Read a transcript of Joseph Stannard's conversation with Stephen O'Malley, part of a series of exclusive interviews with collaborators and members of Sunn O)))
As an album title, Monoliths & Dimensions seems like a fairly straightforward summation of Sunn O)))'s central concept. However, given that the material itself is probably your most complex to date, was it partly designed to mislead those who think they know what to expect from a Sunn O))) album?
“I envision the title as being symbolic of the complexity that can exist in something that's seemingly quite... not simple, but straightforward. I think Sunn O)))'s music has always had that quality but this is the first time that we've actually been able to really focus on that specifically. Like any title of an album, there were a lot of different names thrown around. But I have to say that at least the 'Dimensions' part of the title has been in place the entire time. That was always the working title. It's a very literal explanation of our concept, like, take this piece of music and analyse it”
Can you disclose some of the other potential titles?
“I'd rather not disclose the process of coming to a final title. It took a while. And some of the people involved are still suggesting titles but... I put my foot down [laughs].”
You mentioned earlier that there was a lot of material left over from the Monoliths sessions. How did you decide what to include and what to omit?
“Well, basically what happened, in the first session that happened in Seattle in October '07, we did about two weeks of tracking ideas, some of which were pretty fleshed out before we even got there, some of which were written in the studio. Actually, all of the music on the album was written in the studio. We had to come to the decision, are we gonna make a double CD or are we gonna make an album? We decided it's wiser to make an album rather than try and make a... I mean, this material's so strong on its own, I think having too much of it might be a bit overkill for this direction. Plus, conceptually, a lot of the material fits together in a certain way too. The feeling on this album is more open, and... I mean, it's strong, it does have its aggressive qualities, through the guitars of course, but it's not so claustrophobic, which was our main concept with Black One; it was claustrophobic and overpowering. This one is like, 'Okay, how do we expose the other side of that?' We went through our period of personal darkness at the time, at least for myself, and it's like we kinda came out of that wiser. That's kind of the feeling of these tracks. There's another set of tracks called Kannon, with a 'k', the Hindu version, that may or may not be tied into an album, but that had more of a conceptual link to those pieces.”
They stood separately from the Monoliths pieces?
“I guess from the beginning those things were all ready, in this place, but then the other material which turned into this album, was the stuff that was developed more, inside itself.”
Let's talk about Sunn O)))'s previous album, Black One. Obviously I don't want to intrude on the area of personal darkness...
“Good [laughs]. A lot of people do.”
How do you respond when people try to probe?
“I say, 'You wanna talk about my music?' Which is Catch 22. I mean, that kind of thing is always much clearer in retrospect, those periods of your life. It's pretty amazing, looking back at that time, for me, like, what was happening. Now I can see clearly. It makes a lot of sense, stuff like that... a lot of fucked up things happened on tour after Black One. We did a lot of touring at the time, and speaking for myself, I behaved like a fucking idiot. Unfortunately, that's how I was trying to deal with whatever I had going on at the time, but luckily, my main collaborative partner, Greg, and the other people involved, stuck through it. Sunn O))) was strong enough not to flip that way. It's kind of funny, that record's got a pretty obvious atmosphere. Moodwise, I think it's a pretty stark exploration of some of the emotional qualities Sunn O))) has. The thing that always blows my mind with Sunn O))) is that each time we have a new period of work, it personifies itself with the album. It's always amazing me how multifaceted the emotional feeling can be. All the records to me are very, very different in that way, I don't know if that's a sophistication or an actual continuation of the music, the chemistry, the fire involved.”
I think it's possible that after Black One, many had Sunn O))) pegged as a Black Metal band, as though you'd settled on that as your genre of choice.
“Uh-huh. Black One was interesting, because there were a couple of things that happened to the band at that time. One, we got a lot of recognition outside of musical spheres even, even in the art world, stuff started happening, and there were things like the New York Times article. And the other thing that happened with that record was, rather than being a new direction, it was actually more of a culmination of a longer interest than any of the other influences of Sunn O))) except for maybe Earth and the Melvins. Personally, I'd been doing fanzines in the early '90s focusing on Black Metal, I'd been designing records, working with record labels, all this stuff. So it's not like a new concept to me. Looking backwards, maybe it was finally a release, a purging – part of a longer purging [laughs]. But musically, I think that might be where it came from.
“It was also the peak of Greg's and my parallel interest in Black Metal. I mean, it's still there for me, I don't know how important it is, but there's definitely a peak in its importance in the palette of music we're listening to, and maybe in a broader scale too, it seems like Black Metal has waned again for the next period. So, somehow, rather than being like a direction at the time, maybe it was more of an aesthetic, or a purging, that may have come off as a direction. To me, I think there's more in common musically with a lot of that material to the first two tracks of Flight Of The Behemoth than there is to Burzum, or Emperor, or Immortal or stuff like that. You can exercise a lot of aesthetics on an abstract music and get a lot of different results. We could have tried to exercise a different aesthetic on that record and come across not Black Metal at all. We had black robes at that point. But that's something we were resisting from the beginning, when we decided to do that. That was the first idea that came up, like, 'We can't do that, it's too obvious!' But at that point, at the time, Black One came out and it seemed appropriate or whatever.”
And if you're going to employ a signifier, an obvious one can be highly effective...
“Well if we wanna play with the ceremonial aesthetic, the ritual
aesthetic, y'know, like any aesthetic, it's a tool to guide
people's impressions but it's also revealing a lot of truth, and a
lot of hope, in what something can be. So as part of that
ceremonial aesthetic, I thought it was very appropriate for
Black One, considering the traditional Satanic or occult
links that Black Metal always has had, and certainly heavy metal
has had. But Sunn O))) obviously doesn't fall into that.”
Less obviously, US noise savant John Wiese contributed to Black One. I assume you're a fan of his work?
“He did these three that I thought were really nice, they were actually these remix records called Magical Crystal Blah. It was sort of a project where he was exchanging things with people, so it was more like a collaboration than a remix. Those were really nice. His stuff with Sissy Spacek, too. He's done some editing work for us on a couple of tracks in the past, and some production work.”
