Difficult chunks: an interview with The Great Sabatini

The Great Sabatini have been making great, weird, jagged-edged sludge for over ten years now. Their new album, ‘Goodbye Audio’ (out on vinyl via No List, Ancient Temple and No Why, and on cassette courtesy of Pink Lemonade) is an absolute beast, and you should really tuck into it if you haven’t already.

Singer/guitarist Sean Sabatini took the time to answer these questions by email, wherein we touch upon the new album (obviously), mutant toys and the perilously fine line of injecting a sense of ‘fun’ into a band’s music.

You must have told this tale a thousand times, so let’s start with the elevator pitch version: tell us how, when and why The Great Sabatini came to be.

We got together in Montreal in 2007 to start jamming and made an EP. After our first tour across Canada, our initial drummer Will left to travel and we connected with our old friend Steve, whose band, Tugnut, had just dissolved. He joined the band full time shortly thereafter and has been with us for ten years now.

The new album is ace! Tell us about it: what went into it and made it the way it is?

Thanks. We wrote it mostly apart from one another, which was a lengthy process, and decided to record most of it live off the floor in an effort to sort of bring the songs and performances to the most honest place possible. The last song, which was designed to be a sort of huge experiment, was recorded one piece at a time and meticulously mapped out.

Are there any underlying themes or ideas running through the album?

Well, the major theme of this record is mortality. Each song is different but they all are concerned with some aspect of the inevitability of death. It’s a sort of Memento Mori kind of thing.

Was there anything you wanted to build on following ‘Dog Years’, or, alternatively, anything you wanted to draw a veil over and start afresh with?

I think there was a very focused effort to halt our inclination to complicate our music. We like to challenge ourselves and push our musical abilities in the tunes, and ‘Dog Years’ has some pretty difficult (for us) chunks in there. So the bigger challenge this time was making the arrangements simpler, so that tracking them live would be easier, and also allow us room to perform them with more power or restraint, where necessary.

I love how your records are so varied: there’s the rugged, gnarly, sludgy skeleton, but all this other stuff is occurring along the way (the weird spidery melodies; the strings…). How do you decide to bring these factors in, and how do you know what’s going to work for a Great Sabatini song?

I think we all have musical ideas and tricks in mind whenever writing is happening. Whenever I have a specific idea for something to employ as a musical device in a tune, the guys will respond with further ideas and reactionary things, so that sorta makes for a variety of sounds and arrangements in our songs. If something isn’t going to work as a Sabatini song, it’ll die out pretty fast. But any idea is worth investigating. Sometimes an idea gets shelved for years but finds its way back. The back end of ‘Tax Season In Dreamland’ is one of those bits. That part is well over ten years old.

Tell us a bit about ‘The Hand Of Unmaking’ – that one’s pretty darn special.

Jeez, thanks, man. We had the idea to write something huge. It started with reading Michael Herr’s book ‘Dispatches’. I wanted to convey a feeling of fragility in the shadow of monolithic human violence. I didn’t think we could do that in the sort of song that we’d ever be able to perform live. So once we decided to compose something which was free from the restraint of the band as a four-piece band, the options just blew wide open. We threw a lot of stuff into that one. It was a huge undertaking for us, but it was a fun and interesting process, overdubbing one piece at a time and seeing it come together.

You’ve been a band for over ten years, released a stack of records and toured your asses off. How do you keep things fresh, and how do you prevent yourselves from burning out?

Well, the circumstances for us even being a band at this point are quite different, each of our lives are in different places than they were even five years ago. So working together has required some retooling just to make it happen at all. We’re adapting, simply because we love to make music together and we each find it rewarding in some way. It’s worth the effort to figure out how to work around geography and weird schedules.

‘You’re Gonna Die (Unsatisfied)’ alludes to this adherence to craft and the fact that holding yourself to an impossibly high standard pretty much dooms you to failure. How do you reconcile this as a band/musician? At what point did you make your peace with the fact?

I feel like it’s a seesaw. One minute you resign yourself to the fact that perfection or satisfaction will elude you, and then you wake up and start chasing it harder than you ever did before. It’s a perspective thing I suppose. Sometimes it’s ok to be at peace with that knowledge. Other times that knowledge is the fuel for some restless ambition.

Do you bring the same kind of work ethic to whatever you do in your dayjobs?

Speaking for myself, I do. I’m a tattooist by trade, and I work very hard at that. Steve is the hardest working guy I’ve ever met. He approaches every task with integrity and a strong work ethic. I feel like I’m probably the only guy in the band that currently has a job that he loves to do, but hopefully that changes. All of us attack the things we love with passion and some sense of pride.

