Sun Bones, from Tucson, Arizona might have a seemingly desert themed band name, but don’t consider them “desert rock.” In fact their music has more in common with the stylistic diversity of The Arcade Fire than the sandy lore of Gram Parsons. The band is comprised of Sam Golden (vocals, guitar), Seth Vietti (drums, vocals), Bob Hanshaw (bass, vocals) and Laura Kepner-Adney (guitar, vocals) and have evolved into a fierce recording outfit that combine elastic vocal work, complex melodies and go-to dance rhythms into a big sounding band with an indie ethos. After years of honing their craft on the stage and in the studio, Sun Bones has emerged as a formidable, distinctive presence in the Southwest music scene. Their first studio album Sentinel Peak (released in 2013) received critical acclaim and their eponymous new album will be released May 19th, with a national tour to follow. Glide is premiering the lively video for the rampant track “Ersilia” (below) that shouts with more neon flair than the carnival at Coachella. We also had the chance to speak with the band about the new video, album, the Tucson scene and an imaginary festival full of Springsteen masks.
We’re really excited about premiering the video for “Ersilia.” The video was exceptionally done and the neon lighting really vibes with the urgency of the song. How much creative input did you have in the video and do you feel the video sends a message about the song?
Of the three videos we’re releasing for this album, we’ve had the most creative control over this one. Sam (lead guitar, vocals) had the idea for the neon-lit performance with strobes and glowsticks. Laura (second guitar) designed the guitars and built them with Sam. Seth (drums) built the drums. We worked closely with Adam Ray, the director, throughout the shooting process, just spitballing ideas of cool shots back and forth, right there on set. The visual environment was so striking to begin with, it wasn’t hard to get rad-looking shots. It ended up being the easiest of the videos we made – everything came together in a matter of days and that tasty energy comes across in the final edit.
“Ersilia” itself is very high energy and runs more punk than some of your other compositions. Can you give us a background on this track and how it came to be?
We wrote “Ersilia” in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, Northern Arizona, 1.5 years ago. We had a ton of unfinished commissions from a crowdsourcing campaign, so we had ourselves a little songwriting retreat to crank’em out. One of these commissions was by our friend Ersilia, who asked us to write a song about herself. Sam wrote the music in about ten minutes, but it was more difficult to find the right tone for the lyrics. We didn’t want to write a “jingle” about somebody, and we didn’t want it to sound like a love song either. Or a hate song. Eventually we took her career as a medical student and future plastic surgeon as a launching pad for the lyrics. We’re all satisfied with how strangely the words turned out. Ersilia’s an odd duck, so it fits. (She’s the lady in the video, btw. She did her own face paint.)
Although a lot of the tracks seem influenced by certain 60’s movements, the first track “Good In Red” is a very bold statement to open the record with a very art/dance rock Talking Heads nod along with some animated sounding vocals. In fact the band does a remarkable job of conducting multi-layered vocals and an orchestrated groove, so was “Good in Red” a new type of composition for the band?
Sam was doing a long backpacking trip in a place called Buckskin Gulch (it’s a sweet-ass slot canyon) and the harmonies to “Good In Red” just starting looping in his brain as he hiked. This happened to be immediately preceding the songwriting retreat we mentioned earlier, so Sam and the band fleshed out the rest of the song rather quickly. Once we settled on the subject matter of having a night on the town as a cross-dresser (initially as a joke) the lyrics sorta fell into place.
In Sam’s opinion, the biggest musical influence for this song is Bach, what with the imitative, almost fugal, rising voices that begin each verse. Those were BEASTS to record– getting every sung chord to ring out was a major challenge. It didn’t feel like a departure for us, since we’ve always liked to emphasize full vocal harmonies in our songs. This might be the most intricate yet, though.
The songs on the record speak of subtle truths in the world and each song is a conversation between the “I” and the “You.” What ignited this lyrical gesture and how much of the songs are autobiographical?
These songs are only autobiographical in the emotional sense; we drew on the feelings of our experiences, rather than the specifics. Sam and Bob (bass) wrote many of the songs, and one in particular set the stage for the rest of them. When they wrote “Never Going Back”, they set out on a topic that is easily cliche’d (i.e. losing one’s virginity), but specifically wanted to avoid either over-romanticizing it or mocking the kind of song that would celebrate it — just tried to get the experience across honestly. Doing it with humor, but without making it into a joke. That influenced the process for the rest of them, which are, as a whole, exercises in empathy. We sing from the point of view of narrators as various as doomed lovers, a catchy melody, an insane old man, and a dog — all with, we hope, some kind of truth.
You recently released a double-A side single every few months on 1940’s era lathes. How did that experiment work out and did those songs help creatively fuel the songs on the new album – I’m sure some of them appear on it?
Yes! There’s a really cool dude in town named Mike Dixon, whose specialty is to make one-of-a-kind limited edition records on the lathes you mentioned. We made a series of three double-A side singles with Mike, and all but one of the songs from these appear on the album in more polished versions (some redone completely from scratch). Each record is square, clear, and has a hand-printed linocut on the back; they are very cool objects as well as recordings. Making these singles every few months kept us productive, and listening to them now, you can sense the band finding its direction. The records were useful in guiding us toward our sound, and giving us room to experiment along the way.
