Feature Interview: Sunhawk
Sunhawk — the energetic, sexy and electrifying three-piece band from Victoria B.C., burst onto the Island music scene in early 2010. The trio of childhood friends Keenan Murray (drums), Matt Longpre (vocals, keyboards, bass, guitar) and Ben Robertson (vocals, guitar, bass) expertly blend soaring harmonies, electronic keyboards and 70’s-esque guitar riffs against a backdrop of powerful, dance-inducing drumming. Sunhawk, however is not one dimensional. Their sound has continuously evolved since their first EP entitled “And So It Was,” which was entirely written, recorded, mixed and distributed by the band. With a new EP set for release later this year, and with the start of the 2013 festival season, Sunhawk is a band to look out for!
I sat down with Keenan, Matt and Ben over a pint last week to ask them a few questions about their ever evolving music and their upcoming performance at the Tall Tree Music Festival, June 28-30th, 2013. The trio was incredibly warm and honest about their music and really dove into their process of sonic creation. What ensued was a self-reflective conversation that exemplifies both friendship and artistry on a higher level.
Em – I want you all to take us back to the beginning. You guys are friends from childhood. Did you meet through music, or did this evolve as you all got older?
Keenan – I played with both of these guys around twelve or so, just bass and drums jamming in a basement. I mean, we were all friends aside to start. I’m pretty sure I sold Matty his first guitar… that’s what started it.
Matt– I got ripped off (everyone laughs).
Ben – We all went to Sasquatch together in 2009. We were all doing different things musically at the time, and while we were at Sasquatch, we thought “why don’t we form a band?”
Matt – I actually started playing because of the guitar Keenan sold me. I had no interest really before that. I never thought “I want to be in a band,” I just got that guitar and never put it down. I eventually convinced him (Keenan) to let me jam with him. Keenan was playing since he was four, so he had pretty high standards.
Keenan – Now I’ve been eclipsed!
Em – So, since we’re talking about childhood, what was your favorite cartoon and cereal as young’ns?
Ben – That’s a great question (laughs). I was huge into Biker Mice from Mars…do you guys remember that? (We all give Ben a strange look).
Keenan – I’m sorry…Biker Mice?
Ben – Ya…(awkward silence) Anyways I’m also a Shreddies guy…gotta stay regular.
Keenan – I would choose Fruit loops and Recess. I still have a crush on Mary Ellen. I watched it recently, and it’s like a toned down Simpsons story. There are funny parallels.
Matt – For me, Life Cereal…not by choice, that’s just what I was fed. Do you guys remember that show Doug? I remember watching that. There was this one song on this episode that stuck with me and I randomly started changing the words to it. That was honestly the first time I ever wrote a song… changing the words to that stupid tune off Doug.
Em – So, from the Doug cartoon to now, which artists have influenced your music?
Ben – I grew up listening to a lot of Queen. Actually the first album I ever bought was Weird Al, and he did a cover of a Nirvana song. I was so blown away by that song (not the cover), that I went out the next day and bought the Nirvana album. I was huge into Nirvana. From then on, anything that I find good…there are just so many bands.
Keenan – Mine was U2’s Joshua Tree when I was seven. My dad put it on and that was it. I listened to it front to back and remember thinking that being a musician is one of things I could happily do for the rest of my life. Then I got into John Bonham and Led Zeppelin…that’s a start.
Matt – I’ll go with The Beatles for sure. I love bands similar to them, like Tame Impala. They’re awesome. I just saw them at Sasquatch. Also, Vampire Weekend, Arctic Monkeys and Radiohead.
Em – Did you see Radiohead at Coachella?
Matt – No I saw them at Bonnaroo. That’s one off the bucket list. I just saw Black Rebel Motorcyle Club, Alt-J, Odesza… so many amazing bands that I’ve been lucky to see.
Em – Anymore bands…we’ve started quite the list! Why stop now?
Ben – Grizzly Bear…there are so many great artists out there. If I hear a Rihanna song and it sounds good, we’ll listen to it.
Matt – There are constants that we like in every genre. There could be a rhythm or a melody or a tone that we like, it doesn’t matter. We’re always looking for things to be influenced by, not necessarily the whole picture.
Ben – For me right now, it’s got to be Father John Misty. I have that on repeat.
Em – That’s amazing! Thanks guys! So much great music to pass on to everyone who reads this!
Em – If you could play with any other band, who would it be?
Keenan – Mine would be the Arctic Monkeys. I would be singing and playing the drums… I would play everything in every song.
Matt – Yeah, they would sit on sectional chairs off to the side! (laughs)
Keenan – That’s a band that ignites me. I just want to pick up a guitar when I hear them, it really makes me want to play.
Ben – I think I would be too intimidated to even show my face. (We all laugh). What about you Matty?
Matt – Tame Impala is pretty fresh in my mind… or I could play a tambourine with Phoenix and be pretty happy with myself.
Ben – I would like our band to jam with someone who is just a really good singer. We’d write the music and have him sing it.
Matt – I don’t think about playing with other people so much as I wonder what would happen if someone else produced us. Like Jack White. What would he do with our band?
Em – So, here’s a left fielder. If Sunhawk was a type of cheese, what would it be and why?
**Everybody bursts out laughing. I sit eagerly to see what is going to happen. I like throwing in random questions.**
Matt– What’s the smelliest one?
Em – REALLY!? NEXT….
Keenan – Gouda? That’s a cheese right?
Em – Gouda’s really good. Smoked Gouda. Ya.
Keenan – What’s that deli cheese that’s super expensive? It’s fourteen dollars for a little bit.
Em – Boccioni?
Keenan – Is that what it is?
