Little Rock’s doom metal ambassadors Sumokem have long situated their sound within a philosophical narrative, and their latest is no exception. “Prajnaparadha,” a six tracks exercise in contrast, is the band’s third full-length record and a majestically layered follow-up to 2017’s “The Guardian of Yosemite.” We talked with Sumokem rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist Jacob Sawries about the record, its philosophical thrust and its trajectory in a music universe without live performance in its near future.
You know, with a name like “Prajnaparadha,” you’re just asking for this: Prajnaparadha means “an assault against wisdom,” a quick search tells me, or “willfully ignoring one’s inner knowing.” What does it mean to you all, and in relation to this record?
Once I stumbled upon that word, I knew I needed to incorporate it. It’s part of everyone’s life and something I can definitely relate to. So it just kind of took over.
One of the first things you hear are the words, “Friend and foe are gathered, and all in harmony.” It’s not the sort of lyrical terrain we often hear opening up a metal record, maybe especially in 2020. Are there personal practices or beliefs among the band members that formed the ideas behind this record?
Yeah, so that first song takes place during the Festival of Colors, which is a big Indian religious ceremony where everybody gets together and throws different colored paints and powders all over each other. It’s a cool thing. So, a war elephant comes and attacks the celebration, and the main character is high on some weed milk, and kills the war elephant and goes on this journey of essentially a quest to find new highs, and he’s constantly reminded by everyone he comes into contact with that the strength is within himself.
It has some correlation to my life. I’ve dealt with addictions from time to time. But it’s weird, all the personal stuff was a hindsight thing. Like, after I wrote it and read back through everything, I was like, “Yeah, I can totally relate to this.”
Like most of your catalogue, these are not short songs; the record is 53 minutes long, and that’s six tracks. They take some time to unfold, and one thing I like about your songs is that the climax doesn’t always come at a predictable time in the song. It’s not a formula. How intentional is that?
Our songwriting process has been a little weird, always. I’ve always written the lyrics before the music, and for the first two albums, I wrote all the music also, reading a phrase of the lyrics and writing according to what that made me feel, I guess. And we did the same thing with this, only everyone was involved in the writing process. So the arc of the music is based on the lyrical arc. So we’re always at the mercy of the lyrics.
You all donated the proceeds from digital sales this summer to the Black Lives Matter movement. I wonder if you can talk about that decision, or if you have any broader thoughts on rock and metal music in general as it relates to matters of race and social injustice.
Yeah. We just thought that was the least we could do. We can just sit around on Facebook and preach about our beliefs as much as we want, but we wanted to do something to actually help. We’ve definitely all got strong beliefs on racial injustice, and just wanted to do what we could.
One thing that surprised me about the record is how much piano there is on it. Who did the piano work, and how did you get this sort of hollowed, haunting sound with the instrument?
Well, me and Dustin [Weddle] both did a lot of synth; he plays synth on every song. I did the piano part on just an upright piano in the studio, and a lot of the sounds are actually just from my synth also, on a microKORG that I use. I broke my previous one, and had to get on Reddit and find all these settings to make it sound like a Wurlitzer. And after I broke that one, the new one I got in already had that as a preset, which I was pretty stoked about.
There are a few different styles of singing throughout all Sumokem’s work, you know, there’s the more tonal, lyrical singing, and then what most people would think of as sort of a growl, like this guttural, low roar. But that’s all you, Jacob, right?
When you’re choosing which way to go, are the voices assigned to characters? Is that oversimplifying it?
It’s more just based on the lyrical content. I try to incorporate more clean vocals than harsh, but there are times when I just feel like it needs to be heavier.
The album was recorded at Capitol View Studio and went to be mastered at Autosiege in May, so that’s pretty squarely in the middle of a global pandemic. How much did 2020 fuck with your initial plans for creating the record?
As far as making the record, it didn’t change too much, but obviously our plans for post-recording are totally screwed up. We’d love to have been on the road right now and be playing the songs for people. It’s tough. We considered, you know, should we wait to put it out until we can tour on it? But I figure with all the stuff that’s going on this year, we needed something to make us feel a little better.
So, the natural thing for any band after releasing a long-labored-over project like this is to tour with it. And that’s not gonna happen anytime soon.
How are you guys hearing from your fans now that you’ve been several months without playing live shows, and do you think there’s anything different about the way you’ll connect with them this time around?
I don’t know if it’s because everyone’s at home listening to music, but I feel like we’ve had a lot more feedback. I’d like to think part of that is that we’ve put out a really good record. But people have been really engaged. There was a bit of selfishness in releasing it. We needed to do it for us, too. But I hope that it can give some people some joy in the midst of a terrible year.
Yeah, it does feel like the attitude has shifted. Like people are maybe a little less likely to take for granted local bands who are really, really hitting it hard.
Yeah, I think as fans and musicians, we were all pretty jaded. We didn’t know how good we had things. When shows come back, I think it’s gonna be fucking incredible. And a lot more special than it was before.