Sunn O))), Pt. 1
By Joel Elliott | 21 July 2009
Sunn O)))‘s recent behemoth of an album, Monoliths & Dimensions, was released on May 18th to universal acclaim. In true CMG fashion, we took a couple months to deliberate on who was worthy to tackle it, what kind of rating it deserved, even what sort of gargantuan concept to wrap it up in, and in the end just played it straight. While numerous guests were involved in its creation, Sunn O))) still comes down to the core duo of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley. I spoke to them separately, hoping to find contradictions and rifts between their philosophies, but in the end realized they were air-tight, spurring a good deal of conspiracies around the office on the possibility that they were in fact some kind of demon clones of each other.
We spoke about recording shenanigans, Alice Coltrane, the logistics of maintaining an internationally-dispersed band, and the use of “drone” as a noun rather than a verb. Part two, with O’Malley, can be read here.
CMG’s Joel Elliott (CMG): The two of you are half a world away right now. Are you planning a tour?
Sunn O)))‘s Greg Anderson (GA): We’re touring every month until October, but we’re doing like two-week routes, because of previous commitments—family, and stuff like that—so in July we’re doing the Midwest, in August the West Coast, September we’re doing the East Coast, and October we’re doing Eastern Europe. And then December, we’re picking it up again and doing the U.K.
CMG: With such a huge cast on the album, how are you planning the tour? Is it going to be different line-ups for each segment?
GA: We’re not going to go out on these upcoming tours with the line-up on the record, or trying to perform that live. We’ve always been a group that’s never been confined by playing songs off the current record. When we play live it’s much looser and there’s a lot of improvisation that happens. With that said, these shows that we’re going to be doing are going to have some of the players from the record. Namely, Atilla Csihar, the vocalist on the record is going to be the vocalist on the live shows. One of the guys that does some keyboards and trombone on the record, Steve Moore is going to be with us as well. One of the things that keeps it interesting for me personally and I hope for the audience as well: every time we go out we try to bring something different to that live performance, a different player, something like that. There might even be some other players that come along. We’ve already talked about another person from the record, Eric Walton [who plays piano on “Aghartha”], playing with us on the West Coast, that would be logistically good for him to do. There’s different ideas we have. I really like trying to bring players and not letting people know or announcing who’s going to be there, so when people come to the shows there’s an extra surprise.
CMG: I know you work with a lot of people in rather staggered ways. How did the current incarnation for Monoliths & Dimensions come about? Do your albums just flow out of whoever you’re working with at the time, or do you sit down and decide “Alright, this person will help us create this sound that we’re going with right now”?
GA: It’s not so thought out in advance. It’s not preconceived. There is a little bit, but as far as the people we work with, we don’t think about it like “OK, we’re going to work with this person because we’re going to get this out of it.” It’s more that we let the chemistry of the players that are playing at that time really dictate or create the music. There’s a lot of freedom allowed for everyone to create something new, rather than a preconceived idea. There are ideas that Stephen and I will each bring in to the session beforehand, I like to call those the icebreaker riffs or icebreaker ideas. OK, we’re in the studio we’ve got everything set-up we’re ready to roll tape, everything’s in place, so where are we going to start? And someone will say “Hey, I’ve got this riff I’ve been working on, let’s start here.” Just kind of a jumping-off point, so to speak. And that can be the same thing when you’re in the studio and you’ve got players that maybe you haven’t played with before, someone’s going to jump first and play and people are going to start playing off of each other, and we see what evolves out of that.
CMG: It almost seems like all the elements—Csihar, [arranger and violist] Eyvind Kang, the Viennese choir, etc.—just happen to form into this distinct kind of sound, which surprised me because I know you tend to open yourselves up. Do you ever wonder if your identity is being sacrificed a bit to whoever’s playing on your record?
