Authority and Intent: An Interview with Aaron Turner and Nick Yacyshyn of Sumac

photos by Tiina Liimu

There’s an old joke that goes, one of the leaders of ISIS, a Baptist, and a Russian walk into a bar.

Sorry. Someone had to say it. Say hello to Sumac, your new favorite band. A brainchild of guitarist, label owner, and composer Aaron Turner (Isis, Hydra Head records, etc etc), Baptists drummer Nick Yacyshyn, and Russian Circles bassist Brian Cook, the trio are utter metal mavericks, delivering music at once familiar given their backgrounds, but totally fresh. Their debut album The Deal (out February 3rd on Profound Lore), rocks. I don’t really know another word for it. It sounds like a rock band. A really, really fucking good rock band. Slipping between “free-form,” spacey jams, heavy riffs, noisey chaos, and loose melodic lines, The Deal is what you get when authoritative, visionary musicians like these guys come together and find musical chemistry.

This is not a “super group.” Far the fuck from it. This is a band that delivers material as good (and at times, better) than the output of its members’ collective resumes. It’s a band that’s not going away. It’s a band that probably made one of the best records that will come out this year, right as their bands put out some of the best metal and hardcore albums of the last two years (for Baptists, Bushcraft and Bloodmines; Old Man Gloom with The Ape of God; and Russian Circles’ Memorial).

I spoke to Turner and Yacyshyn about how the band came together, the writing and recording process for The Deal, and making aggressive music while also growing gracefully.

Gear Gods: Aaron, when it comes to musical influences, what broke the dam for you, in the way that Korn did for Nick?

Aaron: [laughter] It was definitely Metallica for me. There was stuff before that, like the Beastie Boys, Motley Crue, Poison, and Guns N’ Roses, but it was kind of like an arc of things, in which it just got heavier and nastier. When I heard Metallica that was when my tiny brain was totally fucking blown. I think there was something about the complexity of the songs, and the level of nuance and musicality to it, that maybe I didn’t consciously understand, but hit me on an intuitive level. I knew there was something sophisticated about this music that was also coupled with something that was really aggressive and primal, and that combination was something that deeply resonated with me, and was sort of like the blueprint for my own musical progression.

Nick, did you feel similarly about Metallica and the 80’s?

Nick: You know what, actually? Absolutely. Metallica was like that band for me too, I would say. Mind-blowing shit when you’re a young’un, and you hear fuckin’ double kicks and palm muting for the first time. [laughter] And the song structures too, like “Master of Puppets.” It led the way to a lot of crappy shit, and eventually a lot of really good shit.

It paved the way to Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, right?

Nick: [laughter] I had to take that off the turntable to do this interview so it wouldn’t bleed through.

Aaron: That shit’s gonna be on your Wikipedia page forever, Nick [laughter].

Metallica is a framework-laying band for a lot of people. Listening to The Deal I don’t think too much of Master of Puppets, but I do hear a similar kind of aura, a certain kind of exuberance.

Aaron: I do think that was intentional, although I wasn’t specifically thinking about Metallica. Though as I said, that is definitely a part of my musical DNA. It became so firmly engrained early on it would be impossible for me to shake it at this point. And it was something about their willingness to step away from the verse-chorus-verse structure that was really illuminating for me, and it helped, I think, later on inform my own way of songwriting. You could have a succession of parts that made sense together, but it didn’t at all have to follow the conventional pop idea of structure. I think even though it maybe isn’t as sophisticated, there’s something from that, which relates more to classical music, where there’s an idea of a flow and a musical narrative, and a heavy use of dynamics that was really important to me too. That was something that was consciously injected into writing songs for The Deal.

Also just two other things to note, which I think relate to an album like Master of Puppets, is creating an atmosphere. An atmosphere I think is a really hard thing to purposely create. It’s something that just has to come out of the process. I don’t know how to make that happen, but it’s something I always hope will happen, and that definitely for me was achieved with The Deal. I think there’s a palpable sense of atmosphere and energy and for me that’s one of the most rewarding aspects of it.

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Another thing that really stands out to me as I’ve gotten older with Master of Puppets is the energy in the rhythm section. Lars gets a bad rep these days, but his playing on those early Metallica albums is phenomenal. And with Nick, you’ve got a similar kind of restless rhythmic energy, but also a conscious focus.

