It is 5:30 pm at Manchester’s Soup Kitchen — a tiny drop of excrement of a venue situated amongst all of the other tourist attractions of the ‘independent’ area of the city (Northern Quarter), with an equally excremental sound system and, perhaps to no surprise, a mishap in communications brings a vast unknowingness as to when exactly Szun Waves are going to conduct this interview that you are reading now.
6:30 pm: after witling around like a lonesome sociopath with a ragged Wilko’s A4 lined notebook that gives the illusion of a low-income professional writer who has consumed £12’s worth of black americanos, Luke, Jack and Lawrence emerge from the basement and head to whatever little space they can find on the wooden picnic benches that line the entirety of the middle section of the bar.
Amongst a crowded room, filled with the vibes of cosmic-jazz that had been specially planned for the night by the building’s resident DJ, they fit in. This is a somewhat contradiction as to what could have been expected and, in fact, it could be suggested that had I have not known the groups’ appearance, they would have waltzed by largely unnoticed.
Why the contradiction, you may be asking yourself. Well, labels are continuously placed Szun Waves’ music. Comparisons such as Sun Ra, the experimental later years of John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane have been thrown at them by notable writers such as Bernie Brooks in order to compare them to something. So, do forgive me when I say I expected the trio to stand out amidst a room full of squares.
In truth though, they are suitably independent of comparisons (hm, apologies, perhaps that previous notion was a tad confusing). One can hear the late experimental themes of Coltrane and Sun Ra’s grandiose cosmic work within Szun Waves’ sound, but this may only be apparent after having spent a large amount of time nit-picking and analysing. It could be suggested therefore that Szun Waves inhabit a planet that is occupied by only themselves, and whatever influence they have obtained retrieved from interspace satellite signals.
In reality though, Szun Waves are not a group that has arrived from another planet; Lawrence is from Sydney and is in the experimental rock group PVT, whilst Jack is a member of the electronic-jazz outfit, Portico Quartet, and Luke is, in his words, a “solo flyer”: recording music as a solo musician whilst also mixing and mastering from time to time. The story of their coming together, like their background, is nothing grande.
After having done a remix for Portico Quartet, Luke Abbot was requested to do a collaborative residency at a festival in France and part of the deal was that he should bring someone along to perform with. This, in effect, led to Abbot asking Jack Wyllie to perform him — which Lawrence Pike had witnessed.
After Lawrence emailed Abbot, asking if he’d like to meet up, they met each other in James Holden’s studio in London. At this point, the pair began recording every single scrap of music in an effort to document everything that was being created over the course of three days, after which, Abbot gave Jack a call, inviting him to London to expand on what the pair were doing.
Luke doesn’t shy away from the informality of Szun Waves’ roots:
“I think it’s the most casual band you could ever start — very casual.”
At approximately 7:30 pm, the basement doors opened, allowing inside ticket holders who throughout Szun Waves performance later that night proved themselves as dedicated and silently patriotic. Much of what Luke, Jack and Lawrence were pushing out on that night in particular, and assuredly on many other nights of their tour, was, in essence, a form of free improv that loosely followed a setlist that adhered to their most recent studio release, ‘New Hymn to Freedom’.
Improvisation lies at the very roots of the trio, their first album, ‘At Sacred Walls’ and the first song on that record is a document of Szun Waves’ first ever recording session and stands as an artefact to symbolise the technique that bought them together and continues to preside its influence over their music and bond, changing and evolving each tracks’ sound as each one grows older.
“There’s no purer way of describing it and no purer kind of record of that at the moment; the first album starts with the very embryonic stages of collaboration…
Tonight, we played a lot of things off the new album, ‘New Hymn to Freedom’, but they’re so different now and they’re different every time we play them. And although we’ve got these recordings of them that have become the document, they’re not really fixed things. There are these structures that we play around, but they’re so free, so free-form. They keep evolving, there are changes every time you play it and there are so many factors that influence how it goes, like the room sounds, the people in the room and the feeling in the room and how we feel. The fact that we’ve played it so many times before and we’re going over it again and we’re trying to discover new places to take it and new ways to do it, it’s like a generative kind of system or something that these ideas emerge from.”
