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Today we’re listening to SUSS, an American band based in New York City. We’ve recommended their work three times before. The trio makes “ambient country,” a fusion of pure ambient music (Brian Eno, Harold Budd) and instrumental country (Ry Cooder, Lloyd Green). Last week they released a collaboration with Australian banjoist Andrew Tuttle on Longform Editions called Rising. The 30-minute meditation is anchored by a Roland Juno 60 loop and Tuttle’s steady arpeggios. A steadily rising piano scale brings a sense of uplift to the piece. We’re also re-upping their self-titled collection from this past January, collecting three EPs. An interview with SUSS (Jonathan Gregg, Pat Irwin, Bob Holmes) and Andrew Tuttle follows the streaming links.
Tell us about "ambient country," the term you've used to describe SUSS's music and also the name of your excellent podcast.
Jonathan Gregg (pedal steel, dobro): The term was entirely Bob’s idea, and the seed of the band. But having listened to the Grateful Dead, Miles Davis, Aaron Copland, and pedal steel legend Lloyd Green for years, I could see how those influences might combine into something I had never thought of before.
Pat Irwin (electric guitar, keyboards, etc.): I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the term “ambient country,” although I understood it perfectly when Bob came up with the idea. I like ambient music, a lot, and I’ve been a fan of country music for as long as I can remember, so why not “ambient country?” Recently Jonathan said that it could mean “any country,” and I’ve been thinking the same thing.
Bob Holmes (mandolin, acoustic guitar, etc.): I have to say, there was not a lot of thought that went into the term – it was just a concept that came to me. I wasn’t sure what the music would sound like, but I knew that the concept of even saying the words “ambient” and “country” in the same phrase would be polarizing, and it has been. Why “country” instead of “Americana”? I get asked that a lot. And people seem more comfortable with terms like “cosmic.” To be honest, it was just the juxtaposition of the two words “ambient” and “country” that really thrilled me. Ever since then, we’ve been doing our best to widen the scope of what both “ambient” and “country” can mean in that context.
So how has SUSS's music changed since you first formed?
JG: The biggest change was losing Gary Leib, our synth player [in 2021]. We would often start tracks building on stems he had come up with, and these tended to be the most open-ended starting points, with more ambiguous tonal centers and no specific key, which was very liberating. That to me got right to the heart of the ambient mandate — the vibe of a sonic environment, a sense of place — and opened the horizons to the maximum to receive the implied melodies. Our process since has become a little more traditional, but channeling the pure, instinctive response to stimulus is still where it lives. First thought, best thought — and then tweak.
PI: The band has changed from 5 to 4 to 3. From my perspective we’ve settled into more ambient and abstract pieces. I like where we’re heading.
BH: I have to agree with Jonathan that the loss of Gary really made us evaluate what we were doing and why. I’m not sure that it changed the music as much as it did help us refine and redefine what we were doing. As Pat says, I like where we’re heading with the more abstract and ambient stuff (and I know Gary would as well).
What music do you typically put on when you're doing work – like answering emails, etc.?
JG: Classical. Debussy, Ravel, Dvorak... and lots of Bach.
PI: I can’t listen to music when I’m working. I could never listen to music when I was, say, composing music for a cartoon or a movie.
Andrew Tuttle: Chilly Gonzales’ Solo Piano is my ‘go to’ for morning work. Long, flowing songs – mostly instrumental or sung in a language that’s not English – throughout the day itself. I’ve also got a really obnoxious novelty song/Eurotrash playlist for when I’m in a certain kind of email mood.
BH: I usually walk for about an hour and half every day, rain or shine, and that’s when I listen to a lot of music. Usually, it’s playlists that are sent to me by upcoming Ambient Country co-hosts, or they are submissions of new music by artists who are fans of the podcast. Then when I’m back at my desk, I’m usually doing deep dives on some of these artists while trying to catch up on emails (I never really catch up on emails). I read a lot of music biographies. I just finished Warren Zane’s amazing book on Nebraska, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Bruce these days (which is very untypical for me).
