By: Jett Black
Photos By: Sean Strauss
Portland-based Sumerland, who will be sharing a stage at the Paris Theatre Aug 23rd with Projekt music label recording artists Mira and LoveSpiral, specifically requests an opportunity to expound more freely any details via a live interview than they've been afforded by many previous email-based interview opportunities.
Herein, Sumerland band members: Enrique Ugalde, Dorian Campbell, and Marshall Serna introduce and explore beyond the limits of inquiries focused so narrowly upon merely the spiritually emotive values of Sivo, their debut recording released through Middle Pillar www.middlepillar.com.
Sitting in briefly, we are also joined by (the now dissolved) Trance to the Sun's founder and producer Ashkelon Sain, who is producing Sumerland's next album. David Gibson, (bass) could not be available during this interview.
Enrique: We've had some interviewers go in and did some digging. And we really appreciate that in interviews that go a bit deeper into the essence of what we are trying to accomplish.
What is it that Sumerland wants to talk about?
Marshall: Sivo provides music that, for us, is three to four years old. Not that we don't still come from a lot of the same places, but that's literally a snap-shot of where we were at least two years ago. Which is cool! I'm proud of that record. In fact, I am very proud of that record. I don't believe that I will ever be un-proud of that record. To be honest, though, most of the interviews we've had seem to have so very little to do with the music, and instead asks these great philosophical and spiritual questions, and while it's great to expound upon these interest and go on, and on, and on about our beliefs and our intentions, spiritually and meta-physically, and whatever, but for me, I want to talk more about how I feel when we get together and play music; how I feel when we play a show, and what it feel like when that clicks, and you know that the audience is having a great time too. And we get that feeling when we're recording, we get that feeling when we're playing a show, and when we're in the rehearsal space, and really, from the standpoint of a music-lover, I listen to someone such as Bjork, I love Bjork. From reading her interviews, I wouldn't say that I know what her beliefs might be, but I know that I would have a great respect for her beliefs if we happened to have a conversation about her beliefs. Her standpoints come through in her music.
Enrique: And that comes out automatically for us within our music, and I think that's the allure for us of the musical work that Bjork and with any other artists that we respect have done. It has to be a seamless type of stream of consciousness.
Marshall: What I am hoping for us to transition more and more into is "How does it feel to play 'that song', or what did it feel like to write 'that song'?" What were going through at that time? Even on Sivo, a lot of it's pretty deep, and there's definitely a journey we were hoping to take people on, but there were some personal experiences that we were going though at that point. The recording of "Bygones to the New Heaven", I mean, we all did a ritual, and part of the energy was about the ritual that we did. But the music really isn't about the ritual. When it comes down to it, it was about what were feeling at that point, what it was that we were personally trying to let go of. We wanted to say, "Okay. It's okay for this to die. I'm happy for this to die." We all had personal experiences that we brought to the table to manifest that.
Enrique: I also believe that this is a very important part of ritual itself, to concentrate on something and then to let it go, to relinquish to the forces of chaos order, a greater essence, or to Nature itself. That's how I perceive a ritual as being not lusting for the result, but.
Marshall: At the same time isn't about the ritual, it's about what you learn.
Dorien: I believe that what we're talking about here is something that is not so strictly defined and this is what I discovered with Bjork is that I don't really care so much precisely what her message is. It's just what she makes me feel when I listen to her. And I feel like she's channeling pure spirit, and that it is up to the interpretation of the individual listener and it means something different to me everytime I hear it. And it seems more stream of consciousness. It is uplifting.
Enrique: That is the characteristic of "good music"; it grows on you, it evolves you, and you evolve with it, and it changes you, and you find different pathways to find that succulence.
Marshall: There are different kinds of "good music," too. There's temporal music that represents what you believe you were going through at that time. And then there's music that you know will always be a part of you because it was moving enough and yet non-specific enough to mean various things throughout your life.
What about music that ceases to mean something for you?
