Heavy beyond words: An Interview with Aaron Turner and William Fowler Collins of Thalassa
A lot of stuff has been happening musically these days, at least in those musical areas that interest me more than others. But one of the things that will always grab my attention, regardless of season, mood, or political leadership is a new Aaron Turner project. The man behind such bands as ISIS and Sumac, and who seemed to have collaborated with every talented person of note on the planet, is busy as always, most recently with a beautiful guest spot on the new Chelsea Wolfe album as well as the Nox project with Daniel Menche. That’s, of course, on top of heading the not-so-active Hydra Head Records and his partnership with Sige Records and Mamiffer mastermind Faith Coloccia (for those interested I published an interview with Aaron and Faith a couple of years back).
But the highlight for me has been the release of Thalassa, a collaboration between the aforementioned Mr. Turner and the equally talented and fascinating sonic artist William Fowler Collins, with an album Bonds of Prosperity coming out this last May. Aside from several riveting solo albums, Fowler Collins is something of a habitual collaborator himself, contributing his talents to projects as varied as post-black/shoegaze masters Pyramids to the weird folk of James Toth, AKA Wooden Wand.
All this was a bit too much for me to stay away from, thus leading to my decision to talk a bit with both protagonists about life, music, art, and, yes, some Megadeth (that’s just who I am). And since Aaron and William live quite apart from each other (the former in Washington State and the latter in New Mexico) the interviews were conducted separately, only to be rejoined by me, resulting in what I hope is one flowing enjoyable conversation. It was that, enjoyable, for me, and I hope it will be for you as well.
I guess I’ll go ahead and start by asking whether or not you remember a watershed moment you had with an artist or album that really changed the way you thought about music, or made you want to become a musician?
WFC: I do actually, I can still picture it. So, I’ll put it in context. I’m 43, and I think that when I was about 12-years old, my dad had a vinyl version of the Woodstock music festival. It was before internet and YouTube and all that stuff, and he put it on and Jimi Hendrix came on playing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and the sounds he was making with his guitar, he was mimicking dive-bombing planes and machines guns and things like that. That for me was probably the watershed moment. He’s probably the big artist that inspired me to play guitar.
What was it about it? The fact that it was the anthem? The fact that he was using his guitar to make those noises?
WFC: I guess the anthem itself put it into context, because we’re all familiar with the star-spangled banner over here. I think the fact that he was using a guitar to imitate non-musical elements, the plane or the machine gun, that to me was kind of a mind blower because he was doing something with his instrument that I had never heard previously in my young life. So a combination of both those things.
And did that lead to an interest in rock music?
WFC: I think so. My dad had quite a huge collection, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, so I was constantly listening to that, and I think that within a few years of hearing that I saw the film from the Monterey Pop Festival with Hendrix, again, and that’s when I wanted a guitar. So I when I was around 14 I got my first guitar after begging my parents to give me a guitar and give me a chance with the whole thing.
AT: I can think of several moments, and they might seem kind of ridiculous because the music is so different from what I ended up doing, but there are a few moments that stick out in my mind very clearly. One of them was with my grandparents where they lived at the time in Tennessee. I was just starting to become aware of music as something that I was interested in, other than it being this peripheral that existed around me – whatever my parents happened to be listening to, my sister, or whoever was making their own choices about what we were listening to. Anyway, the first album I requested for myself was the “Ghostbusters” soundtrack. And I remember my grandmother buying me the cassette, and I remember sitting in the car on the way home, looking at the cassette and the cover and thinking about the music inside and feeling really excited about it.
And of course that music had very little influence on what I was making myself, but it was this moment where I was actively choosing something and that seemed like a very important moment for me. Not only because it’s a very old memory, but there’s something about the change from being a passive experiencer of what’s going around you to being a person who is willfully choosing something.
Do you remember why you chose that cassette?
