Photo by Justin Staple
San Diego's Sumach Ecks has been releasing music since the early 90s as part of the local scene's Masters of the Universe crew, but it wasn't until 2010's A Sufi and a Killer that Ecks became the experimental luminary known as Gonjasufi. Culling equally from hip-hop, psychedelic, lofi, funk, and beyond, Ecks has gone on to release three acclaimed studio albums and a slate of EPs and remix albums, each offering a distinct delve into Gonjasufi's personal highs and lows. His latest record, Callus, is among the beatsmith's most raw and traditionally instrumental releases yet, arriving in the wake of his struggle with substance abuse following the release of 2012's MU.ZZ.LE.
Ecks recently came through the VICE offices in LA for an episode of Noisey Radio on Beats 1, to lay down some special acoustic cuts off of Callus and talk creating the new album. We also went inside the tumoil of his three-year haitus, his work with former Cure guitarist Pearl Thompson, and collaborating with his wife, who features on the album.
Listen to the Noisey Radio episode here, and read on for an extended version of our conversation.
NOISEY: For people who may not be aware, explain a little bit of your past career.
Gonjasufi: Well, I was born in San Diego, from the old-school Masters of the Universe crew. Spent a lot of time just on the streets, selling CDs. A lot of heads know me from my [releases as Sumach,] Dead Midget on Stilts and Flamingo Gimpp. I'm a 1990 baby and shit, you know. And just from the cassette era, man.
And now take us to Callus. You took a break from recording and writing for a little bit, is that correct?
Well, yeah. You know what, I didn't take a break from recording, it just took me a long time to fucking finish mixing the record down. I didn't want to rush out some art just to make money real quick, even though I had an opportunity a couple years ago to really monetize off the art. I just wanted to put something that I felt was authentic and raw and was right for the fans, they would feel like it was worth the wait.
Talk a little about your philosophy when you're making these albums. I know you don't do it for anyone but yourself, basically.
Well, you know, really, it's a way of me dealing with all this pent up angst and shit, and finding a way to turn all this negative energy into something positive. And just like every other artist I would say, it's just my way to fully express myself without getting locked up and shit.
What made you decide to transition to kind of a more full instrumental sound, and away from electronic sounds?
I just got tired of heads saying I was a karaoke sampler, fuckin lifting shit off of records and shit. So fuckin with the guitar and the piano, and learning some chords, and some scales and shit, just kind of opened me up. It took awhile, like I wasn't able to sing, or I felt like I couldn't get my voice unless I had a guitar in my fuckin hand, so at this point it's about playing the piano, playing the drums, and having some strings on my fingertips.
Did you play every instrument on Callus?
I didn't play all the instruments, but I played most of them. I had Pearl Thompson, formerly of The Cure, played on a couple joints. I had my boy Coto on the bass, played on a couple joints, brought in some violins, brought in a drummer, but the rest of that shit is pretty much me on the drums, or on the keys or on the guitars as well, you know.
Did you know how to play keys or anything from your hip-hop days as well?
Nah, not really man. I was just chopping up drums and shit, and just reversing samples. But I felt like the MPC and shit wasn't enough, so I needed to go more and more analog, and just kinda get away from the electronics. I wanted to be able to, if the power was pulled on the fucking world, be able to still rock.
Were there albums between those last two that really inspired you to take Callus to the next level?
Yeah. In Utero was a heavy one for me. Nothing really current, I really don't listen to too much shit that's out. But I started to dive into jazz again. Of course the Portishead record that came out, you know, the third album. I'm a big fan of what they're doing. I kinda strayed away from all the rap shit. It kinda angers me, just the message in all of it, but seeing my boy Rafa in Prayers put out a record, and see how far he got with his record, and the response from the people, that inspired me a lot.
Were your friends and label supportive of you taking a new direction?
Yeah, definitely man. They were just happy that I fuckin turned in some music. 'Cause I had been holding the music for probably three years. So once I kinda dug out of the hole, and started sharing some new shit, everyone at Warp was pretty receptive to it.
So I gotta ask, what happened during those years?
I fell off the bandwagon. I hit the road pretty hard. I was getting fucked up, and kinda fell off the yoga train and shit, and had to work my way back into it, and detox again, and just kind of start from scratch all over again, bro.
What did you look to to help you break through this time?
I looked to God, man. I looked to the God within myself, you know. And my family, my kids, man. Really, the eyes of my children was what really brought me back into everything. My family was suffering 'cause I was locking them out of my life trying to make a record, and as a result the music suffered as well. So when I put my family first, and put all my energy into my wife and the kids, then all of a sudden the music started showing up and the art came easy again.
So what was it like the first time you started writing for Callus? Were you in detox, or were you already sober?
