Gonjasufi Recommends You Listen to His Darkly Cathartic New Album With the Lights On

The producer and singer on how he channeled his angst into 'Callus,' his first record in four years.
September 6, 2016, 10:15pm
Photo courtesy of Warp Records

The first words heard on Callus, the first full-length album in four years from San Diego-born producer Gonjasufi, take the form of two concise, biting questions.

"Is anybody private? Is anything sacred?" asks the artist—whose real name is Sumach Ecks—in a drawling bellow on opening track "Your Maker," before proceeding to deliver his world-weary lyrics over industrial drums and distorted, searing guitars.

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As its title suggests, the record is hardened both thematically and musically, chronicling Ecks' personal struggles following the release of 2012's MU.ZZ.LE. While his song "Nikels and Dimes" ended up being sampled by Jay Z on the rapper's 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail, he was ostracized by many of his fellow artists in the west coast experimental scene, who accused him of selling out. He developed a cocaine addiction (he's since become clean), and to top it all off, he was ripped off by his booking agency and left broke.

Recorded in Los Angeles' Atwater Village, Las Vegas, and the "hellishly hot" Californian desert town of Joshua Tree, Callus sees Ecks exorcising his personal demons over the course of 19 apocalyptic, occasionally abrasive tracks, with a little help from former Cure guitarist Pearl Thompson. We recently spoke to the veteran producer, singer, and former yogi over Skype about how fatherhood keeps him positive, why you should listen to his latest album with the lights on, and more.

THUMP: This is your first album in four years and it feels incredibly cathartic on numerous levels. Did you feel like an emotional weight had been lifted off your shoulders after you finished?

Gonjasufi: I did man. After I made "Manic Depressant," I felt like I got off so much angst that was pent-up. A lot of that shit was due to my own self-induced shit, because of me wanting to be accepted and having to deal with the rejection from the yoga world, the music world, and my friends from the perceived success from the Jay Z shit. They all thought I was a fucking millionaire, some of my close friends started hating me, and I just felt more alone.

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Tell me a little bit about moving to Joshua Tree to finish the record and how it compares to other places that you've lived.
The people are all very open, there's a lot of artists here, it's not very judgemental. I was driving from Vegas last night through the desert, and I was thinking how non-judgemental Vegas is because sin is legal. People aren't really judging, and in cities closer to the coast, there's a lot of superficial shit going on. I love Los Angeles, I love San Diego, but there's a lot of fake shit going on in those cities.

How did you end up collaborating with Pearl Thompson?
One of my good friends Lisa Johnson is a photographer, she did a book called 108 Rock Star Guitars, where she took all these photos of guitars. I guess Pearl came to visit her, they were driving and she was playing my shit, and Pearl asked, "Who's this?" And she's like, "Oh it's my friend Sumach." I went and had dinner at Lisa's house and connected with Pearl, and he came over to Atwater and we just jammed.

Were you a big Cure fan growing up?
Not necessarily. I knew a few songs, the way he played, he showed up and I'd never seen anybody play without their fingertips. It didn't look like he was playing guitar but I was blown away with the sounds.

It feels like a particularly bleak period in the United States right now, both politically and socially, how do you try to stay positive?
It's hard. I try to stay off social networks and stay engulfed in my kids. I still fall victim to shit, like today, I woke up I saw all the stuff happening to women and domestic violence by the police. I just want to go online and blast off on the fucking police. It's a fine line—I don't want to be labeled, I don't want to become a fucking target. But to not address it and let it keep going? So I pour these feelings into sounds and vibrations and try to help other people through. The record is more dark overall because the world is more fucked up than it was five years ago.

You're a teacher, what advice would you give to young musicians? Do any of your children play instruments?
I never really thought about it like that. My kids do. One of my daughters, every time I play, she comes up and jams with me. I'll be on the piano and she'll drum for like an hour, we get some good moments.

Now that Callus is finally out, what's next for you?
I'm doing the Blakhalemary record with my wife—she did the vocals on the song "When I Die"—and it's going to be very minimal. I'm also working on the follow-up to the Gonjasufi record, it's pretty much almost done, I'm just finishing mixing it. It's kind of in the same vein as Callus, almost like [Radiohead's] Amnesiac and Kid A, from the same sessions. The record after Blakhalemary is what I'm really, really excited about, it's going to be lighter and the kids can listen to it. The kids can't listen to this record [Callus], you gotta listen to it with the lights on.

Callus is out now on Warp Records.

Max Mertens is on Twitter.