AT: I just remember that I really liked the theme song, but also there was something about the association with something that was dark and ghoulish that was appealing to me too. And maybe that is telling in some way of my future musical path that unfurled from there, because I was always innately drawn toward the more shadowy side of art.
I can follow that one up with another thing, which was maybe a couple of years later, which was that I got two cassettes from a classmate of mine. One was the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, and the other one was Motley Crue Girls Girls Girls. The Beastie Boys record in general I kind of enjoyed, but especially the first song “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” There was something about that mid-tempo, stomping rhythm with the heavy guitars and the frantic Kerry King solo in the middle. That definitely grabbed my attention, and I clearly remember that as a moment where heavy music hit me. I was exposed to it and I immediately responded to it.
How old were you?
AT: That was third grade, so I was seven or eight. And the Motley Crue tape was interesting to me, less so, but I understood it as something that was high energy and had a visceral atmosphere. That wasn’t a super important record to me other than it was a gateway that eventually led me to Guns n Roses, and then Metallica and then Slayer and onwards from there into more aggressive territory, so I would say that was another pivotal moment for me, and I remember listening to those cassettes pretty obsessively.
Another thing I wanted to ask you both was that I find it interesting how people who gravitate to the this primal thing, it could be the metal riff or the punk song, a very gritty, primitive type of music, that those people, sometimes, gravitate toward turning that intuition into an abstract piece of music. That even when you listen to the abstract, sometimes deconstructed versions of those songs there’s still a punk quality about them.
WFC: I was. When I first started playing to music with other people, and this is my teenage years, it was definitely a punk rock approach. Forming bands before any of us knew how to play our instruments. So there was always that need to just create something immediate. I think part of that question may have to do with Aaron’s musical trajectory. I come from a more abstract place with my own music and compositions. But I do think that that immediacy and the need to try and break down barriers, there’s probably a thread there that goes back to maybe punk and hardcore.
Maybe there’s a way in which minimalism could fit both categories, and the fact that I think you don’t have to be a technical maestro on the guitar to play in a punk band or abstract droning rock. Maybe the DIY thing is retained.
WFS: It is. And I think that noise music like any music, there is technique involved in terms of how you’re going to edit it, how the song takes shape in terms of its form, how each piece fits in the context of the album. So everyone could probably get an e-bow, an electric guitar and start droning away like a lot of people in the noise genre grab some pedals and make a racket. It doesn’t all necessarily advance to the same level, there’s a lot of throw-away stuff out there.
Do you see the link between that punk aesthetic and the music you ended up doing, Aaron?
AT: For sure. Faith and I have talked about it quite a bit, and talked about it some with other people too. The people that I have become not only collaborators with but quite good friends with are almost entirely people who have some kind of background in punk and who, as teengers, had their lives forever changed by that. And I think there’s something not only about the music itself but also about the punk ideology that really shapes people. And when it comes to stuff like William does, what we have done together, or what Faith has done or even someone like Daniel Menche, who we work with quite a bit, a lot of it is centered in this DIY ideology. And that’s not so much the idea that something needs to be done independently in order for it to maintain its integrity, but is has to be done that way in order for it to be what it's supposed to be, there can be no other way. The purity of the idea is uninterrupted if flowing directly from the creator directly to whatever means it is that they are using to capture it.
Of course there’s some outside influence or input from time to time, but I really do think that that whole idea of learning how to do something yourself and creating this self-driven agency that does shape how people do things and how it can evolve from a rudimentary high-school to something that’s much more sophisticated and maybe even closer to minimalist composition, while still retaining that potent, viceral, and direct energy is born from exposure to and immersion in the DIY punk world.
How did that transition from heavier music to more abstract forms happen for you?
WFC: When I went to college at Mills College, which is kind of famous for its experimental music program, a lot of it has to do with practicality. So, being one person it becomes a lot easier to control what you’re going to do and how you’re going to get things done. As we all get older it gets harder to get just one other people in the room together, two people is even more so, and three to four people. It’s harder to get together and get on the same page and have a band. So, for me I was always interested in metal but I wanted to do something different because I wanted to be as productive as possible, which is primarily why I work on my own, despite my collaborative projects.