Well, you know "Vinaigrette"? "Vinaigrette," I was high off some dirt cocaine and shit, and that song, that's why that song's pretty much the "happy song" on the record. The rest of those songs were detox. I made "Vinaigrette" in 2011, and it was right before [2012's] MU.ZZ.LE, I had mixed out MU.ZZ.LE, and after MU.ZZ.LE I got real from an episode I had, and so then, after I had finally came back to point zero again, and found my homeostasis point, I was able to start pouring all this experience of the mire I was lost in, man, and find a way to climb out of the shit again.
What are you talking about on "Vinaigrette," specifically?
"Vinaigrette" was a song about a runway model who was struggling with her own demons, trying to run away from herself, and basically just ended up finding out she only had herself in the end. And it was originally, I thought, about a girl getting all fucked up on dope and ended up catching the big one and spreading it and killing a bunch of dudes that were chasing her and shit, so it was really a song about AIDS, man, to be honest. That's what I originally had written it about.
Is it someone you know who was affected?
Not that I know of, hopefully.
Let's get into "The Kill" real quick, 'cause that's a whole new direction, I feel like, for your sound. How did that originate? Have you always been jamming in that style?
Yeah, that was AGDM, he had laid the drums on that shit, and laid the synth on it, then I had that song for awhile, and I just kept reworking it, reworking it, reworking it, and then finally, it was probably about 2012, I brought in some horn section to track over it, and I brought in Pearl. Pearl basically finished that song for me. When he came through the lab, it was a couple songs that I was just stuck on, man. And he just, one take, painted all over the fuckin canvas, and it peeled through some layers for me, man.
How did you get together with Pearl Thompson? How did that happen?
It was from my friend, Lisa Johnson. I know her from the yoga community, and she's good friends with him. He had heard some of the music I was doing when he was hanging out with her, and asked about me. So I had dinner with him, then he came through the studio in Atwater, and we just tracked, man. Spent a couple days in the studio together. He flew his guitars in, and I just felt safe around him.
Were you a fan of the Cure growing up?
Yeah, of course, bro. Who isn't a fan?
Let's talk about Callus as a whole. What do you think fans will take away from this record in your discography?
Maybe not be afraid to go outside of the box that they've been suffocated by, and take risks with the art, not play it safe. You know, it's not any smooth jazz bullshit. It's aggressive, and it doesn't sound like the other shit I had. Even though I recorded MU.ZZ.LE before [2010's] Sufi and a Killer, I had to put MU.ZZ.LE out just so the fans could understand where I'm really trying to go. For the artists that are out today, to not be afraid to do something new, and peel through a layer, and shed the old skin of what they've already done.
Was it all recorded with the same crew in Southern California?
Yeah, pretty much. I started it in Vegas, then I tracked a lot in Atwater Village [in LA], then I finished mixing it in Joshua Tree. And the first two songs on the record are the latest songs that I cut. "Maniac Depressant" and "Your Maker" are the newest joints I've cut on that record.
Was a good environment important to you when writing and recording it?
Yeah, it was, man. In Atwater, in the studio I was in, it wasn't really conducive to allowing me to finish the work, but I was able to bring a lot of artists into the studio, and just being around there, around the Beastie Boys studio, feeling all that energy, grinding it out by the LA river, feeling all that energy, and then being able to go to Joshua Tree and just space out around the rocks and shit, and just dial the record in, and finish it, man.
Let's talk about "Maniac Depressant." That's a big track. When did you write that track?
That was early 2016. I just chopped up my drums and shit. That was all me fucking around on guitar. That actually was an easy track to make. The vocals are just one take, me just screaming, saying the same shit over and over.
Do you feel that lyrically it's a more honest record than some of the previous ones, more self-looking?
I feel like I said more by saying less. I feel like Sufi and a Killer, I said too much shit, man, you know, and I feel like this record, my voice is more of an instrument, it's not the main [force] in the record, and my "voice" has become the guitar and the drums and the violins and all that other shit, you know.
What's gonna be next now? Are you gonna go on tour?
Yeah, I'ma go hit Europe in December for a couple dates. I'ma finish mixing this next record, turn it in, try to get it out in the spring. And then go hit a world tour in early spring next year.
On Callus, are there any other notable collaborators besides Pearl?
Yeah, actually there is. There's my wife—we have a band called Black Hail Mary, and she's on "When I Die," she was also on "Feeding Birds" off of the MU.ZZ.LE joint.
Let's talk about "When I Die." What's it like writing music with your wife and stuff?
You know, she's unbelievable, man. She's actually been my main support. If she likes it, then I know I'm doing something right. She's never satisfied though. I be playing shit, making shit, look over at her for a reaction, and she's just fuckin dead asleep on the couch. So I'm trying to make shit to wake her ass up. Of course, when I met her, she was singing, and she had expressed to me how much she wanted to make records, so really I'm just working through these to make the Black Hail Mary record and put her in the forefront, so I can just produce behind her and back her on the vocals.