Marshall: Well, that's not to say that that is bad music. I would look at for me, The Smiths... and we had a discussion at one point about how for Enrique, Christian Death like The Smiths. The whole package of the lyrics and presentation was appropriate for that time in your life and either you "got it" when you were going through that part of your life; and if you didn't "get it" then it would be easier for you to see only the campiness of it, and go "Well, that's just a character that this guy is playing for the audience."
Dorien: I can relate with that. There was a time in my life when I used to walk around with headphones and a walk-man, listening to The Smiths, and walk around in the pouring rain listening to "The Queen is Dead". It meant something to me ONLY at that time. Today, The Smiths don't mean a whole lot to me.
Marshall: But you can still appreciate it for being good for what it was?
Dorien: Right. Right, right.
You enjoy the memories. I know that I do.
Dorien: But that's a nostalgic thing for me now. And I must mention that this is an easy trap to fall into. I just had to bring that up.
Marshall: We've been playing together for over 5 years now. One of the things that I appreciate about that is that no matter what, there are different energies in our project that pull one direction and push in another direction, which is part of what makes it fun to do, and part of what guarantees that what we do next. that we are not going to write a song just because we felt that we had to write a song to "be" a certain way. It just comes. And it's right. And in the last six months.
Dorien: Songs are coming to us a lot easier now.
How does the ritual that you mentioned remain a part of this unfolding process?
Marshall: I believe that more and more our lives are becoming the ritual. At least I am shaping my life to become part of the ritual. I live my belief. My life is my ritual. And that's part of what allows me the comfort of expressing myself.
Enrique: The music that we write is transcendent of time and space. The timelessness of the music is what is the unsaid moral of taking the essence beyond trends and fashions.
Marshall: and genres.
Enrique: and retrograde types of thinking of trying to create something that was and now trying to create it better, or whatever. For us the music is completely valid and magical at that very moment. And I believe that this concept in music is sorely missing in the music scene overall. The boxed in pigeon-holed genres that we get crammed into is an injustice. I tend to believe that it really takes people opening their hearts and minds to music in the ways in which we do. The music I love makes me cry! What I really respect in music is that which drags this emotional thing out of me. It makes me look at myself, and my past and helps me to find myself again and my associations with where I am coming from. When I play guitar, or drums, or anything, I come from a place of getting a really intense emotional connection with the music we unleash. I have never told these guys this, but some of our songs, when I play it, I am trying to stop myself from breaking into this emotional state, because it's hard to keep the tears from falling Because I believe that it's so beautiful and that it is so uplifting. The Tragic Beauty is so uplifting sometimes.
Dorien: That is something that I would like to understand is why so often our music gets described as "depressing"? It is something that lifts me OUT of my depression. It elevates my spirit and my mind, and the depression for me would be the lack of Sumerland. And so for our music to be described as "depressing". I would like to know personally how and why it is being interpreted as such?
Marshall: It seems like a lot of the Local media music writers. you know, I don't even know if these writers have ever been to ANY of our live shows!
Do you think that perhaps these writers are comparing your recorded music to that of other genre-specific staples that readers might recognize?
Marshall: I'm NOT making music to "be" a Goth! I'm not making music to be an NSYNC/Brittany Spears Pop star. I'm making music that makes me feel good, and that I enjoy playing. Most of the time the music is not sad at all! Most of the time it is wonderfully beautiful. When people label us as a "Goth band", people are likely to put on their Goth-sunglasses, and your Goth-earmuffs, to audition the music, and sure enough, you're likely to label us as Gothic, or "depressing". But take Pink Floyd, for example. Sure, it's depressing, but there's never been a time when I've said to myself. "I'm not depressed enough to listen to that!" And then, Madonna has done a bunch of sad, sappy love songs, but I don't think to myself, "Madonna? My god! What a downer!"
Dorien: The local media here thinks that anything that requires an attention span must be depressing somehow.
Enrique: Yeah, if it's not head-bobbing, drink PBR music, then it's something that they simply won't understand. It's a little too complex for the immediacy of what this scene has to offer, at some point, and that certainly CAN change, and I do have hope for the future.
