June 23rd, 2010

Trading In The Dark: Sunna Interview

by Dan Collacott

In the summer of 2000 Sunna burst onto the rock scene with debut album 'One Minute Silence' whilst singles 'Power Struggle' and 'I'm Not Trading' pushed the Bristol based band into the mainstream. Lead singer Jon Harris has previously worked with Massive Attack and on numerous other projects before he formed Sunna a hard rock band with a dark industrial heart, Harris briefly became a record label poster boy as they (and repotedly Simon Cowell) tried to mannipulate him into something he would never become, a sell out. One minute the band were touring with Smashing Pumpkins and backed to the hilt and the next they had fallen off the radar completely. Internal label changes meant they lost all the momentum 'One Minute Silence' built up and in the years since, Harris has battled his own drug and alcohol demons until at the end of last year Sunna quietly reformed and released 'Two Minute Terror' a frightening return to form.

I caught up with the genius and enigma that is Jon Harris, to find out what he and the band were planning since their second album's release.

"Right. At present we are working on the expansion of Sunna Music , which will become a fully self-contained music production company, and the vehicle through which all of our musical output is channeled. This will include (obviously) the band Sunna, but also Sunna’s Aereoplane, S.T.I (our self indulgent foray into trance music) and Nocturnes and Daydreams (which will concentrate on our classical music and film score output). Sunna Music will also include Sunna Media (through which we story-board, film, edit and produce our videos), and Sunna Marketing (through which we design, manufacture and sell merchandise), both of which we offer as services to other bands."

Jon had been part of the fabric of Massive Attack before Sunna and I was curious to know how that fed into the band's material and ethos?

"I’d been writing and recording with Neil Davidge for a couple of years prior to us both working with 'Massive Attack' on 'Mezzanine'. At this time I wrote 'One Of A Twin'. Now I’ve been pondering whether to talk about the age of this song, and some that I have worked with would say that I should let everyone think that it’s a new song, but I prefer the truth, I think it makes a far more interesting story. It was around four months after I wrote and recorded 'One Of A Twin' that Neil started working on 'Mezzanine'… So, to start I would say that working with Neil had brought me forward immensely as far as my songwriting development went, and then working on 'Mezzanine' with Neil I gained the knowledge of Pro-tools. Also, through working with Neil, Dave Jenkins (who collaborated with me on 'One Minute Silence' (OMS), and is my writing partner in Sunna Music and the keyboard player for Sunna), and 3D, I learnt a lot about arrangements and texture. But the most memorable experience for me was watching and listening to Liz Fraser record the vocals to 'Tear drop'. Her Mic technique and silk voice was an inspiration to me, and I have endeavored to reach such a professional level ever since!"

Jon has had well documented battles with drugs, which only adds to the psyche of his rock-start persona. He was once quoted as saying that his songs were often inspired by ‘dark events', and that 'anger is a great motivation for songwriting’ so I asked about the truth in that quote and if the songs on the new album were cathartic?

"Yeah I did say that, and at the time I was fully immersed in an industry that was trying to shape and mold me. This pissed me off no end, and it was a constant battle for me to be taken seriously in any of my ideas other than songwriting. Though I felt grateful that I was one of the few to have a big label behind me, I question whether they were behind me for the right reasons.

But, there are many other factors to the anger and aggression that fueled my songs, but hey, I don’t only write dark songs, though I must say I personally prefer the darker stuff.

As far as Two Minute Terror (TMT) is concerned, yes it is packed with pure unadulterated aggression, and when I have the chance to get up on stage and perform them I will enjoy revisiting the Demons that pushed songs Like ‘Rebirth’ and ‘Spider’ from my soul… but I believe that a Demon only has power if one allows it to have."

Nine years is a long gap to take for someone as creative as Jon Harris, I asked if Jon thought he and his music had changed in the gap between the first album and the new album?

"Me, yes! I have had such an eventful 9 years… At the end of Sunna my life and mental state went down further than I’ve ever been… I was hurt, I got hurt, and I hurt other people. At one point I didn’t think I would see it through, and if it hadn’t of been for my son Sid, and then later my daughter Libby, I’m sure I would have fallen all the way… But yes I like to think I embrace change, I love the idea of evolution, even in the smallest sense.

Musically, I feel that TMT is the lid on the past. It deals with every aspect of the past nine years, and it’s a big fuck off to those who… know who they are, but also a lot of love to fundamental fans and others who also, know who they are. It is a more focused linier album in style, where as OMS is a very diverse album, but as I said earlier in this interview, there are other products afoot under the Sunna Music umbrella. The reason for TMT being so focused in the rock genre is due to 'Sunna’s Aereoplane' which is a project that concentrates on the songs that are in keeping with the more vulnerable side to my nature. This band has a completely different line up, Leon Hunt – Banjo and Lap-steel, Josh Clark – Drums and Bv’s, Chris Blanden – Bass and Bv’s, Mike Cosgrave – piano accordion, and multi instrumentalist and Bv’s. then myself – Vocals and Guitar. We do versions of 'OD', 'Preoccupation', '7%', and 'Weather Controller' along with original material, and the album is under construction as we speak.

