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Q&A: Sonic Suicide Squad

April 15, 2009

Listening to Washington, D.C./New Jersey trio Sonic Suicide Squad is comparable to watching naturalists attempt to ensnare sharks, cougars, or grizzly bears for scientific or educational purposes. The thrill and thrall are couched in seeing how the capture will play out. Will the struggle be quick and easy, or long, bloody, and visceral? The initial scenario is fairly uniform, with drummer Sam Lohman and “live acoustic manipulator” Jon Simler donning pith helmets to net Vinnie Paternostro’s wild, unruly tenor saxophone game, but the improvised results can vary. The ragged strains of Songs For Slaughter–Sonic Suicide Squad’s debut, issued by Washington’s Panic Research Audio late last year–pale beside the sounds of the bevvy of recordings it has in store for 2009.

Release dates are uncertain, but Canadian label Snapped In Half will release With This Dream, Death Will Come, where be-bopin’ acid jazzisms share real estate with processed-to-another-dimensions freak-outs. Negative Force will issue Live In Nashville, stormy, punk-informed scrawl-fest The Devil is Wise Because He is Old; and We Ain’t No Goddamned Jazz Band, chock full of tantrum-throwing skronk-outs and rough, scrabbling jams. But the mother of them all arrives in cassette format. Hardline American Overdrive (Sounds of the Pocket) finds Lohman, Paternostro, and Simler at their strongest yet: EKG-squiggle blat-spatters splaying into alternately shrieking and cartilage-gnawing runs, soulful sax almost-solos, drum pounds of every description puttering away underneath-only to be whipped and upended into near-psychedelic forms by Simler’s machinations.

To top it all off, Sonic Suicide Squad spent a month on the road opening for stoner touchstone Acid Mothers Temple. In e-mail interviews conducted in March and April, before the tour began, City Paper was able to take the trio’s measure.

City Paper: I know that your Electric Possible group performance in 2006 with Ed Wilcox was sort of a precursor to Sonic Suicide Squad becoming an entity. Was there just such a chemistry in the collaboration that you sort of knew, right after the show, that this was meant to be? Or did things take longer to coalesce?
Vinnie Paternostro: Sam and I were talking about doing some sort of noisy free-jazz duo for a while. I was playing with Temple of Bon Matin at the time and Sam and Jon invited Ed and I to play with Cash Slave Clique at Jeff Bagato’s Electric Possible, an experimental music series he hosts. The SSS came out of the Blue Prostitutes, which was myself and Sam with Steve Mackay of the Stooges, Aaron Moore of Volcano the Bear, J Reeve of Temple of Bon Matin, and Jason LaFarge of Seizure’s Palace Recording Studio. Sam and I wanted to play more often and given the schedules of the Blue Prostitutes, we started another group with Jon.

Jon Simler: The only reason that the first show ever happened was because Sam and I had a show that was in jeopardy due to my possible incarceration, Vinnie and Ed were coming so Sam had someone to play with. As it turned out, the Man couldn’t keep me down-or maybe it was just meant to be, and God stepped in and offered a little divine intervention.

CP: How did the name “Sonic Suicide Squad” originate? The first reference that immediately springs to mind, for me, is D.C. Comics’ Suicide Squad series, in which various rogues’ gallery villains are pressed into U.S. government service as mercenaries.
JS: The name is actually a rip-off of a group on the television show Upright Citizens Brigade called the Hong Kong Danger Duo. It’s a name I was trying to use when Sam and I did our solo projects versus one another. So when we played our second show together and they wanted a name, I just told them that was our name.

CP: How did the tour with Acid Mothers Temple come about? Were you fans of theirs beforehand?
VP: This one’s for Sam and Jon, ’cause they did all the work.

JS: I met Acid Mothers through an old roommate who eventually married Cotton Casino. Then I drove them on their 2004 tour, and [we] became friends. Sam knew Tsuyama because they played together while he lived in Japan. In 2006, Sam played drums for Acid Mothers when they were doing a double-drummer tour. Their drummer couldn’t get a visa and they asked Sam to come out to L.A. and play the tour, but it was still up in the air as to whether or not the other drummer was coming, so Sam couldn’t leave work without a guarantee that he would do the whole tour. So he played some shows on the East Coast. Our friend Justin took over driving for me after the ’04 tour, and he kept telling us to ask them if the Clique could open for them. We didn’t think it would work so well, but when this band got together we thought it was worth a shot, so we asked.

CP: When you play live, is what you come up with totally improvised, usually? Or do you go onstage with a definite sense of what you want to accomplish?
VP: Everything we’ve done so far has been based on improvising. We already know what we want to accomplish: loud, fast improvs that are noisy as hell. We use this as a pure philosophy. Some of the ideas for the improvs are premeditated. Sometimes Sam will tell me he’s going to throw in an odd time signature or something extended like a 10-beat measure. Other times, I’ll have an idea in my head that comes from something I’ve been breaking down at home, like basing an improv off of a Giuseppi Logan tune or “Blues Five Spot” by Thelonious Monk.

