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In Extremis

An Interview With Æthenor's Stephen O'Malley
Jack Mills , March 23rd, 2011 08:20

Stephen O'Malley talks to Jack Mills about Æthenor's new album En Form For Blå, what's next for Sunn O))) and Alan Moore

The following is a snapshot of a sprawling conversation I had with Seattle's Stephen O'Malley - a prolific, elusive behemoth of mindful musicality and peerless handcraft – to address the rumbling axioms beneath Æthenor's fourth and newest outing, En Form For Blå.

As many reading this are aware, Æthenor is a fully functional avant supergroup of sorts, led by the scruff of the neck by multi-instrumentalist Daniel O'Sullivan and drawn by an informed crew of collaborators and long-standing members. The album was recorded during a residency at Blå, a venue in Oslo last year, following a decision to record improvised material with the guidance of pioneering jazz drummer Steve Noble, noted for his work with Derek Bailey.

After five faulty attempts at making contact with O'Malley in his hotel room in Geneva, I didn't so much start up a conversation with him as resume a decade-long internal dialogue, based on but a glancing selection of the gushingly impressive body of work I've been able to get my head around.

Reminiscent of these works, O'Malley's attention to detail – his exacting retention of information: names, dates, locations, times and themes – is mammoth. The man is a sponge for awkward and nigh-on lost segments of time. After talking casually (catching up with the old friend I've always known but never interacted with felt disarming, needless to say), we picked the bones out of Æthenor's line-up and conceptual re-alignments, new projects and the abyss-like unfurling of ongoing pursuits.

How are you Stephen?

Stephen O'Malley: Good, thanks. It’s a nice day, and I’m drinking a lot of caffeine.

So you’re living in Paris now I take it?

SOM: Yeah, I’ve lived here for four years now.

What influenced your decision to move there?

SOM: Well it was mainly personal reasons that I don’t really wanna talk about in an interview. Also, I lived in England in the 90s for a year, in Suffolk actually. In 1997 I was working for Misanthrope records there, it was my first real job as an art director. I was young and my CV wasn’t anything impressive really. Also, at the time I was more arrogant [laughs]!

I guess being brash helps when you’re starting out…

SOM: Brash, yeah. I was like 'Fuck them, I’m not gonna live here anymore', so I moved back to the states, to LA, which was probably one of the worst decisions I’ve made - geographically anyway. Then I moved back to New York and started touring a lot.

You were doing marketing for a while…

SOM: When I lived in New York from '98 to 2006, I worked in an ad agency as a creative director. In a way it was exactly what I wanted to be doing, and it funded all my music stuff. It allowed me to buy my equipment and take vacation time to go on tours. And with early shows we didn’t really make any money - usually you’d have to pay to go on tour. Khanate was ridiculous: we’d get paid around two hundred dollars a gig in total. But when you have a job like that, it allowed me to experiment and to be more ambitious with my output. Eventually I got really sick of the agency and decided to quit and go freelance. Art and music took over from there really, I’m very lucky. For some reason I always thought I’d end up living in Holland, but it’s funny how the cards fall sometimes.

I love Paris. The last time I was there, I was listening to quite a lot of Sunn O))) and it kind of complemented the scenery: Big, uncompromising boulevard blocks and wide streets.

SOM: That’s cool. I’ve actually done very little music here, actually. Sunn O))) have never rehearsed there... we’ve done a few concerts though I guess. I have a studio room here, more of a shed really where I play guitar by myself. It’s funny, it’s not really the epicentre of underground music at all, which I kind of like. There’s a lot of really interesting musicians living in Paris and I know there’s an experimental noise scene here, but in New York, for example, there’s so many groups, so much going on at once. I have my crew of metal-type guys, but generally speaking the people you work with and are friends with all live in different places, which is nice. I'm lucky that I don't need the local support anymore.

Another thing I like about Paris is that there are so many layers of society that relative outsiders just don't know about and can't really access. It's the same in any other major city, but for some reason Paris seems a little bit more mystical and preserved.

So, onto the new. With Æthenor (is it, by the way, pronounced with emphasis on the 'e', like EEthenor, or the 'a', like ATHenor?), you recently released an album based on live recordings, called En Form For Blå...

SOM: Well, it's funny, that's really a topic in itself. I pronounce it ATHenor.

I know Daniel [O'Sullivan - Æthenor, Mothlite, Ulver, Miracle, ex-Guapo] pronounces it EEthenor...

