SUSS And numün Find Hope In The “High Lonesome” Of Ambient Country
It was a grey, overcast day in Queens, but the bleary fall weather didn’t seem to bother the four members of SUSS. In fact, the clouds were almost a blessing as the veteran musicians took their positions on a small soundstage in a warehouse in Long Island City, setting up their instruments for a live taping of “Home” off their upcoming record Promise. Light leak from the building’s skylights had apparently derailed production the previous day. By contrast, the stormy skies now set a properly theatrical mood. As SUSS leaned into a slow, meditative groove, it was almost possible to forget about the chaotic world outside the studio for a moment. That is, until a faint pattering became audibly noticeable, growing louder as the resonance from their instruments faded — rain, ricocheting off the roof of the studio. There was a moment of tension among the shoestring crew and the few observers: After weeks of preparation, would a little drizzle derail the concert film?
“That sounds so cool,” Bob Holmes said finally, the bounce in his slight drawl breaking the silence. The other band members stirred in agreement — “What is that, rain?” — before setting up for another take. In case the slow, spiraling acoustics of their third record don’t make it clear, SUSS seem unusually well-suited to the passing sounds of nature. “We like to play to the room we’re in,” Holmes explains to me between songs. Standing tall in jeans and a sport coat with long, grey hair combed back neatly, Holmes would cut an intimidating figure if not for his easy laugh and perpetual grin, which travels to his eyes even when a mask obscures the bottom half of his face. And though, by all accounts, SUSS would not exist without his initial spark — “Eno meets Ennio,” he likes to say — he’s quick to disburse any credit to his fellow bandmates and the on-set crew, the mark of a man humbled by years of touring and decades wading through the murky waters of the music business.
“A lot of people know me as the cowboy guy,” he said, slightly resigned, over Zoom a week prior to meeting on set. “What can I tell you?” Holmes has been redefining the boundaries between country and experimental music long before he became a pioneer of the meandering, solipsistic twang of ambient Americana (or “bootgaze,” as some have called it). In the ’80s, he was surrounded by the syncopated, anxious East Coast art rock coming out of RISD, his alma mater. In turn, he looked to the West for inspiration, finding magic in the ineffable yet shared melancholy of Brian Eno and Glen Campbell. “In the ’80s, the two seemed a world apart,” he explained.
Together with fellow RISD grad and SUSS member Gary Leib, they synthesized those disparate universes into Rubber Rodeo, a country outfit by way of CBGBs. The band garnered a respectable following — most notably for their cinematic music videos, a fortuitous boost in the early days of MTV. The band eventually broke up later that decade, but the power of the crossover between country and avant-garde clearly stuck with Holmes in the intervening years. About four years ago, he presented his ambient-country concept to Lieb, along with longtime colleagues Jonathan Gregg and Pat Irwin. “We had five different concepts of what that actually meant,” he said. “But where those five concepts overlap, that’s what became SUSS.”
Gearing up for the release of their third album in three years — Promise, out next month on Northern Spy Records — the members of SUSS perform with an effortless sense of synchronicity, a natural rapport born from decades of camaraderie. Though Lieb, Irwin, and Holmes formally met in the ’90s — “over french fries and matzoh ball soup,” as Irwin explained — they had long orbited the same circles. Irwin started the foundational New York no-wave band the Raybeats before touring with the B-52s in the ’90s. He later went on to score TV shows like Spongebob Squarepants and Rocko’s Modern Life. Despite his relative shyness on set, he clearly looked the part of a grown-up New York art punk, his shock of white hair combed into a cropped coif, his guitar strap adorned with his initials and a treble clef. When the band moved to “No Man’s Land” — a slithering, simmering cut from Promise — Irwin assuredly cued in the band.
