sunking Spin Left Field Jazz Narrative With Experimental ‘Smug’ via Anti (INTERVIEW)

Bonding over their love of the avant-garde and cinematic sonics, left-field jazz duo sunking has combined these two worlds to create a colorful, hectic harmony that denounces convention. The Seattle-bred combo of drummer Bobby Granfelt and keyboardist Antoine Martel have a long history together but the birth of sunking didn’t come along until 2018 when they released their six-minute saga of a debut single “Anima”. The band’s self-titled debut emerged the following year, a 23-song escapade that is unpredictable without losing focus. Within the span of 40 minutes, the album bounces from masterful traditional jazz to attention-demanding experimentation, all with the band’s unique twist on their wide array of influences.

Fast forward to now and sunking released Smug via Anti Records on November 18th. The horn-driven project has the band toying with their song structure to create a more immersive listening experience without losing sight of their off-kilter roots. Their natural knack for building worlds with their instrumentals truly got a chance to shine on songs like “Had a Few Religious Experiences, Forgot Them All”. The futuristic track has a triumphant horn melody trudging through warping synth chords and an up-tempo drum pattern that’s akin to a giant stomping through a forest. A song like “Hakim Warrick” leans more to the traditional side while still embedding their DIY mentality into one of the more straightforward songs on the album. Smug is a hypnotic journey through the minds of Granfelt and Martel, a duo hellbent on defining their own boundaries just to break them. 

Glide recently spoke with Bobby Granfelt and Antoine Martel of sunking to discuss Smug, their creative process, and how everything came together…

How did you two meet? Was it in an instant working relationship?

Antoine: We’re just both from the same suburb of Seattle, and we met when we were in high school, and we just immediately started playing music together. It wasn’t like, there weren’t a ton of people that played music in our neighborhood. Once we met it was like, “Okay, cool. Let’s do some stuff.”

Can you guys talk about your time in High Pulp? How did High Pulp get started and did your time in that band influence what you guys are doing sonically now with sunking?

Antoine: We started sunking and High Pulp right around the same time, I think. It was all shortly after coming back from college, both of us back to where we’d grown up. I guess the influence is, in a way, sunking is developed as not High Pulp. Not in that way, we love being in High Pulp but High Pulp is this very large band with a lot of people, you got to communicate and think of ideas collectively, organize rehearsals all the time.

Sunking being just the two of us was a fun and different outlet where we could move a little more limber, and make decisions quicker and stuff. The two definitely co-mingled in that way. What else do you think Bobby?

Bobby: If High Pulp goes left, we try to go right with sunking. If High Pulp goes up, we try to go down, just because we have that outlet with High Pulp, and that’s really cool. We have a lot of different interests musically, so if High Pulp is like scratching the itch of one of those interests, then we’ll maybe use sunking to go the other way.

I feel like sunking started out as a little bit more experimental, and now High Pulp is going in that direction and now sunking is going in a new direction. We’re not really, the record that is coming out, Smug, has a bunch of horns on it, but we recorded a lot of that record in 2016, 2017, and 2018. The record that we’re working on right now has literally no horns on it. As Toine said, it’s like sunking is not High Pulp, and that’s nice to have something to work against in a way.

Photo by Will Matsuda

So you guys already started recording another Sunking album? Did You guys immediately start working on it when Smug was finished?

Bobby: Not immediately, but we’re almost done with our next one. Again, it’s just the two of us. We’ve been making music together for, at this point, 15 years. We can work pretty quickly, which is cool.

You touched on your influences a little bit. Who are some artists or albums that you turn to if you’re feeling stuck creatively?

Bobby: Flying Lotus is always one that comes back for us. Radiohead, a lot of ambient music, and I think we’re just weird, we like stuff that’s weird that has weird ways of having it made. What do you think Toine? I think we’re just as interested and inspired by the process that something was made as we are by the music itself.

