For the last year or so, I’ve been seeking out music that pushes towards the blissful, the contemplative, and the immersive. Cue the band numün and their 2020 album voyage au soleil, which brings together a sense of the cosmic with some virtuosic playing. I’m a fan of the other bands in which these guys play, including SUSS and Gamelan Dharma Swara, and I was eager to hear what this configuration would come up with. When I finally did, I was ecstatic; last fall, I spoke with the trio over Zoom to learn more about their approach to ambient music.
So, I guess maybe just to begin with a fairly basic question. I was familiar with both of the groups that members are in this one. Was working together something you would all thought about doing beforehand, or was it something that came about as a result of this project or something totally different?
Bob Holmes: Nothing was planned. I guess this is a good way of putting it. Joel was the impetus, and then we got together. We got together and looked forward to getting together, but we didn’t have expectations that was what all this would be.
Joel Mellin: Yeah. We’ve all known each other for a long time and just never really had the opportunity to get in the same room and play together. I’ve known this guy, John Jervis, who runs a label in London called Where It’s At Is Where You Are. I’ve done a number of different releases with him, and when I was running a record label for a little while, we were splitting releases. We would do it here in the US he would do it there in the UK. Mainly indie pop stuff, nothing necessarily like numün at all. We have a very aligned attitude towards music and stuff.
A few years ago, he started coming up with different ways to make being a record label viable or interesting rather than just putting out records. So we started doing things like a singles club where you would sign up and get a subscription to a certain amount of singles for a year. He’s always had a fascination with compilations. So, 50th anniversary of the moon landing came up and he put a call out to all the usual suspects. I agreed to do a track, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it was going to be, and with happenstance in some regards, Bob was over to my house and I was explaining the project to him, and was actually looking for some records that I had at this label, just to give it some context as to what it would be.
We found this seven inch that I didn’t even know that I had of the transmissions of the moon landing. I put it on and I was like, “This is crazy. I didn’t even know I had this.” We put it on and Bob ended up picking up a relatively new guitar that I had bought and an old 52 Gibson and started playing these ridiculous Bob cowboy notes over it. We were just having fun with it, and we were going, “This is great.” Then, think that the next day or so, kind of like, “Well, why isn’t it that it? Why don’t we do that?”
So we started with that track and got Chris involved, who I’ve known for years through Gamelan Dharma Swara and other things. Bob had always wanted to work with Chris and it just seemed like a good opportunity to try and get us all together, and we liked it. Or at least I did, I won’t speak for the rest of them, but it all worked out.
How does writing for this band differ from your other projects? Is it relatively similar just with a different group of musicians, or is there a whole different process going on?
Mellin: For me personally, the process was a letting go of former processes, I think to an extent. Just getting us in the same room and seeing what happens, and Bob is spectacular at getting people to… Bob, keep talking.
Holmes: Yeah. I’ll talk. Yeah, I assume that, and Chris can speak to this better than I can, but I would assume that the music-making process is much different than what they experienced in Dharma Swara, which is much more structured. Whereas the approach that we took with numün is much similar to how we create music with Suss, which is basically sometimes you get in a room together with absolutely no ideas and you let it go wherever it’s going to go. Sometimes somebody will come in with a germ of an idea, and then we’ll build off that. In the case of numün, it more often happened that Chris would have a riff on the banjo, or I would have a riff on a guitar, and then we would just start building it up and see where it would go from there.
But the one thing I can say is that wherever a song started or wherever we thought it was going to head, it always ended up someplace completely surprising. That is the part that makes the music continue to be fun for me, even as I continue to listen to the album now. Because when something is so organic and real and natural, it just takes on a life of its own, I guess. I have to give Joel a lot of credit for that because I might’ve had the impetus to say, “Let’s make music using this process,” and Chris and Joel might’ve said, “Well, I’ve never made music like that before, but let’s give it a shot.” But then after the tracks were laid down, Chris and I just basically said, “Okay, Joel, good luck. Make sense of it,” and he made beautiful sense of it.
I know, unfortunately, we’re at a point in time when live music is not really happening, but was there a plan to perform these songs live at any point? Or was there a live iteration of the group or was it always designed as more of a studio project from the outset?
Holmes: Never say never.
Mellin: Never say never. Yeah. I’m not sure what the original intent was, but yeah. If we could figure it out. That was some of the problems you had with some of the first Suss records, right Bob?