“No. It's interesting how individuals come into the orbit of the band. And sometimes they become very much part of that gravity, of what Sunn O)))'s music is, some for long period, some for a temporary period. Someone like Attila [Csihar, vocalist], he's obviously a prime collaborator now, Oren [Ambarchi, guitarist] as well. But we have all these other amazing collaborators who have shorter periods of time, like John or Xasthur, but their generosity towards the music of Sunn O))), it wouldn't have been the same without Xasthur's vocals on Black One, for example.”
I'd be interested to hear your opinion of the US noise underground, especially its tendency towards proliferation: the apparently endless flood of limited cassettes, CDRs, lathe cuts, etc.
“There's something to be said for not putting out everything you do. I mean, for myself. John wrote me a mail recently, like, 'Man, I have all these records that haven't come out yet, I wanna make sure they don't get lost.' I'm like, 'John, you put out lots, man.' But he's like, 'No, there are all these great things!' I mean, his viewpoint of everything he does is that it's great, it's a documentary way of doing that. For myself, I don't know. I kind of wanna be more... careful, maybe. To be at a point where you can be selective, you don't have to release everything, you can make a recording and maybe not have it come out as an album. But there's other ways of doing that, which I've been lucky to have been a part of in the last few years, like working with a theatre company. I can make music just for that. In a way it's a relief. Removing a product from the whole music cycle is rare, for me anyway, or working with art installations, galleries or soundtrack work. I'm in no position to make any qualitative judgment on the noise underground. I like a lot of John Wiese's stuff, I've heard a lot of other stuff, like Prurient, which I've enjoyed. I used to be a big Wolf Eyes fan but I admit I haven't listened to them for a couple of years. Probably even talking about those three, I'm dating myself to four or five years ago.”
Dominick's the golden boy of noise at the moment. Rather black gold, admittedly.
“Oh, interesting. When you're in the spotlight, and everything is there, it's like, 'Okay you have released twenty cassettes...' It's cool if it's a collector's thing on the underground level, but when people start analysing stuff more critically, it can be a little bit of a drag, as an artist. Like, 'Actually my process of making music involves it going all the way to a release. That doesn't necessarily mean that's the personification of my process.' Like, our album is a personification of a process, but I wouldn't say eveything that Sunn O))) has done has been... that's why we've released some live albums and limited stuff as well. It doesn't need to exist in 10,000 copies, it's fine to just make 500 LPs. It is what it is. I've been lucky enough to see Prurient live a few times, and we've played on the same bill. He played with Khanate once. The bill was Khanate, Wolf Eyes and Prurient, in Atlanta. I've seen him play a few other times too, and he's someone I know personally. It's interesting, he represents one of those awesome people who are the fuel for the underground to exist. Record shop, label, his own music, writing, photography... all the stuff he does.”
How does the Sunn O))) collaborative process begin? How
do you get involved with these people?
“Well, I think, first of all, what's more important is the reason for people coming together and collaborating. It's always about the music. So it might seem eclectic personality-wise, but ultimately everyone on the new record came into the album based on the music. And the idea of the music. Like, 'Okay, let's approach Sunn O))) music in a way that is inspired by modern composition. We got inspired by talking to Eyvind [Kang, viola player and arranger] about Gerard Grisey and Iancu Dumitrescu, all these people, and got interested in their music, then thought, 'Well actually, that's a way that could work,' y'know? We always wanted to use acoustic instruments and ensembles, but how does it work without sounding like a metal band with a string section? That's not the point, it's about the music, the sound and the tone. It's not about instrumentation. So in that way, the people on the album all came through and played in that spirit. And I think that's why people like Eyvind and Julian Priester [trombonist, ex-Sun Ra/Coltrane/Hancock collaborator] got into it and took it seriously. It wasn't like, 'Come play on our album,' it was like, 'Here's the idea,' Eyvind, he was a great translator, and everyone played to convey the proper message... and the real message. It's definitely the most honest piece of music we've made. I think that's attractive, too. Part of the reason why we chose these tracks is because more opportunity appeared among the people there to be themselves.
“But really, as far as actually the individuals being there, I gotta hand a lot to Randall [Dunn, Sunn O))) engineer]. He's an incredible, creative person, but he's also someone who can bring a lot of creative people together who you wouldn't think about, initially. Eyvind too, brought together most of the people from his connection. Randall does the same thing with Earth and Asva. Not with the intention of being a mover and a shaker or whatever, like everyone else involved in this record he's just thinking about the music; 'What's gonna make this more interesting for everyone, and bring your vision further than you expect? How can we really get people excited to do that?' The thing is with Sunn O))), when you start getting personal ego involved, it starts becoming a big problem because it's restrictive. And the possibilities have proven themselves to us many times, when you just lay back and let the music just come to fruition naturally, with the chemistry of the players, it's gonna be way better than trying to drive the car, y'know? I try and think about Sunn O))) that way, like, Sunn O))) exists as itself, it's not Oren Ambarchi and Greg and Attila and me, I mean, all of these elements of course are present, and there's a lot of strong ego in those players' styles and stuff too, but at the same time, the sound itself supersedes all that. I think that's attractive to the people involved on the record too. I mean, how else do you get Dylan [Carlson, Earth guitarist] to write a choir part? Y'know, he writes a guitar part and it's transposed for the choir. It's bizarre. Or have Priester be willing to play a conch shell while Attila's rambling on about some tunnels or something.”
Were Priester and Csihar in the same room at any point?
“No, unfortunately. They would have gotten along. They have... common interests [laughs].”
I don't suppose you're going to say any more about that, are you?
“No [laughs]. Just interests a lot of musicians seem to have. But, uh, the production of this record was such a huge amount of work.”
Was this the most involved recording process so far?
“Oh yeah, by far. But it was more cohesive than some of the other stuff. We're talking about Black One being recorded in some guy's basement. Some of it. Or White1 literally being recorded in [Sunn O))) synth player] Rex Ritter's house. White2 too. This time we were... I mean, Altar was a 'rock' production in a 'rock' studio. This time we kinda used both. I mean, it was piecemeal in the fact that some of the recording was done in Vienna. Everything else was done in Seattle, basically in three studios in Seattle. It was the most involved production in terms of time, money and resources. And people – by far the most collaborators we've had. But then again, y'know, if you want a string section you're talking six people starting off, just for that one element. Or if you wanna try and work, at least theoretically, from a spectral attitude... for example on “Alice” the whole flow of the reeds into the horns into the strings coming off the guitar feedback, I mean, there's a whole blending technique that happens between orchestral instruments that you need to take advantage of. That takes fifteen players, or at least fifteen takes of different instruments. Definitely the most involved as far as learning about music, too. Like, 'Okay, here's what we think are the musical qualities of Sunn O)))...' 'Well, this is what's really happening.' Eyvind's such a generous person with that kind of knowledge and those observations and stuff, and his willingness to tell you about it or to make connections to other things that might not be obvious.”
