Matt Gold and Nate Friedman, of Sun Speak: Something Else! Interview

We caught up with Sun Speak, featuring guitarist Matt Gold and drummer Nate Friedman, as they prepared to issue their second release. This EP, titled S?acred Rubble and due on September 4, 2015 via Eyes and Ears Records, follows the electric-chamber duo’s 2014 debut recording Light Blue Light, and finds Sun Speak taking stock of their Chicago-based surroundings.

Combining folk, jazz and experimental music, Sun Speak begin a tour on August 22 in support of Sacred Rubble. They have twice served as artists-in-residence at New Hampshire’s Avaloch Farm Music Institute. In this latest Something Else! Sitdown, Preston Frazier talks to Matt Gold and Nate Friedman about their musical origins, Sun Speak’s unusual two-piece sound, and their growth between studio efforts …


PRESTON FRAZIER: Please tell us about your background. How was your interest in music formed?
NATE FRIEDMAN: I grew up in Washington, D.C. I think I was always interested in playing music, but it took me a long time to realize that I wanted it to be my career. I’ve been playing the drums since I was in elementary school, but didn’t have much in the way of formal training until I got to college. While in school at Oberlin Conservatory, I realized that playing music was something that I needed to pursue professionally. I took the next few years of school to sit down and really be diligent about studying my instrument and the music I cared about.
MATT GOLD: I grew up in New York, in a very musical home. My brother is a great piano player and definitely took me under his wing growing up. We played in bands and worked on music together just about every day. My dad would put on all kinds of records, from Bob Dylan to Dewey Redman. He played drums, and when I was too small to reach all the parts of his drum set, my dad would sit me on his lap and move my arms around so I could play a groove. He had a few old beat ­up guitars lying around, which is how I first got hooked. My mom gave me my first piano lessons. There were­­ just a lot of sounds around the house. I started to mess around more seriously with guitars at age nine, and began studying viola that same year. For a long time, I was playing in orchestras as well as rock, jazz, funk­-type bands, bouncing between the two worlds. When I got to college, it seemed time to give way to one or the other, and I felt the guitar gave me a chance to participate in more diverse musical situations.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How did you meet?
NATE FRIEDMAN: Matt and I met while in school at Oberlin. We began playing together in various bands and found we had a natural affinity. Our musical values and vocabularies had enough similarities and enough differences to yield interesting music.

PRESTON FRAZIER: And your musical influences?
NATE FRIEDMAN: The first record I fell in love with was a Led Zeppelin compilation my stepfather gave me when I was around 10 or 11. Shortly after that, I discovered [Jimi] Hendrix and listened obsessively to his music for a couple of years. Those early influences sit in a pretty foundational place in my subconscious. The most important later influence on me is John Coltrane. In college, I listened over and over again to first A Love Supreme, then Live at the Half Note, then Live in Seattle, and on from there. My teacher, Billy Hart, also had tremendous influence on the way I play and the way I think about music. He challenged and enlightened me, both in his teaching and through listening to his records. In the context of developing material for this band, my references range from Pharaoh Sanders to Jim Keltner.
MATT GOLD: I draw a lot of inspiration from folk music in this country and around the world. I’ve learned a lot improvising along to ambient and minimalist composers. I also love adapting sounds from other instruments for the guitar, spending time with recordings of mbira and kora players, harpsichord music, or the birds outside my window. A few voices in particular: Prince, Joni Mitchell, Elizabeth Cotten, Lenny Breau, Paul Motian. Nate and I love a lot of the same music, but we also bring our own distinct histories and interests to the band. I’m pretty sure we do share the same top ­two ­favorite Miles Davis records, however, which is funny to me because they’re so different – Birth of the Cool and Tribute to Jack Johnson.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell us more about Sun Speak. When and were was the band formed, and why a configuration with no bass?
NATE FRIEDMAN: Matt and I formed Sun Speak at the end of our time in college together. We had been playing together for a few years in many situations, but had never played duo. We were rehearsing some guitar/bass/drums trio music, and one morning our bass player didn’t show. We spent the time playing duo and found that it was a very different and very interesting experience. We began to grab moments to get together and improvise when we could, and we found ourselves beginning to develop language as a duo. The format allows us to have a particularly direct line of communication, which brings clarity and focus to our music. We’ve found that the limitations of the format work in our favor. Having only four hands between the two of us forces us to be sure that everything we play is meaningful to the song.

