SUMAC: the moment of making

rusting metal door with key hole

In 2016 I was diagnosed with cancer. You feel it almost immediately when you get the news: your world becomes very small. Consultations, experts, “teams” of complete strangers who know, eventually, everything there is to know about your body: miles of driving to hospitals, biopsies, scans and tests, radiation, rooms full of big, dangerous machines, surgery, the oblivion of stunning drugs, free coffee, free parking, magazines about golf and gardening, “short stay” private rooms, and the total annihilation of the self. You gain a whole new appreciation of the severe. You never recover from the shock.

Surrounded by thousands of records in my home, piled up everywhere, I found myself drawn into a handful of LPs that formed a core group beside my desk in my office, easy to reach. No real planning was used in my selection process. Choices are made at a primal level. For two years these few were the only records I was interested in, the only records I played, over and over, obsessively, alone in my office, even as I kept buying more records. Anything new would be for later, if I had a later — my subconscious, but rather feeble, notion that there would be a later. A side would finish, I’d lift the needle and play the side again, taking days to get through each record. Time slows down when you have cancer. What’s your hurry?

At the center of this group of records was (is) SUMAC‘s “What One Becomes” (Thrill Jockey Records, June, 2016). A perfect title for my June in 2016. The album cover appearing (to me) like the fragment of a now familiar map, a dark landscape I was crossing hour by hour, or attempting to cross. There are no promises on the cancer floor. The song “Blackout” at the map’s center. Even as I emerged after two years of treatment, SUMAC is still here in the small group beside my desk. I could slip this record back with my other SUMAC/Old Man Gloom/ISIS records. But I don’t. It’ll probably stay here forever, next to my desk. Like cancer is forever. My shadow companion.

I photographed SUMAC before, live in performance, but never in the studio. This day, early last August at The Unknown in Anacortes, Aaron Turner and Nick Yacyshyn kindly allowed me in as they were adding detail to a track or tracks only they could hear in their headphones. Brian Cook was in their headphones, I imagine, but not in the room. I was so nervous at the beginning that I couldn’t get my camera settings right. Afterward, as I left, I was shaking so bad as I walked to my car I couldn’t text a friend that the shoot was over. I was only there for 45 minutes.

Almost nothing is real in this world anymore. So I decided to write these few personal notes about how my life collided one morning with a very small moment in the enormous creative lives of two extraordinary recording artists. Fuck it, it’s my zine. I do this work because of the very real impact musicians have on my life. Normal service will be be resumed shortly.

Here, in a handful of photos from that bright day — one rare, fleeting moment, in the making.

Aaron Turner at The Unknown, 3 August 2019
SUMAC at The Unknown, 3 August 2019
Nick Yacyshyn at The Unknown, 3 August 2019
Nick Yacyshyn at The Unknown, 3 August 2019
Aaron Turner at The Unknown, 3 August 2019
Aaron Turner at The Unknown, 3 August 2019
Nick Yacyshyn at The Unknown, 3 August 2019