Read a transcript of Joseph Stannard's conversation with Greg Anderson, part of a series of exclusive interviews with collaborators and members of Sunn O)))
The pre-release strategy you've adopted for Monoliths & Dimensions is an interesting one. As I understand it, there will be no promos made available, and not one note of the album will be allowed anywhere near an internet connection. What's the thinking behind that, aside from combating piracy?
“We kinda wanted to inject some mystery and some surprise back into releasing music, y'know? These days it's like you know everything and you've probably heard the album before you've had a chance to, uh, before it's even hit the stores. Stephen and I were thinking back to a time when we were younger. Y'know, you'd be at the store the day the new Slayer came out, you had no fucking idea what the album was gonna be about and you were so excited to hear what they were gonna do next. So that's kind of what we're trying to do here, make it so people are completely surprised. Y'know, I just think a lot of the mystery of music and records being released has been lost. Everything is revealed. We wanted to preserve that mystery for as long as we possibly could.”
I don't know how many other labels are doing this kind of thing, although Stephen mentioned that Nonesuch may be planning to put out vinyl-only promos in future.
“I think we're gonna do that, actually. When we do make promos, that's what we're gonna do as far as sending it out to journalists later. We wanted to present this, as you know, so we play the record for people in person, really, make it more of an intimate, personal thing.”
Could that also be considered a further extension of the ritualistic, ceremonial element of Sunn O)))?
“Yeah, totally! Not to keep babbling about this, but the other thing is, strike one of promos these days is that people are putting it on their computers first. That to me is a problem. We want also to get people to... well, we're kind of forcing them because we're playing it for them, but to play it on a system that is decent, where you can actually give respect to the material. I think that's kinda the idea of vinyl promos too, it's forcing people to play it on an actual stereo rather than on their iPod or through their computer speakers, which I think are inadequate for our music, y'know?”
Do you think this strategy will be 100 per cent successful? Are you really going to succeed in keeping it off the net?
“No. I don't think it's possible. I think that something will happen. I think it's even possible if we do vinyl promos that someone's going to rip it. Because we've had some vinyl-only releases before, the last thing we actually released was Domkirke, and that's vinyl-only, there's no digital copy, it's not on iTunes or anything, and literally within the week we released it, it was up on blogs, people had ripped it into MP3 format. It's kind of... I think there's no true way to stop it. I think also, to us, it's like we're trying to make a point, like, we're not stupid, we know this is gonna happen, but maybe people will take a second thought, like, 'Maybe I should actually listen to this record on a decent stereo.' Or spend some time with it, y'know? That's another thing with the internet and the speed of information, it's like people's attention spans have gotten smaller and smaller. With a band like Sunn O))) and the records that we make, it's a listening experience from the first note to the last note. You listen to the individual tracks and it really doesn't give you the full picture of the album. So, we're kinda trying to hopefully get people to listen to the album as a whole. And I know that's kinda demanding of people's time, not everyone's gonna have the endurance for that, or the time and patience, but y'know, we're gonna give it a shot and at least make a statement. I guess I could ramble on forever about theories and stuff like that about it, but...”
Would you say you're trying to remind people of the worth of music?
“Well fuck, I hope so. That'd be something that I'd hope would come out of it, for sure! I mean, that's the whole thing with having people listen to it on a stereo, or a turntable. We were joking about, y'know, if we do send out vinyl promos, the first thing that comes up is, well, maybe they won't have turntables. Well, maybe these fuckin' music journalists should have turntables! Y'know? They should have a turntable in their house for them to listen to music on, what kind of a music journalist would not have that? So maybe it'll light a fire under their ass to go out and buy one. Especially if more labels keep doing it, like Nonesuch, and if we do it, then other ones, then it's like, 'Oh, okay, this is how we listen to these records,' and hopefully it'll be a better experience for it.”
The MP3 format has come in for some heavy criticism, and justifiably so, considering just how much of the sonic information is lost.
“I'm not extremely knowledgeable about the technical aspects, but I do know for sure that listening to Sunn O))) or any music with a lot of low-end or subs in it, it just does not translate on tiny little speakers or tiny little earbuds. You can't get the true intention of what we're doing with that method of listening to things. And y'know, honestly, I think that's why the live show has become so important for the group. When we first started out we weren't going to be a live group, it was just going to be a studio project, and what we were finding was that there was just no way that people could get the physical effect of the soundwaves at the volume we were playing at by listening to it on their stereos. So it was like, okay, this is the way that we're gonna be able to transfer this experience to people, by playing live. Truly, it's kind of like an uphill or losing battle with our records, because it's really difficult to get it as close to the live experience as possible. What we did on this latest record was, we tried as hard as we possibly could to make it have a real, live feel, and have it be more of a physical experience than some of our other records. I mean, we always try to push it to the farthest extreme we can on our records. There's a lot more bass on our records than pretty much anything out there, and the purpose of that is to emulate this physical experience that happens in a live setting.
