From Aural Innovations #17 (September 2001)
There's a space rock noise coming out of the most unlikely of places, the town of Burlington, Ontario. Naming themselves after a girl the band members knew named Sian, and a word they thought best described their sound, Sianspheric formed in 1994 with band members Sean Ramsay on guitar, Paul Sinclair on guitar, Steve Peruzzi on bass and vocals, and Matt Durant on drums and percussion.
The following year, they released their now classic debut CD, Somnium, an adventurous excursion into soft noise and minimalist pop that featured not only great songs like Turbulent/Hydrodynamic and The Stars Above, but also the 21-minute space voyage, Where the Planets Revolve, I Wish I Was There.
Paul Sinclair left the band shortly thereafter. Pared down to a three-piece, the band did some extensive touring in Canada, and some dates in the US as well, making waves wherever they went. But it wasn't until 1998 that they released their second CD, There's Always Someplace You'd Rather Be. More noise was drawn into the sonic tapestry this time, giving the album's big sound an almost industrial feel.
Poised to tour with UK band Swervedriver that summer, the band's dreams were shattered by the sudden departure of founding member Steve Peruzzi. The two remaining members figured that that was just about it for Sianspheric, but the story wasn't over. 1999 saw the release of Else, a compilation of several live tracks recorded before Peruzzi left the band, as well as a couple of jams, and three extraordinary re-mixes (or recalculations, as the band referred to them in the liner notes) of Where the Planets Revolve... from Somnium. The recalculations, done by Play.Pause, brought a stark beauty, and upbeat freshness to the piece. As if taking a cue from that, Paul Sinclair returned to the fold, and new member Locksley Taylor, playing both bass and piano, joined the group as well. Sianspheric were alive and kicking once again.
2001 saw the release of their 4th and latest album, The Sound of the Colour of the Sun. Returning to both their roots, in the soft sounds of Somnium, as well as the noise of There's Always Somplace... Sianspheric is back with a vengeance. I managed to catch up with guitarist Sean Ramsay by telephone, and we got to talk about the band's past, as well as their future.
(Be sure to read the review of The Sound of the Colour of the Sun, also in this issue of Aural Innovations. Reviews of There's Always Someplace You'd Rather Be and Else also appear in previous issues.)
AI: How did the band originally get together?
Sean Ramsay: We used to be in another band called Gleet between '92 and '93. That band was kind of done by the beginning of '94. The original group was myself on guitar, and Matt Durant playing drums, and Steve Peruzzi playing bass and singing. A fellow musician we knew from the "pseudo-Burlington-scene", Paul Sinclair, joined us on guitar.
AI: What do you mean by the "pseudo-Burlington-scene"?
SR: There was a bit of a scene going on in Burlington at the time. Some friends of ours were in a band called Rainbow Butt Monkeys. They're now called Finger Eleven and they're doing okay.
AI: What got you into the kind of music you do. What were some of your influences?
SR: I don't know how it all came together or why we started playing the kind of music we did. I guess at the time we were all into similar stuff, the stuff off of Creation Records, like Verve, My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver, Slowdive and all those guys. We still get compared to them. We also listened to Monster Magnet and a lot of Pink Floyd.
AI: How did your initial songwriting as a new band come about?
SR: It just happened that we all had similar musical tastes, and we thought why not just start jamming. That's how all of our songs still do come about. One of us will bring in an idea, and we'll play it over, and over, and over (laughs). Through repetition, and the changing of dynamics, as opposed to really making song changes in terms of composition, is how most of our songs come together.
AI: Did you have an idea of where you wanted to go musically, from the start?
SR: We never really had a particular vision or any idea of what we wanted to accomplish in the band's lifetime. We were just some friends getting together in our basement-
AI: You just wanted to see what happened?
SR: Yeah. It turned out all right. We got together in February '94, recorded Somnium later that year, and released it in the summer of '95. And it's done pretty well for us.
AI: Chartmaker Magazine voted it number 40 on their list of Top 50 Canadian albums of all time.
SR: Yeah (laughs). That was a freakout. I wasn't expecting that at all. I had no idea we were in any sort of running or anything. It was a total surprise. I don't get down on stuff like that, like awards. I know some bands are like, oh, this is not that big of a deal, but, I don't know, it's a big deal to me. Whether it's music critics or whatever, it's still in some way our musical peers. So I appreciated it. Bryan Adams' album Reckless was number 47. That blows my mind. Maybe I'm just being modest, but that whole thing was a trip for me.
