Ex-Isis Frontman Aaron Turner Shows Versatility With Mamiffer and Sumac

In the world of heavy experimental music, there's nobody with as much clout as Aaron Turner. He founded the seminal record label HydraHead, fronted the post-metal goliath Isis for more than a decade, and has had his hand in so many groundbreaking side projects (Old Man Gloom, Sumac, Jodis, Split Cranium, to name just a few) that it's hard to keep track.

After all that time, you'd think Turner would have his process down to a science. But moving from band to band, working in different ways with different people in myriad settings and configurations, he says, has kept things fresh and fun.

"I feel there's strengths and weaknesses in each way of doing things," Turner says. "That's why I choose to do so many different things. [It] helps me reassess what I do and figure out better ways of developing my personal craft."

For much of the time since Isis dissolved in 2010, Turner has busied himself with Mamiffer, an eerily beautiful (though not particularly abrasive) band that he and his wife, vocalist/pianist Faith Coloccia, started in 2007. Mamiffer's inception marked a bit of a sea change for Turner, as it was the first time he wasn't at the helm. In fact he wasn't even in the group in the beginning. Turner produced the first Mamiffer recordings, then nearly simultaneously joined the band and married Coloccia. His role in the band, an atmospheric, haunting project based around his wife's complex but mesmerizing piano and vocals, is important but understated. Coloccia provides the structures, and Turner paints mood over the top with an assortment of guitar and electronic sounds.  

"Though I’ve been mostly recognized for being in Isis, a lot of stuff I’ve done has been on the mellower end of the spectrum, at least comparatively speaking — Jodis, House of Low Culture, Lotus Eaters," says Turner. "Stylistically, Mamiffer doesn’t feel like a stretch to me. It has so many qualities that I have and naturally gravitate toward: space, abstraction, beauty, a heavy emphasis on texture, emotion and atmosphere." 

Turner, however, is quick to point out that Mamiffer isn't a typical band for him in the sense that he isn't in charge. In his other current band, Sumac, Turner is the mastermind behind all the song structures. With Mamiffer, his wife is in charge. 

"Mamiffer is very much Faith’s creation," says Turner, "and she continues to be the sole director of the group. During the writing process, I often provide feedback as Faith is working out structures and individual sections – frequently preventing her from throwing out great parts. She writes a lot of material and can ignore or forget some really worthwhile pieces, so sometimes I just have to remind her." 

The transition hasn't been easy for Turner, but it has been eye-opening. Letting go, he says, has made him a better contributor to the collaborative process of the band. 

"Being in the position of creative subordinate was somewhat of a struggle for me initially," says Turner. "I was used to being creative director in all the projects I was a part of,  or at the very least an equal contributor. To learn to act as a supporter of someone else’s vision has been a rewarding challenge for me. It’s taught me to write and think in a different way, to be better equipped to engage in creative critical analysis, and to be more humble as a player."

At this point, Mamiffer has been a part of Turner's life almost as long as Isis was. And though he has continued to write and record with musicians of all varieties, either through sparse studio sessions or Internet file sharing, Turner seemed to have put the full-time metal life behind him. In reality, he says, he was quietly constructing a new, heavy band —  Sumac —  in his head. And unlike much of the music he's been involved with over the past decade outside of Mamiffer, he says, he was determined to make Sumac a real band.

"There is a way of songwriting that couldn't be done with file trading — feeling that collective energy and using that as a guide," Turner says. "

Turner, who now lives in Washington state, had specific goals for Sumac and was willing to wait for the right players to avail themselves.

"I'm the primary songwriter, and I just tried to find the best possible participants I could," Turner says. "The approach to this whole project has been to follow the guidelines I set within the compositional framework, sort of just the idea that a very minimalist approach was going to render the strongest result."
Turner says he set out first to find the right drummer for the band.

"I think the drums do so much to define the way a band sounds," he says. "I had been going to shows in the Seattle area for years, investigating drummers, casually examining people."

Turner says he was immediately drawn to Baptists drummer Nick Yacyshyn.

"Nick was the only person I really got excited watching play," Turner says. "He's amazing. He had the intensity and the creativity I was looking for. Sometimes [the drumming] is a thing people don't even know they're hearing. They might not notice the patterns, but it does so much to impact the character of a band."