In your opinion, are there any successful precedents in terms of augmenting slow, heavy music with an orchestral element? The nightmare version I suppose would be Metallica's S&M collaboration with Michael Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
“Oh, I don't know... from being a metalhead, Celtic Frost did some of that stuff. They did it well. Y'know, it was a little cheesy at times, but magnificent. Orchestration in rock... it's tricky sometimes, but a lot of Scott Walker's records are incredibly done. The Drift is definitely a touchstone.”
That's interesting. Scott Walker occurred to me as a
reference point, but it was the Scott Walker of the mid-to-late
'60s, with those dissonant Angela Morley (formerly Wally Stott)
string arrangements. You've also cited Gerard Grisey and Iancu
Dumitrecu as influences.
“Dumitrescu is someone who hit me in the face in a big way when I discovered him. Mainly because he's done these different pieces for upright basses, like eight or ten upright basses. A friend of mine turned me on to that stuff – I hadn't heard of it – he was like, 'I can't believe it, I thought that's what Sunn O))) was based on!' It sounds like huge guitar feedback. Or like Tony Conrad. That's the thing, despite the number of instruments in there and the language, the word 'orchestration'... it's not really the same concept. It's more about arrangement for other instrumentation, based off feedback and standing tone, standing waves, difference tones and stuff, trying to pull those out with strings.”
Nowadays, it seems that composers like Conrad, Young and Reich have been more or less 'claimed' by the rock community. How do you feel about being mentioned in the same breath as these composers?
“It's both a real compliment and an embarrassment. Like, 'LaMonte Young, Steve Reich, Tony Conrad , Charlemagne Palestine – obviously you're trying to exist in that sphere.' And y'know... not really. Hopefully this record will show that it's not bouncing from that. Maybe we're trying to continue these kinds of traditions and styles that those people picked up on. I mean, they all picked up on different ones, but... for example, like Indian classical music, through LaMonte Young and Terry Riley, that kind of music has always been important in our own listening habits too. And I think a lot of the fundamentals of those traditions that went through those composers are important to us too. But hopefully this record will show that Sunn O))) is existing outside of the influence. It's more like continuing this tradition of music in our own way, as metalheads... with smart friends [laughs].”
“But, I mean, Eyvind is such an open-minded guy, I don't know if we could have done this with anyone else. It would have turned into an orchestration type of thing. But y'know, he was scoring music with us, so it really comes down to the writing. Y'know, am I writing a violin part for this section of the music, or is the violin part of that music? That's a big difference, creating a cohesive musical experience.”
Considering the involvement of Julian Priester, and also the band's ever-shifting line-up, all the theatrical elements of the live performance, and the degree of myth-making involved, I wonder if there isn't a somewhat Arkestral element to Sunn O))). Have you considered that?
“I'm hesitant to make a comparison. It's way out of place for me to try and make that connection. I think the only concrete comparison might be in the number of players on stage at once. There's a musical hierarchy, and I don't think we're in that league. Sun Ra is one of the... I mean, obviously he's an extra-terrestrial prince or whatever, but from a strictly musical standpoint, it's interesting that the Arkestra still plays. That says a lot about the fundamental concept. It's about the music, it's not about Sun Ra. That filters all the way through for us, especially in the live thing. That's why people have to wear silly robes and we use a lot of smoke. Y'know, don't be pointing at Justin Broadrick's multi-FX pedal or whatever... [laughs]”
I've seen shows where you've made an exception for Attila, though. He doesn't always wear the robes.
“Well, if you wanna compare us to the Arkestra, I guess Attila is our Sun Ra. He kind of exists on another planet. Is he from another planet? Maybe he's from inside of the planet, I don't know. Look, dude's got such out ideas, really I just try and fuel it as much as possible, personally, especially when it comes to performance stuff. I think playing in Sunn O))) has allowed him to open up as a performance artist. Which he's definitely taken over to Mayhem, he's breathed new life into that band, just that aspect.”
To a mixed reception, which is exciting in itself, and
fairly rare in metal. I've seen him perform with Mayhem to an
audience predominantly comprised of Black Metal dudes, and his
being dressed as a rubbish bin or whatever really divides the
audience. I remember seeing them in Bergen, and the guy I went to
see them with was appalled. Attila was dressed as a mummy, I seem
“Well, it's not 1982, the music isn't shocking anyone anymore. If you wanna be an extreme band called Mayhem, how do you live up to that? Well, you be confrontational. Fortunately, the way Mayhem can be confrontational with it's fans these days is to challenge its perceptions of what's correct. It's confronting conservative behaviour, which is a bit ironic, considering Black Metal was already starting from the opposite side.”
I always think of Attila as a trickster god, a kind of Loki character. He seems rather more self-aware and creative than most of his peers. After all, there are always plenty of people dressing up in Black Metal, but they're mostly dressing up the same.
“It's all fashion oriented, like goth, or a lot of things that come from metal music. I wouldn't say that he so much a trickster, I think his ability as an artist and musician is too big for Black Metal, or whatever... even metal. He's just starting to do his own solo performances. I saw him play in Berlin and it was incredible, a complete ritual setting, only vocals. He wasn't dressed up like a Christmas tree or whatever, but he was wearing a robe... it was very ritual. But very honest too. Like, 'Okay, that's Attila.' He's not posing. That's the thing with Attila, he's not posing, even when he's dressed up as a trash can. I always think of him more as someone who's able to metamorphose. He's someone who should have such a strong, powerful ego, like an actor, but he's so comfortable and relaxed, he can shift into all of these different things. And what can my role be but to support that and encourage it as much as possible.
