Interview with Sean Townsend of Somnambulist Red


“I want the experience to be as cinematic as possible… a surreal sonic journey that one can completely immerse oneself in.”

Interview by Jason Guest

Hi Sean. This is Jason from Midlands Rocks (based in Birmingham, UK). Birth Throes, Shadows And Serpentine Curves is my first experience of the band (reviewed here) and I am very impressed, and I have been checking out your music and films since so thank you very much for taking time out for this interview.

Thank you. I’m something of an anglophile and this is my first UK interview, so I feel honoured that you were impressed. Birmingham – the birthplace of Black Sabbath and Napalm Death…

Somnambulist Red has been making music since 1995, the name appearing in 2001 with the first recordings. What was it that inspired you to make music?

The sea – even being landlocked for the first 34 years of my life (Somnambulist Red is – since spring 2013 – now located in the Pacific Northwest) it has always been a massive force as well as dreams, nightmares, women, nature… those are the main inspirations, I suppose. I’ll also add that, growing up, my parents played a fair amount of prog-oriented bands like Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis and that was definitely the earliest music influence I remember taking to.

Somnambulist Red 1
Drowned In Phosphorescence (2013)

Did you have a concept of what you wanted to achieve with the band? And has that concept changed at all since then?

I wanted to experiment with sound and not limit myself to any genre or typecast. In the early days, I had a goal to make the most sorrowful, heart-wrenching, if not completely depressing albums I could. I think I failed in that, however, I did stay true to always experimenting and pushing myself further with each recording. I always want the experience of Somnambulist Red to be as cinematic as possible – ideally, the goal is to create a surreal sonic journey that one can completely immerse oneself in.

How has the band evolved since its inception? How does the band of 2014 compare to the band of the early years?

The early years were all about finding a unique sonic direction and getting used to the (at the time) newly acquired Roland VS-890 I recorded with. It was also me performing all the instruments in a bedroom, more or less. Although I do still record/perform with multiple instruments, the last 7 years have been about collaborating with other musicians in the structural process and performing live (often accompanied by the surreal short films I’ve made). There have been multiple line-ups and each one was distinct and enjoyable in its way. The ultimate to me would be if I could get all of those folks together for one monumental, massive 5 guitarists/4 percussionists/2 bassists fuck off show. It’s just completely impractical with schedules, distances, jobs, families, etc. So it goes…

Who are the band’s influences? And how have they impacted upon your approach to creating music?

Lynch, Jodorowsky, Herzog, Von Trier, Argento, Tarkovsky, Deren – film definitely inspires the songwriting process more than anything else. Band-wise, it would be disparate influences such as Swans, Lycia, Goblin, Jesu, Dead Can Dance, King Crimson, Voivod, Siouxsie & the Banshees, 50s and 60s pop music, soundtracks, psychedelia, prog, krautrock, post-punk, surf, doom, ambient. It’s a crooked path of influences, for sure… but that is naming just a few. Obviously, there are so many approaches – many conflicting – in texture, structure and mood between all these influences that it is hard to say how it fits together. I’m certainly not trying to combine all of these influences into one blender of aural vomit. They’re all just various colours of the sound spectrum that appear from time to time.

Cathedrals of the Spectral Viscera (2014)
Cathedrals of the Spectral Viscera (2014)

Can you tell us about the writing process? Is it collaborative? Do you discuss your ideas first and then compose with those ideas in mind?

I write everything by default almost. I will say, though, the trio that was S. Red in 2008 created a fair amount of music through improvisation – which I greatly enjoyed. Most of the time, I write a basic structure and the band helps shape it into something 3-dimensional. I would prefer it be more collaborative, always.

You’ve worked on a number of films (Check them out on YouTube here). Why work with film? And how do you approach matching music to moving images?

It’s another medium that has had a profound effect on my life. When I was young, I would play an album in my Walkman while watching movies on mute (mostly mystery and horror films) and that became something that I wanted to put my hands inside – creating and controlling sounds and images. When I make a film, the music dictates the editing process most often. When I write music, I’m usually watching a film. They are close sisters in my approach to creating anything.

You also perform live with accompanying visuals. Are these visuals planned? And how do you play with them? Is the music planned too or do you leave room for improvisation?

The visuals are absolutely planned. Certain shows, it has been impractical to have a projector/screen but I’d prefer all of our shows have that visual accompaniment. Twice, we’ve scored a film live – which requires you hit certain cues or marks but there is room for some improvisation (which keeps it a living organism). Sometimes we’ve used other surreal films as a background (Begotten, The Holy Mountain) and it becomes wide-open how the songs and images collide and/or harmonize, which is always rewarding to be a part of.

Which comes first, the visual aspect or the music?

The music, but the visual aspect is extremely important.

What does the future hold for Somnambulist Red? Is there more music in the works? An album? More film?

There are two EPs and one full-length that are currently being constructed. I would love to begin filming again soon, but right now there is a shortage of necessary equipment to undertake such a project.

Thanks again for taking time out for this interview. Do you have any closing words for our readers?

Absolutely – thank you. I suppose I’m beholden to say that if any of what you have just read is of any interest at all to you, go to the Somnambulist Red Bandcamp and sample songs for free (and/or purchase an album for stupid-cheap prices). I’d also say thanks for reading to the end of the interview. Here’s to swimmin’ with bowlegged women…