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Interview: SUSS

13 December 2022

Photo by Orestes Gonzales

Though SUSS has only been together since 2018, the individual members of the band – Bob Holmes (mandolin, baritone guitar, acoustic guitar, harmonica, violin, keyboards), Pat Irwin (electric guitars, National guitar, eBow, harmonium, keyboards, melodica, loops) and Jonathan Gregg (pedal steel, dobro) – have decades and decades of recording and touring experience in other projects and bands including the B-52s (Irwin) and Rubber Rodeo (Holmes).

SUSS’s latest, an all-instrumental, self-titled double album on Northern Spy Records, compiles three EPs that were released starting in October 2021 and adds five new tracks to fill out the fourth side for a complete ambient country package. Those five tracks, considered by the band to be the fourth EP, Across the Horizon, currently are only available to listen to on the physical copy of the album but will start streaming early in the new year.

For Holmes, Irwin and Gregg, the release of SUSS is bittersweet as their bandmate, Gary Leib, best known as the cartoonist of Idiotland, passed away suddenly in early 2021. During our conversation, Holmes mentions that Leib’s fingerprints can be found throughout most of the songs on the double album.

As a self-described ambient country band, are you going for an Americana-meets-Pink-Floyd sound?

Bob: You’re talking to a guy who grew up in Columbus, Ohio and was in high school in 1973, so if I said I wasn’t listening to Pink Floyd, I’d be a liar. It’s engrained into more people than they know and into me in particular. It’s not like I sit down and listen to Pink Floyd for enjoyment, though I love everything they do. They are definitely in there more than I would have guessed. When I came to Jonathan and Pat in the early days of SUSS, the concept was Eno-meets-Ennio which is pretty glib and there’s a lot of interpretations of that. At the time, listening to Ride and My Bloody Valentine and all of that stuff, all of those bands were listening to Eno hardcore. I have an ambient country podcast where I interview lots of other artists. I thought that I was alone in this and after going through 12 episodes of it, I find that I’m not. A lot of the same people that are in our general genre are heavily influenced not only by Eno but by prog rock and Robert Fripp and Pink Floyd. All those bands come up all the time, almost like a guilty pleasure. They’re afraid to admit it but once you crack that open, everybody’s more than happy to talk about that. More often than not, Yes has come up too and I’m like, “Okay. I promise I won’t put that in the interviews because I think our street cred might go straight down.” Tales from Topographic Oceans, I just listened to it this morning.

Jonathan: And when you listen to some of that Yes stuff now, you realize how many country licks Steve Howe was copying the whole time all over that stuff. To go back to the Pink Floyd thing, we have two different joke names for our music. One was Hank Floyd and we’ve also referred to it as Dark Side of the Moonshine. I didn’t make up either of those but it’s not an accident that you picked up Pink Floyd in our sound.

Bob: Pat and I were in well known, Pat more than myself, ’80s new wave bands so we can’t avoid those influences either. As an aside, it was late at night and I had nothing better to do so I watched the HBO Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony and they inducted a lot of the new wave bands of the ’80s. I was on the couch weeping, not because I liked the music but because I was like, “Oh these people are still doing it. They’re still rocking it.” These are all people in their late 60s and early 70s and they come up on stage and play those songs from the ’80s and you just feel like a kid again.

Did you see a lot of those bands? Or, better yet, were you playing in some of those bands back when they were playing in front of 10 people?

Pat: I was in the Raybeats and we were on Beggars Banquet. We toured England and I remember – I have the ad to prove it – we did some shows opening for Duran Duran. One particularly memorable show in Birmingham, we opened for them on a Monday night and there was also a Lou Reed look-a-like contest! The thing about Duran Duran is that you knew those guys were going to be huge. I’ve had that happen to me many times where I’ve played with somebody, David Johansen comes to mind, in front of 10 people and they look like they’re playing in front of 10,000. Duran Duran was very powerful, a real learning experience.