When I went to college it was natural for me just doing what I do and use my guitar and I wanted to do something different that was outside of the typical scales, I used different tunings to unlearn what I had grown up playing. I have a pretty serious metal guitar rig, a tube amplifier. So, don’t get me wrong I love playing loud. But it’s a different path when you’re on your own. It’s great to have a drummer you and play as a cohesive unit, but I guess my goal is to try and keep some of that heaviness in a one-man metal band and try to balance that out with some other dynamics.
Aaron, did that whole punk ethos of keeping the work honest and keeping your relation with it honest serve as a motor for the ways in which your music has changed?
AT: Yeah, absolutely. And again getting back to how I see it as rooted in punk, my sense of punk music, even from the age of 14 or 15, that this is music made by people to satisfy their own needs. They needed to make this music not only to express something but because it wasn’t something that existed for them. They had to create their own world. And I think there’s something about that differs from how people's ideas are shaped by pop music. That pop music is supposed to be for other people, for entertainment, it’s supposed to be this spectacle that provides a fantasy for people. Whereas punk to me was always about expressing your own experience and a more truthful depiction of the world around them. And that introduced me to seeing music as a way of expressing your relation to the world, to experience your relation to the world and articulate things about how your life seems to you, how you are connected to others.
And I think that’s something that inevitably has to change as you grow up. It’s something that’s intuitive, but it’s something that’s informed by your life experiences, so everything that I go through and everything that I learn along the way is going to be part of a dialogue I have with myself which inevitably ends up shaping the work. And there’s no way that the way I was feeling when I was 19 and started to write stuff for ISIS is going to be the same as the way I feel and write things now as an almost 40-year-old.
What are other ways, keeping in mind the need to change, that can project this sense of “heaviness” without actually having to revert to chugging riff?
WFC: I think that there’s music outside metal that is equally if not more so heavy, for the lack of a better word. I think there’s a lot of modern classical composers like Penderecki that have intense pieces. I think you can be heavy through silence, I think you can be heavy with really quiet sounds in contrast with really loud songs. I think that there’s an intensity that’s not unique to full stacks and screaming.
AT: I think that’s a pretty multifaceted idea, the idea of heaviness. Part of it can be purely sonic. I think that I have always been drawn to music that was sonically extreme. Going back to our earlier conversation about that Beastie Boys song, just the immensity of how that sounded to me was really intriguing. And there is an immensity of sound in something like the first couple of Earth albums or even something like Thomas Koner’s ambient music where there’s definately no guitars there and not even a rhythm, but there’s just this sense of vastness and I think that that kind of sonic heaviness has always been appealing to me.
The other aspect of heaviness which doesn’t necessarily correlate directly with metal music, the idea of emotional intensity, and just the emotional, visceral nature of a lot of the music I have been drawn to and that I have made. There needs to be something in the music that elicits feeling. It doesn’t necessarily have to be dramatic or really specific it just has to have some sense of human spirit in it. And that’s kind of an intangible thing, but I have noticed it as a thread in so much of what I really gravitated toward.
I can relate to that I think. Not at I would ever be interviewed, but if I was ever asked about the moment music changed my life, then I could talk about that I guess. But there was another moment later in life that seems more significant, which is the moment in which the choices I made as a younger person made more sense to me. A primordial moment for that, a an embarrassing one since I always have to argue with people over it, is Megadeth.
Because there’s something wrong about Megadeth.
AT: Yeah [laughs]
And when you like it, you feel bad about it. You kind of wished you liked Slayer. Sometimes it feels like liking Slayer is a simpler life. But no matter how much I want to be that Slayer guy, time and again I find myself wanting that incompleteness, that thing I interpret as a real personality.
