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Monoliths & Mysteriis: Sunn O))) Vokillist Attila Csihar Interviewed
Manish Agarwal , December 7th, 2009 13:44

Manish Agarwal talks to Attila Csihar about Sunn O))), a life in metal and some seriously massive slabs of rock

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The following conversation took place on Tuesday October 27, 2009 at the A38, a former stone carrying ship turned music venue moored on the River Danube in Budapest, a few hours before Hungarian vocalist Attila Csihar’s triumphant homecoming show fronting Sunn O))). You can read more about the performance itself - including an interview with core GrimmRobed duo Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley - in the current issue of MOJO magazine.

Do you remember the first time you heard Sunn O)))?

Attila Csihar: Yeah, Stephen sent me some stuff, along with his other band Khanate. It was Flight Of The Behemonth [the third Sunn O))) album, released in early 2002]. Very soon we started to talk about a possible collaboration, which came to be the White2 record. Actually, we were in touch back in ’95. He did an interview with me for his magazine Descent, about Tormentor and Mayhem [the first two black metal bands Csihar sang for, based in Hungary and Oslo, Norway respectively]. When I was looking for a record company for my compilation [2003’s The Beast Of Attila Csihar] Stephen hooked me up with Greg, who eventually released it on Southern Lord. At the same time we decided to make a track, 'Decay', also called 'The Symptoms Of Kali Yuga'. I knew the guys had doom origins, but for me that song was more like ambient music. I got super excited, because I love experimental music and industrial from the 80s: Current 93, Swans, Coil, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV. These are the bands I was listening to as a kid. So I thought it could be interesting to do something in those fields.

The lyrics for Decay are taken from the Srimad Bhagavatam, an old Hindu text.

AC: Exactly. It’s from an old Indian book, part of the Vedas. I’m interested in the ancient cultures and civilizations. Reading Indian mythology was a passion for me, these kind of Star Wars stories - gods and demons fighting for Heaven, the manifestations of Vishnu. Kali Yuga is the age of today, the so-called dark or iron age. It’s similar to the apocalypses from the Christian tradition, but the scripts are apparently twice as old. I learned a little pronunciation and tried to sing the whole thing in Sanskrit. It’s a pretty beautiful verse. It very nicely describes what is going on today: environmental problems, morals and the leaders of mankind not being so reliable anymore. These are the symptoms of the apocalypse.

Do you see a connection between that and what you sing about with Mayhem?

AC: Sure. Mayhem has its own philosophy. People think we are Satanic but I can’t share this idea. I think Mayhem, the name itself, is about any aspect of dark energy and chaos and spirituality. If you look at those lyrics they are mostly dark poetry. Even the De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas album, the title is about Sathanas but that’s just part of the whole story. For me, the lyrics are esoteric and philosophical, about the darker aspect of nature. In this sense it’s all connected. The two bands are pretty much about the same thing from two completely different points of view. Also, musically it’s a totally nice comparison for me. Mayhem is so mathematical and technical. Sunn O))) has this absolute free element. We have our structures - it’s composed - but there is more flow. I can use my voice in a wider spectrum. To sing in this environment is very challenging, with the loudness onstage. What I learn here I can use in Mayhem, and vice versa.

Your voice produces overtones reminiscent of throat singing. Are you a fan of that style?

AC: Recently, yes. For me, life is about learning. I had classical vocal lessons in the early 90s. These opera teachers told me about breathing exercises and since then it’s always been in my mind. Throat singing is very attractive to me. I’ve never met a master, someone from Mongolia or Tibet who could really show me, so I had to just try myself. Now I can do the harmonics a little bit. But it’s a complex technique. First you have to learn how to form this chamber in your mouth, which makes the harmonics. It’s almost like feedback.

You took a break from Sunn O))) in 2005, right before they made Black One, which featured US black metallers Malefic and Wrest (aka Xasthur and Leviathan) plus a lyric by Mayhem’s previous frontman Dead (who committed suicide in 1991).

AC: That’s the period when I went back to Mayhem. I wasn’t sure what was going on, so Sunn O))) asked if I minded them doing the album with someone else. I said go ahead. Mayhem never told me to quit Sunn O))). I just thought maybe it’s better to keep myself free.