Marshall: I believe that we are getting better of doing both at the same time. Writing a piece of music that does have that kind of immediate catchiness to it, but isn't so shallow. Newer material, such as "Elfin Girl", is NOT a difficult song to get into.
Enrique: It's very infectious!
Marshall: It's very infectious! You get to those chords and then after the break, the 12 strings come in and I can just SEE the audiences bouncing along with it. The only place you can get it as a recording right now is on our website: http://www.sumerland.com We only have a LIVE recording of it at the moment. To me, it's become a song that's not only just about beautiful women in my life, but also beautiful friends in my life who are the angels that I LOVE! These people are angels in my life who show me something about myself. Even if some of these people have broken my heart, they have showed me something valuable about myself.
Dorien: There's a lot of imagery in there that captures a feeling that you only get once in a while. With the "Elfin Girl" represents a magic that you only experience inside certain people in your life. These people are far and few between. They open something up to you. They point things out to you that you would NOT have otherwise realized at that time in your life.
Marshall: You are not always in an ecstatic moment in your life. You are not always at a gut wrenchingly crying moment of your life. The majority of your life is that in-between time. When you put on a great record that takes you someplace. You can't listen to that one record ALL DAY, just because you can't remain in Ecstasy "all day", nor might you be willing or able to be in tears "all day".
Enrique: Part of yourself that is reflected in these people who shed this light on your life it could mean anybody who is reading this can recognize this in people who surround those people. The people with whom you surround yourself are merely reflections of yourself. And I believe that this is a very important aspect to bring into that as well. You see yourself reflected in their eyes.
When you came back from Burning Man, you were all aglow.
Enrique: Burning Man does that! It really puts things into perspective about how proactive you can be, and how you see other people live like this on a day-to-day basis and you are totally inspired. And you want to do that. You want to be that inspiration for others as well as conveying your own essence through art.
When you got on stage that night and poured yourself into the percussion, along with a couple of other musicians sitting in and together you were unleashing such entrancing rhythmic beats, I tried to feel like it must have been for you so fresh from Burning Man, as if I was part of the fellowship of musicians on stage.
Enrique: What's cool about doing any kind of trip away from home, especially in the type of flavor of what Burning Man does, it puts you into a vision quest and strips away your routine, mundane reality, and it puts you into this really intense space of self-reflection. And that's always a good thing in that you will always learn something from that. It's always going to be empowering in one way or another. Even if you have a complete nervous breakdown, you look at yourself and you can't stand who you're looking at, that's a powerful way of learning and evolving as a person. And when you get back to your mundane existence, the residual effect is totally tangible, and you can feel it. Burning Man is just one way to do that, but I've gone away to many very remote locations with similar empowering experiences. Any time that you can get away from the city, even if you don't actually "go" away, but can at least do some intense introspection, in a healthy way, the self-examination of the path that you've created will allow you to then detach and come back again to further grow as a person.
How do you bring that process into your recordings with Sumerland?
Enrique: What I bring out of it is really an empowering sense of Beauty, and a love for my environment, a love for this planet, a love for Nature, and the idiosyncrasies, and even all the bullshit. You take it all in each day, and, if you can detach yourself from the situations, and look in from above, you realize that not a whole lot on this plane is really important in the sense of being "timeless". I believe that I have an excellent optimistic view of how things will eventually equalize and balance themselves out. Focusing in on the balance and a transcendence between the positive and the negative will allow you to go beyond the perspectives of "I'm having a shitty day!" What can you do about that? You realize that you can play music, and you realize that it really doesn't matter.
A momentary break for Dorien invites Ashkelon (of the new Portland,Oregon music project, Submarine Fleet), whose fame in the Underground came within the now reposed musical group Trance to the Sun. Sumerland brings Ashkelon into the production process of their next album. Future interviews might look more deeply into a discussion of what exactly Sumerland's next album will ultimately reveal about Sumerland's transcendent journey to both new and existing audiences.