Matt – Sooooo, the opposite of that! (we all laugh)
Ben – We’re buy one get one free. No wait, we’re expired cheese.
Em – Sorry for the question…you didn’t indicate in your bio that you’re all lactose intolerant.
Matt – We need to rewrite that.
Em – Ok, back to music! I read on West Coast Rock that the idea to start a band happened at Sasquatch Music Festival in 2009. Can you describe that conversation and how you committed to the idea?
Ben – I think initially we got super cocky when we were at Sasquatch, and thought “ya, we can do this.” Then the more we practiced, we realized “oh wait, those guys are all really good.” (everyone laughs)
Matt – We were inspired at Sasquatch. We decided that as soon as we got home, we should start working on ideas together and get serious about it. And that’s what we did.
Em – Describe your sound in twelve adjectives
Ben – When we played at Lucky, Harley from SpaceBoots came up to us and said “you guys have such a mystical sound.” None of us had ever thought of that before. That might be one…
Matt – I’d like to put sexy in there.
Ben – It’s warm too.
Matt – Groovy.
Keenan – I like brooding. There is a churning element to the songs. Toiling.
Matt – Driving.
Keenan – I think one of the hardest things to do is properly describe your own music.
Em – Yeah, I can imagine.
Keenan – You can’t compare it to other bands, because once it’s yours it doesn’t sound like anything else. Coming up with words to describe it is difficult.
Matt – You sort of take the sounds of bands you like and throw them in a blender, and what comes out is something completely different. You know all of the separate sounds are in there, but they meld together and become something else.
Ben – There are some top forty sounds in there and Queens of the Stone Age.
Matt – We might try a song with the drumming style of The Black Keys, but then have the actual tone of the drums be more electronic… so it ends up being totally different.
Keenan – In this song we called “Dead of Summer,” we have this break with a guitar and a keyboard sample playing together with a high, sharp driving melody and everything else is pulled out. It’s followed by an intense hook. Matty suggested that I rip off a DJ build with snare drums slow to fast, to faster to infinitely fast. I thought it would be terrible, but I gave it a try and immediately fell in love with it. I’ve never heard a drummer do that before, but it’s perfect. I think I used some adjectives in there? I used some right!?
Em – I think we have twelve…I lost track.
Em – What festival is your great white buffalo? By that I mean the festival that will be in pinnacle of your career…you were born during Sasquatch, so I thought this question would be fitting.
Keenan – I think to look out from the opposite side of the Gorge Amphitheatre would be pretty unreal, having been there so many times. It’s not the biggest one, but the one we’re most associated with. That perspective would be insane.
Matt – I would have to say Rifflandia, but play on the main stage, at night. We could play to a hundred thousand people in Bangladesh and it would be awesome, but would it matter to us as much as playing to a thousand people right at home? No.
Keenan – Another one would be The Commodore Ballroom. It’s intimate and has an incredible sound. The environment is amazing and every time I go see a show there I want to play that venue.
Em – Where do you see Sunhawk in two years from now? How are you evolving?
Matt – I think it would be nice to find a collaborator to work with, like a producer or engineer; someone to help us achieve what we want. I think that’s a fairly reasonable goal over the next few years.
Ben – I think we crave that outsider professional opinion all the time, because it is just us. We’ve never had someone come in and say “this is what you need to do, this is what needs to get cut and this is what you need to change.” We realize that every other band is in this situation.
Matt – It’s tough to record yourself and produce yourself. Like Keenan said about playing drums like a DJ build, we’re always taking things like synth bass and mixing it with live guitars… I used the smoothie metaphor before: sometimes you take a bunch of things and throw it in the blender and it’s awesome, but sometimes it’s like “what the hell happened to this?” So that’s where a producer with a recipe would be ideal, but who knows…maybe we’ll come up with the magic smoothie before then. We have to rely on ourselves at the moment.
Em – So you guys do everything?
Matt – Yes, from the website to the album art, to the sound engineering to the lyrics.
Keenan – Matty’s the design kahuna and he’s the mixer as well.
Ben – Keenan has the patience of a saint.
Keenan – I have a super reliable car. (everyone laughs)
Matt – I’d say that a lot of our songs started because Ben and I were dicking around setting some gear up and Keenan was free to start experimenting on the drums. There was a cool beat happening and as soon as our guitars or keyboards were plugged in we could play along, with a new song happening before we were thinking about it. That’s when all the good stuff happens, when you’re supposed to be working on a different song or rehearsing and you start to play around. Then it comes out three to five years later! (everyone laughs)
Em – That’s quite the process! You guys are breaking it down well for people and other artists who might not understand how this all works, or have difficulty articulating this process.
Matt – We work really hard on creating songs that we’re really proud of, and we’re hard on ourselves.
Ben – I think what takes so long, is that we have two song writers in the group (Ben and Matt). I’ll work on a song and take it to Matty and he acts as the producer. We all work together to create the final product. Everyone needs to be happy; it’s a good approach to writing.
You’re coming back to Tall Tree for a second year. What are you looking forward to, and if you have any advice for other musicians and festival goers what would it be
Keenan – I had a funny thing happen last year. I brought two pairs of shoes. One got ruined and the other pair is better than ever. They just got better somehow.
Em – Tall Tree has that effect.
Em – Alright gentlemen! Drum roll…if you were a tree, what kind would you be and why?
Matt – I’d be a Maple Tree…because I’m sweet and sticky.
Ben – I’d be one of those tree’s from the Game of Thrones.
Keenan – I’d be a Spruce. Good old reliable Spruce.
Check out Sunhawk at the Tall Tree Music Festival June 28th-30th, 2013.