Eyre Transmissions XII – Interview with Dark Ambient / Necrochill Producer, Sumatran Black

These days, Bandcamp is my go-to platform for a wide assortment of music. I love how it’s given artists unlimited creativity and the ability to showcase their musical aptitude regardless of style, genre or other unconventional standards. One artist that demonstrates this capability is Sumatran Black. Not only is it the name of the labels flagship artist, but it also represents the Bandcamp page itself – Sumatran Black Records. This Dark Ambient/Necrochill page is also home to Black Box Memories and Ataşehir – two other fantastic creations of the Sumatran Black composer himself. The albums produced by Sumatran Black Records are some of my favorite in recent years and although each project is different, they bring a needed variety of memorable compositions to the dark electronic community that are eagerly welcomed. I recently had the opportunity to interview the composer behind the label to find out more about each project and what the future holds for Sumatran Black Records.

1. Thank you so much for this interview opportunity. I’m constantly amazed by the impressive and unique projects that you have going on with your Bandcamp page. Have you always had a vision to create multiple projects, covering an array of themes and sonic adventures?

I’ve always really enjoyed other artists who have released music under pseudonyms or side projects etc for example, I really love the Smackos project by Dutch artist Legowelt, and in terms of dark music I think the Lurker of Chalice project by Leviathan is a really good example of how using a different project name can open up a whole range of opportunities for musical expression.

To be honest when I started out, I didn’t really have any distinct vision or plan for either the music releases or the label. I just wanted to record some music after very long hiatus from having anything to do with music creation and just take it from there. I tend to believe that once you get the ball rolling on something artistically, it will often guide you in its own direction and you can kind of shape the overall ideas into something more focused and concrete. Which I think is an accurate description of what happened with the Sumatran Black Records label. As I began to take it more seriously and produce more music it was obvious there would have to be different names for different projects just to maintain a sense thematic clarity.

2. If I had to guess, I’d say that Sumatran Black was your flagship project. Was this your first endeavor in the Dark Ambient arena or was there something else before that?

Sumatran Black was the first.

3. Were you involved with any other musical endeavors prior to Sumatran Black? If so, what were they and what led you to Dark Ambient?

I’ve been involved in lots of projects before but most of my music endeavours previous to Sumatran Black involved writing music for theatre (Opera and Musical Theatre). Unfortunately despite my best efforts, nothing made it to the stage. I still have hopes to resurrect some of these ideas in the future.

With regards to my journey towards darker music and dark ambient, I guess my character helped steer me in that direction. And I should add that I wouldn’t really class myself as a purely Dark Ambient composer. I think what I’m trying to do is often less textural and less static in terms of movement than a great deal of Dark Ambient. I would also add that I’ve tried to avoid presenting my music with an overly polished sound (in terms of production) in general. Which is something that I would associate with a lot of Dark Ambient. Hence the term Necrochill. As the genre has become more popular through the good work of labels like Cryochamber and the inclusion of Dark Ambient music in mainstream video games, it seems that the Dark Ambient sound has become more homogeneous and less distinctive between artists. I want to avoid this.

Of course my music does have many elements that are common with Dark Ambient and I have no problem with it being categorised in those terms.

4. ‘A Taxonomy of Grief’ (by Sumatran Black) is one of my favorite Dark Ambient experiences of the year so far. Can you tell us a little bit about the Necrotrilogy and how this album came about?

The Necrotrilogy is a trilogy of releases under the name Sumatran Black designed to be thematically and musically linked, and to introduce the audience to my concept of necro chill. Which is essentially just a funny name to categorise my main musical interest which is dark music that is cathartic, emotional and has strong elements of lo fi and some elements of the 2nd wave of black metal necro sound but reimagined in a more ambient context.

‘A Taxonomy of Grief’ is the third and final part of the Necrotrilogy. Musically it’s supposed to be a summation of the sound of the previous two albums. Thematically it’s the most personal of the trilogy and is in the simplest of terms an album about loss and recovery.

https://sumatranblack.bandcamp.com/album/a-taxonomy-of-grief

5. What are the other albums that make up the remainder of the Necrotrilogy?

Part 1: In the Dread

Part 2: Fathomz

Part 3: A Taxonomy of Grief

Not part of the trilogy: A Page of Madness Soundtrack, Elegy for a Lost Cosmonaut.

