Blow The Scene Interview with Aaron Turner of Isis
Adam Rauf, Staff Writer
All images by Seth Ballentine, Staff Photographer
On June 16, 2010, Blow The Scene staff writer Adam Rauf caught up with Aaron Turner of Isis a few hours before their Washington DC performance with Melvins as part of their final tour.
Isis is arguably one of the most influential metal bands of this decade, putting an emphasis on heavy riffs, spacey leads, drone, and brutal, yet melodic, vocals. Aaron Turner, who is not only the singer/guitarist for Isis, but a visual artist and founder of Hydra Head Records, was kind enough to join us for an exclusive interview with Blow the Scene. His dedication and knowledge of music is astounding, and even with his foot planted firmly in the metal scene, he’s incredibly versatile with his tastes and is probably one of the most genuine people you’ll ever meet.
We talked about the band, future plans, his label, and even the issue of privacy in society! Keep reading for the full story.
Blow the Scene (Adam Rauf & Seth Ballentine): First of all, thank you for doing this interview. This is awesome – we’ve been huge fans of your music for many years.
Aaron Turner (Isis): Cool. Well thanks for doing it, I appreciate it.
Rauf: What got you started in playing music in general? What made you want to grab an instrument?
Aaron Turner: I guess I’ve always had creative impulses for a variety of different things, whether it was visual art, or music, or writing to some extent. Visual art was my first outlet I guess, because it was the most immediate thing. Many children who are lucky enough to have parents that foster creative tendencies are given paper and crayons very early on. That was the gateway into the creative realm for me, and I never really stopped doing any visual art.
I was very musically aware at an early age – my parents listened to a lot of music, and I have a brother and a sister who played music and would play around me from the time I was very young, so that was certainly inspiring. I think when I started seeking out music on my own, I definitely gravitated towards metal, and the power of guitar in that context definitely had an impact on me. You know, listening to Metallica, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and more aggressive things as time went on, had a big influence on how I play music now.
Rauf: Yeah, I remember for example when you guys covered “Hand of Doom” by Black Sabbath and “Street Cleaner” by Godflesh. That Sabbath cover is probably one of my favorite versions of that song.
Aaron Turner: Oh cool! Thanks.
Rauf: I guess that kind of segues into asking: What was the most important influence [particular albums perhaps] for you when growing up?
Aaron Turner: I’d probably have to say Metallica… I don’t know if I can pick out a specific album, but everything up to the Black album was kind of untouchable to me. There were a lot of other albums that I enjoyed as well, but that was the stuff that was really inspiring and got me to play. Sabbath was a close second. And Jimi Hendrix was definitely a formative thing for me as well; I was really into soloing and I liked the psychedelic aspect about his music. But the rhythmic and textural aspects of guitar became much more important to me rather than soloing and the “higher end” of the spectrum.
Rauf: Yeah that makes sense, because it seems that you guys don’t really have huge guitar solos in your music. There’s more lead melodic work and interplay between you guys.
Aaron Turner: Yeah, soloing has never really been a focal point for the band. Maybe that’s part of what some of us took away from the classic rock influences we have, like Zeppelin and Hendrix. The music was really heavy and there was obviously a lot of soloing, but there were a lot of melodic elements in the music and the atmosphere that developed from that.
Rauf: Because of the size of Hydra Head and because of your obvious involvement in how the business operates, how do you feel about the music industry this year [indies vs. majors]? Folks such as Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) have said that the majors will fall this year. Do you think it’s true?
Aaron Turner: It seems to me that most people think that the indies would go through all of this [economic crisis] unscathed, but it’s my opinion that everyone’s gotten fucking slammed. I don’t think we will die off because we do have a niche of hardcore supporters that are still interested in physical product and like the label as its own entity. They’re not just followers of one or two bands we work with, and that works in our favor. It’s something I’m very invested in and want to keep pursuing.
There’s a lot of music out there that I want share with other people and using Hydra Head as the platform for it is the thing that makes the most sense to me.
Rauf: Kind of like SunnO))) with Southern Lord for example.
Aaron Turner: Yeah, exactly. It’s the only reason why we do it; we like the bands and think they deserve to be heard. I feel lucky to be able to work with the bands that we have over the last 15 years or so.
I’m, of course, biased towards our own stuff and label, but I feel like there’s a lot of thoughtlessness both in terms of music being made by bands and what labels are trying to push. We’re purposely picking bands that are fully invested in their music, and we want to be fully invested in them. We try not to give preferential treatment and promote our bands equally.
Rauf: What music are you really into listening to right now?