Marshall: We're working as a team as we figure out how the album is going to work. We've brought in Ashkelon, and David Fredrickson from The Prids, and myself. By bringing in three creatively different people, we know that we're likely to have creative disagreements with the intention of trying to ultimately make the very best record that our diverse skills and individual experiences can together produce.
Ashkelon: I produced the latest album for Cinema Strange, and that was an enjoyable experience. I'm looking forward to trying it again.
Marshall: Fabulous album! Fabulous. I love it!
Dorien (rejoins the interview): Okay, now ask me a question.
Let's come back to what do you bring into the music from your introspective experiences?
Dorien: Most of my input comes from the lyrical content, and what I try to write.
::Repetitive, trilling ringing!::
Marshall: Most of my input comes from my cell phone!
Dorien: Your cell phone? . I take personal experiences, and.
Dorien: ...and write them into mythological prose.
Marshall: It's "her". Hello?
Dorien: ...and turn them into imagery and allegories.
Dorien: and. try to give a "voice" to what this thing is trying to say. And, it's not so strict. The words are "open". You can read into them whatever you want. And that is what I am after with the words. There's the 12-string acoustic guitar. Sometimes I'll write an entire song and we'll add, or take things away. And sometimes it just happens spontaneously between the four of us. And, anyway, that's where a lot of my input comes from.
And, Dorien, you are the founder of Sumerland, correct?
Dorien: Yes. It was in 1995. I had a couple of line-ups that were more a little of trying to figure out how to perform as a band. It was a learning experience. I've always considered that the "real" Sumerland consists of the four of us, right now. And that anything after that is not the real Sumerland, and that anything before that is just not really it, either. This is what it has been leading up to, for me. The musicians that I am working with now. I could not ask for "better" musicians, nor more talented.
Do you imagine yourselves as reaching a summit, or pinnacle, right now? And where do you plan go with that from this point?
Dorien: No. No, I think we're just getting started.
Marshall: I think so, too! In my head, I've been working on this new album for "months"! I've been trying to get technically "ready", and ironing out glitches, and shit. The "journey" is not really about getting ready, nor about what you try to do to get into the car, or to get "on" the airplane. What we've been doing up to this point has been a "pre-flight". Testing everything out. "How does this work?" and "How do we work together?" Sivo, in a lot of ways, has been about "How do we make a record?" We'd never done a full-length record before. So, "how do we do that?" and "What do we think about that?" and "What do we think about having an interview?" All of those sorts of things. Now, it's like, we're "in the car"! And, we're just about to start the journey!
Dorien: I feel like we're finding ourselves. We're continuing to find ourselves. We keep changing.
Enrique: I think it's important NOT to have a destination. I believe it's about arriving.
Marshall: You roll with the changes.
Enrique: You come across some crossroads, and then you make your decision, and then you go from there.
Marshall: It's not necessarily about the Y in the road. It's about what you encounter as you're going along.
Dorien: I like to look at Sumerland as an entity that exists beyond the four of us, and we're just these puppets that are participating joyfully...
Dorien: ...and where it doesn't really matter who started it, nor who writes the words, and who plays the guitar. It's just, "what is the outcome of what we're doing?"
Marshall: And more and more, we're switching that up. On a lot of the new material I play drums. I didn't play drums at all on Sivo. I would say that on at least half the new material that we're writing together I play drums. And Enrique is playing guitar.
When you perform live, I've noticed that you switch places on stage and switch instruments between songs.
Marshall: It used to be like, with Sivo-era, ::Marshall, hearing the sound of this remarks again:: "Sivo-era!" If Enrique wanted to play guitar, that means that there would be no percussion. So, it would become and ambient thing with no percussion, or leading kind of rhythm through it.
Enrique: But that worked really well.
