Multi-Instrumentalist SunSon Makes Shapeshifting Indie Pop

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SunSon (aka Stanley Mathabane) got his start writing and producing music through DIY scenes in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, performing psych-rock and pop punk as a teenager with the band Goat. His solo project was conceived after high school, during a gap year while living in Senegal. Stanley spent that time abroad planting trees, performing sax in a hotel jazz band and making his first SunSon album. Careening casually between folky, ephemeral psych-pop and boisterous electro pop-rock, NoWhere Fast would set the tone for the next five years of SunSon.

After Senegal the multi-instrumentalist moved to Princeton, New Jersey and studied cognitive psychology and neuroscience. The major got him a job in France one summer, where he became enamored with French culture and literature, specifically existentialism. The theme runs heavily through his four-part EP series including Scenes From Beyond The Void, Solar Wind, Eye In the Sky, and Age of Reveals. A few of the EPs sporadically embraced dance music themes, further complicating SunSon’s shapeshifting vision of lo-fi pop.

SunSon has had intermittent tastes of New York–one summer as a DJ and one autumn as an actor in an Off Broadway musical. He moved to NYC officially this summer after connecting with Amani Fela and Dolfin Records affiliates like the hip-hop soul nomad L.ive. Now SunSon is doubling down on collaborations with new friends and artists in the NYC area, performing sets with Ladybread‘s live band and working on exciting new 80s divas covers EP.

Last week IC caught up with SunSon in Prospect Park and spoke about his start in music, punk and house influences, and future collaborations. Read highlights from our conversation below.

On first discovering music

“The first instrument that I played was trombone. (laughs) That was in the sixth grade. I remember I was in Portland, Oregon. It was really such an arbitrary thing, me getting into music in the first place. In fifth grade after graduating I was really into this girl in my class and my really close friend Zach was also really into her, and I knew they were both taking the band elective together. And I was kinda jealous.

I was gonna do dance but then I decided to do band, just cause I wanted to like keep tabs. And the way that our band teacher decided what you would play is he would just give you the different mouthpieces and whatever you most naturally produced a tone on was your instrument. Of course I got stuck with the trombone because I could make a good sound. That means I was in the back of the orchestra just watching Zach and Shantale, who is flutist and Zack was playing saxophone, just like shmoosing while I’m playing really boring dotted quarter note lines on the trombone. So that was rough.”

On writing music in high school

“I’m the former lead guitarist and vocalist of the band Goat, which is like this indie rock band I made in sophomore year of high school. We played a bunch of shows in Portland, because there’s a really strong youth music scene through music in the schools and lots of venues in downtown Portland. Shout out Backspace Cafe, which is an awesome venue. It was just a lot of artist showcases with high school students from the area. For that band, I wrote all the music and I would rehearse with my friends Bruce and Cole Zollinger.

Cole is now in the band Slow Corpse who are signed to Tender Loving Empire. He’s on tour with them right now. I was really into Radiohead. I was really into Muse. I didn’t know that there was a beef between the fan groups of the two. (laughs) I was very innocently into them and all this indie rock stuff. Those were the first songs I was really writing. I wrote five songs and by the end of the whole experience we had seven-song-sets. Then I played bass in a band called Bipolarbear and that was a lot of indie pop stuff.”

On avoiding jazz and ignoring his background with saxophone in his music as SunSon

“With my solo stuff, I’m really inspired by singer-songwriter-types who experiment with textures and mixing. I don’t know, I guess to me, having the saxophone felt like that would… Honestly I didn’t know how to track sax very well. (laughs) But also, when I did Nowhere Fast and was living in Senegal, I just always thought of sax as a jazz thing. This is more the truth. I always thought of it as a jazz thing because I learned it reading Omnibook and Charlie Parker solos and learning patterns and really sticking to the changes and stuff.

