Sulfur: more than human
An interview with Sulfur
(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
An Introduction to Sulfur - Scheda
Sulfur is a septet from New York (originally Virus, born on the ashes of Motherhead Bug) which has recently debuted with an eclectic and eccentric album, {Delirium Tremens} (Goldenfly, 1998). The current line-up includes David Oumet (Motherhead Bug, Cop Shoot Cop, Firewater), trombone; Norman Westberg (Swans), guitar; Fiona Doherty, bass; Heather Paane, violin; Nick Heathen, keyboards; Dan Joeright, percussions; Tony Corsano (Contortions), timpani; Michele Amar, vocals, with help from Jim Colarusso (trumpet, Motherhead Bug), Yuval Gabay (drums, Soul Coughing), Yuri Zak (accordion) and Paula Henderson (saxophone). The story of the band is really the story of its leaders, David Oumet and Michele Amar.
Oumet: I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in a musical family. My mother was a pianist, and we always had a lot of interesting musical instruments around, for example an harpsicord. At a very early age, I took an interest in taping the sounds that I was producing and manipulating them. When I was 13, my parents gave me a tape recorder so that I could improve on my childish experiments, and eventually when I was 14 I got several synthesizers. This led me to an interest in the concept of editing. Then I moved to Rhode Island to study sound. At 17 I was doing films and experimentation with Todd Ashley (then in Shithouse, later in Cop Shoot Cop) and we used to hang out with the young Jon Spencer. Then we moved to New York to form Cop Shoot Cop. I played with them from 1986 until 1989, when I left to join Foetus. I played keyboards with both, but in the meantime I was beginning to move towards trombone and other instruments, getting away from the keyboards. In 1992 I conceived Motherhead Bug, a large band with strings and horns and multiple percussions. Michele played keyboards. The band collapsed under the weight of having 17 musicians, it was just plainly impossible to manage. So I gave up music to work on childrenn's books. For a few years I completely abandoned the music scene. I became a fan of Virus, the band Michele had started, and we began to talk about our ideas. Soon, I was again playing instruments and composing music..."

Motherhead Bug, formed in 1989 by Ouimet , were a small orchestra which included all sorts of instruments. They made one great album, {Zambodia} (Pow Wow, 1993).

Notwithstanding the musicians' caliber, Sulfur is pretty much Amar's private project.
Amar: "I was born and raised in Montmartre. I spent most of my childhood with my grandmother, a sweet and obese old lady who had been an opera singer. In following with the family tradition, since I was 12 I was studying at the Conservatory. I lived with her till I was 15, I literally took care of her. Then she died and I moved in with my parents, in a small town in the north of France. There I started played in punk bands. I moved back to Paris to study Philosophy at the Sorbonne. In 1985 I decided to move to the States, as my punk-rock career wasn't going anywhere, and I had always romanticized about the States and I wanted to sing in English. In New York, I auditioned with tons of bands amd finally landed a job in a recording studio, first as a receptionist then as an assistant engineer. In 1986 I started working with MIDI, at a time when lots of bands were experimenting with MIDI. I learned about programming and sampling and doing loops and all that. I got hired by Roli Mosimann (who was working with Foetus and Swans) and I ended up working for him for five years. That's how I worked on albums by Young Gods, That Petrol Emotion, New Order, etc. In the meantime I started experimenting on my own, and eventually funded Virus in 1991, with Yuval Gubay, the drummer of Soul Coughing, and the bass player from Missing Foundation and the violin player from Motherhead Bug and a pianist, and so on. Virus slowly evolved into Sulfur. It was definitely eclectic music from the beginning, but it really started as a tape-oriented project and at the beginning it was just programming and loop."

Sulfur debuted with a single, [Water Song/ Nova Sangre] (Lungcast). An EP, {Nectarine Head} (Massaker, 1997), with [Bruise], [Water Song], [Sister Murder's] and [Nova Sangre], was planned but never released. Theirs was already an instrumental rock in the eccentric tradition of Motherhead Bug, if possible even further removed from the rock standards.
Oumet: "I know that most people identify rock music with the singer, the superstar, the idol. But the truth is that rock music started with swing, in a place called Carnegie Hall... Music started to rock with Benny Goodman, and the big bands of the Forties. That was really one of the musical revolutions of our century. And it was instrumental music. And it was eclectic. We are not as far removed from the rock tradition as you may think..."