Antoine: I’m trying to scroll real quick. I have a playlist that’s exactly this. Maybe it can help my brain. I agree with what Bobby said so far, I remember early in the times there was a Butcher Brown tape that got the first record, that’s already out there, going as an idea of just these short little beats, but that were performed with live instruments. We listened to a lot of Shabazz Palaces these days. We had a few of those Salt records when we started working on this third thing that we’re working on. There was some stuff that we were listening to there.

Bobby: I think there’s also an element for us of, we grew up playing in the DIY scene, so there’s always some element of like DIY and punk rock or guitar rock. I know for me Modest Mouse was a big influence and (Sandy) Alex G, people like that, even though we don’t sound like them, I think that the ethos works its way into our shit because– For example, this record that we’re about to put out, most of the drums only have two mics on the kit the whole time.

A lot of people would be like, “Oh, you need to mic a kit this way, and that way.” We were just like, “Oh, we just did it with two mics, and it sounds fine,” and it doesn’t really matter. To me that that’s how it felt when somebody told me that Alex G just uses a guitar and drops it 12 semitones for bass, and just doing shit that’s not necessarily by the book. I feel like we have a lot of influence from just DIY, and garagey stuff in that way that works its way into our just general approach and like that way of thinking about music and rules.

You guys are talking about other people’s processes and how it influences you. How do you guys typically start a recording session? Does it need to be a start and stop for you guys or is it just constantly flowing?

Antoine: More the second half, usually there’s been a lot of stuff that we’ve done with basically Bobby doing a bunch of drum ideas, and then just going from there, starting with that as the little piece to work from, but especially lately, we’ve all gotten into all those like little electron boxes, samplers, and things like that. We’ll just be making little things anywhere. We’ll be on a High Pulp tour, sitting on the bus, and Bobby will tap my shoulder and be like, “Hey, I made three things.”

Then maybe that’ll be the starting point of something, or maybe we’re waiting at a gas station, and we both set up something and do something right there for a little bit. I don’t know, maybe I’m playing the piano one day and I send it to Bobby, and he likes it and he samples it and uses that, and it’s very open. 

Bobby: Everything’s on limits pretty much at all times. We have this project, we have our other projects and we just make stuff. I guess sometimes Antoine and I will sit down and say, “Okay, it’s time to make a sunking song.”

A lot of the time it comes a little more naturally of just being like, “Okay, we’re just making stuff”, not thinking about what it’s for, and then it just comes out and we’re like, “Oh, this feels like the right spirit for this or for sunking,” and I’ll send it Toine, or he’ll send me something, and we just work on it from there. It’s really just a fluid process, and we really utilize the computer a lot. Now that we live in two different cities because I live in LA and Toine’s in Canada it makes it easier to be able to navigate all that shit, and still stay pretty robust creatively.

I’ve noticed that, especially on your 2019 album, the tones and textures really play a huge part in it. In terms of getting that signature sound that sunking has, how important is the mixing process to achieve your sound, and how involved are you guys in the mixing and mastering process of these albums?

Bobby: We mix it all ourselves. Toine does all the mixing, so we’re involved.

Antoine: Yes, I’d say it’s super important, it’s a big part of the thing. When we started doing this, I had just started figuring out how to record things, was the very beginning back in our suburb. Bobby had come over, recorded some drums, fallen asleep, and woken up. We had a beat going, then we didn’t have any money. We still don’t have very much money. Mixing it ourselves both saves money, but also it gives us that control you’re saying over the tones, and really everything.

I took some classes, I have techniques that I practiced, and I watched YouTube videos to get better. I’m not a world-renowned sound engineer or anything, but it definitely helps just as being the artist, getting to be doing that part of the work makes– I think you can make like a unique thing that, if it sounds good, it’s good. As Bobby said, it might not be correct in certain facets, but we’re okay.

Bobby: Usually, it happens faster. Toine and I, it also seems like we work manically a lot of the time, and it’s just really nice to be able to just write a bunch of songs in one swell, and then have them sounding good, and then you’re just like, “Okay, well, I’ll just keep tweaking these things. I already EQ’d them with our compressor on.” I think that mixing is really important, and for a project like High Pulp, for instance, that’s a bigger band with a different sound, and a different goal, it makes sense for that to be mixed by somebody else.

