Interview with Matt Sumrow of Heaven

Posted on August 17, 2011 - by Julian Woolsey

Heaven are a sort of supergroup in the New York psychedelic scene, made up of the triumvirate of Matt Sumrow, guitarist for Dean & Britta, Ryan Lee Dunlap of Fan-Tan, and Mikey Jones, drummer extraordinaire who has played with everyone from Adam Franklin to The Big Sleep. Together this young team delivers a synth-heavy payload of droney neo-psych that is simultaneously soothing and scintillating. Layers of keyboards and guitar noise over a solid beat provide a foundation upon which their impeccable vocal harmonies can uplift and entrance.

Resting comfortably in that place where dream pop meets noise rock, Heaven are quickly making their mark on New York, garnering rave reviews from local press and making fans all over the music world. With a full album recorded but not officially released, Heaven have been releasing songs little by little. "Once the Heartache" was given away by The Village Voice as a free download, and now the band are preparing to release their debut 7-inch, "Mountains Move." A record release party for it will be held at 200 Orchard in Manhattan on August 23.

Rock Edition caught up with Heaven's guitarist, Matt Sumrow, to find out how the band came to be and where they want to go. Read on.

How was Heaven formed?

That's a good way to start it off. It started off with Mikey [Jones, drummer] and I playing together. The first time we played together was with a band called The Still Out, which was with these guys Josh [Stoddard] and Arjun [Agerwala]. We met Josh because he played with Adam Franklin, and we ended up starting to play with him around the same time as well. So we all sort of started playing together.

Mikey was already playing with Adam Franklin?

At that point, yeah. But I actually played keyboards in a couple of rehearsals with Adam before any of us even knew Mikey. Then, my old band The Comas got real busy, so I had to forgo playing with Adam at that point. It sort of all came back together a couple of years later with Josh's band. They got this guy Mikey to come play in Josh's band, and I show up, and we started playing together and had great chemistry, and just decided to start working on stuff. That took a couple of years to get going. We did some recording maybe a year before the Heaven stuff that's recorded now; we went into Stratosphere [Studios] with Arjun from The Still Out.

This was in '09?

Yeah, probably '09. I could look, I have all the recordings labeled, but I always forget the times. Anyway, we went in there and recorded about ten songs with Mikey playing drums, and me playing either bass or guitar -- basically demoing some songs. From that session, we sort of had an idea of how we wanted to go about it next time we went in, and how we wanted to frame it up. So we went in and kind of pre-produced the recordings really well, had an equation, and just went in and knocked it out.

At this point, it's still just the two of you?

Yeah, just the two of us. But, part of the equation we came up with was to have harmony the whole time, to have two front guys [basically] singing the whole time. So we threw around different people, and Ryan-Lee Dunlap [of Fan-Tan] came up as a great candidate, so we got him in. We brought him in kind of near the end of the sessions, just to sing and play guitar.

So the core of the band is now the three of you.

Yeah, I know you saw us play with five people at Perfect Prescription in 2010; we had Lizzah Lohse and Wayne Longwell playing for a while. When we were getting the band started, we kind of wanted to experiment with how we could present it live, and change it up. It's a three-piece now. We're just trying to really get to the essentials of the sound, and rock out that way, but as time goes on, we're definitely open to changing that around and experimenting more.

I've seen you as a five-piece and as a three-piece, and I think it worked equally well both times. Some things were a little different; I guess there was something a littler rawer, in a good way, about the three-piece.

Yeah, that's kind of the consensus we came to. There was more rawness and more of an ability to push the envelope and rock out, so to speak. Mikey and I have a good dynamic. We've played together in various things, with me on bass or on guitar, and so we have a really good chemistry, and we can really turn up and rock out. It was essential to get back to that. It felt like with the five-piece, that I was orchestrating a little too much.

So now with the three-piece, the role of bass is now being handled by keys?

Yeah, we're running the Roland Strings into a bass amp, playing the low section. The bass ends up just being heavy drone keyboard. There's definitely moments where I miss having bass guitar, to propel it more. In the future, we'll probably get bass guitar back in some capacity. But for now, it seems to be working.

Yeah! So, you've got your first official release coming out this month: the "Mountains Move" 7-inch.

Yeah, it's coming out in mid-July, on this label called Goodnight Records. We're excited about it. The b-side is "Falling Apple," which is another song we've been playing live. Those two songs are part of the recordings that we did at Stratosphere, and they are the first ones that are going to be released. It's exciting to get some of it out there, finally.

Indeed, and that will probably help to get some attention for the full-length.

