ONE-ON-ONE WITH AARON TURNER: SAMMY O’HAGAR INTERVIEWS THE ISIS / HYDRA HEAD RECORDS MASTERMIND
(photo by Seth Ballentine)
It’s been just a little over a year since Isis called it quits, but Aaron Turner has managed to keep busy (which isn’t out of the ordinary): he put out an album with Mamiffer (the band he’s in with his wife, Faith Coloccia) as well as starting up a new record label, SIGE. He’s also been working on posthumous Isis releases as well as reissuing the band’s long out-of-print live albums (heavily culling from Oceanic and Panopticon material, and cool enough to be streamed by Metal Sucks). So even though his highly influential and beloved group is done, he’s not coasting in early retirement (or getting a day job and riding off into the sunset, telling neighborhood kids about the glory days when he toured all over the country for a decade in motherfuckin’ ISIS).
While Turner isn’t know for his stodgy release habits (he’s also a member of House of Low Culture and avant-garde metal supergroups Greymachine and Old Man Gloom), Isis looms largest, and Turner not only seems at peace with that but enthusiastic about it, thankful for the people who have supported him and his art over the years. At the same time, he doesn’t have any reservations about how it ended or that it did, but simply accepts it as the end to a chapter in his life, albeit a chapter he has no problem reminiscing about. In a recent conversation with Metal Sucks, Aaron discussed the demise of his most well-known band, future Isis releases, and how running SIGE compares with running Hydra Head.
Sammy O‘Hagar: Regarding the live series re-releases, what led to your decision to re-release those now?
Aaron Turner: We’ve actually been talking about it for awhile, including before we officially decided to call it quits. For whatever reason, like a lot of the things we’ve done, it took awhile to put all of the pieces together and get it in motion. The purpose of the live series overall is just to try to make some live recordings that we all actually liked more widely available since the CD and LP versions of all those are now long out of print. We figured this would be a good, easy way to make them more widely available without having to maintain the stuff ourselves.
What about these shows that appealed to you guys in particular?
I guess it depends on which particular show we’re talking about because there is a pretty wide range of stuff throughout the five different releases. I think overall there were a few criteria: (1) it had to sound good and I don’t necessarily mean high fidelity but just have a nice atmosphere to it. We did try to choose a lot of recordings which were halfway decent where all the levels of the various players are pretty well balanced. I guess sound is part of it. There was a lot of stuff floating around before we started releasing these ourselves that sounded really awful, so I guess in a way we wanted to have something out there that sounded a little better. (2) We tried to pick shows that we enjoyed playing. There’s obviously some ebb and flow in terms of how enjoyable a show is. So some of them that we recorded that we felt really good about are the ones that we ended up releasing. (3) One of the other things that we thought about is that, on a lot of our past tours we collaborated with people we were touring with, and we wanted to get a lot of those live collaborations out there too because those were a meaningful part of our live show. I think that was another thing we were thinking.
Did Justin Broadrick mix the fifth one?
Yeah, the Oceanic one. Yes he did.
What led to that decision?
Justin has done a lot of stuff that various members of Isis have enjoyed over the years and is a guy we toured with a lot and played with on a few occasions. He was at that particular show, performed with Final that night and also played with us. It just seemed like an interesting thing to round out that release. I think his production is something that a lot of us have liked too. It’s very specific to him. He kind of has his own sound, and we wanted to see what we would sound like through his process and ideas.
What were your goals for Isis starting out and did you exceed them?
We didn’t have any rigid set of goals. I think the main goal for us was just to play music that we all really wanted to be playing. That sounds kind of obvious but prior to being in Isis, I think a lot of us had been in other bands that we might have enjoyed but felt that it wasn’t quite what we wanted to be doing. Isis is really about following exactly the path that we wanted to. I can definitely say that that was a goal that we achieved. At some point along the way, I think we all compromised to try to be in the middle to find territory that we all found mutually agreeable. In that sense, maybe there were times that things happened that we all weren’t 100% true about, but for the most part I think we did pretty well at doing what we wanted to do. I think that was the main thing that was the focal point at the beginning that was maintained throughout most of the existence of the band.
Are you still in touch with the guys in the band?
