Read a transcript of Joseph Stannard's conversation with composer and guitarist Oren Ambarchi, part of a series of exclusive interviews with collaborators and members of Sunn O))
What do you view as your role within Sunn O))) and specifically, on the new album?
“Many years ago before I'd met Stephen and Greg, Stephen was DJing at the CMJ festival in New York in 2004. Apparently he was playing my solo piece “Corkscrew” from my Grapes From The Estate album and the low frequencies set off the fire alarms and sprinklers in the venue; the audience was evacuated and the New York fire department rushed over. He emailed the next day saying, 'We need to work together.' They were both fans of my solo work, especially the bass-heavy pure tones that I like to work with, so initially I added the low end tones from my guitar, or 'bass bombs' as they like to call them, to their live shows and soon after I added these sounds to the Black One record. However, the more I worked with them the more I was able to stretch out and introduce other elements. They are both extremely open regarding collaboration and are willing to try anything that might work.
“As Black One developed I began to feel more and more free with how I approached things. Apart from my guitar work I added vocal textures, percussion, horns, wood, electronics, environmental recordings etc. Additionally after working with them in a live context for some time I began to double the guitar 'riffs' along with Greg and Stephen making the overall guitar sound even heavier and thicker. My contributions to Black One were made here in Australia – it was a mail collaboration – however, with the new record it was the first time we all tracked together in a studio. So a lot of the pieces begun with the three of us playing the riffs live and then the pieces were shaped via overdubs. So with Sunn O))), especially in the studio, I guess I sway between adding extra support to the riffs, and being a wild card, grabbing whatever is around and seeing if it can enhance what we're working on.”
What are the sonic qualities that you find attractive in Sunn O)))?
“Even though a lot of people think they are worlds apart I find Sunn O)))'s work has many similarities with my own solo work. I do love a lot of music and sound that I can lose myself in, so I tend to play things that are drawn out, hypnotic and initially quite simple. And as mentioned, physical low frequency sounds appeal to me and I've been using them since my first solo release on Touch. Since then, circa 1999, these low end frequencies have become one of my main concerns. Playing with Sunn O))) is such a pleasure, as it's so bass-heavy and trance-inducing – the pieces are long and really take their time and there's always an underlying tension as well – these are all the things that float my boat! In my solo work I like to explore one idea with all its detail and possibilities, this really appeals to me and I find all of these qualities in Sunn O)))'s work. Then there's the element of spirituality and ritual which I can relate to because of my background. I've always loved long, drawn out pieces or improvisations that start off simply and then go on some sort of search, such as Indian ragas.”
What do you ultimately get out of your work in Sunn O)))?
“It's great being able to work with Stephen and Greg and in some ways doing exactly what I would do in a solo context. However with Sunn O))) I get to do it in a completely different context, to a different audience, and using a much bigger backline. Since I've been working with them my solo work has become much slower, lower in the frequency spectrum and much more physical, especially when I perform live. Since I began working with Sunn O))) I've learnt a lot about sound pressure, resonance and feedback and how pleasurable it can be to bathe in physical soundwaves.
“In this sense the only other comparable artist that I've worked with that has had the same impact on me would be Phill Niblock. Whenever I played one of Phill's guitar pieces I always felt like it was some sort of ecstatic experience. I would most definitely get 'high' from the sounds during the duration of the piece and as a player I had the ability simultaneously to control and shape the 'high'. Whenever it was over I always longed to have that experience again. Phill definitely gave me the bug for this kind of physical, trance inducing experience and with Sunn O))) I get to experience a similar meditative feeling. And it's a pleasure creating something special with people who have all become good friends from working together – we are all like-minded, even though we might come from different countries and different musical backgrounds. I would never have imagined working with the vocalist from Mayhem five years ago for example! It's both a challenge and fun working with Stephen and Greg and it's a relationship that's become very special to me.”
How does working with Sunn O))) compare to working with, say, Christian Fennesz or Keith Rowe?
“The way all of the above artists investigate sound has a timeless quality to me. What I mean is I feel there's a common thread that connects these artists and their approach to improvisation and composition. I don't know exactly what it is, but on the one hand the above artists including Sunn O))) may seem 'diverse' or different from one another, however they all approach sound as a landscape and they also explore the concept of 'music as time'. They all explore a seemingly 'simple' idea and expose all of its details, nuances and hidden complexity over a extended period. I feel I'm free to be myself as a musician when I work with all of these artists – there's no need to 'censor' my ideas or personal sound. Also there's something spiritual about all their work as well and I feel I can lose myself in the sound – it's an honour for me to collaborate with artists of this calibre.”
What were the processes by which you brought your own ideas to bear on the Monoliths & Dimensions material? I'm thinking specifically of how you worked compositionally and performatively with the other musicians.
