Interview Week: An Evening with Sun Araw

Mark Craig

Photos by Eric Luc

Cameron Stallones, aka Sun Araw, bops up and down atop the stage at Le Poisson Rouge for the final set of Unsound Festival’s Friday night bill. His tinkering between the keyboard at his knees and the microphone at the edge of the stage is partially hidden by the ribbons flowing down from the ceiling. While the posh setting of the West Village venue doesn’t seem like a place that is normally decorated like a maypole, tonight it is. It’s 4/20 and one of the few artists in America that is actually capable of pushing the boundaries of dub-based “jam” music in a direction that is not only thought-provoking but dance-worthy is gracing the stage. The only thing is: the majority of the half-capacity crowd seems underwhelmed by the barrage of riddim and trance, and it’s not even 10 o’clock. Who the fuck put this thing together? At least there are cocktail tables for those that aren’t interested to casually watch the show whilst texting and drinking the Red Bulls offered at the neon-lit bar. Manhattan… go figure.

While I think the summer festival circuit needs a guy like Stallones turning on the masses to the “Now,” his music isn’t exactly igniting computer speaker-led grav sessions and vision quests on college campuses across the U.S. I guess we’ll have to wait another decade for Sun Araw posters to don the walls of freshman dorms. All this is OK, because those that are prescribed a steady dose of actual music appreciation know full well that Stallones has had one hell of year. From releasing his fifth baby boy (LP), adopted by the beloved Drag City, to starting his second label (Duppy Gun), to collaborating with bud/noise architect M. Geddes Gengras and the angelic harmonizers of the lauded roots reggae troupe The Congos for RVNG Intl.’s latest installment of their FRKWYS series, Stallones has more or less been killing it from a DIY standpoint.

Following his performance, I sat down with Stallones to talk about the recordings and adventures behind the latest stamps on his passport as well as picking up the guitar, jamming with friends, and the odd state of America’s version of the “party.”

Here's a video of the interview and performance, with text below.

The atmosphere at Le Poisson Rouge seems like an atypical setting for your music. Did that affect you on stage?

I don’t know man. I’m just trying to do my thing. I get pretty tuned out when I’m playing and try to tune into something else, you know? I guess it’s sometimes harder to do that in certain places, but I don’t think about it too much.

What prompted you to start Duppy Gun? And what in particular pushed the idea out of your head and onto the first 12-inch?

We had generated a good amount of material in CONGOS HQ and some of it wasn't right for [Icon Give Thank]. We were spending our time with lots of the local fisherman in forum, many of which are singers and musicians. So it just naturally became an opportunity to create even more music which is what we're all interested in at the end of the day. It wasn't inspired by anything except the reality of the incredible amount of talent in that place, and blessed timing.

What plans do you have for the label?

Lots. Look for continued opening of the portal, linking that place to the rest of the world.

Same with Sun Ark. What plans do you have for that label?

Mostly it’s a place for me to release my own music, but I've also been doing some tapes, some reissues. Trying to keep it loose.

Are you currently working on Sun Araw stuff? Or has Sun Araw become more of an umbrella for all of your interests?

No Sun Araw is a thing. Just finished a new album, The Inner Treaty.

How did you get up with RVNG Intl. for Icon Give Thank?

Matt [Werth] emailed me and asked me to participate. I was stoked on the other [FRKWYS installations] that I had [heard] and it seemed like a pretty cool thing. I made them a list of people I would be interested in working with.

So The Congos was on your list?

They were on the list. [Werth] told us, “Make an extreme list; don’t hold back. Anyone that’s alive that you can think of. We’ll see what we can do.” That’s kind of his vibe, which is the right vibe, you know?

What were some other bands on the list?

I really want to make a record with Henry Flynt. You know that dude?

No.

He’s like a hero of mine – kind of an early avant-garde, minimal composer. He did a lot of loops with bluegrass music that are really great. There was a bunch of people on there. I had a bunch of thoughts.

How did your past experiences affect your approach to the studio at the Lion’s Den for your latest recording with The Congos?

I just did what I always do. We were just jamming, and writing, and trying to touch, you know what I mean? We were really fortunate and it was a really blessed situation that just kind of flowed really quickly. The majority of the record was tracked in the first [two days].

Before the camera crew actually got [to St. Catharine, Jamiaca] – well, [Lowe] and [Werth] – Me and Gedde (Gengras) were there alone and we busted out the majority of that stuff. It was flowing really easily at the time. But It wasn’t really something contemplated. I’m really bad at strategizing. It’s hard to triangulate things like that that are so vaporous. You have to just learn to continually create the situation inside yourself. Regardless of circumstance, you know?

That’s kind of beyond off the cuff.

For sure, for sure. Maybe it’s instinctual or something. It’s something you don’t want to think about too much.

Well, how long have you been playing with groups of people you’re not familiar with?

