Smile Politely

Chant the dark but steady Mantra with Sunjacket

The members of Sunjacket might be a little claustrophobic. The indie-electronic band is based in Chicago, so they aren’t strangers to feeling suffocated despite being in a huge place. Neither are they unfamiliar with the existential questioning that is especially hard to shrug off when you’re just another face in a crowd of millions. This anxiety is palpable on their first full length album, Mantra. Here, the group define themselves in a measured, deliberate manner.

They lead the album with a powerful synthesizer foundation, and meticulously add levels to it: A layer of precise vocal harmonies merges with synths closely enough to mirror them. Their lyrics are cynical and dark, addressing subjects like loss and apathy, or discord, frustration, and the resulting withdrawal. The more conventional parts of their instrumentation are augmented, with their guitars tuned down and the strumming methodical and thumping, adding to the synth drone. Syncopated pop rhythms create dissonance that fits into any cracks within other musical parts. These elements blend to create a fierce, striking tension that is somehow fragile and poignant. It is the kind of music that can coax out the buried disquietude from the bottom of your brain.

In spite of the immersive, weighty sound that Sunjacket create, the members seem more reflective about it, and even a bit removed from these feelings. They don’t sidestep to just observe the subject matter, though; the music is representative of their human experiences, but Mantra lacks a sense of despair. It’s tense, but it doesn’t break.

The guys of Sunjacket are familiar with C-U; some of the members attended college in Champaign. When they went to begin recording Mantra, they chose Earth Analog Studios, located in Tolono. Their experimental tendencies lent themselves well to this more hands-on way of making music, even with all the synth elements. I got to chat with Sunjacket regarding their time at Earth Analog, as well as the dark, reflective nature of their music. We also mused on the end of 2016, and what the future has to offer them and everyone else. Whether inside or outside the realm of music, Sunjacket is thematically consistent. We’re all hoping that any trying times will result in the birth of something great.

All answers were provided by the band as a whole, except when otherwise noted.


SP: Sunjacket last spoke in depth with Smile Politely in 2013. What’s changed since then?

Sunjacket: We’ve been pretty busy since then. The two most notable changes have been a lineup change and the release of our debut LP, Mantra.

SP: How has your lineup changed?

Sunjacket: We used to be a five-piece, but then our bassist and one of our guitarists left in late 2014 to pursue other musical projects. After we finished recording Mantra, Jeff joined the band.

SP: What brought you guys together to form the band?

Sunjacket: A mixture of school and work relationships, and most recently, a lucky Craigslist find. It had been a while since each of us had been involved in a music project, so it kind of evolved from an itch to start something new.

SP: Let’s talk about your debut LP, Mantra. Care to describe it?

Sunjacket: Mantra is a dark, layered, and synth-driven indie rock record that explores some anxieties we were feeling while making it. We began pre-production for Mantra following our lineup change. Up until that point we were used to demoing live as a quintet, but then shifted to working in Ableton to create songs that a larger lineup could eventually perform. This process involved reshaping and distilling some of our existing material, as well as writing additional songs until we had enough to record an album we could feel proud of. We replaced some of the more traditional rock instrumentation we’d used previously with more distant and ethereal synth sounds to push the mood a bit darker. We often like arrangements that are simultaneously accessible and unconventional, and we felt like using a hybrid of acoustic and electronic elements helped to achieve that.

SP: I like the cover art for Mantra – the large amount of negative space in it mirrors the sparseness of the album’s sound. What inspired the album’s cover?

Sunjacket: Garret and Bryan are graphic designers, so we knew we wanted to create the art ourselves if we could find the right conceptual thread. We’ve always been drawn to the beautiful and brooding qualities of Lake Michigan, an organic and moving force, but we were also interested in juxtaposing that with something synthetic and surreal. As we experimented with photographing in different settings and locations, the lake provided the most distinct sense of isolation without feeling bleak.