“And does improvisation form a bond with you and the rest of the group?”
For a brief moment, Luke mulls the question over, before breaking out into a steady laugh, whilst repeating “Is there a bond”.
“Aye, it’s not like work mates, right?”
“No, we get on really well. They are friends and in a way that’s kind of important, if not more important than the music. I mean, I don’t think it would be fun to play in a band with people I don’t like… I don’t know that though. When I was a teenager, I was in bands but for a very long time, I’ve been a solo artist so its kind of still quite new to me. Both of those guys are in other bands and the majority of their touring experience is in that group situation, but I’m really new to the tour bus situation…”
In various forms of improvisations, restrictions and regulations are placed theoretically to disallow musicians from entering new tangents; one of the great, but also worst, aspects of the late-fifties and early sixties jazz was the form that was created when musicians followed multiple key signatures. While these produced structures of jazz that were relatively easy to listen to and commercially accessible, it also added a reduced form of freedom to the genre and, perhaps harshly noted, lazy. It wasn’t until John Coltrane arrived with ‘Blue Train’ in 1958 that the seeds were grown for an increase in popularity in free-form jazz, what with the albums’ extensive use of polyrhythms and flamboyancy around the circle of fifths.
Luke does not digress into the theory side of the music they play (perhaps it would have been interesting to know if the group had extensive knowledge on music theory, but alas, we can’t all be perfect). Instead, he discusses the lack of restrictions and emphasises the freedom they have to do what they wish when it comes to performing, adding that what keeps them following the same brainwaves is response and communication.
“It wouldn’t work if we weren’t responding to each other. I think the key to playing with other people is, always, that you need to understand how to leave space for them. Understanding where someone else plays and trying to allow them space to do what they do and if everyone has that as their top priority then it just means that you’re automatically sensitive to what each other are doing.
But also, I think there is natural synchronicity with the instruments we play — Lawrence is doing all the rhythmic parts and I’m providing the bed of sound and kind of the larger shifts in terms of direction, and then Jack is providing the more lyrical top to everything. Its just a natural product of what we do as individuals and we’re kind of lucky that we’ve found a nice set of ingredients that work well together and also that facilitates us as individuals, allowing us to explore our own instruments.”
There are few interviews with Szun Waves. Those sites that have obtained an interview often discuss the meaning of ‘New Hymn to Freedom’ as relative to that of previous socio-political realism often without explanation; the few that do dig into freedom as a political motive. Now, while it would be most unkind of me to declare that the forcing of a socio-political narrative is a crime, this is often standard conduct within the journalistic industry where there may be little knowledge of a possible narrative, one has to be forced in order to get an editor’s attention.
Is it right to create this fallacy? Is it right to forcefully push a narrative onto artists without having a known fact? Agreed, it does, in fact, enact a positive factor to the marketing of the group in press relations and relevancy, just as categorising an artist makes them easier to define but is it wholly necessary?
On categorising and labelling music, Luke shows a neutral side, stating that while it is essentially unavoidable due to its positive PR factors, he is somewhat happy with being associated with artists like Alice Coltrane, what with their cosmic and spiritual alikeness.
“It always happens. It’s unavoidable because people are going to write about it, they’re going to need to explain it and, I think if you have to put a label on it then I’m quite happy being aligned with the spiritual jazz, like Alice Coltrane. Alice Coltrane is one of my absolute favourite musicians of all time, I love her records.”
I lose myself. Distraction and digression is something of a weakness of mine, and in a show of dominance within the interview, it is Abbot who has to push for a return to the question.
“The latest reissues?”
“I’ve been buying up all of the reissues on vinyl because it’s so nice to have good sounding vinyl of those records. But yeah, I am kind of into the cosmic links of it and I’ve always felt musically it is an opportunity to explore a certain level of spiritual, cosmic connection especially for someone like myself who doesn’t really have a particular religion. I don’t really think of myself as a religious person, but I think there are cosmic notions that I do adhere to and I do think its important that we feel connected to something larger thing than ourselves…
And I do think that playing music, in the sense of a live improvisational situation, is like a form of prayer, not to a particular deity of any kind and I don’t think it’s about worship. But it is like giving thanks for existence and trying to connect with…”
Abbot pauses, again, trying to create an accurate portrayal within his words:
“It’s a bit fluffy — but trying to connect with the energy of existence. And that’s a humbling thing. Music and playing music can be quite humbling, because, I feel that it does put you in contact with something bigger than yourself.”
