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An interview that ran in FLAGPOLE
Robert Poss Sets The Record Straight: BAND OF SUSANS UNVEILED
The Band of Susans formed in 1986 in New York City. Born amidst the cacophony of the city's noise rock scene, which was, at the time, buzzing or howling with artists like Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Live Skull and Pussy Galore, the Susans, like their peers, have been consistently involved in reflecting NYC's urban squeal in their music.
The Susans have just released their seventh work, VEIL, to much critical brouhaha, especially in the U.K., which makes sense as early BOS efforts like 1987's HOPE AGAINST HOPE found the band gazing intently at their shoes years before shoegazing would become a British pop must. Although all of the BOS releases are different (the NOW ep covers the Stones' "Paint It Black," while THE WORD AND THE FLESH LP takes a shot at Rhys Chatham's avant-garde, one-chord "Guitar Trio"), the thread that runs through and unifies all of the Band of Susans' work is the overwhelming squalor of three guitars grating against one another.
The Band of Susans was originally the brainchild of guitarist Robert Poss. I talked to him last week by phone. From his New York apartment, he waxed poetic/historic on the origin of his band, the nature of art, and his childhood misunderstandings about electrical appliances. Study what follows carefully: The Band of Susans will be in town August 7 at the Shoebox.
The Beginning "Band of Susans came along at what I thought was going to be the end of my musical career; I was pretty disenchanted with the music industry and everything else. The way BOS started out was essentially me trying to strip away all of my influences, all of my history in rock and roll, 'cause I'd played in a lot of bands -- nothing too exciting -- sort of Clash-oriented, kinda punk bands, and before that I'd played in blues bands....
"Band of Susans started as an attempt for me to... do what it is that I really like about playing rock and roll, the stuff having nothing to do with the business angle... it's sort of like a fairy tale because in a certain sense the band that was closest to my heart and had no, no commercial incentive, no preconceptions of being successful, has been by far the most successful thing I've ever been involved with.
"I just got a bunch of friends together -- amateurs, basically. Two of them had really never played guitar -- women, these Susans, these good friends of mine, that sort of wanted to do something different and experimental. Then Susan Stenger, who I'd known since I was a teenager, who was a pretty prominent flutist, playing all sorts of experimental avant-garde stuff, working with people like John Cage -- she sort of picked up the bass guitar. I mean it was a real old-fashioned kind of pick-up rockin' kinda thing."
The NY Scene: Myth and Fact "Yeah, it was all happening at the same time. When we were working in '86, I guess the Sonic Youth record that was current was SISTER. I know the guys in Live Skull, and we've worked with Rhys Chatham; so yeah, there were a bunch of people working -- not really influencing each other, or influenced by each other too much. You know, people might make that assumption, but it was just all of these people in New York sort of working on their own thing at the same time.
"The most striking and significant element in the evolution of Band of Susans is that when the band started, I was writing all of the material, I was doing all of the lead singing, and I produced the records. Now I produce the records, but both writing and lead singing are shared with Susan Stenger, the bass player. So now we have a whole other person's intellect, talent, brains and abilities as a musician involved in the writing and the singing, which is really significant. On that level, the band is less monolithic."
Evolution, Part II "We've totally maintained our focus. The set we played in London had a couple of songs from our very first record, as well as songs from our new record, and they all worked together. We have not made any grand stylistic changes; I think we've just gotten better -- a bit more diverse, a bit more confident. But we've never wanted to make the same two records back to back.
"It's hard coming up with new stuff; it's hard to keep everything fresh, but we manage to do it. We feel that even though we're on this lunatic fringe of the rock 'n roll world, we sort of feel limitless in certain ways."
The Question "Why?" "Personally, this is simply what I love to do. It's been a dream of mine to play in a rock band ever since I was a little kid -- we're talking... 1964. I was so young that I thought electric guitar you sort of plugged into the wall like an electric blender; I didn't realize there was an amplifier involved. I thought electric guitar was like an appliance.
"To answer your question: This is my life's work. I'm not gonna write the Great American Novel, and I'm probably not gonna deliver some nation from bondage. What I'm gonna do is make noisy guitar records with a bunch of people I like to work with.
"I guess the larger question is, 'Why am I driven to do something that is creative and artistic?' I guess it's because I'm a dysfunctional, emotionally troubled egomaniac."
Flagpole: I read a Lou Reed quote somewhere where he said (I think jokingly) that every time someone would play a blues riff in the Velvet Underground, he would fine them. With your background in playing in blues bands and more standard rock bands, do you find it kind of tough to deconstruct the guitar?
Robert Poss: "In a certain sense, what he's talking about is avoiding cliche. And Band of Susans sort of instinctively avoids what we think are cliches. There are noise rock cliches, and there are commercial rock cliches. We don't do really loud Neil Young songs with feedback, which is what a lot of bands do now. I'm not putting it down, I love that stuff, but it's not what we do."
The Band and the Blues "The blues thing for me is a very submerged influence. It's something I was doing in the '70s; I actually lived through the '70s. And I guess with the blues it's almost more of a philosophy. No one ever said about Muddy Waters, "Man that Muddy Waters plays the same fucking three chords, that same guitar slide riff.' If you really like blues you have to be into the subtleties of it. And in a certain sense the kind of music we play is almost like blues; it's very simple elements combined in new and different ways.
"The way a really good blues player doesn't just go through the motions -- a really good blues player remains immersed in the whole weird religious tribal emotional sexual complexities of the blues -- in a certain sense we have those feelings about our own music. It's hard to put into words."
-- Richard Fausset