Read a transcript of Joseph Stannard's conversation with Mayhem front man Attila Csihar, part of a series of exclusive interviews with collaborators and members of Sunn O))
Could you talk us through the three tracks on Monoliths & Dimensions for which you provided vocals and lyrics? First, the album's opening track, “Aghartha”.
“I was honoured to be asked to compose the lyrics for a whole Sunn O))) album. I had already worked with Sunn O))) back in 2002, when I sang on White2, the Sanskrit text in “Decay2 [Nihils' Maw]” and on a couple of live CDs. I played a lot of shows with them, then there was a break around the Black One album, because I was busy with Mayhem and we were not sure what was going on, so Malefic from Xasthur took on most of the vocals instead. But the concept of “Aghartha” was to go under the earth and beyond the sky, beyond our perceptions, in a way. I had heard many legends about this underworld continent called Aghartha, that's the best known name for this legend. I've never been in the Earth, so I can't comment on whether it's true or not [laughs] but it's a very nice legend which appears not only in India and Tibet, but also in America. In North America the Native Americans talk about these underground tunnels, and I think all around Central and South America, some of this legend exists in folk tales about the underworld. Even in our culture, in Christianity, it exists. Aghartha is supposed to be inside the hollow Earth, and some people believe that not all of the Earth is spinning, only the surface, and that's why we have the lava; or it's all spinning, but not necessarily at the same speed. Anyway, I was focusing on this legend, it's like a journey to the centre, through the poles, and the people who believed in this, they thought that when you approach the poles, to the North Pole and to the South Pole, that there is a hole at each point. According to the legend, if you imagine a hole about the size of 100 km or something. They say that in the centre there is a sun, an inner sun. But you know, I think it was very fitting to what the music means to me, with the drones, this gravity. It's always down. It's about the mass of sound. So I thought this theme of what lies under the Earth was a good fit.”
The legend has appeared in literature as well. Elements of it surface in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel The Coming Race and Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre's posthumous Mission de l'Inde en Europeä.
“A lot of people believe that a different race, or some kind of alien race, lives there, and that it's a continent about the size of the USA. That there are different creatures there, and maybe even giants. I did a bit of research and I found about about expeditions where these explorers were supposed to find the North Pole, but of course, they got lost for six months, because if you don't see the stars, and you don't have a compass, you have problems. Still today, actually. Their compass stopped working there, because as you get closer to the Poles, they stop functioning – let's say they get fucked up. And that's the reason why people got lost there. I don't know, it's very hard to find the position of the North Pole because of this. The Earth is pretty big, you know? It's hard to find one point there.
“The people who believe in this – and some crazy people still believe in this – say, 'Of course the compass isn't working because you're already going in.' Of course, I'm not saying I believe it. But I have also found out about another expedition, where people were flying to the North Pole, and this time the guy didn't disappear, but he lost his way and talked about seeing strange things and picking up strange signals. If I remember well, you're not really allowed to fly above the North Pole, because of the magnetic forces, and it's not happy for the airplane, either, y'know, when it fucks up the machinery. So it's a kind of mystical thing and I thought it would make a good lyric because it's very surreal and abstract. I found some interesting points there. I think the Poles are very mystical and I would love to stand on the North Poles, in the stream of magnetism, just for the sake of it. The others loved this idea as well.”
The next track to benefit from your involvement is “Big Church”. What is the origin of its subtitle, 'megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért'?
“It's a Hungarian word I first heard when I was a kid. This is one of the longest words in Hungarian, it contains 44 letters and the reason why it is famous is not really because of its meaning, but because it shows how you can play with the Hungarian language. It's pretty different from most other languages, I think. We have not too much connection to Latin or Slavic languages. People relate our language to Finnish. This idea is perhaps only 200, 100 years old, I don't know where it came from, but I have a lot of friends from Finland, and we agree on one point, which is that it makes no sense that people think we have the same language. I couldn't even find one word which sounds similar in Finnish! But it's still the official line. One of the things that is unique about Hungary, one of the first things I would pick up on, is the language. The others loved the idea that I would sing in Hungarian. It shows the Hungarian grammar, how it is possible to pile meaning upon meaning. The root word would be 'consecrate' and you put before and after that word a lot of additions, creating this complex meaning. It can go up to 44 letters. With the Hungarian language, of course, you can create your own words.