I think everybody is in touch in varying degrees. We’re sort of spread out now. Mike [Gallagher, guitarist] is back in NY, I live in Washington, and the other three are down in L.A. We communicate about band-related stuff and also about other things as well. It’s certainly pretty different from what it was like before we split up where we were spending half of every year together. Or more, in some instances.
What was it like having the band break up?
It wasn’t like a real sudden thing. We all kind of knew it was coming. I guess in a way there was nothing really shocking about it. For me, personally, as much as Isis had been a really enjoyable part of my life, at the end I was sort of relieved when it ended. I think we stopped at a point where we were still in a really good place. We were all getting along well. We were all still interested in the music we were playing, but we reached a point where there was not much further we could take it. I’m kind of glad we ended when we did and didn’t drag it down into some dilapidated version of what we were.
Is there any more Isis related stuff coming down the road at all?
There’s a lot of stuff that we’ll put together slowly over time. We’re going to do a physical reissue of Mosquito Control, Celestial, and SGNL>5 at some point since those are all pretty much out of print or will be soon. We’d like to make sure that those stay out there in some form or another. We have a bunch of live stuff which we also want to get out after this whole series is done, maybe another DVD at some point. There are some other odds and ends too: some videos that have only been available on the internet that we would like to have on DVD and a couple of tracks from the Wavering Radiant session that only appeared on the split 12″ with the Melvins or as the bonus track in Japan. There’s actually a whole pile of stuff that we’re going to sort through and try to find the good stuff and put it together in, I don’t know, multiple releases. We’re just taking our time with it and doing one thing at a time.
Just thinking back on hearing you guys break up, normally the first thing I think is “oh, they don’t really have that much around. It’s such a shame.” But I thought that you guys had this really rich back catalogue and on top of that you had a lot of side projects. Being as prolific as you are, is there ever a time when you’re not making music or is it something that’s always a constant process with you?
I think it’s pretty constant at this point. It’s something that I’ve largely devoted my life to, and I’ve definitely not slowed down since Isis stopped being active. There are times when I just need and want to focus on other things, but it’s never for very long. I would say throughout the year for almost every year of the last decade, I’ve been pretty consistently active doing some sort of musical related activity.
How does the dynamic of being in Mamiffer differ from that of Isis?
For one thing, Mamiffer is pretty much Faith’s band. I have input in it to a varying degree. Especially in the later years of Isis, it was a pretty democratic process amongst all the people participating. With Mamiffer that’s not really the case. That dynamic is very different. One of the other things that’s just as dynamic as well, even though I obviously had personal relationships with everybody in Isis, it’s not the same as being with someone who is your partner or in our case is made up of a married couple. There’s a deeper level of personal intimacy I guess that contribute to what Mamiffer is and that aspect of it is pretty different too but it’s hard to describe exactly how different that is.
Like comparing apples and oranges in that regard?
I guess so. It’s just a level of depth in the personal relationship that Faith and I have that does something different in the context of making music together than what happens between five dudes who play loud rock music together. That’s not to belittle or diminish the importance of the personal relationships in Isis — it was definitely a big part of what we did and we wouldn’t have played music together if we weren’t friends. It’s just a very different kind of situation.
(photo by Seth Ballentine)
Playing in a band like Isis as long as you did and then branching out to other ambient or even more post-rock oriented projects, is metal something that you’ve grown sick of?
Definitely not. It’s a big part of who I am, at least in terms of the music that I play. It’s still something that I’m pursuing and involved with actively. Even prior to being in Isis, there was a lot of different kinds of music that I was interested in. It just so happened that Isis became the focal point for me and everyone else in the band for a very long time. In all the years that Isis was active, I was pretty involved in a lot of other kinds of bands and making different kinds of music. That stuff has always been of interest to me.
As far as your legacy with Isis, what do you think of that whole crop of new Isis bands that were popping up for a while that were heavily influenced by your and Neurosis’ sound? Did you think of it positively?
Yeah. I think it’s not a bad thing. Of course it’s better when people can solidify their own identity, but there’s been so many bands that have been so influential to me and really helped me develop as a musician that it’s nice to know that we were able to give that back to other people. It’s always kind of weird when another band stakes their whole career off of another band’s sound. For the most part I think it’s really good when people are inspired by a band and that gives them a little bit of drive to play music themselves or to pursue something that they want to do. In that sense, I’m happy with what happened.