Aaron: The first time I saw Nick play with Baptists that was immediately what struck me. I’m fine with drummers who have finesse or who have obvious technique, but if a drummer is sitting there looking bored or mechanical, I think that’s kind of self-defeating. Especially for metal music which is supposed to be high energy. For me that’s an essential thing for trying to find what fits with a good guitar riff – it doesn’t mean it always has to be upbeat, or that it has to be really complicated. It just means it has to have purposeful intent to it.

Kurt [Ballou, who mixed The Deal and has recorded and mixed Nick with Baptists] said about Nick, that he plays the drums with real authority and purpose. I think that’s a perfect way to define it.

I completely agree with that. As a caveat, Aaron, I’ve been heaping praise on Nick’s playing and on Baptists. How did you first come into contact with him? The rumor around the water cooler is that Kurt brokered this relationship.

Aaron: I definitely saw Baptists play live, and that was just after their first 7-inch had come out. Hearing a drummer on record, you can tell some things about them, but seeing someone play live has a lot more to do with it, at least for me. I go to shows occasionally just for the hell of it, but I’d also been purposefully going to shows in Seattle to look for a drummer. Nick was one of the only people I saw over the span of years whose playing I thought was really exciting, and I felt like had the kind of energy I wanted to have for what eventually became Sumac.

The first time I saw him though, I knew Baptists were from Vancouver and I guess I was trying to find someone more local. But the more I thought about it, the more I looked around, the more it just seemed like there wasn’t anyone around here that appealed to me in that way. I was telling Kurt I wanted to start a new band, and that I couldn’t find anybody, and was asking if he knew anyone in the pacific northwest, and Nick’s name was the first one that came up.

So you were keeping tabs on him before you guys met?

Aaron: not really in a conscious way, I was just like, “wow that drummer fucking rules, I wish that guy lived here,” and then I put it out of my mind. By the time I got into the studio with Kurt again to work on the Old Man Gloom record, I was writing some riffs that I didn’t really think were gonna be for Old Man Gloom, and I really wanted to start a band that was able to do more than a lot of the stuff I was doing with them or Split Cranium. And so when Kurt brought that up, I was like, ok, I didn’t seriously consider this before, but now maybe this is the time to actually think about it.

Nick, can you take us through the timeline from your perspective? You’re at home, you’ve got Limp Bizkit on vinyl, you get the phone call, Aaron Turner wants to do a band with you.

Nick: I woke up one morning, checked my email, scrolled through all my nu-metal weekly fan news [laughter], and saw that Kurt had sent me something along the lines of, my friend Aaron wants to jam, would you be into it? And I kind of just was like, uh, yeah. Yeah, let’s do that.

Was Aaron’s work big for you?

Nick: Hydra Head for sure. Specifically for me, Botch was a huge band in high school. That was a total, put me on the path of making like, out-there, mathy type shit, when I was younger. That aspect of Aaron’s involvement in music has always been there. I’ll admit that I’m a late bloomer in a lot of ways, and didn’t really get into Isis when I was younger, but now that I know that music, and the scope of what he writes and what’s in his mind, it just blows my mind. It’s super exciting to be in a project that seemingly has no limits, and only wants to push the limits of what we can come up with together. It’s super exciting.

If there was gonna be a marriage of metal musicians, you can’t pick two better-matched guys. Like, both of you have such a core artistic vision, as opposed to some younger [and older] musicians who go for take a more genre-based approach.

Aaron: I think that’s fair to say. That was definitely my intent in starting this band; finding Nick as a drummer was really important. I didn’t want something that sounded tentative. I wanted something that sounded forceful, that had a very strong purpose to it. That’s something I appreciate about a lot of other bands, is when I feel like there’s a drive and a focus to it. That can manifest in all different kinds of music – whether it’s soft ambient stuff, or you know, full on blasting hardcore like Baptists – it doesn’t connote a particular genre. It has to do with the mindset of the people involved. As far as working with Nick and what we could write together, I really had no idea. It was a total fuckin’ experiment that could have failed. But I knew that there was enough of a basis for something good. There was enough indication of potential that it was worth exploring. I knew something about what he was capable with on drums and I knew what I wanted to write. So it seemed like the basis for something good could come out of that.

