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Szun Waves: Spiritual Electronics From Improv Three-Piece

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Photo by Mike Massaro

As super groups go, Szun Waves can't command the profile of the likes of Moderat, Madvillain or Atoms for Peace, but theirs is a sleeping giant ready to be stirred.

Delve deeper into their improvisational cocktails of rippling drums, swirling saxophone and abstract electronics and it is little wonder that the creators of New Hymn To Freedom - released in August as their second LP to a cacophony of critical acclaim - have an enviable depth of curriculum vitae to back up their opulent harvest from the sonic leftfield.

The saxophone is Jack Wyllie's, as heard on the output of Portico Quartet; Laurence Pike's 2018 solo record, Distant Early Warning, flexes his percussive dexterity beyond Triosk and PVT; and Luke Abbott has achieved recognition as a solo synthesist, as exemplified by his Border Community label affiliation. While impatient listeners may waver, it's a must for fans of the trio's core groups.

Abbott and Pike took the time to answer our questions ahead of a UK tour this month.

How do you go about organising your ideas while living in different countries and each of you also fuelling other projects?

[Luke] I don't know if we intentionally organise everything. We just kind of let things fall into place. It's really great when we get the opportunity to play together and things seem to come quite naturally. It's probably the most free-spirited of the projects I'm involved in. It kind of feels like playtime.

Our first album was recorded literally the first time we met

What preparation can you do prior to each musical meeting?

[Luke] In a way, we don't do any preparation, and in another we have spent our whole lives preparing. We don't plan too much though. It's good to keep things fresh.

[Laurence] One thing I have learned as an improviser is that the key to heading into any musical scenario is you have to be prepared to be prepared. It's more about finding a mental balance between control of your performance and a complete surrender to the moment. Understanding your role in the music and the way you can influence and react to the other people in the group is also really important. That sort of dynamic can take some bands a long time to develop, but I feel Szun Waves has been lucky in that it seems to have been there for us from the start.

How has the first record fed into this year's album?

[Luke] Our first album was recorded literally the first time we met. We had no idea what we were trying to do. It was just an excuse to get together and experiment. It's amazing that we ended up with a releasable record. By the time we came to record the second album, we had played a few gigs and had developed various modes of playing together, so we knew much more about what we were trying to capture. Both albums only took three days to record. Our process is very time-efficient.

With your improvisational ethos, how do you decide what makes the cut on record?

[Laurence] I find it's all about having a bit of distance from the initial recordings. Once you can separate yourself from what you're hearing, the music tends to stand up of its own accord. I look for bigger picture things. The overall shape and feeling of the piece is ultimately what's going to communicate to the listener, the finer details of performance within that are often less important. Either that or Luke just decides, because he's the one that inevitably has to sift through and edit hours of us playing...

[Luke] You just have to listen to what was recorded and make a gut decision on what works and what doesn't. After that it's mostly a mixing thing, trying to expose the detail in the sound without losing the sense of the room. There's not really any editing apart from finding the start and end points. We don't add any extra parts and we don't re-do anything. It's just mixing the recording to try and make it sound as good as it can.

What would you say are the indicators of musical innovation?

[Laurence] I have pretty broad musical tastes, so any time I hear something that feels outside of my realm of understanding, a genuine 'WTF is going on there?' moment, that's a pretty good indication of potential innovation in some way to me, or worth further investigation. On a personal level, I am always excited when I don't fully understand what it is I'm making. When things exist in a nebulous space, and you feel you are a participant in the music rather than the source.

It's not about layers of ideas, so much as capturing a happening

What music, new or old, are you currently listening to?

[Luke] I'm really into Debussy at the moment, listening to 'La Mer' quite a lot, and the first few The Byrds albums too. Laurence's brother Richard is making some great ambient music under the name Deep Learning too. I've been listening to that.

I hear shades of 70s cosmic jazz in your music, particularly Pharoah Sanders. Is this a conscious influence on your sound?

[Luke] Yeah, I love Pharoah Sanders. Elevation is definitely a big record for me. Alice Coltrane and Don Cherry too. There's a big vibe from that whole spiritual jazz world in what we do. There's also some influence from that scene on how we approach recording too. When we were recording New Hymn it was very important to me that we try to capture the room, get a document of us playing in the space. When I'm listening to those spiritual jazz records, I'm always captivated by the idea that I'm hearing a room full of people. It's not about layers of ideas, so much as capturing a happening.

What do you see while playing the music, and does - or even could or should - your audio-visual show reflect this?

[Laurence] This is a really common line of question: 'What images do you see? What do you think of while playing music?' I don't, is the short answer. Imagery is something that's more evocative for the audience, and that's great, but when you play this sort of intuitive group music, or any kind of music for that matter, you're hoping to work in a state of simultaneous hyper awareness and complete unconsciousness. It's a place that at its best I can only describe as 'freedom'.

I'm happy if there's a visual component that heightens the atmosphere or experience for the listener and is ideally also a creative display in its own right. Whatever can bring people closer to the music is cool with me.

[Luke] The current live AV show we're using has been put together by Sam Wiehl. He's responded to the music by making imagery around the idea of deep space observation.

Who else among your peers would you like to make music with and what would they bring to the room?

[Laurence] I feel fortunate to already work with so many people at the moment that I genuinely admire. If you can find me more money and hours in the day though, I could probably give you a list.

[Luke] I don't know, maybe someone who has a glass armonica?

Will there be more to follow?

[Luke] Yes, we're going back into the studio later in the year.

[Laurence] Always.

Ian Pennington

Szun Waves' second album, New Hymn To Freedom, is available now.

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