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South Of No North: Greg Anderson Of Sunn O))) & Goatsnake Interviewed
Toby Cook , August 18th, 2015 07:25

Toby Cook speaks to Southern Lord boss Greg Anderson about the new Goatsnake album and the ever increasing stature of Sunn O)))

Sunn O))), and it’s two main protagonists Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley – at least on this site – need very, very little introduction, their drone metal/performance art/avant everything synthesis having over 17 years grown from complete obscurity to now positioning them as one of the few bands that, broadly speaking, strike some sort of (single, hour-long) chord with vast array of contributors and readers a like.

And yet, on the day of the group’s performance at London’s prestigious Royal Festival Hall it still seems more than a little inconceivable that a band whose early oeuvre consisted largely of two men with hideously down-tuned guitars bludgeoning one or two chords at a barely tectonic pace, have grown into one of the most wildly known, respected and commercially successful extreme metal bands in existence – one that has collaborated with everyone from Mayhem’s Attila Csihar, to composers such as Eyvind Kang and even former pop icon Scott Walker.

With the Seattle based pair having cut their musical teeth in far more palatable, if not at the time almost equally underground doom metal acts such as Thor’s Hammer, Burning Witch and, in the case of Anderson, the recently re-activated (after a recorded hiatus lasting nearly 15 years) Goatsnake, it seems even more remarkable that the sonically and physically uncompromising noise of Sunn O))) is what broke through into the wider consciousness.

In an effort to make sense of this and other sonic and cultural conundrums – and to talk new albums, the need to entertain, the recent and long awaited Goatsnake reunion and how not to shit all over your legacy when you wait 15 years between albums – we sat down with one half of Sunn O))), and Goatsnake helmsman, Greg Anderson ahead of their performance at the David Byrne curated Meltdown festival…

The last time you played the UK with Sunn O))) was headlining Temples festival in Bristol, and you’re soon to play again, this time at the Royal Festival Hall in London, which is remarkable leap and one surely no other even vaguely metal band is likely to have accomplished. And yet, ultimately Sunn O))) really shouldn’t be as popular as it is at all, should it?

Greg Anderson: Tell me about it. Honestly, I’m both surprised and grateful about it every single day. When we first started no one, and I mean no one, really cared. And, if I’m to be really, really honest, we didn’t really care. Especially about what people thought. We just wanted to experiment and play music together, really the audience, the idea that people would actually listen to it was kind of an afterthought, we were really making music for ourselves – in some ways Sunn O))) is a very selfish project. I mean, we weren’t even sure if we were ever going to play live, we imagined that it would just remain a studio project. And then when we did start playing live eventually it really started connecting with people and honestly that kind of gave me a lot of hope for people because it’s obviously very difficult, very challenging music – I was like, 'Wow! People can get into this? That’s awesome!' Because you wouldn’t expect most people – or really anyone – to be that into it. So yeah, I totally see where you’re coming from and I kind of agree. I think Sunn O))) somehow connects with people on this super primal level – it’s very real, but at the same time the music helps create this alternate reality, and people seem to want to be in that dimension for a couple of hours or so.

And obviously there is this hugely physical aspect to the music too – enough to blow-up PAs in Bristol for example!

GA: Oh yeah! And I think we sent a couple of people [at Temples festival] to the paramedics too with nosebleed and stuff! Or at least that’s what we heard. And, y’know, things like that are part of the reason we decided to play live and not be just a studio band, there’s a very physical quality to the sound that we wanted people to actually feel, just like we actually feel it whilst we’re playing – we were just, like, people really need to ‘feel’ this but it’s the sort of thing that can’t really translate, unfortunately, via a stereo. And it’s subsequently become a very, very important part of the band, because that is, I think, the true way to experience the band. The records are important, obviously, but you can’t even get close to the same frequencies, the same volume, through records; the bass just doesn’t translate in the same way at all.