“We played a show at ATP and we had like a ten second talk about what he should wear. He never knows, he was like, confused. I'm like, 'I don't know, man. Be a tree or something. I wanna have some trees on stage, giant logs or something.' And he's like, 'I don't know, man...' He always brings the monk's robe, that's his back up, but he went out into the forest and stripped branches and bark off of this ash tree, and made these sort of arm garments, this incredible mask and helmet and stuff. I was blown away, like, 'We'll be your druids, man, you're the Holy Oak, do whatever you wanna do.' He's not afraid to let himself go and be metaphysical and be spaced out, and think about things that are important, like ascending through the atmosphere or doing a track that's based around going to see some megaliths in Lebanon [affects Hungarian accent] 'because you never know where they come from, man, it's impossible to move them today!' [laughs] But he's right. I'm glad that after 25 years of making music, he's totally excited about that, and it's inspiring him. That spirit is definitely something you can see with Priester and Dempster too, that curiosity about the world.”
Of course, to some extent Attila belongs to the Black Metal lineage, but in terms of talent, charisma and uniqueness, he's somewhat more akin to maverick artists like Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart and Diamanda Galas.
What was Attila's solo set-up when you saw him perform?
“Live, it's basically loops, very few effects. It's pretty composed, actually. I was surprised, I expected it to be more improvised. But he's more of a composer than an improviser. Somehow. He needs to have some kind of structure. He just started. I think he's done like three concerts so far. He should make some records. I'm sure he'll get the chance to if he wants to.”
Vocals seem increasingly important to Sunn O))).
“I think the first real piece of vocal work was Julian Cope on
White1. There were vocals on some of the other records,
but they weren't narrative. Pete Stahl [Scream/Goatsnake frontman]
was on ØØ Void, and we did vocals on the first album too.
Well, they weren't vocals. But with something like that, you
realise that the voice is the greatest instrument when delivered
properly. Working with Attila has just allowed this really
interesting interpretation of what is basically an abstract music,
where you can apply an aesthetic to it. You can direct the focus of
the lens in so many ways and one of those ways can be vocals.
Attila also has the ability to not hijack the music in that way,
while still being narrative. He has a pretty classical vocal style.
That said, I think Greg and I would agree that we still consider
Sunn O))) to be an instrumental band, even though at least half of
our concerts have been vocal-led. Maybe more accurately it's not so
much about instruments and vocals as it is about cohesive sound,
and music. It doesn't really matter where it's coming from in some
ways. It's another element in the overall sound. Again, Attila on
this album, it's really his performance. I think it's a great
performance for him, in his catalogue, and also for Sunn O))), it's
really like, 'Okay, this is Attila's album.' Except for “Alice”...
and we actually considered inviting another guest to do vocals on
that track. But in the end, the lack of vocals allows things like
Priester's solo at the end, or the french horn melody in the
middle, the raga melody, to become so lyrical, so beautiful. So you
have this counterweight. Like, what is lyrical? Well, actually the
music is really melodic, it's a voice, it can be the voice of
whatever, the concept itself is lyrical. Also the guitar playing
and the bass playing.”
How did you come to work with Jessika Kenney and the Viennese female voice choir on “Big Church”?
“In some ways working with a choir is very obvious, like, what is a benchmark of what we can do with this kind of music? A choir? Well, yeah! How powerful is that, musically? But the way that choir came into the picture is a little more unusual, because the lyric of that track is Attila's concept. It's an old word used by a Catholic bishops, it's basically a curse, it's a self-inflicted malediction because of your own ability to never even... or not be able to, even be in a position to be deconsecrate. Jessika put it really, really nicely. When Attila tried to define it – it's a complicated word because it's a compound of so many other things, plus it's very old – Jessika said, 'Oh, it's interesting, because actually, if you read the definition fresh, it sounds like an projection of freedom because you're pulled out of a group mentality and individualised.' Somehow that personifies Attila's character in a lot of ways. Working with a women's choir, of course, is an amazing thing to consider doing, but in the context of the definition of that lyric, it adds a sense of beauty to it.”
“Yeah. Then Attila comes in and enforces it, as the main character. In one of the Kannon pieces, I was like, 'We have to have a gospel choir on this!' One of the pieces is dying for that. That's where the idea came up originally for a women's choir... it was a women's gospel choir though. You know this band, Slab? They were an industrial band I guess, classically, amazing stuff, but especially their last album, which has a lot of back-up singers, like a kind of Motown vibe. As much as a choir could be an obvious sort of destination for Sunn O)))'s music, especially after doing the Domkirke album, having like a Motown or gospel-type situation with a choir would be... unusual. But here we were, working with these friends of Eyvind's, who he has worked with before, young, open-minded experimental vocalists, and the results were extra-terrestrial.”
You've often exhibited a very practical attitude to gigging and recording, forming offshoots when one of the two core players is absent. Is there a sense in which Sunn O)))-related outfits such as Burial Chamber Trio and Gravetemple also function as research and development? Do you take ideas back to the main band?
“Somehow. And we leave stuff. Initially, Gravetemple was very simple. Sunn O))) had an offer to play in Israel in 2006. Greg couldn't make it, Oren and Attila were super up for it, and I was, so we said, 'Let's just use a different name.' Greg said, 'That's fine.' Burial Chamber Trio was similar, Sunn O))) got an offer to play a festival in Berlin, but this was in the middle of that dark phase I was talking about and I said, 'I can't go. You guys should do it though.' Pentemple [a 2007 collaboration between O'Malley, Anderson, Attila Csihar, Oren Ambarchi and Tasmanian Black Metal artist Sin Nanna aka Striborg] was a bit different. That was just an out-and-out collaboration which we recorded. Y'know it is 'Sunn O))) Presents...' That was kind of influenced by Current 93. They made a few records like that, 'Current 93 Presents...' But somehow Sunn O))) is sort of the pinnacle of the collaboration for those people. And Sunn O))) is also Greg and me. That's the band. That's the core of the band. So if one of us isn't there, y'know, we have to honour that chemistry, and everything parallel and perpendicular about that chemistry. It covers a lot of things, but all of those things allow things to develop in ways that are beyond either of us, and cause us both to be very open-minded about it. But that said in retrospect, I don't know, it's just all about names. Julian Cope once said to me, 'Why do you have so many different band names? Why don't you use your name, or just call it all Sunn O)))? What's the difference?' And I said, 'Well, it's all different people.' He was like, 'Oh, you'll get over that whole thing...' And he's right! Like, in retrospect, Rampton by Teeth Of Lions Rule The Divine, that could have been a Sunn O))) record, or a 'Sunn O))) Presents...' record. Maybe it would be if we made it now. So I don't know. How about we make it cosmological and you have different moons and planets in the solar system or whatever...?”
