Making their new EP with Steve Albini, having an edge, and finally playing outdoor shows
There are certain records that have been made which signify a next step being made. It might not be done intentionally, but the evolution is noticeable to the listener and some sort of sonic apex is reached by the band. It seems like Boston rock act Sunshine Riot have achieved this with their Electrical Tape EP that they self released in April.
The quartet of guitarist and vocalist Jonny Orton, bassist Jeff Sullivan, guitarist Mark Tetrault, and drummer and percussionist Steven Shepherd worked with the legendary Steve Albini at his studio Electrical Audio in Chicago last year. During that experience, they fine tuned their sound that ranged from alt-country to punk into something they could call their own.
I recently spoke with Orton and Sullivan about how they got connected with Albini, working with him in the studio, establishing an edge and wanting to get back to playing shows on a regular basis.
How were you guys able to get connected with Steve Albini to create the EP?
Jeff Sullivan: This was all Jonny. He got drunk one night and he was texting us, we thought it was fuckin’ crazy and that it was never going to happen. Then the next day it was like “oh shit!”.
Jonny Orton: Yeah, that’s all accurate. It was right when the quarantines were kicking off and I was hanging out in the living room, had a few beers and I literally Googled “How do you record with Steve Albini?”. Then I found Electrical Audio, emailed the studio and the next day they got back to us and said, “Yeah, cool. We’ll do it.”
JS: That’s the best origin story ever, man.
JO: I never really expected them to respond but they did so that was cool.
It’s surreal how that happens but it’s also pretty sweet. What was the experience like working with Steve? I’ve heard from people that have interned at Electrical Audio that he’s pretty much work-focused when it comes to getting stuff done and getting a record done. Did you all work remotely? How did it all go down?
JS: I will say this, don’t talk to him about Rickenbacker basses.
Oh, he hates them?
JS: He does not like them. He hates them. Other than that, he’s a fun guy. He’s very professional and easy to work with, definitely.
JO: We were just there over a weekend at Electrical Audio in Chicago. He was taking COVID-19 very seriously and we were too, everybody was masked up and being really careful but we were all there. It’s funny, I think Albini has this reputation of being kind of like cold but he’s actually kind of a sweetheart. Once he warms up to you, based on this one experience, and he feels you out and determines, I’m not sure what he’s determining exactly, he’s a pretty nice guy. He’s very methodical and he’s categorically not a producer.
If you’re asking for any insight on introducing other instruments into a particular section of a song or if you should slow a part down a bit or something like that, he has no interest in engaging in that conversation. He’s just really methodical and super focused on what you have prepared for him on that day, which is what he’s going to record. He’s an incredible engineer and you have to understand going into the situation that he’s not interested in producing you. I think as long as you’re sort of aware of that, which we were, before you go in, that’s a good thing.
JS: When you think about it, it’s kind of fair.
Yeah, it is. There seems to be more of an edge in terms of the way the songs sound in the EP versus the band’s previous material. The guitars especially have more of a dirtier and distorted tone and there’s more of a punk vibe going on. What would you say was the main thing you wanted to capture while making the record?
JO: I think we always enter a recording session pretty much thinking that we want to record the best stuff we got right now. With COVID-19, we’re not playing shows and we had a tour that we had to cancel so we had a lot of time to focus on the only thing we could do, which is write. Even initially we could only do it individually and we took a lot of time off before we even got back together as a band. We made the most of that time and we wrote some decent songs. I don’t think we wanted necessarily to make a punk record, some of our previous records have been a mix of punk or blues or even alt-country or folk music.
Purely accidentally it’s kind of a return to what Jeff and I were writing during the earliest days of Sunshine Riot. Which is basically a spin on punk music, grunge and that sort of thing. I don’t think it was intentional, it’s just how the songs stand out and how we wrote them when we wrote the music for the EP.
JS: I also kind of felt like those were the songs that would sound good with that same kind of tone that we’ve heard on other albums that Albini has done. It turns out that we were right, I hope.
There’s definitely an early ‘90s alternative rock vibe to it. Since we’re still in this pandemic and have been for over a year, what would you say has changed the most about the both of you either as musicians or as people ever since COVID-19 changed everything in 2020?
JO: Probably a lot of stuff that we weren’t even aware of but as a band it was great for us to just kind of make the most of it. We are used to playing live a lot and we work really hard to play a lot around New England, especially when it comes to going out on tour once or twice a year and we really work hard at that stuff. That process in itself is pretty time consuming, booking a tour for a band like us can take a while and promoters and venues who’ve never had us play their stage before are just taking us on our word. Because none of that was possible, we primarily focused on writing and I think that was great for us. Personally, it’s been a pretty crazy experience for anybody and everybody, I’ve grown to appreciate my couch more.
JS: Not having a show hanging over your head where you want to make sure that you’re not rusty really gave us a lot more time to work on stuff. We’ve got a lot in the pipeline right now, we got the skeletons of songs recorded and we’re writing even more stuff now. I don’t even know what we’re going to do with it all, but it’s good that we have it and these new songs are going to be fun to play when we get back out there.
With the Electrical Tape EP already out, summer is on its way and it’ll be here sooner than later with restrictions due to ease up over the coming months. Things will probably be different from now until August, so what are your plans for this time period? I know you guys played a socially distanced outdoor show at Dusk in Providence last month so do you plan seeking out more shows in a similar vein?
JO: We’re eager to get out and play. wherever it’s safe and where people are cool with it. We’re both fully vaccinated and the rest of the band should be set with that very, very soon. When we played at Dusk, it was so long since we were out playing in front of people. There’s this great phrase that goes along the lines of saying “A song isn’t a song until you play it for somebody” and I really identify with that. Playing music in front of people and seeing how they react is always fun for us and I think we’re really eager to get back to playing.
JS: That show at Dusk was a great experience. There were a lot of people from the Providence scene that hadn’t seen us in a while and the reception from people who I know are in seven different bands themselves was really exciting. We played a set that was almost entirely stuff that we had written in the past year and a half. There were maybe one or two songs from our earlier albums but that was it and it was really gratifying to get out there after basically living inside yourself for a year and showing it to other people. It was amazing and I can’t thank Rick Sunderland who owns Dusk enough for doing that show, it was great and it also got shut down by the cops so it was a real Sunshine Riot show.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.