How do the robes and the mystery fit in to all that? I hear that originally you started wearing them just so you didn’t have to look at the audience who were wondering who these weirdos were and what the fuck was going on?

GA: Well yeah, it was almost like, to me, I felt that playing music almost has this somewhat built in obligation to entertain and to evoke a particular reaction from your audience – you want them to clap, or to yell, or to…

Or to get a nosebleed.

GA: Exactly. So for me I didn’t feel comfortable playing this sort of music in the, if you like, ‘usual’ way – its non-traditional music so we felt that it needed to be presented in a non-traditional way. And also I literally found myself somewhat distracted by wondering what the reaction was, because obviously there have been some very extreme reactions to Sunn O))) – people either love it or hate it. Or really, really hate it. And so I just didn’t want to be distracted by that.

Actually, when we started Sunn O))) most of our shows were in the UK – we did a tour with Goatsnake and Orange Goblin in 2000, with Sunn O))) opening. It was basically a tour of the UK, we did a lot of little, like, roadhouses and halls in the middle of nowhere, and I found that I just wasn’t comfortable, I found that I was getting too distracted by the reactions – which were usually negative. And that’s fine, I can take criticism of course, but I just didn’t want to be distracted by it, it was just taking me too far out of the mind-set of the music.

So, for the last show of that tour we decided to push the amps all the way to the front of the stage and stand behind them so the audience couldn’t see the band – that was at The Underworld, in London, and it has to be one of my favourite shows ever. It was so great, at one point I actually laid down behind the amps and fell asleep for like 10 minutes or something! It was really, really cool.

So that’s essentially where the robes and everything came from, at that point we thought, look, if we’re going to continue this we’ve got to come up with something where we feel comfortable and that can also bring some sort of different aspect to the performance, something that made it different from just a bunch of dudes in t-shirts and jeans playing music and trying to get a positive reaction – we had to do something different and that’s how it became almost this performance art thing: Get more cabs and more and more amps and really make a monolith and a real spectacle of that. And then the robes and the fog became a really important thing too, to bring more of a sense of anonymity to it so that it wasn’t necessarily about the individual, like, “Oh look man, there’s Stephen O’Malley up there; dude, there’s Attila…” The idea is that you almost don’t know who it is. And that’s one of the great thigs about the group, you can walk around at a festival and no one really knows who you are, you can finish the set, take the robe off and go and get a drink at the bar.

And it presumably helps that, by and large, audiences are more receptive to Sunn O))) now? I mean, I can’t imagine what a bunch of Orange Goblin fans thought during those early shows.

GA: I know, right! And y’know, it’s amazing, it really is. I still trip out, even now, every time I see someone wearing a Sunn O))) t-shirt. Or especially if someone comes up to me at a show or a festival and is like “Whoa, you’re in Sunn O))), I love you guys” and I’m like, really? Why?!... [Laughs].

I’m lead to believe that you’ve already began work on a new Sunn O))) album, is that right? What stage are you currently at with it?

GA: Well actually yes. Stephen and I started working on some new material at the end of June back in Seattle so I’m hoping we can get something released by the end of the year. After that last record we did, Monolith And Dimensions, that was a real achievement for us personally but it left us with a big question to answer as to where we could go next, and we really weren’t too sure – we still love playing music together, and here and there we had come up with some new things, but we just didn’t know what the next move to make was. And then the opportunity came up to work with Scott Walker and we were like, 'Yeah, that sounds like a cool thing to be doing, what an incredible opportunity', and in a certain way having all these other projects, and new Goatsnake material too, it sort of forced us to the point of, like, okay it’s time for Sunn O))) to get together and do something. So that’s what we’re trying to do.

To what extent do you see all of your various musical projects as part of the same continuum, or do they all occupy separate specific lineages?

