Following a collaborative record with Jerusalem In My Heart, Montreal-based art-rockers Suuns are back with their third studio album, Hold/Still. Here, drummer Liam O'Neill explains how switching producers and cities helped the quartet create their “loosest and most improvised” record yet.

The last new material we heard from you was your collaboration with Jerusalem In My Heart. How did that project come about?

Well, we had been friends with Radwan [Moumneh] for a really long time. He was a friend of ours from around the scene – because Montreal is a really tight-knit community – and he had done live sound for us, and we had spent long nights drinking wine and talking about music. We just thought it would be fun to do something together, so we just took a week in the studio, with no prepared material, and we each brought in a conceptual idea and worked from there. We recorded that album way before we started working on the latest Suuns record, but it just sat there because there was no pressure. We didn’t have any expectations and we thought we’d just do it for ourselves, but then Secretly Canadian wanted to put it out, so who could say no to that?

How did making that record inform your creative approach for Hold/Still?

I mean, I guess everything you do influences what you do next. But there is a certain kind of bent with which we approached the Suuns/Jerusalem record: we weren’t precious about things, and we made decisions quickly. I think in the past – especially on Images Du Futur – there was a lot of combing-over and editing and layering things. Whereas with the Jerusalem thing and with Hold/Still, there was a real ethos of just moving forward no matter what. So there’s not too much thought going into the respective songs.

When did you start work on Hold/Still?

It’s hard to delineate time frames on stuff like that for us because we’re always working on stuff. I mean, one of the songs on Hold/Still is one of the first songs we ever wrote, like, eight or nine years ago.

That’s ‘Translate’, right?

Yeah. That song has been changing forms from album to album. We’ve been trying to get a version that we’re happy with and it finally worked this time. So there’s certainly a period where you’re touring too much to work on new stuff, but otherwise it’s a foregone conclusion now that, if we’re not on tour, we’re rehearsing three times a week. It’s an ongoing process.

We heard that Andy Stott and Holden were big influences on Hold/Still. Is that right?

Yeah, for sure: we talk about producers like that all the time. I don’t think our music necessarily sounds like that but I feel those more experimental dance producers are inspiring to us because we use similar strategies, in that we don’t have pop songs per se, with choruses and traditional song structures. There are a lot of situations where we’re relying a lot on repetition, so in some ways we really think about our music like electronic music producers do, even if it’s a little more traditional in sound.

Having previously worked with Jace Lasek, you chose John Congleton to produce this record. What attracted you to work with him?

Well, what actually happened is that we were playing in Dallas, Texas, a few years ago and he came to our show, and was like, “I’m a really big fan of you guys.” John’s a really enthusiastic, passionate dude, which is really refreshing because you don’t often see that, especially in more successful music producers. He mentioned he’d liked to produce our next record with us, and we were kind-of looking for someone different as well.

We’ve loved working with Jace and we thought [the records he produced] sounded great, but we thought it was time for us to try a new way of working. We were thinking about not doing the record in Montreal, too: just getting out of town and having a real work environment as opposed to the social, party environment that it has been in the past. So it seemed like a no-brainer. And [John] kept following up on email, just being like, “I don’t know if you guys have thought about it but I still really want to do this.” So we all stayed in an apartment in Dallas, and just worked every day in his studio. It was great.

How did John’s approach differ to Jace’s?

John was Steve Albini’s protégé so, while I don’t wanna say [his approach is] old school, he’s a little bit more ideologically motivated than Jace is. But John is still very open, and he works on all kinds of records. I don’t know whether his approach is different when he’s working with more “pop” acts, but he wanted us to move quickly and was really discouraging us from editing ourselves. His approach is very much, “Do it once. It’s fine. We’re going to move on to the next idea.” And if there was an idea that wasn’t working, he would be like, “Let’s throw it out and try something else.”

Where Jace produced our records, he was a little bit more in the background. He was also extremely patient and let us pick over things a little bit more, which is great; there’s a place for that too. So I think there is more of a measured sound on Images Du Futur, and a little bit more perfection, I guess. Whereas with John, you’re trying to keep up with him the whole time, you know?

What were the challenges of that more spontaneous approach? It sounds like it has the potential to be quite scary?