JS: I’m at their mercy.

CP: Have you ever had a dream in which you came up with a killer melody or rhythm-only to wake up the next morning unable to remember anything about how it went?
VP: It was quite the opposite. Sometimes I’ll wake up with a line or even a whole song. It’s not a very frequent occurrence.

CP: What other bands and projects are you guys in? I know Sam and Jon play together as Cash Slave Clique, Jon does his solo thing as Rape Ape, and Total System Failure is Vinnie’s sort of primary gig, but are there any other outfits?
JS: Acheronian, a doom metal band from D.C. that sometimes wants a little noise.

VP: Total System Failure is my guilty pleasure. It’s my collaborative/studio work. I’ve only toured with the project once-fall of 2008 in Europe. I’ve got about five albums out with it now, available for free download on Sam and I play with Steve Mackay in the Radon Ensemble.

CP: has become a pretty important internet tool for bands and artists lately-more accessible and malleable in a lot of ways than, say, MySpace-and I notice that you guys are among those who have really embraced it. How’s that working out for you?

VP: I like the fact that you have unlimited space to upload your music, and you can elect to make it available for free. It’s a great tool. We just really got on the site, so I’m not yet sure how it’ll work out.

CP: What were some of your early, formative musical experiences, in terms of what led you to start playing in bands?

Sam Lohman: When I was 6 or 7–this shit happened in like 1968 or something–I got a record player and a (fuck) Disney record for Christmas. God had recently broken my sisters stereo and she asked if I wanted to go in her room, the forbidden zone, and listen to some Beatles. She’s ten years older than me so she was a happening love child. Of course, I went. She also sang in a band that practiced in my basement a few times. It`s all her fault.

VP: I started playing music in the grammar school band, so it was something I did since I was a kid. Once I discovered hardcore, punk, metal, and noise; I just gravitated towards guys who wanted to do something unique with sounds. Playing in Temple of Bon Matin taught me a lot; Ed Wilcox always encouraged me to be as creative as I wanted.

JS: Being introduced to go-go music in high school. Teenbeat shows. All the Shannon Wright, Make-Up, and Blonde Redhead shows I ever saw. Seeing Black Dice open for Godspeed You Black Emporer in Philly and having my mind blown. About a month later, Sam moved into my house, and the Clique was born. I had never played music or been in a band before I met Sam.

CP: Is there a significant psychic shift that goes into getting a project like this into gear, given that two of you (Jon and Sam) have done time in a project together already, and in working with Vinnie, you’re essentially altering the chemistry? I ask this as somebody who played music as a kid but isn’t familiar with the dynamics of serious musicianship and collaboration.
VP: This band came together really naturally, with almost no effort at all. It was only supposed to be a side project of the Blue Prostitutes. Sam and I had been playing together for a couple years now and I know Jon really well, so it all just feel into place. It just clicked.

JS: With our other band, Sam and I have always collaborated with different people, and Sam has played with Vinnie many times, so it was a pretty natural thing. Plus, I think we all have the same goal: to play music and melt faces.

CP: Where do you all reside? Are you relatively close to one another, geographically?
VP: Sam and Jon are from D.C., and I live in north-western New Jersey. It makes practice a bit hard, but we manage.

CP: Any chance you’ll jam with Acid Mothers Temple on this tour? I can’t even begin to imagine what that would sound like. One of the things you have in common with them is how prolix you are as a unit. Beyond the four or five releases you’ve got slated for 2009 so far, is anything else on the horizon?
JS: It would be awesome if it happened, but nothing has been discussed. If they enjoy our show, maybe they’ll ask. Vinnie’s the boss-he’ll fill you in on the rest.

VP: While there’s been nothing [discussed] about a huge jam, we wouldn’t object. I think it would be an interesting experiment. We are already working on some new material with Jeff Kohlmeyer. He recorded Temple of Bon Matin for a number of releases, and we’ve got about two hours of material tracked now. We plan on getting back into the studio sometime in the summer.

CP: When playing live, do you ever lose all sense of time and place?
JS: If we’re doing it right.

SL: Place sometimes; time never. When I played in Nimrod, we had our songs down cold. The drum parts were played the same each time. I had a couple of experiences when I re-lived dreams I had as a child. I don’t really zone out like that when I play with Sonic Suicide Squad.

VP: That’s the whole point, entrainment. It’s what the old jazz guys used to call “crossing the bridge.” It’s getting lost in the sound. The purpose is to cause a mass psychedelic experience. It’s almost like a primitive religion.

Sonic Suicide Squad plays the Ottobar April 20. For more information visit