GA: Each of the bands are their own separate entity, certainly, but I see a tonne of connections and a lineage – some of the members of those bands are very similar too – so there’s a lot of connections but the execution is vastly different. What’s interesting is that most of my bands, from Burning Witch to Goatsnake and Sunn O))), all use the same tuning. Although Goatsnake actually tune up a little on this last record, but it’s all from the same place. I mean, Sunn O))) came from what me and Stephen were doing with Thor’s Hammer, which was then taken into Burning Witch, Goatsnake and eventually Sunn O))), so to me a lot of the sound and the tone – and obviously the amps we chose to use – carried over throughout those bands. It’s the attitude that is different. And, y’know, I wouldn’t want to be in the same band year after year after year – that’d be boring, right?

Is it fair to say that Goatsnake is more ‘fun’ whereas Sunn O))) is more ‘art’?

GA: I think as far as Goatsnake goes a lot of that feeling is to do with Pete as a frontman, he’s got a real different energy and personality and a lot of that comes across. For example, we played Maryland Deathfest earlier in the year during the day, like at three in the afternoon, the sun was shining, and I joked that, y’know, that’s cool we’re kind of a party band anyway. However, Winter, who played after us at 4pm, I mean, that was hilarious, like, watching Winter at 4pm in sunglasses and caked in sun lotion? It was really, really bizarre. So yeah, I do see Goatsnake not as less serious but certainly as more up-beat – we try to create a bit of a party atmosphere when we play, to have a good time and rock out, y’know. Sunn O)))’s not a rock band, we don’t ‘rock’ [laughs].

But Sunn O))) is still not an art project as such, right? Regardless of having performed in galleries and collaborated with artists who work in mediums other than music.

GA: Well again both bands are very different entities. I think what it is is that it’s more to do with the aesthetic of the band and the chemistry between the players that’s what creates the major differences. If you look at it Goatsnake has actually collaborated with a lot of different musicians over the years – Dem Preachers Daughters, of course, David Pajo [Slint] and Dave Catching to name a few. Sunn O))) obviously take it to a different level but regardless of the band the idea of collaboration has always been an interesting one to me.

What was it that brought you back into the right place to start writing Goatsnake riffs again?

GA: Most of the stuff was written between about October 2013 and May 2014. But there were few riffs that come from when I was part of this really interesting group that’d come together with London May from Samhain, Joel Grind (Toxic Holocaust) and Scott Carlson from Repulsion, but we just couldn’t get it off the ground; we couldn’t find a singer and then Joel moved away, so we kind of just stopped. But I’d been kind of in that mode of writing songs and playing – Sunn O))) is obviously a totally different beast, playing without rhythm, so much, certainly without a drummer; it’s not the traditional rock format – so it really dusted off the cobwebs playing with those guys, and really sparked a desire in me to start writing songs that were more structured. So I kind of got into that mode and started writing a lot more than I had been in the past.

After such a long break between albums how do you ensure you don’t just shit all over your legacy?

GA: You’ve got to take the chance, that’s part of the whole thrill of it is the risk. And if it doesn’t work out, fuck it! At least you tried, right? It’s like Sunn O))), obviously I’m heavily involved in that and to me that’s what I find really exciting about creating music, taking chances and doing something that is a bit like, 'Hey man, people might hate this but so what, that’s what we’re feeling, let’s do this!' And what I’ve noticed with Sunn O))) is that by actually taking those chances, that’s what people really get off on and I think that’s one of the reasons that Sunn O))) has such an amazing, loyal following is because we’re different, we’re pushing boundaries and taking chances. And with Goatsnake we’ve tried to apply the same ethos, weirdly. And, y’know, I’ve talked to bands before that have come back after years away and they’ve said, ‘No, we’re not going to write a new record because we don’t want to taint our legacy.' But that just seems like the easy way out, right? I don’t do ‘easy’.

Sunn O))) play the Royal Festival Hall in London, tonight, as part of David Byrne's Meltdown festival. Black Age Blues by Goatsnake is available now via Southern Lord