“Or the Sunn O)))'s going around all of them. Or the Sunn O)))'s going around Earth! The old cosmology! [laughs] That said, I mean, the other part of that is, why not? Experiment. I love playing with Oren, y'know, every time we talk we have new ideas to work out and try and do. We're gonna work on a few things this year, actually, a film soundtrack and stuff. I love working with Attila, too, why don't we do some duo shows? Attila wants to do a Gravetemple tour where Oren plays solo, I play solo, Attila plays solo, then we do Gravetemple. Maybe supporting Sunn O))) or something. I mean... it's a bit absurd. Why don't we call it Sunn O))) and just have all these different aspects?”
Maybe you could all come on stage one by one, like in Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense?
“We kind of do that anyway! If Oren and Attila are playing we have a song called “Grave Fuck”, which doesn't really exist, but that's the Oren and Attila duo front section of the set. So me and Greg can sit there, have a glass of wine and listen to them, 'cause it sounds so great. Enjoying them as fans, then be like, 'Oh yeah, we're gonna go and play a concert with these guys in five minutes... or maybe ten minutes.' [laughs] But I think the energy and creativity that's there is the most important thing in all of these projects. I mean, you know who the people are. Sometimes it's a matter of aesthetics, sometimes it's just a matter of language. It's abstract music anyway.”
Going back to the subject of collaboration, I've noticed
that while Sunn O))) work with a varied cast of players from very
different areas of music, the results never sound homogenous, as
can often be the case with the all-star ensembles put together by
Bill Laswell or John Zorn. Do you think this is due to Sunn O)))'s
“It's not democratic actually, it's anarchic. A big part of that is trying to strip the ego away from the get-go. If you invite someone to play with you, it's not gonna be like, Masami Akita sitting there, normal, with Sunn O))) behind him. You have to involve yourself. You have to kind of devolve, or at least have the personality disorder enough as a musician, which is kind of a disorder among a lot of musicians, to pull back from that. There's something about the whole idea and the language about how these groups of established musicians are tagged which really bothers me. The whole idea of supergroups... it's a bit demeaning. It's basically like, any guy who's got a couple of records out, collaborating with someone else who's actually done something before, suddenly it's got a bigger context than the original point, which is probably the same thing as those guys working on their first demo tape, playing with people they like and who they have a good communication with and respect, and most likely they're a fan of their music as well, and they have the thrill of encountering that in that open way as a player. I really wish that term didn't exist, but it's kind of the influence of marketing and selling records, I guess, a supergroup seems like the most special thing. A lot of times, like you're saying, it's not as interesting as the individual thing.
“That's another thing, Sunn O))) can be anarchic, it can also be pretty strict. Because we always call it Sunn O))), no matter who's on the record, everyone's getting credit, the core people on the record of course are more personified in the way the record's presented, but no way are we taking more credit than we're due. Especially on this record, it'd be foolish and arrogant to attempt that. Like, the beauty of a lot of the tracks is not Greg and I. It stems from the influence of our playing, and maybe it's directly transposed from that, but y'know, I'm not playing the french horn raga solo in “Alice”. Sorry. Y'know, it breaks my heart every time I hear it, like, 'Wow, someone got that inspired by our music to bring out that beautiful thing, this probably 600 year old melody, and play it on a French horn?' Y'know, last time I saw Laswell, it was with Keiji Haino and Rashied Ali. And it's like, 'Fuck, I wanna see Rashied Ali play, I didn't even know he was alive!' It was like, four years ago. You get there and you're concentrating on Bill Laswell's chorus effect, but what you really wanna be concentrating on is Rashied Ali's snare drum hand, just blowing your head off. Somehow it's distracting. And maybe that has something to do with how you listen and how you play with people. I would never... I don't know what the proper code is, to interact in that way, but it exists. With Sunn O))) I think it's pretty obvious to everyone that's involved.”
“With the collaborators, it's like, why are they there? Y'know, what's their intention? Do they wanna participate in creating something like this? I mean, Sunn O)))'s definitely got a context, right? The context is flexible, but it's always about sound and about mass, like physical mass... and maybe, like, spiritual mass, also. But you gotta have a certain type of personality to approach that honestly and with integrity. To be honest, some of the people who have been involved with Sunn O))), they may have that, then they stop and then leave, you know. This record's a little different because so many people came in just for the music, or just for the album. I mean, some of the people we've played live with, of course... but it'd be curious to take that further into a live setting and try and see if these people would be like, 'Oh cool, you get to wear a costume!' I think, like, the choir people would get into it. I think a lot of the people would.
“That's another aspect; what do we do live? Are we gonna try and be faithful to the way it was recorded? Already there's a few opportunities that have popped up, like, 'Oh, yeah, we can get you a radio choir and stuff, we'd be happy to support that.' It's like, 'Woah, it's even easier than booking gigs five years ago!' I think there'll be another cool twist coming out of the album into the live band, with a re-transposition into other instrumentation. I can see a lot of this stuff turning into Hammond and following Alice Coltrane's other instruments too, y'know? Part of the exciting challenge of Sunn O))) is working out how we're going to reinterpret it this time, or where it's gonna go next. That's the one thing right in front of us, like, we're gonna do these shows as a duo. We're doing that for a number of reasons. I mean, the anniversary thing is a nice way to package it, somehow, but it's really about Greg and I playing together as the core members and how fun that is. It's also cool to present the core of the music in contrast and complement to this album, which is the extreme radiation of it, y'know?”
Do you consider the music you make with Sunn O))) to have an emotional weight?
“Absolutely. The line I always say about that is, and I think it's true now more than ever, is that the music is like a mirror, you know, you project your emotional state into it and you can take out a various amount of your emotional state. As far as being a player in the music, the main emotion is transcendence, when it's done right. And usually transcendence has a joy attached to it. Even Black One, that's an incredibly blissful and joyful album, actually. And to play it at the peak of energy in the live setting, it's bliss. It's paradise. I don't think it's overtly, uh, melodramatic-type music at all, but it's definitely emotional.”
