Drum and Bass
4 April 2001
By Alex Saville
With the release of the double-disc Cowboys and Indians
the band Suran Song in Stag continues to shine a spotlight on consumption, politics and music.
"Bil (Weis) and I had reached a point where we thought we wouldn't play out live anymore," says Suran Song, lead vocalist for the group Suran Song in Stag. "We were thinking maybe the whole idea of live performance is dead. But I think that we've been excited about playing out again that people have been excited to see us."
NEW BRUNSWICK Some bands wear their influences on their sleeves. Suran Song in Stag makes a mission of them. With the release of the double-disc Cowboys and Indians (Cruel Music) the group continues to shine a spotlight on consumption, politics and music.
Cowboys and Indians
was intentionally created as two discs as a way to release parts two and three of the band's attempt to merge art and politics in music. While the previous release, Pure Agitator
, was a minimalist excursion, with only Suran Song's vocals over the bass montages of her collaborator/husband William Weis, Cowboys and Indians
incorporates Brad Yablonsky's drumming onslaught with Weis' guitar and keyboard work.
"The songs are growing out of the same narratives or ideas as in part one, but having them be completely different stages of the same story," Suran says.
It's a narrative the group has taken on the road. Suran Song in Stag will be touring the United States for most of this year, with an appearance at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick April 14.
The graphic design of the album itself is an homage to Gang of Four's 1980 masterpiece, Entertainment! The sonic material on Cowboys and Indians
weaves in and out of cover versions of select songs and the band's original compositions. The first disc, the "Karaoke Cowboy Dance Disc," opens with the aforementioned Gang of Four's "Natural's Not In It" and closes with the group's "I Found that Essence Rare." It's the "faster tempo more jumping up and down" disc, says Suran.
The disc also has a great take on Duran Duran's "Friends of Mine" replacing Georgie Davies with Marshall Mathers in the lyrics. Word play and twists like this are just part of what the band does to redefine the cover songs.
Disc number two, the "Small Change Indian Trance Disc," is the more "chilled out" disc, says Suran. Opening with the original track "Heaven," it immediately establishes itself as something to listen to at 2 a.m. or on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It's also here that the bulk of the band's newer compositions appear. A lush envelopment, the disc processes through moods of melancholy and quiet to a rich intensity and powerful beauty showcasing Weis' substantial range on the bass. In fact, parts of the album sound as if there's a guitar; as it turns out, it's mostly bass.
"I've been getting more into playing different chords," Weis says. "I've spent a lot of time figuring out ways to make chords on a bass so the notes don't get in the way of each other and hence become muddy. A lot of it is just about the attack and where you are playing on the strings."
Suran cites subway-busker turned anti-folk icon Mary Lou Lord when discussing why her band performs and records so many cover songs. "She picks songs that have resonance for her that weren't necessarily huge hits, or that other people are going to know, or they're songs that are underappreciated," Suran says. This allows the band to shape them through our own experience.
"Hopefully, it brings people back to those older records as well," she says. "Maybe people will listen to those songs and remember hearing it from a certain period." It's really the idea that, as a fan or listener, a song has a context different from that in which it was composed and is therefore a different object. Someone else has written a piece of music, but you receive it in a context that is your own. Whatever the song is for the composer or player, it's a different song for you. "To have a chance to do them and have them metabolize as extensions of our own lives as musicians was really fun," Suran says. "This record was really gratifying to make in a way that I didn't expect. I felt like part of the continuum."
It's this sense of history that is rarely so conscious in rock music. Because it is a post-World War II cultural event that places high value on newness, a decade is a century in rock'n' roll time. A group like Suran Song in Stag can look back 20 years and reposition the music of that era in an entirely new context. Since the audience for most new music is young, revisiting previously recorded material is a fresh event for the audience.
The positive audience response has also helped to rejuvenate the group, which came as a pleasant surprise to the band mates. "Bil and I had reached a point where we thought we wouldn't play out live anymore," Suran says. "We were thinking maybe the whole idea of live performance is dead. We'd put these ideas out and no one would want to look at them and listen to them. But I think that we've been excited about playing out again that people have been excited to see us."
Some of this has been helped by the addition of drummer Yablonsky. "Playing with a drummer again took some time to get used to," Weis says. "I figured it would be easy, but it was an adjustment."