GA: Not really. Actually, if anything we kind of hope that will happen. One of the concepts of this group is to go at it without ego. Obviously, each person has an ego, and there’s no real way to completely eradicate that from the music, and if you did that it wouldn’t exist because that person’s ego or personality is part of what they’re playing. But to give a rather far-reaching analogy, look at rap records where it says “Featuring this rapper or featuring this rapper,” it’s become this trend or selling-point. Like, “I’m cool, but look who I’ve got to guest on my record.” We didn’t want it to be like that. We wanted to give credit where it’s due, but we don’t really spell it out black-or-white for people, we want the piece to stand on its own.
You bring up a really interesting point, I haven’t really analyzed it too much, but I think the core of Sunn O))), Stephen and I, is painfully apparent on all our records. I don’t think there’s any doubt when you listen to a Sunn O))) record, where the core is and what that sound is. I think there’s been other projects we’ve done, where the core has not been present, or else it’s been overshadowed by other things and we haven’t called that Sunn O))), we’ve called it something else. For example, we did the Pentemple project, which was basically Sunn O))) with Atilla and Oren [Ambarchi, Australian electronic artist] and this black metal artist from Tasmania named Striborg. To me, the Sunn O))) core or aesthetic had been completely blurred and taken over by something else, which is Pentemple. This is just based on my opinion, I mean people could say “Well, this song you guys created on White 2 (2004) or White 1 (2003) doesn’t sound like Sunn O))) to me, you guys should’ve called this something else”. There’s varying opinions on that, but that’s the way I see it.
CMG: Do you think that basic core—that slow, bass-heavy distortion, if I can classify that as the “Sunn O))) sound”—is that something that’s always going to be there? Do you think that paradigm offers a limitless number of possibilities?
GA: I guess only time will tell, really. I could say that I feel like we’ve found different ways to work with that core to make it interesting for us, so hopefully for the audience. To put it in simple terms, the first couple records we made together, had a pretty focused direction on what we were doing. They don’t exactly sound the same to me, but they’re pretty similar. It was really this basic idea of Stephen and I wearing some of our influences heavy on our sleeve, especially the Earth influence.
When we started thinking about the White 1 record, it was like, we’ve made these records, we’re proud of them, but if we keep making them it’s going to be boring for us and potentially boring for the audience. So let’s do something different. So we’ve really been on this mission or this path since White 1 in 2003 to make each record that we record different from the one that came before it. I like to think that’s what we’re doing. But the core, if you listen to all those records, it’s painfully apparent that it’s there. It’s still alive and vibrant, there’s just other things going on in the way that we use that core. We’ve been doing a lot of shows over the last six months or so as a duo. We started out doing them last year as the 10th anniversary of our first recording, which was just Stephen and I. So we’ve been playing these shows in that way, and a lot of people are like “Why are you guys doing this? You guys have released this beautiful album with all these other layers and textures and different instrument and different players on it, and you’re out there playing with just the two of you?” The reaction has been for people that see it, they enjoy it, but I think they’re kind of puzzled by why would we go out and do that as a duo. And to us I think it’s a really interesting chance for people to have an up-close and personal and raw experience with the core of the group that’s on all those records. My hope is that when people see that, they might even have a deeper connection to the music on these more expansive records, because they can identify the core really well, and they can see how the core is working with other elements and is still there.
CMG: You said that “Low frequency sound, when played above a certain volume, is very conducive to a meditative state or trance.” You also mentioned a desire to make your listeners defecate. These are two very different ways of looking at it. Is there a fine line between inducing a trance and intimidating people? Are they the same thing?
GA: Well, the one about the defecation was really a tongue-in-cheek attempt at self-promotion that was made several years ago [laughs]. I really don’t think any of us really want to see that happening with people. The quote about the trance, I do believe that [with] low-end frequencies you can go into a trance, but the statement I’d like to make about that is that we’re not really trying to create a desired effect in the audience, if anything I’d like them to have the freedom to do what they feel they want to do. It’s turned into this weird thing now, people come to the shows hoping it’s going to be painful, hoping to have some sort of defecation experience or whatever, and I think it’s silly. I’m glad they’re coming to the shows and I’m glad they’re curious, but it’s turned into this gimmick, which is not really what I’d like to see happen.
CMG: Do you worry a bit that people come to your shows to witness a spectacle?