“The meaning of this word is also kind of cool, because it's about consecration and deconsecration, and that someone is acting like he would be not the one who could be deconsecrated, and he got this thing as a consequence. It probably sounds strange to you, it's not a word we use daily, it's more like a demonstration. But I picked up on this because although we have a couple of other words like this, this one suited the message of Sunn O))), you know? I also thought it was lovely that the guys got a female choir involved. I'm always fascinated by the sound of the female voice. I think today, in this style of music, extreme music, it's very rare that women appear. Okay, there are some of course, like Jarboe or Diamanda Galas. But to get the whole thing, a nice balance of all the energies in the music, because music is such a strange complex language, it's very nice to have the female polarity included, the lunar aspect. I always support that. The choir was set up in Vienna, so I went there to help them with the language.”
How did you communicate the meaning of the word to the rest of Sunn O)))?
“I couldn't translate the word myself. So I had to sit down with Stephen for at least ten minutes, half an hour, just going around this word, explaining what every part of the word means, so that he could make a translation. I had no idea how to put it in the English language.”
The third and final song to feature you is “Hunting&Gathering (Cydonia)”.
“I thought it would be nice to keep it structured around legend. This one is famous among underground historical researchers. It appears in some manuscripts or some carvings from the Sumerians, even in The Book Of Enoch they talk about these things, and it also appears in other cultures. It's about a planet that existed called Marduk, which is supposed to be on a much bigger orbit than the other planets, so it comes back every 2000 or 3000 years, something like that. And it's just passing by the Earth, it goes away and then comes back again. According to the legend, on one visit, something collapsed in the solar system, and the planets changed their orbits. They say Mars jumped into another orbit and Earth jumped too... of course, it goes further, and some people believe that our ancestors lived on Mars but had to leave the planet because they saw this collapse coming, and they came to Earth to survive. In The Book Of Enoch, you read about the Nephilim, they're the people who descended from the sky because of the planets collapsing, and they came to Earth and crossbred with the pre-human race here. Then they talk about the giants and a lot of things happening... it connects to the Bible actually, these legends exist in the Bible as well. For me, that song is like a giant marching on the horizon.
“And Monoliths & Dimensions, the album title, that came about somewhere here. I was very inspired by the monoliths actually. I hadn't seen them back then. When I'm talking about monoliths, the word personally, for me, means the monolith in Baalbek, in Lebanon. 900 tonnes, handmade, proper, giant monoliths, placed in the basement of a Roman temple to Jupiter. It had to be before the Romans and the Greeks. The later cultures all appear on the surface, but this was in the basement, so there's no question about that. I went there because I didn't believe the pictures on the internet. I'm a bit sceptical at some points. I planned this trip for three or four years actually, to be able to go to Lebanon. It's not a place people normally choose for tourism, but I must say it's a lovely place, man, and the people are lovely there. It's an example of how fucked up we are by CNN or the media in general, the pictures they paint of these places. Everybody speaks fluent English, French, the people are super nice, it's almost like Europe, I don't know what's wrong with it, you know... but the point is that Baalbek is like 200 kilometers from Beirut, you have to cross the mountains, then you arrive there, and there are the monoliths. Why did the Romans build this beautiful Jupiter temple so far away from Rome? And the monoliths... the biggest thing technology can lift today is the Space Shuttle, right? Around 450 tonnes. That's less than half of one of those monoliths! But people were able to cut out, raise and transport these things. How the fuck could they do this, 2000 or 3000 years ago, in an age when they apparently didn't even have wheels, or just rock hammers? So for me, something is missing. Something is wrong there.
“Of course, I talked a lot about this to Stephen, Greg and the others. I actually wanted to go and record an album in Baalbek, on the top of one of the monoliths. It's possible! The most amazing thing about this is, no-one cares. Even in Beirut, I asked about the monoliths and no-one had heard about them. In Baalbek they had heard about them, of course. There was this one guy, a hero of mine, who was a veteran from the Lebanese army I think, and he remembered that one of the monoliths was called 'The Stone Of The Pregnant', he digged it out from the trash! The whole monolith was covered in trash, people just used it as a garbage dump. This guy went there with a bulldozer, with his own money, and dug it out. And it's enormous. I couldn't call any company today to order a monolith like that.”
