Sunn Trio Crafts Cosmic Jazz in the Desert

Sunn Trio explores cosmic desert jazz.
Sunn Trio explores cosmic desert jazz.
Lauren Bailey

Joel Robinson is a young man with a clear view of his heroes, artists like Sun Ra, Captain Beefheart, and the Meat Puppets, musicians who followed their own singular paths. As band leader of experimental jazz combo Sunn Trio, Robinson's goals are lofty: music reflecting the desert and addressing no less than the totality of the human experience.

"[We're] trying to express the human condition in all shapes and forms," Robinson says, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his leather jacket and having a seat in front of Double Nickels Collective, where he just finished browsing through records. He opens his backpack and slides in a newly acquired copy of Hannibal Marvin Peterson's The Tribe. Next door at 51 West, a pop-punk band is warming up, and Robinson's thoughtful musings are punctuated by random snare cracks and bursts of distortion pedal-fiddling.

At only 24, one might wonder how qualified Robinson is to musically interpret the human condition, but the native Arizonan has lived a rough life in his years, bouncing around Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, and Queen Creek, and he's figured out a few hardearned truths. As a kid he was drawn to extreme music -- the Meat Puppets, Sun City Girls, Lightning Bolt, Arab on Radar. He started playing in grimy guitar-punk band called Bolt! at 14, and made his way around the local scene, playing in bands like Praecum, Melted Cassettes, Fake Snake, and Flamingo, joining with his first guitar instructor, Elmo Kirkwood, in the latter band. Somewhere along the way, he picked up a "pretty bad heroin addiction."

Robinson has been clean since his birthday in October 2013, and in recent years he's focused mainly on Sunn Trio. Though the "trio" in the band name has come to represent the positions of the sun over the desert -- morning, midday, sunset -- it was initially literal, a true trio comprising Robinson, Kirkwood, and Tyler Grawey. Since then, the band's lineup as sprawled into a massive collective of rotating members.

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On Radiowaves, the band's latest cassette featuring a live performance broadcast on Westley Allen's Erratic Radio program on KWSS 93.9 FM, the band performed as a sextet -- featuring many members of Jerusafunk, a sort of sister band to Sunn Trio and Robinson's favorite local band. The tape is a thrilling document, blending modal jazz influences, Eastern Indian ragas, and hard-driving funk. Robinson switches between soprano saxophone and baritone guitar, guiding the band through an improvisational set that veers from serene to cacophonic. Both sounds -- violent and meditative -- and the contrasts between, are important to Robinson.

"One of the first songs I really got into as a kid was from Meat Puppets II, one of the bonus tracks, 'Teenagers,'" Robinson says. "For the first minute, it's just loud, screaming hardcore punk, and then it turns into this beautiful melodic solo, with fingerpicked guitar. I wanted to be the best of both worlds."

Robinson's interest in punk eventually led him to jazz music. Hearing John Coltrane's take on "My Favorite Things" and Albert Ayler's version of "Summertime" opened new music possibilities for him.

"The backing band is [playing] traditional bop, but Albert Ayler is fucking wailing and screeching away. It's so obnoxious, but beautiful at the same time," Robinson says.  

He began studying jazz in high school and at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, learning the basics of chord construction, scales, and modes, but playing standards never appealed to him. When Flamingo was offered the chance to tour with Robinson's heroes the Meat Puppets, he left school to go on the road. He still plans to finish his degree, but he recognizes that his punk roots informed his attraction to outsider jazz, music less rooted in tradition.

"I grew up playing in punk rock bands. Now I know way too many chords to be in a punk band," Robinson says, laughing.

Inspired by no wave artists like James Chance and the Contortions, the Lounge Lizards, Teenage Jesus, and the Flying Luttenbachers, Robinson recognized ways he could combine his punk roots and taste for jazz, creating a collective that can weave in and out of different styles, sounds, and moods.

"I bring a few chords, modes or scales, and maybe talk about a certain emotion or feeling that we're trying to interpret for that individual part," Robinson says of his style as a bandleader. "I leave a lot of the improvisation up to the individual player, what they want to play, but we try and keep on the same page, a basic outline of what we're doing."

Robinson started Sunn Trio in 2010, before he got clean, and he says that the drugs still influence the sounds.

"I've done opiates in general and everything for about eight years, since I was 14 and I started experimenting with drugs," Robinson says. "So I think it's still very influential in the sense that I've gotten to a point in my life that it's not around anymore, and I'm starting to get used to living sober. It still has that effect, it's still affecting my life. I've lost everything, been in and out of the court system. You know, I've been on and off the streets. I've had things and I've lost it all, you know?"

When not focusing on music, Robinson works in the behavioral health field, helping other addicts get into "a situation where they can get control of their own substance abuse issues."

"So I think it's still definitely a huge influence," Robinson says.

But perhaps his biggest influence is the desert itself. The desert "is a huge influence in and of itself for Sunn Trio, the surrounding landscape" Robinson says.

"There'd be so many times when I'd be driving around the city listening to Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, the Sun City Girls, or the Meat Puppets, high out of my mind on heroin and speed, and just like vegging out," Robinson says, laughing and noting that two of his biggest heroes, Captain Beefheart and Sun Ra,were avowedly sober, "and they made of the most far-out, fucked music ever."

Removed from the haze of opiates, Robinson is digging for clarity with Sunn Trio, creating weird, wild, and challenging desert music. Sounds that reference "the dark landscape, with this hue of light surrounding it."

"I've gotten to see a fair amount of the country from touring and playing in bands since such a young age and stuff, but I think this is some of the most beautiful land in the country," Robinson says.

"I love this place."

Sunn Trio is scheduled to perform Saturday, January 24, at Double Nickels Collective in Tempe.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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