What inspires you now musically? What do you take in to feed what you do?
Lately something that’s been really inspiring to me is working with a lot of different people who have really interesting perspectives on playing music and on what they do. I think the most I’ve learned about playing music and making music comes from the other people that I’ve been around in various bands and the social communities that I’m a part of. One thing that changed for me lately is that I’ve come into contact with more evolved working relationships with a lot of people than I did when Isis was really active. I think having that more diversified view has been really inspiring to me lately. There’s something to be said, of course, for working with the same group of people for an extended period of time; you can develop that way. That can be really interesting too. I did that for a really long period of time with Isis and it’s nice to be able to have completely different kinds of experiences now. I would say that that is the most inspiring thing to me as of late.
Are you not as open as having a central, solidified group of five or six musicians that you would be making music with?
That’s not something that I’m completely opposed to, but it’s not something that I want to jump into right away. At this point, Mamiffer is pretty focused in a sense that Faith and I are the core of it, and that dynamic is very interesting to me and very appealing. At the same time, I like the open-ended nature of Mamiffer that we can play with a lot of different people and it doesn’t have to be this very solidified group of people. I also really enjoy being involved in other projects but not having that regimented approach of working together where there’s this really well defined set of – I don’t know what the right word is – where it’s a pattern. At this point, I like the idea of not setting anything in a really rigid scheme.
Being as involved as you had been in Hydra Head… and you have a new label going now, right? How do those two experiences compare to each other?
Yep, that’s correct. Well, Hydra Head is a much larger operation and has to function differently as a result of that. It’s not something that’s centrally concerned with making money, but it’s a little more business oriented. We have to really consider everything that we’re doing and pay more attention to the administrative side of running a label. With SIGE [a label run by Aaron and Faith Coloccia] it’s much smaller thing that really exists in a much less rigid set of parameters — we can basically do whatever we want. That’s not to say that Hydra Head falls into strict parameters in terms of what music we choose to release, but we have to think about things in a very different path. It’s also very different in a sense that SIGE exists mostly as an outlet for projects Faith and I are directly involved with whereas Hydra Head is dedicated to the work of other musicians. That obviously is a different thing too. With SIGE, it’s basically Faith and I operating it out of our house, and we do everything ourselves including making the packaging. Hydra Head is not a huge operation overall, but there’s a lot more people involved in what’s going on. That aspect of it is pretty different too. I guess simplifying SIGE and the way that it operates is a much more interesting experience. It involves a much smaller collection of people whereas Hydra Head is a little more strong at this point.
As far as being a visual artist and actually dealing with the artwork while working with SIGE, what importance does album packaging and album art still mean to you in 2011?
It’s still a really important thing to me and that’s one of the things about SIGE that takes more of a focal point. With Hydra Head, I know I mentioned it functions more as a business to some degree, so doing digital releases has become a bigger part of what we do. We do that a little bit with SIGE, but it’s really about the physical object more than the idea of wanting to get a piece of music out into the world in any way, shape, or form. The visual aesthetic side of Hydra Head has always been very important to me and still is, but we’ve also chosen to make compromises in that regard. I realize now that a lot of people hear music with no consideration for the packaging — maybe even more so in the last year. For me personally, it’s something really important to think carefully about the packaging of a record and make sure that what is done is really as a developed experience as the record as well.
Is SIGE a passion project in that way? Something that you weren’t able to experience as much before?
To some degree. With Hydra Head we’re still able to do some very small scale releases with packaging, but in a lot of cases the records are pressed in such quantities that it makes it really hard to do that. That was something in the early years of Hydra Head that I really enjoyed doing and that’s something that has been the nice part of running SIGE, doing things in a little bit more of a hands-on way. I do enjoy that aspect of doing things this way.
Finally, I think our readership would crucify me if I didn’t ask about Old Man Gloom. Is there anything going on, on that front?
No, not at the moment. We’ve talked about stuff for years and never really formally dissolved. At this point there aren’t plans to do anything. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen.