The Strange World Of… Sunburned Hand Of The Man

Sean Kitching provides ten points of entry to the bewildering and strange world of American free folk collective Sunburned Hand Of The Man

Top left to right Conrad Capistran, Matt Robidoux, Paul Labrecque (painted by Greta Svalberg), Jeremy Pisani, Jenna Weingarten, Greta Svalberg, Ron Schneiderman, Orion Russell, Murph, Adam Langellotti, John Moloney, Paul Labrecque, Dan Ireton (Dredd Foole), Rob Thomas

Alongside their New York-based contemporaries, The No-Neck Blues Band, Massachusetts’ Sunburned Hand Of The Man were the foremost proponents of the New Weird America/free folk movement (first defined as such in the UK by David Keenan’s 2003 feature in The WIRE). Freewheeling, wild and groove propelled to No Neck’s mysterious cult-like, abstract hermeticism, Sunburned at their best were capable of taking the listener on a shamanic, boogie-fuelled trip outside of quotidian reality.

Live shows blended monstrous tectonics of rhythm, caustic guitar, echoing phased vocals, insect electronics and kitchen sink instrumentation that collided in an unholy, ecstatic racket. Championed by the likes of Julian Cope, Thurston Moore and Byron Coley, Sunburned have spent recent years performing at low key local happenings. With the band preparing to tour again, record a new album, and rerelease the best of their hard-to-find, extensive back catalogue, core members Rob Thomas and John Moloney talk about their origins, influences, methodology and occasional moments of madness incurred on the road.

From Shit Spangled Banner To Sunburned Hand

Rob Thomas: The Shit Spangled Banner was three of us. Rich Pontius and myself were playing together as a duo and we asked John [Moloney] to join. Me and Rich were obsessed with the Dead C and thought it might be nice to try something like that – two guitars and drums. I was into Skullflower and Pontius was into Jim Shepard and Vertical Slit, V-3, that kind of stuff. It was all improvised. We lasted maybe two years, did about ten shows total. We put out a cassette and someone handed the tape to Thurston Moore. He and Byron Coley were starting the Ass Run series and asked us if we wanted to issue it on that. It was at the same time as the No Neck Blues Band’s first album got released so that’s how we got in touch with them. There weren’t too many bands who had expletives in their titles at the time but there wasn’t as much of a pro-American, Nationalist vibe going around at the time, so the name didn’t draw too much flak. That stuff kind of took off after 9/11 and we weren’t playing in like Alabama or anywhere like that.

I moved into the loft in Charlestown and John came and lived there for a time as well. Different people came into it and started improvising with us. Eventually Rich Pontius came back and at that point, we became Sunburned Hand Of The Man, although it didn’t have a name for about six months. At the time we had access to some pretty strong, clean acid. Not everyone was indulging but it had a profound effect on the group, in both sound and vision. We used to make videos of improvised scenarios too. Dialogue would come up and a lot of it, like the music, was stream of consciousness. There was one where I covered my face with scotch tape and I was acting like an old British person talking about bands that I had been in, and one of the names that came up was, Sunburned Hand Of The Man. I was really obsessed, at that point, with the Welsh band, Man but also the Wu Tang Clan. They seemed to be so heavy and prophetic and had a psychedelic edge to it and there was a side project of the band involving Killah Priest called Sonz of Man and so I realised later all of that was kind of infecting my subconscious.

JM: Hip hop back then was a huge influence on our whole scene. If you think about how the bass works, that’s the reason. At the time, from the mid to late 90s it seemed exceptional and extremely powerful. Jaybird, for example, was heavily influenced by Ghostface or whatever Wu Tang Clan side project was hot at the time. I still listen to that stuff to this day, it still has a big influence on me personally.

Sunburned As DIY Cottage Industry – Sound And Visual Art

RT: We were playing together as Sunburned for over a year. Just recently, Feeding Tube re-released, Mind Of A Brother, and that was our first CDR put out in 1998 by Kristin Anderson, who runs a label called Poon Village. She did about 100 copies of it and that was the only one she put out. After that, there was kind of a drought until 2000. I remember John being kind of worried about it. We would tour with other groups, like No Neck, who had a lot of amazing looking product and I thought we should wait and put out something very elaborately packaged. So I made some compilations of music that I liked and gave them to John and he issued them as Jaybird and Wild Animal (in 2001).

