A Few Words With...Hunter Ginn

Interview by John A. Wilcox

Hunter Ginn plays the skins and is one of the driving forces behind metal prog innovators Canvas Solaris. Nathan Sapp on guitars & keys, and Ben Simpkins on basses and guitars round out the trio. Their latest release, Cortical Tectonics (on Sensory / Laser's Edge) is a powerful document of a trio kicking your ass into the next zip code! Progsheet took high tea with Ginn and here's what transpired...

PS: What's the first album you remember buying, and what drew you to it?

HG: There were earlier albums, to be sure, but I have the most distinct memory of buying Sepultura's Arise. I loved the menacing, spiky logo and the cryptic color scheme/artwork for one, but it was the ecstatic recommendation of the store clerk that pushed me over the edge. Arise, along with Entombed's Left Hand Path paved the way for my descent into the maelstrom, as it were. In some ways, I have to think that the Entombed record had a more sustained impact, at least in terms of my own listening. The direness and opacity of that first album still demands investigation, not unlike early works by Beherit and Nuclear Death. I love music that resists and disappoints the ear's expectations, and Entombed's early music-all lacerating buzz saw guitar tones and cave-reverb drums-does just that. That I still find that music so thrilling speaks volumes about its quality and complexity, I think.

PS: How did you meet Ben & Nathan?

HG: I met Nathan first in 1995, through our first bass player, Jimmy McCall. I remember him being painfully shy and wearing a Morbid Angel shirt, which impressed me deeply! I mean, after all, this was South Georgia, and it was always difficult to find kindred metal spirits in such a cultural vacuum. We talked briefly about some common interests and then he left. I don't believe I saw him again for at least two or three years, at which point he'd begun playing guitar in the area's most popular heavy band, Publikohn. Their sound-a math-conscious mix of early Helmet and Don Caballero-appealed to Nate on some levels, but didn't satisfy him totally. At their final show in April 1999, while talking about Cynic and Skinny Puppy, we made early plans to begin jamming. This finally happened in June 1999, and we were just thrilled with the immediate chemistry. So, it all began there, some 8 years ago. Where'd the time go?

I met Ben a bit later-in September 1999-when he auditioned for my other band at the time. We played a contemporary mark-up of 70s heavy-beat sound: James Gang, Free, Sabbath, Bang, Humble Pie, Sir Lord Baltimore. However, Ben held a real passion for the acute, progressive ends of metal, as well as for mid-period Rush, King Crimson, and Gabriel-era Genesis. When I first heard him play guitar in Feb. 2002, I knew immediately that he should join Canvas as a second guitar player. At the time, we were still functioning as a four-piece death metal group, but in March 2002, when Nathan and I decided to take the plunge into instrumental territories, we mandated that Ben come along. His skill, quirkiness, and wild musical imagination were apparent from the very beginning. When he first brought in Cyclotron Emission, for instance, Nate and I were horrified. Oh, the ending of that song! We still miss him dearly.

PS: What is the best aspect of being part of a band as opposed to being, say, a solo artist?

HG: Since I've never been a solo artist, this answer will probably involve a lot of conjecture on my part! What I love most about the band situation is the camaraderie and the friendship. It means a lot to share something so powerful as music with people you love, especially those with whom you have long personal histories. For me, that's the most fundamentally rewarding aspect of group playing. More practically, I need the extra/outside perspective that comes from having 5 cooks in the kitchen, so to speak. Not only are we all able to preempt/correct each others' bad ideas, but a lot of our best pieces have come out of the collaborative/synergistic group environment. Nathan and I have been playing with each other for so long now that we can virtually finish each others musical sentences. We've actually written huge passages of music in real time! It's a great blessing to find someone with whom your own musical ideas are so compatible. At this point in my life, I can't imagine playing with anyone else.

PS: What does the band bring into your life that nothing else does?

HG: A sense of total freedom and abandon, a sense of endless possibility, fearlessness. It's difficult for me to imagine another life-arena where I can assume these kinds of attitudes without dangerous consequences. For instance, I don't think I could treat my job so experimentally. Most things in life come with rules and restrictions, and art doesn't oppress, it doesn't limit or judge. It simply allows, and these notions of freedom and personal latitude mean the world to me. I imagine that I have, at some point, taken this freedom for granted. Certainly, it's easy to see your own band as something insignificant in the larger scheme. And maybe it is unimportant vis--vis the larger ideas, but for me it's crucially important.

PS: What was behind the band taking a left turn from metal to prog?

