an interview with Aaron Turner of Isis by Mike Hill (part 1)
by Mike Hill
Aaron Turner of Isis
I received a phone call from Isis guitarist Mike Gallagher one night back in March asking if my band, Tombs, would be available to support Isis on a short run of dates on the West Coast. The Mayhem tour, which we were supposed to be on, had just been cancelled, we were eager to get back on the road so the answer was emphatically “yes”. Furthermore, touring with Isis is one of the easiest tours you could ever be on. Aside from the shows being packed, the band and their crew are some of the warmest and most professional people I’ve ever known.
During the months leading up to the tour, it was announced that this would be the final Isis tour, ending a nearly 13 year career. To me it was an end of an era, both personally and as a fan of extreme music. I had witnessed the formation of the band back in Boston during the late 90’s at most of their early shows. It was clear to me that the band was on a trajectory that would take them past their murky, D.I.Y. roots and propel them into a realm that most bands aspire to but few actually reach.
Their contribution to the world of music is undeniable as most of their imitators would attest to. Within the decade plus that the band existed, they continued to challenge themselves and their fans with an ever expanding palette of creative textures and moods, yet always maintaining a common thread running through each release that would identify them as the originators.
During the week that would be their final West Coast shows, I had the opportunity to sit with Aaron Turner and reflect of the past, present and future.
MIKE HILL: We’re a couple of days into this tour, how is it going so far? Is everyone having a good time?
AARON TURNER: I think everybody’s having a good time. There’s a lot of mixed feelings I think. Everybody in the band going into this knowing this is the last tour colors their perception of the experience quite a bit. I can’t really say what it’s like for those guys, but I was expecting some sort of cathartic feeling out of the process but it really, at the moment, just feels like another tour; which is not to say that I’m cynical about it because with almost every show I’ve ever played with Isis, I’ve tried to put myself into it as much as I possibly can so that still holds true. There is a thought that’s crossed my mind at times, during each set, knowing that this is the last time that we’ll ever play as Isis in this particular city…I don’t really know how I feel about it yet, I feel like it’s going to take me a while to process it and I feel like it’s not going to actually feel like the final shows until we’re at the end on the east coast and there’s like two shows left.
But everything is going pretty good, I mean…we’ve toured with so many bands, I’ve gotten to see how other bands interact and I feel very lucky with how well we get along even if we’re deciding to call it quits and there’s some weird stuff that comes up with that, for the most part we get along really awesome.
Isis at Irving Plaza (more by Paul Birman)
MIKE: Standing on the outside of that, what I’ve always admired about Isis is the professionalism; you guys always show up early or on time. Everything always runs really smoothly, there’s always a good sense of organization.
AARON: I feel like tonight might be a little bit more of, for lack of a better term, an emotional show. A lot of the other cities are cities we’re played a lot of times and may have had good shows in but they’re not cities where we have a real personal connection to. Whereas with Seattle, we have a history with a lot of people that live here like the Botch guys and a couple of other people; I live here now, so there’s that attachment to it for me so maybe this show may stand out a little more in that regard so I’m curious to see how it feels.
Will there be any European dates?
No, this is it. This is literally the last tour. When we were on the last European tour, even before that we had talked about taking a break after the tour cycle for this record was over, some people had expressed that it might be a hiatus or it might become a permanent break but it wasn’t really solidified until just before this tour. When we were over there we knew it might be our last tour but we weren’t sure, we didn’t make it like an official final tour. The last show we played, on the tour in Europe, at the end of last year was in Berlin; it was a really awesome show, Berlin is one of our favorite, at least one of my favorite places to play over there and the show went well and Mika, the singer from Circle, came out and did the last song with us that night which was really cool because we got along with those guys. I think having him perform with us added a little something special to the end of that show and that felt like, to me, looking back on it, a good “goodbye” to the European continent.
Was it more or less unanimous to end the band?
I’d say that there’s a spectrum of feelings among the different members about the end of the band. I think over the last few years especially, people have had mixed feelings. We’ve all felt grateful for what we’ve gotten out of Isis and what we’ve been able to do. There were also times when a lot of the stuff that breaks bands down and wears them out was starting to happen to us. As well as we get along, being around each other six months out of the year, between touring, recording and practicing…no matter how much you like someone that starts to wear on you. I also think another factor that contributed to it is..Aaron (Harris) and I were only 19 when the band started and Jeff (Caxide) was only a couple of years older…we were teenagers…our frame of mind now as opposed to our frame of mind ten, including what we wanted to do within the context of music has shifted and changed a lot. Even if we could come together on the common ground that we have in Isis, a lot of our other interests have gone in different directions outside of that, so I think there is a creative, not a schism, but a…”creative differences” it’s such a stupid overused term, but it’s really apt because I think there are things that each of us want to do that we can’t really do in the context of Isis, so in that sense I that that there is a mutual feeling of wanting to do other things and feeling somewhat confined by the parameters that we’re able to move in in Isis.