Marshall: It did work well! But what we've done is that we've expanded our palette to where when we do have a new song that he plays guitar on and I play keyboards on, and there are no drums. For instance, "Happily Ever After". A beautiful, beautiful song! And it works with me playing piano, and Enrique playing guitar where parts of it interweave, but it's not like we're just stuck doing that now, because it's not like there won't be any drums if he's not playing the drums.
I've seen you playing percussion as well in recent performances.
Marshall: I'm starting to play drums and other percussion just based on say, Enrique picks up the guitar, and let's say Dorien starts jamming on something, and Enrique picks up the guitar, and Dave starts putting a bass line to it, Enrique is either going to walk to the drums because he's inspired to play the drums, or walk to his guitar because he's inspired to play the guitar. We all are just inspired by what we hear.
Enrique and Ashkelon: ::laughter::
Marshall: And it all just kind of snowballs on itself.
Enrique: And then the last guy to come up with an idea for a song has to play the drums.
Marshall: That's exactly what it is.
Ashkelon: So, when Dorien. ::turns to Dorien:: If you ever get writer's block, Dorien, you're going to be back there with the sticks!
Marshall: Not necessarily! Sometimes, like with "Elfin Girl"; "Elfin Girl" started out because of the bass line.
Enrique: It started out actually, originally, from the train.
Marshall: The sound of the train tracks above out rehearsal space. Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!, Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!, Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
Dorien: Yes, but the words were written prior to that, though.
Marshall: But those words seemed appropriate to the music that was being created.
Dorien: I'll bring in a stack of lyrics and things that I've written from various points in my life, and maybe they'll start playing a piece of music and I'll realize that this particular lyrical composition "fits" with what's going and so, I'll sing it. And it happens spontaneously; instantly like it's meant to be.
Marshall: "Elfin Girl". Again, the mp3, which is on the index page of our webpage right now.
Dorien: I didn't know that.
Marshall: Yeah, it's a live version. It was recorded at the BlackBird club back in February.
Marshall: Ironically, I believe it was only the second time we played that "out". I think we wrote it one week. We decided we're going to play this at the "Fetish Ball", which was at the Roseland, which was a week later. So, the Roseland was the first time we ever played it. And then, the next week, we played the BlackBird. So, that was the second time we ever played it for people.
Enrique: We're going to be creating more songs quickly. They seem to be very effortlessly revealing themselves to us.
Marshall: I believe that particular mp3 is a good example of the level of maturity we're at right now. Where Sivo. that's not to say that "Elfin Girl" isn't structured. It's wonderfully structured, and everything about it takes me where I want to go. But Sivo was almost more "formal" songwriting. Like, "Here's the idea. Here's how it goes!" And maybe we would alter that a little bit. Whereas "now", we're working better together than I think we have. we're just evolving more that way, so that we're more comfortable saying, "Hey, this thing that we're working on right now just happens to be the basis of a kick-ass song! Let's finish it right here." And then, there's the song.
Dorien: It's not as strenuous and pain-staking as it used to be. It's more free-flowing, and more natural.
Enrique: Yeah, more songs are coming out of us. It used to be that we didn't change our repertoire for like. "years".
Marshall: We'd be playing the same songs.
Enrique: No. We could find little niches and nuances to explore within those songs, certainly, but we would still be playing with those same ideas. And now, it's just becoming a whole lot easier. It's not so much that we're trying to look as deeply, as that it's revealing itself. The inspiration is revealing itself more clearly. We're in a better "state" of working with our chemistry between us a bit more. And you can't help but to have that happen when you've been working for five years.
You're in the "slip-stream".
Enrique: We're a lot less apt to second-guess ourselves. It seems to be a lot more obvious, and clear, and "pure".
Marshall: It comes through in which songs we choose to do at shows. Again, "Elfin Girl"; it used to be that the ways we would write something, we had to be sure that we were going to perform this just really fucking tight. And if we weren't perform it tight, just, let's just not do it! Whereas "now", I feel like we can write a new song, even for the last show at Union Jack's, we did a new song. We came up with it a week before-hand, "Let's try it!" Let's try and do it. And because we're coming up with it in this collective free-flowing way, we know that we can get up on stage and no matter what, it's going to be good. It's no longer about being so well rehearsed. It's about the fact that we now know how to play together.
