Sunwatchers are an instrumental band based out of Brooklyn, made up of Jim McHugh, Jason Robira, Jeff Tobias, and Peter Kerlin. They’re more than your run-of-the-mill instrumental act, which you can hear for yourselves by checking out their sophomore album ‘II’ – released this past February via Trouble In Mind Records. You can find them live in-person at the Space Ballroom in Hamden, CT on April 19th (& 20th at The Bell House, NY). Below Jeff Tobias discusses all things Sunwatchers, including Albert Ayler, loop pedals, and racist prison systems.
Take us back to when Sunwatchers was conceived. Where did your effervescent tunes begin?
Our friendships and collaborations go back years to circa 2004 when myself and fellow Sunwatchers, Jim McHugh and Jason Robira were working and living in Athens, Georgia. There was a band called Dark Meat that came out of that weird and sweaty time. The first performance that flew under the banner of Sunwatchers was in March of 2012 at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We staged a rhythm-free drone performance with multiple vocalists. The germ of what we do now was in there somewhere, but it most vividly resembled the material later released on our debut cassette, ‘Tomb Howl‘. Shortly after that initial performance, Jim started playing the electric phin, the three-stringed instrument from Thailand that defines much of our current sound. We started writing “songs” based around that instrument’s tonality, and shortly thereafter Peter Kerlin joined up on bass and we became the Sunwatchers with whom those in the know might be familiar.
Albert Ayler has obviously played a huge role in your music. What about this jazz god struck you? When was the first time you heard an Ayler track?
Speaking for myself, I was introduced to Ayler while working at a soul food restaurant with Jim back in Athens. I was already a fan of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and John Coltrane, but I can honestly say when I first heard Ayler I didn’t know what to make of it. It was a kind of freedom I didn’t understand. But Jim helped bring the film “My Name Is Albert Ayler” (and its director, Kasper Collin) to town, and set it up so that our group Dark Meat would perform a special tribute to Ayler at the “local premiere”. Through playing the music, I was able to make emotional sense of the music. I’ve been an ardent student of Ayler ever since. To me, the music draws from two core elements of art: the drive towards exaltation, and “natural” harmony and melody. So much of Ayler’s melody comes from what sounds like bugle calls, which are all built around the natural harmonics of a horn. I’m getting pretty heady here, I realize – it moves me, okay!
‘II‘ has more of a psychedelic rock sound than previous releases, what inspired this shift?
Everything Sunwatchers does is fairly organic and without much premeditated concern. We are the ones at the wheel inasmuch as we are doing what we want to be doing in the moment; beyond that, we don’t create arbitrary goals or parameters. Is it more psychedelic rock? I’ll take it! In retrospect, I’d say that on this new one we were able to achieve a little more in the way of dynamics, and we eked out a bit more structure in the compositions. But – and I say this with all honesty – who am I to say?
How do you formulate your compositions? Who’s usually the first to start with a melody?
Everyone in the group is fairly active creatively, and we’ve always got some sort of idea ready to be built up into a new piece. Typically speaking, someone might bring in an “A” section and, if they’re feeling productive, a “B” section for contrast. But it’s not long before their idea goes through the machinery of collaboration and becomes what could only be produced by the four of us in a room together. And I have to say, the songs continue to transmogrify well beyond the recording phase – as recently as this most recent March tour, we were adding nuances and fresh elements to songs released ages ago.
‘There Are Weapons You Can Bring To School’ was the standout of ‘II‘ for me personally, what’s the story behind this song in particular?
Thanks! That song is a sincere prayer for universal vulnerability and openness. It was performed as a saxophone-and-drone solo piece a few times before I decided loop pedals were Satanic. The whole song has lyrics, which I’ll keep to myself for now, but you can sing the title with the opening melody at home if you like.
Proceeds from your first album went to the Human Rights Coalition and this time around proceeds from ‘II‘ are finding their way to JustLeadershipUSA. Could you talk a little bit about the organization and its importance to your members?
