The alarming, expansive sound of Sunwatchers
Sunwatchers don’t play protest music, strictly speaking. The quartet, based out of New York City, make instrumental music. But they make furious, ecstatic, wide-ranging music that is filled with the spirit of uprising, resistance, and rage. Their songs might not be about the extrajudicial killings committed by the United States government using unmanned drones, but they want you to know they’re pissed about it. (The full title of their combustive and hypnotic studio record released earlier this year is Sunwatchers Stand In Solidarity With the Dispossessed, Impoverished and Embattled People of the World.) They don’t think that sitting back and being quietly entertaining or quietly entertained is the right response to the political predicament we face in America — and in the world — today. And so, Sunwatchers make a hellacious racket. Their music is equal parts free jazz, krautrock, avant-metal, and meditative boogie. They howl, keen and wail, but they also groove and shred.
The band, which plays Monstercade in Winston-Salem on Saturday, Sept. 29, has ties to the Triad. Guitarist Jim McHugh lived and went to college in Greensboro for a time. (The band also includes Peter Kerlin on bass, Jeff Tobias on sax and keyboards, and Jason Robira on drums.) McHugh spoke with me by phone last week while running errands in Brooklyn.
The band is about to release a new collaborative project with Greensboro music legend and fellow politically- minded omnivore Eugene Chadbourne, in which Sunwatchers essentially back Chadbourne on a series of songs by the Minutemen, Doug Sahm and one by semi-obscure and semi-legendary Greensboro-born artist/composer/philosopher Henry Flynt.
While mashing together pieces of rapid-fire SoCal punk (the Minutemen), Texas soul-garage rock (Sahm), and outsider-minimalist experimentalism (Flynt) might sound like a Frankenstein experiment, that kind of radical — and very American — eclecticism is central to what Chadbourne has been doing on his recordings for over 40 years.
Since he was a teenager, McHugh has seen Chadbourne perform live. And McHugh says that Chadbourne’s manic all-inclusive approach has been a palate-expanding catalyst.
“We’ve always been all over the map, geographically and musically,” said McHugh, alluding to Sunwatchers’ roots, which jump and weave from North Carolina to Athens, Georgia, and up to New York.
Protest music generally uses words to sing out against injustice, to draw attention to the plight of the dispossessed, to give voice to those suffering at the hands of oppressive governments or those plowed under by systems that exploit the poor, minorities, or those who are denied access to the mechanisms of power. Bob Dylan, Fela Kuti, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Pussy Riot, Public Enemy, the Last Poets, Buffy St. Marie and Ani DiFranco might have all been making different types of protest music, but their efforts were linked by the use of verbal artistry to focus to the issues at hand.
Sunwatchers create a sound that can, at different times, bring to mind the Lounge Lizards, Can, John Zorn, Albert Ayler, and the garage rock from Southeast Asia. (McHugh routinely plays an electric phin, a lute from Thailand.) One might hear the reference to free jazz and assume that Sunwatchers just cut loose in every direction, but that’s not really their style. They balance order and chaos, structure and freedom. Many of their songs have pretty, melodic parts that repeat while the band swells and then recedes. (They’ve been known to perform a version of Schumann’s “Eusebius.”) McHugh’s guitar tone frequently has a shrill bite to it or an abrasive distortion that makes the instrument sound almost abstract. McHugh and Tobias might sync up to make lacerating machine-like patterns played in unison, or the band might smolder along with a head-nodding drone.
They like to employ what McHugh refers to as “mesmeric, brutal repetition.” (He cites Mark E. Smith’s dictum about “the three ‘R’s: repetition, repetition, repetition.”) They have that minimalist ethos, embracing the idea that sound, volume, and relentless reinforcement can enact a kind of structural, metabolic change on a body, and/or on a mind. Sunwatchers make music with the belief that music — played cranked up, with brain-grabbing power — can actually change things.
The members of Sunwatchers all matured as musicians playing in punk bands. That experience cemented a belief in the importance of achieving a sense of catharsis, a powerful release, particularly in their live shows.
“If I’m not greasy and exhausted after we play, then we didn’t do it right,” McHugh said.
They obviously have a healthy sense of humor, history, and absurdity, as can be glimpsed in their newly launched self-released series of outtakes and oddities, called The Basement Apes, with a choice titular hat-tip to Dylan’s famously fruitful and shambolic 1967 collaboration with the Band in Saugerties, New York.
To always be creating and releasing music is the goal that McHugh and his Sunwatchers bandmates have.
The band’s sense of urgency relates to the political philosophy that underpins what they do. McHugh says that he and his bandmates share the belief that we’re living through a crisis right now. And he’s quick to point out that their sense of emergency predated the election of Donald Trump, whom McHugh calls a fascist.
“We live in a society that’s anti-human, that fosters competitive greed and murderous intent,” McHugh said. (The band issued a lengthy mission statement with the new record, mapping out their wish “to espouse equality for the dispossessed and an end to our current exploitative ways of being.” They also donate proceeds from their record sales to organizations devoted to abolishing prisons.)
The music is the music. It’s made with the intensity, intelligence, and open-mindedness that also come through in what the band says about what they do. Sunwatchers could make potent music without any clear agenda, but they’ve said they wouldn’t feel right with that ambiguity.
“We’re just making the music that we want to make and attaching our intentionality in a really direct way.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.