SOM: Yeah, and Kris [Rygg – Ulver, Arcturus, Borknagar] calls it ETHenor, with emphasis on the 'th'. I'm like: 'No, it's a Norwegian word!' So we all disagree, but only on the one vowel. But it's open to interpretation, which is why we're not strict about it. Our music mutates, be it on a much more dramatic level. Our name is a symbol of that. The different pronunciations signify this openness and a collaboration of our individual personalities.

So the shows took place in Oslo, and you recorded three performances for the project...

SOM: With the band's previous records I was more of a 'side guy', though they were great. They were studio-based efforts as we didn't really play concerts until right before our third record [Faking Gold and Murder, 2009). I was talking to Daniel, and him and Vincent [de Roguin - Shora], who isn't on the record and left after we started playing live ironically, decided to get a line-up together, and asked Steve Noble to play. We did two mini tours of five or six shows I guess. We were a five piece by that stage – Kris, me, Vincent, Daniel and Steve. They'd done some one-off shows before, in Switzerland I think, but I'm not sure how they came off. These performances were really fueled by Steve, who's kind of a master improviser. My guitar work is really reactive with his playing – we inspire each other onstage. We were then asked to a play in Oslo.

Do you think the mini tour influenced your decision to record the performances in Oslo?

SOM: Yeah. At our last show of the tour at The Croft in Bristol, England - this tiny venue - everything just sounded fucking amazing, and by that point we'd all decided to explore the live recording route. But what we'd also agreed on was that Daniel was essentially the boss of the band, which I personally really like because in a few of my other projects I'm probably one of the key decision makers. It's nice to take a step back. Anyway, I had a good contact in Oslo, a promoter, and we arranged a residency at this really nice venue [Blå], and we ended up with one each month during spring last year. With each show we swapped and varied instruments, excluding Steve of course. One show I played a prepared guitar and a huge plate reverb, another I was on bass. I think Daniel had a few synthesizers he was experimenting with, a Nord was definitely one of them. Steve plays a variety of percussion instruments, and the sounds he creates is just so compelling and weird. If you were to look at what he was playing, it rarely registered with the noises coming out, which was pretty cool.

It's actually nice to not know what's going on sometimes. I always put duct tape over instructions on pedals, so I don't get bogged down and over-think things. I like the idea of not really knowing what the effects are adding per se, but just that they're contributing to the overall sonic atmosphere. So we recorded the shows and Daniel made edits afterward. Editing more than mastering, really - there are a few overdubs and stuff, but it's mainly the raw sound. It's improvised music, or as Daniel calls it, 'automatic composition', and I like how confident we all are in a live setting now. Improvised music is risky though, you really have to pay attention [laughs]. It doesn't demand so much of your memory in relation to a composition or score, but improvisational creativity stems from a completely different area of your brain. It's more about not repeating yourself and unremembering creative habits.

So it's really about the process of creating rather than 'paying debt', so to speak, to your established methods of production?

SOM: Absolutely, that's a good way to put it. So that's where the band's at. It's really exciting to be playing music with those guys. Right before I start a tour or a project with them, I always question whether I should be doing it: flying somewhere to play an improv. concert and so on, which takes a lot out of you. But as soon as I start playing, I know I've made the right decision.

I guess if you're playing with the same artists in different projects, you can easily re-ignite creative parity. Daniel, for instance, has played live shows as part of Sunn O))).

SOM: I love Dan, man, he's a very good friend. We've been friends for a very long time and we've done a lot of music together. He's an amazing musician. One of the reasons Vincent decided to leave was because he didn't really agree with the improvisation thing. He kind of referred to it as 'jamming', which totally didn't sit well with me. He suggested that we do some composition, and I was like: 'Everyone here is completely capable of that; sophisticated avant-garde composition and so on, chamber music basically. But the things is, you have to write it.'

I wasn't prepared to do that. Dan said the thing he likes about Æthenor is that his other projects are composition-led, like Miracle which has amazing structure. The vocals and the melodies and harmonics; it takes a lot of intelligence to put together. It's just the same with Ulver and Mothlite. But Æthenor, for him, is almost like a creative recharge, an outlet. It's really interesting to discover musicality as you're playing, in real time. As a group, we've all got a lot of experience, but what makes it fresh is our approach. The ...Blå stuff is a document of this 'outing' of the music, whereas our previous records were much more conceptual.

Do you believe a live recording was inevitably the next step in the band's progression then? Also, you've said in the past that you've grown tired of so-called 'studio trickery'?

