Mogwai’s Barry Burns and experimental techno producer David Letellier, aka Kangding Ray, have been collaborating as SUMS since 2015. Ahead of their show at The Hague’s Rewire Festival, Tony Poland talks to the duo about how they’ve sustained the partnership, and how they’re taking it to the next level.
Commissioned projects have developed into a prevailing trend of festival curation over recent years, but it’s rare for them to live on beyond the festival stage and develop into something more permanent. SUMS, however, is an exception.
Birthed at Berlin Atonal in 2015, the collaboration between French techno artist David Letellier (aka Kangding Ray) and multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns of Mogwai was the result of the festival’s organizers giving Letellier the freedom to deliver a project befitting of the grand Kraftwerk venue. It would have been too easy for Letellier to simply make techno, so he abandoned the form and attempted a series of cross-discipline experiments with Burns, whose work with Mogwai played an integral role in shaping the French producer’s musical education.
In an interview with The Attic, Letellier said, “Mogwai would do 10-minute-long tracks, breaking the typical verse / chorus theme, breaking the structures and concentrating more on the atmosphere and the instrumental aspect.” This opened figurative doors for him in terms of his approach to music. SUMS was conceived as a creative blank canvas by the duo, Burns telling me the name derives from Scottish slang for math homework. “But it sort of worked also with the parts of this band being from different disciplines to make something new, together.”
“It’s most always beneficial to work with different people to avoid falling back into your own musical clichés.”Barry Burns
Pitched somewhere between their respective approaches and driven by Merlin Attore’s percussion, the musical intricacies of SUMS were developed with the vastness of Berlin Atonal’s home, Kraftwerk, in mind. The subtle intensities of their debut performance seems to have triggered Burns and Letellier’s urge to develop the project further, adapting and redefining SUMS for subsequent performances in Genoa and Milan as well as last year’s Adelaide Festival.
These performances have helped shape SUMS into something closer to a proper band: Letellier, Burns and resident percussionist Merlin Ettore have since been joined by Swedish dark metallurgist and Ben Frost collaborator Daniel Rejmar. 2017 should be a big year for SUMS, with a scheduled performance on the closing night of Rewire Festival this weekend preceding the project’s first recorded material.
Berlin Atonal’s record label is putting the finishing touches on the debut SUMS record, which is due in the coming months. A dark, evocative listen, the three-track EP channels the powerful intensity of their live shows into a more compact sound, with Ettore’s drumming the guiding force. As Burns and Letellier reveal during our conversation, we can expect much more from the project.
SUMS was originally commissioned especially for Berlin Atonal in 2015. Did you initially have any plans to continue the project beyond that festival?
David: We didn’t know before whether it would continue at all. But after the first show, we had the feeling we need to go on and bring this thing further, because we felt that we can really do something special. SUMS is a great source of inspiration for both of us, and finally because it’s just so fun to work together.
It’s a great experience to be in a band and play instruments again, that’s a totally different feeling from my usual life as an electronic producer and DJ.
The project was created with Atonal’s Kraftwerk Hall in mind, so how has the spatial aspect of SUMS been adapted to the venues in your subsequent performances?
David: In the first intention draft I sent to the Atonal team, I wrote something like, “let the sound breathe and find some spaces in the music for the Kraftwerk hall to resonate.” That space has been there from the start and is still present in the music somehow, like a sort of ghost, a bit like this impulse response technic, where you recreate a space by its reverberation, without being actually there.
And what do you have planned for the SUMS performance at Rewire?
Barry: We’ve gone over the Atonal songs and improved them because we’ve gotten to know more exactly what it is we’re aiming for. We’ve also written some new things and really just want to play them live to see how that works out.
David: A lot of things have changed since the first presentation, the couple of shows we did in Italy and Australia helped us redefine the project and achieve this “band” thing we wanted to have. It is much more compact, sometimes even rhythmic and more powerful. We use less samples, Barry gets to do more on the synths, and I’m playing much more guitar parts, all together it feels much more like a band. Daniel Rejmer participated in the recordings we did at the end of last year, and he’s now an integral part of our sound.
You last performed at Rewire in 2012 David, what do you feel it brings to the international festival circuit?
David: Rewire is one of these few very carefully curated European festivals, and I don’t stay that only because we’re playing it! A simple look at the line-up shows that Rewire belongs to this class of festival that puts coherence, diversity and quality at the forefront.
What would you say has been the most rewarding aspect of your participation in the project so far?
Barry: The change in the way I think about music and its production and composition, especially in economy of music. I mean, like, when to just let it breathe a little more. I’m still learning. I’m pretty sure it’s most always beneficial to work with different people to avoid falling back into your own musical clichés. Working with David has been a great example of this.
David: Same here, after years of following my own path ideas, this exchange with Barry opened new horizons for me, as it made me approach music from a very different angle.
“We rely a lot on electronic communication, but this goes always faster and more creative when we’re together.”David Letellier
Of the all SUMS festival performances so far, which was the most memorable?
Barry: The Atonal festival was pretty special but I was a bag of nerves so I tend to black out the memory of stressful shows. I really enjoyed the show we played in Genoa, Italy.
David: That show in Australia for Unsound Adelaide was kind of epic, both for the show as for the actual journey to get there as a band.
How integral to SUMS is Merlin Ettore?
David: Merlin is an integral part of the band, he has a very distinctive style and sound. He really put his imprint on the recording of the EP, as much as on stage.
Barry: Merlin’s tremendously talented and a funny, warm guy who is great to be around and so great to listen to when he’s behind the drums. We always wanted to be less reliant on a total electronic drum sound so David discovered him somehow and we’ve been so happy with him.
Has the process of working together become more natural to you both? I imagine the bulk of ideas are still discussed online remotely?
Barry: I never feel like I know what I am doing in any part of my life, with music I’m only slightly ahead of that curve, but I can live with that. We discuss stuff remotely but we like to meet up too when we can. It should always be fun.
David: We’re both very busy with our own things, but we always make the best of the time we meet, we rely a lot on electronic communication, but this goes always faster and more creative when we’re together.
How do these ideas transfer to rehearsals and the live stage?
David: We don’t have a real structure nor a management, so we have to organize the show and the rehearsals ourselves. It’s a bit of a guerrilla/DIY approach, with a lot of energy, stress and laughs involved. This is serious music, but made with a lot of fun.
Barry: Rehearsals are hard to schedule so they are what could be described as a riot of trying to troubleshoot and learn everything quickly. The gigs can feel on a knife edge but that’s probably because I’m used to rehearsing tons with Mogwai. I think we get it done in the end though.
In previous interviews, you both professed an ambivalence to SUMS becoming anything but a live entity, yet there is material forthcoming on Atonal’s label. Are these live recordings?
Barry: No, we did them in Berlin last year while we had time. It seems a waste to leave them unrecorded.
What made you change your mind about making a SUMS record?
David: The first idea was to just bring out a live recording indeed, but while listening to the first shows on tape, we thought we could bring this to a whole different level if we would go in studio and rebuild everything. This also gave us the opportunity to rethink entirely the songs entirely, and compose new ones.
What does the rest of 2017 hold in store for you both?
Barry: Mogwai has a few film and TV soundtracks in the pipeline, some other random stuff and the new album proper will be out at some point later this year.
David: I just released a new album as Kangding Ray on Stroboscopic Artefacts, so I’ll be playing the new live set of that album in different places around the world. We’ll also be preparing the next step for SUMS, which should be a proper album I guess…
Rewire Festival takes place this year on March 31 – April 2. Tickets are available from the Rewire website.