The Great Sabatini

BY Natalie Zina WalschotsPublished Mar 26, 2012

Hardworking Canadian underground group and stalwart Hessian warriors the Great Sabatini consistently push the limits of their skills and aesthetic, as well as their sheer capacity for labour. Currently in the midst of another ambitious North American tour, the band are simultaneously releasing a duelling pair of recordings: Matterhorn (on No List) and free digital companion EP The Royal We, which was recorded with Topon Das of Canadian grindcore heroes Fuck the Facts. The Great Sabatini are driven to create new music and release it, consistently relying on sheer determination to get their sounds out in the world. But there's far more to them than work ethic; they also produce some hard-edged, heavy and deceptively lovely music. Describing themselves as "swamp trench arithmetic," they favour slow, lurching tempos and towering riff structures, often accented by unusual sound clips and noise elements that give way to moments of beauty.

The three words you use to describe your musical aesthetic are "swamp trench arithmetic." How do you feel these three juxtaposed words sum up what you're trying to do?
Vocalist/guitarist Sean Arsenian. That was a kind of joke we came up with in a snotty attempt to describe a new genre, like sludgy math-rock. All the sub-genres out there at this point seem funny to us, but at the end of the day, you still have to try to explain your music to some folks before they hear it, so we invented our own thing. I actually think that may have been our first drummer who coined that.

What are your primary lyrical inspirations? From where do you draw your creative energy and what inspires you to write?
I have a hard time writing lyrics. They never come easy, but I try to steep myself in the work of other inspiring artists, literary and otherwise, whenever I'm trying to write words. Van Dyke Parks is a big one; I love that his words will make you feel things before you can comprehend them, if you can comprehend them at all. I also have a battery of personal rituals and oracles that I consult during lyric writing time. For Matterhorn, I had discovered a long lost notebook containing details of my family's history during and after the Armenian genocide at the beginning of the 20th century. It started there, but mutated into something different as the writing and research continued.

Matterhorn is your first recoding since releasing the Napoleon Sodomite EP in April of 2011. Now you have this record, as well as the forthcoming EP, The Royal We, which was recorded with Topon Das (Fuck The Facts). Not that a year is exactly a long period of hibernation, but it seems that TGS are currently engaging in a bit of a flurry of recording activity. What spurred that?
We have been working pretty constantly on all of these songs for the last couple years. As we were releasing Napoleon Sodomite, we began recording Matterhorn and The Royal We. We never really stop working; we're either touring, writing or recording. We decided to release The Royal We as a free digital EP around the same time as Matterhorn because we simply want people to hear it. We didn't want to sit on one thing until we, or a label, could afford to press it. We were fortunate to get involved with No List for Matterhorn. We thought of The Royal We as an intangible side three for that record; it's sort of a companion piece, really.

Matterhorn is an apt title for a Sabatini record, evoking the act's do-it-yourself attitude and the number of mountains you've climbed. Was this the inspiration behind the album's title?
For sure, that was a big part of it. The mountain image is a pretty direct thing, metaphorically, but it also relates to a couple other things. The name of the record could have been Ararat, because the subject matter began with issues regarding my heritage, but I wanted to put some distance between my personal reality and any perceived meanings in the words. We also thought Matterhorn was a bit catchier. I also had been watching Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain as a stimulus for the lyrics. I really like the idea that "there are many holy mountains." It's all about one's personal quest, whatever that may be.

As the Great Sabatini have evolved, you have consistently, and with an ever-increasing degree of sophistication, played with rhythms, meters and unexpected shifts in time signatures. Has it been a goal to make this a defining feature of your sound?
I think so; we're always trying to subvert our natural tendencies when we write songs. Playing with meters and time signatures is a good way to change shit up. We're also big fans of certain bands that did those things well, from King Crimson to Soundgarden to Don Cabbalero and other math-y-type stuff. Too much music relies on the same meter, tempo and time signature. We get bored pretty fast so we try our best to mess around with those aspects.

What is it about the Montreal heavy metal scene that has inspired you to call it home?
To be honest, we've never felt tied to any scene here. We have friends from many different corners of the Montreal music community, but the only thing tying us to it at all is the fact that three of us live here. Montreal is a great city for music, but I personally find the scene stuff infuriating. I listen to a pretty wide variety of music. I also feel that the best shows we've done were the ones where the bands covered the most ground musically. But sometimes bands and audiences alike aren't so open to that kind of variety. That said, we do feel inspired by some of the awesome bands here. There are too many great bands under the "metal" banner in Montreal to ignore. It's a genre that has always thrived.

The Great Sabatini have become quite infamous for your aggressive touring schedule, both throughout Canada and the States. Has touring become a necessary part of your creative process and musical identity? Has it affected the way you write and perform?
I think we're starting to become aware that people see us as a real workhorse type of band. That's cool, because we tour as much as possible, but I always feel like we could be doing more. It's hard to do more, because of day jobs and family commitments, but we do as much as we can. Our lives for the past four years of touring have been weird and that has affected the way we write, for sure. Most of our songs go through road tests before they get recorded. After we play a song live four million times it'll be quite different from the demo we originally made. That seems to be the method we're most comfortable with.

Do you have any aspirations to tour overseas, in Europe, for example? How difficult is it for a DIY Canadian band to get overseas?
We are beginning to plan to go to Europe in 2013. We are lucky to have a bunch of friends who have already done it, so we can get tons of info on the best way to do things from them. It seems like it's not that hard for a DIY band to do the overseas thing.

The name the Great Sabatini sounds suspiciously like a travelling group of tumblers or carnival folk. Were you going for this vibe when you named yourselves?
In a way, yes; we like the travelling acrobat vibe, especially since we try to tour a lot. But we also liked that the name didn't imply any particular genre either. We'd like to define our name and not have our name define us.

Two of your brothers, James and Chris, play in Endast. What is it like to be a part of such a musical, and metal-influenced, family?
It's pretty cool. Music has always been a very important thing for my family for generations. Most of my cousins and uncles play music too. The fact that my band and my brothers' band play metal in one form or another is pretty cool. My old man has warmed up to the genre considerably since all of his sons are dedicated hessian warriors.

Read a review of Matterhorn / The Royal We here.

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