Posted by: Necci – Aug 20, 2012
It may be easy for a listener to feel like they have Sunn O))) pegged. Their music at first seems like a catalog of heavy metal tropes, isolated, exaggerated, and distended - the slow crawl of their music barely registering on the b.p.m. scale, the extreme volume and almost reverential treatment of the isolated guitar, the monastic cloaks in which they costume themselves, and the dense swirl of fog that envelopes the stage as they perform. But in spite of the more obvious sonic and visual signifiers, they've managed the tricky territory of evolving while staying true to the core of their aesthetic - their music remains heavy, but recent albums have witnessed the band incorporating an increasingly wide variety of textures. To accommodate this, the duo's pool of outside contributors has grown as well - in addition to regular guest musicians like Australian experimental guitarist Oren Ambarchi and former Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar, the band's last album, 2009's Monoliths & Dimensions, incorporated the talents of musicians as diverse as composer/violinist Eyvind Kang, Dylan Carlson and Steve Moore of the band Earth (whose early albums provided a direct antecedent for Sunn O)))'s body of work), jazz trombonist and Sun Ra/John Coltrane/Herbie Hancock collaborator Julian Priester, and a Viennese women's choir.
After the monumental amount of effort required to produce and tour in support of that album, the band has maintained a relatively low-key presence. They tour occasionally, but with the two core members living on different continents - Stephen O'Malley works as a graphic artist in Paris and Greg Anderson runs Southern Lord Records in Los Angeles, to say nothing of the geographical distance between their various collaborators - the frequency has slowed. However, the band is embarking upon a short tour of the East Coast in September, a trek that's been rare in recent years. In anticipation of this, I managed to talk with Greg Anderson about the tour, the band's aesthetic, and recent developments at his label.
One consistent feature of Sunn O)))'s music is the emphasis on collaboration with a pretty wide variety of other artists. What's the impetus for pulling in all these other people?
Quite simply, it keeps it interesting for us personally and for the audience. It's one of the ways the ideas change and evolve. I think it's also interesting to set it up as a sort of experiment to see what's going to happen. To put people in a room together, often people from very different backgrounds, and just see what comes out of it.
The process of collaboration often entails ceding a degree of control over your music. Has that been the case with your work with other artists?
Not really. I guess, in some ways the way we approach the music is not so much with a mindset of having control over it. More just allowing it to be open and free, which is how it's always been. We're the opposite of controlling over what we're doing, so it wouldn't really be appropriate if we were with the collaborations. It's more important that people can have some room and some freedom.
You've said before that Sunn O)))'s visual aesthetic was conceived to lend the band a degree of anonymity, but it's also become a defining feature. Do you ever feel like the cloaks and the fog overshadow other more subtle facets of the band, perhaps working at cross purposes with the initial intention?
No, I actually don't really feel that way. I think it enhances the entire picture of what we're doing in a really complementary way. I mean, there's no way for us to control what people are taking away from it, so I guess it's hard to say really. Of course there's a lot of people who don't really dig deep into what we're doing, and the presentation might be all they take away from it, but they're going to miss out on some subtle nuances, like who played bass clarinet on some track or something. [laughs]
There's also the difference between Sunn O))) live performance and Sunn O))) recorded. And one thing we've really tried to stay away from as far as the recordings go is including pictures of the group playing live. Because they really are two different experiences – I don't want to call them separate because they share a lot of similarities and there are threads that are common and strong between the two – but they are two different entities.
How does the element of mystery in the visual side carry over into the music? On some level your re-imaginings of other artists' songs, like the Metallica and Bathory songs you've interpreted, could be seen as having been obscured or cloaked, but is that an impulse that runs deeper?
There's not a lot of analysis with what we're doing. The group is meant to be improvisational in some ways, and putting too much analysis on it isn't what we're about. It is interesting the sort of analysis that can be evoked by the music though. A lot of the time the audience or journalists analyze what we're doing way more than we would, and their thoughts and writings are often very different from how we conceive it. And I'm not saying that's bad or wrong, it's just interesting. I've done hundreds of interviews where people really dig deep to try to get into some sort of ideological or religious tie-in, but that's not really where we're coming from.
That's interesting, because the idea of a sustained, resonant tone has been with humanity for as long as we've had music, whether that's the Aboriginal didgeridoo, Indian ragas, Tuvan thorat singing, Highland bagpipes, et cetera. And for the majority of the time that this has been employed, it's been used for ritual and sacred purposes. It seems like when Sunn O))) often gets discussed, it's in terms of comparisons to Earth or Tony Conrad, but do you see your music functioning in a similar fashion as this larger, more universal tradition? Or is that something that you leave to the listener to explore for themselves?