The band has gone through some name changes, but musically and personnel wise where do you see the biggest changes and growth in what Sun Bones has now become? What can the band do now musically that it may not have been able to do five years ago?
Bob: It’s exciting to be in this ensemble right now. We are more artistically focused than we’ve ever been, so working up newly-written songs for live performance is a joy. The songs on this album fit together as a unit, much more so than on any release we’ve done up to this point. And the addition of a female voice to the group has expanded our harmonic capabilities, especially because Laura came from a pretty successful run in a harmony-heavy Arizona group (Silver Thread Trio). Her harmonic instincts are spot-on. Most of her parts began as improvisation during live shows.
Sam: It’s sort of painful to listen to old recordings of our live shows, even from as recently as like a year ago. We had been too focused on bringing this INTENSE physical energy to our shows, to the detriment of the music, I think. Lately, and especially since the addition of Laura, we have really matured and gained the tight-knit ensemble skills that we had been neglecting. As a band that does four-part harmonies in almost every song, it is especially noticeable when we get stuff wrong. That’s why it feels good that we’re starting to get it right.
Seth: For me one of the biggest differences between this album and our previous recordings is that we really set out to write songs that create & SUSTAIN a mood – we love movement in our songs but it’s been good to temper our desire to always be taking the listener to a new place and begin to feel comfortable lingering a little longer.
Laura: I joined the band in the midst of writing and recording the album, so I haven’t been through the same changes the guys have. However, I’ve been a fan for years and what Seth said rings true: the writing on this album is more focused, more comfortable than previous Sun Bones stuff. As a result, we can execute a more polished live show that doesn’t challenge the listener but isn’t so simplified that it condescends. It’s complexity without conceit.
Sun Bones is obviously a fitting name for a band from Tucson, but how much do you want to be assimilated with Tucson on a national scale?
We want to be identified with Tucson. Tucson has been good to us. But we don’t want to always be juxtaposed with the “desert rock” label. The national-level musical ambassadors from Tucson do tend to have that Desert Rock vibe, but the scene in the city itself is incredibly stylistically diverse. Bands like Head Over Heart, Brydes, Burning Palms, Prom Body, Best Dog Award, Katterwaul — these are the young, hungry people who want to get Tucson out there. There’s a sort of garage/electro-pop thing going on there. And then there’s Mute Swan, Forest Fallows, Louise Le Hir, Ohioan, and our sister band Laura and the Killed Men: more psychedelic bands creating their own pocket of the scene. There’s also a scene that’s expanding the Calexico/Howe Gelb thing beyond recognition with a lot of cumbia and spoken word: Sergio Mendoza, Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan, Chicha Dust, Vox Urbana, DJ Dirtyverbs. And we can’t leave this without mentioning Altrice. He makes dope beats.
How has the touring process been and where do you sense strongholds and the most interest developing?
The touring thing is going alright! We’re booking it ourselves, which is always an endurance test. We’re going for twice as long as we ever have before, too. We’re cautiously optimistic about all the new cities, but on the one hand, you never really know what’s going to happen, but on the other hand, this is the best-promoted tour we’ve ever put together. We’ve learned a lot about how to do it over the four years we’ve been touring actively. And of course, we’re all thrilled about seeing parts of the country we’ve never seen before.
There might be a couple strongholds for us. We’re really excited about our show in Brooklyn, partly because we’re playing with great bands full of people who used to live in Tucson. We’ve never had a bad show in Seattle, so that’s exciting too. El Paso is a bigger show every time we come by. And you know, our Prescott (AZ) shows will be pretty great. People in Prescott are always really appreciative.
If you can curate your own festival – name five bands you would like to join you?
Seth: I want to see James Blake and Justin Timberlake collab. Wilco and Grizzly Bear can come too – Glenn Kotche and Chris Bear are two of my favorite drummers in rock. R Stevie Moore can play a short set to get things weird, then a performance of Steve Reich’s piano phase.
Sam: In my festival there are ten bands but only five slots. Bands must fight each other to get a slot. Only the winner can play a set. Also, this is in a universe where nobody dies. Unless they lose.
Fight 1: Radiohead vs. The Beatles
Fight 2: Flying Lotus vs. Franz Schubert
Fight 3: The Fugees vs. The Bulgarian Women’s Choir
Fight 4: Miles Davis’s second quintet vs. Kraftwerk
Fight 5: Panda Bear vs. Brian Wilson
Bob: The Talla Vocal Ensemble (Finnish men’s a capella group) will sing works by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. Terakaft will be there (sorry, Tinariwen). Owen Pallett will bring an orchestra to back himself up.
Jónsi from Sigur Rós will sing a duet with Björk. And in case that last one only counts as one act, which it does, I’m inviting Serj Tankian to perform with Arto Tunçboyacıyan again.
Laura: Damn, booking this festival is not an easy task. I’ll bring Feist, the Punch Brothers, Prince, St Vincent, and Neko Case. Neko and Kelly Hogan will emcee, of course, and Annie Clark will choreograph a giant troupe of backup dancers for every band’s set.
Also, everyone who attends receives a Bruce Springsteen mask to wear, and Bruce Springsteen will also be there, in the crowd, sans mask. Boss Fest.
Photos by Andrew Emery Brown, Celesteal Photography and Angry Monoon Productions