Sunburned Hand of the Man :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Sunburned Hand of the Man has been plugging in and jamming for more than 20 years, at first as a casual group of friends all living in the same loft space in Boston, later as a part of a growing community of wigged out, tuned in improvisational outfits including No Neck Blues Band, Vibracathedral Orchestra, Jackie O Motherfucker and Matt Valentine’s band. From the beginning, Sunburned taped every time it played, at first with a handheld cassette recorder with two line ins, later with more (but not much more) elaborate equipment. They released lots of music, too, dozens of DIY cassettes and CDRs, illustrated by hand, and often only available at gigs. In the late aughts, founder John Moloney moved it all to the cheaper, wilder environs of Western Massachusetts, where the band continues to make it idiosyncratic way.

Sunburned’s latest record, the exhilarating Pick a Day to Die, comes out in early March on the Three Lobed Label. It’s the quintessential pandemic project, pieced together out of what’s at hand in a long, solitary lockdown. We talked to one of the founders, John Moloney, about his long-running band, their influences, their process, this current album and how and when music can get back to normal. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve been doing this for a long time. Can you tell me how it got started and who was involved at the beginning and how it’s evolved over time?

John Moloney: The band started with me and Rob Thomas in 1994. He and I used to work as foot couriers in downtown Boston. It was a fun job. He asked me one day if I wanted to be in a band with another guy named Rich Pontius, so the three of us started a band.

After about two years, we kind of went on hiatus. I was in college, and then when I came back from college, we started playing again. We had no name. We just had a group of people. We were all living in a loft space in Boston, so that was pretty much the headquarters. Casual social music was happening at the space every night more or less. There was a lot of stuff going on, a lot of records being listened to and sometimes the people who started the loft space would have concerts there, like Sun City Girls played there a long time ago. The Dirty Three played there. Michael Hurley. We just kept that going and we’d have concerts. We’d have shows all the time. Maybe once or twice a month. Until that fizzled out.

But we started playing. It was mostly a bunch of us getting together as much as possible and recording everything we did onto cassettes. The band idea started to formulate in the late 1990s. Like 1998 or 1999. We started doing shows with the No Neck Blues Band in New York. We’d go down to Harlem and play at their loft, and they’d come up and play at our loft and we’d do some other gigs together. And then in 1999, we did a tour, a U.S. tour with them, with Sunburned and No Neck and John Fahey on the West Coast. That was pretty fun. Good times. We played at a bunch of…we did about eight shows. It was very little memory or evidence of it, some Youtube footage.

AD: I interviewed one of the guys in No Neck a long time ago, and it was interesting because they had this whole sort of ideology about the band. They were all anonymous, and it seemed more like a way of life than a typical band. It a philosophical thing. Is that something you shared with them?

John Moloney: We shared elements of that. They were definitely more secretive. They were always locked down about the number of members and who the members were. It was very rare that someone else would sit in with them or that members would come and go. They wouldn’t even do a show if one person was missing. It was very hip and New York. They were very involved with the New York arts scene. They were more highbrow than we were. We were Boston kids. Everybody was from a dysfunctional family. We had lower middle class backgrounds. We just happened to get into music. One of the founders named Chad Cooper, he and I grew up in the projects in Everett, so we had a different outlook on things. We fell into music as a way of…it was like a group therapy for us.

AD: Didn’t some of you come out of punk?

John Moloney: Yeah, Rob was in some punk bands when he was a teenager. He’s from Quincy, Mass. He was in a punk band called Suckerpunch that had a 7” out and there’s a track on a Tang records box hardcore comp. He’s on that. He was in a couple of other bands, Masterbleed and Thug. Bands that played two shows and then disappeared.

AD: At what point did you move to Western Mass?

John Moloney: I moved here in 2007. I got offered a job selling records for Byron Coley and Thurston Moore. They needed someone to take over. Byron and Thurston had this appointment-only record store called Ecstatic Yod. It was like a music space, a curated concert space. They needed someone to take that over. I came out here and did that and moving out here was tough. It was weird. It’s not Boston.

AD: There’s a scene in Western Mass around these heavy psychedelic bands like you guys and Matt Valentine and the Feathers people and a bunch of other Feeding Tube type bands. Is there anything about this area that’s conducive to that kind of music?