Amar: "Others may say that music started to rock when musicians started playing electric instruments, but electric instruments were used in classical music too.

But how does this fit with the musical scene you come from?
Oumet: "In terms of our acquaintances, I think they generated from being in New York, being from the New York underground. But our background is definitely classical. We both have extensive knowledge of world music. Michele is really into classical vocal music. Sulfur is a natural development of both our interests. It is actually an uncommon thing that we have identical musical taste. It is a very strange and wonderful thing.

Michel: "We are able to combine all these tendencies and styles into something that could be called rock music."

Are you in contact with jazz musicians?
Oumet: "No, that's impossible. In New York the jazz thing is changing a lot, thanks to John Zorn and the Knitting Factory. Throughout the 80's, jazz was an insulated community. Now it is being revitalized and it is basically branching out into the avant-classical scene. But it was in a very unhealthy state for a long period of time."

Amar has written three soundtracks for the cinema and has been protagonist of the opera "Electra", by Kathy Acker. In Sulfur her role is really that of the arranger.
Oumet: "Michele comes up with the structure of the song and sometimes it's already arranged and sometimes it is just a skeleton. Each song has a different history. Normally, we all shape it into what it will be. Sometimes she's working closer to the drummer, sometimes with the keyboard player. Each song has its own development. That's why the album has such a nice variety of colors".

The arrangements give the album a mitteleuropean flavor, another aspect that sets you apart from American rock bands, which traditionally delve into country and blues music.
Michele: "Of course, the European feeling is no surprise, given my background. But make no mistake: I do like country and blues, and find them very inspiring.

Oumet: "From Michele's viewpoint it's a natural thing. But in the same frame of reference, consider that I grew up in Tennessee, which is country music's homeland, and I got repulsed by it because of over-saturation. My parents were not listening to any country or blues, always classical. For me classical music was a bit of a rebellion against that backwards music."

Amar: "Compositionally, for me it's very important to keep a balance between rhythm and melody. Some melodies can't carry a rhythm. For me it's like playing with time."

Oumet: "Nova Sangre" is a good example: the rhythm is really the melody, something that you can't hum but something that you can feel."

Amar: "A song may start in many ways. Sometimes the lyrics come first, sometimes it starts as just a sample or a loop. "Sister Murder" is really one loop that triggers everything. For [Fantastic Shot] Dave came up with the piano melody. I feel that, when the lyrics come first, I'm more attracted to the aspect of the real song, and when it's built around the melody, the song tends to be much simpler but much stronger. The compositional variety translates into dealing with different aspects of music."

Are the songs recent or are they a collection of what has been done in so many years?
Amar: "Some of it is recent, some is very old. Some material dates from the Virus days, but it's been refleshed out and reperformed many times. It's interesting how our songs evolved over time. The oldest songs tend to be the best, so hashed out and reprocessed.

Your music has a very kinematic quality...
Oumet: "I have a background in film music."

Amar: "I hope it flows well with the lyrics. I am often talking from the perspective of very rebellious characters, of desperate people. My characters tend to be people who rebel against thei destiny, who act just to show rebellion. I like to focus on people in despair. A friend was saying that people who have things do not need to worry about the future. But somebody who doesn't have anything has a completely different perspective and attitute towards life. She doesn't know how to get out of it. She feels real despair and real struggle. That's the state of mind I specialize in! At the same time, I always want to have some kind of humour. My music must have contents, something deeper and inspiring to say, but mitigated with humour."

Oumet: "Humour is an essential point with Sulfur. At the end of the day, this is just an album of songs, it's not something that's going to change the world.

Humour was also essential in Motherhead Bug, right?
Oumet: "Motherhead Bug's humour was at a much simpler level... most of the times we were drunk. We were really a drinking band. Maybe that's why I didn't have the judgement to see what was going on with having so many people... Sulfur is a much more disciplined and focused project. Motherhead bug was fueled by alcohol, Sulfur is fueled by brains."

(Translation by/ Traduzione di )
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