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In Extremis

A Sensory Universe: An Interview With S&M
Jessica Crowe , February 19th, 2014 06:11

Jessica Crowe meets up with the East London duo to discuss the mesmerising metal of their latest release sha·man and blurring the lines between creative disciplines. Photo by Elyssa Iona

Sitting on the peripheries of a rejuvenated and exciting doom metal scene in East London are S&M (formerly Sunday Mourning), a mesmerising, ominous and meditative duo whose work is hard to pin down and define. Their latest release and first on Ditto Press, titled sha·man, is a book of photographs containing a two track 10" single (both tracks a mystical 11:11 minutes in length) nestled at the book's heart. Photographer and drummer Sanna Charles has collected these enigmatic photographs of 'forests, man-made totems and haunting landscapes' to provide the visual cues for their cabalistic and shamanic sound. Alongside guitarist and vocalist Mark Wagner, together they're exploring a strongly conceptual, otherworldly approach to metal. S&M launched the book/single late last year with a week long exhibition and musical 'happening' at their cavernous art space MKII in Hackney. The Quietus chatted to the curious duo about the book, their sound and future musical explorations.

What is the idea behind S&M? How did you both meet and decide to work together?

Sanna Charles: We met about five or six years ago at a warehouse party in Tottenham, Mark was performing solo as **K. I seem to remember going up to him after his show to ask him if he liked the band Obituary and he said yes, so we hit it off from there.

Mark Wagner: Sanna broke her neck shortly after we met, cycling to meet me. I got called into A&E and in some ways it was a bonding experience. We got together musically under the name Sunday Mourning with the loose brief of making downtempo music which reflected a certain 'downerism' that we used to cultivate.

SC: As Sunday Mourning we wanted to make the bleakest, most depressing music we could. We were both a bit depressed I think and didn't care if people liked what we did or not, I was also listening to things like Skepticism, Leviathan, Corrupted, mixed with lots of moody country...

MW: We played a first gig in NYC, recorded a tape, played and put on gigs and did some collaborations. In 2012 we renamed ourselves S&M, marking a rebirth of sorts with an underlying cosmic awareness, leading to a more prevalent sense of harmony and optimism.

SC: Now as S&M we've crawled out of our cave and are much happier people. The music is much easier to make, as we've managed to shake this feeling that we have to conform or not to a certain style. We're still trying to drop some of those restrictions, but all in all we make loose music with lots of layers.

To the uninitiated, how would you characterise S&M's sound?

S&M: Simple & Minimal /  Spiritual & Mental / Sonic Mysticism / Sado Masochism / Shamanic Metal / Sound Meditation / etc...

The sha·man book/LP seems a pretty ambitious project – why did you decide to go that route rather than simply releasing a 10'' record, what's the story behind it? What was the thought process that led to combining the two mediums in one release?

SC: Ben at Ditto Press and I had spoken about doing a photography book together, of a series of images I had taken at metal festivals in Europe, but that project had been allocated to something else so Mark and I started putting a proposal together for the band. We both come from publishing and print, it seemed a logical progression that we develop something that blends our music with the landscape and journey work I have been doing over the years.

MW: Our respective creative backgrounds are in photography, art direction and design as well as music and sound. The combination of the two mediums comes as naturally as breathing.

SC: For me the shamanic and meditative quality of our music is the perfect accompaniment to the photographs, which began as something very instinctive and, in essence, improvised. There is also the added benefit of Ditto Press' Risographs, which give the photographs an entirely new quality. It has been a very exciting process and the end result is much more interesting than just producing a 10" that gets lost at the back of record store cupboards.

MW: In an age of free music made readily available via the internet, a release is better justified as an original, desirable and collectable item.

Music and visual art have always had a strong association with each other, especially it seems in more underground music scenes - for you why is it so important to combine the two so strongly?

