A Half Dozen Questions for SUSS

We fell in love with New York trio SUSS’s music in a big way when we heard their newest album, a two-disc collection of rare EPs entitled SUSS. It was love at first hearing: how could we not fall for those tearful pedal steel guitars that remind us of BJ Cole, or the gorgeous ambient that recalls Harold Budd and Brian Eno. But there’s their own brand of Americana thrown in the mix; they call this music “ambient country” and no better term applies for what they do. They make a big sound–check out some live videos on YouTube–and it draws you in from the first note. We were happy to sit down and ask the band a few questions, and we strongly suggest you visit their Bandcamp page to purchase this fine, fine album.

From what I understand, SUSS is simply the 21st Century iteration of a long-running collaboration. Tell me about your past, and how has this has all come together for you now.

Pat Irwin: I met Jonathan and Bob, and Gary, through my friend and neighbor William Garrett who was the front of house sound engineer for Bob and Gary’s band, Rubber Rodeo.

Bob Holmes: The three members of SUSS have known each other for years, and though Jonathan and I have been in a bluegrass band together for over 15 years, the three of us had never really played together in this capacity before. Jonathan, Pat and I were in bands in the 80’s that knew of each other’s music, but we never imagined at that time that we would ever be collaborating 40 years later.

Jonathan Gregg: Bob and I have been crossing paths for decades, back to when I was the lead guitarist for a New Wave band called the Mundanes, which would share bills in NYC with Bob’s band, Rubber Rodeo, when we were both based in Providence in the early ‘80s. Over the past 12 years we have played in a bluegrass band together, including a project doing the music of the Velvet Underground with bluegrass instrumentation. On a personal level my evolution has taken me from being a sideman guitarist to leading a band as a songwriter to becoming a steel player and finally joining SUSS to create music I had never imagined. It all boils down to being open to new ideas and collaborations and willing to put the time into them. And not quitting.

What was Gary Leib like, both musically and personally?

Irwin: Gary was the kind of person you want to be in a band with. Kind, inspiring, positive. At the end of the day it’s about the hang. Gary was an inspiration.

Holmes: I met Gary in art school (Rhode Island School of Design) in the 70’s and we became close friends. We lived together at various points in our lives. We started Rubber Rodeo (Mercury Polygram Records) in the 80’s. We vacationed together and our families grew up together. Very close. He was a natural talent both artistically and musically. He made it all seem effortless. He was never seen without a sketchbook in his hands, and his ability to bring that same sensibility to his music creation was a never-ending source of wonder. Our friends called him the “Secret Sauce” of SUSS.

Gregg: Gary was one of the most positive creative forces I have ever been around, and an extraordinarily empathic, joyous individual. He was very hardworking, excelling in animation, illustration, and music, and was constantly drawing in his notebook or on the paper tablecloths at restaurants. While not a formally trained keyboard player, he had an unerring instinct for choosing sounds that worked, and had mastered the 80s-era synthesizers whose contents now all fit into a laptop. He was open to any ideas, and did not push for any particular agenda, but when he did express an opinion it had plenty of weight. He was one the most even-tempered, jolly and kind people I have had the pleasure to know, and a perfect bandmate. We miss him terribly.

The Night Suite EP feels like a midnight ride down Route 66. Was this based on actual travel, or an imaginary journey through the bleak and empty Southwest?

Irwin: I’ve made that trip many times with both the Raybeats and the B-52s. But for the Night Suite by SUSS it was more of an imaginary trip.

Holmes: Night Suite was an imagined travel based on some very real roadtrips and tours that we had all taken don those same highways through those exact towns. The dark musical voyage into the dark night took on new meaning with the unexpected death of Gary upon the completion of those tracks.

Gregg: This was Bob’s idea, and a very good one. 

How and where did you fall in love with the pedal steel, and was there a particular song artist/musician who helped you develop your passion for it?

Irwin: I’ve loved country music since I was a kid hanging out in bars in the Midwest. I remember hearing Ray Price and his version of Night Life and I was hooked forever. I was also into bands like Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and Asleep At The Wheel and both bands had pedal steel players that swept me away. I remember seeing Ralph Mooney with Waylon Jennings and feeling like it was paradise. 

Holmes: This is more of a Jonathan question, but that being said, whether it was with Rubber Rodeo in the 80s or the current day SUSS, the sound of pedal steel was always a major part of the song writing and arrangement concepts. I always heard it as the perfect touchpoint between stringed and synthesized instruments, and it has such a wide dynamic and melodic range. I understand that it can be a polarizing instrument, in that some people have such strong feelings (pro & con) about its association with country music, but that polarization has always been an attraction to me.  

Gregg: My first experience hearing a pedal steel in person was Thanksgiving of 1972 at the Academy of Music in New York, where I saw Buddy Cage perform with the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Around the same time I was listening to the Grateful Dead a lot, with Jerry Garcia playing steel, and also the Flying Burrito Brothers with Al Perkins. I bought my first pedal steel a few years later, but ended up abandoning it for lack of knowledge and access to instruction. It wasn’t until years later that I returned to it, armed with a much stronger musical foundation, and immersed myself in the work of giants like Lloyd Green, Buddy Emmons and Jay Dee Maness.

What inspires SUSS as a band to make the music that you do?

Irwin: Jonathan and Bob inspire me.

Holmes: We each have over 50 years of experience in listening to and playing music of all genres. Our music stretches both the boundaries of ambient and country because of the influences that we share in genres as wide ranging as classical, soundtracks, jazz, krautrock, punk, folk, bluegrass, pop, etc.

Gregg: We’re never trying to sound like anyone else, and we don’t overthink it. My own role involves very little preparation and maximum focus on first thought, best thought. The basis of the tracks can be a chord progression, a loop, or even just a sound. We build on each other’s contributions and edit as needed, and we work pretty fast; there may be some  discussion but not usually much explicit direction, but we all know when we’re there, which is most of the time.

What’s next for SUSS?

Irwin: We’ve got another record in the works and I hope we can do more shows. Fingers crossed

Holmes: We’re currently putting the finishing touches on a new album, and based on the success of our recent string of shows, we would like to do more touring and festivals.

Gregg: We’re open to whatever works. We’d love to build on our live shows and play more festivals, and hopefully go abroad. It’s a tricky path because the bar circuit is not appropriate for us, so we have to cultivate venues more suited to our kind of presentation, which are fewer. Being a band as opposed to a solo or duo act is also a challenge.

But you can count on more releases; we already have an album’s worth of new material. 

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