Pretty long. My musical social life has always been jamming with people. I really like to jam with people. It’s fun. I like to do a lot of configurations – so that’s pretty common. Me and Gedde have played in bands together, too.

How long have you been doing this sort of thing? Since high school?

Yeah. I was playing, jamming with friends. I got a guitar when I was like 13 or something in junior high.

What sort of music did you want to play when you approached the guitar at 13?

I don’t know, man. I was pretty into textural stuff – like shoegaze-kind of stuff at some point. You’ve got a guitar in your hand, so you just want to make the loudest noise you can make, you know what I mean? So getting a lot of pedals and stuff like that was a lot of fun at that age. It was sort of something I would gravitate to and from with whatever I was listening to.

What was the first pedal that blew your mind as far as your ability to mesh with it?

Delay pedals are pretty insane. Especially if you can’t really play your instrument – you have a guitar and a delay pedal and all the sudden you can utilize its textural qualities really easily even if you don’t know what you’re doing.

What was that pedal?

It was a Danelectro Dan-Echo, which I still have. It’s actually on my pedalboard and I still use it. It’s a really good pedal.

As a foreigner, how was assimilating with The Congos in their space?

Our goal was just to step in their zone. We had no idea what we were stepping into. We really didn’t know what [the Lion’s Den] would be like. I had some ideas. I talked to a dude that had been down there. I’ve seen a lot of Jamaican films. We had no idea what the zone would be. We were just trying to be malleable.

It was weird to get in there and have to so stridently do our thing, but that was the only thing we could do. It’s like, “Are you trying to do something else?” That’s a bad idea!

It was really heady, but it was a welcome thing. And it was also a welcome thing to step into a completely different reality – to experience something so different.

Was there any adaptation necessary in recording with The Congos’ equipment?

The funny thing is they have the same mixing desk as my buddy Gedde has, so that was something that was real sick – a quick start for us, a real blessing. So we were able to track really fast and that’s why it ended up working out because we were able to do it so quickly.

Did you get to play with any of their cool toys in the studio?

They have their drums which is amazing – they’re all over the record. It’s a pretty bare-bones setup over there, so we brought all this stuff. From the day we decided to do it till we got on the plane was like two weeks. The information was so nebulous that we were just like, “We have to bring as much as we can.”

The way the record sounds – it’s really psychotic sounding – and most of that is because it’s mostly all recoded directly into the board. The only analog-specific gear we had with us was this Ibanez rack mount stereo chorus and delay unit, so almost everything on the recording is run through that in some way.

I saw in the promo video for Icon Eye that you went to an outdoor jump in Jamaica – a natives/locals only spot. How was experiencing that as a dude from America?

I mean, dude, it’s like the best ever. But it’s also heartbreaking. When we went back the second time, we went to this dance called Rae Town that’s been around for a long time that’s mostly focused on older soul stuff – mostly Rocksteady and ‘60s American soul. It was such a powerful experience to hear those records in that way and what the party is and how it functions in the community. And the way everyone comes to it is just this total release of erotic energy – party energy, dancing energy. All this stuff is such an uplift. I just thought, “There’s no way this could exist in America; there’s no place for this.” We don’t provide ourselves a place for this.

We were in SXSW this year and it was just like, “Shit’s bonkers!” We were wandering around outside – it was just the most desolate thing I’d ever seen, the worst sounding thing, and the worst vibes. It’s like, “This is our idea of a party?” It was so brutal, man. [Rae Town] is on much more of fundamental understanding of what human beings need and what we need as heart-based creatures.

My reaction was that [Rae Town] is something that I need to integrate into my life. The truth is you don’t need a space or a place. You can just do it, man. You’ve got a fireplace right here (points to his chest) just burning, you know what I mean?

Just a couple of speakers and some warm bodies, right?

Exactly.

Do you feel that there are nuances of what you experienced at Rae Town involved with what you and your community of friends have developed over the years in the live setting?

There has been. The scenes and the DIY networks have. My buddies who play in bands – we’re all people that had a hobby. There’s huge networks. I can drive across the country and be with friends and create these sorts of spaces. It’s a real treasure. It is something different.

The reason that Rae Town is so special is that it’s a community service. It’s just there for the whole [community] and it’s good to see kids and old people and young people and everybody. We have shadows of it and our own expressions of it – and in some ways they’re incredibly beautiful. I wouldn’t go so far to say that I’m, like, trying to carry any torches for anybody.

Well, it’s not about carrying the torch.

That’s what I want to do. That’s all I’m trying to do. And I guess that’s what I’m trying to do any night. The only thing that gets in the way is like – I don’t know. And that’s the question, right?

What’s that variable?

It could be anything. It could be something technical from the universe – not being able to hear, or something. All of that is represented everywhere. Like, “What are you not able to hear?” Like, “What’s your hangup, dude?” Like, “How about not having one!” It’s up to you.

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