Certain adjectives seem to relentlessly trail intelligent punks. Jagged, angular, art-damaged – all of these stock descriptors have been liberally applied to the likes of Swell Maps, Sonic Youth and Television, and they could just as easily be attached to Sauna Youth. And while these crutch terms are usually rather reductive, they seem particularly confining in this case. Take Sauna Youth’s debut full-length, Dreamlands: the record’s A-side is occupied entirely by the extended title track, which juxtaposes searing layers of noise with fractured, novelistic narratives. Conversely, its B-side tends toward abrupt, radiant bursts of the bloodiest kind of DIY pop. In an effort to gain a more sophisticated understanding of Sauna Youth’s atypical aesthetic (something beyond the familiar adjectives, that is), we spoke to the Brighton band. Appropriately enough, their side of the conversation alternated between terse, bratty humour and bookish articulation.
When pressed about their independent streak (the band self-records their material, and self-released most of their own work prior to Dreamlands), as well as their recent decision to begin working with the Faux Discx and Gringo labels, Sauna Youth pointed straight to practical concerns. “We still recorded Dreamlands entirely by ourselves and up until the point Dan [Faux Discx] and Matt [from Gringo] asked us if they could help us out the intention was to release it ourselves. However, we had absolutely no money and had a certain dread of working all on our own again; it can get a bit lonely and be very, very time-consuming, which we also had none of (time, that is).” Thankfully, the band’s relationship with these labels did nothing to curb the recklessness quality of their sound. Yet, the seemingly impulsive careen of Dreamlands was not arrived at casually.
As alluded to on their blog, the new album came to fruition after two aborted recording attempts. They shed some light on the difficulties behind the writing and recording process. “We always do a portion of our recording, if not all, in rehearsal studios, this one was particularly fancy though and we definitely approached it differently. We still did it ourselves and used the same digital 8-track we always use but maybe with more mics on the drums, rather than just the usual 2.” While the sterility of a studio setting can be poisonous to punk vitality, a lack of preparation can apparently be just as deadly to artier ambitions. “Creatively, the first attempt went wrong because no one knew the songs and essentially they didn’t exist in the physical world yet,” they explain, offhandedly adding, “The second one just didn’t sound very good, probably a number of factors involved but we’re going to square the blame on the environment this time around.”
But by the third attempt, Sauna Youth had finally settled into the right surroundings, worked out the songs properly and even brought in a new member, Harper Ecke, to contribute stronger vocals. “We knew the songs, they got played well, we only used 2 mics on the drums, Ecke sang on all of them, we were becoming a functioning band.” This new addition to their lineup also helped the band creatively. “Just the fact of having Ecke in the band, who can actually sing, opened up a lot of avenues we couldn’t explore before,” they offered. “I think on our next LP we’ll push out further into that even still, in fact in all directions. That’s the idea anyway.”
But does the idea of existing as a punk band limit such ambitions? And what influences these more experimental inclinations? “Outside of punk, sound-wise I guess there’s a lot of ‘modern composition people’ like LaMonte Young or Terry Riley or Glenn Branca but i’m not sure how much that comes across in our music, if at all,” they begin, before returning the conversation to the sphere of noisier artists. “When trying to work out where the singing was going to fit alongside Boon’s vocals and the rest of the band, I had bands like Buttonhead in mind where melodic vocals stay melodic while fighting with the crazy mental noise crashing around it, as an offsetting component.”
Their involvement in noise pop and punk scenes appears to inform their musical identity more than anything. In fact, they way they speak about their other projects makes the formation of Sauna Youth seem organic, even inevitable. Speaking of the affinity they feel with like-minded artists, they note that, “All of us have side-bands that join the dots between us and the bands our friends play in, so any of those Cold Pumas/Fair Ohs/Human Hair/Omi Palone/Male Bonding type people are super cool, attractive and successful humans.” Yet for all the commonalities (and band members) that Sauna Youth share with these artists, there’s a challenging side to their sound that’s difficult to overlook. When speaking about ‘Town Called Distraction,’ the 10-minute experiment that opens Dreamlands, they begin to shed some light on their sonic adventurousness.
“It was originally going to be the b-side, but it wasn’t an after-thought and it definitely felt like one to put it at the end,” they say of the song, before lapsing into some flippant punk humor. “We figured though that when you’re listening to the record you can just listen to the side you like… or even both, or even both at the same time if you’re feeling wild and have two copies of the record and two record players set up together… say if you’re a DJ or something, that’s why we’ve always liked to use tapes and records for our releases, to use that separation of the sides and to create unique DJing opportunities.” Aside from their (perhaps not wholly sincere) concern for the uniqueness of DJ sets, the song does seem to be an important step for the band, as evidenced by the ingenuity and detail that went into the track’s lyrical narrative.
“When I [Ecke] wrote the story with Patrick from Cold Pumas, Boon had given us a loose brief about what would fit with the narrative running through his lyrics. A couple emerged that had the same kind of kind of distraction, but in different forms. My/Martha’s character is obsessed by massive, essentialized and totalizing concepts which distance her from her own life and other people, and Patrick/Bobby’s character focuses on minute details, other people, punctuality and routine.” This concern with bordem, banality and apathy has been a consistent thematic concern in the band’s work, she continues, “I had in mind the couple that were in an older Sauna Youth song ‘E2 BANG BANG’ (‘S/he can’t get out of bed/And s/he doesn’t know why/S/he just wants to lay there all of the time time/They need a distraction, they need it now’) when I was writing it.” Yet for all of the consideration that went into writing the song, in execution it’s urgent, alive and irreverent rather than pedantic. And these same qualities are apparent from speaking with Sauna Youth as well.
Take their self-reflexively witty alternate explanation of the creation of ‘Town Called Distraction’ – “It was written in the best chord, B, we see it as a prequel to Terry Riley’s ‘In C’.”
Dreamlands is available now via Gringo Records and Faux Discx.