SUN ARAW + M. GEDDES GENGRAS: LIFE’S A SICK TRIP
Last year, New York label RVNG International sent Cameron Stallones of Sun Araw and longtime partner-in-drone M. Geddes Gengras to Jamaica to make a record with the Congos, one of the most legendary reggae bands of all time, to be issued as part of the Freakways collaboration series. After just over a week of constant musicmaking (and filmmaking, too) Stallones and Gengras returned to L.A. with what they call the weirdest but most accessible record either one of them has ever made. Icon Give Thank is out now on RVNG INTL. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
What was happening five minutes before and five minutes after you took the photo for the album cover—of you and the Congos and the pillar that says ICON GIVE THANK?
Cameron Stallones (Sun Araw): That photo—when we saw the ICON GIVE THANK, especially to me but to everyone, it seemed like the thing. Kind of even before it made sense, it made sense … in that sense.
M. Geddes Gengras: You gotta give thanks, man. That was the overwhelming takeaway from the whole experience. The lesson is if you’re open to the universe, amazing things can happen to you, and you just have to be grateful for all the opportunities that come your way.
C: Attitude is gratitude, man. It came together really fast. At first, it was suggested that I would participate in the Freakways thing. I made a list and talked about it—honestly, the Congos were pretty far down on the list just because it seemed out of the realm of possibility. I wanted to make a record with Henry Flynt! Most of my ideas seemed a bit more in the realm. Matt [of RVNG Records] from the beginning wanted to do it with someone from the reggae world, but I was not so sure. Ged knows way more about dub and reggae than I do. Heart of the Congos is one of my favorite records of all time, but I’m not by any means a scholar or well-versed—it’s such a world unto itself that it’s kind of intimidating, in a way. But all that was helpful in the end!
I know you both knew just who the Congos were. But how did RVNG explain to the Congos what exactly it was you two were doing musically?
G: That’s a mystery! I know he’d sent some of Cameron’s records to them. … They definitely hadn’t heard anything I’d done. I was the wild card!
C: From when the decision was made, it was like maybe three weeks till we got there. It was so fast! We went there thinking maybe we would jam … ? Honestly, no one had any clue what would happen. Maybe we’d build a band of musicians down there? We had no idea, and I don’t think they did either. We were all just feeling the situation out.
G: They have a pretty set way of how they do things down there in terms of how the producers work. When we came, stuff was unformed. Everything we brought with us ended up getting used in one way or another, but it was really pretty raw. The first day, they were all there in the room with us watching us trying to figure out what these songs were—in front of them! It got really stressful. There was a crowd of people … Negus, Ashanti, and a bunch of people in the room, and we’re sitting there—Cameron and I by ourselves—and it was terrifying! We hadn’t established communication yet!
C: Everything about it was feeling around in the dark. The cultural differences are pretty great, and Patois is basically a different language—it’s incomprehensible unless you know what you’re listening for, and it’s super-fast. That first day … we’d done really really minimal jamming here. Information about what was down there in the studio equipment-wise was really murky, so we brought whatever we could and what we thought we’d need … but we didn’t know if there’d be a drum kit there or anything. We’d made these really brutally minimal rhythms and the second day we were there it was like, ‘Let’s get in the studio.’ Bravo is the Congos’ engineer and he worked with us on the record—Bravo, the man, the best baby father, an incredible dude—he was like, ‘So wanna lay down some guitar?’ ‘Uh … OK, I guess?’ There was a total crowd of people in the studio and it was really really intense, and I tried to remember the one that seemed the most robust cuz it was about to get played for everybody! So he started playing and I started playing and I managed to get into it and really feel it and it was a really crazy moment—it did a lot to both confuse and kind of encourage everyone in the room.
What made you put ‘confuse’ first just now?
C: I remember Ashanti saying, ‘Wow, this is a really different kind of music.’ But not in a negative way at all—sort of intrigued. That take is on the record—the guitar on ‘Jungle.’
So everyone can hear those first nervous seconds?
G: First morning! The first notes we played.
Ged, what were you doing while Cameron played? Trying to look really enthusiastic?
G: When Bravo was there I felt kinda neutered cuz I couldn’t run the board. So we basically took turns. That’s the way the record worked—taking turns with everything. Cameron would do something, I’d do something. I wasn’t there rubbing his shoulders—it felt like it might have been misinterpreted.
How do you actually break the ice with a legend?
G: Especially in the circumstances we were in, there were a whole lot of cultural differences you have to get past first. I’ve read I guess a fair amount—I don’t claim any immense knowledge—about Rastafari and I knew what to expect from that culture. It’s a subsect of Jamaican culture itself. It’s this weird little enclave, and when you’re in like regular Jamaica—not these Rasta communities—it’s a totally different feel. For us, the thing that worked was music. When communication was unclear, they were in the studio with us the whole time and they were checking out what we were doing and we were bonding through the music. You’d play something and Ashanti Roy is sitting there right next to you and talking and laughing and giving you suggestions while you’re doing a track. Having to do it in such a short amount of time meant all we could do was do it! We didn’t have time to look back and think. … It was like, ‘How do we get this done?’ And it was a project that felt like at any time it could fall away. So it was like, ‘Let’s make this work and figure out what it means later.’ And that in the end is how you connect.