AT: I think that’s a good point, and actually I’m going to completely agree with you. I love Megadeth, and I have plenty of friends who said ‘I never got into Megadeth even when I was into metal,’ but I remember very clearly, especially that Rust in Peace record, there were so many, to me, really amazing moments on that record. And a lot of it has to do with Dave Mustaine’s emotive delivery, and I think that there’s an apparent sadness in the way that he writes. it’s probably not intentional, he might even be offended by that [laughs]. But one of the great things about art is what it reveals things about the creator and I think that Mustaine has revealed the messiness of his own interior experience in the music that he has made over the years.
My friend Jussi [Lehtisalo] from the band Circle, he and I talk about the things we’re drawn to in music a lot, and both he and I are fans of the things that are wrong, the things that are inappropriate, the things that are mistakes, and those are those beautiful moments where people who aren’t intending to communicate come through as even more profound and potent because it’s this sudden revelation of humanity, it has given you a glimpse into their inner being. And it’s almost the fact that it’s inadvertent that makes it that much more precious. So, even though Mustaine is a complete fucking mess, and politically, how should I put this, confused and also in my mind kind of an asshole as far as his political stuff goes, I would also say that he’s more human in many ways than someone like Kerry King, who’s just this automaton of metal, who has inarguably written some great music, but to me is a much less interesting kind of monochromatic character than Mustaine.
Both you are known to collaborate quite a bit, but also to collaborate with in wide variety of genres. What is it that drives your need to work with others on so many different projects? How do those collaborations take form?
WFC: With Aaron we definitely met in person and recorded a lot of the base material in person and then we went back and edited and added overdubs and talked about it until we completed it. With James Toth of Wooden Wand we actually didn’t meet before we played. I would send him something and he would add vocals to it and then it kind of went from there. With Pyramids I was given the drum sound from Vindsval [Blut aus Nord], so I just got raw track and contributed some songs to that, and then Colin Marston of Gorguts mixed that whole thing and mastered it.
Would you say then that the purpose of collaborating is to defamiliarize yourself from stuff you already know? Kind of like unlearning the guitar? Making things new and strange?
WFC:Yeah, I think it’s important as an artist, no matter what you play on your instrument, to step outside your comfort zone and change things up a bit so that you don’t necessarily put everything into your solo project. So some things that may not work well on what you’re working on may be perfect for collaborations. It’s also a way to keep in touch with the outside world here in the desert [laughs].
WFC:Yeah. There’s only 2 million people in the whole state and it’s a really big state. I’m on the edge of Albuquerque. We’re about 6,000 feet above sea level, mountains, desert. A pretty inspiring place to be creatively.
Aaron, do you feel that collaborating bears the possibility of them bringing something out of you that you would never expect?
AT: I think that that is always the hope, and certainly I know this very well now that playing with many different people often pushes me in a direction that I could not and would not find on my own. However, I would say that that is kind of a secondary concern to what I consider the first reason for playing music with other people and that’s connection. I think as much as metal and even some experimental music portrays the musician as this stoic maybe misanthropic or secretive, agoraphobic personality, music and creating and putting something out to the public form shows the desire for connection. And music provides a connective thread for people who maybe are otherwise socially incapable of connections. And that’s definitely been a big factor for me in playing music.
And also in terms of the kinds of music and the world of music that I have become involved with. I wanted to find other people I felt empathy with and who I felt like I had a shared experience with, and I didn’t know how to do that through normal social channels, and in fact found those seemed limiting and sometimes even abhorrent. I wasn’t into going to parties, I didn’t really like playing sports, and as an adult I didn't and don’t like going to bars and that kind of stuff. But, all that said, I do like being around people, I like connecting with people, I like sharing deep experiences with people, and music has been the best outlet in that regard for me. I think that I have communicated deeper parts of my soul and my being with other people and then with me in playing music than pretty much anything besides the kind of partnership that Faith and I have in our personal lives. And I think that there’s a depth of connection that can occur through music that isn’t otherwise possible. There’s just so many cultural barriers and rules of civilized society that keep people from communicating openly in most ways, and I think music is a way to circumvent that.
