Tuesday, December 15, 2009
This is a director's cut of my interview with Stephen O'Malley of Sunn O))), originally published in The List. Read on for tales of amp worship, Miles Davis and bagpipes. Plus news of a collaboration with Ulver.
When doom lords Sunn O))) played the basement venue of Glasgow's Oran Mor in 2004, the sub-bass vibrations shook the lights out of their sockets in the restaurant above. 'I remember that one clearly,' says Stephen O'Malley, core member, alongside Greg Anderson, of the experimental metal titans. A Sunn O))) gig is an intense experience, with the band dressed in their trademark grim robes, cranking out downtuned riffs and layers of feedback at extreme volumes. Since their inception in the late '90s, Sunn O))) have experimented with their doom 'n drone template to incorporate a variety of influences from electronic music and black metal to modern composition and jazz. This year's Monoliths & Dimensions is their most expansive release to date, featuring collaborations with avant-garde composer Eyvind Kang, a Viennese women's choir, and Sun Ra trombonist Julian Priester, among others. Less claustrophobic than previous releases, the album sees Sunn O))) letting the light in to their sound, culminating in the sublime 'Alice', which initially recalls the desert-blues of latterday Earth, before transforming into a stately ensemble jazz piece complete with a gorgeously understated solo from Priester. Of course, the album still has its share of brutal riffs and unsettling noise, not to mention the black magic croak of Hungarian vocalist Atilla Csihar.
How do you go about translating the Monoliths & Dimensions material to a live setting?
First of all it starts off as Sunn O)))'s music, never exactly translating our albums, and vice versa. I think we've actually played a number of dates 'supporting' this record – this is like a music industry term, supporting an album. It's funny, it sets up expectations for a band, even for us. We've done many, many tours over the years and Sunn's music is constantly mutating. We don't have a choir on stage, I guess that's the main question, and we're not using a string section either, but some of the music is structurally it comes from the songs. We focus a lot on the melody and the harmonic aspects of that music and it's incredibly powerful. It's also something we're able to afford to do (laughs) There's already ten people on the road with the band so I think expanding live to include most of the ensemble stuff is a challenge that we're willing to take and we're gonna work on but it's not going to be for a touring situation.
I understand you've got Steve Moore playing Hammond organ?
Yeah, there's a Hammond. There's a lot of dynamics in the music, which is something we hadn't worked with too much in the past, to be honest, even though dynamics is a pretty simple concept, but our version of dynamics has been very much on one side (laughs) There are a lot of cleaner parts. Greg's playing bass and I'm playing guitar, so that actually opens up quite a bit of room for different types of interpretive play. Steve Moore is a multi-instrumentalist, so he's picking up quite a lot. And also Atilla, he becomes a centre anchoring point for all of the music. But overall it's a progression of Sunn's live aspect more than anything else. At this moment we're working as a quartet, so hopefully the expectations are well met or superceded as usual. Steve is playing trombone a little bit. In Earth he plays mellotron and is primarily a keyboardist and trombone player. He does that with us too. He's a great musician and his background and approach is something we feel pretty fortunate to play with someone like that. He's really open about music – as we are – but he's coming from a really different background and it's exciting to play with different collaborators. Sunn has become a melting pot. He was also really involved in the record, in the spirit of the record and also some of the elders that were on the record, he's studied with them and he played with them on the record. It's definitely coming from the same creative spirit.
Trombonist Julian Priester/Pepo Mtoto (who played with Sun Ra and made his own incredible albums of electronic jazz such as Love,Love) appears on the new album, and there's a song called Aghartha, a mythical underwater world and also the name of a Miles Davis live album. So would you say the album has a jazz influence?
In A Silent Way and Get Up With It, Aghartha, Pangea; the spirit of the playing on these records and the supernatural element in the music, these have been an influence on the band since the start and I think it really came through on the White albums when Rex Ritter was in the band. When he was playing with us it made that influence all that more obvious, and the electronic element too. This is the music we love, and the spirit is so important to pay attention to as far as approaching experimental music on your own. Even though it's such a big major label accessible thing, these Miles Davis albums, they're incredibly important in the history of experimental music I think. Especially with ensemble and band based things, using different instrumentation and plucking people from different backgrounds. Maybe I'm fantasising this whole spirit of what the band may have been like on the On The Corner sessions or whatever, but even that fantasy is really important; it's a fluid, creative spirit that led to those albums being recorded. I think it's really inspiring. But musically on stage with Sunn O))) I'm not going to say it has jazz influences or the choir is replaced by a piccolo flute. The structure of the music doesn't allow that kind of rearrangement to be rational. It's gonna make perfect sense when you hear the music live, especially if you've experienced a Sunn O))) live concert in relation to the records we've put out, it's a different animal. In many ways it's more powerful, demanding, but I would say that the live aspect has grown a lot from the beauty that we were able to access on Monoliths & Dimensions.
It's still going to be heavy as hell?
