Inspiration From Above and Below: The Strange World Of… SunnO)))

Philosopher and cultural theorist Niall Scott catches some chin-scratching time with Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, as SunnO))) reissue Dømkirke on vinyl and announce North American live dates. Live photography by Samantha Hayley

Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley of SunnO))) have singled themselves out as innovators and collaborators since their first coming together in Seattle. Having worked with a plethora of artists and a range of musical forms, Kannon, which was released late last year, is a hymn to the eastern goddess of mercy and could be described as auditory philosophy. The much awaited work comes after what has been a long period of touring, playing live and for many, anticipation, to see what these behemoths of drone would offer after the unprecedented critical acclaim of their 2009 Monoliths & Dimensions. Where previous works by SunnO))) have been earthy, grounded with roots going deep into metal’s heavy origins, this work is both true to SunnO)))’s oeuvre and traditions, yet comes from a different place altogether. Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson have toiled again with Attila Csihar to bring us a series of eagerly awaited other-worldly compositions that find their sonic quality expressing a long standing friendship that goes back to their early experiments in Thorr’s Hammer. Attila’s studied poetry and cultural theorist Aliza Shvarts’ essay in the liner notes adds to a cerebral core able to guide the listener through the work, compositionally providing a decelerated space to ponder themes in the music.

Congratulations on Kannon. I’ve been listening to it on a loop, finding Deleuzian ideas of time, rhythm and pulse, accelerations and decelerations; as an ebb and flow of water on the sea shore in the work.

Stephen O’Malley: That’s beautiful man, to get Deleuze into a conversation about heavy music is always a way of making it sound better. I know what you mean psychologically in a simple ways our mind and our hearing is always searching for a structure to make sense of or to comprehend what we are listening to. Its pretty interesting things you do with long form tone work. SunnO))) get into it pretty deeply, but it’s a bit more in a phenomenological way than it is in a compositional way, when we are playing we search for it, then ride it. I like to say its like surfing on the energy and using the torque with the sound. It is interesting n the way you find structure in the water- I love the metaphor of the ocean, it’s great.

The work also contains, alongside Attila’s lyrics, a critical theory essay by Aliza Shvarts, from Yale University. She has written before about your music and its heaviness as a bearing, a bringing forth. Aliza brings out those double meanings. Do you think it is the equivalent of riffing extemporising, improvising academically using linguistic tools instead of musical ones?

SOM: I became aware of what she was writing and it had some paragraphs on what we were doing and I read this essay and was kind of blown away. There is resistance to the idea of going further in these topics comes from people who are lazy about thinking and in imaging. It’s kind of juvenile to at least not be attracted to thinking about it more. One of the coolest things I like about the piece the most is she breaks down Attila’s performance in grammatical terms. What I like about this text and Aliza was it was a different point of view. I was also really turned on by the feminist approach, an unusual approach with our music, I mean we’re not a feminist band or a political band of course, but her point of view has these ideals and philosophies – it made a lot of sense, so when Greg and I discussed how we were going to frame this record, what elements we were going to use, what face we were going to put on it we both read that piece by her, we were thinking what about this old form of Jazz liner notes, you know an outsider point of view.

Greg Anderson: To be honest with you I read it once, it was really interesting and yeah Stephen and I wanted something to add another dimension to the record, we had done that before, Kim Thayill from Soundgarden did some liner notes for Altar, it was the idea of having a different perspective on our music and an homage to the Jazz records of 60s and 70s that had extensive liner notes. I always really loved reading those, especially since I was like a punk and metal kid, who stumbled across John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and was totally blown away by it. Almost like guiding you through; if you are listening to the record and reading those liner notes it kind of adds another level or another dimension to the album which I thought would be interesting I think there should be more liner notes like that. Sometimes it’s kind of comforting. Like someone’s along for the journey, pointing out a thing you might not recognise or maybe may have missed, you know?

For Aliza Shvarts previous work on SunnO)):

Troubled Air: The Drone And Doom Of Reproduction In SunnO)))’s Metal Maieutic, from Women And Performance: A Journal Of Feminist Theory Vol 24 Issue 2-3 pp: 203-215.

The Formation Of Sunn O)))

In SunnO))) first coming together, Is there material that comes from before, from the Seattle times, pre-SunnO))) that comes back to haunt you in the music?

