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A Quietus Interview

Doom With A View: Sunn O))) Discuss Monoliths And Dimensions
Luke Turner , May 20th, 2009 15:27

The Quietus has already stopped taking bets on our album of 2009. It's hard to imagine any other group coming up with a record as intense, as perfectly formed, as original and simply beautiful as Monoliths And Dimensions - read the Quietus review to find out why.

Monoliths And Dimensions saw Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson reviving old collaborations and seeking out fellow travellers new. Longtime cohort Attila Csihar contributes his finest vocal performance to date, while Steve Moore, trombone player from Earth (whom Sunn O))) formed in tribute to) led them to composer Eyvind Kang, who arranged the disparate instrumentation - anything from harp to brass to conch shell and hydrophone - with a stunning coherance. This is, as Greg Anderson points out, no "Metallica with strings."

The Quietus takes a wander through this most prodigious album in the company of O'Malley and Anderson.


Opens with Sunn O)))'s familiar planing drones . . .

Greg Anderson: "Actually the record started like all the Sunn O))) records with Steve and I in the studio with guitar and basses working out ideas for riffs. Then the instrumentation and the ensemble, the other players, they were added later."
Stephen O'Malley: "Someone said to me 'That's what Sunn O))) is right now to me, as a listener, you and and Greg and Atilla.' That's been the core for a couple of years. It's not an entrance on the album in that way, but it makes sense."

4.51: A note seems to hold longer than usual, and beneath it fragments of other sound can be heard, alien chatter making its way through the vast empty boom of space.

GA: "I think maybe Steve Moore had a way of explaining his experiences of playing with SunnO))) that intrigued Eyvind as well. Steve Moore [of Earth] is an interesting person because his background is very different from Stephen and I; he's a trained jazz pianist, he'd never heard Slayer's Reign In Blood."
SO'M: "He was on tour with us and was like 'What are you guys talking about?'"
GA: "So I got to introduce him to this record, and he was totally into it. He can find things in all different kinds of music that he can relate to. That's what he did with Sunn O))), which is totally different from anything he's involved with. He plays with these really accomplished musicians, and he can also play with Sunn O))) and find his way in that, and find something not only where he can add an amazing musical contribution to it, but really pull out something that is rewarding for him. I think that he was translating that to some of his friends, one of those being Eyvind Kang and that intrigued Eyvind, and also some of the players on the record that he was friends with and had worked with, he was able to make a bridge."

5.33: Attila Csihar's vocals begin. Throatiness like ripping calico. Huge amount of space here. Lyrics about "the consciousness of ancient rocks".

SO'M: "Attila's just such a great performing personality, and personality in general. But his voice, I'm just such a huge fan of."

GA: "The big difference between this record and other records that Attila's been on is that he's actually in the studio writing with us, whereas everything we've done with him before, White Two and the Oracle recordings, we sent him tracks and he recorded the vocals and we mixed it. So not only was he in the studio with us this time, he was writing and getting inspired by what we were doing and vice versa. It was just a really cool... it created a stronger performance and stronger collaboration between the three of us."

9.50: As Csihar narrates, so more and more sounds are brought to the fore. It's done with such incredible subtlety, the despairing strings as migrating birds trapped in a huntsman's net. Imperious and oppressive.

SO'M: "He's got a super interest in weird occult and esoteric and alternative history and anthropology and unknown phenomena. He gets really focussed on certain topics, and then moves on in his quest for knowledge or whatever. At the time he was really into Hollow Earth theory, and megaliths, not standing stones [in general] but specifically one that he talked about a lot. It's in Southern Lebanon and it's a massive sort of brick but it is 60 metres long and 20 metres high, and the mass of the thing and the weight is so huge that it'd be hard to move it, even today. So he's asking how did it get there? It's the foundation of a temple, a Greek temple was built on it, then a Roman Temple, the temple of Saturn. That was the last religious use, 2,000 years ago. To me that inspires me, when he's really into these topics."

12:30: Piano. Trebly noise retreats to be replaced by an outback drone and Atilla's vocal alone, backed by the sound of water trickling into the void. The clarity of this recording is astounding.

'Big Church'

Opens with a Viennese women's choir. At 0.25, Sunn O)))'s drones kick back in. 2.05, dense power builds under swiftly muttered incantations, terrified Monastic prayers as miscreant knights batter on the barred wooden door.

SO'M: "I'm pretty sensitive to Csihar's intensity or excitement. I don't think it was a direct influence in the way we went back in, we weren't writing a part to fit a topic. But it definitely added a tone to things, even if it was just the mood of the playing or a conversation with him."

GA: "It was inspiring to see him really getting into it, rather than some guy just sitting on the couch all day, smoking weed and watching TV. He'd be doing something, and telling us about the ideas when he had the chance."

SO'M: "We were collaborating with ideas, more abstractly with him. He's a pretty abstract guy, so sometimes it's hard to understand where he's coming from but during that session particularly I was impressed with how he focuses himself. It's always interesting to find out what his inspirations are."

