An interview that ran in DEAD ANGEL
One of the finest (and LOUDEST) bands ever to emerge from the NYC "artrock" scene, the Band of Susans came together in 1986 with Robert Poss on guitar, Ron Spitzer on drums, and the three Susans (Stenger, Lyall, and Tallman, on bass and guitars) -- and proceeded to reinvent the entire concept of sound on sound recording. Robert Poss has played with Rhys Chatham's guitar orchestra and Susan Stenger, a classically-trained flutist, was a regular fixture on the NYC avant-garde scene before joining the band, playing with the likes of John Cage and other respected avant figures. From their original Trace Elements ep BLESSING AND CURSE to their latest Restless release HERE COMES SUCCESS, regardless of numerous lineup changes (including, at one point, current Helmet guitarist Page Hamilton), they have remained firmly devoted to exploring the endless rhythmic possibilities of interlocking guitars set on overdrive. Their sound has evolved from minimalistic riffing (at a time when, at the band's formation, several of the members had actually never played guitars before) to highly complex tracks resembling cathedrals of sheer excessive sound, and still they continue to move forward. Guitarist Robert Poss tells us all about it:
LIKE WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS: QUESTIONS WITHIN QUESTIONS FOR THE BAND OF SUSANS
DA: How did the auditions from hell go (for new players to head out on tour)? Who's in the lineup now?
RP: We actually succeeded in getting two new players through word-of-mouth and did not have to resort to a Village Voice ad and the usual parade of fumbling sociopaths. Kelly Burns will be playing drums on tour (in for Ron Spitzer), and Jason Braun will be playing guitar (in for Mark Lonergan). Mark and Ron played on HERE COMES SUCCESS by the way.
DA: Are you and Susan the only two original members at this point?
RP: The original band had me, Ron Spitzer, Susan Stenger along with Susan Lyall (now Jodie Foster's costume designer) and Susan Tallman (a writer now living in Amsterdam). So, in our touring lineup, the other veteran, Anne Husick, has been in the band since 1990.
DA: Speaking of getting new players, are you still in the habit of picking players who've never actually played guitar before?
RP: Actually, only Susans Lyall and Tallman were total novices when we formed the band. It's true, Susan Stenger learned how to play bass on the job as well. Anne Husick (despite some false reports) had been playing for quite some time prior to joining. Sometimes novice musicians are great; they don't have a whole host of bad habits and cliches to unlearn, and their approach to their instrument can often be inventive. (Like what they said about a Woody Allen character and the cello he played in a marching band: He had no sense of the instrument. He was BLOWING into it.)
DA: So what's up with new album? How has the BOS sound shifted this time?
RP: From what I've read, the songs on HCS are a bit longer, a bit more like we sound live, there s a bit more variety stylistically, and perhaps more definition in the production style. It s easier to see these things in retrospect. We did decide to not let radio play or convention govern song length at all this time. The result is that the average length of songs is around 7 minutes. A bunch of people have told us it s our best record yet, and that sounds fine to us.
DA: One thing i've always liked about BOS is that the band sounds ANGRY, but it's an icy, cerebral kind of rage that most people miss entirely. Is that intentional, or just a byproduct of the way you guys write/think?
RP: We re often angry or despondent or just plain gloomy, and lyrics to our songs and the way there are sung reflect that. People are finally starting to check out our lyrics more and they ve found some pretty odd stuff going on under that deep shag carpet of guitars.
DA: I know you and susan have been known to wander off and play one-off type things (like the performance with bagpipe/flutist Yoshi Wada a few years ago) -- are you still doing that kind of thing? Incidentally, did Susan ever actually follow through on picking up the bagpipes? :)
RP: We were going to use bagpipes on HCS, but never got around to it. Susan and I have continued doing other musical projects. Susan has long worked with composer Phill Niblock, and he recently recorded some of my guitar tones for one of his pieces. Susan and I did an odd sort of collage/remix on a limited edition CD (called DECONSTRUCT) that Blast First and The Wire magazine put out as part of a celebration of the Blast First label's 10th anniversary. In June I'm going back to Amsterdam to work with Nicolas Collins and on my own solo guitar and electronics stuff. The long-promised Poss/Stenger/Bruce Gilbert (from Wire the band) project will get done in 1995 I hope.