Would you even characterise your first album, The
GrimmRobe Demos, as an emotional record
“I think that's why the band has lasted as long as it has, because Greg and I both find that sort of pleasure and joy in the music. Even with GrimmRobe, Like, first of all, this is amazing that we're able to do this. Second of all, every step that has happened to the band, every progression and opportunity has been incredible.”
Of course, I'm not trying to suggest that album shouldn't be considered emotional, like, 'You're kidding, even Grimmrobe?'
“Well it's called GrimmRobe! [laughs] C'mon. You gotta be a little bit mature to be able to use a title like that, to not be overly serious about what you're doing. But still have the confidence that it's killer.”
Sticking with GrimmRobe for a moment, you're currently playing shows to celebrate both the album's – and the band's – first decade. Do you miss the simplicity of the old times? Ever hanker for the days when it was just two men and their amps?
“That's why this is happening. After the production of this album, we were like, 'Let's fucking do some shows as a duo. Let's do it.' We don't miss it, only because we always have the opportunity to do that in the context but it sure is a hell of a lot simpler to organise. The music gets more complex somehow because you're focusing in on specific... it's like having two giant oscillators on stage, especially when someone's using certain effects. It's really like massive oscillations, with the two guitars. That's really fun to play. And when you've got two guitar players, three bass players and a Moog player, then that's like a seven oscillator line-up! [laughs] Randall, I read this interview he did for this sound magazine, it's really cool, it's funny. He talked about doing sound for Sunn O))). It's really interested in, like, 'How do you record this music? It's so loud!' We play it really loud in the studio too, which I guess is unorthodox these days. The other big topic was, 'What's it like doing sound for this band? It must be like totally old school, just cranking everything.' Randall said, 'Actually it's kinda like playing a giant oscillator, because these channels end up being these different tones and stuff. You can really tune the PA with these tones.' Which I guess is his way of participating in the overall arc of how Sunn O))) exists. In the live setting he's as important as anyone else, you know? He's got the biggest amps, actually. Usually! The PA! He's the one with the 4x18 bins!”
In each case, does the live presentation of each album feed into its successor?
“Oh yeah. I mean, I think about it as two different sides of the same object. The album's never going to be as powerful as the live presentation, sonically, and live, it's never going to be as intricate as the album. But, they definitely influence each other, and in different ways. Black One was the result of a bunch of live playing. A lot of the material was developed as seeds of improvisation which stuck in our minds, and the spirit of the music, and then developed into those tracks. With this album, I mean, like I said, there was some demo stuff, but for the most part the material was written for the album, much as Altar was. Altar actually had more demo-ing. Y'know, which one's the horse and which one's the carriage? Or are there any? It doesn't have to have that linear aspect to it. One is gonna obviously influence the other, especially with the collaborators. We work with a lot of collaborators on albums, but live we work with many more. Some have crossed over into both. There's a lot of people we've worked with live who have not been on albums. They don't need to be because that's the engine, you know? The album is the snapshot of the existence of the life of this spark.”
Justin Broadrick (Jesu/Final/Godflesh) is probably one of the most conspicuous collaborators not to have appeared on a Sunn O))) album.
“Yeah. We talked about it but... it's just like it makes so much sense when we're playing a tour and he wants to be involved, but I don't wanna call him up and say, [adopts dumb muso voice] 'Hey, Justin. We have this track, do you wanna come and lay something down on it?' The integrity brings the fabric together as it should be at that moment. I've heard a lot of stories of bands that are our contemporaries trying stuff out or trying to build a bridge that only existed for a track, and it's just not working. Really embarrassing. I mean, you don't have to release everything you make. Part of the pleasure of recording is being able to experiment with new constellations of people, but... I guess Sunn O)))'s just been really lucky when we've done records. That hasn't been a problem.”
How has the dynamic between yourself and Greg developed over the past decade?
“Well, bands in general... I mean, they suck. They can be this great thing, with camaraderie and support, then they can be like the worst relationship at the same time, but you have to be together because of this [cringes slightly] team mentality that seems to exist in bands, traditionally. Greg and I are old friends, that's the main thing. I thought about this last year. Actually, Sunn O))) existing for ten years, that came about after we'd already been playing music for five years. Collaborating with anyone for fifteen years, that's pretty much a miracle, and still being able to get to new places, be inspired and have camaraderie. We've had our ups and downs as friends and stuff in the meantime, but ultimately the respect and integrity for each other's ideas and playing are still there. And the willingness to continue this aspect of our friendship is there. It makes me appreciate the value of real friendship in music too, which isn't always the case with bands, how they turn out and what happens after the band stops, which is often more unexpected than what you actually did. It's like the residue of the work.
“I mean, Greg and I grew up in Seattle, we were in the hardcore scene... actually hardcore music has a lot to do with a lot of the people who are involved in this, and punk. Like, okay, here's people who were doing stuff when they were fourteen, obviously they have a much better way of doing things now, but there are some values there. When you're fourteen you're genuine, usually, or if you're not you drop it, but if you make it to 24 and you still have that genuine feeling, most likely you're probably gonna keep those elements of integrity your whole career. So that's part of it. That's a big part of Southern Lord, too, I think. A lot of those people there have that sort of... I wouldn't say it's a 'lifer' thing – I mean some of those people like Wino and Dylan are definitely lifers, they're both from the punk scene – there's also something else. I mean, they're not just 'old men' bands, they're people who have endured. I think Sunn O))) is turning into that. I've been reading about reactions to our music now where people are like, 'Oh, I like the old stuff better...' I'm like, 'Old stuff? Wow, we're that kind of band? We have old stuff and new stuff? We actually have phases? Oh, yeah, okay, there's been about four or five phases now...' That's weird.”
Is there a worry that you'll be taken for granted after having been around for this long?
“I think it's interesting that you can even endure to that point. It's almost like a reward. But maybe the language is wrong. I mean, Jim Plotkin [ex-Khanate bassist] always used to hate that. 'Drone music, what is that? Drone is a verb, not a noun!' And it is, it's an action, it's not a noun. But on the other hand, yeah, okay, you need to classify... some people need to classify music. It usually happens after something has been enduring long enough to have influenced other musicians... no, or it's endured long enough that the next stage of people keeping that tradition of music has started. It usually reflects just on the past two generations or so, and kind of forgets about the other stuff. So yeah. One of the guys from Autechre told me, 'I totally loved finding out about you guys because you're like a new kind of music!' Like, 'Wow... thanks, man! That's really amazing coming from you. Rob said that. Like, 'Are you serious? Haven't you ever heard of Earth?' But you know, it's a different kind of open-mindedness, it's not from the rock area as much. I wouldn't go that far, it's not a new kind of music. It's a continuation of a very, very old music actually. A Very old music. It's just that we're the people doing it in this twenty, 25 year span. Or at least fifteen year span so far.”
