By: Joanna Helms
We’re bombarded by thousands of stimuli every second, almost, and to remember any of it, we have to focus.
This disembodied, spoken reflection on the selective nature of memory opens Sumner James’s new album Ephemera, underscored by a sparse rhythmic texture and juxtaposed with the sounds of passing traffic and text from W. B. Yeats’s poem of the same name. The track is a preview of explorations to come: Ephemera is, at its core, a journey through memories personal and shared–real, imagined, and fictionalized. Taken as a whole, the album offers a fascinating suggestion for how to focus on those stimuli to work through memory–from distinct, mundane situations (the question of settling down in “Babies”) to vaguer feelings about reflection (the fatigue of working over the past in “Tired of Reminiscing”).
Sumner James is the solo electronic project of Bombadil drummer James Phillips, and Ephemera is his second full-length album under that name, following 2012’s 29 Days and a number of smaller remix projects including two Bombadil tracks last summer. From speaking to Phillips, it’s clear that he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the acts of remembering and self-reflection since he began work on the new album in July 2014. “At the time that I set out to make this, I looked at some songs that were half-written and looked at where I was at in my life, and I realized that memory in relation to romantic relationships had a real impact on the story I was telling myself about myself,” he says. “So I did a lot of research about memory at the outset of the project.” Phillips’s interest in memory had a practical parallel as well: his friend and producer Justin Longerbeam created a piece of software also called “Memory,” which Phillips describes as “affecting the audio I put into it in unpredictable ways.” The challenge was to use the software on every track on the album–a gesture, perhaps, towards the unreliability of the formation and evolution of memories.
Broadly speaking, Ephemera is not really a stylistic departure from Phillips’s earlier work as Sumner James–both albums feature prominent use of sampled found sound and spoken word, for example, and both are primarily electronic–but, like the experience of remembering itself (and unlike many earlier Sumner James tracks), it’s not always pure fun. His sophomore album is generally more on the cerebral side, less on the danceable. This is nowhere more clear than in “Never Love Again,” a dark reflection on the process of moving on post-breakup. The song started out as a sarcastic joke, Phillips says, but quickly revealed itself to be more serious. “I’ve had this experience in a breakup where someone is really pissed when you move on. I’ve seen it in friends, and I’ve felt it in myself. When I wrote the song, I was trying to be sarcastic about that feeling, and then it actually turned out to be really sad once it was done.” Like much sarcastic humor in the vein of Marc Maron (whose podcasts Phillips admits to listening to often), the song does strike a bitter note in the combination of its melodramatic lyrics (for example: “I’d sit up at night wondering / what you did with your life, / hoping you appreciated / my ultimate sacrifice”) with a pounding drumbeat and clipped, dry vocal delivery.
Then again, not every track on the album involves such sober contemplation: “Dance the Night Away” is as joyful as its name sounds, with a strong dance beat, bubbly synths, and heavy vocals reminiscent of New Order. “That song started because a friend was like, ‘You should totally make an 80s pop song,’ as if I couldn’t do it,” Phillips laughs. “I was like, ‘I can totally do that!’” Phillips worked on the track with Portland-based producer and DJ Karl Kling, who he says pushed him even further toward the 80s sound than he might have gone otherwise. The upbeat mood of “Dance the Night Away” feels a little jarring in the midst of more subdued, reflective songs on the album, but its inclusion does follow a certain retrospective logic. As Phillips confirms: “That song definitely made it on because I liked that the vibe of it was so nostalgic.”
Another trace of nostalgia comes from the album’s use of found sounds, usually taken from Phillips’s own recordings of his surroundings. For example, Phillips captured the traffic noises in the opening track, aptly named “Under 85,” on his phone underneath the I-85 overpass on Club Boulevard in Durham. Phillips describes the act of making sound recordings, even lo-fi ones, as a way of documenting the sense of a place and his time in it: “To me, it’s like making a photograph in sound,” he says. “It helps me remember specific moments.” This idea doesn’t extend only to the use of recordings: he describes the instrumental tracks on the album, “Glass Harmonicas” and “For Eva,” as their own kind of snapshots, a way of fixing down his musical ideas and personal growth at a certain moment in time. “I like this idea that the reason to create art is to document your life and share it with other people,” he says, “hopefully to inspire other people, but also so that in ten years I can look back and say, ‘This is what I was doing in this period of time.’”
Apropos to his exploration of place through field recordings, Phillips’s collaborators on the album are tied to the places he’s spent the last several years–both in Portland, Oregon, where he lived for a time and recorded the album at EYRST Studios last year, and here in Durham. In the Portland camp are Longerbeam, Kling, and singer Christina Cano, as well as Portland rapper Ripley Snell, who makes an appearance of Phillips’s track “Belief.” In Durham, many of the people who contributed to the album and will perform locally in live performances of it are familiar, long-term collaborators. On the album, both Collier Reeves (guitar) and Nick Vandenburg (mastering) have worked with the Sumner James project before. And Bombadil bassist Daniel Michalak will perform live, along with past Bombadil contributor Stacy Harden. Phillips says that the transition from touring and recording with Bombadil to working on an electronic project was unusual at first (“As an electronic musician, you spend a lot of time in a room by yourself,” he points out). But eventually, he found both a new sense of community through work with a new group of producers and hip-hop musicians at EYRST, along with a way of integrating his Durham folk connections. “In making this record about memory, I really wanted to connect to that Durham community, because we always connected by making things together,” he says. “So I went out to Portland to make it, and then ironically now, all of my friends in Durham are playing these shows with me. So it ended up connecting those two communities in a really nice way, at least surrounding me personally.”
Phillips plans to release another full-length Sumner James album over the summer–this one entirely instrumental, and even more heavily based on the use of found sound–as well as to continue working on a new album with Bombadil. In the meantime, he’ll be performing his new material from Ephemera live with various versions of a five-piece lineup including himself and Daniel Michalak, Stacy Harden, Gabe Turner, and Rob Chamberlain. The full group appears April 9 in Durham at the Listening Room (6:30pm, $8/$10); other upcoming shows include April 15 at Phuzz Phest in Winston-Salem, and May 20 at Cat’s Cradle Back Room (opening for You Won’t).Ephemera is out on Intrinsically EYRST on April 11 and is currently available for pre-order.
*featured photo by Antonia Basler
Joanna Helms (@quietx3) spends most of her time writing and thinking about music. When she’s not doing that, she organizes concerts, workshops, and discussions with the Chapel Hill/Durham-based Experimental Music Study Group, teaches, plays flute and electric bass, and keeps her ears open.