How Sannhet rebuilt their sound from the ground up on ‘So Numb’
It’s early evening in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. Tourists filter in and out of pop stores, name dropping high-end fashion lines. A group of young women dart through traffic to set up for a photo shoot. Nearly everyone is either a model or wants you to mistake them for one.
I shove vegan food down my throat and desperately scrub hummus off of my face while surrounded by well-dressed New York music/media types. We are inside The Sonos Store. The outlet looks like a Men In Black satellite office, uncomfortable egg-shaped chairs and all. A mix of dream-pop and new-wave drowns out most of the polite chatter. The bass response is almost too good: get too close to the walls, and The Cure’s “Fascination Street” will rumble your guts (and their vegan contents) out all over the floor.
After making the rounds through a lightly boozed crowd, Sannhet bassist AJ Annunziata gives a short statement of appreciation to those in attendance: “We got to make an album with one of our favorite producers, Peter Katis. It’s called So Numb, and we’re very proud of it. Now let’s break some Sonos speakers.”
To my knowledge, no Sonos equipment was damaged that night but it wasn’t for lack of trying. So Numb is a clear step up from Sannhet’s previous material, but hasn’t diminished their bite. Guitars smash themselves into a paste and spread through the mix over lean, muscular bass lines. Each time Sannhet ease off, they leave behind a dense drone which permeates the room like a fog. Even pumped through the highest-of-high-end home sound systems, the setting doesn’t lend itself to the nuances of Sannhet’s music.
Sonos turned the album into nothing more than another luxury item. At a glance, the record fits the bill: it’s a sleek record, full of tasteful melodies and carefully designed soundscapes. For the crowd at Sonos, it set a nocturnal mood, becoming another chic example of modern architecture in a room full of statement pieces. But, So Numb isn’t meant to tie the room together. It is the room.
If this sounds like a strange setting for a metal listening party, it might be because So Numb isn’t a metal record outright. Prior to the shindig at Sonos, I met up with Annunziata at a nearby dive bar. Dressed in stylish all black and topped by a tuft of curly hair, Annunziata explained that the shift away from heavy metal wasn’t intentional, but a natural part of their creative process.
“I’ve always admired how Liars never sound the same from record to record,” Annunziata says, pushing a lime along the edge of his drink with his straw, “Our first album was a sludgy black metal album, the second one was more refined, and this is our ‘rock’ album.”
Liars isn’t the only New York band to come up during our conversation. Over the course of the hour, Annunziata peppers in references Lou Reed’s interview tactics, how listening to Interpol immediately takes him back to the early 2000s, or how he felt a kinship to Arthur Russell while wandering the city listening to his band’s demos (“I hope that doesn’t make sound ostentatious,” he apologies). This doesn’t feel like a put on either. Listening to So Numb, or Sannhet’s radio show “No Dawn” where they mix old-school post-punk with modern Nine Inch Nails singles, it’s clear that the band have musical interests that don’t fit squarely into the heavy metal aesthetic.
The shift from tremolo picking and blast beats to chorus leads and reserved tempos wasn’t just a stylistic decision. It also reflects a level of personal growth and newfound maturity. After four years of troubled relationships, addiction, and therapy sessions, Annunziata, along with drummer Chris Todd and guitarist John Refano, now approach Sannhet with increased patience and deliberation.
“For a long time we felt like we needed to keep up with the speed of New York. If there’s anything of New York in our music it’s that frantic speed of life and the toll it takes,” explains Annunziata.
Despite this, they don’t care to dictate what the material on So Numb is actually about. Sannhet, as Annunziata explains it, doesn’t just mean “truth” in Norwegian; it means something closer to “perceived truth,” meaning that the music will inspire different interpretations in its perceiver. They aren’t trying to tell a story so much as building an environment for the listener to fill with their own experiences. The conversation turns to Frank Lloyd Wright, and his design for the Guggenheim Museum where a small hallway opens to an enormous atrium. A tight space makes the open space feel even more overwhelming. In order to floor their listeners -- to provide them with a scope appropriate for the emotions that Sannhet wanted to evoke -- they needed to learn how to build better hallways.
“One of the first things Peter Katis told us is, ‘Sorry, but you guys aren’t a metal band,’” Annunziata says. The original demos that Sannhet sent in were harder edged, but Katis pushed Sannhet to explore a wider range of textures and moods. The result is something that the band consider to be their take on a rock record, one that retains the volume and blast beats of Sannhet’s last two albums but places them next to more reserved sections, heavy on electronic drums and mournful clean guitar playing. Katis has co-produced records with The National and manned the boards for Kurt Vile, Jonsi, and Frightened Rabbit, but it was his involvement with Interpol’s landmark Turn On The Bright Lights that drew Sannhet to him.
