an interview with Aaron Turner of Isis by Mike Hill (part 2)
intro by BBG, interview by Mike Hill
Last night, June 23rd, marked the final Isis show ever in Montreal. And here is Part Two of our discussion with Aaron Turner of Isis (check out part one). Mike Hill cornered the guitarist and Hydrahead Records owner on one of their last ever dates on the west coast in early June (they played MHOW and Webster this past weekend). The Isis frontman reflects on his time with the group, band democracy, the writing process, House of Low Culture/Old Man Gloom and so much more. The results are below…
Over the 12 plus year career of the band, what would you consider to be some of the high points?
Just some of the generic stuff like getting to play in other countries. The fact that we encountered people in Japan, New Zealand, Austria…Russia, that was one of the crazier places we went, that were not only familiar with our music, but clearly were very connected to it was really an important thing for me personally. I grew up in New Mexico; that was a pretty isolated scene, clearly not as isolated as somewhere like Moscow but a lot of the music that I connected with was made by people that were very far away from where I was; there was something very special to me about discovering music from other places and starting to learn about other activities that were going on outside of my local sphere. Having the reverse of that happen after a number of years of being with Isis was a pretty interesting thing and very gratifying for.
Americans seem to be very American-centric in the way that they do things and the way that they articulate things…very uninterested in connecting with people who are in other places. By having the opportunity of going to all these different parts of the world was an eye-opener and a way for me to step outside of that and appreciate some other cultures. Having our music as an access point to that to that kind of experience was really cool and something that I never imagined would have happened.
Another thing related to just the overall arc of being in the band for a long period of time is developing a body of work; not just having a couple of E.P.’s or like a full-length here or there but actually having like a series of releases. You referenced that there was a thread from the beginning of what we did that was recognizable but at the same time there was a very clear evolution that the band went through and I think that is a really important thing for me: the fact that we were able to start with a few little seeds of ideas and really expand upon those ideas; explore them and develop a different voice over more than a decade of making music together and that too is something I never would have imagined in the early days of the band. I would say for me those are two things that stick out.
One other thing that I would say is having made alliances and personal relations with a lot other musicians that we encountered along the way; especially with bands that we toured with, I think all of us have made some really good friends that we wouldn’t have otherwise made by being on the road and exposed to some music that we otherwise never been exposed to. I think that exchange of information and ideas and stuff between people that are on the road together was a really valuable thing for us. I would say that if I had to sum up a lot of those things under a general category is that Isis expanded my view of the world and allowed me a porthole to things that I would have never had access to otherwise.
Aaron Turner on stage at Webster Hall (more by Meaghan McInnis)
Looking back, do you feel that the overall creative statement is complete?
Yeah, I think so. I read something a lot time ago that a work of art or a piece of music is never really done; there is only the point at which you stop working on it. I feel that there are a lot of things that we can continue to do but I feel like they would be like adding details to something that was pretty well fleshed out. I feel like considering the difference of ideas amongst the people in the band now, we’ve taken this vehicle as far as we possibly could. I feel that with Wavering Radiant especially is like a good summation of everything that we did over the course of our time together. While there are certain small things that we could expand upon I feel like I’ve said what I’ve wanted to say in the context of this band. I feel like as a group we’ve done it as fully and as best as we possibly can.
What are the mechanics of the creative process of the band?
It’s definitely a very democratic process. I don’ think there was ever anything that got put on an album that any one person in the band was absolutely against doing but there have been times where certain people have had more of a voice than others. I think a lot of the songs had been built around one person’s basic idea and then everybody else sort of contributing to and fleshing that idea out. In the past I would say that it was a much more immediate process; as soon as there was an idea that seemed to have some substance to it we just kind of blocked it out and that was that. In the last four years or maybe five years, we’ve gone through a process of refining things a bit more. That involved all of us being in a room together and sort of trying to put the pieces together. One thing that we started doing that we never did in the past was making demo’s at different stages during the songwriting process. Initially it would be like one idea and we could go home and reflect on it and then start to build the next piece that would go in conjunction with that and so while it was a collective process in the practice space it also became more of an individual process with each of us taking those things home, working on our individual ideas and reconvening again to try and put the pieces back together
Isis’s final LP, Wavering Radiant
Which record was that process mainly initiated on?
I would say that it started with In the Absence of Truth; a little bit with Panopticon but a lot more with In the Absence of Truth. I would say that Wavering Radiant was much more involved in that way. Each individual song went through a number of different mutations before we settled on the final arrangements.
Prior to that the songwriting process was more or less just hashed out in rehearsal and when you went to record, that was pretty much the first opportunity that everyone had to really review the entire song.
