How Hamilton's SIANSpheric Conquered an Unsure Future
Along with a premiere of their new album, the band's Sean Ramsay explains the inter-generational cramping of style and how more time doesn't neccessarily mean better music.
If you don't know the story behind Hamilton-via-Burlington shoegaze/space rock outfit SIANspheric, well, good news: we documented it a couple of years ago. Formed out of the ashes of previous band Gleet, following the untimely death of vocalist Scott Kish, SIANspheric began a long, strange, and wild trip in 1994 that has managed to continue throughout a number of personnel changes and hiatuses. Their first three studio albums—1995's Somnium, 1998's There's Always Someplace You'd Rather Be and 2001's The Sound of the Colour of the Sun—are widely considered three of their genre's finest works and established an international cult following. And even though some new and unreleased material has found its way to fans—two compilations, a split EP with Swervedriver side-project Toshack Highway and a couple of 7"s a fourth full-length was always a bit of an unsure thing.
To say Writing the Future in Letters of Fire is a long time coming is a bit of an understatement. Never mind the fact that it is now with us 15 years after the last SIANspheric LP, the four-piece of Sean Ramsay, Matt Durrant, Ryan Ferguson and Jay Patterson originally began work on the album back in 2009. Much like its predecessors, Writing finds the band pushing boundaries in a range of directions, both backward to sounds they explored in the band's earliest incarnation, as well as forward to newfound concepts. The album's release comes with a simultaneous reissue of their debut, Somnium, on vinyl for the first time ever. Stream Writing the Future in Letters of Fire in its entirety and read a Q&A with band co-founder Sean Ramsay below.Noisey: We spoke two years ago and you detailed a number of crazy things that happened to the band in its first few years. How different are your lives nowadays?
Sean Ramsay: In most ways, our lives are very different... as is probably to be expected 20 years on, but none of us are keen on stagnating. We still go to punk shows—the monthly Noise Night at Doors Pub in Hamilton is the jam, participate in Hamilton's art scene, imbibe, etc. Then on the other side of the coin, I now have two teenagers and the oldest is now going to the same shows as I am. He's totally cramping my style man [laughs], but I am trying to convince him to avoid the same kind of ridiculous choices I made back in the '90s. Honestly, I think experimenting and having a little bit of crazy in your life is healthy. Just maybe not to the silly degree that we put ourselves through.
In that previous interview, you guys were pretty open but noncommittal to making an album. How quickly did this come together after that conversation?
Yeah, we had recorded eight or nine songs of which two resulted in The Owl 7", but we weren't terribly happy with how those sessions ended up. Shortly after our conversation with you, we decided to get back into the studio—this time with Sean Pearson at Boxcar Recording Studio—and this time we were really happy with the process and sounds so we moved on to mixing with Sean. We paid for all the recording ourselves—about 50/50 with our own money and band money—so it simply took a year or so to put together funds to cover it all and get it finished.
Did having all of that time to make Writing the Future in Letters of Fire make the process any easier?
I don't think so. In fact, taking all that time probably made us stew more about the results. We've never been 100 percent content with anything we've recorded, in that we could tweak or rewrite a song indefinitely. We're big on improvisation in all aspects of our creative process, and a few songs changed entirely even in the short period between The Owl sessions and the Writing ones. If we had the option to focus on recording for a shorter period, it would have probably worked out just as well.
In the press release it mentions how the album both looks back to the past and to the future. Can you give an example of how you looked back and revisited a previous idea and also an example of how you tried something completely new?
We definitely visited the extremes of past and future on this record. The song "Shimmer" was originally written in 1996, so yeah, there's that. We retooled it only slightly from its original incarnation, so ultimately it's a 20-year-old song getting its first release. On the flip side, we did incorporate a lot of experimentation and instrumentation we had never worked with before. The recording process itself was very similar to how we'd worked in the past—usually just jamming in the same room and adding an overdub or two. We've never really been ones to add tracks upon tracks, but this time around we added the choir on "I Have It," the horns on "Los Herejes" and drum treatments on "The Simple Exit," which were all things we had never really tried before.
I think "I Have It" might be the best thing the band has ever done. Tell me a little about that song and using Earth, Wind & Choir.
That was a real revelation when that song came together. We knew we wanted the song to go from a minimal-esque verse to a lush chorus without cranking the volume. We knew we wanted to bring in Earth Wind & Choir for the chorus and the extended jam at the end, and thankfully Sarah Good and Annie Shaw from the group are insanely talented musicians in their own right and came up with all the choral arrangements on the fly.
The album cover looks like someone's family photo burning up. What is the story behind that shot?
We had the title Writing the Future in Letters of Fire prepped for a record back in 2010 and I happened across the cover photo entirely by accident. The photo is a family photo from UK artist/writer/educator Emma Bolland that had been damaged and developed so that unique burnt look totally fit the title. Kismet, for sure.
It's been 15 years since your last full-length, and the band has sporadically played shows. Was there ever a time when SIAN didn't exist?
There really wasn't any time when we weren't expecting to get back at it. We've taken hiatuses from time to time but always got back to, at the very least, just jamming in our space in the Sonic Unyon basement. I think the closest we came to maybe giving it up was around 2006 after we came back from the road, but even then it wasn't long before we got a hankering to jam again.
What keeps the band going after all of these years?
It's hard to pinpoint. It may be best described as an itch that can only be scratched by getting together once a week or so and just playing. We've always said, we'd probably be just as content to keep playing when we can, record when we can, play shows when we can, without an agenda. Part of that can also be attributed to having people who still dig what we're doing. Without some help from selling records and merch, it would be tough to get into a studio or on the road at all. So, really, we're just really fucking lucky.
You've just reissued your debut album, Somnium, on vinyl. Do you intend to do that with the next two: There's Always Someplace You'd Rather Be and The Sound of the Colour of the Sun ?
We'd certainly like to. The vinyl manufacturing industry is really a clusterfuck. It took ten months from the time we delivered the masters to the time we got back the finished product, and it's damned expensive too, especially with us being pretentious assholes who put out stupid long records requiring double LPs. So, that said, yes, we will. We'll figure it out.
Before SIAN there was Gleet. Earlier this year you uploaded all of the Gleet recordings to Bandcamp as a fundraiser for the Women's Centre of Hamilton. What inspired you to finally make those recordings available?
It was actually our good friend CA Smith (aka Mayor McCA) who sent us an impassioned note on making the recordings available. He simply wanted to hear them again. We had discussed ways of making them available over the years, but nothing really felt right. But then shortly after CA's note, I had a bit of an epiphany thinking of a friend I have who works with the Women's Centre. I realized we could publish the recordings and send the proceeds directly to them. So we worked with them to get that done, and we've already raised more than $500, which is pretty amazing.
Cam Lindsay is a super awesome writer and life-saver for the Noisey team. Follow him on Twitter.