TVD Recommends: Sansyou at Galaxy Hut, tonight, 11/7

It makes perfect sense that the cover of Sansyou’s debut release would feature a striking photograph of an Ama girl diving for pearls. On the 5-song When We Become Ghosts EP, the DC-based instrumental trio conjure an echo-laden, subterranean atmosphere replete with chiming guitar arpeggios that hover and float like bubbles slowly making their way to the ocean’s surface.

Highly dramatic, Explosions in the Sky-style instrumental theatrics this most certainly isn’t. Sansyou eschews the standard soft/loud post rock bombast in favor of a more reflective and tranquil musical path—one that recognizes the quiet power of slowly descending (and ascending) melodies, as well as the gravitational weight of silence itself.

To celebrate the release of “When We Become Ghosts,” Sansyou will be performing tonight at the Galaxy Hut (9pm, 2711 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA). For tonight’s show, the band, which includes guitarists David Nicholas and Matt McGarraghy, will be augmented by Lorelei drummer Davis White. The superb guitar and cello duo Janel and Anthony are also on the bill. Intrigued, The Vinyl District sent David a few questions via e-mail to find out a little more.

Sansyou has been around the DC scene for a few years but this is your first release. How do you feel about that? I ask because it seems like a lot of bands form and then have their first release out so quickly that there isn’t much time to forge a unique identity.

You are right, we did not rush into the recording. Sansyou started out as an acoustic band and we explored what’s possible with the interplay of cello, acoustic 12 string guitar and hand percussion. In 2010, I got the urge to go electric and go in a different direction. We gave ourselves time to hone the new material by playing it live first. Matt and I didn’t go into the studio until we were confident we’d come out with something that captured the sound accurately. And we didn’t rush the mastering process either. Taylor Deupree at 12k mastered it and did a fantastic job bringing out the details in each song.

What can you tell us about the haunting photograph on the EP cover?

That’s the photography of Fosco Maraini, an Italian ethnologist. When I was in Japan last year, I leared about this amazing culture of women pearl divers, the “ama”; free-divers who worked in an isolated community in really harsh conditions. Maraini photographed them in the early 60s and I instantly connected with that sense of suspension he captured. I really wanted to use them for the artwork, but only if I could get actual permission.

Maraini’s book is long since out of print, and he passed on in the 70s, so I thought that was the end of the road, but I learned from an Italian-speaking friend that his daughter is an active playwright and he put me in touch with her. She in turn, helped me arrange the permission from Italy’s Ministry of Culture who administer rights and licenses to them and I was able to select two photos from their archives. It was worth the effort because I really wanted the artwork to convey what the music is reaching for, and that it be done the right way, with permission and credit to Maraini.

Sansyou is an instrumental band, but you’ve been the principal songwriter in pop bands as well, including Flume. Does writing songs without a vocalist make for a more liberating experience? Are there unique challenges?

For me, yes. We can develop ideas that are more open-ended, without having to pack them in around vocals and let things grow before committing too soon on an arrangement. It’s definitely been a period of growth for me to write with Matt and find parts that weave together and that’s very rewarding. This is the first time I’ve been in a band with another guitarist. One of the challenges, which is actually fun, is to find patterns that make room for each other but also fill out the sound at the same time. I think for instrumental bands, there’s a temptation to overplay and fill in all the space; we definitely aren’t afraid to use silence when the song asks for it.

Speaking of songwriting, how much of an evolution did the tracks go through before they ended up sounding the way they do on the EP?

The guitar arrangements were pretty much settled in from being played live beforehand; and were tracked just like we perform them. The element that was new, and I think really significant, was Matt’s additions of piano and percussion parts. Those sounds blend together and at times, seem to suggest basslines, and countermelodies that fade in and out. That really appeals to us. Since the recording, Davis White is playing with us and adding a lot of new sounds beyond percussion so there are new interesting paths to explore already.

In a previous conversation, you mentioned that you are a great admirer of Brian Eno and his Oblique Strategies method of unlocking new creative possibilities. Can you talk a little about how this has impacted the band’s sound and some of the decisions you’ve made?

I really just started asking myself, “How much can I take away from a traditional band approach, and will it still be interesting?”, and how might that force me to react as a musician ? So it was reductionist; removing the clutter, and realizing that the white space in the song is just as musically useful as layering on another instrument. As we developed the songs, especially the title track, “When We Become Ghosts,” I was pressuring myself to write a melody part in a very linear and quick way. It wasn’t happening. Then I remembered Eno’s concept of writing a song from the inside out, and Matt helped me see this too; once I let go of that, the parts came together and that’s the arrangement you hear on the disc.

One of the things I appreciate most about Sansyou’s music is the descending / ascending motifs within the music—you like to shift gears, utilize space and keep things dynamic. How important is it to you that the musical narrative moves in more than just one direction?

That is one of our intentions with the music. It’s also one of the benefits of working as an instrumental band; we can evolve those dynamics beyond a traditional pop song formula—or we can use that approach too if we want. Building in that tension and release is something I always want to hear so I’m glad you’re hearing it too.

DC’s music scene is quite diverse but we don’t really have many acts that revel in the kind of floating, liquidity dreaminess that you conjure with Sansyou. Do you find sticking out like this to be more of a blessing or a impediment?

Maybe both! Right now, this is our sound and I know it will continue to evolve; it does seem to be connecting with people who have an ear for quieter things at the moment. It does mean being selective about the venues and bands we perform with so there’s cohesion. So far we’ve been very fortunate that way.

Thanks very much! Looking forward to the show!

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