Exactly. We're holding on to it, and hopefully that can be put out as a body of material at some point. But it's definitely cool to be putting out singles and just getting the ball rolling like that.

When you gave me a copy of 'Telepathic Love,' which is the body of work you're referring to, it seemed so fully-formed to me. It was a complete record, it had nice artwork -- I thought it was an actual album at that point.

And in a way it is. Our idea was to be able to present that to friends and family and pass it along, in sort of an old-fashioned way of just giving it to your friends. And it was a way to just get the band going; before we had even played our first live show, we had those to give out to people, and [we could] just be like, "This is our new band." We could have tried to self-release it then, but we kind of had this idea of holding on to it, hoping at some poing that it could be a bigger thing. It could be the same record put out again, but re-worked, re-mixed, [and/or] re-artworked. And hence the idea of putting out singles to get it going that way. I don't know if it's wise or not, but that's what we're doing.

It makes sense, and it seems like it's starting to work. I've definitely noticed you guys getting some press and some attention. You have another song that was kind of making the rounds a little bit, "Once the Heartache."

Yeah, Village Voice just put that up on their website as a free download. It's a cool little song. They do this feature where they do a free download and a little feature on a band. We knew we had "Mountains Move" coming out, so we didn't want to give that away, so we chose "Once the Heartache."

You guys went to SXSW this year?

We did. It was cool. SXSW is kind of crazy. Ideally, you want to go there when you're just completely sorted out and taken care of and playing great venues. But the fact that we're a brand new band [and we were able to go]... it was cool. We had some great shows. It's kind of a hustle down there; you're not using a lot of your own gear, you don't have any time to set up or soundcheck, that kind of thing. But at the same time, it's a blast, you get to see all your friends and check out their bands. It's like New York moves to a warmer climate for a week.

And meets up with some folks from LA while it's there.

Yeah, exactly. It's like LA and NY just pick up and set up camp in Texas. But, yeah, it was good for us. It was good for us to get out of town as a band and play some shows in front of people that hadn't seen us.

Obviously it was Heaven's first time, but I assume you personally had been there before with other bands.

Yeah, I've been there throughout the years, with a couple of different bands. I was there with The Comas, and this band The Mayflies USA. I was there with Adam Franklin a year ago. I've seen it grow and change. It definitely keeps getting bigger and bigger. It's insane. All the larger shows have always been on the west side of 35, but now the east side of the highway has blown up. Hundreds of food trucks. It felt kind of like the East River of Austin. It was kind of like Brooklyn, with all this start-up stuff happening on the east side, and all the establishment more on the west. Kind of interesting.

Photo: Soleil Konkel

Any exciting gigs coming up?

We just played July 3 at [DIY venue] Shea Stadium with Ringo Deathstarr, The Vandelles and Dead Leaf Echo. That was awesome. We're having a 7-inch release party on August 23 at 200 Orchard in Manhattan, though we aren't going to be playing there, just DJing. We'll be definitely playing a lot of shows; we're trying to play as much as we can.

How about a gear question. What was your first guitar?

I actually have my first guitar, still.

That was going to be my follow-up question! [laughs]

[laughs] It's an Ibanez Performance acoustic guitar. I love it because it's just such a beater of a guitar. I got it in 7th grade and pretty much taught myself how to play guitar on it. It doesn't have a case and I just kind of chuck it around the room and beat it up a little bit. I love it.

It's held up well, then!

Yeah, well, it's not like I'm smashing it.

Yeah, I know. It's just cool to have a guitar like that, that you're both fond of and yet also kind of cavalier with. It gets this character over time.

It's nice to have something that just feels like home. After that, I started to get [various] electrics which came and went. I played bass a lot in high school. Early on, I was playing bass a lot. I actually still have my first bass, too -- a Gibson EB-1 with the SG shape.

That's sweet. There's a very mellow vibe to the recordings on 'Telepathic Love,' which contrasts with the live show, where you rock out quite a bit more. What's the direction you see for the band? More dream pop or more noise rock?

Photo: Yoannah Dieudonne

I think [the goal] at the inception has been to bring those [styles] together and create something [new]. That's kind of a difficult thing to do, but we love all those things, and [we're] trying to bring them together and make something that can be both at the same time. Mikey came in a little bit more on the new wave front, [bringing influences like] New Order, Echo & the Bunnymen, that kind of stuff. I came in a little more from the psychedelic, shoegazey side of things, the dreampop world. So we're trying to bring those things together by kind of having a power and a danceability, to have a good pop song and try to make it noisy and dreamy at the same time. So I think in the future, we'll just keep making songs and recording in a way that sort of furthers those ideas, and experiment with them. Live, we definitely do try to turn it up and rock out a little harder. Make it noisier.