Little bit of both, actually. We're inspired by those artists you mentioned and we're inspired by those ideas as well, the theories of those types of music. But it's also important to be trusting enough to leave interpretation to the audience as well. That's what it's all about. We're not going to print shirts that say “DRONE MUSIC SINCE 1998” or something. [laughs] We're not trying to follow a specific path or assign a certain ideal to what we're doing, it's more open. We're definitely influenced by Earth and raga though.
It seems like there's an element of subtle humor to your work that might seem at odds with the dark, mysterious image many people seem to associate with your work. Song titles like “Grimm & Bear It” or some of the pseudonyms employed on the albums like “Bootsy Kronos.” How much of a role did you intend for this to play?
It's not something we're thinking about too much, it's just another element of our personalities. Stephen and I have been friends for a very long time. We're similar to most people involved with long friendships in that we've experienced so many things together that we've got our inside jokes, and that's what a lot of that comes from. We've played music together for so long and a lot of what we've been through happens to be funny. I feel like we don't take ourselves too seriously.
It's interesting, and maybe a bit contradictory. Because I don't really like a lot of joke music, joke bands. I don't really like that. But I'm a huge fan of comedy. It's like how I feel about rap and metal. I love rap and I love metal but not together. It's a fine line. Devo could do it, but they had a lot of dark humor which is acceptable. But these comedy bands – it just doesn't work. I take Sunn O))) extremely seriously, it's not a joke to me, but I can laugh at myself. I guess it's sort of a way to peel back the black curtain of what we're doing and trying to poke fun at it. Because it can be comical in a way - how loud it is, how slow the pieces of music are – that can actually be somewhat humorous as well in a different sort of way. Not in a Seinfeld joke way. [laughs] Just recognizing the absurdity of it.
I can only imagine the logistical issues involved with being in a band with somebody that lives on another continent. Are there any ways that this distance has benefited what you do?
That's a good question. [laughs] I guess because we don't hang out a lot anymore, it's made it so that when we do hang out or play music we make the most of it, because the time is short. So I guess it has benefited us in that way, I guess I hadn't really thought about that too much. The other thing is that in 2009 we released our last record. For us, we did a lot of work supporting that record and given the direction of it, we got a little burned out. Playing music in this group live is very different from any other group I've been in, with the traditional guitar/bass/drums/vocals line-up and a set list every night. This has been very different. Not only because the backline for our shows is so large and dense, but just the travel. Playing this sort of music for two hours a night, every night, has been exhausting in a way I'd never experienced with other bands. There's a lot of logistics to our shows as well. Whether it's where the members live or just trying to pull off our show the way we want to do it in a club, it's all challenging. Because of volume, because of something as silly sounding as smoke alarms reacting to the fog machine.
So when we did those shows in 2009 and 2010, we played our asses off. It was exhausting and we decided to take a break. And it was a good idea because we've gotten back together since then and realized that we still enjoy playing music together. Being separate definitely hasn't made us any weaker. I don't know how much stronger it's made us, but in my eyes it hasn't hurt what we're doing.
I notice that the one full-length that's come out since then was the collaboration with Nurse With Wound. What was it about that project that was interesting to you?
That record was actually done a long time ago, before we took the break. The ØØ Void album, one of our earliest ones from 2000, was reissued by a label in Japan called Daymare that's put out our entire catalog. They always try to put some bonus material on a release to make it special. And their idea for that one was to use this recording that was basically Nurse With Wound remixing that album. We actually had done a collaboration with [Nurse With Wound's] Steven Stapleton live. And we've done other shows with them without collaborating as well. It was done a long time ago and wasn't really the catalyst for us doing anything recently.
Actually, last September we were supposed to do some shows in Italy and we put together a mini-tour around them. And those shows went well. It was Stephen and I with Attila on vocals and this keyboard player from Holland, Tos [Nieuwenhuizen]. And it went really well, we got along and the chemistry was there so we decided to do some more stuff with that lineup and the material we were playing. And that's how the stuff this past June came about – that was the stuff I mentioned with Nurse With Wound supporting. And these shows we have coming up, the East Coast shows should be good. Everything's really clicking and going well.
Recent years have seen Southern Lord releasing a pretty steady stream of heavier hardcore. How does this new crop of bands compare with those that were around when you were in False Liberty and Brotherhood?
It's interesting how it's evolved. The players now, versus the players then, are often more skilled. Technology and people's recording skills have improved by an insane amount so the recordings now are better than in the 80s. Because back then, nobody who listened to that kind of music was actually recording it. [laughs] From my experience and from my friends' experiences, some guy might have some equipment to make the records but they didn't have any idea about punk or hardcore. But a lot of new bands are missing the mark. There was a magic to that stuff from back then. It was of the time. There was a lot going on then and despite a shitty recording or even unskilled playing, it shone through that they had a lot of soul.