Yacyshyn says that he, too, was excited by the prospect of playing in Sumac.

"The first time we played together, there was an undeniable connection and a seemingly limitless well of ideas to explore," Yacyshyn says. "Our collective musical energy was something that needed to be pursued, and I think we both felt that right away. We both have somewhat uninhibited musical brains and are both willing to experiment until we get the results we're after. Aaron's riffs and song structures are unique and unlike others that I have heard, and doing his songs justice and exploring the musical textures and unconventional subtleties without making him change or dumb down a part so that it 'makes sense' is a priority for me."

Baptists, it turns out, is a band that doesn't do much touring, which made it easier to recruit Yacyshyn for Sumac. Getting the bass player he wanted — Brian Cook of Russian Circles — would be a little harder for Turner to pull off, despite the pair's two-decade friendship.

Cook was a member of the groundbreaking hardcore band Botch and went on to co-found the genre-bending, post-hardcore band These Arms Are Snakes before settling into his current position in the instrumental powerhouse Russian Circles.

"Brian was the first person that came to mind when I started thinking about bass players," says Turner. "We have shared record space quite a few times."

Cook played on a number of Mamiffer recordings, Turner says, so he knew what to expect both musically and otherwise from the drummer.

"On a personal level, I knew I'd get along with him," says Turner, stressing the difference between a recording project and an active, touring band. "You spend a lot of time with people recording, and it's nice to have people you like being around. We'd been talking about doing a project for a long time."

Russian Circles, however, is a long-running, successful band with a big following. It's not something Turner expected or wanted Cook to walk away from.

"Brian made it clear from the beginning that Russian Circles has to be his priority," says Turner. "He's been doing it for a long time."

Still, the idea of doing a band with Turner and Yacyshyn was intriguing enough to get Cook involved, and the trio set about carving out time in their schedules to write and rehearse, in one room, as Sumac. Cook says the job of translating Turner's frameworks into songs helped draw him to the band.

"It's challenging, because you have to get inside his head and figure out how he sees structure," Cook says. "These aren't your typical verse-chorus-verse songs. They're not even your typical longform, slow-build songs. It takes a lot of focus to see the patterns."

Despite the abstract nature of the process, Cook says there are advantages to writing songs with Turner's method.

"The flip side is that we're not trying to be the Beatles," Cook says. "We're not working with multiple songwriters and a myriad of instrumentation ideas. We're working with really stripped-down components and building off a pre-planned structure. That eliminates a lot of variables that could complicate the process."

That way of doing things also forced Cook, a more technical musician in his other projects, to work outside his comfort zone.

"It's very brutish and kind of ham-fisted, at least in the bass department, and that's very appealing," Cook says. "My work in Russian Circles tends to be more about nuance, texture and dynamics. In Sumac, I'm just beating on an instrument for 45 minutes."
Cook is quick to point out that Sumac isn't a less technical act, just a different kind of technical. In some ways, he says, it's more complex than what he's used to.

"That isn't to say there isn't a degree of sophistication to what we do," he says. "I think of the bass in Sumac as being more of a percussive accent than a melodic tool. So I try to make every note serve a very deliberate rhythmic function. That winds up meaning I play a lot less, because I want to employ empty space to make each note have more impact. Considering how the band rarely veers anywhere near a straightforward four-on-the-floor beat, it also means I wind up doing a lot of counting in my head while we play. I've never counted to keep time in a band before, so that's a new one for me."

In the end, the waiting and planning paid off, and the band released The Deal last year. The record is raw and aggressive without being an onslaught of noise and distortion or a bare-bones art piece. That texture, Turner says, comes partly from experience, but also from familiarity.

"Part of the intention with starting this band was to have a functional band and not a project that works in fits and starts," Turner says. "There's some chemistry coming about that you can only get in that setting. Again, part of the whole goal for me was finding people that I could feel comfortable playing with. I feel that we're working together in a real way. It maintains a very cohesive feeling throughout. That's a really good feeling, to have that kind of confidence at this early stage."

Mamiffer plays on Saturday, March 26, at Lost Lake Lounge.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Oakland Childers has been a music journalist since he was sixteen.