Sun Ra might not be as much of a household name as acts as ubiquitous as the Beatles or Miles Davis but his mark on music has been heavily felt since he formed the Arkestra in the early 1950s. Le Sony’r Ra, who was born Herman Poole Blount in 1914, pushed jazz into more progressive, avant-garde territory, was a pioneer philosopher who introduced ideas that would later be dubbed Afrofuturism, and was one of the most prolific bandleaders and pianists in history, with an expansive and daunting discography with releases numbering well into the hundreds. From his fascination with Egyptian mythology and outer space, he claimed to have been born on Saturn and sent back to preach a message of peace and liberation for African Americans. Even after Ra “departed” earth in 1993, the Arkestra has continued under bandleader and saxophonist Marshall Allen and still performs to this date.
Because of their wide-ranging, adventurous, and abundant catalog, it’s tough to find fans of experimental and progressive music who haven’t been influenced by the Arkestra. Even recently, acts like Solange have had the Arkestra open for her and just weeks ago U2 had the band back them up at a performance at The Apollo. You can also find clear influences in artists like Thundercat, The Flaming Lips, Kamasi Washington, Hiatus Kaiyote, The Mars Volta, and even Death Grips, who have sampled their music.
Geoff Rickly has been known to push genre boundaries of with his long-running post-hardcore band Thursday as well as his other projects, the noisy United Nations and the atmospheric No Devotion, and Sun Ra’s 1973 album Space is the Place (not to be confused with the Sun Ra film and soundtrack of the same name) is what he chose as his Blind Spot. While on the surface, it might be more shocking if Rickly hadn’t heard The Jazz June instead of an avant-garde space-jazz opus, his musical background is steeped in jazz (his first instrument was the alto sax) and the one constant of his career has been taking risks and experimenting.
So after a four-show stint in Chicago where Thursday played their iconic albums Full Collapse and War All The Time in full for the band’s twentieth anniversary, Rickly sat down with Noisey in the Lincoln Hall green room to recoup from performing by listening to some psychedelic and abrasive jazz. He says, “I don’t know a ton other than that a lot of people say Sun Ra is a revolutionary, influential, and psychedelic artist. I’ve been told to expect the unexpected and I haven’t cheated by listening yet. I’m not even sure what genre it is.”
Check out his track-by-track reaction below.
1. "Space is the Place"
Geoff Rickly: I’m pretty sure when I was younger I saw the Arkestra at a festival but I was so young and tripping so hard I’m not entirely sure if it was Sun Ra and the Arkestra or something affiliated. I remember it being a spectacle
Noisey: Well if it was before 1993, it was probably Sun Ra and the Arkestra. The bandleader, Le Sony'r Ra, who was born Herman Poole Blount died that year.
I didn’t know that. When did this come out?
It was recorded in ’72 and came out the following year.
The seventies are kind of a big blind spot for me. I was born in ‘79 so growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the music from the ‘70s to me was kind of like big brother music, you know what I mean? At the time, I didn’t want to hear your fucking Led Zeppelins or this or that. So where is this in his catalog?
It’s near the middle of his discography. With Sun Ra, it’s tough to say exactly because there are well over 100 albums. He was insanely prolific with not just with studio albums but live full-lengths and now posthumous releases. It’s one of the most intensely large and daunting catalogs in music.
Get out of here! That’s insane. So now that I’m hearing this, I know the Mars Volta/At The Drive-In guys are really into this and hearing how this song is out there, I hear the same thing when Mars Volta get experimental. They sound like this sometimes.
When we do this interview series, we try to get artists to pick albums that are more shocking blind spots or more in line with their own music. But when you picked Sun Ra, I remembered the Thursday song “Autumn Leaves Revisited” on City By The Light Divided, which is a Miles Davis reference, so you not being familiar with this jazz icon is kind of surprising.