I hear a lot of people saying things like “nothing's as good as it was in the 80s,” “nobody's touched Negative Approach,” “nobody can play like SSD,” or whatever. And I can see their point, but there's also bands that are just as good. And that's what I've been doing over the past couple of years releasing this kind of music. I saw this enthusiasm in underground music. From the end of 2007 until about the middle of 2009 I was so incredibly focused with the Monoliths & Dimensions album that I really cut myself off. I was just focused on what we were doing and listening to a lot of jazz, late 60s/early 70s stuff – Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, things like that – I just was not interested in checking out underground music. When that record came out, I happened to go see a couple of bands live and I thought, “You know, I bet there's some great stuff I missed out on.” I've discovered great bands I missed out on, this band Cursed for example, or His Hero Is Gone, and I missed all that stuff because I was involved with something else. I went back and discovered it and it really blew me away. I thought it was amazing, and it kinda opened the doors for me to check out more underground bands and realized how much I'd missed.
That's actually the great thing about music now. Regardless of genre, there's always something else like it. I love discovering music then turning other people on to it, which is what the label is for. It was the same as when I discovered John Coltrane in the early 90s. [laughs] I wanted to know everything about it and hear all this music and hear all these different artists. That's just the way I am - I get really obsessed with something and I need to know everything about it and listen to as much of it as I can handle. And that's what happened over the last couple of years, I just started paying more attention to what was going on in the underground music scene, whether it was death metal or hardcore or punk.
The other thing about music over the past five years or so, there has just been this insane flood of music that's happening, a lot of it because of the internet. There just seems like there's so many fuckin' bands, so many labels, so many artists making music that it would be impossible to check it all out. And because it's so difficult to discover things, you have to dig a little harder. In the 80s and 90s, you read a couple magazines, maybe you had a club in your town you had some basic idea of what was going on. You had some reference points – Maximumrocknroll for punk, different magazines for metal – that you could check out and know what was going on. Nowadays there's just so much, it's impossible. You have to dig so much deeper and have the enthusiasm and energy to do that. That's what I see as a problem with people my age. They like punk, they like metal, but they're really nostalgic for a certain time period. And they're too lazy to dig deeper. I'm just a fanatic. I'm the guy that's gonna listen to some small band's Bandcamp page and be blown away by it. But I'm open to that, whereas a lot of people aren't, or don't have the time, or aren't enthusiastic about it.
That's the thing with that sort of spread of information. One killer band pops up and then all of a sudden there are fifteen that sound exactly like it so it can make searching for new stuff that much more tedious.
And it's interesting too, with those fifteen bands that pop up, there's gonna be two or three that are way more savvy in promoting themselves, so you're gonna hear about them before you hear about the actual band that they ripped off. Which to me was the case with His Hero Is Gone. I heard a few bands that I thought were fucking amazing and kept hearing people say, “Ah dude, they're just a His Hero Is Gone ripoff.”
They were a band that had a reputation for shying away from technology and a lot of means of promotion.
And I totally respect that, it's great. I just didn't know about it. [laughs] It's great. That's what I love about music, there's always that opportunity for people to blow you away or even change your life. It's really cool. [laughs]
How do you feel a band like Dead In The Dirt, with whom you're doing the East Coast dates, complements Sunn O)))?
We've never played with them before, so it might not work at all. [laughs] We've always tried to bring bands out with us that we personally like. One thing that kinda bothers me is when there's a tour or a show and the lineup is basically the same band over and over with different dudes. The ultra-fanatic in me can appreciate that sometimes but I don't think it's very interesting in general. I prefer to have shows that are pretty diverse. And since Sunn O))) is different from a lot of bands, it's not that hard to find a band that we like that can come along and fit with the idea we have of making shows interesting.
I saw Dead In The Dirt play and they really fucking blew me away. They played for fifteen minutes and they were done, just a complete assault. [laughs] I love that concept. It's funny for me to say that because Sunn O)))'s gonna get up there and play for two hours. It's pretty extreme opposites, but maybe that extreme concept could make the experience more special to people. Maybe Dead In The Dirt could be more awesome to people than they would be on a show with five other grindcore and crust bands.
I've noticed that, even though Sunn came from a metal background, something that's often derided as being “low art”, it's achieved some pretty widespread positive response - with New York Times and NPR covering it, someone like [Estonian minimalist composer] Arvo Pärt praising it, and [composer] Rhys Chatham claiming it as an influence. Do you see your music as something that can bridge gaps, or even as something that can lay bare how artificial and divisive a lot of those classifications are?
Absolutely. I really hope that it does change the way people think about it, or at least give it a second thought. It's an interesting dynamic, the idea of metal being seen as a low form of art. I never saw it that way. To me, there are metal records that should be looked at in the same way as John Coltrane. And there are so many common threads between what's considered to be a classic record, like Led Zeppelin for example, versus what this music is. It's not that far removed.