Speaking to individuals who have collaborated with Sunn O))), it seems everyone comes away from their experience having gained some kind of knowledge which can be applied to their own creative endeavours. What do you personally get out of working with Greg and Stephen?
“It's a fantastic collaboration for me because I play extreme metal music with Mayhem; it's not too technical, but you need a certain technical ability, you have to be focused. It's not about improvisation, it's mathematical, very composed and heavily structured. When it came to the point that I first heard about Sunn O))) from Stephen, who was a very old friend of mine, it came to my mind that it is experimental music. I actually grew up with things like Current 93, I was not always a metal kid. I was into stuff like Swans, Coil, Current 93, Einsturzende Neubauten, Laibach, Skinny Puppy. Industrial music was a big influence in my youth.
“So for me, it was a recognition of those things. It's fascinating to be a part of it. While Mayhem is very fast and structured music, Sunn O))) is extremely slow, and even without drums. It's structured, but it's like a main directional structure where you have a lot of free elements to play within, and it's such an interesting experiment to play with that because it's so heavy, so enormous, and we create these waves of sound, it's very psychedelic for me at some points, very multi-dimensional, you might say. But still, it's somehow the same thing from a different aspect. The message isn't that far from Mayhem. It's about the multi-dimensional aspect of the nature, and the darker aspect of the nature, of course, and from one point of view it looks like what we say with Mayhem, but from another point of view, the dark side of the moon is like Sunn O))), you know? There's more depth there. For me, Sunn O))) is always deep, down. But still, the sky is this extension of perception. I don't know. I just love it. It's just nice for me, this balance between the two things.”
I wanted to discuss the theatrical aspect of your performance, which is also a big part of your work as the frontman of Mayhem. Did that aspect grow out of working with Sunn O))) or do you think it would have happened anyway?
“I joined them for their European tour in 2002, I think, and they already had the robes. I saw them and thought, 'Why not?' I thought it was cool. It's very much for the music, I think, because the robes have this monk feeling, a little bit, or someone who is going away from the world, thinking about inside, or is more meditative, so I think it fits very nicely to the music and it works very well with the slow drones. These kind of monks doing their slow movements... it's a nice vision, and they already had it. I liked it from day one. Then we were only three, maybe four people, Joe Preston was with us. It already looked cool but when there were more and more people there, like Rex Ritter, or the guys from Earth, Oren Ambarchi of course, who is a big part of this new album – he's a really, really nice, pleasant guy and a great artist. We ended up with six, seven or eight people on stage sometimes, and this makes it so huge and complex because it is not only guitar drones, but they are supported by these loud tones from the analogue synthesizer, keyboards, Rhodes... it makes it so spacey... and spicy! It looks pretty cool when eveybody has these robes, too.It's like a church of sound or something, you know? I think it's great, I love it.”
Has being part of Sunn O))) influenced what you do with Mayhem?
“Obviously, they affect each other. I have a lot to thank Sunn O))) for actually. I have gained so many techniques there, because as a vocalist, I consider myself a vocalist of extreme music, I've been doing this for many years, I started in the middle of the 80s, but to go onstage into that sound, to sing in that position, it was very challenging, I can tell you. You really have to use different techniques because it's such a big sound. I learned how to sing in those conditions and found in that music a different inspiration. There's a lot of free elements, especially live, we sometimes travel very far away and come back. It's like jazz fusion in a way, you could say there are some similarities there, like we follow each other, someone leads us down somewhere, then we come back, then we move a little bit away again, and come back to the structure. This makes it very psychedelic, and there's a lot of space for me to try different things and experiment with different singing techniques. And what I learn on those stages I can also use later in Mayhem's music and my solo work. If you listen to the last Mayhem album, I have a lot of different tones and voices. Some of the deep voice singing, I developed in Sunn O))). Then with Mayhem, it's a kind of structured music, so I learn about what you might call the more normal way of music. It's very nice for Sunn O))) because I never get lost, I'm always conscious enough of what's going on to follow anyone anywhere. It moves a bit, you know?”