PRESTON FRAZIER: That ultimately led to Light Blue Light. Explain your journey to Sun Speak’s debut recording.
MATT GOLD: Light Blue Light was the product of our first time at Avaloch Farm, a fully­ funded artist residency program in New Hampshire. Nate and I were in our last semester at Oberlin when I found this great opportunity to spend some time in the middle of nowhere and work on music together. I would say our time at the residency turned a loose collaboration into a real band. We weren’t sure exactly how we’d spend the time. We had all sorts of ideas, many of which we did dedicate some time to — like composing rhythmic forms based on telephone numbers, practicing traditional Tihais and writing our own variations, or transcribing Rosa Passos records note­-for-­note –­ but we very quickly and naturally started writing music together, improvising and revising until an album’s worth of material had been developed. Though we didn’t initially intend to make a record up there, we tossed the idea around after a few songs had been written. In that sense, the music on Light Blue Light was conceived of as a whole — and this guided some of the writing, reflecting on a piece’s function within the record as it developed. After three weeks of writing, we spent two days recording at a nearby studio called Blackwater Sound, run by Chris Westerman. As with the new EP, some of the tracks were done live in one complete take while others were built more through processing, layering and manipulating our instruments.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Where was the new music recorded? Did you find yourself writing in a different way?
NATE FRIEDMAN: Sacred Rubble was recorded, mixed and mastered in Chicago. We worked closely with our friend Charles Glanders, who recorded and mixed the EP, to craft the sound­world that the music inhabits. We trudged through the snow to his house once a week for a couple of months to fine ­tune the mix of the record. Unlike the recording of L?ight Blue Light,? during the recording of S?acred Rubble w?e were able to take our time and be exacting about what sounds we wanted. The new EP is different from L?ight Blue Light ?musically as well. We’d been developing language and living together in Chicago for almost a year before the recording ofSacred Rubble,? and we feel that our growth is manifest in the music. We were fortunate to return to Avaloch Farm last year, where we wrote most of the material on the new release. Our writing process for this Sacred Rubble was similar to that of L?ight Blue Light, ?but we hear the gravity of Chicago pulling on our new music.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Are there plans for a Sun Speak tour?
NATE FRIEDMAN: We will be touring in support of S?acred Rubble? early this fall. Starting September 7, we’ll be heading down the East Coast then back out through the Midwest to end up in Chicago on September 24. [A full list of tour dates, as well as music samples, can be found here.]

PRESTON FRAZIER: What else is on tap for Sun Speak?
NATE FRIEDMAN: This fall, we’ll be returning to Avaloch Farm, where we’ll continue to develop material both as a duo and in collaboration with another musician. We hope to release a series of collaborative EPs, each featuring a different guest artist, over the next couple of years.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Next, we’d like to find out your Top 5 album recommendations for readers.
NATE FRIEDMAN:­ John Coltrane – Live in Seattle
Alan Lomax recordings of Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers
Jeff Taylor – Organelle
Charlie Haden and Hank Jones – Steal Away
Billy Hart – All Our Reasons
MATT GOLD: Bjork ­- Vulnicura
Sam Amidon ­- Lily-­O
Bruce Molsky -­ Soon be Time
Matt Ulery ­- Wake an Echo
Makaya McCraven -­ In the Moment
–Also worth mentioning …­ On last year’s fall tour, we exclusively listened to these two: Jimi Hendrix ­- Live at Berkeley and John Coltrane -­ Live at the Half Note.