HG: I don't think that we ever veered from our metal roots. Of course, the progressive/experimental aspects of our sound have become more obvious since Penumbra, but I don't feel that we are less of a metal band now than in, say, 2000. If anything, Cortical seems more forcibly metal than either of the previous albums, especially on tracks like Berserker Hypothesis and Gamma Knife, which are two of the most intense tracks we've done as an instrumental band. Actually, there's a passage in Berserker that alludes to the chaos and impenetrability of the first Beherit album! Gamma Knife, too, strikes me as odd in the sense that it is utterly without clean guitars, percussion, synthesizers, or electronics. This sort of unadorned instrumentation has certainly become the exception with Canvas over the last several years.

For me, at least, the core of our sound has always been forged out of metal, but we're constantly being nourished by influences outside of that reservoir. On Penumbra, those sounds came further to the fore than they had on the two previous releases, both of which conformed more tightly to conventional tech/prog-metal rubrics. While writing Penumbra, we immersed ourselves in experimental music (from Thomas Koner to O Yuki Conjugate to Morton Feldman to Univers Zero), and I think that the album, more or less, bears the mark of those types of influences. Pleased as we were with the results, we continued to open ourselves up to other areas of experimentation.

PS: Every artist has a point of view to their work that is unique to them. What is unique about Canvas Solaris - what drives the band?

HG: Within the tech continuum (if such a thing could be said to exist), CS distinguishes itself by privileging song flow, organic development, and song-sensitivity. So many tech bands (though, for good reason, lots of purists would argue to the grave that CS is not a tech metal group) mire their compositions with unnecessary tempo changes, jittery/uncertain stop/start twitches, and carelessly chromatic flourishes. Canvas has always given priority to writing basically good, cogent songs. The deficit of masturbatory, late-fusionoid soloing tends to put off the occasional purist. Good for us.

In terms of what drives this band, I'd point to our collective need for constant audio-stimulation and adventure. We're excited as much by sound, whether contextualized or abstract, as much as we are by traditional song narratives. On the infrequent occasions that I actually listen to CS, my ears tend more toward the neon-glow, high-arcing synth flickers, the tactile, skin-on-wood percussion-calligraphy, and the concrete miscellanea that populate our sound world. Rarely do I give an ear to our more sonically-austere, tech-crazed tracks (Cosmopolysyndeton, Panoramic Long-Range Vertigo, etc.). I'm quite proud of these, please don't misunderstand, but they excite my senses much less than the quivery audio-lab musick that typifies a lot of our post-Sublimation work. Which leads me to the next question...

PS: As the band evolves, where would you like to see Canvas Solaris go that it has not been yet?

HG: I want to continue in the extra-metal direction suggested by our most recent music. I want to turn found sound, jungle breaks, 2-Step rhythm funktions, Grime synths, Heroin House miles-away bass drums, raga drones, Miami bass pressure, Nono tone clusters, and Reich-y elliptical Gamelan into genuine metal songs. It's the near-impossibility of this working out that makes me want to continue to play music.

PS: What was behind the decision to have no vocals?

HG: Simply the ability to move between sounds with no real focal, governing aspect. Vocals, for us, tied down the music in a cumbersome and limiting way. That sounds silly, I know, but the scope of our musical ambition at the time allowed no room for the vocal element, and in particular non-pitch vocalizing. Our vocalist, as it turned out, had more foresight than did we. He predicted the move months in advance, based on clues in the music (more clean guitar-led sections, a turn toward spacious open-endedness, the Rubicon-crossing encounter with the Roland GR-33). We've never looked back. I cannot imagine, neither currently nor at any future juncture, where vocals would fit into the CS sound. I think I'd quit the band before I let such a thing happen, honestly.

PS: Who made you want to pick up a pair of sticks & drum?

HG: Well, I can't totally say who made want to pick up the sticks, since I was drawn to the drum from an early age (didn't start playing until age 13, though). But I'd say that Steve Gadd and Michael Walden first made me take the drums seriously. Their work on Three Quartets and Beyond the Emerald Horizon, respectively, just throttled me. From there, I got into guys like Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Lenny White, and all the predictable choices. Al Jackson, Starks & Stubblefield, Zig Modeliste, and Bernard Purdie all had huge impacts on me as a drummer. I love friction, rhythmic tug, nice warm n' dry drum sounds, woody timbres, cymbals with body and attack, etc. Even though I play technically-minded music, I don't really get off on the pyrotechnic superstars any more (you have to be impressed by those types, though).

PS: How do metal and prog audiences differ?

HG: I don't think I can answer that question without making some pretty crass generalizations. Both scenes have their stereotypes: brain-dead metal guys with long hair, covered head to toe in denim and leather, drinking cheap beer, swearing a lot, and listening to metal ONLY; fat, bald, bespectacled prog guys wearing Gentle Giant shirts, commenting superciliously on "non-progressive" music, playing RPG's, living in their parents' basement. I'll take the easy way out and say that, by and large, every scene has its good and bad aspects. I say, death to scenes, long live music!