I didn’t even know it was going to be a jazz record but now that I do I’m so psyched. I grew up playing alto sax and that’s how I got into music. I thought it was going to be like psychedelic funk.
There are so many phases of Sun Ra’s career. Early on in his career, when he performed in Chicago in the '50s and ‘60s, played more bop-style jazz but they’d increasingly flirt with avant garde and would later add synths. They dabbled in so many genres throughout the years it’s really hard to pigeonhole them.
Has he always had vocals on it? Is he singing?
No, several of his albums feature no vocals. Here, there are several vocalists but he’s not credited. What do you think so far?
I’m into it. I totally hear Ornette Coleman. This is just awesome. Playing sax growing up, I’ve always appreciated jazz and was raised on John Coltrane, Miles Davis and all that stuff. I think one of the reasons when I started playing in Thursday I wasn’t that interested in singing in key or sounding like a perfect singer was because these players could hit notes and experiment without needing to always sound pretty. I mean, the label’s called Blue Note! I wanted to take that feeling and try something different. Later on in our career, I obviously tried to focus more on improving my singing and not do the jazz thing anymore.
When did you make that decision to focus on your singing?
Around when War All The Time came out in 2003 I wished I could sing better. On that album, I sang pretty inconsistently and it was at the point where I knew enough that I knew I wasn’t good at it. The only time in the band’s career I really felt like I was a good singer was on our last record [2011’s No Devolución]. Coming back and doing these full-album shows for Thursday’s anniversary, it’s like, “finally! This is how these albums should sound.”
That’s really good to hear. Also, I probably should let you know that this song is the whole Side A of the record and we’re only seven minutes in. It’s a 21 minute track
Oh wow. I can definitely see how people could take psychedelics to this and kinda disassociate for a bit. I can hear the gears in the band turning in and it’s really cool. Also, whoa, what’s that space noise? I really like that. Do you know what that is?
Sun Ra’s Farfisa is listed as a “space organ” in the liner notes so I can only assume that’s what we’re hearing.
This is fucking wild. I love that the song just picked up again and locked back into that groove.
The more you dig into Sun Ra Arkestra, the more you can see their innovation everywhere in music. The Arkestra recently backed U2 and opened for Solange plus Sun Ra even has a writing credit on Lady Gaga’s Artpop . She quotes “Rocket Number 9,” which closes out this LP.
I was actually wondering if I would be able to pick up on any samples because I listen to a ton of hip-hop but I wasn’t expecting it to sound like this. You have to have some serious talent to rap over something like this.
As this track is over the halfway mark 12 minutes in, are you still into it?
Yeah, I really like the almost drone-like thing this is song is giving off. I listen to a lot of drone and electronic music now. I have a four hour playlist of drone and instrumental music that I use for when I write. Have you heard the new Nine Inch Nails album? I’m hearing some of this in that.
Interesting! I actually haven’t yet.
It’s crazy, I think you’ll like it. With this Sun Ra song, I love this sense of dynamics and the noise over jazz. You can almost certainly hear the influence of LSD on this record. There’s that three dimension quality where sound is just coming out over the speaker and breaking that wall. When we started working with [producer] Dave Fridmann in the middle of our career, he was known for working with the Flaming Lips and bands like that. He wants to put that 3D quality in the music he works on. He always wanted to punch out pockets where something crazy would happen that wasn’t based on the physics of music: it was fucking with the fact that we had always been just a loud band with a wall of sound. A lot of our fans reacted violently when City By The Light Divided ultimately came out. We had gone from the realism of Full Collapse and War All The Time to surrealism and expressionism without explaining it.
It’s funny you mention the Flaming Lips. Wayne Coyne actually penned the liner notes for the reissue of Space is the Place the soundtrack.
That makes so much sense, especially live with the spectacle of the group. So is this song over? That was so cool.
We actually have a minute and a half left.
Oh, I like this. And damn, right when I put my ears to the speaker to hear the quiet vocals that space organ comes in. It’s funny because that was the prettiest part of the song and it just loudly goes [vocalizes the space organ].