And what about those writers who call ‘New Hymn to Freedom’ a socio-political record?
“It’s a big jump from such an abstract starting point, but I do believe that politics is inherent in all activities and all creative statements have a political angle.”
A sudden shift to Abbot discussing the title of the album suggests that he understands where these political comparisons are being made and, in perhaps an elongated way, refutes those notions as inaccurate.
“The title, ‘New Hymn to Freedom’, I’ve lifted from an Oscar Peterson record called ‘Night Train’ and I fucking love that record, and the last track on that record is called ‘Hymn to Freedom’, and I have always loved that track and I’ve always loved that title and for me that is the quintessential trio jazz record, it’s just so perfect. Lifting that title and updating it with the word ‘New’ is a bit lazy, but I like that it links us back to the idea of being a jazz trio because that’s what we feel we’re trying to be. But, at the same time, I feel like that track was quite a socio-political song and I do feel quite passionate about the idea of musical freedom. I feel it is something that mirrors a lot of my political ideals; I don’t want to be explicit about it, but freedom is wholly important to existence.”
“Is freedom an internal thing for you, or…?”
“There are multiple levels to it, you have to allow yourself to be free and certainly with us playing this kind of music, it is about finding a sense of freedom musically. But I also think that it is an encouraging kind of sentiment for the world really. Freedom is a positive thing and people shouldn’t necessarily be given restrictions so much as opportunities.”
It is a shame that much of the remnants of our conversation had to be tied up; the venue in which we were conversing was preparing for a late-night event which had resulted in the recording of mine and Abbot’s discussion seeming as if it had taken place in the centre of a construction site. Yet, much of what was asked here was, to simply put it, duds, meaning that it was rushed and could not be tied in with the intended narrative of freedom and improvisation.
Although, that being said Luke did mention aspects of freedom in ‘New Hymn to Freedom’s’ artwork and live visual aspects, however, the relevancy of that topic only went as far to discuss Luke’s education in fine art before he made the change to becoming a musician.
There were, though, more pressing questions on my mind. This project that Abbot had moulded into being a kind of utopian venture with its emphasis on freedom, outstretched talent and nonconforming attitude may only be just that: a project, doomed to erode after years in the rain like so many casually formed spontaneous jazz groups. In an attempt to round up the interview and leave, I had laid this challenge out to Abbot.
He did recognise logistical issues that do hinder Szun Waves’ existence, stating that simply getting the three of them together is a struggle in itself due to Lawrence’s residence in Sydney and the sheer cost of touring together, though it was only a small hindrance.
“We’re a group by default really; it really is the most low-pressure group environment that we could possibly have. There’s no need for rehearsals and there’s no need for writing sessions. We just play and record the bits we like. It’s so natural and straight forward, it bypasses the things that can become difficult about some of the challenges a lot of other bands face…
We are lucky that the group of people we’ve put together facilitate each other in the way that we allow ourselves and each other to be freer with what we’re doing, and because of that, it’s fun. Hopefully, it’s as engaging to listen to as it is to play because it really keeps your brain on playing in this band. There’s so much listening to be done and each time we play it’s such an adventure.
In my dream world, I hope that we continue making records and meeting up and playing forever for as long as we live. I love the idea that in twenty to thirty years’ time we might we might still be doing this on some level. It’s the type of thing we can pick up when it’s convenient. We’re still enthusiastic, so we’re not going to stop doing it. I want to see where it goes.”
Not even an hour had passed, and this conversation was over. The Soup Kitchen’s hired bouncer had passively begun to pressure us to leave by pacing around the room and giving us indirect signals to inform us that they had five minutes before the room filled with a new type of crowd. Those that were deconstructing the stage behind us had left roughly twenty minutes before us, and, as Luke collected his things and we walked up a set of concrete stairs to the street, I asked the usual: “If you have anything else to add, feel free.”
Abbot politely laughed: “I don’t know what else I can add, really.”