“Our last studio record was the Black One record, we did Altar, the collaboration with Boris, but as Sunn O))) it was Black One. I'm really proud of that record, I think that was another step forward in trying to have a live feeling as well as stuff that was done in the studio, textures and layers that made it really special. But we played a lot of shows in between Black One and this record, and we developed a lot of our ideas and a lot of the chemistry that came out of these live shows. We wanted to put that onto tape, basically, and I think that out of all our records, this has more of a live feel. Especially the tracks that are Stephen and I together, where either I'm playing bass and Stephen's playing guitar, or we're both playing guitar, I think the tone of the guitars and the physicality of the sound is pretty close, or as close as we've gotten so far, to the live show. And that was really important to us to try to do that. As well, of course, there are a lot of textures and layers on this record that make the pieces into what they became. It's not just amps and guitars, there's a lot of other instrumentation and stuff. But that's how the initial tracking was done, with ideas hashed out on guitar and bass, and recorded that way, then they were just built on, layered upon, after that.”
Was it a struggle, accommodating all the additional textures?
“Yeah, but like I mentioned, we just went into the studio and hashed out these ideas on guitar and bass. We didn't have these aspirations, like, then we're gonna add, this is gonna be this humungous string, orchestrated thing. We started as simply as possible, like, Stephen goes, 'Here's a riff.' Y'know? 'Let's work on this and see where we go with this.' We kinda let that happen and then the ideas sort of come out of that and then sort of grow organically, like, 'Okay, wouldn't it be cool to have some horns on this part?' For example, we played “Alice” and “Aghartha” for Eyvind Kang and said, 'Hey, what do you think of this?' And then he came up with his ideas, and that's how the collaboration started. But the real initial seed was just me and Stephen with riffs, and going from there, with maybe a visual or conceptual idea of how the song would be. To me, on this record, there are a lot more dynamics, there's a lot more space. I mean, “Alice” is basically a quieter track, it doesn't have the extreme saturation overdrive of a lot of our material. That was kind of a conceptual thing, like, 'Let's make a track where it's quieter.' We'd start with that, like a simple idea, and it just grew into what it became.”
This album certainly seems more emotionally open than Black One, the conclusion of “Alice” being an obvious example.
“It hadn't occurred to me before but I can see where you're coming from with that. Black One was, to me, the vibe of that record is really dark, and I can see how it might be kinda closed off in some ways. Because that's sort of one of the qualities of Black Metal that maybe we were going for with that music. I don't like to call Black One 'the Black Metal album' but it was seriously influenced by the aesthetics and atmospheres of Black Metal. With this one, I don't really hear that happening in the playing, but I think in a track like “Alice” or “Big Church”, I can see what you're saying, where it's a little bit more open. It sounds corny, but I think Stephen and I as people, obviously we've grown a lot since Black One. I mean, it's not like we were young teenagers or anything, but experiences happen in life and things change. Each Sunn O))) record to me is very different to the one before it, and I think that's because we were sort of embracing different changes in life, different emotions, and it's bleeding through into the music.”
The word Stephen used in reference to Black One was claustrophobic. He also mentioned that he was going through a pretty dark time back then.
“Yeah, that's true, it is true, and that's kind of what I was hinting with saying where Stephen and I have come since then. I mean, especially Stephen. And I think that Stephen, especially as a musician, I've really seen him grow. I mean, he's been so prolific with doing all these projects. I think those experiences have really helped shape what's going on with Sunn O))) as well. And me personally, from where I was when I was doing Black One to where I am now, I feel like I'm a different person too. I have a daughter and things have changed for me, the way I look at things. I would hope that I haven't gotten soft, and I think that this album is still heavy. Y'know what I mean, a lot of people would be like, 'Yeah, I got a kid, got a family, got a mortgage to pay, I'm gonna start playing stuff a little more lighter and a lot more accessible...' I don't mean it like that, it's just growing as a person, and that is reflected in the music, y'know?”
In rock music, 'Maturity' can often be considered as a double-edged sword.