So, internally within the band you are facing fewer challenges. What other challenges externally do you now need to deal with?
Marshall: The biggest challenge I feel that we're up against is very limited niche marketing. And in taking our project to the "next level", we're being marketing to a very small audience. And because of that niche, we' re being branded with the rose-coloured glasses of "This is Goth music!", or "this is some kind of transcendental music" as opposed to saying, "Hey! This is music. Just let it be Sumerland".
Dorien: There's personal challenges as well. There's a lack of finances. There's a constant need to encourage yourself because it can be easy to get discouraged in what we're doing. It does seem like there's a whole lot of immediate rewards.
Enrique: That's here. That's here. I believe that we're getting a lot of.
Marshall: We sold five cds in the Czech Republic! (I think?)
Marshall: So, our Czech audiences is growing rapidly.
Enrique: Yeah, yeah. We seem to be getting a lot of excellent feedback from abroad.
Marshall: But not enough to bring us there.
Enrique: Well, I would certainly like to go there. I believe that would be a kick start if we could get over there. The markets there are a bit more open.
Dorien: Another challenge I'm seeing is to not become "jaded". In order to write the poetic sentiments that I like to write, it requires an innocent state of mind which becomes more and more difficult the poetic sentiments that I like to write, it requires an innocent state of mind, which becomes more and more difficult the older you get! The more relationships that you have, it seems, the more difficult it is to be inspired by that relationship.
Dorien: So, I willfully place myself in a na?ve state of mind, at least long enough to write a song.
::communal laughter rolls on::
Marshall: That explains a lot!
Enrique: That's it! That's it! Everybody's figuring this out for the first time. I've known him for five years. I haven't figured it out, 'til now.
Dorien: That, for me, is one of the greatest challenges. To, to ignore...
Ashkelon: "I willfully put myself into a ..?"
Dorien: To IGNORE...
Ashkelon: ...na?ve state of mind...
Dorien: my common sense
Ashkelon: long enough to write a song"
Dorien: I have to ignore my common sense. I have to ignore what reason and rationality is telling me.
Ashkelon: Hence the sandbox in the rehearsal room!
Enrique: Yes, that sandcastle you made yesterday. I mean, I didn't want to say anything about it, but man! That's kinda creepy!
Marshall: Is that a volcano, or a castle?
Marshall: I mean, there is no sandbox in our. We...
::Marshall changes this subject::
Marshall: We rehearse, oh, that's another thing. I wrote this in the journal on our web page, recently, about how our next recording is going to have a little less reverb behind it. Not that I feel "bad" about the amount of reverb on the last album, but it's funny because if somebody listens to our recordings and goes, "Wow! There's a lot of reverb on that!" Or, "That sounds really live!" then they've never been to our rehearsal space. Our rehearsal space is this huge cavern of a 15 foot ceiling concrete basement. It's like, millions of square feet! It's HUGE! It's concrete everywhere. And you can't drop a pin without it going, "scheerzchr-scheerzchr-r-zchrr!"
Enrique: it's like I come back the next day, and...
Marshall: And it's still echoing, yeah!
Enrique: It must have at least a seven, or eight second echo factor on the place.
Marshall: Yeah, it's cavernous. There's a lot of reverb, and I'm amazed with a lot of the rough recordings we're making right now just how dry they sound because that place is just so cavernous. And most clubs that we play at are smaller than our rehearsal space.
Enrique: Oh, yeah. Much Smaller.
Marshall: By far, smaller than our rehearsal space.
Were you specifically looking for such characteristics? How did you choose that location?
Marshall: It was necessity. We had been living in a house...
Enrique: Subconsciously, yes.
Marshall: Subconsciously. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. It was what was available! ::laughs::
And it happens to be a photo studio that I used to rent space from when I was doing photography more seriou