GA: My hope is that what people take away from the show, what is driving their curiosity, is that it’s not going to be your typical show in the typical black box rock club of your city. We try to play different kinds of venues, and we really try to present a performance that is not just dudes up there in a t-shirt rocking out, and really playing to the crowd and trying to get people to get into their music. We’re trying to create something totally different that gives people a very unique experience. I’m hoping that—call it the “legend” or whatever, what is driving these people’s curiosity, what’s driving them to check it out—what I like about that is in some ways it seems to be going beyond, it’s drawing in different kinds of people. It’s beyond drawing in the metal fans, or the post-rock fans, or whatever you want to call it. It’s people just interested in hearing different music that they may have not heard before, or experiencing a concert in a way that they may have not experienced one before. Beyond just the regular confines of you know, “I heard this band is good, some good head banging music, let’s go down on Saturday night and maybe pick up some chicks.” I want to at least initiate a reaction from them that is healthy: hate, love, you know? I don’t mind if people hate the band actually, it’s kind of a compliment, it means it’s affecting them in some way. I’d rather create art or music that affects people one way or the other, rather than just somebody who just goes “Meh,” and then turns the page or throws out the CD and goes to do something else.
CMG: You’ve described Sunn O))) as a kind of jazz band, and the song “Alice” is inspired by Alice Coltrane. I think a lot of people would have trouble associating your music with jazz. How do you understand that relationship?
GA: I think it’s really important to state that I don’t think Sunn O))) is a jazz band at all. I would say that we’re definitely inspired by jazz and it’s the spirit of jazz which to me bleeds through in the playing. I say that because it’s an important distinction to make: automatically you say “jazz” and all kinds of things come up in people’s mind, but one of the things that comes in my mind when I hear jazz is this really developed and skilled way of playing and I think that those are two things that do not describe our playing. I don’t mean that as self-deprecating or anything like that, I’m not saying that I’m a crappy player, but I’m definitely not of a skill level to be able to play jazz music. It’s more about being inspired by the concepts and spirit and the aesthetic of jazz that I see within Sunn O))). I really don’t like it when I see bands like “Yeah, we’re embracing jazz now, we’re playing jazz.” 9 times out of 10 when some band, especially a metal band, coming from the metal scene, starts playing jazz it’s hokey as hell and it sucks. They don’t get it in the way that I get it, the way that I like jazz, to them it’s more about the noodly and the technical side rather than the actual feeling. I think that a true jazz player, they’re technically amazing but they’ve got the spirit and the aesthetic and their concepts are incredible.
CMG: Well, even Alice Coltrane, a lot of her music is this massive wall of improvised sound. Is that part of what inspired you for that track?
GA: Exactly. That was the thing, and John Coltrane, with his later works before he died, it is this wall of sound. And I think they’re working on a completely different level than we are, and beyond technical ability, I’m talking about spiritually. I would never claim to be of that ilk, and we’re not claiming any specific religious affinity, but looking at it in a bigger picture, a more vague way of their sound, and exactly, the wall of sound is what’s inspiring to me. And the feeling that I get from listening to that, that’s something that we’re hoping to translate with the track “Alice.” It’s kind of a two-headed thing for us, we sat down and we wanted to create a dark heavy track without the over-saturation and the huge wall of sound that we usually have. It was like, can we do it in a way that’s a little more subtle? We’d been listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane, and we sat in the studio for two hours without interruption listening to her music—each person’s favourite piece of music of hers—then we picked up our instruments, went into the room and started writing. That’s how the track came about. Also, the two-headed beast speaks to the fact that when Stephen and I tacked the strings and horns at the end of that track, that was a completely separate thing that was done to expand that piece of music. It kind of takes this turn as well, which I think is somewhat similar to what her music does.
CMG: You’ve also mentioned that there’s a less claustrophobic approach to the recording of Monoliths & Dimensions. Specifically, how is the recording process different from say, Black One (2005)? I’m guessing you weren’t recording anyone in a coffin this time around.