“That's a word I didn't even think of, but you're right. But one thing that Stephen and I really tried to remember or always hold onto is this really primal aesthetic as well. I always say that Sunn O))) is like an intelligent caveman. The core of the band is heavy, saturated guitars, Stephen and I are coming from a background that includes a lot of metal and I really hope we don't ever lose that. Especially on this record, it's a really appropriate mix of dark, heavy riffs and stuff that's reaching into new directions, different territories of music and sound. I think it's important to keep that... what is it, one foot in the gutter, one foot in the grave? Just to keep that balance if you can and never forget your roots. I think we respect that, we're equally as into Celtic Frost as we're into Miles Davis's electric period.”
I've always enjoyed the way that Sunn O))) makes connections between these different areas. It seems like an honest representation of how many people's musical tastes evolve and accumulate.
“Yeah, very true. I mean, it all goes back to the fact that me and Stephen are huge music fans. I like all kinds of music and we get on different tangents here and there, and one tangent that's been common and consistent for both of us is jazz fusion, we're both into Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Weather Report, then of course besides fusion, Coltrane and Dolphy and stuff like that. But it's just, I mean, if you know us and we sit down and talk about music, we're into all kinds of different music, it's not just one kind. I would never claim that Sunn O))) is a jazz band, but I think there are elements of jazz, if it's not the tone, it's the theories and the openness. We embrace all kinds of different things, we're into all different kinds of music.”
The heaviness as well. Mood-wise, those '70s live albums are some of the heaviest music I've ever heard.
“Oh, totally. I mean, the grooves on those things are sick, man. What attracted Stephen and I to that initially was the darkness of it. I mean, I'm into dark music, man, it doesn't matter whether it's country or jazz or pop or whatever. I like dark music, I'm attracted to it. That's something that gets me right away and obviously that music has that quality running through it. It's dark, y'know? It's heavy in its own way. I think you can find heaviness in all kinds of different ways, it doesn't have to be riffs with a plodding rhythm behind it, the typical heaviness. There are different ways and forms of heaviness, and I'm attracted to that.”
Were there any moments during the recording of “Alice” where you became aware of just how different the music was, for Sunn O)))?
“Well, just the way it was set up was different, that's what we wanted to do, we really wanted to embrace that. That track we did on the Altar collaboration with Boris, “The Sinking Belle”, has a similar kind of vibe to me, the way we approached that track. It was funny, the Boris guys were like, 'Look, we wanna do a track that's kind of mellow and quiet,' and Stephen and I were like, 'We've never done that, let's do it!' With the “Alice” thing, it was a similar kind of approach. Like, 'The distortion pedals don't come on. Let's try and create something without all this saturation.' It became a real challenge, and that's one of the things I really like about Sunn O))), and that we really go for, it's challenging each other and pushing what Sunn O))) is, all the time, whether it's going backwards, forwards, sideways or whatever, just going in a direction that's different from the one before it. We sat down and did that song, it was like, we both looked at each other and said, 'No distortion pedals, right? Let's take these out of the chain,' and we told the engineer to change some things, put up some room mics, let's get some room sound... and really the true core of that track was we just sat down, listened to a bunch of Alice Coltrane songs and then went into the tracking room, sat down and started writing. We wanted something that was like this real direct feel, if possible, or our interpretation of her music. And that's what came out.”
I hear a lot of Miles in there too – “He Loved Him Madly”, “It's About That Time”...
“It's funny, 'cause we did the initial tracking and basically the second half of the song was orchestrated and written after the fact. Stephen and I had the basic tracks, we played it for Eyvind and said, 'Hey, what do you think about this?' He said, 'Okay, cool, I've got some ideas, let me work on this,' and then we met later and he came up with these orchestrations. But to me, the second half of that track, especially the end, is totally In A Silent Way. It wasn't intentional but of course we looked at each other... actually Oren as well, he's on the same page as us with Miles and all that stuff, he was like – we almost said it at the same time – 'Dude, In A Silent Way!' It was funny, because the track is quieter, and everything just gelled really nicely. Eyvind's contribution, and fuckin' Julian Priester, man, it's like, his solo on it is... I mean, I literally almost cried when I heard it. It's so moving. I was so blown away. For one thing, to have a person of that calibre, with that history, on our album, is incredible, and then what he created for it... it's not like it was just some twelve-bar blues thing he whipped so that he could go home and chill out, be done with it, he realy put some thought into it and he totally went for it and created something beautiful.”
