Features | Interviews

Sunn O))), Pt. 2

By Joel Elliott | 25 July 2009

Read part one of this interview, with Greg Anderson, here.

CMG’s Joel Elliott (CMG): How long have you been living in Paris now?

Sunn O)))‘s Stephen O’Malley (SO): I’m going on my third summer, so two-and-a-half years, I guess.

CMG: What brought you to move there?

SO: A lot of reasons. I was working a lot in Europe with a theatre company actually, mainly France, and things were going really good there. I’d lived in England in the ’90s for about a year and I had a really bad experience when it actually came time to get the correct visas. I always wanted to live in Europe again, I’d spent a lot of time over here in the past few years on tour, working on records, and ultimately working with this theatre company, which became more of this stable collaboration as well. So, one thing led to another and I had the opportunity to spend more time in Paris and decided to make it my home for the time-being.

CMG: With Greg in LA, and your other band members around the globe, it must be pretty difficult to bring the whole band together on a regular basis.

SO: Well it is difficult; in fact one of the biggest challenges is putting together a plan and making it work as far as the logistics. But we’ve managed to be pretty lucky with it. It’s certainly not difficult to get in the right headspace together once we are in the same place. That’s much more important of course. We’ve been pretty fortunate in regards of getting opportunities to pull something like that off, considering our music and the overhead that exists and sort of putting something together. We realized recently that even doing one concert requires at least two international flights. It takes a lot of planning, but it seems to work. We’re also not the kind of band that rehearses every week or has a regular structure of going on tour for 6 months, or doing a lot of things. Usually when we’re playing it’s a special event anyway and that’s certainly part of the reason. Because when we do actually get everyone in the same place it’s like an event for us as well, kind of elevates the whole thing somehow.

CMG: With a lot of bands that improvise, they take it as almost a mandate to not practice together beforehand. Do you look for that kind of spontaneity when you play live shows?

SO: Well, first thing, we’re not fully improvised music. We also don’t avoid rehearsing. For me it quells a lot of anxiety if we can have one pre-concert or studio get-together. At the very least to check the equipment, because we use a lot and it’s nice to make sure technically everything’s working out, or not and to be prepared for it. At the same time our music has enough improvisation in it—well, let me put it this way, our music isn’t the kind of music that requires an intense technical accuracy. The accuracy that our music requires is completely a headspace and a mood as well as an openness of being ready to go into new places as a player. It’s built around structure of course, but I think those are more crucial elements. I guess what I’m getting at is that in my experience playing in a lot of different types of bands in the past, and Greg as well, and most of the people involved in Sunn O))), this type of music and the structure of the unit is quite different than a lot of guitar/drum/singer-based bands.

CMG: Speaking of logistics, you’ve had maybe a few dozen people on this record. Greg mentioned that you did have a lot of different people together in the room playing it out in real-time, but obviously you can’t have everyone in the studio at the same time. How did you organize that?

SO: Well, with organization..and management. It’s not an impossible task, when you think about the scale of putting together bigger productions in other media, it’s actually quite a small thing. We were pretty fortunate that a lot of these ensemble musicians were living in the same area where we were doing most of the work on the record, in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. It was a lot of planning and scheduling and sitting with the calendar. Basically [there were] three or four main people involved with setting that up, but I think that considering the scope of what people provided for us, we got away with it pretty easily, considering how flexible and accommodating all these players were.

CMG: Greg also talked a lot about trying to minimize the ego, when you’re playing with other musicians. Considering the kind of freedom that you give people, have you ever found that there are people you play with where you just don’t gel?

SO: Sure, of course. It happens and it’s happened a lot. We’ve been lucky that it’s also gone the other way much more often, or at least with the people who are more important in the long run. They’re all relationships anyway, the way you play music with another person is for communication, and it’s based on chemistry and charisma and all these regular things that are extensions of just how you relate to the person without music. It’s just that musicians also communicate with music. You’re not buddies with everyone you meet: even if you get put in the same room with someone doesn’t mean you get along. It’s always unfortunate when you don’t get along with someone, not that you have to be friends with everyone you meet, but at least civilised.