AI: After Somnium, Paul Sinclair left.
SR: After we did a couple of cross-country tours, in '96 we parted ways. We were originally going to call it quits, but we changed our minds. Being fickle, as we usually are. (laughs) We continued as a three-piece, starting in early '97, and then we released There's Always Some Place You'd Rather Be.
AI: And you were still touring as well.
SR: Around that same time we got an opening slot with Swervedriver, which was a freakout, because they were one of those bands that we looked up to. It was a dream tour for us. We'd always talked about that if there was any band we'd want to tour with it would have been them. But things didn't exactly work out.
AI: Ah, the '98 Disaster, as you've referred to it at other times.
SR: (laughs) That's exactly what it was. Things sort of fell apart. Steve disappeared on us the day we were supposed to leave, going across country. It was a painful thing.
AI: Everything eventually worked out for you though. The '98 disaster was sort of a catalyst for the creation of the current incarnation of Sianspheric and the new album as well.
SR: You're right, you're absolutely right. In a lot of ways I feel bad about all that happening. In another way, I'm glad, because we wouldn't have progressed to this point. I'm far happier now than I was then, and far happier with this record than I was with the previous one. Everything happens for a reason, I suppose. After the '98 Disaster, we pulled it together, and Locksley Taylor is now playing bass for us. He plays guitar and piano too. He's a great musician. Paul came back into the fold as well.
AI: Steve Petruzzi was your vocalist before. Who's doing the vocals now?
SR: I'm doing them now, actually.
AI: That's something new for you.
SR: It is. It was a little harrowing at first. I was quite apprehensive about it. But it's okay. I'm getting better and better. I was actually very happy with how my vocals turned out on the latest record.
AI: A reviewer here at Aural-Innovations talked about the live track To Myself from your third release, Else, on which Steve sang vocals. He thought the vocals were problematic, but that the song itself was good, and it was worth taking a shot at it in the studio. As it turns out, that's exactly what you did, and it appears on your latest album, with you singing vocals. I thought the new studio version of it sounded great.
SR: Yeah, I agree. The vocals on that live version were rough. We threw that version on Else, but even at the time I thought the vocals were rough. Steve was really getting into Bruce Springsteen at the time and, so, I don't know... he growled a lot (laughs). We thought the vocals weren't that great, but it was an okay representation of what we were doing live at the time. When we did it on the (latest) record, I don't want to toot my own horn, but "toot-toot" I think I did a better job of the vocals (laughs).
AI: On the surface, The Sound of the Colour of the Sun seems to pick up right where There's Always Someplace You'd Rather Be left off, but that can't entirely be the case... you're working with a completely different band dynamic from the earlier album... Paul Sinclair is back in the fold, and Locksley Taylor has taken over for Steve Peruzzi.
SR: We've found that some people writing about us have said that it all kind of progresses from that record to this one. Some of the songs were actually written in and around '98. We continued writing since then, so it's taken us two years to write 10 songs (laughs). It's funny how the two records go together. I'm not sure why that happens, because the band members have changed for each album, but there is still this sort of logical progression. There's Always Someplace You'd Rather Be had a bit more white noise to it. This one sort of has a mixture of Somnium and There's Always Someplace... but somehow, there is this Sianspheric backbone to it all.
AI: Originally, it was you and Paul Sinclair that were doing most of the song writing.
SR: That's true. Most of the songs are guitar-laden or guitar-based, so most of the music did come out of things that Paul and I had written.
AI: Now that he's back, is he contributing more to that again?
SR: Oh, absolutely. He's been writing a lot of the parts and it's been great because we totally have this symbiotic guitar thing going on where we almost talk back and forth with our guitars. When he's filling up the space, I'll lay off, and vice versa. It's been great having him back. I think he's awesome. He's an amazing guitarist. We really work well together and I'm glad he's back in.
AI: What about the addition of the multi-talented Locksley Taylor? How did that change things?
SR: That's changed things dramatically too. I find, as a lot of people have, that a lot of the songs have this almost dub foundation to them now. He and Matt have really come together on the bass and drums. The new record is interesting because I listen to it on some stereos, and if you don't have a sub-bass to it, you miss a lot of what's going on. It's funny, because I don't generally like headphone albums, I like records you can play really loud, but on this particular record, when I listen to it on my headphones with the "superbass" (says it with a deep voice) turned on, you can really catch a lot of things that Matt and 'Ley are doing.