“Exactly, exactly. I think it's the first time ever that I've been involved with a record where with the last note or after you've finished listening to the record, you kind of felt... I felt this uplifting feeling. A lot of times... not that I was depressed after listening to our records, but instead of going, 'Oh fuck, that's heavy!' you're still saying the same thing, but you're saying it for a different reason, I think. Y'know, it's like, heavy in a way different way. Every time I listen to that, by the end of the song, I actually feel energised, I'm like, 'Right on, man!' It's a good feeling. Which for Sunn O))) is interesting 'cause I think a lot of times people might associate this darkness and gloom and doom with our sound, y'know, and this time it was like, 'Well, this is something different,' and it kind of goes with the theme of the record and what we're doing, or trying to do at least.”
I wanted to discuss Jessika Kenney and the Viennese women's choir as well. You've employed female vocals before, but in a much less overt, dominant manner. Are Sunn O))) consciously allowing their music to reveal more of a 'feminine' side?
“Well, you know what's really funny about that, one of the initial titles we had for the album while doing the initial tracking was Man [laughs]. 'Cause there are just like so many burly moments, and there's a men's choir that happens too, with Daniel Menche and Joe Preston and Bill Herzog. There were just a few moments where we were just like, 'Man, this is... Man!' [laughs] This is a men's record! There was just this kind of vibe going on. And I think Stephen and I, one of the ideas we had for this was to include some female vocals somewhere. Jessika is actually Eyvind's wife, and she's done some work with bands that we're familiar with, bands on Southern Lord, like Wolves In The Throne Room, and she sang with Asva, so she's familiar with heavy music. I really liked her contributions to all those things as well, so it wasn't like a far stretch. She had been working with that choir previously, and she suggested it. We were talking about having her on the record and she was like, 'Oh, I've been working with this women's choir, and I'm going to be working with them again,' so it all came together with this really cool kinda synchronicity. But as for your question, I think it's really cool, and it's another way of just showing different dynamics on the record, making it interesting and again, another direction, a new direction for us. We kind of got a taste for that on the Sunn O))) and Boris record, working with Jesse Sykes on “The Sinking Bell”. To us, that was such a great thing that we accomplished. We were so excited and very happy about that. That was one of my proudest moments of playing music is that track, because me and Stephen really stepped out of ourselves to do something completely different. So we're open to that and it's probably something we'll be pursuing in the future too.”
Altar seems to me to have been the moment where Sunn O))) became not necessarily more accessible but certainly more approachable. There were more obvious points of entry.
“I can see that for sure. The raw concept of us collaborating with a traditional band, maybe that is part of the reason... although when I think of that record, I really like the way Boris stepped out of themselves too. I was always explaining that record to people, like, 'What is it?' To me, you can hear elements of both groups in that record but it created something that stands on its own. And that's more than I could have asked for. That record stands alone, for both Sunn O))) and Boris. Like I said, Stephen and I stepped out of a lot of stuff that we normally do on that record. In a lot of ways that's what we hope to do with each record.”
Altar was, at the time, both my favourite Sunn
O))) album and my favourite Boris album.
“Oh, cool! Mission accomplished! [laughs]”
It struck me as a distillation of the best of both bands without any compromise of either.
“I've gotta say, man, I really think everyone involved on that record really brought it to the table, it was really an exciting record to make. Because Boris is really like-minded, just like Sunn O))), we're not afraid to take chances and we really wanted to do something different. It's like, you go to the Boris records and they're so different-sounding. Whether you like 'em or not. Some of the Boris records I don't really connect with, but I appreciate the fact that they're doing something different and really pushing the boundaries, y'know? That's important, that's how I view making music, and they're really like-minded.”
Especially with their most recent album for Southern Lord, Smile. The two versions of the album that I know, I like for completely different reasons.
“Well that was even funnier! Not only are the records all sounding different, but they made two versions of the same record. At first I was pretty confused, y'know – there's also a language barrier, so I was like, 'What are you guys doing?' Y'know? 'What's going on here?' But when I actually heard the two versions, I had them in my hands, I was like, 'Woah. Okay, I'm feeling where you're going with this.' I think a lot of people have a hard time with that, because it's a challenge, it kind of makes them think a bit. A lot of music – especially in this scene – is not doing that so much, and I think it's important to put the effort in there, to try to make people think and step outside of their normal way of thinking.”
With that in mind, it must be annoying to have put all this effort into something new and different, just to have people dismiss it as 'hipster metal'?