SC: Photography and music have always been very important to the work I do. But I have also had some mind-blowing experiences watching bands whose visuals have been something else - Neurosis at the Forum on Christmas, Melvins playing a live soundtrack to Cameron Jamie's film Spook House, and Annelies Strba's photographic slideshow Shades Of Time at the Barbican set to the rave soundtrack of Baby Ford all come to mind.

MW: Music sounds best when accompanied by a sensory universe. Outside of the commercial realms there is no separation between visual and audio art, they all belong to the infinite cycle of creativity and creation.

SC: For S&M it opens our music out to a broader audience, and it is also a really great way to captivate your audience with sound and vision, and immerse them in your thoughts about the world.

S&M's music is all improvised, right? In the case of sha·man, then, which came first, the music or the photographic elements?

MW: On sha·man one side is improvised, one is written and rehearsed. We try to maintain this ratio in order to keep things exciting, challenging and unpredictable. We also play in improvisation projects, bands, gatherings, armies, troupes, 'supergroups' like Moon RA and others. Improvisation remains one of the purest, most immediate forms of creative expression.

SC: I think the photographic element has been a long work in progress but the music helped to give it structure and for the images to see the light of day as a collection.

Sanna, how did you go about choosing the images for sha·man, and what were some of the particular challenges involved in doing so?

SC: The images were a work in progress, taken over a long period of time from various places I've had the opportunity to visit. The place isn't important, what's important is the atmosphere. I like the idea that people leave their mark on the world, either intentionally or by chance, and these are the things I look for. The images are instinctive; they are about scale and symmetry and, in some cases, illusion.

Is there a particular narrative that links the various elements of sha·man together?

SC: Yes, as the title suggests, it's about human energy, healing and the cosmos.

You launched the book/LP with a week long exhibition, right? That must've been pretty special; how did it go? What was the idea behind launching the record with such an event, and what challenges did you encounter?

MW: The idea was to combine all these different mediums and formats - photography, sound, launch, exhibition, gig, installation, collaborations, happenings - into one coherent, immersive environment reflecting S&M and the book/record. As with any process that operates 'outside the box' there's always a challenge against conservatism, habits and pigeon holing, although challenges are an important part of any process.

SC: It was a great experience, especially the opening night, though Mark was really the one continuing the project on a day-to-day basis with the live collaborations, but I think the photos and installations really gave the musicians an atmosphere that they could work with sonically. Playing amongst the wooden den structure, it's almost like having another entity in the room.

Can you tell us a little bit about MKII, the exhibition space you run – how did you become involved with that? And what sort of performances/events/rituals do you put on there?

MW: MKII is a large creative space run by Mark Wagner and Marko Righo (Mark II). It's where Sunday Mourning was born, and now also serves as rehearsal and recording rooms for S&M and its various solo and side projects. I live in the space, and it's also run as a photo studio/location, gallery and project space. We host anything from rentals, residencies, community events, installations, small gigs and ceremonies. Brian Whar's recent Come-Dawn installation was good, and I recommend Lani Rocillo's sound therapy/sonic bath on new and full moons.

How important is the live aspect of S&M?

SC: It's important, we try and keep our live shows interesting and where possible we're careful about where we play. We make an effort to avoid classic venues, though it's often a case of taking what we can get. We have some great ideas for developing the visual aspects further for our live shows… when we get some time.

MW: Sound truly lives when offered to the ears of others and all. Live is alive.

What's next for S&M?

MW: Same & More.

SC: Get the sha·man books around, jam, I have some other photo related projects on the go, Mark has a solo tape coming out. We'll reconvene when the moon is right.

Lastly, what state of mind should one be in to best enjoy the music of S&M?

S&M: Recently we've been told - by folks who've never practiced meditation - that our gigs are like meditation. We don't really meditate either, though that state of mind seems like the best way to start.

S&M's sha·man is out now via Ditto Press. The duo play at Shoreditch Church on 11th April with Stephen O'Malley and Aluk Todolo