GA: I think the claustrophobia more speaks about the frame of mind and where the group was emotionally at that time. There was a lot of different recording techniques that were done, the simple fact that we were recording a string section, or recording brass or a women’s choir, we’d never done that before so that was different. As far as specific techniques, that’s more a question for the recording engineer, more subtle things. I guess we never did anything outlandish [laughs] as record vocals in a coffin, but I will say that Atilla’s vocals, a lot of those performances were sort of achieved by locking him in a smaller space as well. Or him having some really intense focus on what he was doing. In comparison there’s another record we’ve done with Atilla, where everything was mailed in. We would send Atilla our finished tracks, he would put his vocals on it in Europe and then send it back to us and it would be mixed in the United States and that would be the final thing you heard. This record to me was really special in that we were all in the same room together and we were able to bounce ideas off of each other and really work off of each other’s energy and the chemistry was there. To me it takes on a completely deeper sound and it’s a better listening experience because we were all together.
CMG: Do you try to create a bit of an atmosphere before you record, besides the enclosed spaces?
GA: Not really, [the coffin] was kind of the most extreme thing we’ve done. I think a lot of times the person’s best performance is in a way they feel comfortable, so obviously the idea for the coffin was to make the person feel uncomfortable, so that’s why we did that. A lot of times when we’re recording it’s more about having a level of comfort so you feel free to do what you want. This one, there wasn’t any shenanigans going out.
CMG: You’ve been touring just the two of you. At some point is Sunn O))) the live band and Sunn O))) the studio band branching in different directions?
GA: Most definitely, and I wouldn’t even say necessarily because of the duo shows we’ve done. Even when we play live with different people, it’s a different animal. One of the things we wanted to achieve with this record was to capture some of the live sound of the band. We played a lot of shows with Atilla and Oren the last couple years and there were some amazing things that happened at those shows, so we were thinking it would be cool to try and capture that and see if we could transplant that onto tape.
Those were some of the foundational ideas of the record: like, “Oh yeah, remember when we did this,” whether it’s an idea, like working with dynamics, or whether it’s an actual riff or a melody or whatever. To us it was like, adding all this other instrumentation and all these other layers, we thought we could potentially get into a hole where it didn’t sound real or it didn’t sound live, so a lot of the basic tracking was all done in like one take. Last time we checked the very first riff that opens up the record of the track “Aghartha,” that was the very first thing that we stepped into the studio and did together. And it ended up being the very first thing on the record. And that’s super live, there’s nothing added to that, it’s just pure, primal, it’s the core, that sound. And then we wanted to work with it in a way where obviously it opened up into different things, different textures and moods and instruments were introduced, and that’s how it evolved. There’s a lot of that pure wall-of-sound riffage that is Sunn O))) on that record. As I mentioned the beginning there, a lot of parts of “Big Church,” “Hunting and Gathering,” is all very similar to something we might do live.
CMG: “Big Church” reminds me a lot of sacred music, especially composers like Arvo Pärt. Was that a conscious element in that song?
GA: Not conscious, but he’s an artist that we’re interested in. It’s funny, this record has really been an eye-opener for me in a lot of ways. Speaking specifically about Arvo Pärt, I kept on hearing Eyvind and Stephen and Oren mention this guy, I’d never heard him. Based on them continually referencing him, I went out and purchased some of his recordings. In a lot of ways this record has turned me on to a lot of new music that I think is really amazing. Which is great, because that’s pretty much in my Top 5 favourite things in life is discovering new music. It’s funny because Arvo Pärt, that comparison has been made by a lot of journalists as well when talking about our record, it’s interesting that they’ve picked up on that.
CMG: Returning back to your live shows—the whole putting on robes and making it into more than just a bunch of dudes playing your music live—you’ve often described it as being a way of making the audience’s focus be on the music rather than you. Since the last album you’ve done interviews with the New York Times and the BBC. Does the focus necessarily change to being on you two rather than the music itself?
GA: It can, you know. The way we do things, I don’t want to say it’s a sense of anonymity, but there’s a bigger picture, and there’s something beyond that we’re trying to create. It’s beyond the singular ego or personality.