I like albums where one song is an entire side. Pink Floyd, Love, Can, and Kraftwerk have all done that.
I love that too. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do with Thursday but closest we’ve ever come to doing that was our 2008 split with Envy. On there, all the songs were in the same key and ran into each other, and all the lyrics told a single story through the whole side. Even the song titles connected with each other. But this Sun Ra is a two-sided LP, right?
Yeah, it’s not a double album. Side B is four songs.
I love this coming after that twenty minute song. This sounds so fresh after hearing that.
It’s a palate cleanser for sure. This quote is written on the inside of the LP: “As all marines are riflemen, all members of the Arkestra are percussionists.”
I love that. I’m a big DJ Shadow fan and I remember reading a quote of him referring to himself as a drummer rather than a DJ. I totally get that percussive element in both this music and his music.
I’m happy you chose this album and are into it because with avant-garde jazz, it’s not going to be for everyone.
This is so cool.
What are your initial impressions of this one?
This one actually might be my favorite so far in a lot of ways. One of my favorite bands is Godspeed You! Black Emperor and I can hear some of the textures of this in their music. That band really changed the way I listen to stuff.
I can definitely see that.
It’s incredible if Sun Ra recorded all of this live. They were really ahead of their time and the way everyone is so locked in together is nuts. How well do you know Sun Ra?
Before this interview, I had only been really familiar with their album Lanquidity. Compared to this, it’s a bit more subdued and groove-oriented.
So it’s an earlier album?
Actually, it came out six years later in their career.
Whoa, cool! Later? I love when bands go back and forth between their sound.
4. "Sea of Sounds"
This one is called “Sea of Sounds” and it’s a pretty apt title as you’re about to find out.
That’s a really cool sound. I like this vibe.
It’s very intense. If you can believe it, I’ve read in places that this is one of his most accessible albums.
The record has a very cumulative effect. RIght now it’s extremely hypnotic and you can get really lost in it. I always say if United Nations were to do another record, I would want there to be this experiential aspect to it where you’d get to the second side and things that had been introduced earlier start pulling up very slowly into the music. I’m still trying to figure out what that would be.
With their attention to dynamics you liked in the first song, in a lot of ways kind of feels like a mirror image of each other from Side A to Side B.
Damn, you’re right. I love that. They captured lightning in a bottle with this record. Usually with stuff that’s this experimental, you’d get fried but you can really tell that there’s a really cool thing going on. This percussion is like Morse Code.
5. "Rocket Number Nine"
This is actually the part that Lady Gaga quoted on her record.
Whoa. I need to listen to this. You can hear that space organ come in again and the whole arc of the album. It’s really cool that they’re layering the vocals and making them atonal too. I really liked the ending of this especially. It grew on me over time.
The thing that I started to think at the end is that I realized that the reason it’s a blind spot for me is when I started Thursday I gravitated towards with really strong structures like Motown and doo-wopp and things that follow certain rules. With Thursday, the more rigid things and set-in-stone things were, the more I could put it in an automatic place in my brain and lose myself in the performance of it. If we played the songs just like the record, the crowd would lose themselves too and just be there present. That’s always been an important part of music for me. It’s clear that Sun Ra is seeking a whole different kind of sublimation of self where the whole band gets into their own thing, do it together, catch a frequency, and lose themselves together. Even as a listener, I got lost in it too. But there are these two almost diametrically opposed systems for letting go of the self in music, and that transcendence is such a fundamental thing.
It was really cool for me to be a little older and hear this because I don’t think I would’ve gotten it when I was younger playing sax in jazz band. I’m going to download this immediately and listen to it on headphones because it’s clearly doing a lot of crazy things space-wise. I’ll read about them, watch a movie like Space is the Place, and try to dive into one of their hundred or so records.
Josh Terry is a writer in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.