It's still fairly unusual to hear any kind of
experimental music in a rock venue. It can inspire quite extreme
reactions in people, positive or negative. Some people relish the
challenge, while others simply do not want their metal to
incorporate drones, or not have drums, or involve trombones,
because it isn't 'true'
“It kind of depends how curious you are and how much you enjoy the thrill of discovery. Everyone does, that's why you like music in the first place. But, I mean, do you really like continually doing that or do you want to find your safe little pocket of comfortable existence. I always thought... we get the term post-metal. It's like, 'What does that mean? Oxidised?' [laughs] We're oxidation music! It's funny, I think the 'post' thing is used for people to feel special and new about doing their thing. It's way more interesting to me to embrace the roots of this music. I'd rather be more associated to 15th century choir music than Candlemass or something... although there's a big link there too, somehow. But I don't wanna get away from what we actually are, artificially, by coming up with new descriptions. I wanna get to know what the roots are more clearly, continue trying to discover the elements that are already there. Everything's already there, so...”
You've applied the term 'mass' to Sunn O))) in the religious sense and the physical one, both of which are appropriate. Do you remember reaching a point of self-consciousness about what you were doing, where these connections became clear to you?
“Well, in terms of spiritual mass, there was one specific concert I went to in 1997 which was Black Sabbath's reunion show in Birmingham NEC Arena. That was the first time I realised, like, 'What the fuck? This is like a temple!' It was crazy how obvious it was to me at that point. It's like, 'Oh yeah, it's in a sports complex, sports is like a temple too,' just a really old tradition of gathering and stuff. And Sunn O))) has... you know, nowhere near that level of congregation of course, but there is that feeling from our fans, especially these guys from Belgium and England, old school diehards, people coming together for the purpose of this trip or this experience. And as far as physical mass goes, that's just obvious, inherent in the music, it's just like, volume and bass have always been important. They were with Burning Witch and Thorr's Hammer [O'Malley and Anderson's pre-Sunn O))) outfits] but definitely with Sunn O))). But as far as being a mass, music is a spiritual exercise of art. I mean, how many times have you read about a painter or illustrator or filmmaker describing music as the pinnacle of art? Because it can't be... it's pure expression, basically. Expression is a spiritual exercise too. Somehow, it's important to, y'know, try and be as fit as possible if you have that ability of exercise, I think. However people take it is their own experience with it, but as far as actually doing it and being involved in it, that's a blessing.”
The collaborative aspect seems to extend to the audience, in the way in which Sunn O))) can be such an involving experience live. It's not so much like the sound is being aimed at you, it's more like you're invited to enter it, to be part of it. You're enveloped by it.
“Well yeah, each live experience is very different, even on a tour, and a lot of that, besides getting to know the other players more through the music, has to do with the reaction of the audience, the place it's set in, the smell of the air, the texture of the building, the ethereal texture of things, stuff like that too. It's also a big collaboration with the people who have enough faith in you to book you and bring you to a place like Geneva or whatever. 'We want to be your hosts, we want to provide this setting for you to conduct your... witchcraft, or whatever it is you're gonna do tonight.' But yeah, the audience is obviously super important. I like it when I hear from time to time that they feel like they're connected in something else than just a concert. It just happens that our best platform for doing this kind of music happens to be at a concert.”
Given the polarising nature of your music, have you ever
been surprised by an audience's reaction?
“I'm always blown away when there's a strong reaction, whatever it is. Fortunately, we've never really had a super negative reaction. But we've never chosen to play concerts that would put us in the position of misinterpretation, or inappropriate billing. Festivals can be risky that way, but generally if you're going to a festival you're going to be up for a bunch of different stuff anyway. To be honest, I was surprised from the last tour we did, as a duo, how insane people were about it. Like, 'This is the best I've ever seen 'em, I've seen 'em seven times and this was the best concert.' Like, 'Really? Wow. Even better than...' I mean, for me, it's as good or better than anything we've ever done before, because that's all that exists, y'know? It's just that moment, the rest is just a memory, or an impression. Yeah, we had a great time, but I was surprised how positive the audience was. And we played cities that we've played a lot, Los Angeles, where we played our first shows, New York, Philadelphia... I mean it's not like we were touring in Croatia or something! An experienced audience still getting psyched...”
Do you think for some fans there was an element of 'Ah,
this is the real Sunn O)))...'
“Yeah, definitely. You know what? Maybe we've fuelled this type of 'I like their old stuff, the new stuff's too arty' position, by doing that. But hey, we can play that game too! Actually, we are the game, so we can do whatever we want, and actually, playing as a duo is as arty as a Viennese female choir following Dylan's guitar playing! What difference does it make? It's the same sphere, it's just like a different degree's slice or something.”
It's very tempting to equate the fundamental core of
something with it's 'true' manifestation. I saw Skullflower
recently with about five or six people onstage, and I wasn't hugely
impressed. A few days later, I saw them as a two-piece and I was
convinced that they were amazing.
“There is some pleasure in being able to get down to the core of it and remain there the whole time. As much pleasure, if not more, than getting to explore all the intricacies and interpretations of a full radiation. But when you follow something... I know when I follow music for a long time, I'm interested in hearing where it's coming from. It's kind of the root of the band. The core of Sunn O))) if you go back through our history, is me and Greg, playing together. That was the beginning of it, right, so I guess it's looking back into the past, too.”
How disciplined have you been in reproducing the old material?