So with writing music my head wasn’t so much like, revisiting something where I think more in a way of like, here’s what I’ve been presented with and here’s what I’ll improvise over it. I wanted to get out of that place of having familiar phrases to rely on, to instead play around with the textures of sound design, especially on Nowhere Fast and Eye On The Sky, those are much more electronic.”

On simplicity

“My first band Goat was a lot about just putting music to the words that I really felt I wanted to say. And that was my first band experience, so I guess I’ve always had a heavy focus on simplicity in the vocals. To be able to simplify my music and not strive for complexity, it’s liberating and it’s nice but it’s also something where you’re sometimes wondering, if a musician is hearing it are they just going to dub it because it’s not complex enough. So I’ve definitely gone through my periods of being unsure about where that line is of adequately complex to satisfy both the musician and the amateur of music. Yeah, that’s just a balance I’m continuously navigating, but I don’t myself so much feel the need for music to be complex.”

On collaboration

“For my discography thus far, a lot of those tracks I’ve only listened to in the process of making them. I produced the tracks, I recorded them alone, and I sometimes show friends drafts but I don’t usually take feedback really. And not many of my friends know what to say, they’re just like, Oh wow okay. I’m more sharing it to be like, this is how I’m feeling about this particular thing and I’ve kind of distilled it into a song, rather than like seeking critical response to the production. So that first album NoWhere Fast that I wrote in Senegal, those were all done with no outside input but I do love collaborating.

I would love to produce other artists, that’s like one of my main goals. It would be cool to be on big stages and stuff like that, but the moment that I’m like, wow that would be amazing if I could get to that point, would be having my own studio and being able to uplift artists who are saying stuff that’s important, or creating moments that are unique and in that uniqueness there’s an importance. I just want to support people who want to do that. I’d love to be like 70 years old in the studio just hanging out with young people who felt like they didn’t have an amplification for this voice. I’m just like, yo, I see that, and I’m not even about taking any credit for this or implanting my brand or whatever. I just want to help facilitate this. Let’s talk about it and then from talking about it, generate a very unique auditory experience that isn’t just a clean track.”

On working with Ted Kamal

“He’s been really into his punk shit recently. He’s got his own dope punk tracks. We’re trying to figure out how to release this right now, but we’ve just got a couple of songs and theme sketches. We’re both navigating the world right now. We might be moving in together, we’re trying to find a place right now in Bushwick. But it’s just like, the tension of navigating the housing community and trying to find a place. I just moved here in April so there’s no guaranteed incomes or guarantors and stuff, so it really is inspiring to the punk energy. We’re both sort of encountering the same challenge.”

“I haven’t had a moment to seriously evaluate whether I want to leave [New York City] or not, and I think that’s happiness.”

On new solo music

“I’ve still got a lot of solo tracks that I’ve been sifting through. I also have two EPs that are non-collaborations that are gonna be coming out soon, probably between now and April of next year. One is a divas cover EP, so it’s 80s divas. I’m doing an Aretha Franklin cover, a Chaka Khan cover and an Evelyn King cover and I’ve already got them tracked out so I’m just mixing them and touching them up day by day.”

On curating his discography for Spotify and iTunes

“I think a lot about the experience of listening to the EP or listening to an artist or album and the palettes used. I guess for me, releasing different EPs was a good way to consolidate sound palettes but also emotional palettes and themes. The themes would generally suggest the sound actually, so different phases of my life just being like, I feel more like a low bass pad rather than a plucked bass string right now, usually corresponding to winter and summer, moodier and less moody seasons.

I guess that’s what also led me to withhold certain tracks from Spotify and iTunes distribution. They’re a little bit more like deep house. I don’t want to confuse people necessarily, but the SunSon tracks like Solar Winds and Guerrilla Welfare, I feel like that sort of sound is where I’m feeling like this is a state that I feel the most vibrant resonance with when I do relate to it. Versus the other tracks that I’ve released, like the house tracks, which I can really get into, but they don’t resonate with me in the state that I necessarily always want to exist in. So I save those SunSon tracks for Spotify and main distribution, but I also still want to have the other stuff out there because all moments exist.”