Those two CDRs were kind of a rough draft of something I was thinking of melding into one album. And then after we started touring more, it just became economically viable to have a lot of product that we could sell cheaply and travel with lightly, that’s why the catalogue bloomed and swelled up. To the point where we’re currently at Manhand 148.

JM: The artwork I just took from other band members. Like Piff’s Clicks, I just cropped the poster that Rob made for a show that we did with Secret Chiefs and turned it into the cover. I had no plan with it but it just took off. A lot of those releases at the time I was making them were just show specific. A lot of us are practicing artists too, [so] the artwork was easy. Rich [Pontius] has a painting degree, Marc [Orleans] has a painting degree, Phil [Franklin] has a screen printing degree. All these guys were practicing visual art all the time, so there was no lack of imagery.

RT: We always had some sort of visual element to the performance too. On the longer tours, we’d accumulate things as the trip went on, so by the end we’d have a bit more of an elaborate stage show than we’d have at the beginning. I just thought that, the type of music that we played being predominantly instrumental, if there wasn’t some visual element it could risk being boring for the audience.

JM: No Neck had an influence on that because they would always have some performance element.

RT: Particularly the work of Michiko [Cook], who was such an incredible performer. I mean the whole group would get into it but she had a special energy, unlike anyone I’ve ever met.

JM: I remember Matt Heyner one time came out in the upright bass case, that’s all he did, the entire show – he didn’t play the bass.

RT: He even coined a phrase for that kind of behaviour onstage, that element. He called it “over the rainbow.” [BOTH LAUGH] No Neck were a big influence. Keith Connolly from No Neck came and stayed at the loft where I lived and stayed for two or three weeks and I got to know him. Then finally getting to see what No Neck were doing was very inspirational. They were different than us, and also they had a constant, steady line-up, and for years and years they managed to maintain this enigmatic non-identity. They wouldn’t talk about who they were or put their faces on the records for a long time. We decided we had to do it differently though – Boston’s a different place to New York.

The New Weird America And Being On The Front Cover Of The Wire

RT: Matt Valentine (Tower Recordings), MV & EE, and Ron Schneiderman (Sunburned) put on a "free/folk" festival on in Brattleboro Vermont – not far from here – in 2003. Which I think was meant to imply that it featured both free, improvised music and folk music, but it became condensed into Free Folk, which along with New Weird America, was used to describe the scene. David Keenan from The WIRE flew over to cover the festival. We had a pretty dramatic set at the time and he was quite impressed with that and they decided to put us on the cover, which we thought was odd but we were happy. It made things so much easier for us as far as setting up tours in Europe in particular.

Kindred Spirits

RT: Meeting Vibracathedral Orchestra was very important for us. I remember two or three years before the New Weird America thing, the group Jackie-O Motherfucker were on the cover [of The WIRE]. I remember looking at it and thinking “What?” like this was impossible and then a couple of years later we were, so obviously they had been digging a little deeper. Anyway, Tom Greenwood from Jackie-O was definitely a pioneer in bringing this type of music further out, throughout Europe and touring a lot, and he was the liaison between us and Vibracathedral. I really liked that A Band record, which was Neil Campbell and a large, crazy group of improvisers, that came out on Siltbreeze in the States. That was a big influence. As was Skullflower, and Matthew Bower was involved in Vibracathedral.

JM: Neil reached out to me via email and said, “Hi we like your band,” and asked if we’d like to trade stuff. We got this huge box through the mail of early Vibracathedral CDRs, which I still have. Tom brought them over. There was Mick [Flower], Bridget [Hayden] and Julian [Bradley], I think, and Tom was in the band too. They came over to our loft one time when we were practicing. That’s how we met. We became very close friends and still remain that way.

RT: Mick Flower from Vibracathedral has probably been our biggest ally in terms of touring and so on. If we had time off in Europe, we could just stay at his house in Leeds. The backline always came from him, he had a lot of amps we could use.

JM: The first tour out of the states was October 2003, right after The WIRE cover, we got asked to play a festival in Dundee, Scotland – Kill Your Timid Notion. We immediately said yes. I had some money saved, so I just bought eight plane tickets. We toured for about two weeks. We also played at a Julian Cope show. Rome Wasn’t Burned In A Day it was called and it was at the Hammersmith Lyric Theatre. We went to Holland and Belgium on that tour too.