Aaron Turner: I won’t mention any Hydra Head stuff because of the obvious bias, but a lot of things I like end up being on Hydra Head because it’s what I enjoy. But there’s a lot of stuff out there that might be too big for us to take on, or an artist that’s no longer living, or the fact that we can’t put absolutely everything out.
One thing in heavy rotation is Horseback. Their EP, The Invisible Mountain, is one of the heavier things that grabbed my attention. There’s a guy named William Fowler Collins, which is more of this guitar-based abstract/ambient realm. We talked about collaborating together.
In a completely different spectrum, there’s stuff that falls under the category of modern composition like [Krzysztof] Penderecki that I’ve really enjoyed over the past few years. It is classical, but also more abstract and darker in nature.
Rauf: What are your favorite and least favorite things about playing shows? Do you like particular types of venues more than others [bars/clubs/VFW halls/giant arenas]?
Aaron Turner: I think being able to just play music for other people is the thing that’s really gratifying for me. We initially had no goals as to what size we wanted to reach or what territories we wanted to try to get to. I think we just remained open to the fact that we could stay relatively unknown, or the possibility of something greater. We were ready to accept whatever came our way. To be able to play music and have people who listen to it and be appreciative of it is the highlight for me. The fact that people come to shows is something I’m very grateful for.
There have been particular shows where things have just gone perfectly, whether it’s the bands we’ve played with, or the harder to explain things like the atmosphere and energy that you feed off from the crowd. They’re really valuable to me. As far as frustrating things, the rigid network of playing in clubs is kind of troublesome. It’d be great if you could just play in the middle of a forest and have it be as logistically easy to do as playing in a well-established rock club, but I think we all make compromises so that we can get our music and message out there.
There are benefits to playing in clubs. If the staff is invested in making it a good experience for the band and the fans, then it’s great. It’s when it is a commodity to them where they want you to show up, play, and get the fuck out in 30 minutes so they can have their dance party that frustrates me. It also hurts when places take a cut of your merch even though you’re the ones bringing people in. It’s not like you get a cut of the bar sales, so why do they get to capitalize on your earnings?
When the commerce becomes the focal point, that’s when I become frustrated.
As far as arena-style venues [when Isis toured with Tool], I realize that wasn’t really our audience; we were playing to Tool’s crowd.
Rauf: I wouldn’t put you that far off from Tool’s sound. You guys do the odd time signature stuff and lots of spacey textures along with those heavy riffs.
Aaron Turner: Yeah, that makes sense to me. It was interesting playing in a place that big every night. And it was a great experience that we enjoyed in a different way.
Rauf: Do you feel more of a pull towards playing older songs or newer songs? Do you get tired of the material you wrote 12-13 years ago that fans still cling to, or do you still enjoy performing it?
Aaron Turner: I don’t really have a preference as far as that goes. I used to get more indignant about it, but now that we’re coming to an end, it’s easier to look back on everything with an objective viewpoint. I’m glad that there are points at which anyone connected to our music whether it’s now or 12 years ago. So whatever comes out of our music that speaks to people or makes them feel something, I feel grateful for.
There are certain things that we’ve played over and over that I’ve lost connection to and we try to keep that stuff out of the set, so the newer things are the ones I tend to be more excited about. And there’s nothing I’d really take back or do differently.
Well, almost nothing. (grins)
Rauf: How has touring been different for you over the years? Is it easier or harder now than when you started? And do you enjoy being on the road?
Aaron Turner: It’s definitely different. Back when we were starting, we weren’t staying in hotels, and if we were, it was all 5 or 6 of us in one room, so it’s a lot more comfortable now. But at the same time, I was a lot more willing then to just pick up and leave wherever my home was, to go out on the road. And now, I really appreciate the stable peace and quiet of home life and being with my wife and my pets, and having time to really think about things and pursue things that I can’t when I’m on the road.
Being on tour is all about recreating something that you’ve already made, and I’d rather be at home creating it instead of performing it over and over. But I like traveling around and seeing people I don’t always get to see and perform music for people who want to hear it, so it has its pros and cons. I will say that having to tour as much as we have over the past six years is a reason for me, personally, that I want to take a step back from it a little bit.
Getting to tour with the Melvins again has been great; when we toured with them in 2002, it was an opportunity to see how far we’ve come, because they’ve been an influence to us and we love listening to them. I’ve been listening to them consistently since I first started discovered them, and to be able to play with them again after all these years and still feel really excited about their music after all these years is important to me. And sharing the stage with them is extremely gratifying too.
Rauf: With your background and obvious references to writers such as Foucault, do you feel that through the advancement of technology, we’re heading towards a state where privacy is going to be more of a luxury?