“Well, it's as disciplined as it can get. We're playing all of the stuff in sequence. It's incredible how much it developed even in one show. Even in rehearsal. Practically, I got out my old Les Paul, which I haven't played in eight or nine years, which is pleasurable. Stripped down the effects board to a couple of distortion pedals and a splitter. Somehow... it's not getting back to basics, but it's really like, 'Okay, let's get back to feedback, let's get back to tube overdrive, let's get back to that typical rise to a seventh that the feedback has.' All these things, all these core elements which we've explored more analytically with the new album, somehow it's nice for us, for the experience of the band, for Greg and I, to finish the album and then go back, like, 'Oh yeah! That's all there, we weren't imagining all of these impressions!' The stuff's really there, we can look at it closely and verify [laughs]. We weren't hallucinating, y'know?”
Would you do this for any of the other records? It has become a very popular and lucrative approach, what with ATP's 'Don't Look Back' shows and similar exercises.
“Yeah, I know. But you know what? It's not the same as a 'Don't Look Back' thing. It's more of an excuse for me and Greg to play as a duo. I mean, it's hard to tell someone like Attila, who's committed so much, 'Yeah, we're gonna go do a tour in Japan, in the spring... as a duo.' But they do understand the need to do that. It's not excluding anyone, it's just another form of the group. I think the idea of us doing reunion gigs, playing the old record is a bit misleading. Because, y'know, there's also an argument that Stuart Dahlquist [ex-Sunn O))) collaborator, current Asva leader] was on the record, so why isn't he doing the show? Well... [shrugs] Y'know, the idea of this isn't about... I mean, we are playing that music, we're playing that album, but we're playing as a duo because the band started as a duo. That's the seed of the tree. We're not excluding anyone, we just showing that there are roots. For ourselves, as well.”
And you have a new album on the way. It's hardly as though you need to trade on former glories.
“No, it's more like people who really like our music, including myself, we get to show you these two very distinctive forms. One form is where the main character is Attila, in some ways, as the trickster, the metamorphosis, but actually the band is about metamorphosis too, and it's always been that way. Thinking about people who like to listen to our music for real, I'm confident they'll appreciate being able to see all these different formats. I think that the people who really listen to it respect that too. They're like, 'These guys are not afraid to do what they want.'”
It actually reminds me of Robert Fripp dividing King Crimson into smaller units, or 'ProjeKcts'. Would you and Greg ever make a record as a duo, nowadays?
“Hey, of course me and Greg are always going to be making music together as a duo. “Alice” was written as a duo. It was Greg and I, listening to Alice Coltrane then going into the room and writing parts, then recording guitar and bass. That's how all these songs were written. So in some ways this is the same thing. It's just that we've decided to extend the process and have a lot of amazing people who were interested in embellishing and elaborating. It's the same band, it's the same core. That's what we wanna show people with the duo thing. I think it's really obvious to listeners who have always been listening to our music. But as far as Fripp having his different outfits, there are logistical problems involved with Sunn O))) having people on different continents. Sometimes you don't fly in a guy for 2000 bucks or whatever. You can't. So maybe that's helped us to sustain the quality of the band as well, the fact that we're flexible enough not to have the obligation of those restrictions. And those people are flexible enough to realise that, like the ownership isn't a problem, which it has been in other bands I've been in – 'This is my band! You're not gonna replace me when I quit my band! The band's gonna break up!' That's what usually happens. When you don't have that sort of contract I guess it makes it more flexible.”
How loose is the collaborative process – is contracted or a bit more casual than that?
“It depends on the artist and the album and the performance,
usually. Some artists need something a little bit more specific for
them to feel comfortable doing something. So I'm like, 'Whatever.'
Like, Attila, that guy's incredibly generous and trustworthy, and
I'm glad he is because it has allowed us to do a lot more without
having our hands tied. The band is, as much opportunity and success
as we've had, it's a struggle to have operate, of course. That's
part of the personality that needs to be involved with Sunn O))).
You gotta be realistic about what's going on here. This isn't
Hammerfall touring Greece, or even Mogwai or whatever. It's a
miracle it's even happening. But I dunno. It gets complicated when
you have 30 people on your record. But we figured out a cool way to
do it, I guess.”
What's your relationship to metal these days?
“It's funny with metal... you notice probably about 95 per cent of people who are into metal grow out of it. Metal also gets kinda schlocked in the low art bin, whereas I think some of the best metal is some of the most avant garde music. A band like Morbid Angel, their music is pretty out there and original, but because of the trappings and everything it's lowbrow to a lot of people. Because of that, somehow the mash between being heavily into Penderecki and being into Cannibal Corpse doesn't work for everyone's expectations. But to me it's all just different facets of interest in music in general. Granted, in my twenties, metal was more important for a long period, but I still listen to metal a lot. I'm a metalhead, you know? But my girlfriend makes fun of me, listening to a KTL record or whatever, she's like, 'It's funny because all you've been listening to is Indian flute music for the past month!' And I'm like, 'Well, it's the same thing!' Somehow, the threads between seemingly different genres or tags, they're very real and very interesting, but to limit yourself to a category when listening to music is one of the most foolish things you can do as a musician. Or even just as a listener. Certainly as a fan. I'm addicted to that exploration thing that we talked about. It's exciting.”
Finding commonalities between disparate types of music is enlightening. Like discovering a correspondence between someone like Sonny Sharrock or James 'Blood' Ulmer and Kerry King of Slayer. Although King is probably just wanging his whammy bar as fast as possible...
“But maybe Kerry King just wanging his bar is just like Sonny Sharrock wanging his bar! I mean, it's like different ingredients but they're still baking the same cake there a little bit. As a musician, being a fan of music is so... it's really exciting when you hear things that are so familiar to you, for the first time. Like, 'Wow! This is definitely back there in the subconscious somehow!' Maybe it's not me, but maybe it's like, through lineage, my grandparents or whatever. Somehow that's really relevant. It's a foundational resonance. That's a really pleasurable thing, It's like discovering something you already know super well.”
I remember I had that with the first track of Napalm Death's From Enslavement To Obliteration. There's a burst of distortion at the beginning of the first track. It sounds like an electrocution. When I heard that, it was like a light going on above my head. Because of that noise, I suddenly understood that this was avant garde, experimental music, regardless of its origins in punk and metal.
“Well that's exactly right, the bands or the musicians that personify a genre perfectly, who are always looked to for that personification, their music is always superseding everything about what that genre is assumed to be. Like Napalm Death were grindcore... well, that's free jazz, actually. Or it's so may other things as well. It's not like a Necrony album where it's more formulaic. I think the bands that are considered spearheads of a genre are usually outside of it.”