Cameron Stallones of Sun Araw: "I think most of our experiences are very hard to talk about."
Courtesy of Cameron Stallones
Sun Araw (due tonight at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art for the final night of Communikey) started off as a kind of solo project from Magic Lantern guitarist Cameron Stallones. As Sun Araw, Stallones has been prolific in exploring numerous methods of expressing the ideas that emerge organically from his own imagination as he's creating the music. His work is often lumped in with modern psychedelia, but his songs often branch well beyond any narrow definition of that sort of music.
Sun Araw's 2011 album, Ancient Romans is a hauntingly hypnotic set of drones, atmospheres and outright soundtrack score weirdness that wouldn't be out of place as accompaniments to experimental films of the '60s, '70s and today. Stallones's work does not fit easily into a specific time period, and that is certainly part of the appeal. We recently spoke with the affable and creatively curious Stallones at a stop at Austin Psych fest before making his way to Colorado for an appearance at the Communikey Festival this evening.
Westword: You put out a double album called Ancient Romans last year. What is the significance of the title, and why did that subject matter speak to you?
Cameron Stallones: That zone for me comes out of the jams. I start to make the record and sort of start to try to feel what it sounds like. It's hard to explain what connections are made but those connections are made pretty quickly. Usually it's imagery or specific colors. There's just some sort of space created that has a vibe, and for some reason, it was just perfect. It was thought out in that way. But once that idea becomes clear and I can see the vibe and give maybe a name to it, like Ancient Romans, and see something about what the record cover might look like and the palette, and you can start to develop it ,and the whole thing kind of draws a map on itself.
You make the music and certain imagery suggests itself to you in the process of making the music.
Yeah, yeah. Then at some point, you're like, "Oh, this is ancient Romans. I get it." It just occurs to you.
What first sparked your interest in ancient history and cultures, and why do you think it's relevant for us today?
Oh, man, yeah, I mean, I definitely went to school in kind a weird Classics program for a brief time, so I read a lot of that stuff. Not because I was particularly interested in it, but because of where I was. I don't know; I've always been interested in consciousness and the history of consciousness, the development of thought and us as species -- which is perpetually manifesting the same things and finding stranger and stranger and more and more contemporary permutations of these same ideas.
My dad is actually a history teacher. I've always kind of been around history. It's funny because I never thought I was interested in history, but I think it just kind of comes out. My sister teacher became a history teacher as well and went to grad school for history.
The music for Ancient Romans sounds like an alternative soundtrack to the novel Satyricon by Petronius and Fellini's film of the same name, which is to say it sounds like music from a '70s utopian science fiction film. Which makes sense, as some consider Satyricon the first science fiction novel. What inspired those kinds of sounds?
You know, it's really trippy you say that, man, because I kind of refrain from actually mentioning it. I don't know why, but I made the first track, "Lucretius," that was the only track on the record that was a jam with my friend William, and that's just a one take with no overdubs. That's just straight to tape. We just jammed that together. That's sort of the one that really unlocked it for me.
When we played that, I was just seeing Satyricon. And I love Satyricon, but I hadn't watched it in like five years. But all of a sudden I could just see the minotaur sequence when he comes out of the cave and there's a huge light that's pointed directly into the camera that's supposed to be the sun, you know, I think.
It's kind of behind this building, and it's obscuring your vision and the color of the sky -- something about that image popped into my head, and I went and watched Satyricon again. That was like a real key to me to unlocking the sounds of the album. So yeah, there's a huge intimate connection with Satyricon.
I finished tracking the record and mixing it but then I left on tour and we played a lot of those songs even though record hadn't come out yet. On that tour we did a re-score of Satyricon in Bristol, of all places. I did a live score. Which was really terrifying because that's what I wanted to do but that film has one of the best scores ever. The original score of that film is mind blowing. So I was like, "Oh, man, I don't know what we're going to do." I ended up sampling or making loops out of pieces of the score and improvising over them. It went really well. It was fun.
With your background in Classics, did you ever have to read Satyricon?
You know, I never did, actually. My only knowledge of it is through the film.
The video for "At Delphi" looks like it was shot on old stock 16mm. How did you film or create the kind of look, and why did you want to go for that kind of feel for the video?
It was actually Super 8. I really dig film. Actually, I was a film major in college. I used to have a full time job where I worked at a film archive -- just up until November. It's like music and film in my life always have this sort of seesaw thing. In the last couple of years, it's been music, and I haven't done a lot of film stuff. But I'm always trying to find reasons to make stuff. So that was fun.
I shot a video for "On Patrol" that was on 16 [mm], and then somebody shot on Super 8; that's why it looks like that. We did a really cheap telecine job because I like the way those things look sometimes. The guy who directed that video, Daniel Brantley, edited it and as you can see in the video, the editing is what it is. We talked about it and it was the execution of an idea we had. He helped me edit the other one [for "Impluvium"] as well.
As a more than casual fan of film, I have to assume there's significance to your choice of imagery, color and pacing. What informed your choice of the elements you chose for that?
I really like programmatic films like that. Like experimental films that are like editing ideas. There's this really amazing filmmaker named Gary Beydler who made a film called Hand Held Day and another called Venice Pier. He makes these really beautiful 16mm experimental films that are sort of editing ideas.