That’s the same way with music I think. I do think that musicians generally have a much more honest capacity to tell the other musician this isn’t working out, whereas in a social aspect I think people are much more willing to flex just to deal with someone. At the time you actually get down to playing music there’s usually so much work involved to get to that point. It’s always the next step in the conversation I think, between musicians. It’s kind of like where you want to be, because that’s the reality of the music, when you’re actually playing it. If you get that far with someone and then it’s not working out, it’s easier to say “It’s not working, sorry.” Actually when that happens you sometimes have the same problems you have with relationships, telling them it’s not working. It’s pretty funny actually, how different people are in those kind of situations. I guess we’ve been lucky in that respect that most of the collaborations worked out really well and have been really fruitful and positive.

CMG: In that respect, is there a lot of music you’ve done with other people or by yourself that you’re sitting on and not really sure in what context to release it in?

SO: To be honest, I was thinking about this last week. I do music, it’s basically my job or career, and being a musician or being a composer, I’m doing it often. Personally I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t want to go into working with someone just with anticipation of having to find a destination for the results, meaning thinking about any situation in a studio as preparation for making an album. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve been pretty lucky the last few years working with these theatre companies because I’m perfectly able to work on really sophisticated and elaborate music as a project and then just let it be in the context of the theatre piece, and the music doesn’t have to be a product or come out to the world in the form of a CD if you don’t want to. Obviously the reason why people put out CDs is to support themselves, that’s one of the main reasons, but there’s a lot of other ways to work on it too. I think it’s just like any artist, there’s tons and tons of material that is tried out but may not emerge outside of the person’s working space. Not that it’s not good, but maybe it’s just not appropriate or it doesn’t have that manifestation.

This record to me was really special because we were all in the same room together, so we were able to bounce ideas off of each other and really work off of each other’s energy and the chemistry was there and to me it takes on a completely deeper sound and it’s a better listening experience because we’re all together.

CMG: Do you feel like music is getting to the point where there’s more and more formats to do music in besides recording and live playing? Is it becoming more acceptable to not just put out CD after CD?

SO: Depends on your approach, I guess. It’s certainly nothing new because actually putting out albums is the new thing in the picture, or putting out recorded music. It’s less than 100 years old as an industry, basically, the pop music industry kind of began in the ’50s. And certainly escalated to a point where in the ’80s and ’90s it was at its peak I think. Music existed much much longer than that of course, and the main place for music existing is now and always has been live. That’s when it’s real, that’s when it’s happening, and you’re never going to experience it the same way as you do being present at the performance. It’s interesting to think about where this is all going with the CD dying or mp3 file sharing being the most prolific form of finding music. And all these other speculations about vinyl staying around and radio dying and all this shit. Who cares, it’s not affecting the music itself, it’s affecting the industry of music, which ultimately is a group of businessmen who are losing product sales. Live music isn’t going anywhere. How it’s applied is really subjective to the musicians themselves, and where they want to exist with their creativity. There’s a lot of places to do it though. You can have someone busking in the subway making more than a touring death-metal band, who are on tour for three months. It’s pretty interesting. You also have the sound tracking and sound design for any sort of computer software or even environmental sound design for hotels or traffic lights, airports or shopping centres, all this shit. There’s so many applications for music. It’s one of the most common artforms I think, that you encounter everyday. I’m just a paeon in the puzzle. I like records, as a music collector and a graphic designer, [as well as] a musician, it’s satisfying, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the declining sales of chain record stores is going to affect my viewpoint.

CMG: I know you used to be a full-time graphic designer. Is that something you still do now?