On house music

“I would DJ a lot of old school house music from the 80s and 70s, got really into Frankie Knuckles and Mr. Fingers. That was when I was living in New York. I was here for a summer in 2016 when I made the EP Warmth of Being, and I was going to these parties which were these minimal house/techno sets hosted by Golden Record NYC. They’re these awesome warehouse parties in Brooklyn. They turned me on to a bunch of deep house music, and I was like, this is where my head is at right now. And now I’m like, punk.”

On punk music

A lot of my punk inspirations are, embarrassingly… I don’t know if it’s embarrassing but they’re kind of pop punk-esque. Punk and jangle pop, but also I’ve been listening to a lot of Bad Brains now and listening to a lot more artists of color who are doing punk. That’s shifting my approach to production and to the writing of the music. I’d say I wrote more descending progressions but they might be major or something like that in my previous punk stuff, or I’d use minor seven chords and now I’m using more bar chords and moving more and having more out of time sections and playing with the time not all being 4/4 like I would do for my more power pop/punk stuff.

“I feel the city leaving its imprint on my sound. I’ve got more agitated energy.”

I really, really like the Cleaners From Venus. Martin Newell is one of my favorite songwriters. I listen to a lot of his shit. The Brotherhood of Lizards. Before I came out here, actually, I wanted to get signed to Captured Tracks. I sent them my demo and never heard back, so I was like, oh dang. So I really like Beach Fossils and sort-of lo-fi sounds. Mainly Cleaners. They’re my bread and butter. Chris Cohen. There’s something punk in the themes that they talk about. I also love Jonathan Richman.

I just love the song styles and the simplicity of the topics, but the attitude behind it. I love that. Even the Chris Cohen song, I was consider this kind of punk even though the song is really pop-y, but like “Optimist High”, the song is about, or at least how I interpret it, a very punk thing. For me, punk is like a dissonance than a negativity, I guess, so if you create dissonance in your sound between a happy sound like as though this is supposed to cater to people but you’re subverting that in order to be like, yo, we’re gonna give you a dose of a topic that maybe you didn’t think you were gonna be exposed to in this way. That’s a punk move.

On moving to New York

I guess it was an artist I already knew in New York, he kind of made me want to come to New York. When I came here for that Off Broadway show that I was acting in in October, I stayed over at Amani’s crib. I met a lot of artists who were passing through the space. I got to meet Ahwlee and L.ive and B. Cool-Aid, they came and crashed for a couple of weeks. Ted Kamal was in the space. Amani was there. We’d have random artists come in every now and then. Suzi Analogue popped in once. DJ Earl and stuff. Yeah, just meeting them and being in that space and playing with Amani. I really felt that being in the space and getting to meet people and getting to be around artists who are creating as much as myself, who are mad prolific. It was very inspiring.

L.ive and Pink Siifu, who’s got such an impressive discography and is always working on tracks. I was like, I gotta be around these guys, because at the time I was living in Portland and I was living with a band and we were hanging out but they all were trying to settle down their lives in other respects, like getting 9-5’s and things like that. That was around the time that I wrote Guerrilla Welfare and I was freelancing as a DJ for a creative agency to help pay rent.

When I moved back after October I just had this feeling like, yo, I think I have tasted what I want. When I was in New Jersey I was like, oh the west coast is so great, people are so nice, it’s so much better, so it was a little bit of a rude awakening and a slow process of disillusionment in being like okay I gotta be real with myself. Portland is really not where it’s at for me. But once I made that decision, it was rough, but once I made it..It’s been awesome being here and meeting people like you and having interviews like this.

Listen to Guerrilla Welfare.

Listen to NoWhere Fast.

Angel E. Fraden

Head Editor | DJ | Amateur Rave Maker | Photographer | / View all post →