Name an underrated musician from the past 50 years.
JG: Terry Adams.
AT: R. Keenan Lawler, an excellent resonator guitar player and composer.
BH: Wow! That’s tough one. When I’m into an artist, I’m so into them that I think everyone else is too. When I find out that they’re really only one step above unknown, I’m like whaaaa….? And that seems to happen more often than not these days, so I guess the term “underrated” applies to a lot of my favorites.
What non-musical artist inspires you these days?
JG: A great painting always gets me going, whether it’s Holbein or Basquiat. The recent Hopper retrospective [at the Whitney Museum] was incredible. The life of someone like Picasso shows how much one individual with an inexhaustible work ethic can accomplish. Among the living, in a different art form, George Saunders is writing some very interesting stuff.
PI: Movies. TV. Paintings. Dance.
Fellini. The Bear. Rothko. Lucinda Childs.
Scorsese. Reservation Dogs. Pollock. Trisha Brown.
Jarmusch. American Masters on PBS. Jamie Nares. Bill T. Jones.
AT: I’m a huge fan of visual artist George Gillies’ work. A different kind of artistry, but the batting of cricketer Meg Lanning is like a work of art to me.
BH: My answer is going to sound pretty lame, but when I’m not listening to or reading about music, I’m watching waaaay too much streaming episodic TV; reading a lot of comic books, pulp westerns and crime novels from the 50’s; building classic monster models; and buying and selling antique toys. I keep promising my wife I’ll grow up someday.
SUSS is in New York. Where's the best place to eat / drink to an ambient country soundtrack?
JG: Let me know when you find out.
PI: I like the music my wife plays in her cafe in Long Island City. It’s a beautiful spot, very peaceful, particularly in the morning. Sometimes she plays Satie. Sometimes she plays SUSS. It’s wonderful first thing in the morning when the city is just starting to wake up.
BH: I wish my wife was as kind as Pat’s. She owns a couple of Cowgirl restaurants in the city as well, and you’d think that SUSS would come up on the virtual jukebox every once in a while – but naaaah! You’re more likely to hear my band from the ‘80’s, because New Wave music is all they play.
And Andrew what about Brisbane?
AT: Coffee = Gorgeous George (fka Black Sheep), Supernumerary, Industry Beans. Food = Doodeeboran (Thai), Hane (sushi), Spread (pizza).
How did the Longform Editions piece come about?
BH: I’d been following the work of Longform Editions for a while. Some of my favorite recording artists had done tracks for Longform, but I had no idea of what the curation process was, so I more or less contacted the label and asked to know about the submission process, and they just outright asked me if SUSS would be interested, and if so when. We thought that this would be a great chance to work with Andrew, as we had discussed that possibility before. And then it turned out Andrew was a personal friend of the label, so it was a lock-cinch.
PI: Longform Editions is all about exactly that, long-form pieces. Specifically, long-form collaborations. I recorded some long improvisations on an old analog Roland Juno 60. It has a built in arpeggiator with a personality of its own. I sent the tracks to Bob and Jonathan and then passed them along to Andrew who added banjo and took the idea to a new place.
AT: The track came about really collaboratively! We left our preconceived notions “at the door” and built a piece through back-and-forth musical contributions. Being in different time zones, it was a joy to wake up to a new section of music every couple of days whilst we were all working on Rising.
JG: It was a lot of fun. Pat, Bob, and Andrew went back and forth, processing and building on each other’s parts, and created a magnificent, turbulent sound vortex of ebb and flow, and I just tried to navigate through it. It was like surfing on a 600-foot wave.
Name some other Longform Edition releases that we should listen to.
Cole Pulice: If I Don’t See you in the Future…
Rich Ruth: Settling In
More Eaze: Eternity
Michael Grigoni: The Long Sky
Chuck Johnson: Tangled Mirror Yarn
But to be honest, you could throw a dart at a wall with a blindfold on, and any track you hit would be amazing, so I’ll stop there.