By Kay Gallivan
“I’ll tell the other guys to quiet down,” promises Ben Shemie, lead vocalist and guitarist for Suuns, who is speaking to me via telephone from a van packed with his three bandmates and Radwan Moumneh of Jerusalem in My Heart. They have been getting cosy like this for months while touring their new collaborative album around the world. Right now they are shooting across the prairies from Winnipeg to Regina, and Shemie tells me that he has been on tour for so long that the trucks, fields, and sky of the Canadian prairies feel exotic. Beirut felt comparatively familiar: their tour mate Moumneh had been a mainstay of the experimental music scene there before moving to Canada, so the musicians were welcomed as friends.
The wind is blowing hard into Shemie’s telephone receiver as he tells me about their seemingly unending tour schedule. The way his poetic musings about travel are being rendered barely audible by fuzzed out noise seems oddly appropriate considering his vocal style in Suuns. Moody, contemplative, barely decipherable vocals: check. Ghostly atmospheric hum: check. If Shemie’s despondent murmurings had an ominous echo added for effect, if the drone of the wind were a little lower pitched, and with the occasional addition of minimal, repetitive drum and bass lines, this telephone conversation would fit right in with the Suuns oeuvre. Suuns’ style has repeatedly been credited to the renewed popularity of krautrock, a minimalistic and experimental wave of synth rock that emerged out of Germany in the late sixties. While Shemie thinks the comparison is apt he insists that he had never actually listened to krautrock before their band started getting described this way in reviews. When Suuns started in 2007 they simply aspired to find a style that combined rock and roll with electronic influences.
The music of Suuns certainly does not seem to be created with mass accessibility in mind: take a 32-minute music video released by the band last year, which mainly consists of a single shot of a man in a blue button-down shirt washing his hands over and over under fluorescent light. The promotional package for the video promises to “delve into the ideas of repetition and the absolution of sin” and boasts that the half-hour video will be “very challenging for the viewer.” At least one reviewer was not up to the challenge; writing for Stereogum, Chris DeVille admitted that he did not watch the whole video. As it might be easy to guess from his approach to music videos, Shemie is active in the contemporary art world as well as the music world. In 2008 he created a four-day audiovisual installation at Nuit Blanche that incorporated recorded voices from the street with a spine-tingling background hum. The resulting soundscape is bizarre and difficult to listen to, created more as a vehicle for an idea than a toe-tapping soundtrack. Still, like other music influenced by contemporary art such as the ambient work of Brian Eno, sometimes experimentation actually yields something that is highly listenable. While the sound Suuns has landed on is painstakingly slow-paced and restrained, it pulses with emotion. The languid speed of this music leaves space for thought, a quality which has made it the perfect backdrop to a shoe commercial here and a television series there. Simple yet deep track titles like “Self” and “Touch” indicate that this new collaboration with Jerusalem In My Heart draws from a similarly ambitious conceptual template.
Suun’s most recent collaboration with Moumneh draws from, as Shemie puts it, a wider “musical vocabulary” as Moumneh has been introducing the band to experimental Middle Eastern music. Still, the collaboration feels natural on a number of levels: these new musical influences have a similarly despondent drone to Suuns pre-existing body of work and the artists are very close as people. Shemie refers to this new creation as their “friendship album,” crafted over two and a half years of jamming, playing live shows and re-recording. Working with Moumneh has pushed the band into even darker, slower and more ambient territory than before. The resulting album is distinct from Suun’s earlier music but has the feel of a new, more ambitious recording from a cohesive band rather than that of a temporary collaboration.