Words by Andrew Lampela
For as ubiquitous an influence as they’ve had, it is incredibly difficult to pin down exactly what Sunn O))) actually means to people. Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson may have started out as a dirgey drone band bent on smothering amplification and doomed out slow-core, but they have since taken this music to new heights and moreso, incredible new depths.
Formed twenty years ago, in homage to the lumbering riffage of Earth and the Melvins, Sunn O))) has transformed the landscape of heavy experimental music. Taking equal cues from the barren suffocation of molasses Earth riffs and minimalist neo-classical movements, they are an extremely polarizing force. Arguments can be made for the deep, meditative qualities of their drone or the holy-shit-are-these-guys-gonna-do-something length of their music, but nobody can deny they have had an immense impact on the scene. Collaborating with the likes of Attila Csihar, of Mayhem infamy, to Ulver, Boris to Scott Walker, O’Malley and Anderson have brought the avant-garde to a much wider audience, through not only their music but their Southern Lord label.
If one had certain expectations in talking to Greg Anderson, it would certainly be forgiven to expect him to be cloaked in a hooded robe in the center of a pentagram’s worth of melted candles, uttering some philosophical shit that flies way over the head of anyone in the room. Turns out, he is an incredibly down to earth guy, full of insightful conversation and more than willing to indulge my love of all things Engine Kid/Iceburn related. Life Metal continues the band’s path down a more contemporary classical route while still smothering the room with volume, bringing a maturity to the genre.
Offshelf: One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Novae”, with Hildur Gu∂nadóttir on cello, and I’ve always wondered how you choose your collaborators. Do you have someone particular in mind, or do you just have an incredibly deep roster of bad ass friends?
Greg Anderson: [laughs] Yeah, it’s a bit of both. We’re definitely grateful for having some incredible friends to collaborate with. In this particular case, with Hildur, she’s someone we’ve worked with before and done some live performances with that were really special, and we enjoy working with her. She has a very interesting way of approaching it, and really brings a different atmosphere to the tracks, a fragile and gentle take that still has some power to it if that makes sense. She’s incredible, so it was great to have her involved. We actually weren’t sure what we were going to do or what she would play on, but when she came to the studio it all fell into place. The music I had written and her reaction to it guided the way.
OS: Along with the music, you create a very elaborate, specific world with each release in the artwork. Does the sort of mythology of the album come first, or is it informed by the music?
GA: Quite a bit happens in the moment. There are definitely ideas that are brought in to each recording, whether by individuals or the collective, foundational pieces that are skeletal. In the studio, we try to leave things open so that different things can happen in the moment, a key component of how we operate live. There’s some amount of improvisation that happens in recording. With this record, Stephen and I actually got together a few times to do some writing, some pre-production for the album. We had some ideas, and we wanted to to arrive at the studio with something solid, something to feel confident about, because we were going into the studio and working with someone we’d never worked with. The last ten years of recording had been with the same people, with a lot of familiarity. With this album, we didn’t have that, and with Stephen and I, since we live in different corners of the world, we don’t get many opportunities to play and write together, so that was an added benefit.
OS: Yeah, it doesn’t seem like you guys are the type of band that can really get a feel for things through trading files.
GA: No, we don’t do that, the file exchange. There are times that some ideas might get exchanged, and it’s added as a suggestion in a session, but there’s no ‘here’s my file and you add something’ going on. It’s more about getting into the room together and getting the sounds to react and bounce off of each other. Not only the actual sound, but the minds and what we’re creating. When Stephen and I get into a room, there’s some chemistry that happens that is the core of the group. That’s not something you can exchange through files.
OS: And who better to capture the group that rattles the room than one of the best guys to record a room. It seemed like a slightly weird pairing, but I always forget that Steve Albini did those Neurosis records. What was it like working with him?