John Moloney: It’s easier to be in a band here. It’s easier to be in more than one band here. There’s a lot of cross over between Sunburned and Matt Valentine’s band. It’s just easier because it’s cheaper. Matt moved up here from Manhattan about 20 years ago. You can afford to have a place. For example, my rent in Allston/Somerville was $1200 a month. That was in 2007. I moved out. They doubled the rent the next day. I moved out here and I got the same apartment in a triple decker in Easthampton and I was paying $700 a month. Same apartment.

So, you can have a full blown practice space. You can probably find a house that you can play music in, like I have now. It’s just easy to operate. And as a touring musician, if you’re touring and making a living on some level, you’re not going back to the city and dumping it all into rent. I could tour six months and then not work for six months. It gets boring. But it frees me up to work on a lot of other things. I’ve been really lucky.

AD: As a band, you are part of a larger community of not just New England bands, but Jackie O Motherfucker and Charalambides and No Neck and Endless Boogie, all these bands that use improvisation but outside the context of jazz. Can you tell me about the bands that have inspired you or that you feel have supported you and what that community is like?

John Moloney: No Neck Blues Band was the big one. The guys from Comets on Fire and Six Organs of Admittance, we had a very big history with those guys. I played in Six Organs for a couple of years on drums. I did the Howling Rain’s first record with Ethan. We did a lot of touring together. That was a very friendly and fruitful relationship. Very supportive of each other. It was cool because they were in California and we were here. It was nice to have that California connection.

AD: Didn’t Ben live here for a while?

John Moloney: Yeah, Ben lived in Holyoke for two or three years, but they’re back in California. He puts out the best records.

AD: Such a positive force.

John Moloney: Yeah, his last few records are just off the chain.

AD: I understand there was some hip hop influence on you early on.

John Moloney: Yeah, definitely. You know, growing up in Boston, I lived in the projects where everybody was from a different cultural background. There was a lot of rap music going on, right when it came out, and there was also a lot of metal. It was this really cool mix of metal and rap. And then when the Beastie Boys came out, playing over straight Zeppelin riffs — that became imprinted on my brain stem. The way I approach music, within that context, hearing those songs, it was just really powerful for us.

Sunburned as a group got really into rap. So did No Neck. We’d always talk about rap. And listen to rap when we were hanging together. Wu Tang was a very influential project on us. If you listen to it in a certain way, it’s the most psychedelic music out there. They’re mixing beats together and talking and rapping over these insane beats. If you listen to any of those records instrumentally, you just say “What the fuck?” It’s so good. That was a huge influence on us.

AD: What about jazz? Do you take anything from cosmic jazz like Sun Ra?

John Moloney: Yeah. Sun Ra’s model of running a band was very interesting and intriguing for us. I remember one time at the Loft, someone brought home this book of Sun Ra artwork. It’s a coffee table book. I wish I still had it. But it was all these pictures of records. Do you know how they would hand draw a lot of their records? All that stuff. I saw that and my mind was absolutely blown. I was like, whoa, maybe we could do something like that?

AD: Which you do.

John Moloney: We do, and we’re very influenced by that idea of taking it into your own hands. Just do it yourself. It’s not that hard. Rob Thomas worked at record stores in Boston for 20 years. He worked at Cheapo’s for 18 years. And he was the main buyer there. He was in charge of the used department. His record collection is insane. One time this guy dumped all these hand-made Sun Ra records on him, and he bought them all. My mind was blown. To see these tiny cut outs pasted on a giant record cover.

AD: That sounds like you guys, doing all these tiny releases with hand-drawn art.

John Moloney: Yeah. That was a big influence. And then the guy from John Olson from Wolf Eyes had his own label. That was influential to me.  I thought, how can this guy be in a band and be on tour all the time and have a label that has a thousand releases on it, and every one of them is done by hand. Every one of them has a different piece of artwork. It’s like editions of 30, editions of 40. How do you keep up with all that stuff? How do you record that much music? Most of it is insane stuff. That was very inspirational. So, we started a CDR label. We thought, why not just have our own label? We could start with CDRs and cassettes, and then move into records and whatever else, put out whatever we want.

AD: It seems like what you guys do, it’s a very live thing. It grows out of you living in the same place and playing music every night? How does that translate into recorded music? Do you record everything? It there some kind of filtering process?

John Moloney: Everything gets recorded. We’ve been recording everything since day one. The first recording device we had was a cassette deck that we found in the garbage out in front of my house. I said, oh, this thing looks brand new. It was from an older couple across the street. They said, “You can take it. We hardly ever use it.” And I saw that on the front it had two line ins for left and right microphones. So, I said, why don’t we record with this? We had that for years. You just plugged two mics into it. That’s how we recorded.

