Jazz-trained Suuns create a sound all their own

by Ryan McNutt

Ask Max Henry, BMus'08, to draw connections between his time studying jazz at McGill and the music he makes with his band Suuns (pronounced “soons”), and the talk quickly turns to geometry.

“The building blocks only do you a service when they eventually disappear,” he says of his musical education. “The classical world might be square building blocks, and the jazz world might be rectangular building blocks, but the shapes that we’re getting at aren’t pixelated, they’re not built out of squares or rectangles. They’re continuous.”

Suuns’ second album, Images du Futur (Secretly Canadian), is certainly hard to box in. The record borrows its name from Ginette Major and Hervé Fischer’s series of imaginative, multimedia art exhibitions that ran between 1986 and 1996 in Montreal’s Old Port. Like the exhibitions’ now-retro futurism, the album meshes the tools of the past and present — indie jangle, prog structures and post-rock drone — to create something that’s familiar yet otherworldly. Throw in an attuned sense of groove and you end up with one of the year’s most acclaimed Canadian records thus far. The British music magazine Q, for instance, describes the album as "an eerie, engaging adrenalin rush."

The Montreal-based foursome features three former McGill jazz students: keyboardist Henry, guitarist/vocalist Ben Shemie, BMus'04, and drummer Liam O’Neill. They didn’t all study at the same time, though, and didn’t know each until a variety of connections brought them and guitarist/bassist Joseph Yarmush together to form a band at first called Zeroes. They changed that to Suuns shortly thereafter, paying tribute to their original moniker by naming their 2010 debut album Zeroes QC.

Like that record, Images du Futur is produced by Jace Lasek of Montreal’s Besnard Lakes. The album shows a growing confidence with melody, but its musical constructions are still complicated by the band’s penchant for tightly wound tension.

“That’s our biggest consideration,” says Henry, when asked about the band’s slow-building minimalism. “We try and avoid decadence and indulgence.”

That may seem like a strange statement coming from a jazz-trained musician, but Henry shrugs off the idea that jazz training inevitably leads to showy jazz composition. He likens it to a degree in journalism or political science: a foundation in a form, but not one that defines how you’ll end up using it.

One benefit to the band’s education, Henry says, is not needing to rely on so-called “happy accidents” in their songwriting.

“If you come up with something you like, you can do it again, you can change keys, you can move to another instrument,” he explains. “The more closely you look at these things, the less kind of ethereal it becomes — less special, perhaps — but it’s a lot easier to manipulate.”

Having just played SXSW in Austin, the band will be touring for most of the next three months across Europe and North America. But Montreal remains home: Harvey says affordable rent and a strong musical community makes the Mile End neighbourhood an ideal base of operations for Suuns.

“You end up with this really great, small, tight-knit community but with the resources and reputation of a large city,” he says. “I don’t know how we could do this in a city other than Montreal.”

Two videos for songs from Images du Futur are online: "2020" and "Edie's Dream"