For someone who wouldn't understand the beauty in the tape grain and feedback that's throughout Callus, how would you describe why that's important to the record?
Well, it allows the distortion to not peak and not clip out, and it captures a lot of the warmth and shit, you know. I feel like the soul, I feel like on tape, the longer that it's fermented, the sound-wave, it bleeds into the tape more, and it takes on a new life, and this resonance created. So, you know, a lot of people were about getting all the best mics and the best, you know, fucking computer software and all that. And I'm really looking for the shittiest mics, man, and the most fucked up Casio keyboard, like on, what's the song I did—one of these songs, I was just using the Casio, you know, just the cheap-ass two-dollar, oh, "Old Man Sufferer," it's just me on the cheap-ass piano, and, you know, just making the most out of it, instead of going and spending a hundred racks on a bunch of gear and the shit sounding like it's robots playing the shit. I'd rather just be able to press the fucking record on the tape machine, and just one-take the shit. And just keep it raw, man.
Do you think somethings getting lost from music with all the automated programs?
I do, man. I feel like the soul's missing in the music, and it's too perfect. There's not enough of the human element in it. And it's just very thinned out. It feels like everyone's using the same kits and shit, and the same fucking sequencer, and it's just—what are we doing if we're not trying to push the boundaries and go beyond that shit, you know?
Talk about your relationship with Rafa from Prayers. How far does that go back?
I've known Rafa since the 90s, man. See, Rafa's a heavy head, because he's been in San Diego, he's been the nucleus of a lot of artists, and his restaurant, right there. All the artists in San Diego would come to this space, we were all drawn to this space. And he wasn't playing music back then, but his visual art was, where it's at now, it's just, you know, the darkest light of any artist I've seen, so. When he started getting into the music and shit, and he started showing me the night ritual and the Prayers shit early on, and I had my records, I was trying to sign him, 'cause I knew that shit was some of the most original shit I had heard. But, you know, with Rafa and his family, man, he took me in in like 2001, when I was on the street, and I was still searching for acceptance within myself. And he just kinda big-brothered me, put his arm around me, and said, come with me man. And we hung out for a good year or two straight, man. Everyday we'd go out and go train on the beach, go running, and get into some shit, you know.
Other lessons from that time you still think about now, when you're navigating later in your career?
Yeah, definitely man. The amount of love that I got from the Reyes family was, it allowed me to just kinda breathe and just kinda like, you know, relax. 'Cause I was getting tormented by all these voices, and I didn't know if they were real, or if I was imagining them. And I think with Rafa, we would go out and he would hear the voices too, so then I knew, okay, it's not just me, or maybe it's, maybe I'm imagining it, but this motherfucker's imagining the shit too. So everything's gonna be alright. And just the amount of acceptance and unconditional love, man, just allowed me to feel comfortable in my skin, and not worry about everyone else's fuckin definition of me, man. And he's always, like when I mixed down Dead Midget on Stilts, I showed him that record first. And he's always believed in me, man. And I believe in everything he's doing, man.
Have fans reached out to you with these new singles and let you know how it's affected them at all?
Yeah man, there's been some good responses. People—I'm happy that people are receptive to just me going all the way full into this, you know, expression. I get these people asking, "We want Sufi and a Killer part two" and shit, and it's like, I have that record, but that'd be too easy, man. So in order to get that record, I'm gonna go through this other shit and weed out all the weak links and shit, and all the sheep, you know.
Will the live shows be with a band?
Both. Right now I'm putting together the band, so next year I could tour with the band, and get Coachella and hit the road with the band. Right now, when I hit Europe, I'm just gonna smash through with the 404 and just show heads I can rock by myself and shit.
Anything else you want to say for the fans?
Yeah, man. Just go straight into those spaces that you're afraid of, and fully express yourself, you know. Don't be afraid to be yourself. And keep pushing, keep pushing beyond who you think you are, and don't allow others' definition of yourself define who you are.
I feel like Callus has—you can't put a genre on it, it's not psych, it's not rock. How would you say it is?
I would call it pain and suffering and torture. It's like a torture chamber. If you can bear through the fuckin 52 minutes of this record, then, you know, you're ready, you might make it, you might make it to the pearly gates, per se. 'Cause you gotta go through hell to get to heaven, and when you get to heaven, there's not any gates. If you see gates, that's hell. Anybody who's been locked up will tell you, if there's gates—'cause when you get to heaven, you're free to go as you please, you're free to leave, you know, you made it. So, you know, this record is like the precursor to heaven for me.