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Sonus Umbra

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Luis Nasser of Sonus Umbra from 2015
MSJ:

Can you catch the readers up on the history of your involvement in music?

I started with music when I was a teenager in Mexico City, back in  1981 or so. Growing up, all the music at home was classical music that my mom played at almost sub-human volumes - just she and the dog could hear and enjoy it. There were some Beatles, and a lot of traditional Mexican music, but not much else. That summer I discovered the song "Music Must Change" by the Who, and it really was a haunting experience; the lyrics, the sounds, it all made sense, somehow. Soon thereafter one of my older cousins introduced me to Pink Floyd via the Wall, and that was it - life-changing experience. I realized I wasn't the only one who felt out of synch, and it also helped me see it would be possible to extract all the music I heard in my head. I soon got my hands on an old acoustic guitar, and began figuring out how to play the sounds in my head. No lessons, nothing like that - which in hindsight I deeply regret, but I was young, dumb and immortal. Six years later I formed a band called “Radio Silence” that played some Black Sabbath and other simple, metal covers. I was heavily into Sabbath, Maiden, Deep Purple, but also stuff like the Who, Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. Not much of a prog fan, though the songs I had in my head were definitely "prog" for lack of a better term. We began to rehearse, and eventually mixed some of the originals with Floyd covers. We got a pretty big following, but eventually broke up. Sonus Umbra grew from the ashes of that band once I moved to the USA in 1994.

MSJ: If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?
Well, I am a Physics PhD and a tenured professor so it's not like I don't already have a second career going. I also can't envision a life without a deep involvement in music.
MSJ: How did the name of the group originate?
Well, I had a bunch of demos from the crazy days in Mexico City, and released a 500 copy run of an album called "Laughter in the Dark" under the name “Radio Silence.” This got some great reviews online, and we got signed to a small label (now defunct) called “Moonchild Records” to "properly" release the album. We also soon got emails from a Russian band that had been working with that name for 20 years. Not knowing much about trademarks and the like, I decided to find a new name. The idea was to make sure it was so absurd nobody else would want it. I chose Sonus Umbra because it is pig Latin for "Shadows made of sound,” which I thought aptly described our sound.
MSJ: Who would you see as your musical influences?
Definitely the bands listed above. Though nowadays my listening has expanded considerably, I still have to admit my basic musical DNA is a combination of Sabbath, Who, Floyd, Maiden, Tull, Rush and Crimson.
MSJ: What's ahead for you?
We will be playing at ROSfest in 2015, which is our return to that stage after eleven years. We are also in the middle of recording a new album to follow up on 2013's Winter Soulstice.
MSJ: I know artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?
I think of my music as "Heavy Floyd" most of the time. Though the new band has many other people besides me writing, and the sound has grown to incorporate their own styles. Definitely hard prog rock, with an emphasis of guitars over keyboards.
MSJ: Are there musicians with whom you would like to play with in the future?
I have always wanted to make an album with Matthew Parmenter of Discipline. I think that man is a true musical genius. The problem is that Mathew Kennedy is his life-long compadre, a righteous brother and also a kickass bassist, so I don't really think that is in the cards. Mike Keneally is a great pal and an absolute one-of-a-kind type of player/writer. It would be amazing to have a chance to work with him some time, but it would be very hard to keep up with his brain.
MSJ:

 Do you think that illegal downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?

There's no scenario where stealing music can be anything but douchetastic. People can try to justify it anyway they like, but it's BS. If you think it's too expensive, don't buy it. But who gave you the right to simply take it? It's not yours. People don't walk into a shoe store, choose a pair of Nike's, decide they are too expensive and walk out with them anyway as a matter of habit. Why should music be so valueless?