SP: There’s a press photo [pictured above] that I think captures Sunjacket and the first album well: The bitonal shot is in shades of gray, where it looks like you’re all yawning, or wincing. Mantra’s themes are aligned with those tendencies, like in the anxiety and solemn frustration of “Grandstanders,” or the cynical apathy of “Not Enough.” How do you choose the subject matter for the lyrics?

Sunjacket: The lyrics often relate back to what we felt when the initial chords or melodies were written for each song. We tried to address those thoughts and feelings abstractly to evoke a mood that paired with the sound of the song. “Creepy” is a good example — a warbling, uneasy, and kind of frantic synth sound led to lyrics that convey a sense of the anxiousness that often surrounds the creative process.

SP: It’s been a big year for music and musicians, with ups and downs. Is there any particular event, within music or otherwise, that really hit home for you guys?

Sunjacket: 2016 has seen a lot of really great records, but outside of music, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding what will happen during the next four years. As musicians, we like to think about how that uncertainty will inform our work, as well as how it will inform the work of artists and musicians we admire. So, that uncertainty is certainly hitting home. It’s unnerving, but sometimes that can serve as inspiration.

SP: Is there a certain album that came out this year that resonated with you?

Bryan: There were so many good records out this year that satisfy different moods, so I really can’t pick a favorite. One that’s worth mentioning is Hiss Golden Messenger’s Heart Like a Levee. I decided to check out the record on a whim and it totally caught me off guard. It really mirrored the way I was feeling at the time, even though it’s so different from other things I typically listen to. I really love it.

Jeff: A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead. The video for “Daydreaming” has probably been my favorite musical thing released this year.

Garret: Pool by Porches is a record that has really stuck with me throughout the year. The moody atmosphere of the instrumentation and melodies is something I find myself wanting to return to often.

Carl: A few months ago, I sent Garret a solo song I was working on, and he told me it reminded him a little of the new David Bazan record, Blanco. I hadn’t heard it yet, and I admittedly hadn’t really listened to any David Bazan or Pedro the Lion before, but when I checked it out, I was immediately drawn in by the rich, moody vibe and poignant lyrics. Basically, it was a much better version of what I was going for in the song I sent to Garret, despite some of the superficial differences.

SP: The band have roots in Champaign-Urbana – Carl and Bryan both attended U of I, and most of Mantra was recorded at Earth Analog studio in Tolono. How did that space help shape the album?

Sunjacket: One of the major reasons we chose to record at Earth Analog was the small-town location, which we knew would keep us from getting distracted. Matt Talbott (who owns Earth Analog) was super hospitable, and we loved being able to sleep just above the studio and cook meals on the roof right around sunset. We put in about 12 hours of recording on each of the 12 days we were there, which is something we probably couldn’t have done in a Chicago studio.

Earth Analog also had some cool gear and some unique quirks that helped shape the sound of the album. To give our synths more character, we ran them through various vintage amps, including a Leslie speaker in one instance. There’s also a stairwell adjacent to the live room that goes up to the apartment, and Fraser positioned a pencil mic at the top of it to capture ambient sound from some of our louder instruments. And then there was Matt’s favorite piece of equipment, an old radiator, which we used for aux percussion on a few tracks.

SP: That’s a pretty unique instrument. How did you get percussion out of it?

We set it up so that it would be far enough off the floor to resonate fully and then we found a narrow seam on the top that was playable with drumsticks.

SP: What’s a track that we can hear that on?

Sunjacket: Both “Habit” and “Mantra.”

SP: You guys are a young band. What’s in the future for Sunjacket?

Sunjacket: After this tour wraps up in Champaign, we’re planning to start writing again, which should be fun, given how much things have changed even since we finished Mantra. Then, more shows and hopefully more fans in new places.


Sunjacket are playing tomorrow at The Accord with Elsinore, Abnormous, and Namorado. Doors open at 7 p.m. and Sunjacket will be opening up the show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $13 at the door.

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