There is a lot of stuff out there that I do feel totally lacks purpose. It’s not always the case of people simply writing bad music, so much as sometimes people don’t really know where to go, or there isn’t much passion there. I think that’s very, very necessary. Sometimes that comes from an individual, but often it has to come from a group of people who are pooling their collective energies together.

Did you write this album collectively then?

Aaron: It’s hard to say, actually. I wrote all the guitar parts and had the rough arrangements sketched out, but it could have gone in so many different directions based on who else would be involved. There were a couple other people I played with where I went, maybe these songs are shitty. And it wasn’t necessarily because those players were really bad, it just wasn’t going where it needed to. I think Nick and I coming together and being a creative team definitely had a huge impact in terms of how the songs took shape. I didn’t write any of the vocals until after the drums were done, and we had basically laid down the record. What he and I laid down together had a lot to do with how the vocals were placed in the context of the music, too.

Nick, when you first heard these riffs and songs, what was that like? I haven’t heard you play this sort of music before – did you take any new approaches in composing your drum parts?

Nick: When Aaron sent me his initial riff ideas, it was just kind of to me, like an open canvas just to lay down some super textured things, and exercise the kind of stuff I wouldn’t normally do with Baptists. There’s a lot of room to create an atmosphere, and I just wanted to do the project justice. Have it be something wholly unique and see where it could go. It was really fun jamming this shit for the first time. We had a jam last January, which was our first, and Aaron and I playing together – instantly, I knew I was in good hands. And that was my first meeting with Aaron. It was just a really good first impression, musically and otherwise.

Putting the parts together, we both knew what we wanted without having to tell each other. And we could just play what we wanted to hear, and it ended up having its place. We wanted the same thing out of it. The kind of free-form parts, and the noisier shit, I haven’t ever really had an outlet to do that in a band, other than like, in high school orchestra, and concert band when I was playing crazy percussion pieces. That’s a really cool feeling, where it’s not necessarily about your part, but about what your part is adding to the rest of what’s going on. It’s not necessarily there for anything other than what you’re feeling while you listen to it. Getting to explore that was really exciting.

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One of the things that I really enjoyed about The Deal was the contrast between these “open canvas” sections, and the more riff-based parts. Had you ever done anything like that before?

Nick: Not to that degree. I’m thinking of a specific part on the album, in “Hollow King” there’s a big middle section. I can’t recall ever doing something like that before.

Did Aaron’s music just like, make you do that?

Nick: Ha, yeah! When we started jamming that stuff, we just took it in these directions. When you’re jamming that kind of part, you have to be aware of what everyone else is doing. We were on the same page, and we were just feeding off of each other. There’s a cool freedom to a lot of the music.

That middle section of “Hollow King,” and then the transition into more melodic single-note riffing, made me think of a collaboration that isn’t musically similar whatsoever, the Irony is a Dead Scene EP that Mike Patton did with Dillinger. Where you have two artists who come from different sonic worlds, but have that ability to adapt and play off of one another. The feeling I got from the record was a raw, reactionary response.

Nick: Yeah, I’d agree with you there. We didn’t nitpick too much, and we didn’t spend a crazy amount of time even in the studio, changing things. It was like a raw fuckin’ vibe, for sure. It was a cool process, putting the songs together. We kind of had our own way of doing a pre-production vibe, where I’d record the songs on my phone, then we’d listen to them, and then arrange the songs from there. I think a lot of instinct went into this, and not a lot of manipulation.

How many of those sessions did you have before you went into the studio? Were you prepared?

[laughter] Want to take that one Aaron?

Aaron: We knew the basic song structures, and there wasn’t a huge change between what we did in the rehearsal space and what we did in the studio. And actually I think that the short amount of time that we put everything together in had a positive effect on the final result. I spent a lot of time writing the guitar riffs and figuring out a good way to put them all together. But the process of Nick and I figuring out the flow was pretty quick. It happened over the span of a week after talking about it for a while, doing some file trading, and doing that initial jam. So again there was definitely some room for potential failure there, because neither of us knew precisely what we were getting into. But even in our initial jam there was an acknowledgement of good musical chemistry happening – we didn’t really have to talk about things that much. And for me that’s kind of the best case scenario, when intuition and unspoken agreement can occur.