With sunking, it’s like, I don’t know, people maybe spend too much time thinking about what is right or wrong, as opposed to just whether it sounds good or not. I feel like we found out how to just make it sound good enough that it works for us, and just do it ourselves. That control is nice.

Photo by Will Matsuda

I also noticed that you guys use nontraditional elements like car engines, keys jangling, etc. How do those sonic elements play a part in the overall picture you’re trying to paint and where do they come in during the recording process? 

Bobby: Come in at any point.

Antoine: Yes. It depends on the thing. Now I feel like, with the samplers, there’s some stuff occasionally. Earlier on, maybe they mostly would have been, but even then sometimes, we got a song on this record coming up that acts as an interlude transition. It started with a cell phone recording from Bobby outside of a Mariners game of a guy who was speaking. We added synthesizers from there, and then eventually, another song got pasted to the back of it. It’s all fair game in that way.

As far as where it came from, I don’t know. I liked the John Cage radio stuff, and that avant-garde classical realm, so I just enjoy incorporating any ideas from that into stuff when it feels right. That’s always just been a genre that I dig as strange and uncomfortable as it may be from time to time.

Bobby: I think that it’s also like Toine’s coming out from the John Cage side, and then I come out from the hip-hop side, where I think that there’s a lot of interludes and skits, on a lot of records that are, “Non-musical.” I really like those because it puts you in a place or a location. It makes the thing feel like cinema, and I think that that’s a big part of our shared interest and shit between Toine and I is cinema and the idea of music.

Not just being like a sound location or just a thing that happens in your ears, but it also can literally put you in a place. I feel like that’s what we use, some of the Foley sounds. I guess it is just location-based stuff. Like, “Oh, you’re at this game. You’re in the street. You’re in your car.” It adds a certain depth I think to just– It’s not just, “Here are some chords,” it’s like, “This is the location.”

You guys are talking about like the interludes and the structure of your albums. How do you guys approach putting together a track list for a project like Smug, the upcoming album?

Bobby: It’s really important. We give it a lot of thought, to think about things as far as albums, really a lot. It’s got to feel a type of way, and feel cohesive. What were you going to say, Toine?

Antoine: It goes back and forth a lot. We think about that although, we usually come up with some rough version pretty quick and then we’re working with that as we’re writing it, and then inevitably, it changes. Inevitably, just before we ship it to the label, we’re like, “Are we right? Is this the right one?” Then we think about it for a lot longer and then we’re like, “Okay, yes, this is the right one,” and then we go for it.

Bobby: Yes, like you said, pretty early on in the process of us making an album, we have a batch of songs and we’ll put them in order. It won’t really ever just be, “Here’s a batch of songs that you can just play in a random order.” We’ll definitely sequence them, and see what comes out, how they feel, or whatever, and go from there. That’s where the interludes show themselves as well, as you’re listening and singing about the flow and length of songs and just trying to see this thing as a full album, and a 40-minute listening experience.

That’s how we like to listen to records, records are not just a collection of song after song after song, you know what I mean, but rather an intentional– We have songs that we love that don’t make sense for the record. Even though it’s a song that we think it might do even better than the songs on the record, than the singles on the record, or whatever. If it doesn’t feel right with the record, it won’t go on the record. We’ll put it out as a single or whatever because we don’t like to just put a bunch of songs together and call it an album, we want it to be like a novel.

Speaking of putting the album together, how did you guys come up with the artwork for Smug? It’s very much like the music, it’s very abstract. Was that connection purposeful and how important is the artwork to you guys when putting a full project together?

Antoine: The artwork is very important, we love the artwork. The way it came to be is that we started with the first record, and our friend JC who is the artist who did the artwork for both the first and second record, he had this painting that we used as the album art for the first album that is abstract, but also looks like it could be a figure. It’s wonderful in the middle of that.

