by J. Hubner
Photos courtesy of El Paraiso Archives
A little over two years ago a friend pointed me in the direction of Copenhagen, Denmark. That friend said “Head east, and ye shall find the rock.” I wasn’t sure what that meant as my friend rarely said things like “ye” and “head”, but I did as this much respected and trusted confidant asked of me. What I found was indeed “the rock”. What I found was the Danish four-piece Causa Sui, a band of epic rock proportions. So my first musical experience with Causa Sui, which consists of Jonas Munk on guitar, Jess Kahr on bass, Rasmus Rasmussen on keys, and Jakob Skott on drums, was the song “Garden of Forking Paths” off of Pewt’r Sessions 2. Within that song’s 23 minutes and 45 seconds you get spacey vibes, earthy rhythms, and the feeling that the “Summer Of Love” is melting right before your very eyes. It echoes and whispers like Bitches Brew and is hazy and sways like Surrealistic Pillow. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard this band before. I quickly became a fan and was gladly drinking the Causa Sui punch from that point on.
With each record the band evolves and hones in on what makes them so good. They waste no time getting to where they need to get musically. With everyone in the band putting out solo albums and working on various other projects time can’t be wasted when they do get together to create. Their newest record, the heavy and groovy Return To Sky is about as perfect a record as it gets. Five songs without an ounce of fat on them. Lean, mean, and full of ear candy to enjoy every time you spin it.
I asked Jakob and Jonas some questions recently about the new album and their creative process. They humored me and answered those questions. Enjoy.
J. Hubner: I’ve been listening to ‘Return To Sky’ pretty much every day since the vinyl hit the front porch. It’s a killer record guys. It’s one of the most “live” sounding studio records I’ve heard. Very raw and in the moment. Was the recording process different in making this record than in previous ones?
From an engineering standpoint was this record approached differently?
Jonas Munk: I’m very pleased to hear that! Ironically this was the first record since our debut album we recorded in layers (drums and bass first, then everything else added bit by bit) – so there was always this concern that it was gonna sound too polished or a bit artificial. I feel a Causa Sui record should always have the naturalistic sound of a band playing together in a rehearsal room as the foundation, even with all the sonic trickery that goes on and the multiple dubs that are added afterwards. But separating things when recording makes it possible to get a bit more juice out of each instrument and this time we were after a more focused sound.
We just moved into a new studio when we began recording this album, a place that has very balanced acoustics, and that made it quite a bit easier working in this way. I really like the idea of having a sound that’s incredibly warm, but yet with a lot of detail. That’s a real challenge. Everything was recorded with ribbon mics, tube preamps and stuff like that – it’s kinda interesting to see how warm-toned it can get without the sound becoming dull or muddy. These days I find it really important that all the instruments are super present and able to “breathe”, especially the drums. I still love how Euporie Tide sounds, but the guitars are in front most of the time and occasionally it feels like the drums are drowning in keys and guitars, so this time we felt the drums should be right in front, with every single detail in Jakob’s playing having full impact on the listener.
J. Hubner: Causa Sui records, both musically and theme-wise, always seem like these totally organic creations. Like these albums were pulled up from the ground, grown from the elements. Return To Sky once again has the same organic vibe, to my ears at least. Is that an intentional thing? Keeping a theme throughout the records; of something created from the earth, for the earth? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I love this flow you guys have from record to record.
Jonas Munk: Yes, “earthy” is definitely a keyword in our productions and the general aesthetics of both Causa Sui and El Paraiso Records. In terms of how music relates to the natural elements I always think of it as something that’s very rich and complex – if you look at a leaf or a piece of wood it’s gonna keep revealing interesting and unique structures the closer you look, even on a microscopic level. Compare that to a piece of plastic or styrofoam, which appears completely uniform and boring as soon as you look closer! My four year old son loves to dig in the dirt for worms and stuff, and I always find it pretty incredible how affluent a single shovel-full of dirt is – usually there’ll be 3-4 different kinds of worms and insects, and all these different textures from fragments of leaves, branches, shells and so on. I saw a photo of what sand looks like in a microscope recently, it’s the same thing. Considering the history of it is interesting as well. I like the idea that the textures in our music and the miniscule components of our sound, like say a snare hit for example, are enriched with the same kind of vitality and depth as that of the organic world.
In the early/mid 1970s people began to produce rock music more and more uniformly – for example to make each snare drum hit sound exactly the same by processing the sounds more and more. Close-miking and use of gate and excessive compression led to the completely artificial sound of 1980s rock and so on. We’re always after the opposite: each snare drum hit should sound different than each other on a Causa Sui record (to use an example) and compositionally everything should feel a bit like it’s blowing in the wind. All the instruments interacts in a very dynamic way. We never record to a click or anything like that, and we aim to create textures that feel alive somehow.
J. Hubner: In regards to the songs, how do you guys decide on what tracks to include on a record? As with all of your records, ‘Return To Sky’ flows effortlessly from track to track. “Dust Meridian” moves from its drum and bass grooves right into “The Source” and it’s Sabbath-like heft with ease. Then “Mondo Buzzo” ends side A quite nicely, like a well-written script. “Dawn Passage” and “Return To Sky” likewise feel like two pieces of a very intricate musical puzzle.