Katis’ mix for Turn On The Bright Lights is a work of alchemy, turning Interpol’s interlocking guitars and hyper-detailed rhythm section into a single complex organism. Each instrument is distinct and so clearly defined that it seems impossible the record should have such sonic weight to it. Sannhet call for a different approach. Interpol turned post-punk into highly syncopated needlework, but Sannhet’s songs are more like an inch thick layer of paint on a canvas. Katis doesn’t dilute that viscosity on So Numb, but the brightness to the drums and delicate care in getting the tones to sit just right is unmistakably the work of the same master.
When I asked Annunziata if working with Katis was a sign that the band had moved past looking for metalheads for approval, he was quick to correct me. “We don’t care about anyone’s approval.”
Whether they’re looking for it or not, Sannhet have earned plenty of accolades, from both inside and outside the metal community. One of their t-shirts even made its way into the possession of indie darling Sufjan Stevens, and subsequently into numerous promo photos. This brings a smile to Annunziata’s face. “Apparently he’s not that into the band, but he loves the shirt,” he says.
This doesn’t seem to bother Sannhet. In fact, because they design all of their own merchandise, and offer the same service to other bands, they view t-shirt sales to be as much of a victory as album sales. Even when Hood By Air liberally plucked design elements from one of their shirts, Annunziata took the imitation at face value as flattery.
This might seem cynical to music fans who want to keep commerce and art separated, and to be fair, Annunziata carries himself with the brusqueness of someone familiar with the ins-and-outs of the music industry; however, Sannhet’s approach is informed more by pragmatism than bitterness. Having recently quit their day jobs to do Sannhet full time, the trio no longer live the luxury of idealism.
“For most people, a vinyl record is just a Russian novel on their bookshelf,” Annunziata jokes. “At this point, records are a souvenir for the live show.”
Appropriately, Sannhet put just as much thought and sweat equity into their live shows. When the topic of Sannhet’s live presentation comes up, Annunziata perks up. “There is absolutely more pressure for instrumental bands to put on a show,” he says.
Sannhet’s light show has one constant rule: abstraction. No recognizable shapes or images from any other source. Currently, they’re working on a rig that would distort video footage from the performance itself and spit it back out over the band. This ensures that each performance is different, and responds directly to the band on stage, an idea inspired by an early Pink Floyd tour through the US where the band used rotating tri-color gels that picked up speed the harder each band member played.
“Ever since we started, we’ve tried to have an involved light setup, and any time other bands catch up with us, we have to step it up,” says Annunziata.
The following week, Sannhet showed off the fruits of their labor at The Park Church Co-op in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The Co-op -- a neighborhood church tucked away between brownstones and across from McGolrick Park -- is another unassuming venue, but one far more appropriate than the sterile halls of the Sonos Store. Prior to the show, John Refano dryly joked that the venue’s natural booming reverb took some of pressure off to perform well. The church’s high ceilings made it next to impossible to understand the words of openers Planning For Burial and Miserable (featuring Kristina Esfandiari of King Woman), but Sannhet faced no such impediment. Instead, in sweltering humidity and complete darkness, So Numb came to life.
Here, the difference between Sannhet’s new form and their old material is stark. Refano’s self-deprecation was right on the money for songs from Revisionist, where the dense tremolo picking smeared out any rhythmic definition. The new songs, in all of their gothic post-punk glory, flourished under stained glass. Todd and Annunziata’s emergence as a true-blue, post-punk rhythm section anchored the band during their softer moments, allowing Refano to soar as the band picked up in volume. The lighting followed suit, moving from ominous static and austere black and white to blown out floodlights at the drop of a hat.
Near the end of the set, Thom Wasluck of Planning For Burial joined Sannhet for “Fernbeds,” So Numb’s longest song, and the one that best exemplifies their meticulous approach to design. The track is a testament to the band’s newfound patience: a slow burner which spends its first half in long whole notes and guitar at a whisper volume. By the time Wasluck kicked in for the aching lead melody, the song swells to fill the church, and in the final moments it was the church. It was the walls, the glass. It was the heat rising from the benches. It was a hallway opening into a vast atrium.