Yeah, totally. I mean, for me there’s this finality to what you’re doing in the studio: you’re putting this music down for posterity and this is how the song is going to live forever, so you want it to be the best representation of itself. And often what that turns into is doing things a million times and making sure songs are absolutely perfect. But I think there’s a spontaneous energy that recording kills sometimes, so the advantage of doing things quickly and being scared is that there’s still a lot of that wild, unknown energy. In my thinking, the best part of making a song is the first time you play it somewhat coherently, and you don’t fully understand it yet, and there are all these possibilities.

I remember I would do just one take of things and John would say, “Yep, we’re done here. We’re gonna move on.” (Laughs) It was kind-of scary. And then we’d come to the control room and what I heard was not that different from what we had tracked. I thought he would do some sort of producer-magic to make it sound really big and beautiful, but he just preserved the energy. And in the end I was really glad that he did.

A lot of songs turned out completely differently to how we had been playing them for the past year too. It was surprising because some of the songs that we had thought of as the aesthetic lynchpins of the record didn’t end up making the album in the end. It turned out to be something totally different to what we thought it would be. I think maybe some of us expected that we’d have this more glossy, polished pop record because we were working with John, but in the end it came out the opposite. This is probably our loosest and most improvised record.

Is there anything you’ve learned about yourselves as musicians in the making of this album?

I won’t say there was a great takeaway or moral, but you always learn stuff about yourself. The studio’s a really interesting experience that way; it’s really a mirror. And I learned stuff about myself in the making of the past two records, and when I’ve been playing on other people’s records.

I will say that there was something particularly challenging about this experience. Not that it was difficult necessarily, but to be in a new place working with someone whom you’ve never met before and who is somewhat well-known and is idealistic and insists that you work under his philosophy... That was a challenging experience. But I think I learned a bit about what my values are musically. Not that I have any concrete answers, but when you’re working with someone with a strong personality, what you stand for becomes more clear to you.

It’s been nearly a decade since Suuns formed. How have creative relationships evolved within the band in that time?

That’s something that’s always evolving. When we started, I just think that we were having fun. We’re still having fun now, but then we were kids trying out ideas, and didn’t really give a sh*t about what we were doing because it was just a casual thing. And then we put out a record and had some surprise success, and now it’s become a more serious thing for us. I think of us as adults now and, if anything, that’s the characteristic that defines us as musicians putting out this record: we’re fully formed; we have our identities. And I think of myself as having much more strong opinions about what I think music should be and what we should do. We’ve all had a lot of experience playing with other projects as well, and now people will call us and ask us to produce or to play on their records, which never used to happen before. So I think we’re a lot more well-rounded.

In terms of the process, though, that hasn’t changed too much. Ben is still the main composer because he just writes the most interesting songs, and we all take those and massage them until they feel like the four of us playing together, which is really important. I think we’ve learned a lot about ourselves in terms of being a live band, and we’re probably foremost a live band. Songs don’t ever really feel right until we feel like we can perform them well. And I think we’ve learned that that’s how we think about our music: as being open to change and malleable and conducive to improvisation. That’s really important to us.

Have your motivations for making music changed at all?

This is maybe a luxurious thing to say, but I think of myself as less career-oriented than I was. But, of course, now I have a career making music. (Laughs) I used to have a foward-leaning anxiety – an anxiety of want – when we first started out. There’s this desire to move forward and you want more success and you want to be cool, you know? I probably was still reading Pitchfork when we were starting out, whereas now I don’t think of us as careerist anymore, and now we’re just trying to play the music that we think is the coolest. We’re extremely lucky that we have a small, dedicated group of fans who hopefully will go with us, and be there to watch us grow, and not just be there for the singles whatever. I hope that happens,

What’s the plan for the rest of 2016? Are there any more collaborations in the pipeline?

We’re gonna tour. This summer is gonna be insane: we’re doing lots of summer festivals in Europe, we’re doing club dates, we’re doing North American dates... We were talking about collaborations, but we’re so busy and the people that we want to collaborate with are busy. I’m not gonna name any names but, yeah, we do talk about doing collaborations. And there’s a whole bunch of songs from Hold/Still that didn’t make it that are more on the electronic vibe I’d say, so we’d be looking to work with an electronic producer or something like that. But plans are vague you know; we’re trying to keep it open.

April 2016