GA: It was great. Steve’s been a supporter of the group for a long time. We’ve had the opportunity to play with Shellac at festivals and when we’ve played Chicago he’s come out and always been supportive and enthusiastic about what we do, which is a huge honor. Stephen and I are huge fans, not only of his recordings but of the music he makes. It seemed like a great fit, to me, working with him. He’s a master of capturing a band or artist as they sound, warts and all. One of the things I really enjoy about listening to his recordings is you can hear the artist breathe, and the music can breathe. He has a very intimate, kind of raw feeling when you’re listening to it. It’s very stark and actual, what is actually happening, there’s no trickery or enhancement. Sunn has some of that aesthetic already, but we’ve never really made a recording like that. There’s been a lot of layering, a lot of textures, a lot of analysis into what we do. Not to discount what we’ve done before, by any means, I stand by all of those records and I’m very proud of them. This was a different process with Albini, however, capturing the band how they sound in a room, the massive wall of guitars achieved in a different way. Instead of lots of overdubs and re-amping, it was achieved in a singular live performance by micing everything very skillfully to capture it. To me, the recording is the most accurate representation of how the band feels and breathes and sweats live, you know?
OS: When I think of some of my favorite records he’s done, it is amazing at how dry and punchy and present they are, like the Jesus Lizard is sweating all over my couch, right?
GA: He’s a master at doing that, especially the studio that he’s created and built, he knows that room so well it’s frightening. His level of skill and knowledge is intense. When you’re working with someone like that it is amazing. For us, we really tried to rise to that, to create the best recording that we could. With Steve, although he’ll be the first to tell you he’s not a producer by any means and that’s not what he’s there for, his presence and the way that he operates brought out of us an entirely new level of playing, in my opinion. It felt like we really gave our best. On the recordings, you have more opportunity to go back and make it right with second and third and fourth takes. With Steve, that’s a possibility, but right out of the gate you’re giving it your best. You know that going back is not necessarily complimentary to the process that he has. Just his presence made us give all that we could.
OS: I feel like the band has evolved in such a way that, without abandoning your doom-ish roots, you have almost gone into a contemporary classical vein with your recent albums. How has the writing process changed over the years?
GA: I don’t know how to really answer that question other than to say the experiences we’ve had, individually and collectively, have definitely shaped what we’re doing. We’ve changed as people, we’ve gotten older and had different experiences in life and that comes out in the music. This isn’t the kind of band where there is a formula, one where whatever is going on in life you try to adhere to something regardless. A lot of bands that only get together every so many years, they have a thing that they do and they do it. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, it’s great. With us, it’s different. There is no formula, and what happens in our lives and to us as a band and being together and collaborating with different artists, it all shapes us and informs the direction we’re going. Look at what’s happened to us in the last couple of years. One of the main things that inspired us was working with Scott Walker, and having that experience had a huge, huge impact on everything that came after it. Not necessarily the tone or style, but certainly the spiritual part, the inspirational part of keeping on, forging down a path that wasn’t necessarily known.
OS: As someone who watched the band slowly take over from behind a record store counter, you can’t really tell me that you guys expected this to become what it has, right? It’s been fantastic to see, because you guys blew the doors off of getting people to more fully accept the world of weird shit that is out there on the fringes, but I would have never, ever bet money on Sunn O))) being the band that broke it wide open…
GA: I’ve finally accepted that this is the reason it exists and sustains. I’ve been in the same sort of shock in my mind, like I can’t believe this is still, of all the things I’ve done in my life musically, the one that we maybe had the expectations for and was done for fun and complete experimentation, was the one that has had the most connection with people, which I think is incredible. Honestly, that kind of goes with the whole concept of the title, too, and is one of the things that is on our minds often. Where we’ve come to, and that people are into this, is very special and we don’t take that for granted. Instead of trying to figure out why, like you said it’s more the one you didn’t expect or the one that wasn’t trying to be something became the thing. It’s very special.
OS: From the get go, you have been a very polarizing band. some of my friends are super deep into everything you do, while others are completely baffled. Was it ever a consideration that maybe people weren’t quite ready for the rumblings?