And here again I’m thinking of just how men in bands, I’m thinking of the people that I have played with, that I haven’t had those type of personal conversations with, and on the few occasions where we have gone into very deep and personal and vulnerable issues, it can sometimes be pretty uncomfortable, just because of our own inhibitions. Yet, at the same time, the act of playing music together is this really connective experience and I do feel like we see and know parts of each other that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, and that’s really crucial and for me kind of necessary.
How did Thalassa come about? What was your motivation to collaborate?
WFC: I got in touch with Aaron to work together. I was an ISIS fan, for sure, and I think what made it something that I thought could work was that I also knew he was involved in things on his own like House of Low Culture, so I knew he was into experimental stuff. So we just started emailing about it and both discovered that it would probably be a good idea to do something. And it was, I think it was a good match, because he has a broad range of musical interests as well.
I think it was established that we work well together, that we have a lot of the same influences, we get along well, we’re good friends, which is helpful [laughs]. It just seemed to be a good fit. I think we’re both trying to do different things with the music, although we don’t have a set plan for where Thalassa will go, I think it’s really a fertile ground for the both of us to try new things and I think that excites both of us. So what I got out of it is a good, healthy collaborative working relationship, and I feel like the sky’s the limit in terms of what we want to do.
One of the words that comes to mind with Thalassa, especially considering your past work, William, is harsh. Do you hear something in Thalassa that wasn’t expressed in former collaborations?
WFC: I think it’s complex. I think that it has the harsh side of it, with the vocals and the intense noise stuff that comes in throughout, but I think there’s some beauty in there too. Maybe we’re exploring different extremes whether it’s good or bad with this, maybe we feel that we’re able to do that. There was one time we were talking that it reminds me or gives me the impression of David Lynch movies or Tarkovsky movies, Francis Bacon paintings, maybe some Philip K. Dick twisted sci-fi stuff that we’re both interested in. So I think there’s a lot in there in terms of range of emotion and what we’re trying to express. And maybe we are able to push things a little further in all directions than we have thus far in our own individual projects.
Do these references play a part in your music? Is it part of the package for you?
WFC: I think it is. I have a background in fine art too and visual arts, and so I think it definitely influences. I think that listening to some music can inspire imagery. I think that Bacon is intense, his stuff is intense. I think you can feel that there’s a lot going there.
Aaron, what appealed to you to generate that kind of relationship with William?
AT: I don’t know how much I believe in the idea of fate or destiny, yet I also believe that there’s something interesting and important about time and place and the intersection of life paths and things of that nature. Maybe in some ways relating in some ways to Jung’s idea of synchronicity. And somehow there’s this weird series of events that led up to William and I connecting. The first part of which was me just discovering William’s music on my own. As a relentless investigator of music that wasn't hard for me to come across. It was dark minimalism that somehow related to metal yet in its final state was quite far removed from what metal is considered to be typically. So there just was that initial fascination of “Oh here’s somebody who also appreciates the potency and the visceral energy and also the raw emotionality of metal but has transmuted it to something quite different.”
There was also the connection with New Mexico, which us where I grew up and where William now lives. I always take particular note of what’s going on in New Mexico. Just because I’m from there and historically there has not been great art and music that had come out of there, at least not modern art and music. So that aspect peaked my interest as well. And then once William and I started talking there was another odd series of coincidences where we were both born in the same town, we both had family in these really tiny Western Massachusetts towns. The odds of that happening are pretty slim. So in some ways this series of bizarre coincidences as well the creative affinities we shared just made it seem like a good idea. At that point I had either already stopped doing ISIS or it was winding down and I was not interested at that time in starting another band. I was doing stuff with Mamiffer, but that was a very different setup, it was like a revolving cast of participants and the music was very different and the way we approached it was very different, and everything else I was doing outside of Mamiffer were all these undefined collaborative things. So, once William and I were in touch it seemed like something that needed to happen, and we met in person and our introductory conversation was good and there was a nice rapport and it just seemed like “Why not give this a try?”
