by Mike G, March 2020
Beginning with The Sound Of Lights When Dim in 2006, Drew Sullivan aka Slow Dancing Society has released more than a dozen albums, plying his emotional “sad music for happy souls” in the spaces between ambient drone, avant-noise, dreampop and wordless post-rock songs. His recent material finds him as inspired and adventurous as ever; he talked with Ambient Music Guide about guitars, imperfect synths and the emotion of sound.
AMG: Recently you’ve been branching out again from that core Slow Dancing Society sound. The Dream Council album has some 4/4 beats that could fairly be called techno. And your new ones Songs For The Lonely and especially The Disappearing Collective are completely beatless. Is this your new take on post-rock?
DS: Well I’ve always wanted each SDS album to be a different but familiar excursion. Many times the albums I make are a direct reflection of what I’m listening to most heavily at the time. I’m also interested in bridging the gaps between genres, but not so much in the traditional sense of say, jazz and funk or rap and metal, but more so where the timbres and tones of a genre could be incorporated into a different genre. Like, there’s a certain tone to the guitars of yesteryear, and rather than just making a verbed-out guitar tone for an ambient piece, why not bring in a spring reverb 50’s rock ballad tone and see how they work together?
AMG: The guitar has usually been central to your sound, hasn’t it, though sometimes unrecognisable as such. Can you talk a bit more about the guitar and your history with the instrument?
DS: I first learned how to play from my Dad when I was around 8 years old. He had this old Gibson acoustic from his youth that I just started playing around with. He taught me a few chords and I ultimately ran with it. No lessons, but just listening to albums and trying to learn the songs.
Guitar tablature was a huge godsend for me when I got a little older in my teenage years, as I could see the official notes and way to play the song – solos and fills and every little nuance. I still had no idea of theory but I began to recognise patterns in music and my favourite songs. They all had a common thread to them, which is what I now understand as the basics of music theory.
AMG: And your favourite players?
DS: I’ve got a few heroes who serve different musical genres for me. The Edge [Dave Evans] with his sparse but infinite sounding delays and textures. David Gilmour is about as good as it gets in my book for ambient bluesy rock.
I can’t forget the hair metal heroes of mine like Steve Vai, Vito Bratta, Richie Sambora. CC DeVille’s guitar solo for “Something to Believe In” absolutely tears me up even to this day. Speaking of Poison guitar players, Richie Kotzen is an amazing blues guitar player and I’ve recently discovered Patrick Droney.
AMG: Let’s talk about your new album The Disappearing Collective. The sustained synth textures on the opening track sound a bit like mid 70’s Pink Floyd. Are you consciously exploring old synth sounds at the moment?
DS: Great catch there. I’ve certainly delved into those older textures as of late. There’s just this certain something about those warm, dusty and somewhat imperfect sounds of the past. I’ll avoid mystical explanations, but we’re drawn to these sounds because they represent us in general. We’re imperfect and a little dusty here and there. There’s just more life and movement in these sounds than their more sterile counterparts.
AMG: Generic drone music seems easy to make, yet I think The Disappearing Collective really stands out. How do you give drone flavour?
DS: Drone is such an untapped sound for exploring and I do agree that a lot of it is rather flat and void-like. In a way that’s sort of the intention. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make the void a bit more alive.
I feel drone is actually really time-consuming to make compared to other ambient like genres, as there is such a focus on getting those textures and tones just so. But then most folks just stop there, whereas I want to try and inject in some life and movement and melody. In musical terms, the sustain of a sound like a piano key or guitar chord is so emotional and really what I feel gives life to the sound that created that sustain. My approach to drone is to take those sustains and send them off into the ether.
AMG: Your home is still Washington state. How important is where you live for making your music?
DS: Washington is certainly a magical place and I believe there is this mystique to the Pacific Northwest. David Lynch certain captured the darkness and light working Twin Peaks, for example. By way of pure familiarity, it’s also where I grew up and feel comfortable, which I feel is huge in making art. I lived in Los Angeles for many years and while I enjoyed myself, I never quite felt anchored or in tune.
AMG: I see Taylor Deupree from 12K Records has been mastering your more recent releases. How did the two of you come into each other’s orbit, and why choose him?
DS: Taylor came to be a choice for me when I saw he was mastering many of the albums I loved. Folks who previously had mastered my work I feel may not have understood the feel of what I was going for. Any creative endeavour is all about resonating with someone. Taylor is a lovely guy and treats the music so well.
AMG: Any musical collaborations with him on the cards?
DS: None with him, no. I would be honoured, of course. But there are a few amazing projects with some other folks I have coming out this year that I’m incredibly thrilled about.
AMG: Tell us about your relationship with the Australian-based label Hidden Shoal. They’ve been with you since the very beginning in 2006 – pretty impressive.
DS: Hidden Shoal has been an incredible blessing. Cam [Merton, HS founder] is such a wonderful partner in the creation of what he’s curated. I feel so lucky in that I’ve never really had to create music in that corporate label industry world that we all hear about and the cautionary tales that go with it. Cam really allowed me to create the Slow Dancing Society sound. Had I been with another label that may never have developed into what it has today.
AMG: I have to ask: Slow Dancing Society – how did you come up with that intriguing little alias?
DS: That was when I was living in Los Angeles and DJ’ing. I spun deep house and most of it was borderline downtempo but at the common 120bpm of that style. Most folks would sway-versus-dance during my sets and it began to look more like slow dancing. I had an epiphany during one set that these folks were the “Slow Dancing Society”.
AMG: Finally, for someone who has never heard SDS before, what albums would you point them towards?
DS: I always suggest folks listen to My Blue Heaven (2017) or The Wagers of Love and Their Songs from The Witching Hour (2016). Both of these albums were a wide array of sounds that I’d flirted with through past albums but now I felt really cemented into the sound and vision I was striving for. There’s ambient, drone, film underscores and dream-pop all over those ones.
*The Disappearing Collective vol. 1 is out on the Past Inside The Present label.