MSJ: In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
Someone who has gone to a show has already given you their time and attention, and has given the club owner their money. Bands only ever see cash from merch sales, which takes me to the question above. Proactive fans are the reason you do this. Huge difference between an enthusiastic human at a show and a guy at home filling i-Pods with stuff they will never even listen to anyway. I think it's flattering that people would spread word about your live performances, and what better way than to do so with the full support of the artist? Of course, if artists don't want that to be done, I think it's common courtesy for people to respect that.
MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
That's a very strange question. I think a guy like Kanye West thinks he is some kind of superhero and I am proud to say I share none of his absurd self-entitlement or pretentiousness at all, in spite of being a prog musician.
MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?
Well... the thing with bands is that what really makes them work is chemistry - both in the writing and the playing. Often so-called "super groups" are anything but, precisely because those elements are missing. I think the Aristocrats are a sort of ultimate band that I have recently seen live - everyone is just so amazing, and the writing is awesome. People talk of bands like Transatlantic as being the awesomest of the awesome, but to me, I get a lot more out of seeing bands like Thank you Scientist or the now defunct Sleeytime Gorilla Museum. I can also say that when Discipline are on, Parmenter and company are a force to be reckoned with.
MSJ: If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?
I have been friends for many years with folks such as Chad Hutchinson, Kevin Feeley, Jim Robinson, George Roldan, etc... Seeing what those poor bastards go through I can honestly say the last thing I would want would be to run a festival, of any sort.  Festivals also make you suffer from musical fatigue. I can only fully listen to new music for three or four hours a day. After that, it becomes more about the beers and the friends. Not trying to dodge your questions - just giving you a straight answer. I was very lucky to attend all but one of the NEARfests, many Progday, Baja and Rosfests. I was at Cuneifest in Orion. I saw Magma live. Univers Zero. Banco. The list is long and amazing, and I am forever grateful to these people for all their hard work that allowed me to see so many incredible acts.
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
I buy a lot of music. The last batch I bought included King Crimson Live at the Orpheum, Karnivool-Sound Awake, Steve Rothery - The Ghosts of Pripyat, Soen - Thellurian, Meshuggah - Koloss and that Rudess, Minneman Levin album from a while back that I somehow never bought.
MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?
I recently finished the Madaddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood, and I thought it was fantastic. I read a lot of math and physics books, as well. Just to show the world that I fully and proudly embrace my inner nerd, I really enjoyed reading a book called: “Inside Interesting Integrals: A collection of sneaky tricks, Sly substitutions and Numerous other Stupendously Clever and awesomely wicked tricks,” by the awesome Paul Nahin. I swear I'm not making that up.
MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
That was Between the Buried and Me and Meshuggah, at the Vic in Chicago. I very stupidly missed out on the Crimson tour, annoyed by the idea of three drummers. Of course it was brilliant...
MSJ: Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”
Isn't prog more than enough of a guilty pleasure?
MSJ:
What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?

Playing at Shank Hall in Milwaukee with Sonus Umbra and actually touching the Stonehenge prop from the movie is way up there, but another time I was playing at the Arcada theater and we got lost trying to get from the dressing rooms beneath to the stage. It was hard to stop laughing.

MSJ: If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?
Well, as far as celebrities go, I need to choose people whose language I can speak. I would like to have a chance to talk and drink with Christopher Hitchens, Frank Zappa and Richard Feynman. That would be one hell of a table! Individually, I would really enjoy a chance to meet and talk to Roger Waters, but the top one would be my dad, who died when I was eight. There's a lot I would like us to be able to talk about, especially now that I am almost as old as he was when he died.
MSJ: What would be on the menu?
Well, lots of scotch, Mexican Seafood, beers and wine for the rest, with ample coffee and cigarettes and fried spaghetti sandwiches for Zappa.
MSJ: Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
I really would love people to hear the music and especially come out to hear a show. Form an opinion based on a direct experience, and hang around to meet us afterwards. I'm not interested in sycophants. I am interested in good ideas and smart people. I think the current band is really quite extraordinary, and I say this honestly. There have been periods over our 20 plus year history when that hasn't been the case.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2015  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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