JustLeadershipUSA is a New York-based organization that is seeking to reduce the American prison population by fifty percent by 2030. Anyone who is paying attention now knows that the prison system in the United States is an extension of the racist policies that were both A) the foundation of our country and B) re-written into our legal system at every turn even as so-called “progress” was being achieved. We like JustLeadershipUSA because of their commitment not to prison reform, but to prison abolition. As an instrumental band, we feel it’s necessary to act where we’re absent the written or spoken word. Along with staging our Music Against Mass Incarceration concert series, this is how we want to participate in our extended arts culture: being avidly and pointedly political.
You’ve recently been collaborating with composer Eugene Chadbourne. How did this relationship develop into a 2xLP?
The relationship between Eugene Chadbourne and Sunwatchers goes back a few decades, back to the Onion Cellar, a Greensboro NC punk space that was run by Jim when he was a kid. Doc Chad lives in Greensboro and Jim got to know him putting him on bills and seeing him play. Eugene is one of the most hardworking musicians we know, and it was inevitable that we’d end up doing gigs with him up here when he made his way to New York. One thing led to another and we took a few days to go into the studio with the loose idea of jamming on some Minutemen, Doug Sahm, and Henry Flynt tunes. What can I say – we struck stream-of-consciousness gold, and we’re thrilled with the music that was made. We’re psyched for everyone to hear it!
With Eugene Chadbourne and your “little brother” band Drunk Foreigner Band, how do you see others outside artistic influence affecting your own within the structure of Sunwatchers?
Everyone in the band stays plenty active with other hustles… in addition to working with Doc Chad and Jim’s wild Thai playing in DFB, Peter and Jason also play with Chris Forsyth in the Solar Motel Band, I play bass in a minimalist rock ensemble called Reps, and we also back up the songwriter Katie Eastburn in her KATIEE project. These things naturally influence us, just as the books we read, the movies we see, and the people we meet on tour would. It’s a good extended ecosystem and one we try to not take for granted. To answer your question though, I’d say all of these people, places, and things do us the service of keeping us guessing and re-inventing ourselves personally – we stay surprised at life and that keeps the band in a restless, mobile place.
Thai folk, “gonzo” and surf rock, jazz, psych. All genres equated with you at one point or the other. You’re obviously not ones to keep your side musical interests to yourself, but what would be the most surprising thing you’ve been listening to recently?
We sincerely love the song ‘Connected‘ by Stereo MCs. It was the theme song of our European tour. Seriously.
“Music is the healing force of the universe”. What or who’s music heals you? Not including your previous response, of course.
I quote Mike Watt: “JOHN COLTRANE!”
What are your thoughts on streaming? Living in this digital age, we have access to immense amounts of music, art and “content” – so much so that it’s been said it becomes overwhelming and loses its meaning. How does one ensure music continues to heal?
Spotify, the corporation, is trash. Music going into peoples’ ears, however, is good; I’m never going to judge anyone for the way they discover any music, much less ours. I hear you regarding the overwhelming flood. I do think folks (and I could definitely include myself in this) take music for granted. I think silence is going to make a big comeback – it’s totally underrated. Then, when you really need it, music will be right where you left it.
You’ll be performing at the Space Ballroom in Hamden on April 19th (& 20th). What is a Sunwatchers live performance like to behold? And what sort of energy does performing live as opposed to recording give you?
First off, we’ll be giving out splash guards to the first three rows (‘cos of the watermelon splat radius). Unfortunately our smoke machines were recently stolen from us by a Sunn O))) cover band, but we think the sound itself will be sufficiently psychedelic to give everyone in attendance the exact same degree of headache.
Have you started working on the third record yet or is it too soon? What can fans expect from the band in the coming year?
Yep, we got a lot for everyone to look forward to: the Eugene/Sunwatchers collab, a third full length, a series of rarities on cassette, some other weird collaborations and more. Thanks for your attention and see ya soon!
Photo credits: Peter Kerlin