Name: Sunda Arc
Members: Jordan Smart, Nick Smart
Occupation: Saxophonist (Jordan Smart), Pianist (Nick Smart)
Current Release: Sunda Arc's Night Lands is out via Gondwana November 18th 2022.
If you enjoyed this interview with Sunda Arc and would like to stay up to date on the band's music and tour dates, visit their official website. They're also on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter. They also have their dedicated artist page on the website of their label Gondvana, where you can find information on their related groups Mammal Hands and Vega Trails.
For more Gondvana related interviews:
[Read our Portico Quartet interview]
[Read our Hania Rani interview]
[Read our Jasmine Myra interview]
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Jordan: I think that for both of us, music and creative work is just a part of the fabric of life, it is essential, and a way of navigating all of these things. So I suppose it doesn’t feel like a spark or impulse, maybe more like a journey or a fabric that is constantly unrolling.
In that sense, all of the above that you mention are also essential to it in that they are wrapped up in it and constantly weaving in and out of the creative process. You may be in the middle of a track and have a conversation about politics at lunch, or see a really interesting piece of art online, or maybe even just have a really calming time cooking and when you return to the track you of course bring that all with you and the fresh mindset that you have.
I think it’s important not to force music but to allow it to happen and come to you, and the best way to do that, to me at least, seems to be engaging with a creative act as often as you can.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a visualisation of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Nick: Usually we start with an idea that we find inspiring, either found through jamming or experimenting with a certain instrument or combination of sounds. From there we tend to develop the idea as far as possible, often in an instinctive way.
We definitely don’t approach tracks with any sort of formula. There may be an initial plan or vision but as we experiment more, we normally end up following unexpected avenues and paths, trying to find unique combinations and sounds and hopefully avoiding any approaches that sound too conventional.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do research or create early versions?
Nick: We always try to start each track in a different way, this often requires experimenting with unique combinations of equipment and whatever we happen to be into at the time.
We often make early versions of tracks and then remix or rework them and deconstruct them in an effort to better understand what it is we like most and to be able to reframe the same melody or harmony in different contexts to see which serves the idea the best.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Jordan: I think when we made this album in particular, coffee was certainly important, but nowadays not so much. We are both more on the Japanese teas.
When we made this album, Night Lands, it was a slightly different situation than normal, in that we were in lockdown mainly and in our flat in east London, working in a home studio in our box room. So it was sometimes difficult to unblur the lines between all the different parts of life, which I think was both a positive and negative thing sometimes. Days melted together and we would often find ourselves in our home studio all hours of the day.
After that, I think it has become more important to set the atmosphere, maybe not so much lighting and scents, but an organised workspace, exercise for certain, and trying to give yourself the best chance of being focused and in the zone for the day, which is of course also affected by diet choices.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note? Once you’ve started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Nick: We don’t really have a problem finding ideas, we are very often making small sketches and recording ideas throughout the day and also when we are travelling for shows. We then share these with each other and discuss what we think the potential each one might have, and they grow from there.
To be honest we have more of a struggle knowing when a track is finished than starting them.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Nick: I think it’s a healthy balance of the two.
We really like to follow and allow the ideas to lead the way, but then also it is often necessary to exercise your control and understanding to realise or pull something around to the way you are hearing it in your head. This can sometimes take a lot of effort and time to do.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Jordan: We do our best to be critical as we go, but also not be too precious about the material we already have. Being open minded is extremely important as some tracks can end up being very different from the original idea. You may be trying to find a synth part for example to support some other sounds you have and like it so much it becomes the centrepiece for the track.
Keeping the core idea can be important, but I think more important is knowing when you’ve got a good idea, and how to give it the space and surroundings it needs, almost like being a conductor or gardener as well.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
Nick: We always try to enter into a state of mind where we are allowing the ideas to flow as freely as possible. There is always difficulty working with computers for a long period of time and maintaining creativity.
This is why we try as much as possible to work outside of the computer with live takes and hardware instruments, which seems to help maintaining a live, performative and interactive feeling in the music making.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Nick: Good question. We normally reach a point where any changes feel like they are detracting or at least not improving the music any more, and we normally take that as a sign that we are finished.
Jordan: But then sometimes we still revisit the track three months later and completely remix it …
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you’re satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Jordan: Very important, we are both constantly exporting versions of tracks and listening to them in the car, on public transport, on the way to gigs etc. That way you become familiar, you listen to them alongside other artists work, and you get an honest sense of whether they are good, they are finished and if they have any untapped potential.
The difficulty is often if you have an idea out of the house, and then are not in the studio to be able to work on it immediately. ;)
What’s your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Jordan: This is something we have both found really important and are always working on improving at.
When you look back at your past work you always wish you could mix them with your knowledge now I think. With the tools we all have access to now, it feels like a really important and essential part of the creative act, and having a good amount of control over that yourselves and being really hands on I think really defines the sound of an artist or project.
Of course at the end a mastering engineer can bring a really interesting element to it, and maybe they hear something in there that you didn’t. But we always mix and finish tracks to the best we possibly can first.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Nick: We haven’t really experienced that to be honest, we just continue on when we are finished with a body of work. We are always reflecting on past work but we never really leave long periods of time where we aren’t writing.
Jordan: I think also that with the various projects and bands we both have, we are fairly constantly balancing different creative processes, and really enjoy being engaged creatively as much as possible.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more mundane tasks?
Jordan: That’s a really interesting question. More and more I like to subscribe to what I guess some people might call a more Zen or Japanese way of thinking, of having a pride in your work and seeing every act as worthy of your utmost attention and creative spirit. I think this is of course easier when your work is creative, but I think you can always feel it when, like you say, a coffee is made for you with love and care, or somebody goes above and beyond in a ‘mundane’ task.
I think this is at least similar to if not the same as the creative spirit. I think music is just one of those mediums where the communication from person to person, as long as the listener especially is receptive, can be really direct, and also ephemeral, communicating in ways that would be very difficult in any other medium.
Nick: I think that there is a huge depth to cooking for example, and I really enjoy this myself. But there are limitations, and your self-expression is always much deeper with music. It seems almost limitless.