“Yeah [laughs]. It is totally annoying. It's frustrating. But you know what? That's the way it goes. The way I look at it, it's not for everybody, it's challenging, I'm putting myself out there and people are gonna react to it the way they're gonna react to it, I can't control that. I tell you, man, I am extremely grateful that people have connected with the band. I've said this a million times in interviews, when Stephen and I started this thing, we didn't give a shit what people thought, and we really kinda still don't. It's kind of a selfish project in some ways, but I gotta say, without people connecting with it, coming to shows and buying our records, it'd be a lot harder for us to put out the music that we do. We'd still do it but I don't know if it'd be as abundant... or have nice packaging!”
“Yeah, you know what I mean. When we started it was the two of us, rehashing Earth riffs through as many amps as we could get our hands on. Obviously, it's definitely developed into something else, but honestly, when the records started selling and we'd play shows and people started coming, I couldn't believe it. I'm still shocked when we play a concert and I see the people out there and people are buying our records, and the interest... I'm really shocked, because I realise just how challenging this music is, and it really gives you hope in some ways that there is more to life than Motörhead and AC/DC, who are both two of my favourite bands of all time, but there's more out there, and a lot of times it can get depressing, when you think that people aren't gonna get it, or they're just gonna be drones for their life. So it's surprising that people are connecting with what we're doing. I know it's challenging, it takes a lot of patience to listen to our music. It's not for everybody, you know what I mean?”
Some of the knee-jerk criticism aimed at modern experimental metal reminds me of the standard reaction of the metal press to albums like Voivod's 'Killing Technology' and Celtic Frost's 'Into The Pandemonium' back in the '80s. Like, 'What's a French horn doing on this album? Who invited the opera singer?'
“You could bring that to Miles Davis in the late '60s. That guy was slammed by everybody! You know? I read through those reviews and read his book, and people didn't get that either. Bitches Brew, besides it being one of the most successful records of all time, it's a fuckin' legendary album. It's my favourite jazz album, a lot of people view it as the pinnacle of jazz, and when it came out, people hated it. It's kind of the same way. You win some, you lose some, man. But the important thing is you keep doing it and not let that shit grind you down. That to me is the real challenge, especially these days with the internet and the availability of information, and just everyone being able to post their opinions and stuff. I think there are some real great aspects of that and there are some real shitty aspects of that. Dude, I work with a lot of different artists and bands, and some people take it so personally, it really bums me out. I always tell 'em, 'Dude, you can't let this get to you. Who are they?' It's not important, the important thing is that you're doing what you wanna do and you're happy with it. Be happy with what you're doing. Because that's what we try to do. It's funny, literally, to this day, I'll get an email from Stephen, 'Oh man, I just read something online, I'm so pissed off!' and I'll do the same to him, 'Did you see this, are you kidding me?' But then one of us has to step back and be the voice of reason, like, 'Dude, who cares about this crap?' You're doing what you wanna do and if people like it, cool, great. If they hate it, that's fine too.”
Sunn O))) recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Has the dynamic shifted between yourself and Stephen, over the years?
“It has shifted a little bit. Stephen and I used to live in the same city, then we lived for a long time in the same continent, now he lives in Paris and I live in Los Angeles. So it's a little bit harder to get together but... our lives have changed, he's been working with other artists and doing some solo stuff, he's working a lot on theatre work, and the label has really exploded over the last couple of years so I'm really involved in managing that. But the great thing about Sunn O))) and I guess our relationship too, is that it's always there. And we're excited to work with each other an play music again. We constantly have ideas on the backburner, things that we wanna try out. Like, we have a whole three other ideas for albums that we wanna do in the near future, some of which we've already started tracking...”
Stephen told me about the Kannon material.
“Yeah, I mean, that's from the same sessions. But we did an amazing recording session in Oslo with Daniel O'Sullivan and Garm from Ulver, which was amazing, and we're hoping to get Runhild [Gammelsæter, vocalist in O'Malley and Anderson's pre-Sunn O))) group Thorr's Hammer] in on that as well, she came by for the sessions and listened, and she expressed an interest in doing vocals. I've been wanting to do something with her again for a really long time. There's some other ideas that we have, like, last year was the tenth anniversary shows we did as just a duo, just guitars, we played GrimmRobe from the first note to the last note each night. That went really well, and it was energising in this very strange way, and after the shows we were like, 'You know what, we should do a recording like this, too, maybe do it just me and you: old school.' No vocals, no added synths, no percussion, no nothing. So that's an idea we've talked about, doing something really super raw and primal like the early stuff. So, the point being, there's always a light at the end of the tunnel for us. And there's a true deep respect between the two of us as well, I'm involved with putting out some of Stephen's other projects and he does most of the graphic design for the label too. It's a very intricate working relationship on many different levels. Y'know, he's great. He's a huge part of the label as well, in my eyes. As far as the aesthetic, what people think of when they think of Southern Lord has to do with a lot of the visual presentation,and that's mainly O'Malley.”
