take shape. It might not be, necessarily, an album that we release next. We might throw out a couple of Eps in the next year, maybe at the beginning and towards the end of next year, and then, depending on how it goes, we might throw it all together and make an album but I think just for our own sake we need to get some new material. Playing the new stuff live would be great for us, but we’ve just been riding on the coattails of the last album for probably a bit too long. But it’s gone well, so we can’t bellyache and we are just trying to hone the new stuff so it’s not just a pile of dog shit and people don’t like it… we’re in no rush. We’re not going to just try and rush something out because we’re getting called a bag of dicks by a certain somebody (!) but when it comes it’ll come and we’re getting there, it’s sounding great, we’re super-excited and we just hope you guys like it.
Find out more about Sumer here on their Facebook Page.