Virgin and EMI inner squabbling affectively stitled Sunna's progression, on that sour note I asked if he was qute glad to see the power stranglehold the record companies once had falling apart due to the rise in downloads?

"Yes and no… On one hand I feel it’s a shame that the romance in our once very cool belief in rock‘n’roll has been lost, but there are many factors, I loved nothing more when I was a young teenager, waiting for the next vinyl album release by 'Rush' or 'Iron Maiden' or 'ACDC', and then other bands like, 'Kraftwork', 'Cabaret Voltaire', 'Gary Newman' 'Jane’s Addiction' and the unforgettable 'Sex Pistols', so I would lay on my bed listening to each track intently and studying the album artwork and reading every last word over and over. I dunno, maybe that still exists and I’m just getting old, but what I’m getting at is we seem to live in a disposable world these days, where everything is readily available, where everyone has turned into a petty shoplifters…. Also there are so many bands out there now writing the same music and songs, making the same video’s that just look like glorified car adverts, copying music from previous decades - don’t get me wrong, influence is good, but to take a band like the 'Beatles' or 'The Rolling Stones' or 'Free' and copy riffs, vocal style, bass lines, from the same band and just make your band that band just seems so Karaoke.

But on the other hand, it’s great that artists which haven’t had the opportunity to get record deals are able to put their music out there, even though it will be stolen if people like it, I’m not saying that everyone steals, and I’m aware that some do go for the free download and if they like the band will then buy the album. Aah! I really don’t want to sit here banging on about those commercial bigwig manufacturing fuckers, that sit judging, fame seeking, ego hungry voice wobblers, so I’ll just leave this question here, but I think you know what I’m getting at…"

I also questioned whether Jon and the band felt that the fact artists have to work harder and tour more is a good thing?

"Yes! But I don’t see this as going to work and then coming home at the end of the day. This is a way of life. In some ways it’s like a curse that you can’t escape, and if I don’t write a song or create something I get so pent up I feel like life has absolutely no point at all.

What I hope is that with the fall of signings and major label demise, the creativity in artists will be more free for experimentation and invention, and we will start to hear less molded plastic music and hopefully some new genres will start to emerge. I think it’s a wonderful thing that people are going to more gigs than they ever have, and live music is completely where it’s at. "

Fans make a band and Sunna's are loyal and many, it therefore seemed obvious to ask how he felt the fans had responded to the new album and their plans for touring it this year?

It’s been hard advertising this album as we don’t have much backing, the only way we are managing to move forward is via the fans. Every one involved in Sunna has put money onto it, and this includes the fans....well the ones that paid for the album anyway. But you only have to read the comments on youtube, or myspace, and I think you’ll get an idea of how fans of Sunna feel!

I would love to get out on the road and tour, and trust me if that’s what I could be doing right now then I would, but we’re having to think outside of the box right now and come up with ways of making this engine run, and as long as I have blood running through my veins, I’m gonna be putting music out there… Touring this year? Fuck I hope so!!!!"

I managed to draw the first note of irritation from Jon when i asked how the live shows might work in terms of showcasing the new songs?

"Showcasing… horrible choice of words, sorry! And while I’m at it I can’t stand the word 'unsigned either', fuck that shit. But yes we do have plans for the shows, umm… but you will have to wait for that, but if you look at the Ashes video it will give you a very slim idea of where I’m heading as far as making the visuals fit each song."

Jon had a point.... anyway I moved onto to talk about the bizarre and incredibly disturbed video ofr their cover of Ashes to Ashes asking what made them choose to cover the song.

"I Loved 'David Bowie's' vocals, hated the bass line, so did my own version, now I love it all."

Was Jon's simple yet effective answer, so I probed further, asking this time about the strange character persona Jon adopts in the video.

"Well… I’ve slightly changed the lyrics to suit me and fit to what the song has meant to me in time. Over the past four years my best friend, who I’ve known from the age of four, has been having major difficulties that to a lesser extent I’ve had battles with myself. So when I was thinking of my character in this video, I wanted to portray an intensity of frustration, anxiety, anger and confusion that is smothered in the conclusion of decay and demise. The makeup had reference to 'David Bowie’s', 'Ziggy Stardust', but was fabricated in such a way that it also had reference to 'Heath Ledger's' Joker, an amazing portrayal of a man driven insane by his past, but also tribute to someone who really took his personal problems to his work, that in the end sadly led to his death. I feel that some of us have a need to self-destruct, and no matter what, we will shut ourselves away and lock our selves down and just wreck our lives, quite literary giving power to our demons."

In the video (see bottom of interview) Jon literally eats and wears maggots which is quite a creepy thing to do for most people so I asked if he got a taste for the wriggly little buggers.

"Ha! I knew I was gonna do it for a few weeks, so that gave me time to meditate over it. Also I wasn’t alone… Ian and Dave also had them poured over their faces as well, but when I was editing it I decided not to put there parts in. Na! I never had any intention of putting their parts in, I just wanted them to go through what I had to go through."