Holmes: Yeah, no. We had no intent. Suss never had any intent of playing out live. Our label, Northern Spy, said, “Well, you should at least try it once.” So though all of us had come from a live music background, there’s not a long history of ambient music being performed live. Now the numün music is probably more psychedelic than ambient, so there might be a bigger history for that. But still, I can tell you, we live in one of the largest music cities in the United States, if not the world. There’s not a lot of people performing music like this. But I actually think we could, having done what I learned with Suss, I think we could actually pull it off. I mean, we’d obviously need more than the three of us. It would be a lot of fun.
Mellin: We’d have to get some good musicians to play, besides us. I don’t think anybody can play the fretless banjo like Chris.
Mellin: Maybe this is something that is more for Chris, but in terms of the live music element, one of the things that was interesting for me recording a lot of it, and then let’s say working some of the compositional aspects of it afterwards, was that Chris is a phenomenal percussionist and drummer, Balinese drummer. A lot of the, let’s say intricacies and stylistic things that Chris adds in, are much more driven by the live performance setting, where you’re working with dancers and you’re working with other musicians that are following along. Working that aspect into a recorded non-Balinese record. I don’t want to say it was a challenge—
Chris Romero: I’ll go ahead and say it was a challenge, because it was a very different mindset. But certainly, yeah. There’s a different mindset with a performance group where everything is flexible and you respond to tempos or you set tempos and those kinds of things. Again, I’ve done live recording before, but rarely with Balinese instruments in an attempt to integrate them into a framework. So I wobbled quite a bit for quite a while to get it more, and I still wonder to this day just how much time Joel had to spend to get that stuff just so. Because it’s very tasty the way it appears in the recording.
Mellin: One of the aspects of it that I think is interesting from a music theory standpoint, is that a lot of what the drums do in Balinese music isn’t necessarily drive the rhythm or the meter. They add a lot of intricate patterns around things and they help provide context. When you’re used to recording things and you want that to be like, “There’s got to be a beat and there’s got to be a center point and it’s got to be drums,” it doesn’t necessarily work. So we had to find other things compositionally, but instrumentation-wise in the recording to provide a sense of a meter that then allowed the stuff that Chris would provide to really flourish all around that beat.
Romero: Well, that’s really right. The particular style that I’m familiar with, with playing the hand drums, has much more to do with ornamentation. But it’s not all fill, right? So typically there’s a stack of gongs and a straight on the beat rhythm keeper and other things subdividing that in the sixteens and maybe an offbeat, something to build a rhythmic foundation and then the drum will work with that and push and pull the tempo around to those musicians. As they know each other and know the pieces, they will do that more readily.
It’s really not like planning a trap set, which I’ve done with other bands, right. It’s a very different thing. Another aspect to it, and probably my favorite part about it, is that it also is very connected with the dance. So there’s always a sense of trying to think about what physical move accompanies the sound. There’s this spectrum between dancers and drummers, where a lot of drummers may not look good dancing, but understand what the moves are and know how to respond to it musically.
This isn’t traditional Balinese music and that’s not what we’re doing. But we’re certainly taking some of the musical elements out of there and thinking about how to remap them into this other context. So, this notion of the drum as a pivot point between literal, physical, full body movement and the relationship it has to the beat is something that I’ve had a longstanding interest in with. So it’s been interesting to explore that space.
Bob, you were talking a little earlier about the line between ambient music and psychedelia. I have a lot of drone records in my apartment and some of them definitely are more on the ambient side and some of them are more on the psych side. Trying to figure out where that boundary line is, for me, has been something that I think about a lot. I’m curious, where for you does that line exist between one and the other, and is there a way for music to be both?
Holmes: I think that the music that I make with numün and Suss kind of straddles the two areas and the commonality is that they’re actual people playing actual instruments and interrelating with each other. Drone music more or less is you set up a series of patterns and then let those patterns run out over a period of time and how those patterns lock or not is what makes the interesting parts of the music. I love that kind of music too, but I think with the kind of music that we’re doing, it’s people actually getting in a room and interacting with what each other is doing. That’s a huge part of psychedelia, whether you’re talking about The Velvet Underground or the Grateful Dead or The Black Angels or Brian Jonestown Massacre.
We use a lot of drone elements in our music. We also play on top of them. Going back to what Chris was talking about, I’ve never been in a band where the rhythm track wasn’t the first thing you put down. In this music, the rhythm tracks are playing off of what’s there before. It’s almost like sometimes the rhythm tracks are a lead instrument and not a basic instrument. Then a good guitar does something. So then the drums do something else. That’s usually not the way music has made.
