Sunmonks, “In A Desert Of Plenty”

Sjimon Gompers

Sunmonks at Black Rock Desert–High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area.

Sacramento’s Sunmonks are made up of Sea of Bees’ bassist Geoffrey CK alongside Alexandra Steele, premiering the title track from their upcoming EP, “In A Desert of Plenty”. With their debut EP available October 28 from Crossbill Records, the technological gifts of the modern age are eschewed for a more primitive mode. Geoffrey’s songs have been accumulating over time, recorded with Alexandra, and mixed at the new studio operated by Tape Op Magazine’s John Baccigaluppi.

“In A Desert of Plenty” carries on like a caravan making its way across arid plains. The world of luxuries and amenities in excess are explored in a song set up like a journey that returns back to the basic fundamentals of life. Counting and moving beyond the blessings bestowed by material and infrastructure advancements turns the entire song into a rhythmic walk through the sun-warmed sands. And though the millennial model brings much to be grateful for without complaint—Geoffrey and Alexandra push past the profiteers for a holistic prophecy where the answer and inspiration lies within. The distractions and diversions from the material obsessed realm fade into the percussive metrics, further underscored by the call and response relationship between the brass and bass. Venturing further into the deserts of immaterial design, Geoffrey CK joins us an in-depth discussion about the making of the song and EP after this premiere.

What inspired the song and the title?

It’s difficult to condense the thoughts and feelings that motivated the creation of “In A Desert Of Plenty”. We live in the midst of a grand time; communication is instant, media is almost completely democratized, and we can carry the entirety of human knowledge in our pockets. But for all the information and stimuli that we surround ourselves with, we are still very primitive, basic animals. I’m often disoriented by modernity. I don’t think I’m designed to have bright lights in my face during the day and then spend the evening starring into tiny suns in a room lit by the light of many tiny suns until the very moment I close my eyes to sleep. The song was a way for me to remind myself to be mystified by the stars and walk naked under the full moon. When I live in a way that limits my ability to be alone or constantly allow myself to be bombarded with alien stimulation I believe I am missing something fundamental. This is the best way I can describe the desert of plenty: we were born to hunt, to make music, to paint, to be alone, to have sex and do drugs, and to make children and show them water and fire. Our ancestors, through unimaginable difficulty and sacrifice, engineered a situation which allows us so much free time that many of us don’t know what to do with it. We have to live, we have to do something other than eat, masturbate and watch Netflix.

Tell us about your own songwriting methods that have contributed to the songs on your debut EP, working with Alexandra Steele.

It’s pretty rare that a song just appears, then roars away and suddenly exists as a fleshy, vibrating entity. The songs that I favor and keep for consideration as Sunmonks tunes typically come in intense bursts or floods, usually after periods of creative emptiness. I write songs regularly, as a matter of craft, but those kinds of songs are used for other purposes and usually they’re cannibalized or disposed of entirely.

Because Sunmonks is the lovechild of Alexandra and I, the material we release under that title has to come from a deeply sacred place. All these songs start their lives with Alexandra and I finding a quiet, private place to spend an extended period of time. I sit down with a piano or guitar and start to construct melodies or cadences that I find exciting or invigorating. Then I start to improvise vocalizations in an attempt to create or discover syllabic or percussive details within the music. From here I start to write lyrics.

To me, the sounds of instrumental music create a body, and a living body carries, separate from its physical structure, dreams, fears, actions. To me, the purpose of words in music is to give definition, symbolism and abstraction to what is otherwise open to being ambiguously interpreted or puzzling. That isn’t to say that music without words isn’t moving or that music with words can’t be a free challenge to interpret; Franz Liszt, George Gershwin and Hella can all effectively communicate powerful messages without needing to utilize the barking structures of human speech, but I find myself drawn in by the gravity of speech patterns and the controlled hypnotic potential that words can realize. I try to write words that bring focus to the identity of the existing music. If the melodies, tempo, and chords feel intense, trivial, ironic or forbidding, I try to construct lyrics that represent, capitalize on, or symbolize that feeling. I always write more lyrical material than we’d need for a given song and then Alexandra and I pick through and gather the most meaningful or substantial sections. I’m usually quite sure of what I do want, and Alex is usually quite sure of what she does not want. Alexandra’s ability to hear a certain song objectively is invaluable. She’s got the final say and is very much the gatekeeper for what makes it to the final production stages. Together we tweak and modify the song until we’re ready to name it. Having done this in secret for so long, we both know exactly what the other expects of us; I get to build these obese, trembling creatures that are sometimes quite grisly, ill-behaved, and disoriented and she gets to step in and violently give purpose, meaning and direction to them. She’s good and reigning that kind of stuff in since she trains horses for a living.