The video was also a dedication to a friend, which Jon elaborated on.

"Henry… this is my best friend, and he always has been… I’ve never known life without my mate Henry. Shortly after I’d finished editing and bouncing the video, Henry died… if you would like to understand more about Henry you can go to his facebook group that I set up, search for HENRY CHARLES THOMAS POYNTON.

He had worked for Sunna as Tour Manager and on merchandise. Some of our fans had the pleasure of meeting him. He was a very special guy! Check out his Facebook group…"

Sunna's songs are pretty conceptual with quite complex and conflicted narratives, I asked the frontmanif he could tell me some of the stories behind the new songs/titles - including ‘One Of A Twin.’

"All the songs I’ve written have come from experiences that have affected my life in some fundamental way, with a few observations thrown in.

As a child growing up I suffered with the most horrendous nightmares, semi conscious dreams with demons and dark shadows. Also flying dreams where I would loose control and fall then wake before I hit the ground. ‘One Of A Twin’ is a reference to those still vivid memories and the fact that we all live in alternate realities… one whilst we are awake, and the other third of our lives during which we are asleep."

Taking the supernatural edge from the moment I motored onto cliche questions like what is the most Rock’N’Roll thing Jon had ever done?

"Well, I’m not sure if it’s the most Rock’N’Roll thing I’ve ever done, because I’ve smashed it up for so many years, But this one was quite funny… and also name drops outrageously!

One year I accompanied '3D' of 'Massive Attack' to 'Goldie’s' Birthday party. When we left the club we all retired to 'Noel Gallagher’s' house. Having at that time never been a fan of 'Oasis', I found it quite amusing that I was sat at the top floor of his house with him playing table space-invaders for a couple of hours listening to his tour stories. I remember saying to him that it was funny that I was sat with him, just hanging out, having one on one conversation, when I wasn’t even into his band, and that there would be millions of people out there that would give their right arm to be in this situation. Anyway we went back down stairs and joined everyone else, and at around 6am '3D' and I were about to leave, but he didn’t know where his jacket was, and I remembered that it was up by the space-invaders table so I ran up to get it for him. On my way back down I noticed there was a Jon Lennon picture behind glass on the stairwell. My immediate thought was to find a sharpie pen. So I legged it down to the next floor where the studio was and sure enough there was a black marker on the mixer, so I took it and returned to the picture, and then in big black letters over the top of Lennon wrote HARRIS. So now the picture said Jon Harris.

I must say though, I didn’t do out of disrespect, I did actually get on with the guy really well, and I wanted him to remember me. I’m sure he does."

Cliches still abounding from my brain I asked him to name one thing about himself that know one knew? A question I've asked before to bands and often don't get an answer at all, but not this time.

"When I was a child, I bit my dog until she yelped, and then said sorry and cuddled her… fucked up man!"

I also asked Jon what coloured the path that brought him to music?

"Music has always played a major part in my life. My parents always had a nice sound system, and there were always a lot of instruments about the house. My older brother Tim who has drummed on both my albums was in bands, and right from a very young age I was involved with this, helping lug gear around and setting up. My brother became quite the established drummer over the years, and certainly mastered his kit. I on the other hand couldn’t seem to focus on one instrument, and my dad was constantly trying to get me to knuckle down and take one seriously. But when I would start learning one, having lessons, I would then become bored and move on to the next. By the time I was 19 I was self-taught enough on so many instruments that I was able to put together a whole song in its entirety. It wasn’t until I lived in Israel that I started writing songs. My first song was called ‘Your War’ this I wrote sitting on top of my asbestos shed, watching eight helicopters fly over head, whilst searchlights swung back and forth across the Golan Heights, bordering Lebanon, while air-raid sirens sent all the Kibbutzniks to the bomb shelters."

On the subject of influences and whom would he'd like to collaborate/Tour with, Jon continued.

"When I was signed to RCA I almost went to New York to write with 'Fransis Dunary' of ‘It Bites’. At this time I had been very much influenced by his vocal style, and I loved his musical ability, sadly there was only a small group of us that shared the same opinion. Anyway, Simon Cowell decided that he was a 'has been' that would only influence me into a life of Alcohol and Drugs, or so I was told over a bottle of vodka and a few lines of coke with my then A&R.

But if I could collaborate with anyone of my choice now, it would still have to be Dave Jenkins, Ian of course, and the guys from my other band ‘Sunna’s Aereoplane’.

Other people? Well I’m open minded… but I would have loved to have worked with 'Dame Iris Murdoch' – the Irish born author and philosopher, best known for her novels about sexual relationships, mortality, and the power of the unconscious."

I conclude by asking what one message would Jon and the band like to give to their loyal fans? To which I got the following cool response.

"Meet us at the ‘Black Horse’, around 6pm Friday, for an over-dose of west-country rough cider 8-) xx."

Now we just have to work out where that is and get a round in.

Sunna are planning to tour soon so keep watchting their website or facebook for announcements and don't miss OUT!

Got something to say about this article? Pay a visit to our Music Forum to discuss this and many other topics! For more music reviews, interviews and features, visit the music section and our music archive