"This record is definitely looser than our last one," says Suuns singer/guitarist Ben Shemie. "It's not as clinical. There's more swagger."
You can hear this freedom flowing through the 11 tracks on Felt, from Look No Further's dramatically loping, surrender-to-the-soil skeletal rock - "Our minimalist overture," notes Shemie - to the climactic bleep 'n' bliss-out of pocket symphony Materials, which finds his vocoder-treated voice floating deliriously amid cavernous inner space. It's both a continuation and rebirth, the Montreal quartet returning to beloved local facility Breakglass Studios (where they cut their first two albums with Jace Lasek of The Besnard Lakes) but this time recording themselves at their own pace, over five fertile sessions spanning several months. A simultaneous stretching out and honing in, mixed to audiophile perfection by St Vincent producer John Congleton (helmer of Suuns' previous full-length Hold/Still), who flew up especially from Dallas to deploy his award-winning skills in situ.
While maintaining a pleasing economy - the closest thing to a ‘jam' here is an otherworldly two-minute instrumental, aptly titled Moonbeams - the informality of self-production has enabled Suuns to explore bright new vistas. "It was different and exciting," declares drummer Liam O'Neill. "In the past there was a more concerted effort on my part to drum in a controlled and genre-specific way. Self-consciously approaching things stylistically. Us doing it ourselves, that process was like a very receptive, limitless workshop to just try out ideas."
Hence the hypnotic future-pop percolations of X-ALT, where guitarist Joseph Yarmush's delicate precision is engulfed by squalls of giddy saxophone. Or the way Watch You, Watch Me's organic/synthetic rush builds and and builds atop O'Neill's elevatory rhythm and the ecstatic, Harmonia-meets-Game Boy patterns unleashed by electronics mastermind Max Henry. As befits a band who cite Andy Stott and My Bloody Valentine as touchstones yet don't sound like either, Suuns have always seamlessly blended the programmed and played. Never mere fusionists, it's now pointless trying to decode their sonic signature as ‘dance music that rocks' or vice versa.
Eschewing presets, Henry devised fresh sounds for each song while also becoming a default musical director, orchestrating patches and oscillations. Quietly enthusing about "freaky post-techno" and Frank Ocean's use of space, he's among your more modest studio desk jockeys: "Yeah, I sat in the control room while the others played - hitting ‘record' and ‘stop'. It also gave me the flexibility to move parts around and play with effects. I do have a sweet tooth for pop music. So if there's a more straightforward option on the table, I tend to push for it. Of course, interesting pop music isn't always about being straightforward, so it's a good thing I don't always get my way."
Said sweetness is amplified by Ben Shemie's newfound vocal range and buoyant melodies, showcased in such wholly unexpected delights as the yearning lilt of Make It Real and sax-smoothed Peace And Love, which sincerely comes on like a post-punk Sade. There's a previously unheard confidence to the singer and lyricist, perhaps best exemplified by centre-piece Control, where his hushed tones are complemented by a bilingual voice musing on dreams and reality, sampled from an old Montreal social art project.
"The sample of that man speaking has a serendipitous story behind it. It's a bit of audio I copied from a series of interviews of people living on the streets of Montreal called The Dream Listener. It was recorded by an artist 10 years ago at the St-James Drop-In Center to raise money for the clinic and asked them to talk about their dreams. I always thought it was a compelling sample, but didn't realize until after we used it that the man in the recording was a family friend, a respected poet, whose struggled with mental illness. It makes the song the true centre piece of the album."
Suuns are proud of their roots in Canada's most socialist province, whilst not sounding quite like anything else the city has produced. "Conditions are great for musicians, but not so much if you want to be a high powered investment banker," laughs Ben. "If I could compare Montreal to anywhere I'd say it's kind of like Berlin, in the sense that there isn't a huge industry, so there isn't that much money. Plus you have to speak French if you want a career, so that stops too many people moving here. It's gentrifying at a slower rate than other cities."
Quebecois natives Shemie and Yarmush founded the group just over a decade ago, the latter having moved to Montreal from a nearby village: "Ben's from the city but I grew up in the mountains - in the forest with nothing!" The only member not to be formally schooled in jazz, guitarist Yarmush studied photography and utilized his visual training to help realize Shemie's novel concept for the eye-catching album artwork.
"I was at a barbecue last summer and there were balloons everywhere," recalls the singer. "I like this idea of pressure, resistance, and pushing against something just before it brakes. And there is something strangely subversive about a finger pushing into a balloon. It seemed to fit the vibe of the record we were making. We made plaster casts of our hands, going for a non-denominational statue vibe. Joe came up with the colour scheme, the sickly green background, and shot the whole cover in an hour."
It's a suitably outré image for Felt, which breaks with Suuns' earlier darkness for a more optimistic ambience. The record's playful atmosphere is echoed by its double meaning title. "Some people might think of the material," muses Ben. "I like that that could be misconstrued. Also it's to have felt and not to feel - a little introspective, but that feeling's in the past."