What kind of things do you feel threatened this project?
G: The whole time was kind of a dance … if you look at the whole history of the Jamaican music scene and its relationship with foreign labels, there’s a lot of exploitation. It’s completely ridiculous and it continues to this day, and it’s really sad. You go down there and you wanna be like, ‘No, it’s cool—we’re like you, we’re musicians, we’re fucking broke!’ But that doesn’t actually work. What you realize is being like them here and being like them there are two totally different things. You’re really in the Third World in a lot of ways. It’s a tricky thing. We wanted to make sure everybody felt respected and not taken advantage of and properly compensated cuz there was a lot of negotiation on that we were not privy to—but it’s the kind of place that works on a different time clock than we’re on here. When you try to make things happen, it can be pretty frustrating cuz they’re not gonna happen in the way or at the time you think they’re going to, which we’d see over and over—people getting frustrated cuz they were trying too hard to make plans. Everything good that happened around the record happened in a happenstance way—this idea of blessing or synchronicity of things coming together in a way that was just perfect.
C: That’s the thing. No amount of scheming—with all that history and difficulties—no amount of calculation can get you through that. The only thing you can do is just be direct and be human, and realize that connection is much more fundamental. It’s not necessarily a mark of sophistication to overperceive these differences simply because … I don’t know. It was like people giving each other the eye, but there was total recognition really quickly and really spontaneously, and that recognition happened in the studio through the making of the record together. It was people being like, ‘Oh, I completely understand where you’re coming from and you do me, even though we have all these differences.’ Everything since that’s happened with the record has been so positive in that light. Gestures of good faith, and demonstrations of that faith through creative collaboration, which is really powerful—it’s been able to cut through some barriers that seemed pretty daunting at times.
Is this what you were talking about when you said you have to be open to the universe?
C: Thankfully, at that time we were being open to the universe simply by directly engaging—I don’t remember having a thought for like three days! I just remember being in the studio and working and working. We were working all night recording track after track and trying to beat these things that weren’t even edited into something that’d maybe make sense for them to sing on, and luckily we were able to do that work in that way—a real openness.
How does it feel to finally free yourself from the tyranny of the ego?
C: I’m not sure I can tell you yet. I hope to!
G: There’s definitely a time when all you can do is what’s in front of you, and if you put good things in front of you to do, you’ll find yourself in this pretty crazy zone. We got to this place when the filmmakers and Matt from the label showed up and were observing us work—we were deep into the project, and they commented immediately. ‘It’s crazy watching you guys work because you don’t talk to each other. You just make noises and say “DUDE” and nod at each other!’ At that point, we’d maybe just panicked ourselves into a rhythm of working that sustained itself for the whole trip.
What’s the most meaningful concept you can communicate by just saying, ‘DUDE’?
C: Dude, there’s so many.
G: Maybe when we heard ‘Give Thanks and Praise’ for the first time with the vocals, there was a ‘dude’ and a nod there. It’ll say more than words can say! There were a lot of meaningful moments that were probably signified with a ‘dude’ and a nod, cuz all you could do was be like, ‘Are you here? Are you experiencing this along with me? Cuz I don’t think I’m actually here.’
C: Neither of us have any idea what people are gonna think of the record. It’s such a strange object to us, too—such a talisman with weird power. It’s all of us and yet none of us. It’s the weirdest and also most accessible thing either of us have ever made.
Of all the music you’ve made in your past, what actually prepared you most for this?
G: Something I’ve done a lot in the past four or five years is been a sideman in other people’s bands, and it’s something I really love—drumming or playing the bass and being able to sort of assimilate into their vision. It’s a really powerful thing and sort of a separate skill from having your own thing. That’s not exactly what happened with this project because we hybridized everything. Cameron’s played in other people’s bands too though, so we were able to find this middle ground instantly and dig into it. And having played together before, we could talk to each other. It’s so important to be able to say, ‘Dude, that sucks!’ And there was shit we’d argue about deep into the making of the record—there’s one thing on the record that’ll probably always drive me crazy and one thing that’ll probably drive Cameron crazy, but we’ll never tell. I think making perfect music is impossible. We’re not the Talking Heads! Cameron and I both work in a really intuitive fashion. There has to be a rawness and an immediacy and a realness, and part of that is mistakes. Mistakes are some of my favorite moments on the record. There are things that were on other tapes and just sort of ended up glommed on to something, and it’s like, ‘Well, that’s staying!’ It’s like alchemy. What comes out of it is not necessarily what you thought, but you keep pouring shit in until it looks right.