4.45: It's a tribute to Eyvind Kang that this record holds together so well. Choir, guitar, and Csihar are meshed into a wonderful, compelling force.

SO'M: "Everyone who is involved is as important as everyone else. When we play live, just because me and Greg are playing the whole time it doesn't mean that our role is more or less important than anyone else on stage. And the same goes for the album. Basically it's our direction but we're talking about very strong characters here and they are certainly very present on the album and very integrated. It's more about the form of the music than any individual's contribution. Or at least that's what we try and shoot for. And I think we've achieved that with this record because Greg and I couldn't have achieved this on our own."

5.54: A bell tolls. A pause. Guitars grind back into action...

SO'M "There are some tubular bells on 'Big Church' which were recorded in Ennio Morricone's studio and those were the same bells that were used on a lot of his recordings. Or a lot of the soundtracks at least, including The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. So that instrument has a pretty huge legacy. But it's just a tubular bell! [laughs] I'm actually really interested in the legacy of musical instruments you know. The history behind some of the stuff is pretty amazing. My main guitar is older than I am actually but I actually only know its history back ten years so there's another 25 years of history before that which I'm not sure about. Even the amplifiers that we use . . . It's interesting that something that can make such a profound artistic statement can also be such a tonic in the process. You don't know the history of these instruments."

'Hunting And Gathering'

Opens with a confused, post-apocalyptic feel, sounds zipping around each other like the survivor's radio transmissions bouncing off an atmosphere-clogging radioactive dust cloud.

SO'M: "It's about communicating, that's what music is. If you can communicate the idea of what you're going for why should there be a delineation between genres? The concept was to work with ensemble players and acoustic instrumentation, and approach Eyvind, and see if he can be the guy who can take it into that area. That was the initial concept, way before we laid down a single note or wrote a riff. And it remained the guiding, the rudder of the whole project."

0.46: Some of the most brutal riffing Sunn O))) have committed to tape

GA: "There are tracks that we came up with in the studio where we were rolling with what was coming out of us playing together. 'Hunting & Gathering' was totally conceived in the studio, and built upon. The same with 'Alice', that was written in the studio, but that track fits so well with what we were hoping Eyvind would bring to the project."

2:50 Enormous horns let forth triumphal blasts. The staircase to the heavens in A Matter Of Life And Death would be a fitting place for this to be unleashed.

SO'M: "We learned a lot about how different acoustic and electric instruments work together. That's what ensemble music actually is, it's about this instrument covers this area of sound and timbre, this instrument overlaps slightly with that, which has its own space, and overlaps with the third one so it becomes a piece of sound. I learned that the oboe's purpose is to be a piece of glue between other sections which are more prominent in their timbre. That was an interesting process. We didn't track the acoustic instruments at the same time as a full stack, so that wasn't a problem. It was a challenge to blend things so it sounds natural, but that's just a technical matter of overdubbing."

GA: "That was a definite concern in mixing. We didn't want things to sound bunged on, or out of place or awkward, so Randall [Dunn] and Mel [Dettimer], the engineers who were involved in mixing, worked really hard on making it sound natural. We definitely didn't want it to be like Metallica with strings, we didn't want that at all. That's the last resort of groups who've run out of ideas."


The finest track here. Begins with picked guitar and snoring drones which with brass swathes begin to dance, slowly.

SO'M: "The second track on Domkirke inspired the making of this record. The use of the organ. We'd worked with different keyboards, but never a pipe organ. It's hard not to fuck it up. It seemed so appropriate, and it sounded incredible. I guess there's something in the timbre that's similar to a distorted guitar and overdriven tubes.

GA: "I think there are some tracks on here where we both really stepped up and did something we hadn't done before. For example 'Alice', there's a tone and vibe on that that I don't think we've visited on other albums or tracks. The fact that Steve played on a very specific and different sounding tone for the guitar, not the complete wall, the over-saturated or distorted tone, we wanted something that was different. It was cool to try and work together to try and create something very different to what we'd done before.

3.32: There's so much space here, a real cinematic suspense, both in terms of evocation and never being able to tell where the track will go next. As harps trickle and the drone fades into the background, it also begs the question of where exactly Sunn O))) will go next after recording one of the albums of the decade...

SO'M: "I'm not surprised that me and Greg have lasted this long playing music together because we've always kept our expectations pretty low at every step of what we're doing. It's why we put out our own records, do our own artwork and do everything ourselves. You can keep a handle on things. We've been pretty lucky but at the same time it's not a big deal. We're pretty small profile. What we are lucky with though, is that we've managed to keep the integrity of what we want to do very pure. We've been lucky enough to find people to work with who have the same kind of integrity concerning doing things on your own terms rather than chasing success. We've had a little bit of success doing this but I think that's more to do with the persistence of believing in what you're doing and not chasing commercial acceptability.

"I think all of these collaborations come out of Sunn O)))'s history and legacy. If people are interested in that you can meet them on a personal level and take it from there. Sunn O))) is a very important being, somehow. Everything has its place."