SUN SPEAK is Matt Gold (guitar) and Nate Friedman (drums). They perform original works of electric chamber music. We caught up with them at Nighthawk Coffee Bar to talk about Chicago living, writing music as a duo, and finding the balance between composed and improvised music.
Emulsion: How long have you lived in Chicago?
Matt: About the same amount of time... coming up on 4 years now. Nate had moved to Chicago and we had just finished our first record, Light Blue Light, and it felt like something we wanted to keep expanding on and exploring together.
Emulsion: So, you guys were playing together before you moved here...
Matt: Yeah, for a couple years in some different capacities. But I would say that Chicago has been the home of this band, more than anywhere else.
Nate: Oh yeah, for sure.
Matt: We made Light Blue Light before touring or playing any shows as a duo, really, and that record was the start of Sun Speak. It was an experiment for us, and we realized that we found something that we both really enjoyed working on and exploring together.
So, moving here was the birth of it as a real project and a real band.
Emulsion: How did you record Light Blue Light?
Nate: We recorded up in New Hampshire...
Matt: At Blackwater Sound, with an engineer named Chris Westerman.
Nate: We were up there because we were attending this artist residency, Avaloch Farm Music Institute, which was in its first year, the first time we were there.
We were actually the first musicians to show up. We've been back there every year since, and it's great every year.
That residency has a lot to do with the way this band sounds. A lot of our music was written up there, and a lot of our most intensive time was spent up there. So, the setting informs the music, even when we're not there, I think.
We went up there not knowing what were going to do. We were thinking, maybe we would develop some improvising language together. We didn't really know, but we had this three-week period of time, and we ended up just being like, OK, we're writing a record. And let's record it before we leave.
Matt: I think it was interesting to go in with the idea of developing an improvising language, and coming out with a bunch of music... that's still pretty relevant for how this band sounds, and how it operates. A lot of the writing comes from extended improvisations, and through developing that language together, we're honing in on something that's personal for the two of us.
Since then, all the music we've recorded and performed between then and now has grown out of us working together as improvisers and distilling that into song form.
Emulsion: With your songs, how much do you compose, versus improvising? How do those two ideas work together?
Matt: Part of the impetus for this band was that we could make something really concise. We had both been playing a lot of improvised music that lacked any form of glue, or some sort of focus. So the idea was, let's try to delve deeper into concise music and song form.
Also, we were dealing with the limitations of a guitar/drum duo at first, seeing what can we do to make this sound really huge, but intimate. Getting away from an improvised thing, and really delving into the details of playing parts together to make something big.
So it started out as a very intentionally non-improvised band, trying to make some kind of hybrid chamber music.
And I think now it's been opened up, ever since we've established our aesthetic as a duo, to bring in improvised sections, and explore that a little more. We retain some of that immediacy that we love, and we take advantage of that as a duo. But ultimately, we're trying to make something really focused and composed.
It's kind of like "on or off." We don't really improvise over a form... we just kind of open it up and see what happens.
Emulsion: What are some of the challenges of playing in a duo? Is it more freeing musically?
Nate: Sure, there are some great benefits and challenges of playing in a duo. The obvious challenge is that if you want your music to sound full, there's less of you to make that happen. So, if in your song there are four roles that need to be filled for the song to sound complete... well that means that we only have two of us, so we're splitting them up however they fall.
That can mean both of us thinking more about the low register than we usually would, in the absence of a bass player. Or that can mean carefully planning what textures we'll both be using at any given moment, to make sure there's either enough, or just the right amount, or even too little, to give it a sparse feeling.
I think playing sparse music is, in a way, hard for us, because we're always trying to make it full. And so then to say, "oh no, this is a natural thing for a duo, to be thin sounding, and it's OK sometimes," that can be tricky.
But there are many rewards. One standout is immediacy. Since we're both comfortable with the way we play and we know the other's language, things are sort of right there, and super direct. It's like having a conversation one on one versus having a conversation with two people at once. You're juggling so much less, so that connection can be the focus of the music.
Emulsion: Let's talk about your second record, Sacred Rubble. Did you record that in New Hampshire, too?
Matt: Well, we wrote some of the music out there, but we recorded that here in Chicago. We worked with Charles Glanders, who recorded it and mixed it. We brought in our friend Ben Schmidt-Swartz, a great tenor saxophonist who was living here at the time.
That record is more the sound of us living in Chicago. We had been rehearsing in this really loud warehouse space and so the music was getting a little more aggressive and louder, just to be able to hear ourselves practice. That informed some of the writing for sure.
Nate: When we were recording Light Blue Light, we'd step outside and it's this beautiful fall in New Hampshire. Recording Sacred Rubble, we'd step outside and it was winter in Chicago. Everything was kind of cold and gray. And the feelings of the places feed into the music one way or the other.
Emulsion: Definitely... are you working on some new music?
Matt: Yeah! We just finished mastering our next record, it's a collaboration with a great vocalist that we've been working with, Sara Serpa.
This is the first time we've brought someone in to make an entire record with us.
It's called Sun Speak with Sara Serpa, and it's coming out in early 2018.
Emulsion: Oh cool... what inspired you to collaborate with a singer?
Matt: Well, when we first formed Sun Speak, we were thinking, "maybe this should be a trio with a singer." And we didn't do that at first, but it was always on the back burner, that if we ever found the right singer, that would be amazing.
Then we met Sara, and it turned out to be a beautiful fit. It was a very easy collaboration. She brought such a beautiful personality and musicality to the whole thing, so we're excited about it.
Emulsion: Do the new songs have lyrics?
Nate: Some of them do.
Matt: Yeah, it's a little bit of everything. Sometimes Sara does wordless vocalizations, which is really beautiful, and she's a great improviser with that stuff, too. She also wrote some really beautiful melodies.
Sara wrote some original lyrics in Portuguese, to one of my compositions. And I set a Wendell Berry poem for another one of our tunes that she sang.
So it's kind of coming from a lot places.
Emulsion: Sounds awesome! Can't wait. Where can people find your music online?
Matt: You can check out our music here: https://sunspeak.bandcamp.com/