Turner on stage with Isis at Irving Plaza (more by Paul Birman)
The fact that there have been hardly any significant lineup changes in the band during the nearly 13 year duration, is a testament to the fact that you can take all of these differences and work together. I think it’s fair enough that after all this time people are into different things and want to express themselves differently.
That’s totally the way I feel about it. I’m speaking for myself, and this might be an assumption, but it’s also based on conversations I’ve had with the other guys, you want to push yourself as a musician and you’ve never been content with staying with a particular thing, repeating it infinitely, so what we can all agree upon as far as music we can make together has become narrower over time. We could keep doing what we’re doing and continue to operate in that area but I don’t think anybody would ultimately be satisfied by that over the long run. One thing we said early on was we never want to get to the point where we’re making really compromised music. You look at bands that have stayed together for a long time, it starts to become obvious when they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing anymore.
Isis is a very successful band, at least in my eyes. It would be attractive to keep the band together for that goal. However, when certain other artists start dialing in their performances because they’re supporting a certain infrastructure, that’s when it becomes a creative failure.
I think that’s a soul-crusher. We never started out with any sort of goals in terms of, for lack of a better term, financial success; we never imagined being able to support ourselves from playing music; the fact that it’s happened is great but I don’t want that ever to be a reason for continuing to do it because what don’t you just be a wedding band; that’s taking it to an extreme but if you’re making music to make money then that’s a very different reason than to make music because you love it.
You may as well get a job as a mechanic or something. If you want a job where you clock in and do your number than may as well do something else.
Most people who are obligated to a job end up hating that job and I don’t want to end up hating music because I feel like I’m obligated to do it to make ends meet.
I’ve read that there is going to be an E.P. or a collection of live material that might be released posthumously.
The two songs we just put out on the split with The Melvins were recorded in the same session as Wavering Radiant and we like the songs but we felt that in the context of the album that they didn’t work so we made a conscious decision to save those for whatever purpose we saw fit down the road and we decided first to release them as part of the split with the Melvins and eventually we’re going to include tbose on an E.P. along with another song we’re recording ourselves, an embient piece we recorded last year or the year before and maybe a couple of other things. The other plan we have in conjunction with that audio stuff is doing a dvd which will include some of our final live performances and two videos made for songs from the last record. So basically Wavering Radiant will be our last proper album but this will be like the finalization of all the loose ends.
So there’s some more stuff coming out for people to enjoy.
There’s also a shit-ton of live material that we’ve amassed, both audio and video, so somewhere down the line we’ll probably do another dvd collection like we did a few years ago and maybe one or two more of the self-released live CD’s.
Will that surface later this year or early next year?
I’m not really sure actually. The E.P. and DVD will probably come out late this year and the other stuff sometime in 2011. We want to space it out a little.
Listening to Wavering Radiant and the earlier material, there’s a vast difference in the statement. In your assessment of that, how would you track the creative evolution of the band?
In the beginning it was pretty much Jeff and I talking about stuff that we mutually enjoyed and wanted to incorporate those influences into a band of our own. Not too long after that we started playing with Harris and he also had some of the same common interests. In the beginning, like a lot of young bands, we were a combination of the music we were inspired by filtered through our own set of personal aesthetics. The very basic ideas that we wanted in the band were that we wanted to be heavy and we wanted to have unconventional song structure; we never wanted to be completely vocal oriented; we wanted a lot of the subject matter and the albums to be conceptual in nature, we wanted every release we did, we wanted all of the pieces to fit together as a seemless whole. I think all of those things, those foundational ideas have been the thing that created that tangible thread from the beginning until now. The other things that have come along the way are developing our own personal voices more, not being so much a sum of our influences. That took a number of years to really coalesce. I think that by the time we recorded “Oceanic” we had become our own band. Of course, you can never escape your influences completely, I don’t any of us would deny that there is a lot of other kinds of music that was really important to us that allowed us to make the music we make as Isis but at the same time those things became less and less conscious thing s we were driven to do.
