We aren’t as concerned about playing as fast as possible or being as heavy as possible or just crushing you. There are other ways to reach the listener and I think it took us until now to be comfortable enough with ourselves to let songs and themes come out.
Over the past five years Sannhet has built a well-deserved reputation for being one of the fiercest, most electrifying instrumental bands in New York. What started as an eclectic side project by two, and then three metalheads, became a punishing, relentless, post-metal institution with some of the best combination of art/light/visuals and music around. Their third full length album, So Numb, just released on Profound Lore Records, has immense energy and intensity, but is a bit of a departure in style from previous releases (see our review here). Part of this is due to the influence of producer Peter Katis, the man behind some of the best work of bands like Interpol and The National. We caught up with John Refano, Christopher Todd, and AJ Annunziata from Sannhet and asked them all about it.
E&D: Can you tell me a bit about the history of the band?
Chris: The band originally started as a two piece. Both John and I had been doing music for about 15 years and decided to start Sannhet as a recording project. We had both met in Philadelphia, where I’m from, but lived in different cities at the time; I was in New Jersey and John was in Philadelphia. We made some experimental stuff on our own, but the band didn’t really begin in earnest until we both moved to Brooklyn and decided to pursue a more live-band direction. We made an EP, Young Death, which we released on cassette, and was just re-released on Hospital Productions. But when we played live shows as just a two piece, we found it tough to replicate the sound we wanted without bringing a laptop on stage and sacrificing some of the live element. So, that’s when we decided to look for someone to play bass. As soon as AJ joined, we realized that’s the thing we’d been missing.
AJ: John and I worked together and I badgered him every fucking day to join the band.
Chris: I was like “no way”, but AJ was right…and that’s basically the way it’s been in the band ever since (laughing)! We wrote Known Flood with AJ. We had started a few songs without AJ, but he really helped make the songs stronger by introducing more interplay with the guitar and bass, among other things.
E&D: Had you always intended to stay instrumental?
Chris: Yes, that was a vision we set forth from day one. We were going to be instrumental no matter what we did.
E&D: Were there certain bands at the time that you modeled yourselves on or drew inspiration from?
John: I’d say, no, not really. While we all had our own influences, but I remember even back then, we wanted to pull from all sorts of stuff. John and I were into a lot of experimental electronica and noise at the time and we didn’t want to limit ourselves. But both of us had a metal background and so the music naturally moved that way as we played more together. In fact, I’d go one step further and say we went out of our way to sound like no one out there. If I came up with a riff and I thought it sounded like another band, I’d get rid of it.
AJ: Even when I talked John and Chris into having film projected on us while we play our live shows, they were adamant that it couldn’t look like anything specific or anything other bands were projecting. They were only ok with diffuse images that had no obvious context, which I think is a great metaphor for how we think about our music. There is an interesting dynamic in the band though, in that John and Chris are way better versed in music than me. I tend to create music in a bit of a vacuum, without remembering or researching anything I’m into. They help edit out things that sound too much like other stuff out there.
John: But just keep in mind, that AJ’s is the one that brings accessibility to what we do. AJ brought a tuneful quality to the music. He’s our hook guy, our melody guy. My MO when we started out was to take anything pretty that AJ wrote and make it ugly. But that formula actually worked very well because the music always retained a broken beauty even though there was dissonance on top of it.
E&D: With the new album So Numb, did you guys go into writing and recording with any specific goals in mind?
AJ: We went into this one without a clear idea of what we wanted to accomplish. But all of us had very intense personal difficulties in the last couple of years and so the themes just kind of wrote themselves. The album became a channel for those thoughts and feelings. Specifically, the album deals with mental health and depression, and, ultimately, redemption.
Chris: If you read the song titles, it’s pretty obvious where we are coming from, and pretty obvious that there is a story there. But at the same time, without lyrics guiding a narrative, we try to make it so that the listener can decide for themselves what it is. We want the music to be a mirror for the listener.
John: We noticed that some of the songs we were writing were moving away from that teeth clenched intensity of Revisionist and we embraced it. I guess after playing many shows, our priorities have shifted so we aren’t as concerned about playing as fast as possible or being as heavy as possible or just crushing you. There are other ways to reach the listener and I think it took us until now to be comfortable enough with ourselves to let songs and themes come out. That’s not to say the new record doesn’t have intense experiences, it just varies more. We are becoming more emotionally mature (laughing).
E&D: Can you talk about the recording of So Numb and how it differed from Revisionist and Known Flood
AJ: We learned so much in the catastrophe that was the recording of Revisionist. We did that record in the most difficult way possible. We put ten billion things in it and insisted that everything stay there against the advice of everyone helping us. We wanted this intense control.
John: On this record we learned a bit about refrain and letting go of control. It’s funny, because literally and figuratively, letting go is what we did. Listening to the two back to back you can hear it. One is this intense controlled, anxiety-filled, white-knuckle experience and the new one is all about giving ideas and feelings enough space to blossom.
E&D: How was it working with Peter Katis?
John: We started with some ideas by ourselves, but a lot wasn’t working out, so Chris suggested we work with Peter who did the first two Interpol and several of The National’s records and a bunch of other stuff. But it was the Interpol records, the way they sounded, that really attracted us to him.
AJ: We had thought a lot about who would produce the album, and Chris was adamant from the beginning that we should talk to Peter. So, I finally emailed him and he replied that he’d heard us on Pitchfork and that the first thing he wanted us to know is that we are not a metal band. He wanted to be the first one to break that to us.
Chris: I was always a fan of Turn on The Bright Lights. That was the New York sound at that time. Working with him was enlightening and liberating because it allowed us to go beyond our own internal power struggles and rely on an independent ear that we knew could make really good records. His rap sheet spoke for itself. It made making the record way more productive and fun.
John: And he was kind of right about the metal thing, too. It was one of the things I had to wrap my head around, especially on my guitar sound. My instinct is to have a really washed out reverb-drenched shoegaze sound and right from the first phone conversation he wanted to bring more clarity to what I did. That was something I had to adjust to. You probably notice that the guitar and leads are much more prominent on this record and that’s his influence. It’s something I’m still getting used to.
E&D: So do you have mixed feelings about the record?
AJ: No, I think it’s what I’ve always wanted the band to sound like.
Chris: I think the album is the final embodiment of what we envisioned when we started the band.
John: ….i think the guitars are a little too clean. Don’t be surprised if our next release has blurrier guitars on it (laughing).