AI: So the two of them are bringing a different set of influences with them into the sound.
SR: Matt was really into Lee Perry for a while, and stuff like that, and 'Ley got into that too, and some of the basslines are just total dub.
AI: So Locksley has become an active member in creating the bands sound now as well?
SR: The very last, "secret" ending of the new record was something that Paul and 'Ley had written together, and 'Ley played piano on it; he's a great pianist too. Radio Diffusion is really his song too, that he put together. It's been great. It's been a saving grace really, to have all these people who are multi-talented musicians throwing their hands into the pot.
AI: Piano and keyboards has never been a big part of the band's sound in the past. Is this something you're looking at working into the sound more in the future?
SR: Not so much keyboards. We've never really been fans of lush, orchestral keyboard sounds. We prefer to do it all with guitars.
AI: You tend to use noise and feedback in a way that other bands might use keyboards.
SR: We sort of pride ourselves on our use of effects, delay, and reverb, forgoing the need for other instrumentation. We've been able to manipulate our guitars in ways that other people may not necessarily think to do, and add different kinds of dynamics and harmonics to the songs.
AI: You've been listening lately to many of the minimalist composers, especially Steve Reich. Has this changed your approach to composing music?
SR: Oh yes, a million fold. I read an article on Steve Reich about five years ago, when I was at York University for a year in film school. I took a course in music and did a project on minimalism and I learned about not only Steve Reich, but others such as John Cage and Gyorgy Ligeti, the guy who composed the music for 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a total eye-opener; it was amazing. I'm so glad that I did that, because minimalism, especially Steve Reich, has totally influenced what we've done. You can especially hear that in the last track on the new album, Everything's a Wave. I introduced Paul to the music of Steve Reich, and he was just totally blown away, and we were both just going on and on about it. Steve Reich would change the timing of two different things in a piece of music so they would go in and out of phase, sort of like a natural phaser pedal. You can really hear that demonstrated on Everything's a Wave, but it really made a difference in the way we write music, using space as much as we use noise.
AI: Speaking of space, if you go back and work your way forward through your discography, the concerns of space and stars and that sort of thing in your music tends to drop off, and especially on the latest album, the concerns seem a lot more personal in nature.
SR: I think you're right. We still use music as an escape now, but I think that things were possibly a lot darker when we wrote the songs for Somnium. A close friend of ours had just died at the time. That came out in the music. It was moody, and people picked up on that too. On the first record, we did have a lot of things about space. (pauses) I guess it could have been the drugs too (laughs). It was total escapism. I do escape in our music now, but maybe a bit less so.
AI: One thing I've noticed about the latest album is that, even with the noise, and feedback, and experimenting, there's a real feeling of tranquility about the music. Is that reflective of the current state of affairs with the band?
SR: I think so. Even in the noisy bits, even though there is a sort of a tension there that builds, it sort of dissipates towards the middle and end of the record, and things sort of fade away. I think it all comes from what we've been through in our lives. QFD was one of the songs I wrote not long after what happened, early '99 or so, and I think it's directly reflective of what happened. The title comes from the Douglas Copeland book, Generation X. It stands for "Quel Fucking Drag". (laughs) I hadn't read that book beforehand, even though it had been sitting in my house for ten years, and I just picked it up that day, and said, "I'm gonna read this," and I thought it was a great book. QFD was one of the little "sub-things" in that book, and I thought it was so fitting I just had to use it.
AI: Are books often a source of inspiration for the music you write?
SR: All the time. Ending is Better Than Mending is based on Brave New World, and 1984. The title is actually a quote from Brave New World. It was something that all the people who were brainwashed were saying over and over again. Books really influenced me. If there was any one piece of advice I would give to anybody, is to read and read and read as much as they can. I was an avid reader when I was a kid, and it sort of dropped off when I became a teenager and was trying to be cool or something, I don't know. Then when I realized it's not always fun being cool (laughs) I started reading again, and I find that my vocabulary has expanded dramatically, just by reading. I can express myself better, and find different ways to express what I feel, doing it in ways I hadn't thought of before. There are so many benefits to reading.