Are there bands that you think should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that have been overlooked?

Bob: I know that Roxy Music was inducted last year but I think that Brian Eno needs to be inducted as a solo artist because just about everybody in that audience, their music was affected by Brian Eno’s music in one way or another.

Jonathan: XTC gets my vote as far as the ’80s bands. A band like NRBQ too. The good guys don’t always get the nod. Andy Partridge is the best songwriter of his generation for my money.

Pat: Another band I was in did a run of shows opening for XTC and, man, they were so good. I remember hearing that first 45, “Statue of Liberty,” before it was on an album. Per Jonathan’s point, I completely agree. One of the greatest of our generation.

I’ll need to dive deeper into XTC. Because of the internet and sites like Spotify, I can listen to them as soon as we’re done with this call. How do you feel about the instant accessibility to music?

Pat: You can’t change it, it’s here to stay.

Jonathan: The accessibility isn’t the problem, that’s a good thing always. It’s what you get for the accessibility which is really lousy right at the moment.

Bob: It’s also the economics with expanded accessibility, the recompensed artist is not great. I’m streaming music at a minimum eight hours a day, old music, new music, whatever. I pay my subscription fees, I would like to think that my fandom was supporting the artists that I love.

SUSS has released a lot of music through Bandcamp. Is that any better when it comes to getting paid for your work?

Jonathan: They’re probably the best of the bunch.

Bob: We sell well on Bandcamp and our record company is quite happy that people buy product from us. Still, like the majority of our peers, the majority of our listens come through streaming.

Your new album is a compilation of three EPs you’ve released since October 2021 plus a fourth EP of new material. The new EP is not available to stream on Bandcamp or Spotify.

Bob: It won’t be until January. We make all of our decisions together. Back when we were just getting ready to release Heat Haze, Gary had just passed away. We were devastated. We knew that we were going to release this EP and we weren’t exactly sure what we were going to do after that. But, we knew that we had a lot of music that had already been started and some ideas for some new music. We floated the idea to the label of allowing us to swing for the fences on this one. They’d never released a double album. The preposterousness that a band would even suggest a double album at this state, they couldn’t believe it. But, we knew that we had the music and we knew we had the concept. I wrote this in a tweet recently. The fact that it was a double album, that it was self-titled – that came from the label, I think, just the audacity to self-title an album these days – and then for it to be bordering on a concept album, it was bordering on being crazy. People have been very kind to us, we appreciate it.

Were you a victim of the vinyl delay?

Bob: No. One of the reasons why it took so long to get it out is that we weren’t even going to announce it until we had the vinyl in hand. We went into pre-sales about 6 weeks ago and they started shipping after that. The vinyl issue is a minimum of 9 months these days so we are already working on the next album knowing that by the time we get it done, we’d be lucky to get it out in 2023.

The new songs on the record, were they written and recorded at the same time as the other stuff but held back or was this newly written material?

Bob: You’ll see that there are Gary tracks interspersed across all of the EPs so that gives you an idea that this stuff goes back a while. We all bring in musical ideas and we work on them. Pat just finished up a track that is yet to be released that we started working on four years ago. Is that when “The Long Ride” happened, Pat?

Pat: The files are from 2018. That one was started with Bob and I playing live in the studio. Some of the music is somewhat spontaneous and very live and I think that’s what gives it life. Some of it might have been created a little more remotely, with adding overdubs, because of the pandemic. Things are going to change forever because of this technology that we’re using right now with Zoom. There’s a convenience factor and sometimes we live in different places. I think, at it’s best, what I like about our band is when we’re together and we play music together. It’s very, very rewarding when we do that.

Jonathan: Even if we’re not actually playing together, even if we’re just in the room when we’re each in the room, it makes an enormous difference. There’s not a lot of cases where the whole band plays together all at once. When I’m doing my tracks, we try to stick as close to the most spontaneous manifestation as possible. To me, that’s something that helps mitigate the cold and calculated aspect of some ambient music because that at least is straight from the socket. Then we mix it and massage it. The impulse always to, even if we’re not always together simultaneously recording, keep in mind the inspiration of the moment.