PS: Let me ask you to give a bit of background on a few songs - let's start with Sinusoid Mirage.

HG: I wrote the opening passages on a Fender Rhodes after a days-long bender of hydro, sleeplessness, and electric Miles. I brought Nathan what I'd written and the rest of the song just developed from there. Honestly, most of the distorted sections are based on that opening sequence, but the melodies are recontextualized in such a way to deceive the ears. This is probably my overall favorite track from the album, in that, like Horizontal Radiant from the previous record, it offers a sort of compressed overview of the entire project. I'm also quite fond of Ben's Nocturnus micro-melody that only appears three times in the song.

PS: When Solar Winds Collide.

HG: One of the last songs written for Sublimation, and, curiously, a real favorite with CS fans. This song does represent a turning point for us, though, with the protracted acoustic guitar/percussion section, which was a radical statement for us at the time (though hardly radical by any other measure!). This was Nathan's first attempt at an extended, melodically-themed guitar solo, too, and I think it worked out well for him. It's clearly the best lead guitar moment on the album, and in some ways the rest of the song only functions to frame that poignant bit of guitar syntax.

PS: Horizontal Radiant.

HG: My single favorite CS song, like, ever. I don't think we'll ever write a better song than this, though we'll surely keep trying. It says everything that I've ever wanted to say using the language of Canvas. Just the slew of influences thrills me: Kraftwerk, Gordian Knot, Can, The Human League, Metropolis, Heldon, Astor Piazzola, Dead Dread, Anathema, Eno/Byrne, Obliveon, and on and on and on. It's the sort of thing that we simply could not have premeditated. Interestingly enough, the foundation for the song was written in only a few hours. I remember the whole scene so vividly, even now. That was a real moment for us.

PS: Camera Obscura.

HG: One of the first songs we wrote as an instrumental band, and its supreme lack of originality proves as much! The clean section apes Cynic WAY too closely, but I guess that's what being young and excited is all about. Also, the timbale clearly comes from Steve Flynn, though mine sounds more like a poorly-tuned tom than a timbale. I do like the song, though, but the production kills any kind of buzz that the music might aim to induce. What was the engineer thinking? It's like the production on The Avalanches' Since I Left You very imprudently applied to tech metal!

PS: Reticular Consciousness.

HG: Our most epic epic! Rehearsals for this song bordered on the torturous, simply because we insisted on playing the song as one monolithic piece. Our old bass player, Jimmy McCall stayed at the rehearsal space during much of the 2005 summer, and he must have been anguished upon hearing this song played over and over. I can't imagine! We actually tracked the song in its 17-minute entirety! That seems so ridiculous to me now, seeing as how we could have quite easily edited it together, and more cleanly, too. I am quite fond of this song, though, even though the end product differs radically from the original intent. Nate and I initially planned on writing a synth- and drum-only piece, but some stray riffs found their way into the song and, lo, Reticular was born. Ben's contributions and Jamie's dub-wise production really make this track for me. The title came to us during the early morning hours after watching Bride of Re-Animator. Good times, good times.

PS: Please tell me 6 CDs you just never get tired of listening to.

HG: I don't think that I could name 6 such albums. I'm terribly ADD-addled when it comes to my listening. However, I can name some sounds that always excite my ears: Chain Reaction-style Heroin House (Resilent, Vainqueur, Porter Ricks, early Monolake, GAS, etc.); Ambient Jungle (Omni Trio, Foul Play, E-Z Rollers, Dillinja, Blame, LTJ Bukem's Atlantis (I Need You) ); early 70s cosmic jazz/Kosmigroov (Miles, Julian Priester, Bennie Maupin, Sun Ra's Strange Celestial Road); '93 True Progressive Metal (Cynic, Gorguts, Atheist, Psychotic Waltz, Mind Over Four, Loudblast, Supuration, and a slew of other heroes); early Post-Rock (Bark Psychosis, Insides, Disco Inferno, Seefeel, Techno Animal, Pram, Third Eye Foundation, etc.); Second Wave Norwegian Black Metal (early work by Emperor, Enslaved, Darkthrone, Mayhem, Ildjarn, Immortal, Burzum, etc.). Frankly, though, I have to have something in my ears all the time. Lately, I've been blissed out to the max by old 2-Step tracks by Dem 2, Doolally, Amira, Artful Dodger, Dreem Teem, Aftershock, etc. Like honey being poured into the ears, that stuff.


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