Coming from a black metal background, it must have been fascinating to hear their interpretation of the genre.

AC: I was supposed to do that record. That felt like, ‘Oh shit, it’s my baby!’ But you know Xasthur is a great artist too, so it was cool. Ah, I won’t say I regret [not appearing on the disc]... I miss it sometimes.

By the following year you were dividing your time between both groups. Sunn O))) took part in an infamous installation at the Maureen Paley art gallery in east London, where American sculptor Banks Violette cast a replica of their backline in salt and resin and the audience were locked out of the actual gig space. That event inspired 2007’s studio EP Oracle.

AC: I actually wrote those lyrics in Japan, at the gate of the Emperor’s palace. I was sitting there and had some ideas. I gave the manuscript to Banks. He made these beautiful sculptures and closed me into a coffin. I sang from there at the exhibition.

That’s surely a strange sensation, being trapped inside a coffin.

AC: It was challenging, but I love doing new things. That’s much more exciting than repeating [myself]. I understand and respect people who just find their way, like a blues musician, but it’s not my cup of tea.

In 2007 Sunn O))) performed at a 12th century Norwegian cathedral as part of the Borealis Festival (as documented on the vinyl-only double-live set Dømkirke). What was it like taking this music into a religious institution?

AC: That was an amazing experience. We played in Bergen in the state cathedral. It has the third biggest organ in Scandinavia and we could use it. Even I was allowed to try it at the soundcheck! I loved those big pipes, you know?

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, given your roots in black metal...

AC: Man, it was not promoted that I was there. We didn’t want any problem with that. However, I was not in Norway when the church burning and all that stuff happened. But still, that show was on the edge. Especially in Bergen, where the whole thing started. I’m not religious so I felt like, ‘OK, now I manifest some demons here!’ Whatever you want to call it.

The two things co-exist, don’t they? You can’t have the religion without the dark side.

AC: Sure. I don’t like churches when they define God for the masses and all these morals, because that’s a big chance for manipulation. But I’m esoteric in a sense. I believe the consciousness is multi-dimensional. We have a lot of things going on, the cosmos and these energies. But humans put it in words and define it as religion, that’s the aspect I don’t like. Look at the history, how many wars and how much suffering it’s caused for mankind. On the other hand, I don’t believe in the evil. I try not to believe anything. I like to understand what I can.

I’m curious about the second track on Monoliths & Dimensions, ;Big Church', which is subtitled with the compound word [megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért]. What does that refer to?

AC: This is one of the longest Hungarian words. It’s about consecration and deconsecration. It’s playing with the verb. Extending. Consecrate goes into deconsecration and then someone is behaving like they’re able to be deconsecrated, but you cannot be... It’s very hard to translate, actually. But it’s a pretty beautiful word and it has so much meaning. I can really play with it, especially live.

The lyrics on the new record are about extremity. 'Aghartha' is about the underworld - the legend of the hollow Earth - while 'Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia)' goes beyond the sky. 'Big Church' is in between. The idea of monoliths is very important for me. When I was travelling I visited Baalbek in Lebanon [site of a Roman temple constructed on vast blocks of precisely fitted limestone]. These 1000 ton pieces of rock were cut and lifted [from the quarry], then transported 10 metres above the surface and built into a foundation. Today’s technology might be able to lift that weight, but it would be really challenging. A big project. That’s pretty significant. It’s proof that we had an advanced civilization on the planet that we don’t know much about. History needs a lot of reinvestigation. It’s important to know our origins. These things help us to understand what we are and why we are here.

So that’s monoliths... dimensions is the sound?

AC: It could be. I’m not sure. We should put question marks. It’s not answered yet. We are talking about theories. It could be connected to the sound. The sound of Sunn O))) represents to me that giant energy, the ability that people on this planet were able to build these things. A lot of people think there was some alien intervention. It’s something I should believe, but I don’t. I think it was humans. Personally I’m into researching these ancient hi-tech civilizations.

'Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia)' ventures into the extraterrestrial realm.

AC: 'Hunting & Gathering' is about the collapsing of planets and how people came down from the sky. The mythology of the nephilim. Cydonia is the area on Mars where they apparently found faces and these strange kind of pyramid structures. I don’t know if I should believe that but it’s something to explore. Something far beyond, you know?