Could you tell me a bit about how you and Stephen first met?
“Yeah, it's pretty funny actually. Stephen and I grew up in the same neighborhood in north Seattle. I was a senior and he was a freshman. Or I might even have graduated. But my girlfriend in high school had a little brother who I basically turned on to hardcore and metal, and one time he brought around this dude with long hair – you know, we were all short-haired dudes into hardcore back then – he brought along this dude with long hair and these big sideburns, and I'm like, 'Who the hell is this guy?' We're all sort of young kids with short hair, y'know, suburban hardcore and straight edge kids, and here's this dude who looks like some rocker dude, and he introduced him as 'Rocker Steve'. And after getting to know Steve, he turned me on to a bunch of music I wasn't familiar with, a lot of it was Death Metal like Morbid Angel and Entombed, stuff that I had missed out on, and I said, 'Dude, you're not Rocker Steve – you're Death Metal Steve!' We had this funny name for him, Death Metal Steve.
“We just kept on running into each other, and basically, he turned me on to some of this underground metal that was happening at the time, and I was in a band called Engine Kid, he was interested in that band and came to our shows. We were really into the Melvins, that was kind of common ground, and Earth, then it just became like, 'Well, let's play some music together, 'cause we're meeting on some of the same areas here.' We were totally into Celtic Frost and Hellhammer and stuff like that. The first thing that we did together was the Thorr's Hammer project with Runhild. That was the first time we played together. From the very beginning that we played together there was this real excitement and energy and chemistry between us. I loved his style of playing and his approach was so dark, in a really different way, and I was a different kind of player, I was really into the Melvins and Slint and Rapeman, some of the Chicago post-punk stuff, and all these things together created something I thought was was really special. And later when I was getting into Miles Davis I turned him on to that... much like me, Stephen is really a huge music fan, that's what the strength of our bond is based on, being really into music, all kinds of different shit.”
Stephen mentioned that for one of the GrimmRobe shows, you both had a choice of support. He chose Tony Conrad while you chose Thou. He seemed to think that was symbolic of your dynamic.
“Totally [laughs]. In fact, we're doing shows in Japan and he picked Jim O'Rourke for one show, and I picked Coffins, a Japanese Death Metal band. The funny thing is, we both like either of those bands, but we just thought it was a really cool way to also show the dynamics in the choice of bands that we chose. 'Cause these days, I'm always joking that I'm the caveman and Steve's the art-fag, and we meet in the middle and it's Sunn O))) [laughs]. But truly, he's as much into the primitive stuff as me, and I like a lot of that more experimental, or for want of a better word, 'intellectual' stuff as well. So it's kind of a joke that we like to tell people. It's kind of this yin and yang thing... or Jekyll and Hyde, depending on the substances involved [laughs]. I think that's important in the dynamic of the music and I think it really comes through in a lot of ways. Actually on this record, I was mentioning earlier, I think Steve's really grown as a player, and in doing all these collaborations and projects with people, I think he's really bringing a new O'Malley to the table in some ways. And a lot of that is reflected in his playing on the record, or the choices that we made, too. Things that we did, choices that I definitely wouldn't have thought of before, and wouldn't have expected, and that's fed into what's happening, so it's pretty cool.”
Do you have a favourite of Stephen's projects outside of Sunn O)))?
“Good question. I like a lot of the Ginnungagap stuff. Especially the 12” they did on Conspiracy Records, with the Seldon Hunt photography, I really like that. He just did a solo 12” for Table Of The Elements, that's great, man. I like some of his solo stuff, and the other thing I really liked recently was the 6°F Skyquake record he did with Attila for the Banks Violette exhibit. I guess you could say that I prefer his solo stuff to some of his collaborations. Although I just heard the Æthenor record, and I thought that was really good too.”
Did you and Stephen instigate the GrimmRobe tour partly because you missed the brute simplicity of the old days?