Was anything you already knew about the history of reggae and dub relevant once you began recording?
C: The one thing we did communicate to each other very clearly before going down there was that we’re not making a reggae record. We’re not making a dub record. For obvious reasons—‘You guys have that covered!’ But there’s a lot to do with production techniques that have inspired us both, and a lot of it is simply cuz of the same means—finding ways to do interesting things with what you have. The record was produced in a crazy way that I’ve never produced like before. Almost everything is direct into the board because there weren’t any amplifiers—we didn’t have one! We had one analog stereo chorus rack-mount unit that became super important. It colors the whole record. The Lee Perry-type stuff … that stuff happens, but it happens because you’re working in the same spirit, not trying to DO that.
G: Beyond that, it’s existing in a feedback loop. Almost all the music we heard there was dancehall and reggae. I didn’t wanna divorce myself from it—I was immersed in it! Except for that Rihanna and Drake song, they played that a ton. Drake crosses all borders—who knew? Don’t speak ill of Drake on my phone, sir!
Did you blow smoke into the tapes like Lee Perry used to do?
G: No comment.
C: We didn’t have any tapes, man. I think the hard drive got smoked out pretty heavily.
G: They had the best screensaver I’ve ever seen, I will say that. It’s in the movie. You’ll see it.
What’s it like to wake up in the Congos compound each day?
C: That’s such a huge part of it! We kind of kept their schedule, which is go to bed real early and wake up real early, and being in their household—the soundscape of the neighborhood … people start playing music in their yard incredibly loudly and incredibly early. The soundscape is mind-blowing. It’s a different idea of space. You can hear at least three or four songs playing at once, and then animal noises, bird noises, other city noises … it’s kind of the thing I miss the most. It’s incredibly psychedelic all the time.
How were you two permanently altered by this trip? If you were?
G: For me, there’s a lot of things you think are too crazy to happen—but crazy shit happens every day. I’ll just go on about it, and people are like, ‘Could you see yourself moving there?’ I don’t think so, cuz for me it’d always be like living in this weird dream. But what I took out of it was this whole different perspective on life and a whole different way of living, and it’s definitely changed me—as an artist and a human. Cameron, too. Everyone who was there with us! There’s a crazy sort of … I dunno. If you open yourself to these experiences and let yourself really be taken by them, you’re putting yourself in a position to have your mind blown continuously. You realize that these things exist in the real world and exist everywhere. I look at every day differently cuz of the time we spent there.
C: It’s part of a long process I’ve been living for the last few years, but it’s a realization of … the power of being completely present, and the poetic nature and relationship we have with the universe. They’re all illustrated there super clearly. I think it’s easier for us to see them in really foreign places that are really far from where we’re from. They’re in a lot of ways really close to us spiritually and psychologically, and we recognized that immediately—even though it doesn’t make a lot of sense to us on a physical level, but it makes all the sense in the world when you realize it’s something you’ve even been enacting here in a different way. It’s that recognition he’s talking about. It’s really powerful, and it does permeate and it does spread here. That relationship with the world isn’t just something that needs to happen on those sorts of trips. It happens continuously as much as you’re willing to open your perceptive organ. It costs you a lot to do that sometimes, so it’s not always what’s happening. But it’s powerful. And it was crowned with a piece of art we’re both so proud of, and they’re really proud of too—it’s something that expanded all of us. It’s hard to say in words! But it’s getting close.
G: This idea that we are able to come together in this act of creation … Cultural and communication barriers—really simple things—can derail so many relationships. If we’d gone down there in a different capacity and met the Congos, there’s no way we would have created as deep a relationship as we created. For them, it was an act of praising Jah. For us, it was whatever it is—you don’t wanna have to put a name on it, but it’s the same idea of honoring the universe and all that is holy and real and beautiful and bring that out in something and make that manifest.
C: It’s really important to realize the power of things all being the same thing, without having to be the same thing, you know? That was that recognition. It wasn’t some musician being like, ‘Whoa, you can shred dude!’ It was a recognition of purpose. And that’s the most powerful thing. The only thing!
G: When you can collaborate with somebody you’ve never met and find this ground in the music so fast … those experiences will stick with me forever. There’s no way you can forget those moments where everything starts to make sense.
What kinds of things will you never do the same away again?
G: I wake up every day and give thanks to something that I’m here and my life has taken me here! Without getting too deep into it, you go through your life and you make a lot of choices and sometimes you don’t really know how they work out for you. But when you can look at something like this, I’m so completely proud. It feels like I must have done something right to get me here! It’s an affirmation. I understand the universe has its ways and all this is so random and tossed up, and I don’t think it’s cuz we’re the best musicians in the world. That’s not why these things happen! You can go to Guitar Institute and find some dude who will run circles around us. It’s about touching that place inside. That’s what’s changed with me. I don’t look at anything the same way anymore, honestly.
C: Life’s a sick trip, dude. That’s the ultimate lesson.