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INTERVIEW: Stephen O'Malley
Sean Guthrie , April 8th, 2014 07:40

On the eve of a UK tour, Thee Grimm Master Ov Elektrik Guitar talks to Sean Guthrie about Aluk Todolo and the new SunnO))) LP which is "almost finished"

SOMA photograph courtesy Lucie Inland

British followers of Stephen O'Malley, a man whose pursuit of artistic transcendence finds him hopping between continents almost more frequently than his band SunnO))) change chords, this week get the opportunity to witness his elemental guitar inquiries in an uncommon context: as a solo artist.

Starting in Glasgow on Tuesday, the Paris-based musician, artist/designer and label boss winds his way from north to south in tandem with French occult rock trio Aluk Todolo, having not long flown home from a series of dates in Canada and the US, where he played as part of the avant-rock three-piece Nazoranai (with Keiji Haino and Oren Ambarchi, the latter also sparring with O'Malley at the Big Ears festival in Knoxville, Tennessee) and solo. Both disciplines, he explains down the line from his apartment near Pere Lachaise cemetery, are equally nourishing.

"I love playing music with others – that's the pleasure of music for me. This is what I love to do. And that collaborative communication – the camaraderie around it, the vested risk you're taking together – is exciting. When it goes well it's really rewarding.

"When you're playing solo you don't have that. It's entirely different. I suppose it's different for a songwriter, someone who might be singing and who has more structure. I'm playing something that's a 45-minute piece itself. I gotta admit I use it as a sort of self-analysis, my own music." He laughs at the thought.

O'Malley's palpable optimism about his first solo foray around the UK is closely bonded to his travelling companions. "The band I'm touring with, we're pretty good friends. They're a Paris-based band and we've played a lot of concerts together in France over the last number of years in this same configuration. We enjoy each other's company and they're a great band. They tour a lot in places like Romania and Poland but they've never had a chance to tour the UK. They're killer."

Earlier this year O'Malley visited Japan for a clutch of shows spanning solo performance, Nazoranai and a further collaboration with Ambarchi and Jim O'Rourke before flying to Australia to appear at Adelaide's maiden Tectonics, a roving experimental music festival birthed by conductor Ilan Volkov in Iceland in 2013 – variants have also taken place in Israel and Glasgow while New York gets its first taste in May. O'Malley appeared at the inaugural Tectonics Glasgow a year ago, and both the Scottish and Australian experiences have had a profound effect on him. Above all, though, it is Volkov whose talent and innovation have affected him most.

"Ilan Volkov is brilliant. He's our age, he's in his mid-thirties ..." I interrupt to say I'm 42. "So am I – so he's younger than us! He's a major conductor. He's already been a resident conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for seven years. He's a music lover and he's brilliant – he can read scores instantly.

"He's given the chance to put together a two-day programme and he turns it into a festival. And he's choosing to put pieces in the programming [that take a lot of risks]. There was at least one Scottish composer who had a piece premiered at Tectonics [Martin Suckling, whose Release was performed by the BBC SSO]. What a great opportunity.

"He's taken this festival and he's put it in Glasgow, he's done it in Tel Aviv – his hometown – and he's also done it in Adelaide. I was so happy to be there because I got to listen to [Iannis] Xenakis pieces played live by this incredible Japanese piano player Aki Takahashi, who knew Xenakis and commissioned work from him, and she was playing this incredible programme – a Xenakis piece called Mists, a Giacinto Scelsi piece, a [Giuliano] d'Angiolini piece. I mean, you just don't get the chance to hear this stuff live.

"And the audiences – music heads from out there, a lot of young people and fucking noise nerds, you know? Experimental music people like me, or like us. It's a fortunate situation for the audience – you can hear all this on record and YouTube but you don't hear it in a room played by the person who commissioned the piece, or, in Glasgow, hearing all the [Alvin] Lucier pieces being played, some of them by himself."

That weekend in May 2013 was a frenzy of pathfinding, I tell O'Malley, with music that reached out into hitherto unexplored realms. "And that's the spirit of the audience too," he says. "I didn't find them hifalutin' or critical. There were critics there but it wasn't a high-society thing, which can sometimes surround that kind of music.

"Also, it's experimental music, so sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. With some of the performances I was involved in I wish we had the chance to do it again, because I know it could be better.