For the kids! [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah, you gotta rock the kids out! Keep them dancing! [laughs] But as we keep going on, if we get more instrumentation on stage, we'll be be able to get different aspects of that happening. We definitely want to focus on keyboards a lot, and have a lot of synths happening live and on recordings. That's definitely one of the main things about it. But then with the guitar too; when we went into the recording, I bought this Jaguar Baritone Special, which I also play live. The idea was to kind of use that as a template, too, like the way a baritone is usually played: a lot of low, single note sort of things. Turning it up a little bit, delaying it out, and seeing what happens.

That's pretty cool. It definitely works; I remember noticing that guitar when you were playing it.

Yeah, it's pretty great. I tune it normally; I don't tune it the way people usually tune baritone guitars, like open tunings or anything like that. I tune it normally and it sounds good. Another thing about using the baritone is that it also helps with not having a live bass guitar. That was also how it kind of went down in the recording as well. We only used bass guitar if it really needed it. The idea was to use synths in the space where bass would normally be, and then use the baritone guitar to supplement that.

That makes a lot of sense. Whose idea was it to cover "See My Friends" [by The Kinks]?

That was my idea. I've always wanted to cover that song. I just felt like it could be something different; I've never heard a cover of it done the way I heard it [in my head]. I've always felt it could be kind of a "Tomorrow Never Knows" kind of song.

Totally.

Of course, having Mikey, one of the best drummers I've ever played with... it's like, "All right! Take this song and take it there."

That's key, and that really came through for me when I saw you play it live. I hadn't even imagined that song being done that way, but when I heard it, it was so brilliant. And it seemed so obvious after the fact, because it works so perfectly. Like, "How was this not thought of already?"

Another part of the idea of this band is to always put a strong beat behind things. Especially with any of the droney songs, just frame them with a strong beat of some sort. So that was our conception behind doing that song live, to just put a really strong beat behind it, and see what happened. I just always heard that "Tomorrow Never Knows" thing, that "bum-ba-bum, badada" thing. Mikey came up with the beat and just nailed it.

Do you think you will commit that one to tape at some point?

I would definitely like to. I feel like we make it our own, so at some point that would be cool. For now, as a band starting out, I think we need to be mainly recording our own material, but that would definitely be a rad thing to do as a single or something like that.

Mikey is participating in the Swervedriver reunion, is he not?

He is! We're proud of him. It's real exciting. I'm a huge fan, and I'm just happy for him that he gets to be involved in that. They just did four shows, but I'm assuming there will be more Swervedriver with Mikey to come, if not later this year then probably next year.

That doesn't really make a conflict for Heaven, does it?

No -- all three of us have other projects that we're doing.

Yeah, Dean & Britta call you away on a pretty regular basis, it seems.

Definitely. I think that's good to be able to do other projects. I mean, we definitely want to take Heaven to the level of being really busy with it, and putting out great records, and tour a lot. But I think it's good to have other things going on as well.

Yeah, as long as you're able to keep up with everything, it's pretty amazing to be involved with that many high-caliber projects.

Photo: Soleil Konkel

Yeah, definitely! It's fun to do different things, too. Like with Dean & Britta, I play keyboards a lot, and I play guitar in a completely different style. Same for Mikey playing drums with everyone he's playing with, and same for Ryan with his band Fan-Tan.

How long have you been playing with Dean & Britta?

The first time I played with them was a tour in February of 2008. We started rehearsing at the end of 2007. So it's been a while now! Going on four years this fall. They're awesome to play with. I really look up to them, how they've framed their life around music and the way they go about it. They're real gracious people.

Being able to see Swervedriver and Galaxie 500 in 2011 -- these are things I never thought would come to pass.

Yeah, it's crazy. I never thought I would play on a stage with Adam Franklin. I never thought I would play in what is basically Galaxie 500. It's crazy. I don't know what the next step is; maybe to join Spectrum or something. [laughs]

[laughs] That actually sounds fairly within reach.

That's true. I think Britta actually mentioned [me] to them at one point when they were needing a bass player. But then I'd be pulled away from Dean & Britta!

Too much good stuff! Has Heaven managed to play outside of the States yet?

No, but we're actually looking to go to the UK at the end of summer or maybe fall. We're already talking to promoters, and it's pretty much in line; we just have to figure out the logistics. We're really excited about that, too. I think that'll be a really good step for us to get over there. I think people will dig what we're doing.

Seems like they would. Very cool!

Something to look forward to, for sure.

Pre-order Heaven's debut 7-inch, Mountains Move.