DA: So what kind of unusual projects have you been involved with lately outside of BOS?
RP: [see above]
DA: How are things going with your own label Trace Elements? Any new stuff?
RP: Trace Elements has been pretty dormant lately (except as the Provisional Information Wing of the B.O.S. Army) but I'm hoping to put out another Nicolas Collins CD at some point, and possibly some oddball solo thing of mine, time and money permitting.
DA: How's the WIRED FOR SOUND compilation doing overseas? I seem to remember there was an interesting concept behind the sequencing....
RP: WIRED FOR SOUND has just been released. The reviews so far have been great. People seem to like the way it's broken down -- one CD of Songs With Words and one Songs Without Words (i.e., instrumentals, mostly.) It's really pretty amazing to see so many of our songs collected in one place. It s a beautiful package, too.
DA: Is the music press finally starting to catch up with the band? it's always irritated me that a lot of newer bands (Helmet, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, etc. have been credited with originating a sound that the BOS was actually doing years before.
RP: MBV have been contemporaries of ours, and we played shows with them in Europe and in the U.S. in 1989. I did find it strange to see the artwork for LOVELESS (which came out several months AFTER THE WORD AND THE FLESH) looking so much like ours. I saw Page Hamilton [cw: currently of Helmet] today, and presented him with a copy of WIRED FOR SOUND. Of course Page is the first to admit that being in Band Of Susans rocked his world, and set him on the path to stardom. As far as getting credit for what we ve done, we're hoping we'll be rewarded in the afterlife.
DA: With the loud, hypnotic/trance-rock thing becoming more popular in the past couple of years with bands like MBV, Godflesh, etc., have the BOS started gaining a bigger audience? I can remember when it seemed like I was the only one outside of NYC who had heard of you, and now you seem to have at least achieved a certain level of "visibility"....
RP: The kind of stuff that we ve been doing since 1986 has become rather popular in the last few years. People thought our approach was odd and difficult when we first came on the scene. People's minds are much more open now, which is great. And when we mention Phill Niblock or LaMonte Young or Rhys Chatham in an interview, people now actually know who we re talking about sometimes.
DA: So what the plans for touring behind this one? Are you doing any videos this time?
RP: We re doing a short East Coast/Midwest tour in late March into April. In May we re going to do about 5 weeks in Europe and in August, we re going to England to be part of the Blast First 10th Anniversary shows with our ex- labelmates Sonic Youth, etc.
There is a new video that a filmmaker named Leah Singer made recently. It's for "The Last Temptation of Susan" (from VEIL). It's pretty cool. That may get sent around to various cable shows some time soon.
DA: Any big, specific plans for the band in the future, or do you intend to just keep doing what you're doing and see what happens?
RP: I would like to see my dream of imbedding subliminal advertising in aluminum siding come to fruition. I'm also hoping for peace on earth. As far as B.O.S. is concerned, we just keep plugged in and plug away.
DA: This has nothing do with anything (except personal curiosity), but you toured the UK at one point with the Throwing Muses -- what do you make of the unexpected success of Kristen Hersh's HIPS AND MAKERS? I'm just curious here....
RP: Well, it's no wonder in certain respects that dividing Throwing Muses into Belly and Kristen's unit causes each one to find their own partisan audience. Collaboration usually involves compromise. I really enjoyed touring with Throwing Muses (this was in 1989, with their original line-up). A lot of people actually got turned on to B.O.S. by that tour.
DA: And finally -- does the band still swear by those G&L guitars?
RP: Page told me today how much he loves the G&L SC-1 guitar I sold to him a few months ago. G&Ls are gifts from God. They are simply divine. The company is becoming more popular all the time. Even their current models are worth checking out, though I'm partial to the ones they made in the early 1980's. Leo Fender needs a postage stamp. Actually, he needs to be on ALL postage stamps.