AD: Very lo-fi.

John Moloney: Very lo-fi, but some of that stuff’s come out on records, and it sounds great. I still have all the tapes.

AD: Do you do anything to the recordings? Do you cut and paste and rearrange?

John Moloney: Earlier, no. We would just let things run for 20 or 30 minutes. We didn’t know any better. We didn’t have any gear. This was pre-computer. We tried to record with a four track, but no one could figure it out. Sometimes we would burn straight to CDs. But, nowadays, yeah, definitely. We’ll record it onto a computer with two mics. Most of it is two mics in a room. If we’re not in the studio. If we go to the studio, it’s different. But when we get together, just to have a document, we record everything straight. And then I’ll go back in and if there’s anything cool, I’ll edit and make jump cuts and stuff like that. Not so much like…nobody has the patience for 25-minute long jams.

AD: Do you play the same thing twice or is it different every time?

John Moloney: It’s mostly different every time. If we’re playing out live somewhere, or playing a string of shows, some themes will always be there. There are always certain grooves that we can get into. But it’s mostly spontaneous. There have been some attempts to make it not so spontaneous so it’s easier to tour. I think that’s what we’re going to do the next time we get to do something like that.

AD: If somebody buys this current record and then goes out to see you on tour, will they hear any of the stuff that’s on the record?

John Moloney: Yes. When we made the record, it’s always in the back of my mind, can we do this live? Would it be cool live? There are definitely parts on that record that we can do live.

AD: So how are you doing with the lockdown? It seems like that would put a real crimp in this kind of very live, very communal practice of music.

John Moloney: It’s definitely stopped everything. Once it got cold, in December, we stopped everything. But up until December, from March until December, we’d just play in my yard once or twice a week, full volume, nobody complained. My house is in a weird spot in Northampton. I live on a very busy street, and in the back of my house is a river. There’s a hill that goes down to a river. You can sled the hill. My yard is huge. And the basement is a walkout, so we have this patio downstairs that’s up against a brick wall and faces out into the river. No one is behind the river, except Smith College. There’s a bike path. We can never get louder than the traffic on the street. But we’ve been lucky to not have any complaints. We’ll play for an hour or two. We’ve gotten a lot of playing in 2020.

AD: Did you do any live streams?

John Moloney: We attempted one, but it sucked. It’s so hard to do it. I don’t know. It’s such a pain in the ass to get it to work. We’ve done, in the past couple of weeks, the past month, six weeks or so, we’ve done this thing called “No Mask Required.” Shannon [Ketch] from Sunburned sets up at his house. People send him prerecorded videos, and he’ll set up a Facebook Live event. It’s short videos. It reminds me of watching TV in the 1980s. You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s an hour long. Everyone’s doing a five to eight minute video or whatever they want. It’s like a variety show.

AD: I really miss live music. When I get super depressed, I usually try to find a live stream to watch. It helps a little, but it’s not the same. And the problem is there’s no audience. That’s a whole big part of going to live music, that communication between the band and the audience.

John Moloney: I’ve watched a lot of Youtube this year. I’ve watched a lot of concerts on Youtube and it’s been cool. I think taking a year off the road, at this point, I needed it. We all needed it. Especially with the Dinosaur crew. We all needed a break. And having all this time to do archiving. I’ve been archiving Sunburned stuff and putting together releases. I have a huge archive of shows that I taped, Sunburned shows, and the best stuff is the stuff that I taped from other bands, so I have tons and tons of other bands. I’m starting to work on it now. It just takes a ton of time.

AD: But I guess that was part of the process for Pick a Day to Die. The press materials said it came from a whole decade of recordings. Can you talk a little bit about how you went through that stuff and figured out what was going to be on the album?

John Moloney: Yeah, we recorded Headless, the last record, in 2017. With Jason from Black Dirt. Jason from No Neck Blues Band.

AD: Jason Meagher.

John Moloney: We went to his house and spent three days there. We recorded with the idea that we’ll take it home and finish it. Because a couple of guys in the band, like Gary War has a home studio. So, we’ll take it home and finish it. Add overdubs. But that just fell apart. So, we were like, what are we going to do with this stuff? I was on tour with Dino. I didn’t have time to deal with it, and there was no emergency. Nobody cared. We were just doing it for fun at that point.