Crucially for SUSS’ twangy aura, Jonathan Gregg helms the pedal steel guitar, an imposing instrument that he operates with a surgeon’s concentration and care. “The volume pedal is really its own instrument,” he explained between takes. Gregg and Holmes met in the late ’70s, and had previously collaborated in the “hillbilly chaos” group the Crusty Gentlemen, but Gregg seemed especially passionate about his ambient work with SUSS. “In a genre that can be kind of cold, I think we’re not that at all,” he enthused. “It sounds like there’s people involved.”
Irwin jumped in to clarify: “But I wouldn’t call this jamming. I would say this is composing.”
And Promise bears that notion out: Whereas SUSS’ last two albums were more sweeping and cinematic, Promise is more grounded, anchored in chord progressions and repeated motifs. “Home,” with its circuitous strumming and gradual transitions, embodies the warmness that Gregg described, growing louder with each return to Holmes’s bright chord progressions. Closer “Nightlight” even features the barest sketches of percussion, enough to establish a central rhythm without overpowering Holmes’ gentle guitar noodling. According to Holmes, they aimed for asceticism: “Going into Promise, I think the overriding philosophy was, ‘How little can we do? How much can we have the silence or the space speak for the music around?'” It was a prescient goal for a record that was nearly wrapped by the time COVID hit, when the band’s formerly collaborative, generative sessions would be put on indefinite hold.
As if releasing one record in the midst of an unprecedented year weren’t ambitious enough, Holmes also teamed up with Gamelan Dharma Swara musicians Joel Mellin and Christopher Romero to form numün, who released their debut album voyage au soleil earlier this year. As with SUSS, the three have an easy dynamic and a mutually deferential relationship, each quick to credit the other members for their collective output. Numün started as a one-off project for a space-aged compilation The Moon And Back — One Small Step For Global Pop, a collection of songs inspired by the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The project started when Holmes began to play “ridiculous cowboy notes,” as Mellin put it, over a record of the first moon landing. From there, they expanded it into a full record of extraterrestrial explorations, taking Holmes’ philosophy of “letting the music lead you to where it’s going to go” as inspiration. “I will say it is a challenge for me,” Mellin added. “I’m a little bit of an obsessive about controlling things and wanting things to sound a particular way.”
But the end result combined Mellin’s meticulous mastering with Holmes’ free-spirited approach and Romero’s instrumental wizardry. (At one point in our Zoom call, Romero casually whipped out a fretless banjo known as a cümbüş, which he used throughout voyage au soleil.) It’s notably more reliant on sound collage than SUSS’ output, featuring spoken-word transmissions and bleeps that recall 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s mix of wonder, solitude, and terror. Or, as Holmes put it: “We captured a vibe.”
He affectionately described Mellin’s post-production mastery as “a pop-up book — you think you know what’s going to happen, but then all of a sudden a page opens, and everything just comes to life in a sort of 3-D manner.” Though Holmes was central to the album’s creation, there’s a sense that he himself is still learning new things about the music with each repeated listen: “It still surprises me when I listen to it. That’s probably my biggest joy in the music.”
That echoes Holmes’ core satisfaction from SUSS. “Our music is not only made for deep listening, but for crazy, repeated listenings,” he said, likening it to the novel sense of awe he gets from revisiting Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno’s Apollo 40 years after its release. That hypothesis was tested on the film set, where the band played each song from Promise multiple times to satisfy the different angles needed for editing. Paired with Leib’s hypnotic animations and surrounded by a dazzling array of instruments, from a harmonium to an electric mandolin, SUSS were electrified in their live element. They moved as one unit. And as Holmes suggested, each recording of “Home” indeed revealed new contours of the song: In one take, Leib’s twinkling electronic loops seemed to take control of the song’s final third, while in another Holmes’ acoustic guitar resonated with a bit more dynamism and verve.
“I think there’s hope in this,” Irwin said to Holmes when they began recording Promise. On a damp day in the dregs of a drab year, the sounds of pedal steel and synth loops cautiously promised a brighter future.
Promise is out 12/4 via Northern Spy, and voyage au soleil is out now on Musique Impossible.