So for me, just being a person who writes music and performs it, one of my goals with this record was to try to get back to a process where things didn’t get nitpicked, and didn’t get overwrought. I think that was definitely something that was very refreshing about this – that we could both just come together, work on this stuff, know it was right, and get it done. I also think there’s something important about being able to do stuff that was composed, but had moments where we could let go and see what happens. That’s something I want to explore more in the future, that intersection between composition and improvisation, and how that can develop.

You’ve been playing music through a lot of technological eras – like, now its really easy to record a part and send it back immediately. Do you have thoughts on that?

Aaron: We really didn’t do a lot of file trading when it came to actually making the parts. It was more just like, me recording guitar parts alone and me sending them to him, so that he had a rough idea of what I was thinking, and so that he could think about drum parts when we actually came together. I think that was helpful. The main thing though, was being in a room together. For me, there will never be a substitute for that. I think it’s always better to be face-to-face, and it’s always about the feeling that comes from playing with someone else, that I haven’t ever really experienced through the process of file-trading, or remote collaboration. That’s not to say that can’t produce good results, but for what is basically a high-energy rock band, being together in a practice space and hammering it out is definitely the best way to go.

You recorded the album with Mell Detmer in Seattle, right?

Aaron: Mell has her own studio, a well-constructed and elaborate home studio, which is where I did some of the overdubs and Brian did his bass parts. But Nick and I did the basics with her at Studio Litho in Seattle, which is a long-running institution there, owned by one of the Pearl Jam guys. I had recorded there, or had been a witness to several recordings there before, and thought that would be a good place for us to work. It’s got a nice big live room and a good selection of mics, and I knew the area, knew that we would be comfortable there. So that’s where all the initial stuff was done.

How was the record tracked – did you play together in the room?

Aaron: We did track in the room together. Having eye contact was good, since some of the stuff was still really fresh. I tried to keep as much of those original guitar takes as I could, and there is still a good portion of the original track that was done while Nick was putting his drum parts down. I did go back and double almost all of my parts, and I did have to punch in some stuff here and there, but even in the cases where there was a little bit of slop, I left those in, just to try and preserve that energy

Not too many metal bands, or engineers, go for that anymore. Trying to capture that first, fresh breath of energy.

Aaron: In my experience making records for a good portion of my life now, the records that I’ve ended up liking the best are the ones that have as much as was possible, those original tracks. Conversely, the records that I’ve spent the most amount of time working on, at least metal records, were the ones that ended up to me feeling a bit more stiff or sterile. I prefer the live approach. I also like having the convenience of being able to go back and fix horrible blunders that I couldn’t live with for the rest of my life.

Nick, how was the tracking experience for you?

Nick: Tracking-wise, it was great. Like Aaron, I prefer to track live, like have a live feeling. Playing my drums by myself, you don’t really get the same thing out of it – I feel like a dork when I’m just laying down drum tracks. And… the process was quick and easygoing. [Laughter]

The two Baptists and upcoming The Armed albums you did were both at GodCity. Did going to a new room and new studio impact you at all?

Nick: There were a lot of new things for me – jamming with Aaron, being in that studio, playing Aaron’s drums… There was a lot of excitement and uncertainty with a lot of stuff, but I think that all kind of benefitted the process. The whole experience was a good one for me, every single step of the way. Really positive time.

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Brian wasn’t there to track his parts with you guys initially, right?

Nick: Yeah, he came out later. I never actually met Brian until a few weeks ago [laughter]. Russian Circles played in Vancouver, and he extended a guest list spot to me. That’s when I got to meet him. It was kinda quick, he had people talking to him, and I just said, “hey, we’re in a band together.” [laughter] Our first formal hangout and jam session was the first time I got to actually chum with the guy.

Did that impact you guys, not having the third member with you?

Aaron: Let me say that the next time we write a record, I hope Brian is there for that process. But in terms of putting this particular record together, I think it was kinda good that it was just Nick and I together. The songs were complicated enough that trying to have three different people learn the parts in a limited amount of time might have made it harder rather than easier. And again it was also just trusting the people involved. I knew that Nick could lay down a solid enough foundation with just drums and guitar. Additionally knowing that Brian was the right person to do this – I’ve known Brian for a long time – he’s someone I’ve always wanted to play music with.