GA: From the very beginning, it wasn’t about entertaining or pleasing other people, it was really about the joy of us playing together, that’s what it started as and that’s what it continues to be. Without the support of our fans or people buying the records or going to shows, it certainly wouldn’t be on the scale of where it is now, but the core of it and the whole concept behind it has always been, for lack of better words, very selfish where Stephen and I just wanted to play music together. Again, it’s one of those head-scratching moments where wow, people connecting with something that is so free and experimental. Typically, experimental music has a very small audience and that doesn’t make it an less valid, that’s just the facts. Most people want something familiar and structured and this group is the antithesis of that. When we play live and the music and art we create, it has nothing to do with audience consideration. We’ve all been in bands like that, and continue to be in bands like that, but that isn’t this band. I never want that to sound like we’re not grateful for our fans, we most certainly are. The bottom line, though, the core of it, is Stephen and I making music together.
OS: I feel like your audience would be on to you in a second if you made concessions, that they’re absolutely here for the weirdness.
GA: And I mean, that’s an honor. There’s something really pure about that, and unique. Most bands, and I play in bands currently, the idea is to entertain, that you want a positive reaction from the audience. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, obviously that’s fine. There’s something different and, maybe real isn’t the right word, but you’re playing music and that isn’t a concern for you, that’s not the reason. [laughs] I mean… it’s somewhere between selfish and selfless, you know?
OS: One of the things I’ve really respected you guys for is parlaying your success into a label that continues what seems like your own personal taste in fringe music that maybe didn’t get the exposure it should’ve. It has got to be a very good feeling to reissue the Caspar Brotzmann Massacre catalog, right?
GA: Oh, absolutely! That’s one of the things that is truly inspirational and keeps me going, keeps me motivated to do the label and deal with the business bullshit, is that we have built it up to a place where Caspar Brotzmann has wanted to release his music with us. It’s an extreme honor to be able to do that. That’s one of the things that really keeps me going. There is so much great music out there that people haven’t heard, and to have some opportunity to turn people on to some of this is very special. I feel very fortunate for that.
OS: Well, my first exposure to you was through the Iceburn/Engine Kid split, way back in the 90s. I’m a huge, huge Iceburn guy, and you continue to put out Gentry’s music through Eagle Twin and your band with him Ascend, so it engenders a trust in you guys that you run a label willing to put out records that are creative, but not necessarily going to be huge sellers.
GA: Well, Gentry is somebody that I admire greatly, and someone I’ve always looked up to since the beginning. At this point, he’s part of the Sunn family for sure. I love his music, what he continues to do. Those guys were really important for me. We were from the same scene, the same age, growing up out of that punk and hardcore scene, and then discovered jazz. Right around the first time I met Gentry and saw him play was around the time I’d literally just gotten Coltrane’s Love Supreme album, and it had a huge impact on me. Even though I was into all kinds of music, underground independent music, this record that was made in the 60s really made a huge impact on me. So when I saw Gentry playing, someone I knew and had followed and kind of came from the same scene, when I saw what he was doing with that sort of energy and creating a different sound incorporating that jazz influence, I was blown away, like I couldn’t believe someone was doing that. Nobody was doing that back then. I still feel to this day that he is always ahead of the curve, a couple of steps ahead, for better or worse for him! I spent a lot of time with those guys in the 90s, touring and hanging out. I’m really happy that all these years later we’re still friends and still working together.
OS: After being fully immersed in all things thrash through my teens, hearing Charles Mingus in the early 90s was my gateway. It was incomprehensible to me that these records from the 50s and 60s were just as heavy, but in a totally different way.
GA: That’s a great example. There’s a lot of music like that. Eric Dolphy is one, to me, that was wow! I was really into chaotic hardcore and listening to somebody play with that sort of intensity and chaos like Mingus and Anthony Braxton, it had very similar qualities. But to me, it had more depth. Not to discount any of the hardcore stuff, because it was great as well, but it was very enlightening. A kind of ‘there’s more to life than fast hardcore’ moment. Underground music had been my life for so long, and I dove so far into it, that I blocked everything else out and had the mindset that nothing else was good for me. Then I heard that stuff and it was incredible, like there’s probably a whole world of stuff like this out there. There’s incredible and important music of all kinds out there, and realizing that for the first time in the 90s and seeing Iceburn was incredible. Gentry turning me on to a lot of jazz I hadn’t heard was very cool, because it was all very new to me.