Bob: One of the other important things is that it’s a gift for us when we are together in a room. The gift is not that we’re allowed to play music, which we do, but it’s everything else that goes on. We can sit in a room together for 3 or 4 or 6 hours together and we can talk about our wives, we talk about our kids, we talk about TV shows and movies that we’ve seen, soundtracks that we’ve listened to, touchpoints about where our heads are at. Then it’s like, “Okay, do you want to go do a song?” When it’s at it’s best, the music is an outpouring and elongation of what those conversations were. Our music, at it’s best, is when you can hear us communicating musically with each other the same way we do when we’re just talking. I’ve known Jonathan for 40 years. I’ve known Pat for 30 years. As SUSS. we’ve only been playing together since 2018. I’ve known Gary since I was a teenager. That comradery, or sense of trust, at it’s best that’s what the music of SUSS brings out.

I’ve never really thought of listening to music in that way. Next time I listen to SUSS, I’ll be thinking of the four of you communicating with each other without using words.

Bob: You know how it is with your friends, whether it’s over a cup of coffee or some beer, some people are going to jump right into the conversation and get things started. Other people are going to wait until it’s the perfect time to say the thing they need to say. And then when they say it, everybody listens to that. That’s what the music is. Sometimes one of us will decide that we’re not even needed on a track because the conversation is complete. Much like with painting, it’s not hard to start a painting, it’s very hard to finish a painting. Knowing when it’s done is really the hardest part for a musician.

Songs with lyrics tell a story and can come to a natural end with the conclusion of the story. How do you know when an instrumental is done?

Jonathan: When everyone has a chance to weigh in and we throw it up in the air and see what lands.

Bob: Many of the songs start out long, but not all of the songs end up long. Our latest single is a minute and 39 seconds long. Pat brought it in. I listened to it and was like, “Whoa!” I think Pat made that music three or four years ago. He brought it in and, for one reason or another, we didn’t get it. Three or four years go by, he brings it out again, and we’re like, “How did we miss that? Where were our heads at that we didn’t hear that the first time around?” It was so beautiful, your first thought is, “A minute and 39 seconds. That’s not a song.” But, then Pat turned around and convinced us that it was. “The whole story is right here.” And, of course, as usual, he was right. The label agreed. The fans agreed. I find it astounding that at a minute and 39 seconds, we can take me from one place to a completely other place. I didn’t play on that track at all. I didn’t want to ruin it. That’s what happens. Sometimes just knowing when it’s enough is what separates the men from the boys.

Jonathan: We’ve been able to create songs from so many different angles. Sometimes it’ll start with something that’s abstract as a synth sound that’s barely tonal. I’ve occasionally been the first to jump in on something like that. Other times I’ll join later on in the process or, for example, Bob took a snippet of my playing and looped that. That became the base for something. We’ve gone from fairly straight, almost normal songwriting to really completely wild and being able to take just the smallest kernel of a thing and we build and build. It can just go so many different ways, you’re never such which element will become the dominant one until they all explain themselves to us as they go. Bob and Pat are really good at mixing and assembling. It’s always a thrill to see how it all comes out.

Bob, you talked about when things were at their best. Are there moments where things are at their worst? Are there conversations that you start where you say, “Nevermind, forget it”?

Bob: Believe me, there are a lot of tracks that aren’t released. I’ll admit, I have a tendency sometimes to rely too much on melody repetition, big-note cowboy guitar. I’ll work on something that it is too obviously derivative of Enno Morricone. It’s cute, but it’s not SUSS. When something is forced or pre-meditated, we’re not at our best. But when something is extemporaneous and just of the moment, that’s when we’re at our best. Anything that feels contrived, or manipulated, or over-wrought, hopefully it ends up on the cutting room floor.