SO: I do sometimes. It’s really less my life in the past few years, but I still design my records and some record design for Southern Lord and a few other clients here and there. I used to work in advertising actually for many years, and I also worked as an art director for a few record labels too. And I also worked in publication design, I worked for the New York Times and many different places. Ultimately all of that led up to supporting my music though. Finally I decided to quit my stable, well-paying advertising job to become a guitar player in a band. But I still do design sometimes, I’ll probably go back to it at some point, I still enjoy it.

CMG: Also, speaking of environmental sound design: is that ever something that you’ve thought of doing? I ask because Sunn O))) has this real sense of physical space to it.

SO: Definitely. I’ve done a few projects with contemporary artists actually, one of which is a sculptor named Banks Violette. We did a few collaborations in galleries and stuff and it allowed me to experiment with sound in a space with a non-entertaining element, in conjunction with the sculpture. Mainly what I learned there, besides the sound waves’ interaction, was how sound can really define a blank space. A lot of galleries we were working in would have a poured concrete floor, white walls, high ceilings, no individual identity. Artists are supposed to create the identity in a space like that. So presenting some sound design and/or music in that environment really put a spotlight on what the character of the sound was. It’s really interesting.

CMG: You’ve said people who come to your shows are divided into three categories, in terms of what draws them in: aural, visual, and tactile. How did those classifications come about?

SO: Talking to people after playing shows. Sunn O))) has done a lot of concerts, we’re pushing 250. Which is pretty much a miracle considering the music. I like to talk to people after the concerts or before the concerts because Greg and I never have been in the audience so we don’t know what it’s like. We know exactly what it’s like from our perspective, but the other part of the picture of the performance and the music is the audience. They’re a participant in the whole situation, because like the sound design and sculpture in the gallery setting, all these people are designing the space of the concert hall or club or the church or wherever we’re playing. The personality of the space is defined by the people in it. I think it’s cool to talk to people and see where they’re coming from. Some people are into listening, to a psychedelic sound thing or an abstract sound thing. Some people are really into the visual of the fog and the blur and that direction. Some people approach it as a physical sensation, they like to feel like a physical confrontation with the sound that they can resist and conquer by staying the entire set. It’s pretty interesting how different the sound can appear to different people. It’s all perceptual for the individual I guess. I can’t project a certain concept on someone that strongly to override their own impression.

CMG: These categories aren’t typically how music is classified. Are people coming to you and talking about a visual, aural or tactile experience as opposed to say putting your music into certain genres?

SO: I think it’s a more natural way of understanding music. A lot of journalists in magazines and interviews are all sitting in a space of analysis that’s very product-based and very marketing-based. And that doesn’t mean that journalists are intentionally trying to write that way, but that’s an aspect that exists in the writing or the presentation of the music. But that’s just one place. When you have someone writing from Terrorizer magazine going “Oh, how do you define your music? Is it doom metal or is it drone music?”; or, “You guys started the drone genre”; or “Do you listen to other kinds of metal music?” That’s a very limited window of perception. “Drone” is a verb actually, it’s a very old word. We’re just playing guitar, you know, and our sound happens to be new for some people’s experience, but again it’s interesting how writers perceive it too, because of course they have a bigger voice to the public because their opinions are distributed, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the only way to take the information of the music itself. There’s so many methods of interpretation, I can’t define which one is right or wrong.

CMG: You’ve mentioned a lot of messed-up things were happening on the tour for Black One (2005). The new album seems a lot less claustrophobic, and opens up a lot more. Without getting too personal, what’s changed emotionally for you since then?

SO: Greg has had his own experiences in life since then which have been very positive, and I’ve had my own. But we both have very different lifestyles. Very different experiences too, which are two sides of the core of the group, all of these different experiences, and different ways of living, and a different outlook on things as well. Something happened for me personally, at that time or right around there I was going through a lot of personal issues with my family life and personal psychology, etc., etc. All the normal shit that people go through. Everyone’s got an apex when that happens. If you’re making music or art, something happens with your music at that time: it kind of acts as a camera which holds a lot of those emotions in time, rather than allowing them to pass with the progression of your personality and everything. I didn’t realize this until I moved on to the next phase of my life, which was a couple of years later, and then looked back at Black One—which I think is a beautiful record—but the concepts behind it and the execution and the reality of what was happening on tour around the band shows you that wow, that was just a different period. Certainly far different from where we were with Monoliths & Dimensions, for example, but also just personally. The other thing, I put out other records at that time too, Khanate’s Capture and Release (2005) and a few other things that were just brutal, brooding, destructive pieces of music. Not saying that that element has left my music, it certainly hasn’t, but on a psychological level it’s got more refined..and healthy, I suppose [laughs].