“Exactly. I'm super, super proud of the new album, I couldn't be happier with it, but the process was gruelling. I mean, we started the record in October 2007 and it's not gonna come out until almost two years later. That's not the way we had been working in the past. We kinda had this thing, 'We're gonna release one studio album every year.' That was our goal, and we'd done that up until Black One, then the collaboration with Boris happened a couple of years later, and now it's like another two years later... well actually, shit, man, Altar came out 2006, so it's almost three years since a studio album has been released by us, and it'll be four years since it was a Sunn O))) record! We were used to there being more of an urgency to what we were doing, being more prolific and getting this stuff out there. This one demanded to not be rushed. As the tracks were evolving, we were like, 'Oh man, this is so great, there's no way in hell we're ready to finish this yet, we still have some work to do.'
“So with all that, y'know, Steve and I were like, 'Man, we've gotta play together!' and it dawned on me that we were looking at ten years since the recording of our first record, and I said, 'Let's just do some duo shows!' I mean, a lot of the new record, the basic tracks are Stephen and I, together. Even “Alice” was Stephen and I, the first track, “Aghartha” was Stephen's riff, “Hunting&Gathering”, that track was my riff, Stephen and I just working out the riff. So it was kind of like, hey, y'know, this'll be a chance for us to do this again. Plus, it's like, I had been listening to that record and thinking, 'God, this is great stuff on here! We don't play this anymore! It'd be really cool to go out and do this.' I think we realised that it created this really amazing contrast for people. If they see that show and then they get the new record, it'll sort of break down the pieces for them in this weird way, if they think about it. Like, 'Oh shit, this is what the core of it is – I was able to see a very distilled, true version of that, and I now can hear it in this record but there's also all this other stuff going on.' It might spotlight some of the other layers and textures. They can see how this other stuff fits in and it may even create a deeper connection for people to the record.”
How has the live side of Sunn O))) developed over the years? Does the ritualistic element fulfill the same function?
“Most definitely. I mean, a lot of our ideas of how we approach records... we wanted to do something different. No-one wants to see another band with dudes in t-shirts and jeans doing the same old thing, y'know? Or maybe they do, and that's fine, sometimes I wanna see that too, but I wanted to create a different experience for people, 'cause to me the music was so different, so it should have a performance that is appropriate for and complements the music. Y'know, honestly, we played shows in t-shirts and jeans, in front of our amps, where people could see us very well, no fog, and I felt really self-conscious, too concerned with what the audience was thinking. It detracted from me getting into what we were doing. Literally, halfway through our first tour of the UK with my old band Goatsnake and Orange Goblin... it was obviously very challenging music for that crowd, more like a kind of stoner rock crowd, and I would look at people's faces and they were dumbfounded or pissed, and it would affect what I was playing.
“So, halfway through the tour I started playing behind the amps. And for me, I played a lot better, I got way more into what we were doing. It worked. After that tour there was kind of a negative tone hanging on it, like, 'Well maybe this just isn't the right thing to play live... but in order for people to really feel this music, we have to play live, we gotta figure something out!' So that's when we came up with concealing the identities, having ridiculous amounts of fog onstage, increasing the amounts of cabinets and amplifiers so we can increase the physical presence of the sound. And I think it really works, because when we're onstage and we really can't see the audience and they can't see us, we have robes on, it just puts us in a different mindset. It really helps... this sounds cheesy, but it helps you to channel the tones, and I really couldn't do without it. It wouldn't make sense. I think the music is so different and challenging, it needs something visual to go along with that.”
Do you think it offers a similarly meditative focus for the audience?
“Well, I have heard reports of that kind of thing going on, and I guess I'm sort of speechless there. I can't stop thinking of where we come from, and for people to connect with it in that way, I think that's amazing. What an accomplishment, I guess you could say. I would never have imagined that, and it's a really cool thing. Like, if I went to see a band, let's say I got to see Earth back in the day, that's what I would hope to get out of it, this sort of real, trance-inducing event, where you just kind of go into your own world. Because that's how I feel when I listen to those records, y'know? I really like getting into it and getting into my own world, and if that's what's happening in a live situation for people, then that's amazing, I'm so excited. I'm proud of that.”
Do you view Sunn O))) in the same way Stephen seems to, as being part of a very old musical tradition?