We had felt a good connection with that on the first record and how that had represented that. I don’t know if you mentioned it at one point, but the first record and this upcoming record, the two mics on the drums thing is true across all of them, and they’re all from one big session.

Bobby: One big era, yes.

Antoine: We did, yes. At one point, we were sitting on 55 songs or something, and then we had to trim down from there, we made two records from there over time. Basically, we felt that connection would be good to also reflect in the artwork because we do think the artwork is a very important part of the experience on how you’re able to create that world, make that sense of place and feeling for everybody who’s listening to it.

JC felt like the natural connection again. We found this painting he did, it hangs in the bathroom of a ceramic studio. 

Bobby: It was effortless, it made sense. JC did the last one, he’ll do this next one. His art grew in the same way that I think our music grew. Sometimes things can just be put right in front of you and they’re easy, they just work, and good to learn how to just go with those things. Not everything needs to be so hard in the creative process.

This art with JC was a good example of that. It was like, “Oh, this is great. That was so easy.” Sometimes that shit you’ll spend nights, days, weeks, and months thinking about what’s the art going to be.

Antoine: I have seven versions of things for my solo record that I’ve been tossing around for months.

Bobby: Yes, exactly. I think as instrumental music that we’re making, it’s also– The artwork is extra important because artwork and song titles are the only two ways outside of the music itself that we can communicate because we don’t have lyrics. That’s just another thing that I think makes it interesting as well. There’s an extra weight to them as far as the narrative.

How do you guys come up with the titles for the songs? Do you base it on the feeling in the music?

Bobby: I don’t think we think about it too much. I think it’s just a feeling more than intentional– At least for me. I don’t know if you agree, but it’s not like a thought.

Antoine: Yes, it’s not like we have some larger reason for this one’s this, and then it goes into this because of this. Occasionally, they’ll be a pair of songs that make sense together as a thing, as an idea. On the new album, we’ve got “Good Intentions” and “Bad Habits” next to each other. That was like a larger idea, but it doesn’t expand the whole record following the feeling that we were trying to capture.

Bobby: It’s like the same thing I think that happens when you’re writing music that like you can’t think it too much. It’s got to be coming from a feeling, a place of feeling at a certain point. I think naming the songs is similar where you’ll know when it’s right, even though you don’t know necessarily why it’s right. You’re like, “Oh, that’s the right name for this song.” I think it’s cool that I don’t really know why, it’s like I tried to stop asking, “Oh, why?”

Trying to stop, decoding the algorithm to making stuff or whatever, because that’s the whole point. It’s a fool’s errand, you don’t want to look it in the eye. Tom Petty said that it’s like, I think that that’s really true, that there’s the mystical element of naming a song, or of writing a song, or finding the right artwork, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to doing that. It has to always be a living breathing search that is more feeling based.

How far along in the process did you guys decide to call the album Smug and what inspired that?

Bobby: I think somewhere in the middle and it just felt right. 

Antoine: That was a Bobby one. He just came to it one day. He was like, “What about Smug?” I was like, “Yes. Yes.”

What went into the decision to sign to Anti? How has that process been compared to when you were doing it on your own?

Antoine: It’s a lot better. As for what led to the decision, I don’t know. We got offered to work with Anti, and we’re like, “Yes, that seems like a really nice upgrade from doing things all by ourselves.” Yes, they’ve been great. I don’t know. I met them earlier this fall, met some of the people in person for the first time, and they’ve always been– It’s amazing. It’s like you send an email and then people respond to you in seven minutes, and it’s just like, “Wow.”

It’s like being musicians, we’re used to working with other musicians and people that take anywhere between a week and never to respond to you. It legitimizes things, it feels like what we’re doing, like we’re really doing this, taking it seriously, putting our hearts and souls into it. Then there’s a whole group of people that are there saying, “Yes, let’s do it.” That’s really cool.

It definitely helped us widen our audience, and hopefully, with this record, we just reach even more people. That’s just the goal is just to share what we are making, and what we feel with other people. It’s really nothing beyond that, it’s just to reach people.