How do you come up with titles for instrumental music?

Bob: Titles are in constant motion much to the distress of our record company who had to go back and change titles on a couple of songs. You never know where the music is going to end up. You have to name the music something to start the process but by the end of the process, it’s usually something completely different. In the case of the four EPs that just came out, the music started to fall into moods. I hate to use the analogy of the concept album, but, we did sort of know where these things were heading. The initial titling of a lot of the tracks on Night Suite literally had the word “night” in them. We decided it was going to be too confusing for us so we ended up calling the album Night Suite and changing the song names appropriately. The names are usually crafted at the end to reflect the vibe of the overall piece though every SUSS song can life and stand and die on it’s own merits, we are definitely an album-oriented band. It’s about listening to them all together. We spend a lot of time on length of songs, on the sequence of songs, naming of songs, album art, to create an overall package that tells a story and that makes sense. We don’t have lyrics to do that. Our fans and the press just have to be able to pick up the product, or stream the digital thing, and it has to make sense from beginning to end. That takes us a while to figure out how that’s going to happen. Song titles are one of the sign posts to let people know where we’re at with that particular release.

I’ve done some driving through New Mexico and Arizona and listening to Night Suite and remembering that drive through a very desolate part of the country, it all made sense to me. It would have been a great soundtrack for me to listen to while I was making that drive.

Bob: Night Suite is the most obvious example of it. Every release we do is about taking the listener on a trip from the beginning to the end. Promise was more pastoral and uplifting. With Gary’s passing, the next release was anything but even though he was on there. Doing the double album, it was challenging but fun. Night Suite was five legs of a journey across the length of the EP and we made that as painfully obvious as we could by listing the cities, the time of night. If you’re looking at your Google Map and you’re traveling the speed limit, that’s what it takes to get across. It’s all been mapped out. And the videos that we did were all of those exact roads at that time of night.

We can be obsessive about that stuff. Night Suite was just one leg of what we knew, at that time, was going to be a four-leg journey. The darkness of Night Suite and then you come out of the night and go into the blistering hot sunlight of Heat Haze and then out of that, we flip-flop from the blistering hot to the icy cold of Winter Was Hard and then the last leg of the journey is going off over the horizon. We really had to plan the sequencing and the titling of each of the EPs and then when the whole EP is together, even though we’re reminding people it’s four EPs, it’s really a double album length experience.

I’ve listened to the record in one sitting many times, as you’ve intended for the music to be heard. But, I have to admit, I also listen to it to help me fall asleep. SUSS has helped me fall asleep on quite a few nights.

Jonathan: Well, that’s the best endorsement we’ve heard so far.

Pat: When I listen to music, I listen to it hard. I can’t fall asleep if I’m listening to Miles Davis. I’m hanging on every note. I was listening to something that Bob put together on his latest ambient country podcast by Miles and I love that record, “Honky Tonk.” I cannot fall asleep to that but when I put SUSS on, I can kind of fall asleep because I know what’s going on and it sort of goes and goes.

Do you plan to play this material live or are the days of hopping in a van and playing shows well in the past?

Bob: We don’t play that often. SXSW was one of those situations where it took us three days to get there and we played for 35 minutes, spent the night, and then it took us three days to get back to New York.

Pat: Touring is not an easy proposition. I think if we could do it, we would do it. We knew that we weren’t a bar band yet there are a lot of bars that are equipped to have great sound and get you in and out. We need to make sure our music is presented in the right way so we’re careful about it. It’s not an easy thing right now even for big bands like the B-52s who I saw the other night. I’ve been touring since I was in high school. I went on my first tour up through Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana playing air force bases. I don’t even want to think about it, it gives me nightmares. Being in a band is weird, it’s tough and yet, at this point, what we have with this band is a gift. We’re really lucky to have each other. In a way, we’re lucky that we’re not all in the same place and we’re not all getting together every Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and rehearsing. We make it count. There are ups and downs. The economics of touring does not line up with who we are at this moment.