How did it work out?
AT: Again, there’s a deep level of communication that was surprising to me in how easily it flowed. William came out to record what would be the foundation for our record. We didn’t know each other very well, and we got along just fine, but our conversations were friendly but not overly deep or overly personal. But as soon as we sat down and played music it immediately was “Yes, this is happening. There’s connectivity here, we’re working together, everything is meshing” and we didn’t even need to talk about anything. I think we started with a couple of loose ideas and immediately abandoned them in favor of following the more intuitive unspoken path.
Will Thalassa continue to exist as a band now that the album is done?
WFC: Yeah, definitely. This is just the first album. We’re definitely just getting started, and we’re excited to play more.
Live as well?
WFC: Yeah we just did some live shows in Portland and Seattle, so that was fun. And I think we would want to do some more of that. But there’s definitely more to come.
Aaron, so it’s more than just a one-off
AT: I would certainly hope so. My attitude toward any project I’m involved with is just to let that project be what it is from moment to moment and not place constraints on it. We started this record six years ago and it’s only now coming out. We played a few shows over that period, and we’ve discussed doing more in the future. I think the one difficulty for us is that we live so far apart, and certainly made that work with other people, but I think it’s just about finding the right time and place to do things, and also to try not to force things, which is another killer of enthusiasm for me in projects, to treat them like these commercial entities. So I think it’s just going to be this open-ended thing.
Even beyond Thalassa William and I are continuing to work together in other capacities. He came out here and we did some shows along with Faith’s solo project Marra, and with Daniel Menche and Nordra. And then after the shows were concluded we all gathered together for a couple days of recording and that was another really awesome experience. There was a kind of ease and flow and back-and-forth that went on with all of us, kind of coming in and out of the studio and layering. And even beyond that we’re working together on a new Mamiffer record. So I can definitely say that whether through Thalassa or not our partnership and collaboration with William is definitely ongoing.
Finally, what is some of the music you guys are into these days? William, are you still listening to metal?
WFC: I sometimes ask Aaron what he’s heard of, he may follow it more intensely than I do. Deathspell Omega. That band Pissgrave is kind of crazy. I really like Funeral Mist, but that guy hasn’t been doing much since he’s been with Marduk.
AT: I just recently had a trip to Japan and we collaborated with Keiji Haino, which was a pretty amazing moment for me because he’s been very influential to how I think about music. The way he plays and approaches playing I find really interesting. So prior to that trip I was listening to a lot of his music to mentally prepare for our meeting. He has a vast discography, but especially some of his more recent collaborations like with Oren Ambarchi, Jim O’Rorke and Stephen O'Malley. Additionally there are two other Japanese artists that have been interesting to me. One is Endon, with which we were touring over there and who we’ve released some music by. In a certain way they are a great embodiment of of what I’ve wanted to do in terms of a record label. They’re the perfect band for Hydra Head, where they are rooted in metal to some extent but have gone way beyond those boundaries and are very clearly embracing the idea of risk and adventure. So while I’m not doing much with Hydra Head these days, it was a band that I felt I had to work with and with which I have been pretty obsessed since then.
And then there’s another artist who Faith and I made contact with, a Japanese artist named Ryo Murakami, who’s released a couple of records on Bedouin Records. And this is another purely coincidental thing. He had started following Faith on Instagram, and she kind of went “Well, who’s this guy?” and he was also friends with her collaborator Alex Barnett, and by coincidence I had ordered one of his records and was listening to that and loved it. And there was just this weird intersection, and I ended up meeting him in Osaka, where he lives, and now he wants to release something from Mamiffer on his label. These are the kinds of intersections that I find interesting and the reason why music and a life in music has continued to be compelling to me, because I get to not only discover all this really important music I enriches my life, but I often get to know the people behind it, which, for me, is this amazing benefit that I didn’t even know was possible when I first started listening to music so many years ago.