Anyone who has had the privilege of exploring Asheville, North Carolina, knows full well the beautiful intricacies of a flourishing and vibrant arts community. Sonmi, a four-man band coming out of this great city, offers up amazingly diverse sounds encapsulated into one final product. Here they respond to my questions on music that is better discussed than defined, the melding of old and new instruments and technologies, how they view the recent explosion of electronic music culture, and more.
KZ: Sonmi has been described by several reviews as particularly skilled in the delicate task of blending live instrumentation with electronic elements. Which aspects of these two worlds do you try to bring together?
Sonmi: In our current age of abounding music production technology it is increasingly easier for anyone to produce complex rhythms and melodies with a few clicks of a mouse. We have always seemed to somehow retain a natural balance between electronic sounds/sequences and raw live instrumental execution. It would be difficult for us to lean too far in either direction and this is because of the soul that comes through the sound of live rhythm and instrumentation. Because we all were musicians first, it is that visceral and physical dimension of music that reaches in to our roots as music lovers and musicians that drives us in everything we create. That is really why we play music and this honestly comes in part by not wanting to be bored on stage. We have at times sacrificed that “perfect” sound and rhythm so that we can be more physically connected to the music in every moment on stage. These days, we usually begin producing on the computer but at each step of the process we always have live execution on our minds. Even if we compose something that the computer triggers such as a rhythm sequence, we’re always asking ourselves “..But can we play this with our arms and fingers?”
KZ: A dynamic and heavily arts-based area, Asheville (North Carolina) has much to offer to creative types. How would you say Sonmi’s homebase has influenced the sound of the group?
Sonmi: Asheville is a wonderful town. There is SO much that goes on there, especially in regards to how small of a town Asheville really is. Ashevillians are artistically open and very supportive, so it’s easy to create what we want to create and always have a friendly support network to keep us fresh. The musical history is definitely rich as well. Asheville has been the home base of both Bog Moog, the inventor of the synthesizer, and the likes of John Cage and Terry C. Riley. Minimalism and analog synthesis are of course a huge influence on our style of music. Being able to go on day trips in the mountains and explore the natural world also works itself into our musical themes, too. We once went on a day trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains and recorded percussion, wind chimes, guitar, and vocals in a tunnel on the closed parkway. You can hear a lot of those recorded samples on our record. It’s times like those that remain a source of inspiration for us.
PHOTO: Kat Reid
KZ: The electronic music scene has rapidly expanded within the last few years; what are the biggest changes you’ve noticed? What are the benefits and disadvantages of having a unique and evolving sound in a world with such a fast-consolidating popular audience?
Sonmi: There seems to be less electronic music now that bears a timeless classic quality or artistic integrity…and that is because it is easier for electronic music to be produced now more than ever. If it seems like a 15 minute fad, it probably is. We’ve always gravitated towards music that garners thought and challenges the mind to want to “hear” between the lines. Music that sounds foreign at first usually ends up being our favorites in the long run. We often get frustrated being immersed in an industry that is so completely homogenized and marginalized. We don’t really give a fuck about party music or music that is made to be the “dopest of the dope,” or what have you. Because all that shit changes from year to year, and to be honest, it’s really fucking easy and boring to write….so the question here is…how do you make music that lasts? In two years, are you really going to remember (place bastardized celebrity stage name here), or are your memories going to be imprinted with the sound of something that really helped you question something deeper? That’s what lasts forever. The nostalgia of a track that hit you right where you needed it to…a sound that you couldn’t have possibly imagined on your own. To respond to the question of advantages/disadvantages, we don’t really care that much. We are going to make music that we want to make regardless of where we fit in (or don’t fit in). We just think it’s funny when we get blown off by some promoter for like a year and a half, and then as soon as they see us live they get their minds blown and ask us why we haven’t been playing more shows…
KZ: What does it look like behind the scenes? How would you describe the Sonmi creative process? How has it evolved over time?