Bob: Unless you’re part of the 1% of the music industry, touring, at best, is a break even venture. It’s a marketing move. Maybe sell some merch. Maybe go home with a few dollars in your pocket. We were all doing this when we were in our 20s. The music industry was different then. The algorithm of our lives is definitely different than when we were in our 20s. When I was in Rubber Rodeo, Gary and I and our best friend Doug and my brother Barc and my girlfriend Trish, we just all hopped in the van and said, “Let’s go anywhere. We don’t care. We’ll all sleep in one room, it’s better than working.” We just did it. We had the time of our lives. We ended up touring the United States and touring the world but it didn’t make us any money, it didn’t end up selling us any more records. What sold records in 1983 was MTV. Every time our video came on MTV, we would sell records.

Jonathan: Also, there are not that many venues that are suitable for us. We’re not a bar band. The prospect of being one of three bands on your average bar band night with 20 minutes between sets, that’s very hard for us to function properly. We’re in a niche kind of thing where it’s a tricky spot to navigate.

Bob: We’re in awe of our peers, whether you’re Chuck Johnson or Sarah Davachi or Luke Schneider or William Tyler, who are generally in the same genre that we’re at. They are out there doing it every day and I’m like, “Whoa.” There’s a difference between three guys and one person. Most of our peers are a one-person act. If there’s an issue that we need to tackle in 2023, we could avoid it the last couple of years because of the pandemic, we’re going to have to find some answer to the touring equation.

What other stuff are you, individually, working on outside of SUSS?

Bob: I have an album, with another band called numün, coming out in January on Shimmy Disc, produced by Kramer. It’s instrumental but more traditionally psychedelic and the other two members of the band come from an Asian music background. There’s a lot of traditional Asian instrumentation and composition.

Jonathan: I’ve had a band on and off for the last ten years called The Combine which is basically an instrumental band playing ’60s pop tunes with upright bass, pedal steel, and guitar. We’re playing songs that you don’t normally associate with pedal steel, more enriched and melodic and chordal things. Covid threw a wrench into things, I’m trying to get my footing again and see what’s out there. Not everybody I used to play with is back out there doing it. Normally, in New York, I play gigs with people who call me, I do recording sessions and I give lessons but SUSS is the main thing these days.

Pat: In the ’90s I wrote music for a cartoon called Rocco’s Modern Life. I’m really jazzed, I have a soundtrack album in the works. That was an amazing band of musicians, master musicians. The trombone player is Art Baron, the last living guy who had been in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Kevin Norton on drums was with Anthony Braxton. Dave Hofstra has played with everybody, from Elliott Sharp to John Zorn. There’s five years worth of music, hours and miles of soundtrack stuff that I’m going to go through and try to turn into a record. We did it all live. It was kind of what I thought being in a band was like. Like Jonathan, I also teach. I teach at NYU and Brooklyn College. Really, what we have is more material that SUSS is working on. I need to get cracking on it. I’m being.

Bob: Pat is way too modest. He also just released the soundtrack to Dexter: New Blood that came out on Halloween. That is no small feat. The latest season of Dexter was the most popular show Showtime has had on it’s network.

Pat: I really wouldn’t have gotten that job if it wasn’t for SUSS. The show runner knew me, but as far as everyone else, including Michael C Hall, I was the B-52s, Spongebob Squarepants guy. There’s not a direct line to Dexter. They could all access SUSS, thankfully, on the SUSS website and make the jump. I would have loved it they had used some SUSS music but it wasn’t right for the show. SUSS has given me the opportunity to make the music I have always wanted to make but never been able to do it. Both these guys surprise me. That’s no small thing. That’s a really big deal. We’re all different kinds of musicians, we come from different places but, man, when you get a track and somebody is doing something cool and it usually lands in my lap to do the mixing, it’s a bit of a grind but at the end of the day it’s a thrill. All I know is that whatever I do, these guys make it better.