OS: I’ve got to say, all of my news feeds are absolutely on fire with your Earthquaker pedal announcement. They are a great company, and Jamie has really built up something special. How did that collaboration come about?
GA: Over the last couple years…well, I should start with saying that I’ve always sort of been the kind of player that was very minimal, from the beginning of Sunn and Goatsnake, going back to Engine Kid, it was really about one pedal, the Rat pedal, and that was it, you know? I was more into the amplification part of things. For the longest time, years and years, I’ve only had one guitar that I ever used. I was way more into the amplification, particularly the Sunn Model T. I didn’t know effects. Over the last couple years, I kind of got the bug and started learning about effects and diving deep into the the fuzzes and distortions. O’Malley, on the other hand, is a different story. He embraces delays and echoes and stuff like that. It took me a while. I was about fuzzes and distortions, to the point of obsession over the last couple years. Stephen and I had talked about making a sort of Sunn pedal, something we thought would be cool and that our fans might be into as well. I brought the idea to the folks at Reverb, and they were like, if you do that we’d love to be involved and we can make some introductions to different pedal companies. The name that kept coming up was Earthquaker, and we were familiar, they’d always been supportive and had come to shows and given us whatever pedals we were interested in, always beyond generous. I’d always gotten the vibe that the way that they were running their business was much like our label, they were very enthusiastic and passionate about what they were doing. Not a 9 to 5 day job. It fell in line with the aesthetic of underground music that we follow, it didn’t seem to have the same feeling as a lot of the bigger companies. Over the last five to ten years, there’s been a renaissance or revolution of independent pedal and instrument companies where it is different now, people are very passionate about starting their own companies and creating individual lines of effects. Earthquaker is, I think, the sort of cream of the crop, and it seemed like a great fit. Their reverb facilitated a meeting and my first conversation with Jamie, the founder and owner, was two hours of geeking out over pedals and music and we just came from the same scene.
OS: I have seen his bands absolutely destroy venues where I’m from in Athens, Ohio!
GA: It was one of those things where you talk to someone and you just can’t believe you haven’t met them somehow. So many similar interests and we know so many of the same people. Every conversation I had with him was awesome, he got where I was coming from and everything I was wanting to do, and I think he’s a genius and an amazing pedal builder. He was really enthusiastic and passionate about creating a pedal from our vision. I can’t imagine working with somebody else, I’m sure there are other companies out there, but he just totally gets it, and what he came up with blew us away. Stephen and I had talked about this, we weren’t sure how it would turn out, maybe close to what we wanted would be cool? That was the attitude we had, we’d had people make us stuff or give us pedals at shows and sometimes it was okay and sometimes it really wasn’t, but no-one had nailed something that we said, man, I’m going to use this all the time. The first thing Jamie sent us was like, this is great! We had some tweaks, some things he said he knew we were going to say, and the final version was incredible. It’s a great representation of the band, of what we were doing in the studio. We were experimenting with a lot of late 60s and early 70s Japanese fuzz pedals, so we tried to have some of that come through. There’s a subtle octave that has a little grind to it on this pedal that I really like, that is very close to some our sounds in the studio.
We’ve had the opportunity to hang out with them, Jaime and Julie and the staff, and they’re just this giant family, they’re all super cool and they’re all super excited about what they’re doing, which to me was unbelievable. It’s very unique and genuine what they’ve created. He’s not turning out some bullshit, and the people that use these pedals can feel that. It’s definitely a business, but the focus is on getting really great pedals that people will use. That’s an experience that turned my notion of the equipment industry around. I used to run away from it, you know? It didn’t seem like I could relate to a lot of it, and a lot of the products are crap. I still feel that way about it, but Earthquaker is very different, and I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to work with them.