Oh fuck yeah. Actually, I think there's gonna be more equipment per member than there ever has been. Full backline. But there's also quieter parts than we've ever had as well. Sunn O)))'s expanding in one direction, it's also expanding in many directions, it's poly-dimensional. I was looking at photos of the last time we toured in the UK in 2006 with Justin Broadrick, and I 'm wondering what kind of disease we have in that our gear keeps growing incrementally. The first time we toured the UK I think I was playing two Sunn half stacks, and this time I'm going to have three full stacks, six amps. And Greg's backline – he's gone from playing two half stacks to three bass stacks plus a guitar half stack. In some ways I think it's a kind of classical thing. If Sunn O))) had existed in 1971 it would probably be exactly the same as it is now, including the equipment, so in some ways it's kind of a dinosaur progression but it's interesting cos the music has opened up so much and we've played a lot of concerts now, we've played about 50 concerts this year, we've done four small tours, so I think people in the UK are really gonna get the cream of what we're capable of right now.
What did you take from the GrimmRobes tour and Thor's Hammer reunion?
I gotta say for me personally, I can't speak for Greg of course, but for me it's going back to the roots of playing music with Greg and that's for this whole thing. That's the root of Sunn O))), that's the root of fucking Southern Lord, Thor's Hammer, all of these things comes back to that, playing together. Especially with the Thor's Hammer stuff, that was like jumping back in time, but the people who play in that band we're all very good friends and it came back together immediately and it was amazing to reencounter that now, after everything, recognising the patterns that still exist in your guitar playing from this primitive fucking death metal band to whatever Monoliths & Dimensions is, there's links there. Doing the GrimmRobes tour, the Shoshin tour as we called it, that really... Greg and I wanted to keep our feet on the ground after making the Monoliths record because there was so much press reaction to that, besides the really long production process and how we had to extend to make the record happen, and finish the record, which was a huge, it was difficult. It was a challenge to produce that record in many ways. I guess we were fortunate because the band was ten years old last year and we were able to link it in with the anniversary, but the real reason we wanted to do those concerts was to show the core of the band, the core of Sunn O)))'s music in a way that's a direct contrast and compliment to the most expansive piece of work either of us had ever done, which is the Monoliths & Dimensions record. In some ways our hope was the fans and people who like Sunn O)))'s music would appreciate that for just the musical aspect, just the pure guitar and the amps basically. And it worked in a way that I was not expecting because even from my own experience, it seemed so musical when we were doing it, I don't remember this stuff being like that. I remember it being fucking chaos and noise, really a difficult situation to play live in early days but very simple too. And the first show we did it was like, this is fucking beautiful, this is fucking epic. We played in Berlin and there were complete overtones of 19th century composition somehow, this bombastic composed, almost operatic music, it had that feeling, so I think in some ways Greg and I reconnected musically again by doing that. And we very consciously made ourselves – we want to keep our feet on the ground all the time with this band despite any story you've heard or experience you've had with the music, we strive to keep it very down to earth and to keep our expectations in check so the experience of discovery is very strong for us as well, and we don't get ahead of ourselves as well. It's a fragile thing this music, it could implode on itself, we want to preserve that and the best way to do that is to stay in reality. I'd like to do more duo shows and I think we will, it's reintroduced another facet to the live thing that's valid and can exist simultaneously. And also one of the expectations that we want to keep out of the picture is who's gonna be on stage, who are the guests, is this gonna be the show I want to go see or not. I've always wanted to keep it billed as Sunn O))), not Sunn O))) featuring this person, this person and this person. It's more about Sunn O))) the entity, rather than the individuals. Nothing against the collaborators because of course we're very grateful that they're involved and everyone is very gracious and agrees on it and appreciates a little bit more of an anonymous approach. But when we do it as a duo then it's ok, that has nothing to do with it as well. Sunn O)))'s form can be so many different things.
Any new releases in the pipeline?
We did quite a bit of basic tracking during those two weeks, so there's quite a bit of other material, some of which has been worked on further, like the Kannon stuff, that's why we mentioned it in the press a few times, but as of right now, I'm unsure, and I don't want to predict what the next steps will be, it's kinda like, yeah, we've recorded this material but here we are three years later again, do we want to revisit this old material put it, try to produce that into something else. Or maybe Monoliths & Dimensions is the result of all of those ideas and the next step is something else. That said we're also working with a record in collaboration with the band Ulver, which they're producing, and that's at a pretty advanced stage already. There's material out there that hasn't been completed yet, but I'm not sure what the next steps will be. We're sincerely just focussing on the live aspect just now, there's a six month cycle with that. Once that's done I'm sure we'll move back into the album mentality.
I'm interviewing you for a Scottish magazine, so to put a kilt on things, as it's known in the media, I understand you used to be a bagpiper.
Yeah, I was in a pipe band for five years when I was a teenager, I played bagpipes, Scottish bagpipes, just the regular, loud pipes. I was in a band and we played some Highland Games and stuff. (laughs) The school I went to had a bagpiping band because there was some Scottish heritage to the school. That was actually, this is kind of predictable, but this was the first place I started hearing about drone intonation, because you have three drone pipes sitting right next to your ear, y'know, they have to be clearly in tune, or slightly out of tune with each other in order to provide the bedrock to the melodic answer, so from my own foundation musical background the bagpipes are pretty heavy in there. Bagpipes and Morbid Angel and Black Sabbath.