I like how the rhythm has this nomadic wandering type of holistic groove. Did you intentionally design the percussion relationship to the horns, vocals, and bass to create a desert traveling like feel on “In a Desert of Plenty”?

Thanks for the kind words! The drums were certainly designed to be dense, primal and repetitive, much like one would expect in traveling music. We really wanted the whole sound of the recording to feel foreign and asymmetrical. While we were producing this song I was really interested in experimenting with not using a traditional, post-civil-war drum kit. We specifically didn’t record snare and cymbals for that reason. We also wanted to use horns, guitar and bass in a way more akin to the way one would use a drum than to the ways that they’re typically used in much of western music. I don’t think this is a groundbreaking idea, but I certainly think it helped the instrumental and lyrical imagery feel more congruent.

What was the mixing like with John from Tape Op’s studio out in beautiful Stinson Beach? I’ve gone on some epic bike rides from the Bay out there, that beach is beautiful.

Mixing in Stinson is absolutely amazing, the studio overlooks the beach and it’s really beautiful. It can be really overwhelming when one is used to recording in basement studios with no windows. The air out there is dense with all sorts of intense smells and sounds, it’s really magical. We’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to spend time out there. Mixing was a pleasure for so many reasons; there’s amazing gear, and top shelf human beings. John’s really passionate about food, so we ate like royalty thanks to his mystical food knowledge. We’d never heard the EP tracks in a really pro studio before making it out there, it was really great to playback and hear all the subtleties and imperfections with that kind of clarity. We’ve also been really lucky to have finished the first half of our upcoming LP out there in Stinson. I’m so excited to show people what we’ve been up to up there!

Fall/winter plans for Sunmonks post-release? Can you share any hints or riddles on what to expect on a Sunmonks full-length?

Well I can say that we’re planning to release a full-length LP in 2015 and that it’s the most exciting music we’ve ever made. I know that’s not saying a whole lot because we’ve only released 4 songs, but I’ll say it anyway! We’ve just recorded a sax-heavy horn section for which I was able to do very detailed, notated arrangements. I’ve only been able to do that a handful of times, it’s always an amazing thing to be able to do. It was deeply gratifying to hear professional players get these sounds on record in a supremely cool studio. The kind of skill involved in that process from start to finish is, in many ways, a dying art form. John’s a wizard with the kind of engineering required to make something like that really work. The tracks we’ve got so are so zesty, I can’t wait to get it out there; I think the EP is where we’ve been with Sunmonks, the LP is where we’re going with it.

The latest from the Sacramento scenes? That TBD festival you all just had looked amazing.

TBD was really sweet; the work that Clay and so many others have put into that festival is a heavy contribution to forming Sacramento into an important cultural hub. Many people have always known that Sacramento culture is dynamic and interesting, but I think the work of great promoters and bands will have really positive fallout. I think the Sacramento music culture is starting to gel and is becoming a more unified community, which it hasn’t always been. But those of us who have known and lived in or around Sacramento for a while know it’s always been a really great place to create and to live.

Favorite over-looked Sactown indie artists you want to give a shout out to?

There are so many great acts from the Sacramento area. I grew up watching and listening to Hella and Cake, so I’ve always known that Sacramento has a history of gestating important musical work. In terms of up-and-coming stuff, the Hoffman brothers, Spencer and Mason (Honyock, Silver Spoons), are good friends of ours and really talented. Duke Chevalier is a really interesting project that isn’t really talked about very much. Seeing Gentleman Surfer perform is always a great pleasure. Cold Eskimo is a really great act, we’ve been good friends with them for years, even before forming Sunmonks. Cove is another really radical group, we listen to their record all the time. There’s is such a diverse and dynamic group of musicians in Sacramento, if you know where to look, you can spend every night of your life witnessing amazing stage performances.

Sunmonks’ In a Desert of Plenty EP will be available October 28 from Crossbill Records.

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