6. Do you already have plans for any upcoming Sumatran Black albums?

Not an album but I have an EP ready to go into the next stage of recording. The demos are complete, and the EP is a spiritual successor to Elegy for a Lost Cosmonaut. Its working title is Broken Timelines.

7. Let’s shift gears to Black Box Memories. Another stellar project that combines Dark Ambient and lo-fi electronica. I’m so intrigued by this project but how did it come about?

Usually when I’m in the final stages of a project in terms of mixing and mastering I tend to get bored of listening to the tracks over and over again and so I often do some recordings in the middle of this process just to give myself some variation almost like a palate cleanser if you will. And so when I was finishing off In the Dread (which took a long time), I had a lot of other tracks I had been working on which would not fit that project but I thought was strong enough musically to stand alone in a music project in their own right. Those tracks would form ‘Transmissions’ the first Black Box Memories album.

8. Although the Black Box Memories recordings are very modern, they have an excellent retro vibe to them as well. Is this a sound that you were planning for or did it just come about through experimentation?

I don’t really know where the sound came from first and foremost it was initially probably a reaction to the sound of In the Dread. That album is very claustrophobic and employs some quite extreme audio processing and I guess Black Box Memories is sonically just more open and less demanding of the listener. And as I said before musical projects often dictate their own outcomes. So in the case of Black Box Memories the first demos had a very nostalgic and lo fi vintage sound to them and so as more tracks will created they became influenced by the initial demos. I think also at the time I had access to more sounds, I’d upgraded my system and invested in some 80s retro synth clones and my thinking was how can I create a musical idea that uses the nostalgic sounds of my musical youth but recontextualises them in a kind of more dark arena. if you can imagine how vaporwave manipulates old samples in a way to produce something that has a completely different emotional flavour. I thought maybe that would be possible with say for example a Yamaha DX7 VST. Could I take a very recognisable electric piano sound and then sonically manipulate it in a way that sounds even more vintage/lo fi – almost like a musical exaggeration – and then use this sound design in more dark and almost psychedelic musical compositions.

https://sumatranblack.bandcamp.com/album/this-loving-presence

9. On ‘This Loving Presence’, you use a lot of narrative samples – which blend perfectly with the arrangements. Is there an underlying story with these, or are they used to create a particular ambience for the listening experience?

I guess ‘This Loving Presence’ was greatly influenced by my mood and habits at the time of composition which involved lots of late nights and lack of sleep and watching YouTube videos to try and remedy the situation. Most of the narrative samples are heavily edited ASMR style video quotes. I took those snippets of dialogue and then edited them in a way that would create sentences that had a very sharp and poignant emotional resonance immediately.

10. Now, I definitely have to bring up Ataşehir, because out of all of your projects, this one is probably my favorite. This project is a bit more minimalistic and desolate that your others; what were some of the influences for creating this one?

Although it probably sounds nothing like it, the main influence at the beginning of the Ataşehir project was the work of Stars of the Lid and also GAS. Probably my two favourite drone and ambient artists.

https://sumatranblack.bandcamp.com/album/when-the-time-comes

11. I reviewed 2020’s ‘AVM’ album and I loved the theme that was represented within. Are all Ataşehir albums created with a concept in mind?

I think that I can safely say that pretty much every album and EP I’ve recorded (not only Ataşehir) has been what would broadly be described as a concept album. Sometimes I give an explicit explanation in the liner notes, sometimes the concept is hidden in the album and song titles. 

I have given a previous interview where I go into detail about the Ataşehir project https://ambientmusic.com/interviews/sumatran_black

12. On the latest album, ‘When The Time Comes’, the drone work is absolutely fantastic and has a wide range of melody in it. How did you go about creating these sonic soundscapes?