RT: He made the CDR of Jaybird album of the month on his Head Heritage website, in an eerily detailed and prescient overview of our whole career at that point, which was in reality so miniscule. The Dundee festival was were we met Ira Cohen, and later when The Invasion Of Thunderbolt Pagoda was released on dvd, he asked us if we wanted to do an alternate soundtrack to it that you could watch as a bonus feature. We did several screenings of that, where we performed the soundtrack live and did a few shows with Ira reading too. We toured with John Fahey too, before that. His work is incredible but he could be very difficult, he wasn’t always a happy person. That tour was about two or three years before he died and he had literally been on skid row for some time. He suffered from Epstein-Barr Virus, that caused him to be constantly tired. He was really comfortable with No Neck but we didn’t interact quite as much with him.

Many Hands Make Light Work

RT: When we started out, we were mostly a localised phenomenon. Now there are Sunburned members living all over the world.

JM: We’re like a football team, we have so many people we can choose from. People can come off the bench, out of retirement. One time, Phil Franklin and I were talking about making a Sunburned deck of cards, with a member on each card. He was like: “Do we have 52 people?” So I started writing down everyone who’s ever played with us and it came up to 56 or 58. We don’t recruit, people find us. We’ve had the same line up at the last three shows, which includes J [Mascis] and Dredd Foole, though those two aren’t going to want to travel.

Improvised Music Outside Of Jazz Or The European Avant Garde Tradition

RT: At the time we started, at least among the small group of people that were interested in avant garde and experimental music, the mid to late 90s was a real period of AMM worship. Not that I’ve anything against AMM, I think their music is brilliant. But that kind of music that AMM pioneered through and the Morton Feldman type minimalist, very restrained, very controlled improvisation was so huge. And even in the underground or avant garde rock scene, stuff like Tortoise was huge and if it wasn’t rock, it was electronic music but again, things like minimal techno, all kind of movement towards restraint, kind of across the spectrum I think and part of what we were doing was a reaction against that. By being gratuitously psychedelic and somewhat aggressive, it made us feel as though we were doing something different. The element of chaos in improvisation is an important element for us. As to the level of success, I think the ratio is about 50/50. Sometimes you run the risk of being static, of not being able to take off, expand. You take a chance but at least it’s not going to be the same every night.


RT: When I first heard Can and Faust, they blew my mind. The krautrock thing has always been something I’ve been interested in, to this day. British and American psych rock and psychedelia. Dub reggae was a big thing for us when we started out – the repetition in the bass and drum emphasis. Early 70s jazz too – Pharaoh Sanders and electric Miles Davis, folk and R&B. When I was about 12, I was lucky enough to be given a tape of Butthole Surfers’ Locust Abortion Technician by some older skater types and that opened me up to a whole host of other industrialised sounds. Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, Coil and especially Nurse With Wound made big impressions on my in my adolescence and led me into much wider fields of record collecting and also inspired me to explore psychedelic consciousness. Chad Cooper also came from this background and Sunburned would never have happened without that music as a gateway.

Tour Incidents

RT: The first time we tried to do a big tour, No Neck invited us to come out and open for them and Fahey, I guess it was 99 and it was one of those things were everything went kind of wrong for us but we still managed to make it happen. We were originally gonna drive about halfway across the country, meet them in Arizona. We packed everything we had into a vehicle that kind of fell apart 12 hours into the journey in rural Maryland. We ended up towing the vehicle back to Boston, renting a smaller one and putting everything in that. We made it back down another ten or twelve hours and Moloney had a panic attack with the claustrophobia and made us drop him off in the middle of nowhere. He made it to an airport and told the people there that his parents had died and got a plane ticket so he could go back home. We continued driving until we were utterly exhausted, and in rural Ohio we found a camping ground. Literally five minutes after we lay down, we heard this sound, like swirling electricity, a swarm of electronic sound like a Xenakis recording, and we were thinking, “What the fuck is happening?” These little shells of things were falling onto our faces and the whole ground was swarming with locust-like things. We couldn’t sleep, we were literally covered with insects. We asked someone what was going on and they were like, “Oh yeah, every thirteen years, sure enough, the cicadas comin’ up.” The very second we lay down it was the birthing of the cicadas.

