[Sun Araw's Cameron Stallones at Woodsist Festival Big Sur 2011; photo by Robert Khoury]
Sun Araw, the "sacred retreat" of Cameron Stallones, rides fleeting moments of spiritual clarity out to the end of the astral plane on his recently Zoned In 2xLP, Ancient Romans. Guns blazing, the Los Angeles artist returns with his most sonically acrobatic and, depending on your taste, accessible material yet. It's the type of work that has the potential to broadcast Sun Araw's Technicolor pastiche of cosmic riddim, sacramental chants, scorched dub, and aquatic ambience far outside the niche catacombs where these sorts of abstract meditations like to dwell.
Ancient Romans is not just a particularly adventurous effort-- it's rife with misdirection. The 80-minute offering keeps the ingredients for a concept album on retainer, but Stallones intimates both directly and cryptically that it's really more of an introspective affair. On a casual listen, it might sound like DMT-riddled, improvisational treatment of psychedelic Laurel Canyon lore. In actuality, Stallones reveals an unusual, tremendously detailed-oriented approach to sound sculpting. To wit, any assumptions about Ancient Romans are probably patently false, or at least inaccurate. Cameron took some time away from his myriad projects to get mystical with me over email about his new label, Sonic Boom, compositional repetition, and the "porch of the mind."
AZ: Between the Latin references, the album art, and the typeface, Ancient Romans has many trappings of a concept album. Does the LP have any sort of narrative arc or specific overarching idea attached to it?
Cameron: This record has a lot of really powerful spiritual meaning for me. It was recorded during a time of real clarification. A lot of energies and concepts that had long ago taken root were finally getting called by name, and I was spending a lot of time reading some really heavy texts in this garden of succulents up on a hilltop in East LA. I would go there every day after work and just get knocked over by these flickering moments of understanding that were weaving experiences I've had into much larger traditions, supporting them from the inside. Then I would spend the rest of the night recording. The garden at dusk is such a potent space. That hanging static feeling. It's like the porches of the mind: the meeting point of civilization and nature right at the twilight transition. That time acted to sort of set a seal on what had come before and open the door to what lied ahead. Ancient Romans was constructed in that general moment and spirit, and has a lot of those ideas integrated into it on a deep structural level.
AZ: Ancient Romans incorporates Djmbes, trumpets, saxophones, and live drums into the Sun Araw fold. Is this move toward more instrumentation something you're hoping to explore more, on record and in the live setting?
Cameron: I'm always interested in expanding the pallet. Playing a new instrument is like setting an obstacle in your path. It forces you to go around the long way, which becomes something electric because it has that element of discovery. Especially if, like me, you aren't some polymath instrumentalist, and you end up having to find some interesting way to abuse the thing. As for the live sets, I want as many players as possible, but unfortunately the sort of music I make has not brought those resources to me. Even touring with three people can be financially difficult.
AZ: Is your songwriting and recording process heavier on the composed or the improvised side?
Cameron: Everything is generated from improvisation, centered around that moment of discovery. The recorded versions are the first time that material has ever been played. Then I spent a lot of time overdubbing and editing whatever the initial element was. Sometimes something will go wrong on a technical level with the original recording and I'll attempt to recreate the jam, but it never works. The alchemical moment when something transcends its own substance can't be recaptured in any way I can figure out. So I'm frequently left with a headache of trying every which way to fix some flubbed recording.
[Cameron Stallones with live member Alex Gray (Deep Magic) ; photo by Robert Khoury]
AZ: When discussing the music, you consistently talk about tapping into different "zones"? What's your textbook description of a zone, and what zones informed Ancient Romans?
Cameron: I think probably what I mean is that I've always had a powerful sense of the space-- physiological, emotional, spiritual-- invoked by music. I've always used music that way in my life, using it to create, augment, and enrich experiences. I don't think of myself as a songwriter at all, because I think what I'm after is some distillation of that effect, creating environments with certain properties and relationships. So often those moments in music that have powerful effects on me are fleeting-- like an outro, or a couple bars right before the second chorus or something. I'm interested in evoking those spaces so that I can stay a while. That's why I'm interested in second wave psychedelia, drone, and minimalism. To me, it's the most direct approach to what gives me my musical kick, which usually involves some idea of mantra, transcendence through repetition, emphasis on texture rather than narrative.
AZ: How'd you hook up with the mighty Sonic Boom on mastering detail?
Cameron: You know, he hit me up out of the blue. I found out later that a mutual buddy had made the connection, but I just about lost my seat. Had to play it real cool and not bring my copy of Beyond the Pale for signing the first time we hung out. Spacemen 3, Spectrum, Experimental Audio Research-- these are foundation stones of my whole musical existence.
AZ: Tell me a bit about your new label, Sun Ark. It's now an arm of Drag City, right? How did that come about?
Cameron: Sun Ark started as a way for me to reissue and manage the Sun Araw and Magic Lantern catalog. But, as you can imagine, all the sudden, small ideas and side projects that were floating around aimlessly now have a way to come into being. I haven't really decided how deep I want to go with the label; it's a huge amount of work even just putting out cassettes. But I think it's getting decided for me, because there's a pretty full release schedule just of my own projects, and it keeps piling higher with amazing music from amazing people. The label isn't part of Drag City, but we have a collaborative relationship for Ancient Romans, since it was more ambitious on the manufacturing front [and] wasn't something I could do alone. I'm really excited: working with them has been incredibly positive.
Cameron: Probably no new Vibes coming. Magic Lantern is sort of on a lifestyle hiatus, as half of the band is up North and the rest of us are down in LA. There's hopes to do some recording in the future. Just depends on all sorts of factors.
AZ: Any other projects in the pipeline?
Cameron: Well, the big one at the moment is this record I just made with The Congos. My friend Ged [M. Geddes Gengras] and I went down to Jamaica and made an album. We recorded all the music and The Congos wrote and sang the lyrics. It was really an incredible experience. We did a lot of recording down there, and we're working on bringing out 12" singles of a lot of damaged dancehall tracks we tracked with local toasters. Right now that's a pretty full collaborative plate. I'm very interested in collaboration when the situation is right and the proper energy is there.