Then, Jason says I’ll mix my favorite tracks, and I’ll make a cassette. So, he did that. The cassette only had 20 copies. It sold out instantly. But it was online and then a couple of labels asked if we wanted to put it out. So, we said, yes. Put it out. The record came out and sold out and it was good. It put us back on the map in a weird way. People were really into it.

After that, Cory asked us to do another record for his Three Lobed label, so I was like, what are we going to do? Go back into the studio and record brand new music and then not deal with it for ten years? Because we never have enough money. We don’t have the budget to go into the studio for five days. That’s what it takes for a band like us. We need three to five days solid. I realized that’s what we’d need to make it work. You can’t just do it in one day.

But we had all this recorded music from old sessions. We had sessions from 2007, another session from 2008, another session from 2008 that Four Tet recorded for us. I realized that none of us had even listened to anything from those sessions. Kieran just took the whole hard drive back to London with him, and he gave us the album. All that music got locked up on a hard drive, then the hard drive got broken. I finally got it all off, and I was like, wow, solid, there’s some really good stuff here. Like track two on Pick a Day to Die, Four Tet recorded that. The basics. The drums and stuff. And there’s so much material there.

And then we had a session from 2016 recorded in Justin Pizzaferrato’s studio, that we never did anything with it. Rob put out a phone recording of the session from the studio, and I was like, dude, I just gave Justin all this money. Why don’t you use the rough mixes at least? I don’t know. So, that sat in the can for a while. So then when this album came up, I said, you know what, I’m going to go through all this stuff, now that we’re locked down, all this leftover stuff from the Black Dirt sessions, like “Black Lights” and “Flex,” those are left over from Headless, and another two tracks on the second side are leftovers — there’s like two or three tracks from Headless, and the rest of the stuff is just going through the files. Oh, this is cool. We can add stuff to this. We can take stuff away. This is a good way to make a record. Because I don’t want to go in the studio and record for two days and then have all this…at best it doesn’t really record our vibe very well. We like working on collages and mixing things together, so I think we’ve figured out a really good way, with this Pick a Day to Die record, to do things in the future.

AD: It’s really nicely done. It starts with this beautiful, finger-picked, almost American Primitive style song called “Dropped a Rock,” which surprised me, because I think of you guys more in the heavy psych vein. Where did that piece come from?

John Moloney: It’s just part of the vibe that doesn’t really get shown too much. There’s always acoustic guitars around at the jams. The stuff just never makes it out in public. But we did that at Black Dirt. That’s another leftover from the Black Dirt Headless session. We just remixed it a little bit, added some sonics to it.

AD: Yeah, there’s some howling in the back. And then at the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got this very loud, very punk rock closer, “Prixe Fixe.” That’s J. Mascis at the end?

John Moloney: Yeah, that’s Mascis on guitar. I asked him if he could put a track on. We were just going to do the punk part in the beginning, which is about going to a restaurant and taking pictures of your food and posting it to social media. It’s all about restaurant photography.

AD: How do you think we’re going to get out of this? Do you think music will come back?

John Moloney: I think we’ll get out of it. We did a couple of drive in shows with Dino last summer that were pretty cool. I thought they were cool. I thought this was the way to do it, even if there isn’t a pandemic. It’s a cool vibe. People are hanging in their cars. They can chill, do whatever they want.

We’re going to start doing some things in my yard fairly soon. I think small things are going to happen before you’ll see the 700-cap places reopen.

AD: I hope it’s not just Live Nation. I hope the small scale stuff comes back, too.

John Moloney: It’s hard, because Live Nation has—I keep up on the business side, and Live Nation has the most cash of anybody in the business. They have like $9 billion set aside in cash. I think they’ll come back before anybody else. But a lot of the small places are going to get squashed, unless they can figure out favorable ways to keep their businesses open with rent reductions and taking advantage of small business loans.

AD: Do you know the guys who are opening up Terra Nova in Keene?

John Moloney: I don’t know…

AD: They’ve got a venue, right now they’re doing concerts and live streaming them. But up until the fall, they were doing actual shows. I guess they’re doing okay, and they intend to get right back into it as soon as it’s safe.

John Moloney: There’s a place that wants us to do a residency in Keene. I wonder if it’s the same.

AD: Could be. He’s working with Eric Gagne who books Thing in the Spring.

John Moloney: That’s the same place. My friend told me about it on Saturday. He said, do you want to do this residency, and I said, yeah, let’s do it. If things open up, we’ll do anything like that.

AD: I think things will open up outside this summer.

John Moloney: I hope so. The numbers are coming down every day.

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