"I had several great experiences in Glasgow – with [Iancu] Dumitrescu [Hazard And Tectonics; Elan And Permanence] and the Lucier piece [Criss-Cross, alongside Ambarchi], with Ana Maria Avram [Metalstorm II]. Her piece was amazing, one of the favourite things I played."

After bathing in the warm glow of the acoustically impeccable City Halls in Glasgow, O'Malley found the practicalities of playing the two-day Tectonics Adelaide an exercise in contrasts. "One of the days was basically in a giant tin shed – this is Australia's oldest theatre and it's historical but it's a concrete building with a tin roof. 'Yeah, it's a theatre but ... didn't they trade cattle in here?'" O'Malley bursts into laughter. "Which is fine because everyone made the best of it. That was kind of an Australian twist to it, I guess. 'Historical' in a country so young is not the same as in Scotland, you know?"

Followers of Sunn O))) needn't fret that O'Malley's compulsive thirst for artistic alliance poses a threat to his and Greg Anderson's groundbreaking excursions into new sonic galaxies. After Terrestrials, this year's graceful, meditative collaboration with Ulver, what's on the horizon?

"We started working on a record this year – we did a big, big session in London in January. I can't talk about the specifics of it yet but it's a really special project. It's almost finished actually, it's being mixed in the next couple of weeks. We'll probably announce it before the summer. It's really exciting – you'll understand once you hear the announcement." More laughter ensues.

Monoliths & Dimensions still blows me away, I say. It's a comprehensively, consistently absorbing record. "There are things you get to participate in in your life as a musician or artist," he responds carefully, "and after a few years go by it's pretty astounding, thinking about what happened around that album, the music, the musicians, all the amazing tours we did, and how extreme the album is, and how it was received. Who knows where that's gonna stand in the history of this kind of music?

"That album may actually have been a little inspired by my relationship with Ilan Volkov. We share a lot of information about composers and other things the other might not know about, mainly in my direction. He's got a fucking astounding memory. But also Eyvind Kang did a lot of the arrangements on Monoliths & Dimensions, and he and Ilan have done some pretty cool projects. They did some concerts for the Iceland Tectonics, pieces written by Eyvind and Jessica Kenney – they're husband and wife. And Jessica also is on Monoliths & Dimensions. She's an incredible singer, she's the leader of the choir on the second track ['Big Church'] – that's a really crazy piece of music."

And by making it you're throwing down a huge gauntlet to yourselves, I suggest. Where do you go from there? O'Malley laughs again. "You'll see, believe me... We're in a position where people will ask that question. And I was a little worried about this record with Ulver. It's a great record but it's not the next step in this mentality of more and more 'out', which you can't do – you can't constantly top yourself like that. The way you evolve is not like a marathon runner where you constantly improve quantifiably; it's more abstract. But the album we're working on is pretty great."

Many people overlook or forget the fact that music is made from sound, which can itself be rewarding. There's an acknowledgement of this across O'Malley's multifarious projects, from Ensemble Pearl to KTL via Khanate, Gravetemple and beyond.

"I did an interview the other day," he says, "where one of the questions was related to my relationship with metal. 'Do you still find yourself part of the metal scene? Do you follow up on metal records?' To be honest, I've never felt myself part of the metal scene. I've always felt part of my local scene, and the people in that scene. I've never felt like I was part of the black metal scene, even though I have a lot of friends in that scene and I like a lot of the music.

"I played in metal bands, or kind of metal bands, when I was younger, and it's just a different way [of playing guitar]. It's not better or worse, it's just different. I like metal as much as I like raga music, and I like raga music as much as Japanese flute music. I like musique concrete. I like sound. I like music that invigorates me and that has to do with the attitude of the music itself, not the virtuosity of the instrumentation."

Before the next eruption from Mount Sunn O))), however, O'Malley is content to stand on his own two feet over the coming week in the UK. "I appreciate having the opportunity to do something solo and consider things in that way, and have an audience who are interested," he says. "It's a real gift."

Stephen O'Malley and Aluk Todolo play Glasgow School of Art, April 8; Deaf Institute, Manchester, April 9, Gateshead Town Hall, April 10; St John on Bethnal Green Church, London, April 11; The Old Coroners Court & Morgue, Bristol, April 12; and Green Door Store, Brighton, April 13