Sonmi: In the beginning we wrote everything live. Most things were created from a “perfect” improvisational moment, and made better over time to where we no longer improvised any of the parts. We always believed that settling on something specific and composing tracks made to be played perfect was the ‘bees fuckin’ knees,’ as it were. Since we didn’t have any quality production equipment in the early days we didn’t even try to record anything because it sounded like a paper bag and we hated ourselves afterwards. Now that we have the gear, we crank up the happy feels and run all our ideas through our super nice analog stuff and get all giddy and shit. We are much more organized now since we can make everything sound good like we want, so we spend a lot more time underneath the microscope in the beginning stages. It gives us the ability to write more minimal parts that fill more space. Therefore it’s a little easier for us to make the live version more palatable. This is the simplest way I can answer this question without detailing all the hours of sound design and experimentation it takes to even get to where we are actually making a musical phrase. We get a lot of compliments about our quality of sound in our live show, and how we are able to pull virtuosic shit off and make it look easy. Not to spoil anything here, but if anyone had any idea how many times we’ve heard and played these sounds before playing them live, then they’d probably be like…”meh.” We often get in the habit of talking about our music in a technical way. We do understand and connect to the emotional aesthetic from a very early stage…I mean…that’s everything in the beginning. But once it’s past that we’re moody little bitches until we get it right the way we want it. So buy our fucking record :)
ALBUM ARTWORK: Katie Campbell
KZ: What was the primary objective when putting together your latest release, Almost Human? What picture are you trying to paint in sound?
Sonmi: There is a lot of back-story here. For starters, Almost Human is our first official release. That being said, we originally tried to record this album two separate times with other engineers who just weren’t able to do the music justice. These failures were a big financial setback, so we no longer had any resources to produce our music. This was circa 2009. So began the two years of saving our precious little pennies and playing shows with no record to push so that we could get our name out there. Well, the pennies got spent on playing shows so we went into debt to buy the high quality gear we needed. We buy the gear at about the same time our good friend Laine Pierce reaches out to us about helping us with our record. Laine had been building an audiophile-quality studio over the past years so we decided to team up with him to get the sound we wanted. After working with him for a year and a half experimenting with various techniques, we tracked drums and began to record guitar, synths, and process our electronic beats over the span of six months. As you can imagine, the third time doing this process with the same tracks gave us a sense of motivation and drive from all the pent-up frustrations from years past. We worked ourselves to the bone…working 40 hour weeks at our jobs to help pay off our gear debt and doing anywhere from 20-30 hours of production on top of that. We began to feel in-human, which is where the album title comes in. We took the musical parts that represented the over-stimulation of modern society and manipulated, juxtaposed, recontextualized, backmasked, and transposed them throughout the record. But that’s just what the album means to us. On a fundamental level, we think instrumental music is all about capturing a sound, blend of sounds, or musical texture that we deem to be transcendent or unconventional…and we contextualize those in different ways that give the imagination its own canvas of psychological or emotional suggestion. What we’ve gathered most from our listeners is that we can sometimes have a disorienting first listen, but there’s an addictive aesthetic to the sound that draws a closer listen over time. I think that’s because we have always enjoyed comparing music that you actively listen to as opposed to the kind that you put on as background music.
PHOTO: Kat Reid
KZ: What are you looking forward to in the future and what are the band’s major goals for this new year?
Sonmi: Getting the debut record done was such a huge accomplishment for us. We kinda think it’s one of those records that slips under the radar for a while until people notice it. So that’s why we plan on releasing a remix album this Spring featuring some of Asheville’s best producers. We’re really excited about the stuff we’re getting back from everyone! Aside from that, we are dedicating the winter to writing tons of new music and adding to our live show and production. This is really the first time in the band’s history that we’ve had studio access available to us at all times. That means so much more flexibility in recording our instruments and trying new ways of blending sounds together. This spring we plan to hit up shows, a kickstarter campaign, and build momentum for a Fall tour and EP release. So stay up with us to be a part of all that!
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