That organic sense of one of us hearing what somebody else has done and reacting to it, and then building upon those reactions, building them up, building them up and then tearing them apart and reworking them up again. It’s a real process. The way we go about making the music is discovering the music. The music is telling us what it wants to be, and we just have to be patient enough and keep our ears open enough to let the music tell us where it wants to go.
You have instrumentation on this record that is generally associated with, for lack of a better word, Americana. I feel like there is a history of that sound being used to evoke these very spatial or very cosmic themes. What do you think makes that contrast between the two work so well over time in music?
Holmes: The contrast between the Americana instrumentation and the more Eastern influenced instrumentation, are you saying?
I was going to say more just the evoking space and evoking more cosmic and celestial themes, for lack of a better phrase.
Holmes: Yeah. I think it’s our general respect for silence and trying to find out the places where you don’t have to do anything and just let the music determine itself. That’s a big thing. It’s really, really hard to do. It’s hard not to play with a band like numün. There’s a lot of instruments, a lot of instrumentation going along. So basically you try to carve as much out of it as possible and just save the good bits, so that the landscape is broad and wide, the sky is high. When something comes in, it’s important and when something leaves, it’s just as important and what it does during the time that it’s there, you pay attention to it. That’s much like what a landscape is. Whether you’re filming landscape, painting landscape, I don’t know. Soundscapes, landscapes are very similar.
Romero: Right? Maybe just add to that, that that sense of looking skyward doesn’t really happen in cities too much. You need to be out in the countryside one way or the other. So that evocation of the lonesome guy somewhere just taking a moment to look up in the sky and think about it. That’s guitars, but not guitars as rock instruments, guitars as plot instruments perhaps. Just taking a moment, and then that space happened in the music. With a fretless banjo I play, it’s sort of the same thing. It’s like a banjo in the finale, but it has a double depth resonator. So it’s just got a bigger sound and there’s more time for things to happen and decay, and you need a certain amount of space and a certain amount of visibility to be able to do those things. It’s harder to do them in constrained spaces.
Holmes: I think that one of the other things is that my musical career goes back a long way and people know me for paying probably way too much attention to the American cowboy. But when I was starting to talk with Joel about this project, he was all about the American astronaut, specifically the early astronauts of the sixties. I think that heroic sense of those two archetypes, whether it’s the broad expanse of the landscape or the broad expanse of outer space, it just begged to be interwoven in a particular way.
Holmes: That’s what numün is, is for me. Both Joel and Chris have this background in technology and understanding of the science of space and all of that. That still astounds me, and somehow they bring that to everything they do. I can’t say that it was unexpected that it turned up in the music, but it was a pleasant surprise.
Mellin: It’s a really hard thing to describe for me. But the little snippet that I often say, is my father was an astronomer. I grew up going out into our backyard and looking at telescopes. The thing that strikes me, and I don’t even know if it’s a conscious thing that you can try and get across in music, but when you actually look at the moon from the telescope, you’re not looking at a television image of it or a photograph. You’re looking at the actual light, and it’s really, really piercing and impressive. So it gives you a sense of hope and it changes you.
This record is six tracks, total. How much music had you all recorded that went into ultimately resulting in those six songs and 38 minutes?
Holmes: I think we had some that we didn’t use, but it was one of those situations where we’d recorded a bunch of music. Really, I don’t think we spent more than four or five days together creating music. I don’t think we had any concept of whether we had 10 minutes of music or two hours of music. We knew that we’d gone to Joel’s and he’d turned the mics on and recorded, and we did whatever we did on those afternoons. Then one day we all listened to the music and said, “Wow, this is a cohesive body of music,” which is not an easy thing to do, I’ll tell you. Especially in this genre. It’s easy to make bad ambient music. It’s easy to make bad psychedelia. A lot of people do and get away with it.
Holmes: But we were impressed. Our first indication as well, “This is music that I would actually like to listen to. Joel, do you have the time to put this together so that Chris and I have a chance to actually listen to it because this is really fun to listen to.” The more Joel worked on it, the better it got, and it really turned from a series of recording sessions into a solid finished body of work. Once again, I give Joel all the credit in the world for that. So, we never went into it like, “Well, as soon as we’ve got 37 minutes of music, we’ve got an album.” No, it was just we had 37 minutes of what we felt were great music and we liked it.Then all of sudden it’s like, “Well, I think we should release this,” and I have to say that the response has been quite surprising, happily.
Photo: Chris Romero