Yes, definitely. There was almost never a time in the studio where parts would get completely re-written although once in a while you would discover once you got in there that there were certain little things that need to be re-worked but we never wrote material in the studio it was almost always a process of almost full-realized pieces upon going in and then just maybe fine-tuning a couple of things here and there.
Another aspect of the band is a very tight visual aesthetic. One of the many hats you wear aside from being a member of Isis and running Hydrahead is designer/artist. How different is the process from creating music to creating visual art and also working on design.
I feel like they all come from roughly the same place. A lot of the ideas that I present visually to go along with the music that we’re making is very much based around the feeling that I get from that music. The one thing that is different is that Isis is totally a collective process whereas making the visual stuff is a very individual practice and while I certainly have asked for and appreciated feedback from the other members of the band the initial process of coming with ideas and putting the pieces together was very much my own endeavor. I think that’s always been the case for me in terms of the different pursuits that I have. Music, generally speaking, except for some of the solo stuff, has always been about a process of collaboration and that requires a lot of give and take and a lot of communication and the artwork thing is more about the relationship with myself and to my own ideas and figuring out how to properly translate what’s in my head into some sort of visual piece.
Another aspect to the art-making process that is very specific to the ways that it’s applied. For instance, the artwork that I do for Isis is not something that I would necessarily do on my own. It’s something that is generated specifically for Isis whereas some of the other artwork that I do on my own is for that purpose in and of itself. So I guess that in a way, there is a more commercial aspect to the artwork that I make for Isis because it is generated as a vehicle house this thing that is ultimately going to become a product. I don’t like to think of it that way, but it is package design. In a way, I’m trying to communicate something to someone that is going to see the record and my intention is to communicate something to them in that brief interaction about what the music itself is like based on what they’re seeing with the artwork. What I’m making is not only representing the collective identity of Isis and keeping that in mind but also trying to create something to pull in a consumer. That’s a very crass way of putting it but design is a commercial process to some degree so I’m thinking about the viewer whereas the stuff that that I do for myself is purely about what I want to get out it for myself.
At the Catalyst exhibition with curator Brett Aronson, Florian Bertmer, Aaron Turner, Justin Bartlett, Seldon Hunt, Stephen Kasner.
You have a formal art background. Was it in Fine Art or Design?
It was in Fine Art.
So your experience with design has been more hands-on?
Yeah, basically I started doing some of the Hydrahead design stuff when I was still in college and that was all just like trying to figure things out, trying to figure out the rudimentary aspects of using a computer, still doing a lot of cut and paste stuff; looking a lot at how other people were doing things in terms of putting together layouts for records and stuff like that; trying to gain information and knowledge from other people I knew who had some experience with that stuff. It was a process of trial and error and a total exploratory thing for me. I really had no idea what I was doing other than having a basic sense of composition and color and the sort of stuff that I learned in art school in terms of painting and print-making which to a degree can be applied to design. I think that was good for me because I never wanted to approach design from a purely commercial standpoint, you know about where to place a logo so it’s most easily readable by a person going into a store or what color schemes will elicit a certain type of response in a consumer. So in that way, the approach that I take to making album art is sort of “Anti-Design” because often the intent behind it is not the same as someone who has been trained formally in design where you’re trying to make this really consumer-friendly, easily digestible information, so I guess it’s trying to achieve a balance between those two worlds.
I’m mostly familiar with your design work for Hydrahead and for Isis record layouts. Have you been contracted to other types of design work for other labels or for other artists?
I did do some of that in the past and I occasionally still do it but very rarely. Part of the reason is that I wanted my particular aesthetic to be used only with things that I was directly involved with. When I was doing layouts for bands that I didn’t really care about I felt like I was diluting that and I was cheapening what I wanted to achieve. The other aspect is that it just became a practical matter where I just didn’t have enough time to do the design for Isis and Hydrahead as well as do freelance stuff. There are a few instances now and again where if it’s a band that I really, really like and I know the people involved and they’ve asked me to contribute to the visual presentation of their album, I will do it but for the most part I try to keep it these days relegated to only the things that I am directly involved with.
Isis tour poster by Seldon Hunt
Based on what we’ve been discussing, the typical design type of project seems like it would be in conflict with some of these ideas that you have. The typical design situation: you’re trying to capture someone else’s statement, someone else’s mission. So basically you just stick to things that are meaningful to you personally.
Yeah, and I guess that’s sort of another thing where I am sort of an Anti-Designer because one of the things in being a professional designer is that you’re taught to be objective about what you’re doing and you’re not encouraged to have any personal attachment to it because if you do then you get too concerned about your own voice being a part of whatever the eventual product is. If you are a designer working on a professional basis for a firm where you have no personal attachment you can’t really care about what you’re doing. For example Stephen O’Malley (SUNN0))) was working for a firm in New York designing billboards for a John Grisham novel, something that he obviously had no artistic connection to and after a while he found it completely unsatisfying. That’s the kind of thing that I purposefully try to avoid by sticking to doing stuff that’s completely related to either music that I’m making or to music that is coming from the label that I work for which is also stuff that I’ve chosen to be involved with.