“I would say, inadvertently, we possibly are. I think different people have different experiences. I wouldn't feel comfortable saying, 'This is what you should feel at a Sunn O))) concert,' you know what I mean? Some people are like, 'Woah, I went to your show and my bowels shook, my eyeballs were moving in their sockets!' Then with other people it's gotten to an extreme, like, 'Oh yeah, I shit my pants!' or whatever. I don't know what people are going to experience, because it's a real personal thing. For me, it's a real personal thing, I'm definitely in tune with the players on the stage, but I'm in my own world, I'm having my own experience, so it's difficult for me to comment necessarily on what other people experience. I know people have made these analogies and really sort of analysed the primal aspect, the trance aspect of it, and I think that's great. To me it just shows you that people are putting some thought into this, it's not like Joe Blow playing twelve-bar blues at the local pub. This is actually making people think and giving them a different experience, which is exactly what we wanted, to make people have a different experience than the traditional rock 'n' roll show.”
Do you recall a particular point where you caught on to the trance-inducing aspects of music, as a listener?
“There were a few things. Definitely Earth 2. That was very important to me. When I got heavily into music I was into punk rock, hardcore and metal. And then I heard the Melvins, and that was one thing that sort of changed the way I felt about music. The Melvins came to me at a perfect time because I was really into Sabbath, but I was a hardcore kid! Sabbath was the only thing that was acceptable that wasn't fast [laughs]. And Zeppelin too, but more importantly Sabbath, because it was so heavy and dark. Then here came the Melvins, playing a cross between Black Flag and Black Sabbath, and I was like, 'I get this, totally,' y'know? So them playing slow and heavy with tons of distortion, that was something I was really attracted to. Then when I heard Earth, they just kind of levelled everything. There was just this kind of extreme aberration of the Melvins, like, 'We're gonna take it 25 times heavier, slower, darker' and I was just like, 'Oh, wow!' And the way they did it, without percussion, that sort of was what I recognised as being trance-like.
“Bitches Brew too. That was really important because I used to play that on my CD Walkman and just walk around for hours and hours! If I ever travelled to a new place, I loved just to go out by myself and listen to that CD, just walk around the city. The tone was just so cool, it was almost like doing drugs, like, it changed everything, the way I thought about everything, the way I saw everything, it just felt really dark and heavy in this really weird way. I remember, like, the first time that I got to go to New York and listened to that record, I put on my Walkman, stepped outside my hotel, walked around the streets and just felt like, 'Holy shit, man, this is heavy!' It just kind of coloured everything in this very strange way... almost like a trance in some ways. Audio hallucinogenics, y'know? That to me... after I heard that record, it opened the floodgates for all that material of his from that era. It was a revelation at the time, I was really obsessed with Melvins and Earth and Miles Davis for a long time. I guess I hope that's where we're coming from in some ways... that's part of the puzzle, I guess.”
What does the title of the new album mean to you?
“I haven't really thought about it too much. Kind of the way I approach music and Sunn O))), I try not to over-analyse things too much. Stephen's way more versed in a lot of ways, and come up with these really great explanations for things, but I just kind of... I'm not so able to verbalise what I'm thinking on things, but I will say that the title to me seems very appropriate, especially the 'dimensions' part, and if there wasn't already a Miles Davis album called Dimensions, and if there weren't already a million albums called Dimensions, that's probably what the album would have been called. We just kind of liked that idea of different worlds of sound. The 'monoliths' part, I always equate that very simply to the heaviosity and behemoth-like quality of the riffs, and the walls of sound, it's like a monolith of sound to me, that's how I look at it. Stephen and I collaborated on the title too, because he really wanted to call it Dimensions and I'm like, 'That's an amazing title, but here's a list of jazz albums, some of them are really great, you should check 'em out if you don't have them...' Like, I just got this Sam Rivers album called Dimensions. I was like... I thought it was a little too typical, or overused, and I wanted something special for the record. And a word that kept coming up that we liked was 'monolith' or 'monoliths' so that's how it came about.”
Did you consider taking the 'eponymous' route at any point?
“Self-titled albums to me, the first thing that comes into my mind is that the band ran out of ideas [laughs]. And that definitely could have been a consideration with this album, but I would have felt like we were cheating ourselves, cheating the whole thing. It had to have something that was representative of it, y'know? I think of all our records, this is the Sunn O))) album, or this is the album that we were hoping to make for a long time. Again, although it was gruelling, the process of making the record, I'm really glad we waited. I'm glad that we didn't just put it out as it was at one of the early stages. And it's cool, y'know, we had a lot of freedom. I run the record label [laughs] so I'm not in a hurry, it's gonna come out when it's ready. That's how we treated it.”
“Exactly. A raw record in this instance wouldn't have been good. It would have made you sick [laughs].”