Venice Pier is some sort of mathematical thing up and down the Venice Pier, moving the camera forward ten feet and filming it for a certain number of frames and then moving it again and doing it over and over to create these strange kind of equation rhythm films. That's kind of what inspired it -- to do something in that spirit. Do the flash editing stuff.
What is the significance of Delphi for you, and how would you say it connects with your overall concept of the album?
That piece is at the center of the album. That record's sort of like a really long move inside, and then going so far inside that, you realize you're back outside. It has a certain direction all the way up to "At Delphi," and "At Delphi" is sort of motionless in the center and then it's moving back the other direction for the rest of the record. It's a heavy piece for me. There's a couple of voices in it that are really strident. There's a certain guitar part that, to me, sort of is the oracle, you know? It comes in somewhere halfway. It sort of carries that weight.
That record has a lot to do with ideas about time, for me. This is personal stuff, and it's not really in the record but it's what I was thinking about. Seeing it represented in that way -- the idea is sort of a motionless center and the procession and the waves that emanate in a ring shape all the way out. It's sort of this ability to be motionless and process forward and it has something to do with eternity, you know?
On the Drag City description of the record, it talks about camera movements and then seems to abstract that to a cognitive perspective of the subject. Do you feel that in some way encompasses your own approach to making art in blurring the lines between conceptualization, technique and execution?
I just try to keep it all as intuitive as possible and I really try not to think about it and not conceptualize it until it's there. But once it's there, it's easier to think about and try to see the patterns in it. The whole process is sort of like what all the art and the writing is about. It's this process of crystallizing certain understandings and certain representations of certain phases of thought and having them totally represented. But not consciously and not in attempt to literalize any of it -- but in an attempt to let it all interact with each other.
Is Sun Ark Studios kind of a reference to both Sun Ra and Lee "Scratch" Perry? I mean, considering you're also obviously a fan of dub and those production techniques?
Yeah, there's that too. And for some reason, when I named it for myself, I was thinking of Sun Ship, the Coltrane record, which I really love. I didn't actually make the Ark connection but I was definitely in that zone. We got to go to the Black Ark when we went to Jamaica. It's still there where he burned it. We went there at night. It was pretty magical, man. We touched something that night. It was a crazy gift to get to be there. The melted mixing board is still there in the rubble.
His brother still lives in the house, and the whole house is covered in his paintings and his scrawlings. He painted all over the walls and wrote inscriptions on everything. These really intense, hieroglyphic kind of like maps of what looks like astral bodies and auras from, like, Theosophical books or something. But they didn't look to me like anything I'd ever seen before. They're all kind of of his own imagination. He's like William Blake, man. He was a cosmologist.
You went to went to Jamaica and worked with The Congos?
That record comes out May 1. I just got my copies recently. It happened through this label in New York called RVNG and he does this series called Frkwys. He asked me to do it, and he suggested the Congos. He was really interested in me going to Jamaica, and I was a little more reticent, and I wanted to work here with Henry Flynt or something. I was thinking something more like the previous ones he did, which were more academic or something. He was intent on it, and it was like, "Of course, that sounds like a great idea."
So we went down there. Been down there twice, and we're just continuing to work with those guys to try to figure out more and more ways to open the gate, which is standing open pretty well. We started a dancehall label. We did this record and we also made these dancehall singles. You can find that at www.sunaraw.com/duppygun.html.
And for more information on that Congos record, and that Congos documentary that comes with the record, you can go to http://igetrvng.com/discography/123/ We're trying to keep that going and keep that moving and keep making music with people down there, keep collaborating and keep making tracks. We're trying to make a series of twelve inches that keep coming out.
How did you get interested in that kind of music?
Just from being a record geek. Someone gave me Heart of The Congos a long time ago and it definitely changed my ideas on reggae. I had never heard a reggae album like that. I wasn't a really deep, dub reggae person then. That's never been something I've collected or knew a lot about. I just knew what I liked.
But since we've been down there, I've become more and more interested in it and kind of finding my around it a little bit better. I mean, I knew about it but some of the dudes in that world are just encyclopedias. It's like jazz heads. It's so deep and really intimidating, because people knows what's up and all the different pressings and all that stuff.
It seems as though mythology features as a prominent component or reference in your music. What about that continues to serve as an inspiration or guide to your music?
I'm interested in mythology, but I'm particularly interested in the unique ones you develop within yourself. It's what William Blake would call "breaking the ratio." It's sort of like alchemically melding yourself with the world and understanding the way that you understand things. Erecting totems for yourself, you know.
My records have always been kind of like that for me. Like Heavy Deeds, and what The Sphinx is and all these ideas. They all have personal meanings to me, but I sort of half comprehend and half don't. I really believe in erecting these large monuments to different parts of yourself and interacting with them in a real way and being serious with it. It's something we're capable of doing, and it makes life really rich, and it helps you to represent things better.
I think most of our experiences are very hard to talk about. We think that they're easy, but they're really not easy to talk about. There's really clear ways you can talk about a lot of them, just not necessarily directly. I'm always kind of interested in talking about the experiences I have that conveys something of them.
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