Aside from the band, art, design and running the Hydrahead label, you also very much involved in other projects, working with other musicians and artists. What is some of the recent stuff to come out?
The most recent things would be the Grey Machine record; the Jodis record which was James Plotkin and Tim Wyskida, both from Khanate. About to come out or in the works is an album by Mamiffer which is something that I’ve been most involved with outside of Isis; then there’s the Twilight record. The Twilight record and the Grey Machine are both things that I would say that I’m more of a contributor to than a full member of whereas Jodis and Mamiffer are both things where I feel like I am more of an integral part of the group, whether or not I am totally responsible for writing the music or not which actually I’m not in either case. In Jodis all the basic foundations were laid out by James and Tim then I did all of my stuff after and with Mamiffer I am also like a pliable member which basically means that I do what I’m told sort of but also very much involved with the process of making these things; not like the remote interaction I had with Twilight where I was just given stuff and I recorded my bits at home and then sent them back so all of these things are quite different than what I’ve been doing with Isis, where it’s more of a formal band. All of these things have been a really big part in me expanding as a musician because it requires a different kind of perspective to participate in these kinds of things; it requires a kind of humility that is not required in Isis. We all respect each other’s opinions and we all have equal say in what we do but it’s a very democratic process. Some of these other things I do what I feel like should be done for these projects and whether or not they use it is up to them. It’s a way for me to learn how to participate in other groups and how to try to do things differently than I normally do in the context of Isis.
Is House of Low Culture and Old Man Gloom still active?
Old Man Gloom has not been; we have not been formally disbanded and there have been discussions about doing stuff again but there are no concrete plans. House of Low Culture has actually been very active again in the last two years; I played a few shows here and there but mostly have been working on new material. That is something that is again quite different from what I do in that it is totally my own vehicle, I make all the aesthetic decisions and even if I’m having outside people contribute to what I do I’m still the judge and jury as it were so I feel like I’m having not necessarily a rebirth as a musician but all these things are changing the way I think about music which is a really good thing for me and I think also an important process of moving on after the demise of Isis.
There’s also Lotus Eaters with Stephen O’Malley and James Plotkin. Is that something that we’ll see more material from?
I don’t know; we reissued the first album on vinyl recently and I went back to dig up alternate mixes of all the original songs that appeared on the CD version years ago but that didn’t involve making any new music and we’re about to do the same thing again for the second album; to re-release the album on vinyl with alternate mixes so in a way there is some activity related to that project but no new music has been generated for some time.
So the very last show is in Montreal, so there’s a bit of synchronicity afoot here.
Yeah, that’s where our first show was.
Was that by design?
No, it wasn’t, it was totally incidental. We knew this tour was going to be a tour after which we took a break but we didn’t know that it was going to be permanent necessarily when we started booking it; just based on the routing it made sense to end in Montreal, but when we started talking more seriously about this being the real end of the band maybe that was a sign that this is a good stopping point because that’s where our first show was so why not make it the place where our last show is as well.
This show is going to be a very different experience than I imagine the first show was.
My recollection of that show is so dim now except that I was excited that we were going to get to play a show with this new band that we were putting together, but yeah, my perspective on things has changed so much since then and we’ve all changed as a collective and the music has changed so much so it will be very different from those first initial baby steps, but at the same time in certain ways there are a lot of the things that are the same, I mean I feel like a lot of our goals are the same and most of the people in the band are the same. I hope that the show itself will be what that show was which was an opportunity to experience the music that we make amongst ourselves as well as the connection to the people that are listening to it through the process of playing live; so some things are quite different and many things are quite the same.
If my memory serves me correctly wasn’t that first show with Overcast? Did Ire play that show?
Yeah, I think Cable played too; I can’t remember.
It was something like that.
It’s a different world now, man
It’s totally different, you know at that point I think we all knew what the internet was, but I wasn’t really using it at that point and it certainly was not the platform for music that it is now and that’s a very different thing. The way in which people operate is very different. We were still all operating off of the total D.I.Y. platform and doing tape cassette demos and shit like that. Nobody fucking thought about having a manager or anything like that. Nobody was really participating in these weird summer corporate tours. Also metal had not experienced its sort of re-birth in the mainstream either. Punk was something that had been co-opted by the mainstream long before that, the sort of darker elements of hardcore had yet to be brought into the mainstream. All of that has basically changed since then.
Check out Part One of this interview if you missed it.
Special thanks goes to Aaron Turner and Mike Hill. Long live ISIS!