5 Questions: Sansyou

There’s something deeply personal about the way that DC-instrumental collective Sansyou affects me as a listener.

(Photo: Rick Taylor)

No matter what emotional state I am in, the music of Sansyou never fails to calm me — to take me back to “center.”

Sansyou invites listeners to slow down. Chill out. And revel in the “nowness” of life’s precious moments. For me, listening to Sansyou isn’t about changing a mood – it’s about changing a perspective.

In that sense, I can’t help but think of Sansyou as the DC underground music companion to Eckhart Tolle’s influential book, “The Power of Now,” in which the author touts the concepts of self-reflection and presence in the moment as avenues of spiritual enlightenment.

Ever since the band debuted in 2011 with the sublime “When We Will Become Ghosts” EP, I have been captivated by Sansyou’s gift for conjuring magical moments of quiet transcendence from delicate guitar lines, sparse melodies and jangly guitar chords.

It’s been nearly 5 years since the last Sansyou release, but the stellar new EP “Eyes Front” is proof positive that the band hasn’t lost a step.

The line-up has changed (Sansyou is now a two-piece featuring creative mainstay David Nicholas on guitar and John Mark King on drums, percussion, treatments) but the luminous approach to introspective guitar has lost none of its luster.  If anything, Sansyou’s quiet power has only become stronger and more refined. Just listen to the beguiling title track of the new EP, which pairs a simple guitar melody to some gorgeous chord jangling and scales new celestial heights in the process.

I would argue that in today’s turbulent times, we need Sansyou’s music more than ever. I know I do. It’s reassuring to know the band is back and stronger than ever.

With Sansyou set to play the Friday, May 7th Livestream of We Fought the Big One, I got in touch with guitarist David Nicholas to learn more about the band’s return…

1) First, I want to start off by saying how excited I am that Sansyou is back. It’s been a few years since your last recording and a lot has happened since then. Can you share a little about what prompted Sansyou’s return? What was it like for you to bring Sansyou back during the pandemic?

David: The songs have their own way of making a case to be heard; that was the spark. As I started working with different people, it was fairly easy to envision a new Sansyou record taking shape. The pandemic can shut down creativity, or as artists we can react against it and in spite of it, find new ways to reach people as you’re doing with the Big One going virtual and keeping the Marx Cafe community connected. It all becomes that much more important, and you can see it from the banter during your live streams how vital it is to people.

Sansyou logo

2) One of the things I appreciate most about Sansyou is how you create these powerful sonic vignettes without relying on volume or effects pedal pyrotechnics. For me, “Eyes Front,” the title track of Sansyou’s new cassette, crystallizes what makes Sansyou so appealing: it melds gorgeous guitar chords that ebb and flow like ocean waves to a chiming melody that crests the surface like a bubble floating in water. What can you tell us about the creation of that track and how you feel when you play it?

David: Thanks for listening so closely. I took my time finishing this one and went through a few rough drafts. I wanted to have some dynamic shifts and more than one idea inside the melody, so I let that process unfold before settling on this arrangement. I try to get the drone strings to do the heavy lifting so that ebb and flow feeling you point out is physically what’s happening in the guitar parts. It’s rewarding to play and always a challenge.

(Photo: Rick Taylor)

3) I would imagine the recording and mixing experience for “Eyes Front” was a little different this time given the constraints of the pandemic. What can you tell us about it?

David: Everyone masked up and we postponed the session once due to a possible exposure so when we did get together it was safe. I tracked all my guitars in one day and from there John added his keyboard parts and percussion later working remotely. In the past, I felt like mixing has taken too long for what it delivered. Mixing remotely was more efficient which opened more creative options with three alternate mixes we decided to include as companion pieces in the full release. These mixes leverage negative space more than I’ve been able to accomplish before – it’s more about taking things out and making room in the sound.  I’d never had the chance to experiment like that so I think the constraints were actually beneficial.

Sansyou Eyes Front image
(Photo: Stefan Rappo)

4) Artwork has long been an integral ingredient to the Sansyou aesthetic. What can you tell us about the striking image from Stefan Rappo that graces the cover of the new cassette?

David: I didn’t have a visual concept in mind for a long time. Throughout the writing and recording, I kept my eyes open, but it wasn’t until I saw Stefan Rappo’s work that it came together. He is based in Paris and does a range of portraits and still life subjects. There’s a kind of music inside his images that really resonated with me. His use of color also appeals to me especially on this one we used on the cover. I was very glad when he made it available to me. I always want unity in the cover art and the sound. I felt this image achieved that plus there’s maybe a bit of continuity from our first record too, so it comes full circle.

5) We are almost halfway through 2021. When you think about what lies ahead for you personally and for our society, what gives you hope?

David: You! Seriously, the fact that you found a way to persevere and keep the Big One going and all the good vibes that brings gives me hope. Staying optimistic is hard work, and I fall short often. But we are in a different and better place than before so I have to be thankful for that. Last week I got stuck in Vice President Harris’ motorcade and that reminded me how fortunate we are. And it feels good just to say it!

Catch Sansyou’s performance at 10pm EST on the Friday, May 7th Livestream edition of WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE! Register for the Zoom link at: bit.ly/BigOne_SANSYOU

Listen to and purchase Sansyou releases on Bandcamp. Don’t forget to “Like” Sansyou on Facebook!