Minneapolis avant-garde death metal band Sunless released their new album Ylem on October 29th of this year. Whilst getting ready for the release of their album and its album release show on November 6th, they took some time out of their busy schedules to answer some questions about their creative process and approach to creating captivating, highly technical music.
LMT: Let’s get the easy one out of the way – who is Sunless at a glance?
Mitch Schooler (bass),
Lucas Scott (guitar, vocals),
Taylor Hamel (drums)
In the past, you’ve said Sunless was chosen as a name to represent the aural direction of the music to be written. For some bands, the music begins to take on its own direction that may deviate from the original high concept attached to the band name. How do you feel you’ve maintained this conceptuality in the writing process over the years?
We didn’t choose the name Sunless as an overarching concept for the band. Really, we just write the music that feels good to us. It’s serendipitous that the songs continue to relate well to the band’s name.
As best as I can tell, Ylem is a suggested hypothetical type of matter that pre-dates the big bang. Noting that the naming process behind Urraca was very intentional, can you expand on whether that is the origin of the name Ylem and regardless of origin how you came to choose this name?
Ylem was chosen intentionally and came about after the album was completed. There’s a vagueness about the word and the concept of primordial matter that parallels the unknown nature of the album’s storyline. Things such as new sights and sounds, unfamiliar locales and lifeforms, and the experience of otherworldly travel.
Moving forward from Urraca, as a band, what goals did you have for Ylem in elevating and expanding the sound that would shape up to be your sophomore release?
The intent wasn’t so different from that of Urraca, though we certainly want each of our albums to have their own character. There are parallels between the albums but Ylem ended up more dense and technical. Having said that, a few songs on Ylem were written even as Urraca was in process. The difference in sound came about as we explored new tones and techniques, arrangements, and instrumentation.
Death metal has historically been rooted in concepts surrounding the physically extreme and are often written with a surface-level impact. How important has it been to the band’s identity to move beyond that surface layer presentation and separate yourselves from writing along those themes?
Lyrically and conceptually, we like to tell a story. We were thrilled to again collaborate with Andrew Notsch (Hollowdusk) on the new album. Entrusting him with the art, lyrics, and concept allowed us to focus more on the music. And who better to work with and elaborate on the vision than a previous member of the band?
As the second release in a trilogy, listeners will be looking to find some literal or abstract connection to the themes on Urraca. In what way is it a direct continuation of the themes present on Urraca, and it what ways does it stand on its own?
Urraca tells of a people forced to flee a dying land. Themes of birth, destruction, death, and exodus in Urraca turn to displacement, fear, wonder, and transcendence in Ylem. Story-wise, Ylem is a direct continuation of Urraca. The same could be said about the songwriting – a continuation but standing on its own simply due to the passage of time and evolving musicianship.
Ylem features a new man behind the kit since we last heard you as a band – Taylor Hamel on drums. The drumming performance on Ylem is nothing short of fantastic – it sounds far more aggressive while maintaining the technicality displayed previously, and this comes off as a conscious decision. How has his addition to the band allowed you to move in directions you weren’t previously able to?
We wouldn’t consider it a conscious decision. However, Ben and Taylor do have different playing styles. Actually, four of the songs on Ylem were written while Ben was still in the band. Taylor learned those songs and tweaked a few parts in addition to learning Urraca and writing the latter half of Ylem. Mitch and Lucas also contributed drum parts for the remainder of the album in order to keep things moving. Drum-wise, Ylem truly is a transitional album for us. Even with Taylor playing the parts that Ben wrote, they ended up sounding different in their actual performance. With regard to Taylor’s addition impacting the band’s direction, there are glimpses of this on Ylem and it will become more apparent on future releases as our writing process continues to evolve together.
On the non-drumming side of things, Ylem seems to have a lot more driving sections than the previous release. While there’s just as many stop-start sections as fans will have appreciated on Urraca, there seems to also be a larger mix of rhythmic sessions that really push the listener forward. Was this more happenstance or was it done on purpose?