One thing I've noticed is that you'll occasionally wear something other than the robes with Sunn O))). I saw you at a gig in London years ago, and you were wearing what looked like a radiation suit. Then a few years later at All Tomorrow's Parties you seemed to be dressed as a tree.
“Oh, yes! That was when I said that our music is for the plants. The vibes and the loud tones, the low frequencies, I just had this impression that it was like a tree, the music of a tree. And at that time I was also very much into costumes because of my other band, Mayhem. I was in this close daily connection with a friend with whom I had made some Mayhem costumes. So I told him about this idea and he was kindly helping me to make this coat out of branches, and this crown of trees. All around me, the trees. I am fascinated by nature, I love animals, and if my first interest is in the ancient stones, the second is nature. It's very close. So for me, plants are extremely important. I love plants, I love forests, I love all the strange trees. I even heard about the 'tree boy'; apparently in India there was a guy who got this strange disease – I don't know if it is true or not because I saw this picture on the internet and sometimes people will play a trick on there – and his hand turned into a tree, or it looked like that anyway. Also his legs, maybe. If you just type 'tree boy' into Google, you'll probably find these pictures of this guy. So I was influenced by that too. Like, 'I'm a tree boy.' It's the music of the plants, and that's why it's so slow and enormous. I thought I'd make it a little different from the robes. But I think Sunn O))) is not about having a frontman like in Mayhem and other bands, it's more like, we all are there, we all do our things, and that's what the robes symbolise for me You don't know who is who, everybody is in robes! It's not even important, the personality of who is doing what, the more important thing is what comes out of it. So I don't think I would like to force a different approach on stage too many times, like the frontman approach, but we did a couple of times, the 'tree boy' thing and stuff. But for me Sunn O))) is unity, it's not important who is who or what on stage.”
It's all about the properties of the sound itself.
“At first I thought it was not even music! I thought it was this enormous wall of sound. Waves of sound, just coming through your body and shaking your self. At some Sunn O))) gigs, people came with sleeping bags! I was like, 'Woah... that's true!' That's a true fan, you know? How crazy would it be, because the floor is always shaking. I had these extreme experiences in the beginning on the first tour. We played at this small club in Vienna, and it was insane. I thought I would go deaf. I told the guys, 'I don't know if I can go through with this!' It was almost hurting. And shaking the stage. I sat down in this meditative position, the lotus, and my ass was shaking, like, 'Bumbumbumbumbumbum!' [laughs] I couldn't believe it! Because there are no drums, so even if there is a decibel limit, that can peak, but we don't have peaks, we don't have drums, so the whole sound can be bigger, even though the decibel level isn't too bad. But I think it is good therapy too. Probably I would go to a Sunn O))) show – well, I'm pretty sure, it's not 'probably' actually – because where else can you get this kind of thing? It's one of the few places you can go to get this experiment, to come to a Sunn O))) show. You rarely feel that the sound is flowing through your body and you are surrounded and embraced by this monster of sound.”
Stephen mentioned that you have recently started a solo project.
“I've started a small solo thing. It's influenced by old Current 93. In the beginning they would use loops, but made with old tape machines. I loved this, like a mantra of sound, always coming back around. It was old albums like Live At Bar Maldoror or Dog's Blood Rising, they had these loops. I didn't know back then that they were loops, I figured that out later. And I was honoured to play a show with Current 93 in Austria, so I met the people and I talked to them. Actually, David Tibet and Julia Kent, who was playing the cello, I saw her doing a solo performance with a loop pedal, and that was very inspiring. I talked to her and other people, and I had this idea before to make music only out of voices. I thought I would have to have a computer on stage, which is not my taste. It's not my cup of tea to sit with stupid Windows in front of me. What is that? You know? But when I spoke to people like Julia Kent or Alex Tucker, artists who used loops, they all inspired me. So in the end I just made a decision. I had an offer to support Bohren & Der Club Of Gore in Moscow from a friend of mine who is a promoter, and I said okay. So I bought a digital loop machine. I don't like to prepare, I wanted to do a pure experiment in this kind of music, focusing on the moment, and creating music then and there. I had plans in my head, but it would be according to the moment. Nothing prepared, just building up these voices, these loops. It's called Void Ov Voices. It's the latest thing I'm doing and the most experimental thing, maybe even more so than Sunn O))).”