Aaron Turner: Yes and no. Opening ourselves up is done largely by choice; we’re willing participants. To imagine that there was a time in our lifetimes where privacy was total… is a fabrication. Living in the kind of culture we do, you’d have to pull yourself out of our culture, society, and communities completely… like cave-dwellers. Even at that, you’re living on government property, there’s a chance you’ll be discovered and there’s a question whether people even really do go to those measures and succeed living that way.
It’s a personal choice to some degree; you don’t have to have a Facebook account, or credit cards, or live in the city. You have control over how much of your personal life is out in the public forum. It does concern me, it’s obviously something I think about and write about in our music. I guess my position on it is trying to focus on that in my individual life and having control of it. I think that it’s something people don’t really think about, and it’s important to heighten that awareness.
Rauf: You definitely had spoken on this topic at large with Panopticon.
Aaron Turner: Yeah, it was the focal point there, more than any of our other releases. We touched upon it with Celestial, but in a much more primitive way.
In relation to that, one of the things we focused on more in Wavering Radiant, for lack of a better term, is the human spirit and really emphasizing the individual relationship to that as exploration of the interior. Some of what we do now is about our relationship to exterior things like devices, consumables, or the way religion has completely turned into an exterior force. The stuff that is inside, the things that are your own, the space inside is becoming increasingly more important. And the danger of being disconnected from all of that as a result of all this other stuff is greater.
Rauf: Changing gears, we have to ask what it was like to do the In the Fishtank collaboration with [Scottish indie rock band] Aereogramme?
Aaron Turner: It was awesome. Aereogramme is a band we’ve known for some time and have an affinity for their music and we got along with them, so when we were invited to do the session with them it was a no-brainer. We knew they were creatively open to doing something, and even though they aren’t necessarily the same style of music, we thought it could work well. The idea that it would work was incentive enough to try.
It went extremely smoothly and came together cohesively better than I could have ever imagined. Everything was put together really quickly and it all came together, so I’m really happy we were able to do that.
We both had some stuff pre-prepared, but usually we’re hyper-prepared when we go into the studio, so it was fun for us to go in and just do it and let go a little bit and have other people to bounce ideas off of.
Rauf: How do you feel about the genre of “post-metal” being stamped to you? Lots of bands classify themselves as such and look to you almost as the fathers of the genre. Do you think that’s a fair term?
Aaron Turner: It makes sense in a way…language is a way to create a symbol for something. Post-metal is just as accurate or inaccurate as anything else used to describe our music. We play the music we play now because that’s what we were aiming for. The term came out only a few years ago as far as I know. It’s kind of interesting that it has developed into a cohesive genre as we’ve grown as a band.
As far as other bands citing us as an influence, it’s again something I’m grateful for…to be considered as an inspiration to others. So much for me in Isis was how much I was affected by bands that were important to me. To know that we have given that to other bands is really nice.
Rauf: What changes are coming now that Isis is doing this farewell?
Aaron Turner: I will say this is not the end of anyone’s music career. Everyone has something going on, and a lot of things that were looked as side projects are going to be more of a focal point now.
Rauf: You mean like Old Man Gloom, Red Sparowes, House of Low Culture, etc?
Aaron Turner: Well, Old Man Gloom is more nebulous. We all now live in so many different places, and still continue to play with other bands, so that one’s hard to say. With Red Sparowes, yeah, Cliff (keyboardist/third guitarist Bryant Clifford Meyer) is probably going to spend more time on that.
The main thing for me these days is Mamiffer. It’s not even my own band; I’m kind of a cog in the machine. I have spent quite a bit of time recording and playing live shows with them more than any other project. I’m basically one of the core members, but all of the music is written by a woman named Faith Coloccia, who had a band called Everlovely Lightningheart that had a few releases on Hydra Head. And I ended up playing on the first album, but now am more of a full-fledged member. We have been working on the record for about a year, and there will be subsequent touring after it’s released.
There’s a lot more stuff coming from House of Low Culture, and there’s a new Jodis record in the works, and at some point this year or early next year, there’ll be a new Grey Machine record started. And probably another Twilight record should drop sometime next year.
Rauf: Thanks again, Aaron. It was an absolute pleasure to talk with you, and we hope you guys have a great show tonight.
Aaron Turner: Not a problem, take care.
Check out Full Picture Gallery of Isis’s June 16, 2010 Washington DC show at Seth Ballentine’s Flickr Site
Check out Adam and Seth’s Interview with Melvins for Blow The Scene that occurred at the same performance!