We didn’t set out to write the album with that in mind.
The technicality on display during Ylem is dizzying, Mitch and Lucas creating a swirling vortex of sound simultaneously chaotic and understandable, but it never seems to become the focus of the music itself. When writing, do you take active steps to avoid writing something that may come off as more about the technicality than the overall emotional impact of the song?
We’ve never turned away a part based on its technicality or simplicity. If it fits in the song and we like it, we use it. We don’t believe the level of technicality dictates the emotional impact of the music.
As a whole, I would describe Ylem as sounding far more suffocating than Urraca, probably at least in part due to the perfect mix from Colin Marston. Every instrument has its own space to shine at all times – an impressive feat for a release that could fall under both the technical and dissonant death metal umbrellas. How much work went into arriving at this sound?
It took many months to arrive at the final mix. Despite the challenges of working remotely due to the pandemic, we didn’t shy away from exploring multiple avenues of sound which added time to the process.
Re-reading press and reviews of Urraca, it seems that everyone was ready to throw out Gorguts, Deathspell, Ulcerate, any number of dissonant and non-dissonant death metal heavyweights as direct influences for that album and for you as a band. Can you describe what receiving those comparisons was like, and in conjunction was there a push with writing Ylem to further distinguish Sunless as its own voice within the death metal / dissonant death metal space?
Some of the comparisons we can certainly hear, others we’re not so sure what they are referencing. We’re flattered by many of these comparisons, but we certainly don’t try to emulate any band. We just write what comes naturally to us.
Andrew Notsch’s artwork for Ylem (as well as much of the merch related to the release) is once again phenomenal. Whilst Urraca has more washed-out tones, perhaps nodding towards expired film in tone, Ylem presents itself much differently, a swirling vortex of contrasting hues. Can you share a bit of the collaborative effort that led to the creation of the album art for Ylem and how it ties in conceptually?
When we first started writing for Ylem, we knew it would be the conceptual follow-up to Urraca and that working with Notsch again would make the most sense. Presenting both albums with his unique art style bridged them together well, along with the continuation of the story told in the lyrics that he contributed. We wanted cohesiveness throughout while also making sure each album would stand on its own. Beyond that and a few initial reference images, Notsch ran with his own ideas and we worked back-and-forth to tweak them until everyone was satisfied.
I often find that metal albums come from a wellspring greater than simply just metal and its various subgenres – in the process of recording your demo through recording Ylem, what role has non-metal played in the shaping of Sunless’ sound?
It’s not as much about the style of music, but more so the emotional impact it has on us. We have a wide variety of influences outside of metal that have shaped us as musicians. This affects our songwriting, though mostly in an indirect way.
Related to the above, are there bands you think people would be surprised that you are fans of?
Taylor: fIREHOSE, Bat for Lashes, Jack DeJohnette
Lucas: Thin Lizzy, Joanna Newsom, Townes Van Zandt
Mitch: The Bee Gees, Sigur Rós, Diablo II OST
Let’s flip to the usual question – what metal releases have really caught your ear this year?
Ad Nauseam, Suffering Hour, Yautja, Seputus, Obsolete, Noctambulist, Replicant, Portal, Cannibal Corpse, Zebulon Pike, and others.
Also looking forward to upcoming releases from: Plebeian Grandstand, Artificial Brain, Thantifaxath, Haunter, Dischordia, Northless, and Meshuggah.
Any upcoming tour dates or shows that fans should be aware of?
Sunless: 12/11/21 – Mortimer’s w/ Phobophilic, Aberration – Minneapolis, MN.
We’re also booking a few small tours for 2022.
Where can people follow you and keep up with Sunless?
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/sunlessband
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/sunlessband
Twitter – https://www.twitter.com/sunlessband
Bandcamp – https://sunlessband.bandcamp.com/
YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/sunlessband
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org