CMG: Were you ever planning a Black Two?

SO: That question has come up many, many times since Black One. Because there was a White One (2003) and a White Two (2004), that’s the reason why people think about it. But “Black One” is also a proper noun, it’s supposed to represent an entity not a sequence I guess. But we did have some tentative plans to do it, but there will not be a Black Two.

CMG: A lot of your interviews have described this invocation with your live shows. I know you don’t always take it too seriously—you’re probably not into black mass the way some metal bands might be—but how does your spirituality relate to your music? Or do you even think about it that way?

SO: Well for me—and again this is a topic that I can only speak about my own perception of it—it is spirituality, it’s an exercise in the spiritual. It’s an important part of my existence, and it fills a role that maybe some people have religion in there or meditation or other aspects. I’ve been reading this writer [Joris-Karl] Huysmans recently, and he wrote this book Là-Bas—“The Damned” is the translation—and it’s really interesting. It’s a semi-biographical novel where he becomes acquainted with these people who end up being part of a cult, and they’re practicing black magic or satanic mass. The way he describes it it’s basically just another clique of society, in this semi-aristocratic Parisian society in the end of the 19th century, doing something against another clique. It’s so simplified actually. What’s actually happening is fucked up, in the mass, but the sociological aspect of it is pretty simple. I think it’s interesting that people want to incorporate these Satanic, pseudo-religious codes with their music. It certainly makes it richer and more complex, but it doesn’t necessarily create spirituality or anti-spirituality—some of these people like to think of it as destroying spirituality—to me it’s just kinda like step one of things. Music is ultimately spiritual anyway, why do you need to apply so much of a religious aspect to it. But it’s malleable, of course, music has been really integral with a lot of religious ceremonies through history.

CMG: You’ve mentioned having a little fun with the cliches and stereotypes of metal. But you obviously also take yourselves seriously as musicians and sound artists. Do you ever find that balance tips one way or the other?

SO: It’s funny to me when people immediately throw it super-far in one or the other direction, like “oh, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of a new way of making art,” or saying “this is fucking Spinal Tap of 2009.” The truth is it’s just more complex than either of those things. And it involves a lot of other elements between those two as well I suppose. Greg and I have been doing this for a very long time, we’re very good friends, I think Sunn O))) is a really positive piece of our lives. And it involves a lot of emotional material, including humour and fun, two elements that probably don’t have a place in black metal, but it also includes black metal and it also includes, you know, Indian raga music. There’s so many more facets there that can’t be reduced to a binary aspect. It’s amusing to me when people become either so enamored by it that they hold it on this pedestal of their own making, in an almost idolatrous way, or they are so disgusted and put off by it that they try and squash it into this area of base existence, by associating it with Spinal Tap or very cheap low art-metal. I think it says something more of the personality of the individual making that statement than it does about our music actually.

CMG: Greg said you appreciate some of the extreme reactions to the music. For example, if someone really loathes your music, that’s a reaction you’re okay with.

SO: You can’t take it personally, it’s just someone’s opinion, of course. It’s funny, but often if you ask for just a plain description from that type of individual, and then the individual with a more positive viewpoint, it’s often more accurate from the negative viewpoint [laughs]. It’s like, well the way you describe it is actually pretty much what it is, the only part that I don’t agree with is your opinion. The fact that it’s causing extreme reactions in either way means the strength of it is affecting people. That is a compliment, it’s something that we appreciate, for sure.