I know we have some connections to it, but that world [the more experimental/art side] is foreign to me, it's more Stephen's side of things. He's an amazing graphic artist so he's more in touch with that world, whereas I'm not as connected to it. But it is interesting to be mentioned in the same breath as stuff from that scene. I mean, I'm just a metalhead. [laughs] I'm into music, I don't really know as much about art or performance art, these different artists. Even though we're somewhat involved with it, I couldn't tell you about it. Stephen continues to thrive in that sort of scene. He does a lot of music for performance art pieces and art installations.
You've said before that your music is intended to be taken as a whole, not just a few songs thrown on the iPod as background noise, to the extent that promo copies of Monoliths were only sent out on LP. Do you consider your music an active counterpoint to the shortening of the attention span, or is this more a personal preference on how you'd ideally opt for your work to be taken in?
It's a personal preference. But people's attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. There's so many fucking distractions these days. I actually think it's somewhat of a miracle that Sunn O))) is where we're at. [laughs] We really try to encourage people to listen to music on a speaker system, which is really rare these days because people just don't have the time. And I've found myself in the same situation. People are busier these days than they were before, there's more work to do, and at the same time we're being overwhelmed with all this information, all this art, all this music. So to try to be able to digest that is almost nerve-wracking.
The concept was to try to force people to listen to the record as a whole without distractions. We actually had listening sessions in New York, London, and Berlin where we rented a studio and invited journalists to come listen to the record. It got a really positive reaction just because people were excited to turn off their phones, their computers for an hour and just listen to a record.
It turns it into more of an experience. That's one of the reasons I buy as much vinyl as I do. MP3s are convenient but there's a physical process involved with putting a record on the turntable then having to get back up fifteen minutes later to flip it over. You have to dedicate yourself, it's not as casual.
Exactly. And that's something that's lost these days, something that's not happening as much as I'd like it to. But that's what makes the live experience more important. I tell all the bands on Southern Lord that they're great live bands and should get out and play as much as possible, because that's what's gonna make the difference. That's where you're gonna connect with an audience. Albums are great, but there are so many of them and most people's attention spans are so short that the only way to make a connection with somebody is to be right in front of them. Because underground music – whether it's death metal, hardcore, punk, doom, whatever – is a great thing to experience live, it really enhances the record. You can listen to a record and then see a band live and the record will make more sense and be more enjoyable. I was just talking about this during another interview. The person was saying that they had heard the records and thought they were okay but then after seeing the live show liked the records a lot more. I think that's true whether it's Sunn O))) or Black Breath, it's a live thing.
I think that's really the difference between a good band and a shitty band these days. It's hard to make a shitty recording these days, unless you're doing it on purpose, some lo-fi trashy thing. It's amazing what you can do at your house. You can make a really good-sounding recording. I get demos all the time that sound incredible, but live they couldn't fucking pull it off. I don't like to work with a band unless I've seen them live. I like to see if they can make the connection to me or the audience.
What direction do you see Sunn O))) taking, and are you working on anything new?
We haven't really done anything concrete yet. No ideas about what we're specifically gonna do. We've talked about things here and there, and there's definitely a desire to do something, but we haven't really had an opportunity to get together and hash that out. But I think it's coming, especially next year. We've already started talking about blocking out a couple weeks to get together and start working on a record, so I see it coming but I don't know when it's gonna be.
It's interesting because Stephen has come out to Los Angeles a few times over the past six months. When he was here we would get together in the Southern Lord offices and exchange riffs back and forth with each other. We recorded both times we did that and one of them, the first one, I'll probably put out a 12” of, a tour-only thing. It's very raw, primitive, reminiscent of the Grimmrobe album. Just pure riffs, no overdubs or any extra instrumentation. It was fun and in some way we may try to do something like that for the next record, something really stripped down. Maybe it'll be part of the album or maybe the whole album, I really don't know. After making Monoliths & Dimensions, which was our most dense record, the one that took us the longest and had the most collaborations and different instrumentation, our mindset seems to involve bringing it back to a more minimal place. It was cool to realize that it was still fun to do that after all that we'd been through, this behemoth record that took forever, our biggest undertaking ever, then to back down to two huge geeks exchanging riffs back and forth. [laughs]
To realize that was still fun and that we still enjoyed playing together, that was really huge for me personally, and I think for Stephen as well. We can go play with Julian Priester or a string section or have all this crazy expansive stuff, and we can still throw around cheap Darkthrone ripoff riffs and have fun with it. [laughs]
Sunn O))) performs at Strange Matter (929 W. Grace St.) on September 7th with Dead In The Dirt. Doors open at 7 PM. Admission is $22--advance tickets are available here: sunn.eventbrite.com. For more information, click HERE.
By Graham Scala