I need to ask: what’s with the toys? ‘Dog Years’ had the demented Muppet, and ‘Goodbye Audio’ has what look to be a squadron of mutated He-Man figures on the cover. What the hell is going on? It’s like my childhood toy box having a glue fume-infused fever dream…

Well, that’s a great description. I like to make my own toys, mostly from pieces of old toys or other random objects. I like that there’s a sort of handmade feel to the covers for ‘Dog Years’ and ‘Goodbye Audio’. Some record covers I love had that as well, like some of those Primus album covers from the 90s, for example. I like to collect custom made toys and other weird stuff so it felt like a natural progression to build a diorama type of scenario for the album cover. I didn’t want to repeat myself with the puppet thing, and I wanted to make something visually striking, and maybe a bit out of the ordinary.

Do the creatures you fashion for the band have anything to do with what you do to pay the bills?

I have made some small run editions of custom made toys that I sold for a little extra money but it’s not my main source of income. I do plan to start making toys from scratch and casting/molding them so I can make larger editions of things that that’s a goal for 2019 for me.

Whether it’s the album art, the videos or the music itself, there’s usually a strange and warped sense of fun about The Great Sabatini. What feeds this playful side to the band, and how does it reflect n you as individuals?

I guess our sense of humour bleeds into what we do. We take it seriously and don’t want to come off as a ‘joke band’ but we are profoundly silly people in general. That is going to make its way into the music at some point if we’re being honest about the art of it. I also feel like that sort of thing has to be carefully placed in the context of the band and our music. We’re trying to strike a balance of feels and moods with this, and finding the right time and place to put something ‘fun’ is important.

I always think injecting a sense of fun or kookiness is a dangerous thing for a band: go too far and you invite dread words like ‘goofy’ or ‘wacky’ or ‘zany’. The Great Sabatini manages to keep things on track, but is this something you’re ever conscious of? Are there ever points where you think “nah, we’re going too far here…”?

I guess the last part of my previous answer sorta addresses this. Yeah, there are times when we discuss together what may or may not work for album art or a shirt design or some other visual element to the band, if it may be putting out a weird image or something. We’re very conscious of that sort of thing but the guys also trust me to a large extent to be the steward of that outside perception, because I write the words and do most of the art and design myself.

Canada belches out great music like it can’t help itself. How are you perceived/received in Montreal, and where would you say you fit into the country’s musical landscape?

We have a small niche audience in Montreal. That town is spoiled for choice in the arts. We fit only because of some stubborn refusal to go away. We’ve never for neatly into any genre or scene, so not many folks can latch onto us if they’re very genre-focused. But the folks who are into our band are INTO our band. I suppose at the end of the day if rather have those folks following our work than a high pile of fairweather fans or something. This seems to apply throughout the country. It’s hard to feel like we fit anywhere, but that usually makes for a more interesting experience at shows and with the people who find our music one way or the other.

What kind of local bands did you guys cut your teeth seeing when you were just getting into music? Did you ever see any of those old Great American Steak Religion or Spectra Sonic Sound bands?

That wasn’t really our cup of tea back then but as I said, Montreal being a town where we’re spoiled with choices there was never a lack of underground stuff to dig in to. And the third of us who are from here (Rob and Joe and I) were into different corners of the music scene when we were younger. I remember seeing the Expectorated Sequence in the early years and the Discord Of A Forgotten Sketch and being really into that spazzy hardcore/noisy thing. Those were interesting bands to me in town when I was starting to get into local underground music but we also all had friends in the death metal scene as well. Neuraxis comes to mind. Ion Dissonance. Joey just mentioned a band called Ire. His description of them is really piquing my interest, actually (sludgy metallic hardcore). Signed By Force had a cool thing going for a while and I was a fan of most of the bands on that label, like Trigger Effect, the Nymphets, Bionic.

What’s the weirdest thing to happen to you as a band?

The first thing that comes to mind was a time on our first tour when we stopped in Vancouver. We were staying with an old friend of mine and, after a few drinks, wound up hiking out to the woods and digging up the skull of her beloved cat Toulou. It’s hard not to be met with weird stares whenever I tell someone about that but it was a pretty poignant, though profoundly strange, moment we all shared together.

What’s next for The Great Sabatini? What are your immediate plans, and is there anything you’d like to do or accomplish that you haven’t yet been able to?

We are just finishing up the second weekend of gigs with our pals Cellos (from Windsor). It’s much harder to get out and do shows the way we used to, but we’re gonna try to get out and play some more next year. It’d be cool to get out and do some festival-type gigs which was never something we did very much of, but maybe that’s what makes more sense for a band that can’t get out to play as much as we used to, but we’re still trying to build something with our recorded output. We also had an idea for a film score project but that is maybe something we can try during the cold months this year.

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