I agree, I feel that Oceanic was sort of the division, the departure point where Isis turned into a full-realized band.
I think another reason that happened with Oceanic was because when we were writing Celestial, Mike (Gallagher) had been a part of the band for a while, but Cliff (Meyer) had joined during the writing process of that record. Oceanic was the first record that we had written with what became the permanent lineup. With Oceanic people felt more comfortable with expressing their ideas and working together. That was in a lot of ways, a point of solidification for us.
Another interesting development was your choice to utilize clean vocals. Obviously, that was a conscious effort. How did you approach that because that is a very difficult thing to do.
I still struggle with it. For me, being a vocalist has been a lot tougher than being a guitar player because in a way, although guitar is an extension of you when you’re playing it in a really emotionally honest way, it’s still an outside apparatus that you’re utilizing whereas your voice comes from your body which is you and can only be you so you can’t hide behind this outside instrument when you’re using your voice, you’re more of yourself on the line when you step up to a microphone whether it’s on a stage or in a studio. I think part of the reason why the melodic vocals didn’t happen until later on in our career is because it took me a while to work up the courage to even do it. It was something I started messing around with a little bit on Celestial and a little bit on Oceanic but it was still the confidence issue that kept me from pursuing it further. I guess in a way, it was a matter of training my mind in a way that I had to own what I was doing and really put myself behind it 100 percent in order to be able to do what I wanted to do and realize the ideas that I had in my head. It’s been a continual growing process and like I said, it’s still ongoing. There’s still times when I struggle with being a vocalist and it’s something that makes me, at times, uncomfortable but at the same time, I feel like that discomfort is a really important part of growth as a musician. Again, talking about what can happen to people and when music starts becoming compromised is when people get really comfortable with what they do they stop trying and their music suffers; people just do a schtick. I never wanted to fall into that as a vocalist and that was another reason why I started pushing myself into the more melodic territories.
Did you do any formal training or was it all self-taught?
It’s all self-taught; I’m sure I do a bunch of shit wrong that’s really bad for my vocal chords especially the harsher singing. There’s also something really natural about singing; long before there were instruments of any kind, people probably used their voices to express musical ideas. Singin is something that’s been used in, for lack of a better term, religious, ceremonial rituals for thousands and thousands or years so it’s probably one of the oldest forms of music making that exists so I think there is a really instinctive aspect to singing so I think that is what I’m following as well, and what allowed me to do it without any training.
What do you find more satisfying: the recording process or the live performance?
If forced to choose between one or the other, I would opt for recording. I think making music and the process of documenting it is more gratifying to me than the process of replication which is what playing live ends up being some of the time. With that said, there is something very visceral abouit playing music live. That goes for the people playing in the band and also for the energy transferred between the band and the audience. On the occasions when things go well in the live setting ti could be a really powerful experience. There can be things that happen and feelings that arise from playing live that don’t happen making music in the studio and vice versa. Under the right circumstances when shows have gone well, those have been some of the best experiences in my life and I can also say the same for recording but it’s a different sort of feeling. Playing live becomes more of an instinctual sort of thing and in a way, I feel like you tap into some sort of collective energy that occurs when you’re making music with other people but when you’re in the studio and you’re starting to really hear a song for the first time and you’re hearing what other people are doing and the song stops being this collection of parts and becomes recognizable as this fixed entity that’s really awesome. I can think of certain experiences like sitting in the studio and really hearing a song for the first time and really feeling this powerful thing coming out of that experience.
Looking into the future, could you envision a situation where the recording process stands alone, or does it require the live expression to make it a complete experience?
I guess it depends on what it is. At this point, there are a lot of different things that I’m involved with and the other people are involved with too. There are certain projects that I’m doing on my own or collaborating with other people that is simply about making the music and there isn’t a need to or even a practical way to presenting that music in the live setting. Then there’s other stuff where it will be important and it will be something that I pursue in playing that music live. I guess it just depends on what the thing is and how it feels and what is appropriate for it. I don’t rely on the studio to achieve certain ideas but I also think that there are certain things that can be done which would be next to impossible to replicate in the live setting. For instance you can do music on your own and do tons of layers but to do it in a live setting you would have to have like a 12 piece band and to try to do something like that isn’t feasible unless you’re Mike Patton and have hundreds or thousands of dollars to hire an orchestra. I would rather continue along the path of making new music and recording it than focusing on playing live.
Aaron Turner and wife Faith Coloccia (Mamiffer)
To be continued. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview….