The Secret Island Life of Mamiffer
“I was paralleling an experience I was having at the time of writing the record with some of the first domesticated animals by gatherer societies that were gynocentric and family based. So the whole three part song is about paralleling my experience to very ancient people and the way they structured their family life.” - Faith Coloccia on “The Domestication of the Ewe”
“Being part of the natural world - I shouldn’t say the natural world because we’re all a part of the natural world whether we choose to acknowledge that or not - but recognizing that is an important part of Mamiffer and an important part of our lives. That’s part of the reason we live where we do.” - Aaron Turner on Vashon Island
A pre-spring storm is brewing on Vashon. Roughly the size of Manhattan, nestled in the Puget Sound and facing south Seattle, the island is home to just over 10,000 residents. Two of these hardy souls are Aaron Turner and Faith Coloccia of experimental act Mamiffer. The ferry deposits me about an hour early for our interview, so I drive down Cemetery Road, a typically lush capillary, and immerse myself in The World Unseen, the duo’s new release. Winds will reach forty-six miles per hour this afternoon and already branches and foliage litter the ground. It’s a felicitous day to meet Mamiffer, whose own balance of darkness and light is the auditory equivalent of a storm’s eye.
A force of nature himself, Turner has made significant divots in metal, post rock, and a multitude of other subgenres as a vocalist,guitarist and labelhead. The visionary behind Isis, Turner led that group from powerful - if Neurosis-derivative - beginnings to legendary status. The New Mexico born Turner spent lengthy stints in Boston and Los Angeles. The Former is where he launched the seminal Hydra Head label, but the latter is where he met his future partner. Art surrounded them from the start.
“I was going to Otis (College of the Arts),” Coloccia recounts. “I was taking a sound class and me and my bandmate made a limited edition pressing of five vinyl test pressings as a class project.”
Turner elaborates. “I heard the music. It drew me down the hall. Not too long after that, I ended up buying one of those super limited edition records. They all had different packaging, very elaborate collages, and boxes.” Turner released a record for Coloccia’s project. “I think at the time I talked to them about putting out a record on Hydra Head. The beginning of our relationship was a working relationship.”
After the two became involved, Turner followed her to the cooler climes of Seattle. They later took up residence on Vashon. Peaceful, rustic, and supernaturally green, the island is the quintessential liberal enclave. Art studios and organic farms dot the landscape. The town boasts one main drag with a handful of quaint shops, including a 125-year-old hardware store which now houses a hip eating spot. Vashon is a place for outsiders and iconoclasts. A tree which has grown around a bicycle is a local landmark. The couple has lived on the island for more than half a decade. “I think it has a lot to do with how Mamiffer has been shaped in the last few years,” Turner says.
I am speaking with Coloccia and Turner in the backroom of a woodsy restaurant called Snapdragon. An adjoining space under construction, the room boasts a lovingly mismatched palette of decorative influences. A Chinese umbrella rests on saloon style bar; vintage wallpaper coats the windows. We sit on couches opposite each other and eat vegetarian food.
The married couple is a study in contrasts. Pale and slight, Coloccia wears all black and sports a long braid. Turner is bearded and rugged, the image of an island-dwelling troubadour in earth tones and work boots.
Coloccia notes the direct connection between the earth and Mamiffer’s music. “Giving life to plants is a very powerful act that can translate into spirituality and our music - being able to put a seed into the ground and watch it grow.” They harvest food when possible. (“About six months of the year,” Coloccia says “and then we preserve the rest.”) A typical day starts by attending to a hungry feline brood. “Being in animal consciousness - in animal presence - grounds your perspective as a human and widens your concerns beyond this very myopic thing that can happen,” Turner explains.
Still, even on Vashon, the concrete world of commerce beckons. “Part of our day to day is Hydra Head, and it’s largely run out of our house. Faith helps me with it from time to time. I’m in charge of managing the label and overseeing the reissue campaign that we’ve been working on.” He and Coloccia also run the SIGE imprint while Turner busies himself with projects like Old Man Gloom and Sumac, a collaboration with Baptists’ drummer Nick Yacyshyn and Brian Cook of Russian Circles. The relative isolation apparently does not inhibit their productivity or limit collaborations. Producer Randall Dunn--the man behind the boards for like-minded acts like Wolves in the Throne Room, Earth, and the recently disbanded Rose Windows--is one such creative partner. He shares Mamiffer’s interest in matters esoteric and artistic.
“Anybody we work with on a long-term basis has to be someone we can be friends with as well as working partners. We basically started our relationship with him through Mamiffer,” Turner explains. “He’s also part of the reason we are living on Vashon. When we were recording Mare Decendrii we were living in Seattle, and we told him that we wanted to get out of the city, and he told us we should check out Vashon. We wanted to be somewhere that was in close proximity to civilization but far enough removed that we felt like we were out of it.” Like Mamiffer, Dunn’s work dwells on the outskirts of extreme heavy metal; he expands the definition of that music by doing so.
“There’s metal, and there’s heavy and sometimes they’re the same and sometimes they’re not,” Turner surmises. “I feel like Mamiffer is heavy in the same way that Swans are heavy. There’s a depth to it and a weight to the music - an emphasis on low end and sonic power,”
“And space,” adds Faith.
Sometimes that space becomes more literal, as with the guitar tones on “13 Burning Stars”. Faith explains, “The inspiration for Aaron’s guitar sound in that song is the meteorite radio station. You can actually listen to meteorites entering the atmosphere of Earth, so we tried to mimic that sound.”
Of Mammifer's tenuous relationship with metal and the music business in general, Turner is both appreciative and guarded. “We don’t ignore the marketing or administrative side of things. There’s a practicality to how we operate and in that sense, we do acknowledge the support from the metal world. But when it comes to creating something that kind of genre classification isn’t a consideration. We’re just making the music we want to make.”
Coloccia is quick to praise the fans. “A lot of our friendships are with heavy musicians and metal audiences are some of the nicest and most supportive people. It’s kind of amazing to have really large, burly men come and cry to the music.” Heavy emotions, indeed. “There’s a bravery,” she concludes.
Standout track “Mara” is both a song on the new record and the title of one of Coloccia’s prior projects. They both laugh when I ask about the name and Turner offers an enigmatic preamble. “This is a tricky question. It has great personal significance. Beyond the entity to which this name is associated, the meaning has taken on much greater dimension.”
Coloccia elaborates. “I was drawn to the name. It’s the Latvian goddess of life and death encapsulated in one. I feel like it’s the perfect name for creation. A lot of people associate the name Mara with suffering. We had a big talk with Randall about that. In Buddhist scripture, Mara is the goddess of suffering. It has a lot of potency to it.”
Coloccia’s clarity of vision points to a quiet leadership role within Mamiffer. Turner concurs. “We’ve both been very active as musicians for a while now. Just due to having been in a high profile band--at least on an underground level--I’m often credited with stuff in Mamiffer when this is Faith’s band. I’m supporting her ideas and I’m contributing, but this is Faith’s thing, and I’m glad that it’s starting to be known that that’s the case.” He especially notes his partner’s powerful, intuitive sense of what a song needs. “Faith knows when things are not done. Her observation is often that something is missing. Then comes the quest for finding it.”
“Which can take a very long time,” Coloccia adds. With tracks on the album dating back to sessions from 2011, this is not an exaggeration.
Turner agrees that the process takes many different turns. “A lot of our songs keep going through different permutations. One song on the new record was also on the last record but in very different form. We like the idea of keeping a song as a living entity that can keep changing all the time.”
With music so shapeshifting and unconventional, I imagine the songwriting process is equally unusual. “It’s always based on piano composition or me writing simple things on guitar and everything flows out from there. Or a vocal line,” explains Coloccia. With multiple influences from the avant garde world, I’m also curious about the role of melody in Mamiffer. Coloccia insists that it’s an important element, but on a subliminal level. “It’s a secret thing to pull people in. An earworm.”
When I ask if he would ever sing in the band, Turner reasserts his wife’s aesthetic dominance of the project. “Me? Probably not, there is one song on the Mamiffer/Locrian split where I did some screaming vocals. I am actually uncomfortable with melodic singing. These are all Faith’s songs. She writes the foundation for everything, and I’m more of an auxiliary augmentation to what she does. As the band evolves, Faith’s voice has become, if not a focal point, a very grounding part of what defines the sounds.”
Wikipedia’s Vashon entry places Turner at the very top of the island’s notable people, his name preceding the site’s traditional alphabetized list. Even in that ordered encyclopedic cosmos, he is the exception. Turner is reflective about his uncompromising musical course. “I gravitated towards things that resonated with me rather than the things that were thrust upon me. Some of that would not be surprising like Black Sabbath and Metallica. Some was more accessible, but just far enough out there that it wasn’t like what I was hearing around me. Every time I heard something I couldn’t immediately identify I wanted to know more about it. I remember this time at a friends house he put on a tape with a Godflesh song, and I was like ‘What the fuck is this?’ I think there was this innate thing in me that wanted to seek out things that were unusual--stuff that seemed to be boundary pushing.”
The couple’s self-styled spirituality permeates the music of Mamiffer in much the same way. “Neither Faith nor I subscribe to a specific religion. As for me, I wouldn’t even know how to describe my personal belief system but I’ve definitely been exploring the idea of spirituality. Even before becoming an adult and exploring it in any conscious fashion. I felt like I communed with nature very early on and I felt something like what I subsequently read about as ecstatic spiritual experiences, but for me it came through playing music not from going to church or something like that. That has been a huge motivating factor for me to play music, sounds that bring me to some kind of other state of being.” Turner even considers the metaphysical aspect when discussing their musical partnership. “There’s a kind of connection that we have that’s strengthened or deepened by doing something creative together too. It’s like a shared spiritual experience.”
“I notice that’s getting looked down upon a lot less,” Coloccia adds while we are on the subject of musical couples. “When people started to find out that we were married I heard this term, ‘sweetheart project’ and it was so upsetting to me. I didn’t even know what that meant. I feel like that’s disappearing a lot and people are embracing creative couples.”
With so many eccentrics on Vashon, I wonder if they’ve found any kindred spirits. “The people who run Snapdragon are our closest friends here,” Turner answers. “They were our introduction to the community on the island. They’re artsy weirdos, and they spotted us as artsy weirdos and befriended us.”
Turner also notes that Vashon’s inclusive community supplies them with “weird surrogate parents.” Coloccia agrees. “We have a lot of older friends, like in their 60s. It’s awesome. People who can mentor us--like teach us how to use a chainsaw.”
So do the locals know much about Mamiffer or the duo’s other artistic concerns?
“I like that no one knows about it,” Coloccia says of the their covert local personas. “I don’t think we ever want to play a show here.”
“I do. My idea is to have Sumac play at the high school,” Turner jokes.
Coloccia laughs. “That would be awesome,” she says.
This article has been edited to reflect that Hydra Head Records originated in Boston, MA.