AI: Let's get back to the music here. What kind of balance is there between improvisation and composition for you as a band when you're working on a new piece?
SR: It's 95% improvisation. We never play the same song the same way twice. It's not to the extent that, say, jazz musicians would improvise, but the pieces are constantly evolving as we jam, and practice. In a way, we're still writing the songs while we're playing them live, and while we're recording them. We do play a few songs from Somnium and There's Always Some Place... and in some ways they've stayed the same, and in some ways they've changed. We play Rave On, Full On from There's Always Some Place... and of course, at the time, Paul wasn't in the band, so he didn't have anything to do with the writing of it, but now he plays this crazy, totally wicked rock riff in it that fits so well, and it's really cool. That's all just part of the evolution of the songs.
AI: So your live shows are actually part of the composing process.
SR: That's right. A good example of that is Everything's a Wave. We originally wrote it in the form it appears on the new album, but since then, we've added a part at the end of it where it gets all crazy and loud and scary and noisy. We're hoping to record that version for something on vinyl later on in the year. The songs are always changing, and I think people appreciate that. They'll come to one show and hear our songs, and come to a later show, and the songs have changed, drastically, in some cases. It's like a whole new experience for them.
AI: Speaking of touring, now that you've got the band back on track again, you're getting back into more live performances. Obviously you tour in your own province of Ontario, but do you tour outside of Canada?
SR: We haven't much. We did play a few show in the States. Back in '96 we played in Chicago and Detroit and Rochester. That's been the extent of it. We haven't had the opportunity to play in England, or Europe, or to tour the US, mostly because of circumstance, I think. It seems to me that anytime things start progressing, or moving ahead, things sort of collapse to a certain extent. Hopefully that won't happen this time. But now I've got a family I have to provide for, so it becomes even harder.
AI: Do you think there's potential for the future to tour in England?
SR: Oh, I'd love to. If the opportunity ever came up, it would be really hard for me to turn something like that down. I think we'd be on our way over there. We do have plans to tour across Canada in September, with Finger Eleven and a band called Blinker the Star.
AI: Since the kind of music you do is sort of an offshoot of things British bands were doing in the early 90's, do you think your music is more accepted by a European audience than it is in North America?
SR: I think so. I'm not really sure where I get that idea from, but maybe from the success that bands like Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips have received in Europe as opposed to North America. It seems to give that impression; of course, I don't know that for sure.
AI: Well, there certainly is a growing space rock scene down in the US.
SR: You're right. And a lot of bands are getting press that normally wouldn't have. I wouldn't want to necessarily attribute that to the success of bands like Radiohead, or Spiritualized, or Sigur Ros, who are making waves on charts.
AI: How do you feel about being labeled a space rock band? I've read at times you don't like it, and yet at other times you seem to embrace it.
SR: At this point, I really don't care all that much. No offence, but the musical press doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to me. I love to read, and I read music magazines all the time, but I find it's near impossible to describe a band's music in terms of categorizations or comparisons. I have no problem with it; I know it has to be done. How else would I describe any particular band other than saying who else they sound like. People can call us what they want, and hopefully they'll get somewhere close enough that someone who recognized the tag would say, "Okay, maybe I'd like them." It's inevitable that we'll be categorized, and better it be space rock than something else.
AI: We have a pretty broad definition of space rock here at Aural Innovations.
SR: Well that's right. I'm sure you guys do stuff about Hawkwind and Monster Magnet, and stuff like that, that we've been into, and that's the kind of music I always associate with the term space rock; rock with some kind of psychedelic edge to it. It doesn't bug me. People call us dream pop too, and psychedelic.
AI: You talked about what's coming up live for you, what about what's coming up in the studio?
SR: We're hoping, either before this tour or after, to get back in the studio and record a few more songs for a vinyl release. We've always wanted to put something out on vinyl, but have yet to do it. There's a couple of songs that didn't make it on the album, but are still really good songs. We just didn't have time to mix them and get them down. Those, and a few new songs are what we'd like to get onto a little vinyl piece, hopefully later this year, or early next year. And then a new album, hopefully in less time than three years. (laughs)
AI: Well Sean, good luck and thanks very much.
You can visit Sianspheric's web site at: http://www.sianspheric.com.
Their label, Sonic Unyon, has their web site at: http://www.sonicunyon.com.