Just looking at the tracklist, there are a few more features on Smug compared to your debut. Do you guys plan on branching out to more artists in general? How do you guys approach a collaboration outside of the band?

Antoine: We’ve talked about having some more features on the next one. I think the features thing will keep happening. On Smug and the previous one, the Sunking Era was both, those are mostly just our friends from around–

Bobby: That was our community.

Antoine: We just were hanging out with one day probably, and we were maybe working on the song before they showed up or something. Then we’re like, “Oh, hey, what if you did a thing?” Then they’re like, “Sure.” It usually comes up organically. I know there were some songs that I think it wasn’t on the Smug record, but on the EP in between that Bobby recorded in the car with one of the sax players from High Pulp, while the other sax player from High Pulp was driving us to Portland.

Bobby: Yes, for a gig. We recorded this shit in the car, a moving vehicle on I-5.

Antoine: It’s always just been, “Okay. Hey, we have this idea.” Neither Bob nor I can play any horns. With this Smug record being lots of horns, we weren’t going to be doing that. I’m not a midi-wiz enough to know how to make midi horns sound real and good, so we just get horn players.

Bobby: There’s something you get from live horns that just feels human and feels good. We just approach collaboration like we do everything else, open-minded and trying to not direct it too much. We have some idea of what we want. Maybe it’s just a feeling again, or an abstract idea and just really abstract. It won’t be like, “Hey, I want this to be a minor seventh chord.” It’ll be like, “I want this to feel like you’re driving at night and there are little raindrops hitting your car, and you’re hungry.”

I think that if you’re going to be collaborating with people, you want to have it show their spirit, otherwise, there’s no point in really collaborating with them. We just try to just open the door with somebody simultaneously. Then the only thing that makes it a sunking song, I guess, is that we’re the ones that get to choose what stays and what goes. 

We just try to enter the creative space equally, and not think about anything beyond just making music and seeing how somebody else’s energy changes the way that the music goes.

You guys tend to opt for shorter songs. What is the key to fitting everything you want to say in such a short amount of time, or is it just whatever is best for the song?

Bobby: The short song idea was initially inspired by the Butcher Brown tape called– What was it called?

Antoine: Grown Folk.

Bobby: Grown Folk, yes. The Grown Folk tape and Knxwledge, and a lot of people just making shit that was two minutes long. It was just a vibe. Didn’t need to try to be doing so much. Sometimes it feels like a six-minute saga is just a little too extra. Those were intentional choices at the time. That’s not important though to what sunking is. We might write a 12-minute song one day, but that is a common thread between this album, Smug, and then the self-titled from 2019.

Antoine: I think it also connects to when we talked about earlier, the High Pulp going left, Sunking going right. Especially when our music, High Pulp was writing a lot of long songs, which is fun, but we were already doing that, so we’re like, “Okay, well let’s do the other side, let’s do the short stuff with sunking.

Bobby: Definitely true.

How would you guys describe your live shows? Is there a mood you guys aim for when you’re performing these songs live?

Bobby: I think we want it to be engaging. We just play as a duo, but we don’t want it to just be– We want it to be a duo performance that is thoroughly engaging the entire time. It’s really difficult because we’re doing a lot between the two of us. 

I have a drum set, a synthesizer, an electron box, and a modular synth as well. I think that for– I don’t know, I think we’ve embraced the challenge of that. It’s really a cool challenge to be able to make all that music with just two people live, make it make sense, make it sound good. I don’t know, as far as the energy I want it to– I think we want it to just be like– I want people to recognize that just as much care has gone into the live show as goes into the records. I just want people to be like, “Damn, this is heavy.”

Is there anything in particular that you want listeners to take away from Smug, or do you just want the music to speak for itself? 

Antoine: Probably the latter. 

Bobby: Yes, I don’t really– People can take away from it whatever they want. It’s freeing once you put it out that you can’t really control what people think about it, or how they react to it. As I said, your job is done once you put it out. Just excited to share it with the world.

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