Published on June 19th, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant0
Interview: Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart
Just like the fabled Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, Montreal acts Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart have come together to create something new and delicious.
You’ve got your chocolate in my peanut butter! No, you’ve got your peanut butter in my chocolate!
Or should that be, you’ve got your Suuns in my Jerusalem in My Heart? Montreal acts Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart have been friends for awhile, and recently put out a self-titled album together, mixing their different approaches. The album came together surprisingly well, a cinematic trip through time and space with Eastern influences that meld well with more contemporary and often electronic sounds.
I got a chance to catch up with Ben Shemie, singer and guitarist from Suuns to talk about the project, and how they work with Jerusalem in My Heart (a.k.a. Radwan Ghazi Moumneh). We chatted about everything from the sound of the album, to improvisation on stage, to the nature of music journalism in rehashing a lazy story about a band.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: How did you and Radwan come to be working together? You have seemingly different approaches, but nothing feels shoehorned together.
BEN SHEMIE: We met and started to work together because Radwan was doing live sound for us on a lot of our European tours. I mean, we’re friends. The bottom line is that we’re good friends with each other. So, that’s kind of how it came together. As far as developing a sound, we just kind of dig what each other does. We just thought it would be a cool idea to try and make some music together. There wasn’t really an intention, certainly at the beginning, to make an album or anything like that. We thought we’d record some songs, maybe we’d do a show. We’ll see where it goes. We didn’t have high expectations for the project.
It was kind of cultivating what we like to do as a band, a bit more rock n’ roll, electronic thing, and his Middle Eastern, analogue, synthesized bass stuff. The sound kind of came naturally. We didn’t bring in full written songs. We jammed a lot together. We recorded bits, cut the fat. We did a few shows which kind of helped hone the material. It was a project of friends, trying to make music together and respecting what each other did.
TFS: Not to get to all meta on you, but is that a stupid question? Do you find that writers are pontificating over the difference between what you do? But you know, you’re just people and musicians like anybody else? When I was reading research materials for this, it felt like people were trying to jam you into this ‘story.’ It’s the shitty nature of music journalism. Is that ever an annoying angle to you?
BS: Ahhh…no…no…I feel like…the kind of default position in journalism is kind of, what’s the closest thing we can compare this to? And that’s kind of what it is. I don’t think it’s a stupid question. I didn’t read a lot of those reviews, because it irks me. I don’t really, to be honest, know what the reviews are. What people are saying about the album.
TFS: What irks you about the reviews? Is it reviews in general? Or you don’t like to read your own press?
BS: Well, I do read a few, of course, but I think like…I didn’t read that Pitchfork review. I’ve certainly heard about what people wrote. When they say like, oh, they did this Nike commercial and therefore they’re kind of like ‘this,’ you know what I mean? It’s kind of a huge generalization about the band. And that’s kind of why I don’t really want to read it. I feel like there isn’t much credence to it. There isn’t much analysis there. I don’t know, it just kind of bums me out.
I mean it’s like, okay, well, I guess that’s what’s really important, but it’s really not important, you know? If I were in the position of a journalist having to write about this, I would find it difficult because it is two different worlds coming together, and I wouldn’t really know how to compare it to one or the other. We’ve never, as a band, with Radwan included, talked about what the music should be like. We never really had much of a plan. This whole thing was making music, really, to make music. There wasn’t a political undertone — and I’ve gotten that question a lot.
A lot of the Arabic singing and poetry that Radwan brought to it has pushed us in a different direction. And we learned a lot from that. I think, from him, someone who doesn’t really work in a band setting, he’s kind of a solo artist. This has allowed him to play in a group where he can have a much bigger sound and maybe a little rock n’ roll thing that he wouldn’t normally do. So, for both of us, it’s been a really great learning experience, and because we get along so well, it’s really been a real pleasure to do the whole thing. I’m not sure if I answered your question.
TFS: No, you did. You answered several other questions I had as well. What I like to try to do…obviously, music journalism can be total bullshit sometimes. I did a lot of reading to prepare for this, and the same lazy story keeps forming, just like with most artists. It’s not that it’s untrue — it’s just that it merely scratches the surface. Sometimes it’s the fault of the word count in an article or the fact that the writer is expected to have a certain amount of exposition or to be able to boil it all down to something. But I always like to try and push it a little further to get past that a little bit, and see what you think about that story.
BS: Yeah, totally. I guess I don’t really know what the story is with us. What is the story? You probably know better than I do. Like, I’m not sure how we’re perceived. Because we tour internationally a lot, I get these different versions of who we are. In Canada, we’re not a well known band at all. In the US, we’re more well known, but we have a different kind of persona. In Europe, we’re quite well known, and that’s like a completely different kind of journalism there. The questions are completely different. The way that people think about the band is different. I think I know who we are and what we try to do as musicians, but I don’t think I know what the story is, or who people think we are. Does that make any sense?
TFS: Yes, totally, for sure. Great answer and food for thought. Maybe this is a weird question too, but why didn’t you choose a different name for this project, rather than using both names?
BS: That’s a good question. We thought about doing that because it would be easier from a booking point of view. Less conflict. We thought about it for a minute. It just didn’t make any sense — it didn’t seem…right. Because it doesn’t feel like a new band, that we started a new band. That it happens to be all of us plus this other guy. It feels like us playing with Radwan and Radwan playing with us. You know what I mean? It’s a collaboration, not a new project.
TFS: Makes sense. In terms of the live show, is there some measure of improvisation or are you trying to capture what you did on the album, maybe not note for note, but closely? You know what I mean — it’s the kind of music where there could be some room to improvise.
BS: Yeah, no, it’s both. I mean, we’re playing the songs, for sure, but there is a lot of room in a lot of the songs to stretch out. To make them longer. You know, a lot of sections where there’s not a defined ending to certain things, you just have to kind of decide on stage how you’re going to move to the next thing or how it feels. So there is some improvising, but it is essentially that music, plus a few more songs that aren’t on the record. A lot of it’s analogue instruments doing that sort of synthesized basslines and stuff, which is its own finicky world and that occasionally dictates a lot of what we’re playing because it’s out of control or not working very well. So we’re trying to play to the machine, in some ways, which is actually sort of fun. It makes it different every night. So that’s cool. There’s a lot of variables in the music. It really isn’t set in stone.
TFS: So, is Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart a one off or do you have plans to do another album?
BS: I would really like to. It took so long to get this album together. It took almost three years. Partly because we didn’t really have a deadline at the beginning, for the first year and a half. There wasn’t even the idea that it would be an album. Now that we’ve kind of established something, I want to say it would be easier to do something like that again because we already have a kind of routine. We have a workflow, in a weird way. And we’re writing more. For me, as a composer, it’s kind of cool to say, ‘oh, I don’t know if this is gonna work for the band, but it would definitely work if we wanted to do this with Radwan, ‘cause he could put his spin on it.’ I want to say yeah, that we’ll do another one. But if it’s anything like the last one, it won’t be for awhile.