I think with Ataşehir I always have this overriding influence of abstract expressionism and then I’m always trying to find ways of manifesting that musically. I was lucky with ‘When the Time Comes’ because I found a very particular VST that I used throughout the whole process. I won’t name it because I don’t want to give all my secrets away but the person who designed the instrument is aware of the fact that it was used for the entire album.

Maybe I can just describe the overall composition technique that was used. Most of the tracks consist of maybe three or four drone layers that are intersecting with each other to create a musical foundation – and this is the drone element. Then on top of that the melodic element you refer to are improvisations with a synth or a guitar. These improvisations are cut and edited and looped in an asymmetric way to create kind of melodic tension across the pieces.

13. I love the song titles that you come up with for this project. Do they have a particular meaning, and how do you come with those?

I usually take a long time with song titles I really enjoy that aspect of creating music and it’s something I have a lot of fun with. In the case of the album ‘When the Time Comes’, the titles definitely all have a meaning and maybe I can try and clarify that. The album is supposed to describe a near future or alternative future Istanbul after some strange cataclysmic event. Therefore, the song titles refer to numerous locations in the city but some of those locations are real and some of them are imagined future locations. So, for example, the Istanbul Canal does not exist but it might do in the near future. Also, Levent 4.2 does not exist, but Levent 4 exists. If anyone is interested, on the bandcamp album notes I have included a location guide which kind of explains everything.

14. I recently became familiar with one of your older projects, Haram Tapes. These albums are a lot of fun and seem to defy genre limitations. What makes this project so different?

The main reason that project is so different is because it involves two people. Myself and my collaborator See Safari. It would take a long time to go into detail about all the concepts and ideas behind Haram Tapes, but here is a recent interview we did.

15. Are there plans for more Haram Tapes releases?

Yes, we are discussing the concept for the next album at the moment.

https://haramtapes.bandcamp.com/album/scorpions-fountains

16. Speaking of “releases”, do you have any physical releases (I.e. CD, Cassette, LP..) of any of your projects?

Yes, there are cassettes available for Haram Tapes. Logistically, it hasn’t been possible for me to produce physical releases for Sumatran Black Records. However, it’s my plan that all Sumatran Black Records will have physical versions available from now on. This will begin with a new dungeon synth project I’m currently working on. I also plan to slowly but surely add physical releases to the entire back catalogue.

17. Do you have a home studio in which you record and produce your work?

Yes I do. It’s quite minimal and now I also have made it portable. Before all my music used to be created in my home studio desk setup with big monitors etc but recently I’ve tried to do all my initial work just on a laptop so I can be portable add more flexible with my workspace. ‘When the Time Comes” and “This Loving Presence” were recorded and mixed almost entirely on a small laptop with headphones and they were only moved to my larger studio area (the big computer as it were) during the mastering process.

18. What is your gear setup like? Do you have a preference of analog equipment over digital (VST’s etc..)?

I tend to avoid talking about gear and setups too much because I’d like to encourage all musicians to just use whatever they have available. You don’t need expensive analogue gear you don’t need the latest DAW, you just need ideas and some dedication. the first Sumatran Black album was recorded on GarageBand with no third party VSTs for example.

But to answer your question I really do love both analogue and digital but my priority is practicality and pragmatism. So, I can tell you at this moment I own two or three very good analogue synthesisers but they’re not in the same country as my studio (and not one note from them has appeared on any of my records). I’m doing everything in the box just using vsts because that’s what I have available. I’m planning to build something more substantial in the near future with the aim of implementing some more outboard gear.

19. Again I appreciate this opportunity for the interview and I’m always looking forward to new music by you. Do you have any departing thoughts for your fans that may be reading this?

Thanks for listening and reading. If you got this far, please consider following Sumatran Black Records on Bandcamp as this is my main hub for all news and info about new releases. New Dungeon Synth project coming soon.

Links:

https://sumatranblack.bandcamp.com

https://www.sumatranblackrecords.com

https://www.facebook.com/sumatranblack/

https://youtube.com/user/reevespeterson

https://haramtapes.bandcamp.com

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