Maybe there’s certain aspects about how the record came together that wouldn’t have been possible if we’d had a third person involved. And it certainly didn’t seem to hurt the final result – when I hear the songs, it sounds like a band playing. It doesn’t sound to me like a chopped up project. That was partially just trusting the people involved, and knowing that everyone was competent on their instruments. I think there’s a degree of competency that we can rely on in this situation. Nobody’s an amateur here, everybody’s been doing this for a long time, and based on the bands that each of us have been in, we know that there’s some musical common ground. That enough was a good foundation to go on.

Do you feel like this is a record you could have made fifteen years ago?

Aaron: For me, no. Certainly there are recurring themes in it that I’ve been working on for as long as I’ve been playing guitar. But the process of getting to this point and being able to write songs in this way, no, I don’t think I was capable of this fifteen years ago.

This record sounds to me like, the way with Converge’s All We Love We Live Behind, hearing a gracefully aged band approach energetic, aggressive music. It sounds familiar, but is also so fresh, with years of work and experience behind it.

Aaron: Yeah, I think that’s actually kind of perfect, from my perspective. I think there’s a degree of refinement to the playing for all three people involved that can make for a more sophisticated record. But also, a level of energy that helps balance that out, where it doesn’t just sound like some old guys tooling around. That’s something I can really appreciate about some other bands too, like Harvey Milk, Oxbow, and the Melvins would be really good examples of that. They’ve retained the visceral energy of their music, but it’s also been tempered by a process of maturation. That’s not to take anything away from the kids, because some of the most vital stuff I’m hearing currently is made by really young people. But I also appreciate my own growth, and I can see how my process as a songwriter has changed over the years. There’s something about being a more grown up person that can be coupled with my angsty youth desire to just crush and destroy that fits perfectly.

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I just spoke to Tommy Giles from Between the Buried and Me, and he said a very similar thing. You look at some of the bands of the generation before ISIS, like Metallica, how in ten short years they took such a sharp right turn, or with Slayer, how they just sort of stayed the same path but didn’t grow. But now you have bands like Converge, Dillinger, BTBAM, or your projects, where two decades into their careers, they’re making some of the best music of their careers. I think that’s novel in the history of metal.

Aaron: I think so too, and you could look at far more examples of people who worked well past their prime than you can people who kept at it, and kept making better and better records. It’s not a total anomaly, but it is rare. I also think that that’s something that’s interesting and exciting that’s happening – where you do see older guys still fucking going at it and still meaning it. I think that is kind of the heart of your question – whether people mean it or not. And if they mean it, it doesn’t matter how old they are. If the heart is still there, and the integrity is still there, then it can go on indefinitely. I don’t know if there is ever an age limit for it, although I guess there is a certain point at which it becomes undignified, or hard to watch an old guy in a walker onstage banging it out [laughter]. But at the same time I have a lot of respect for people who are able to keep doing this, and I think there is something to be said for people who can weather the storm and keep going, and do it with dignity and heart. I have a lot more admiration for somebody like Eugene from Oxbow, or Jake from Converge, where I know these guys are not as young as they used to be, but they’re still fucking going at it and putting their 20-something peers to shame. That takes a lot more effort to do it at this age, and to really go for it then it does when you’re 20 and all you can do is go berserk.

Nick, do you have thoughts on that?

Nick: I dunno. Not particularly. There are a lot of bands that get off track as their careers go on, and I’ve been in bands where even in short lifespans, strayed from the reasons why we started making the music in the first place, and so we stopped. There’s other music to be made and it doesn’t have to be the same name, same guys trying to do something that we shouldn’t have to try to do. So when there’s people out there doing exactly what they want to do, and what comes to them, and it rings honest and authentic, then yeah, that’s as good as it gets.

Do you guys think at all about the state of metal, or how your writing fits in to it?

Nick: I tend to listen to think like, way after they come out. New bands and different “hot” bands and shit, I’m so slow on getting up to speed with that stuff, where I rarely take influence from things that are happening at the same time. Obviously there’s exceptions, but in general I don’t really look too much to the current metal world.