“For the first week of tracking, the only people in studio were Greg, Stephen, Attila and me and as most people are aware, the foundation of Sunn O))) is Greg and Stephen's guitars. So for some of the initial tracking I would lay down the basic guitar tracks live together with Greg and Stephen like we would do at a show. The guitar tracks usually became the 'foundation' of each piece and most were fleshed out as we were playing them live to tape. After that it was extremely open how the pieces were shaped and transformed. Anytime anyone had an idea they were free to try it out and lay it down as an overdub. So I was running around the studio like a madman grabbing all kinds of stuff, prepared piano, motorized cymbal, percussion, whatever was around really, and everyone was super open about letting things happen organically. I felt completely free and was encouraged to try all kinds of things. I felt so comfortable that, for example, at the end of "Alice" I added some 'pretty' melodic guitar textures/electronics, not exactly your typical Sunn O))) overdub. I thought this would be rejected but it ended up being expanded upon with harp overdubs and Julian Priester's contribution. So, the bones of the record were laid down before other guests added their parts at a later date, some of which were improvised and some were specific written parts.
“For example, on the first piece Greg and Stephen laid down the 'riff' in a specific tuning as a foundation. After that Stephen and I laid down an overdub of live feedback guitars in a completely different tuning from the initial track that gave the piece a more 'spectral' orchestral sound – we had been talking about composers such as Grisey just before. Once we heard the playback it sounded so orchestral someone suggested using real strings which led to Eyvind getting involved and transforming what Stephen and I played with an arrangement for strings midway through the piece. So as the process was so open, one thing would lead to another and the music would continually evolve. I remember the sessions being very free, a lot of fun and extremely productive. Plus all kinds of impromptu sessions happened as a result – one memorable one was a late night session I did with Alan Bishop and Stephen O'Malley's father! It's incredible how much material was recorded. Randall Dunn, the engineer, was incredibly important in the process as well. He encouraged all kinds of experimentation from everyone and made sure the flow of ideas and momentum was strong throughout the sessions.”
What do you find particularly striking about the new material? How does it differ from previous work in terms of process, but also atmosphere and overall sonic effect?
“I found with some of Sunn O)))'s earlier releases such as White1 and White2 that it felt more like a collection of tracks than a complete album or statement. I think with the last few releases the records have become stronger as a whole, especially with the new one. Sonically, I think this record is a huge step up from the previous releases and the palette of sounds is much more varied and ambitious than any of the previous releases. On the one hand this is Sunn O)))'s most experimental release yet I think it's very accessible and appealing at the same time. I also admire the way the so-called 'metal' tag has been stretched and expanded via added guests, instrumentation and influences from other genres. Attila's work is incredibly important to Sunn O))) and this is the first record to really feature the many facets of his vocal personas. Eyvind's string and vocal arrangements are excellent as well – I love the juxtaposition of the heavy downtuned guitars with acoustic instrumentation. The first track, “Aghartha”, might be the best thing Sunn O))) has recorded thus far. I admire Greg and Stephen for being so free, open and fearless with regard to going out on a limb when they record and not being afraid to go into uncharted areas.”
What is your take on the ritualistic aspect of Sunn O))) live?
“Atmosphere is incredibly important and wearing the robes, having low level lighting and loads of fog is a powerful way to change the mundane environment of your typical live music venue. I think it helps both the performer and audience reach a certain state. As a performer it's incredibly beneficial as it completely shifts your state of mind and allows you to get into the right head space. The sounds are incredibly heavy, slow and repetitive – on a personal level I can relate this to the rituals I experienced when I was younger in Synagogue which involved wearing a prayer shawl and slowly chanting and repeating the same sentences and melodies over and over again. To me this isn't that different from performing with Sunn O))), elevating the mundane or physical and transforming it into something spiritual.”
Can you comment on the influence of US jazz legends such as Miles Davis, Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra on the new album, as well as the participation of Julian Priester, with particular reference to “Alice”?
“I grew up listening to a lot of jazz and I was pleasantly surprised when I found out Greg was really passionate about this style of music. A few months before the recordings took place we were touring Japan and I think between us Greg and I picked up 40 or 50 different '70's electric period Miles Davis boots. So it's not unusual to hear some Entombed on the tour bus followed by a Tony Williams Lifetime record followed by a Pan Sonic record. Sunn O))) are interested in all styles of music and all those influences are going to seep into their recordings eventually.”
Where would you place Sunn O))) in terms of musical lineage?
“That's really a question for Greg and Stephen, but I do hear connections to everything from Black Sabbath to Indian music and minimalist music, especially composers such as Niblock.”
How would you describe your own relationship to the heavy, metallic element of Sunn O))), and to metal in general?
“When I was really young I had all the Sabbath records so like most kids I was interested in heavy sounds from an early age. Soon after, I became a huge Melvins fan. Around 1993 I became familiar with all the Norwegian Black Metal from the early 90's, I have a HUGE Black Metal collection, it's ridiculous how much I have of this stuff. It's great when you discover a new language in music and when I first heard Black Metal it was very exciting. I get a similar feeling when listening to certain Black Metal projects that I get from listening to anything that's great and like a lot of my favourite music, it's got great textures, it's minimal and can be totally trance-inducing. The metal records that appeal to me the most are not the technical or 'flashy' records – I prefer the minimal, repetitive ones that have a certain atmosphere or strange aura. And I think a huge element of Sunn O)))'s work sonically and visually is the atmosphere and aura. The sonics have metal influences and textures but it transcends that to become something that's almost psychedelic, as do many of my favourite artists and records.”
Both Greg and Stephen have made reference to the darkness inherent in Sunn O)))'s sound - how would you describe your own relationship to this quality?
“For me the music I love and like to work with has to have some sort of underlying tension, mystery and beauty. Maybe that's what they mean by 'darkness'?”