Were these 5 tracks what you started and ended with, or were there other roads and songs not taken?
Jakob Skott: There is one song that we recorded and then excluded for the tracklist – which was a tough call – really thick and epic track that just keeps on building itself up. We played it live in the fall, and people were digging that one in particular – the perfect set closer. But we decided to go a more nuanced road with the last track – Return To Sky ends with an ambiguous whimper rather than a bang, and that was a pretty conscious decision that probably changes the overall perception of the album quite a bit! I think we’re in a pretty lucky spot as a band, because it seems like people actually listen to the album from start to back, rather than just cherry picking a song or two.
Jonas Munk: I guess we always try to keep in mind how all the tracks will go together as whole. But it gets quite complex once you start considering how each track relates to the rest in terms of key, tempo, structure, rhythms and texture. Euporie Tide really worked amazingly that way – once we started putting together a tracklist it actually felt like each track benefited from its position among the others. One thing we all agreed on this time was that this should be a shorter ride.
J. Hubner: Speaking of the songs, I love how 5 songs feel like a full musical journey. Not many can do that nowadays. It either sounds incomplete or the band overcompensates by not knowing when to say when and the songs are way too long. Causa Sui seems to know exactly when a song is done, or how to spread the vibe out. Is this something the band has learned over years of putting out albums, or is it something you four have always been able to lock into?
Jonas Munk: At this point it does feel a bit like a formula sometimes, but it’s one that we’ve worked hard to develop. Return to Sky almost sounds a bit like the stuff we were trying to create in our teens, 20 years ago, when we were into Tool and Kyuss but had just discovered all kinds of weird, alternative music as well – post-rock, minimalism etc. The challenge for us has been to gradually refine a personal style that is relevant, and explore and fulfill its potential. Flashy originality is actually quite easy, and not necessarily very interesting. It’s often tempting to change things radically around just for the sake of it, but in the end I find commitment to an idea or a style much more valuable. Doing something that accumulates decades of listening and playing into a personal piece of work is much more rewarding, and certainly not a task I consider easy. We worked on these five songs for over two years!
Jakob Skott: I’m glad that it feels like that – we often have some doubts about when things have cooked long enough – especially when we’re overdubbing stuff like keys which is rarely there when we lay down the basic tracks. Sometimes the guitar, percussion and synth overdubs takes it in a new direction and sometimes it’s more an exercise in reinforcing what’s already there. But there’s the risk that everything just sort of blurs… I knew that we needed beefier and rougher drums than we used to, which was made possible by the new studio, and the bass came out massive as well, so we had a thicker backbone to glue other stuff onto, and in my mind that depth is really what sets this album apart from the others. Fatter, thicker sounds.
J. Hubner: I’ve got a gear question for Jonas. So what is your guitar set up? I see you playing a Tele a lot. What string gauge do you prefer? What’s your amp of choice? And do you use a lot of pedals when recording?
Jonas Munk: With Causa Sui I’ve mainly been playing two guitars: a Fender Jazzmaster and a Fender Telecaster. But none of those guitars are standard models, the Telecaster is a ‘72 Thinline reissue, semi-hollow with dual “Wide Range” humbuckers, so it’s basically got nothing to do with a standard Telecaster. The Jazzmaster has a Gibson-style bridge installed and the pickups have been switched for a pair of Seymour Duncan “Hot” pickups that have way more bottom-end and louder output than a typical Jazzmaster. And actually I just finished work on a new Jazzmaster that’s like a combination of the two guitars, since it has an Adjusto-Matic bridge and two Wide Range humbuckers installed. On Return To Sky I also used an SG here and there (The Source, Return To Sky) as well as a Fender Mustang (the “twangy” one on Dawn Passage).
For strings I prefer 11-48 and we are often tuned in a standard C tuning, occasionally something more exotic but still with the lowest string in C. For the past three Causa Sui records I’ve been recording with two amplifiers: a Fender Super-Sonic 60 with various cabinets and a Fender Blues Junior. The Super-Sonic has a lovely tube overdrive as well as a thick and chimey clean channel that’s modelled on a Bass Man. This channel is a very nice canvas for pedals. The Blues Junior is just a rad little noise maker you can push to extremes without shaking down the walls. I do love pedals and the variety and experimentation they offer. If I record two guitars for a part I often enjoy doing one track with a full-sounding amplifier sound and another one with a more fuzzy pedal sound. I always change something around for dubs: using a different guitar or a pedal, record with a different mic through a different preamp and so on.
I’ve always been using the Fulltone 69 a lot, and on Return to Sky the T-Rex Mudhoney got a good workout as well as the Magick Fuzz by Magic Pedals, which is awesome. I always enjoy different delays a lot as well as phaser and vibe pedals such as the Dunlop Rotovibe, Electro Harmonix Wiggler, Small Stone and Worm pedals.