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What about you Aaron? I ask since like, you’re talking about going to shows, obviously Baptists got on your radar, etc.

Aaron: I take stock of it just as a music listener, as an avid fan of music. I’m always seeking things out. My interests generally have less to do with how something fits in to the idea of contemporary music and more about whether I get any kind of real feeling from it. That’s always the main facet, or point of interest for me. Whether I feel some kind of connection to what I’m hearing. Whether it’s something that does sound wholly new or modern or something that’s a throwback, or something that is genuinely old, doesn’t really figure in to how I listen to or appreciate something. I guess that’s not always true. When I hear a band that is obviously aping something that I know and love, that can be off-putting. But even in that case, if it’s something that’s done with true heart, it can still be affecting. I would also say that it’s hard to be completely, 100% original. We’re a product of our influences to some degree or another.

That said, for me, I don’t want to retread any ground that I feel like has already been worn thin. In that sense, I want to keep progressing and pushing myself forward. But that has more to do with my own personal inclinations than it does trying to write music that “seems” contemporary. I would say that, if anything, I hope our music doesn’t fit in neatly with anything that’s going on now. Again, it’s more about whether I find the music satisfying or not, but I also hope that it does maybe break ground in some way, or can touch people in a way that maybe they haven’t been touched by metal or heavy music before. So, I dunno. I think there’s a way to be forward-thinking in terms of intent, without trying to consciously think about, or actively pursue, being new or seeming modern.

I will say though that I don’t want to just recreate the same thing over and over. I want to take the things that I find exciting, and continue to examine them until I feel like there’s nothing left in them for me. If I was making the same record twenty years from now, or even if Sumac made another record like The Deal, I’d feel like that was a misstep.

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Do you feel that excitement about Sumac?

Aaron: Definitely. I wouldn’t keep pursuing it past the point of making the record if I didn’t think there was room to grow. I’ve had problems in the past where I felt like I reached a point of musical stasis. Like Nick said earlier, in reference to some of his projects, about just reaching a point where you think you have nothing to say anymore. I don’t want to perpetuate a band when it reaches that point. And I think Sumac has the potential to do quite a bit before we get there. As Brian joked with Nick and I, thinking that a band could go on forever is kind of naïve. But I also feel like I want this to be a band that can have some longevity to it. There are some things that come out of being a band for a while that are hard to achieve in the short term. There’s a lot of ways in which we can continue to get to know each other as players.

I feel completely thrilled by this, to be honest. I hadn’t really lost faith in my ability to write heavy music, but I didn’t know if I would do anything again that I felt this excited by, as I did when I was writing stuff in my early twenties. This has definitely achieved those same levels of excitement. That alone is reason enough to keep pursuing it.

Where do you think that excitement come from?

Aaron: It’s indefinable. That can happen with people who have been playing together for twenty or thirty years. That’s evidence again, in bands that I’ve referenced like Harvey Milk or Oxbow, where they’ve made lots of records together, yet they still find new territory to explore together. For me personally, I think, not to keep blowing up how great Nick is, working with a drummer who has a sympathetic mind and similar intent was really crucial. There was a point I had reached in playing with some other people in which I was like, “man, maybe I can’t write good riffs anymore” because it didn’t feel good, and didn’t sound good. And that first time I played with Nick, I was like, fuck, this is the way these riffs are supposed to feel. This is the kind of momentum that’s supposed to happen. So I guess it is definable in that way. It just was a matter of finding the right person at the right time.

For me it was also a matter of taking a step away from it for a while. I certainly haven’t been any less musically active in the last five or six years, but I wasn’t playing a lot of heavy music, I wasn’t trying to write a lot of heavy music, and I think I needed time to reflect on what I wanted, and refocus my vision in order to be able to move forward. I feel like that did me some good, along with finding people to play with who really felt right, was crucial, too. I had it in my mind when I decided to start a new band that I wasn’t gonna settle for anything less than what seemed perfect. I have to say; playing with Nick and Brian really feels that way.

Nick: When we were first putting these songs together, Aaron was already talking about songs he was writing for the next record. And I was like, fuck yeah, sign me up. There’s so much to do. Listening to The Deal, I hear so much potential for more crazy, zany shit.

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Max is managing editor of Gear Gods.