SOM: Well that is true, but I do love working in the studio. As I go on in my career, I've gotten more and more independent from record labels and have to do a lot of the expenses myself. Studios are expensive. The nice thing about ...Blå was that we brought a computer into the club with us, and recorded everything live. But a proper recording studio... there's not a lot of them left any more, and they cost the world. There's a subdued pressure on you to finish your work, which doesn't work particularly well in an improvised setting. Sometimes it's helpful though: Last year, for instance, I worked on a theatre score, which I consider up there with Monoliths and Dimensions in terms of sheer creative taxation. It worked for me because I was able to set my work to tight schedules each day. With Æthenor, the studio work will always be influenced by the live performance anyway.

So you perform as a unit in the studio, as opposed to recording parts separately. Is that how you did things with the first three albums then?

SOM: I wasn't really involved in the production end of things, I was more of a session guy, although the very first Æthenor recordings were by me and Vincent, normally backstage during a Sunn O))) tour in 2003. They became the nucleus of the first record [Deep In Ocean Sunk the Lamp Of Light, 2006], and maybe some of it ended up on the second [Betimes Black Cloudmasses, 2008]. Since then, I went to London a couple of times for sessions with Daniel, who asked me to write a couple of pieces. When I got the second record in the mail and saw my name on it, I felt pretty distant from the whole thing. I gave it a listen and was like: 'I can't even hear what I'm doing!' [laughs]. It's not a bad thing at all, though, because -especially with the new record - the compartments blend together sonically. It's never exactly clear what role each instrument plays and I think that's a really interesting fundamental of Æthenor's music. It's really that the additive elements create a more interesting sum. It's a cliché, but it's true to say that the band is much more than the sum of its players. Sonically, it's something Æthenor can hold dear and is special to us.

How did you prepare yourself for the show, mindset-wise?

SOM: Well, we stopped talking about what we were gonna do after the first show, because it almost become hilarious. Percussion-wise, for instance, we'd talk about preparing a 20 minute long piece, only for it to change dramatically after the first two minutes when it came to playing it. Oslo is a pretty special place for me, personally. One of my best friends lives there, along with loads of friends I made in the black metal days. Mentally, that does something to me, it's nice. The nature is inspiring there, too. I'd never done a residency before, either, and I guess the point of one is exactly that; to gain a familiarity with returning crowds, and to work on new material and ideas in a more relaxed, accepting environment.

How can you compare your projects, in terms of production methods?

SOM: Well, with the KTL I get to work with another amazing, unique musician. Peter [Rehberg - Pita], who doesn't actually like to call himself a musician, works in a totally masterful way. Recently we did a commission for the Louvre museum, a film score performance there. It was a film called Sunrise by an old silent filmmaker called F.W. Murnau, who was around in the 1920s. We did a lot of pre-production for it in loads of cool places, including the Elektronmusikstudion in Stockholm where we played with these amazing modular synthesizers. We stayed there for about a week, recording what would become the base material. I also took some of the material for another residency I did since Blå in this farm in New South Wales, Australia, with Alan Lamb, who is known for recordings he made in the 1970s and '80s using super-long telegraph wires in the countryside of western Australia – there's a good article about him on The Quietus, actually. There's this place called The Wired Lab there that have these long poles that stretch across the hills. I did some recordings there that I used for the Louvre piece. The KTL are currently working on a new record based on some of them, too, but it's taking a while. I took a little break from the project from 2009/'10, but things are starting to shape with it again.

And Sunn O)))?

SOM: Sunn O))) is on a break. We've been so for about a year now. We did a lot from 2007 to last year. Fives tours supporting the album, a hundred shows in a single year I think, which is a lot. We don't really want to become a touring band. Greg said something really funny about it once: 'We're not gonna turn into High on Fire!'. Sunn O))) focuses on irregularity, so when you're taking the irregularity from it, you're kind of sabotaging it. But we're curating a line-up in April at Roadburn festival in Holland, though. We've got Winter playing, Keiji Haino, Corrosion of Conformity, Trap Them, and a bunch of death metal bands. It's going to be amazing, actually, a real mix of old and new acts. We'll be playing too, of course.

So will Æthenor be coming to the UK at any point soon?

SOM: Yes, we're playing the Shepherd's Bush Empire at some stage. We've penciled in June 4, I think, and we might play a few more UK shows around that time too. I've also been asked to perform with Alan Moore in London as well, which may happen around July time. He's just awesome, a total wizard.

To visit Stephen O'Malley's website, click here.