J. Hubner: It seems with each new release, the “Causa Sui” sound is being both refined and defined. Each record that comes out most definitely sounds like Causa Sui, but the sound seems sharpened and more focused. Is there intention to redefine yourselves with every album, or does Causa Sui just going to each record let the pieces fall where they may?
Jonas Munk: For the past few years the main focus has been on refining what we do. I love the idea of refining and exploring a style. We always have quite a specific idea about which area we wanna delve into, and this time it was the heavy side of our sound, and about working with contrasts within the same song. Like, if a part was super heavy and dry sounding we’d splash something really watery on top of it, or have it followed by something very fragile and melancholic – or if one part is really tight and brutal we’d lead it into something blurry and shoegazy….stuff like that. -The title track is a good example, it’s totally “grunge” in the first half, then dissolves into this Sonic Youth-plays-terry Riley-meets-Pharoah Sanders out-there thing. I think it’s important to keep things ambiguous and not too one-dimensional. I guess contrasts has always been part of the Causa Sui fabric but this time the idea took a really crystalline form. I can imagine the next project exploring something different. For a while we’ve discussed the idea of doing a mellow album, without the rock element, allowing for more focus on different sonic colours and other ways of putting songs together. But in our case it doesn’t work in a merely linear way – we are all used to working on several projects at the same time, so I’m not gonna make any predictions about how ideas are gonna assemble and branch out at this point.
Jakob Skott: I hope that we can keep progressing – we try to keep it fresh, but sure it’s a pretty defined sound by now, and maybe this new album is kind of the culmination of years work. I still have the idea of doing some ensemble-like recordings – like with 2 drum kits or whatever – more sax or new instruments – or an exotic freaky bossa nova album. I do not want us to keep releasing a summer stoner album every three years, but then again you never know. We had a lot of talks about not using the Causa Sui name for the Pewt’r Sessions originally – we only used it because it was our first album on our new label, and we wanted it to sell. Ha! 5 years later I can tell that it worked out great – people got it as an extension of what we did before, but there’s always that balance: “Sure, that jam is really good, but is it Causa Sui?”. We also have a mental defect of sorts in the band, which is always trying to figure out where stuff came from: “Man, Jonas that Allman’s brother’s lick sure is smokin’” – “Sure, Jakob – but the John Bonham-fills could have a bit more Keith Moon in it”. That sometimes changes the perception of what we’re doing. Like when Rasmus’s keys need a little more Prince in them.
J. Hubner: (Laughs) Yeah, you guys could definitely use some more Prince in those keys. A Causa Sui version of “Controversy” would be something.
So as far as shows and festivals what’s lined up for the summer and beyond?
Jonas Munk: We’re playing Stoned From The Underground in Germany as well as Lake on Fire in Austria. That’s about it so far.
J. Hubner: What else does El Paraiso have on the horizon this year, release-wise? Anything you can tell us about?
Jonas Munk: Right now we have Jakob’s new record out and a fuzzed-out space rock album by a Copenhagen quartet called Mythic Sunship came out in May. In June we’ll release a record by Connecticut drone-rock veterans Landing, an amazing band we’ve been following for over a decade, so that’s really exciting! There’s a another American band coming out as well sometime during summer, but I shouldn’t reveal anything yet.
J. Hubner: Will we see a Pewt’r Sessions 4 at some point?
Jakob Skott: We talked on several occasions about what we were gonna do, because there has been talks about Ron (aka Pewt’r) coming over for a few years now, but it’s always fallen thru for various reasons. But the plan is to try to do something totally different. I think Ron brought up a drum circle! Everyone get’s a hand drum of some sort? I don’t know how that’d work – but that what’s great about his approach – it’s radically different from any idea we come up with in the Causa Sui framework. It’s bound to be new and exciting. And we have the freedom to not just cough up one more acid jam fur ball*, but can call it anything – so maybe it’ll be a Pewt’r 4, maybe something else, but I’m confident we’ll make more stuff with him.
Jonas Munk: Oh, we’ll definitely create more music with Ron at some point. However, I doubt that it will be under the Causa Sui name and part of the “Pewt’r Sessions” series. Who knows. Actually we’ve got an album’s worth of synthesizer music we recorded with him back in 2012, it just hasn’t seemed really necessary for any of us releasing it so far.
J. Hubner: So what are you guys excited about for the near future?
Jakob Skott: I’ve got a pretty empty plate right now – so right now it’s just about letting things happen. So excited about what I’m gonna be excited by next, haha – spring always brings out the best vibes for new ideas for me, so after a winter with lots of hard work, I look forward to just goofing around for a bit musically – Luckily we’ve got a few killer releases lined up for completely new bands.
Jonas Munk: The engineering/mixing/mastering side of things is something I take more and more pleasure in these days. Sometimes it’s really liberating just having to focus on one aspect of creation. So after finishing a few more major projects where I’m composing and performing as well, I look forward to spending more time working on other people’s music again, as well as digging into some Causa Sui live recordings, new and old.
If you’re in the neighborhood I’d suggest heading to Germany or Austria and seeing Causa Sui live. You can keep up with Causa Sui on their website here and on there Facebook page here.
*not for nothing, but Acid Jam Fur Ball should be the next side project name.