JM: Great timing [LAUGHS]. Another time, we did this tour and nothing went wrong for like seven weeks or so, but at the very end of it, our last couple of shows were going to be Paris and Belgium. We had to drive to Paris from Lisbon, about a 24 hour trip. Things started to go wrong. We couldn’t find a hotel, it turned out there was an antique car show happening and everything was already booked. We ended up in a parking lot somewhere in France, spent about 90 minutes trying to sleep. We were about ten miles outside of Paris and the motor died on the truck. We managed to grab everything we could carry and walked to the train station and took a train to Paris.

RT: We got there late, the promoter was angry, the crowd were upset and we were completely out of our minds. I remember telling Michael K, who was in the band, that I had a premonition that someone was going to hit me with a piece of fruit. We got up onstage and I started giving a lecture to the French audience about how upset I was, only to be hit solidly in the throat with a zucchini in response. We were just breaking things onstage, smashing stuff. I got into a wrestling match with Michael K and the promoter got really angry. Then after the show, we were put up in this house nearby. I was passed out in this room and they brought in a huge garbage truck to take out the trash and it got stuck in the alley behind the street and started filling this room with carbon monoxide and Paul LaBrecque had to come and pull me out of my bed and we fled up to the roof, which was the only place we could breathe, with our little mattresses and it started to rain.

JM: Then we had to get on another train to Antwerp. I thought, “how much can the train cost?” – and it cost us like all of the profit that we’d made on tour, like 15,000 Euros. That’s the closest we’ve ever come to like complete meltdown.

Sunburned Primer

RT: No Magic Man, we did multiple edits on that, to get it just so.

JM: Wedlock is another great one. Edwin Pouncey wrote this really nice review, calling it “one of the best double albums of all time” [both LAUGH].

RT: That was recorded in 2003 in Alaska during the wedding of two of our band members in the town of Wasilla. We didn’t know at the time, but Sarah Palin would have been the mayor. Paul LaBrecque and Valerie Webb had been a long time couple and they were getting married there because it was where [Val] had grown up. So we decided to set up a West Coast tour and when we were done, fly to Alaska, spend a week there. It was on the Summer Solstice, so there was about 20 hours of daylight. Everyone camped out for a week and people started going a bit mad. And we played at the wedding, for about four or five hours.

JM: I spent the whole time drinking. I used to have a videocamera and would tape absolutely everything, and the audio for that record comes straight off the camera, nothing’s done to it, so we were pretty amazed at how it turned out. I’ve just recently, in the last week put together a mini dv playback deck and started looking at tapes and I can’t believe the stuff I’m finding. There’s going to be hundreds of hours of it. There’s enough there for a film, definitely. An overview of the era.

RT: I like A, the second album we did with Kieren Hebden. I like both the albums we did with him, but A I think came out really well and kind of slipped under the cracks. I don’t think many people picked up on that one. Headdress is a pretty interesting one. Almost everything is on Bandcamp now.

JM: Last winter, as part of our archiving project, I put 60 or 70 releases on Bandcamp that you can stream for free, some of them you can download for free.

RT: I think a lot of the early CDRs stand up really well. Like, there’s one called Magnetic Drugs that most people at the time really enjoyed. One called Earth Do Eagles Do which is a live set from Finland, that had Mick Flower in the band then too.

Sunburned Hand Rides Again

JM: The Jaybird rerelease on Feeding Tube will probably mimic the Qbico vinyl from 2003. We don’t want it to be too expensive, like a double would be. We started recording last Sunday in the studio. Nick Mitchell from Golden Lab has us on the schedule for a November release for a new record and hopefully Jaybird before that.

Cory Rayborn from Three Lobed Records is having a 15 year anniversary show in Raleigh, North Carolina. We’re just playing four shows, starting the 21 March in Greenfield MA, then New York and two shows in North Carolina. People seem pretty excited about it. Rob and I haven’t toured together in a long time, since 2008 or something like that.

RT: We took the Obama administration off. Now we’re getting antsy again with the thought of a Trump administration.

JM: Getting back to Europe would be cool. Cafe Oto is always offering us a residency, I’d love to do that.

Sunburned Hand Of The Man play a sunburned handful of live North American dates this month

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