GA: I guess I haven’t really thought about it like that, the roots of everything stems back to when Stephen and I first started playing together in Seattle. The group that we first played in together was called Thorr’s Hammer which was a very primitive slow death metal band. We were really obsessed with Hellhammer and Celtic Frost and we really wanted to have something that sounded like that coz we were just two guys really starting to play music together. So those roots are still important; but we’ve gotten older and there’s a lot of experiences we’ve had. But it’s still all there, we still listen to that music and still have the same feeling as back then. We’re two guys that have a mutual respect for a lot of the same music and enjoy playing music together; nothing’s happened drastically that’s changed that.

SOM: It’s kind of hard to remember you know how it is, it’s like 20 years ago, it’s hard to remember the progression, the way it worked. That band was around for two years writing songs. One thing I can say is that there was one song we ended up writing in early ‘97 on our record Dreams called ‘Still Born’ and it has this breakdown passage in the middle that is really slow feedback guitar, a monotonous monoform riff. For me when we hit that part I remember thinking, ‘Okay now I can go into my head and it get immersed in it, instead of trying to remember the fingerings of these riffs.’ I wasn’t a very good guitar player and I’m still not. It is hard for me to remember the structures of these riffs. I think that moment for me was the first time there was a passage in a song I was involved in writing that I went into that space, which SunnO))) occupies a lot with its music. It was one of those points in my opinion that was important in our music. A point where we were playing, where we could listen, where we could lose ourselves, to be immersed in sound. A point where the listener could reach meditation, or trance or wherever; it depends on the actual person as they have their own vocabulary for it. Actually looking back, I think of Burning Witch as being a very cool time in my life as a 20/21-year-old guy with some crazy people in a city that didn’t have an underground metal scene at the time. (It does now. Seattle is very strong. It’s incredible that this music survived until today and that there’s interest in it.) At the time we were playing shows in Chinese restaurants and shit; there was nothing going on. I suppose musically that is one of the preludes for SunnO))) being formed. But of course it came out of the ideas we had together.

The Lingering Tones Of Black Sabbath

In your work there is a sense of distillation of the purest forms of heaviness in the sound, as if you stripped a Black Sabbath riff down and stretched it out over eternity.

GA: [LAUGHS] Yeah I think that’s exactly what we were subconsciously trying to do when we first started playing music together. The huge thing that we bonded on was Sabbath. We were really obsessed with Sabbath and still are to this day. For SunnO))), in comparison to the more traditional structure of Thor’s Hammer or Burning Witch, not only the make-up of the band, the instrumentation, but also the way the songs were written was based on a very traditional song structure. In SunnO))) the influences were still the same – Celtic Frost, Sabbath, Darkthrone, Bathory and the Melvins – but we decided that we wanted to do something that was the opposite of a traditional band. We had Earth as a guide especially the Earth two record [Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version]; devoid of structure and more freeform. We were trying to create sounds and riffs that were more open-ended and didn’t have a specific start and stop time. The whole idea from the beginning was kind of an anti-band really, not trying to follow a traditional structure or the way a normal band would operate.

Miles Davis And Obsession

Speaking of freeform, Miles Davis is a strong influence on that way of thinking about composition and band structure, right?

GA. Yeah that’s definitely correct. I think overall, the crux of our friendship is the obsessiveness with music and sound that we share. And that’s not just one particular genre or style of music; there’s not really any sort of music that we don’t care for. If there’s an artist or band within any sort of genre with something about them, then that’s interesting. There was a lot of talk about Miles Davis and jazz around the time of Monoliths & Dimensions because Julian Priester who’s an incredible jazz musician plays on the record. He played with John Coltrane. But it wasn’t that Monoliths & Dimensions was a jazz record; it was more influenced by the aesthetic and the free spirit of Jazz. It is definitely true that Stephen and I are really, completely obsessed with Miles Davis, especially the late sixties early seventies era of Miles Davis.

Like his electronic era, with Live Evil and so on…

GA: Yes starting with In a Silent Way and of course Bitches Brew, my favourite of that period, but Live Evil was a great record, Stephen would agree. The thing I thought was really interesting and magnetic about Miles Davis in that period was that for us the music just kept on getting darker. More out there, you know, if you look at the path he took. I’m always connected to dark music, attracted to it, as an artist. That was really an amazing span of time for an artist to create so much incredible music, all the live performances that have been bootlegged, I’ve searched those out as well…

Are you a collector; do you collect them?

GA: Of the Miles stuff? For sure. It was funny, we had an opportunity to go to Japan, a couple of times and there’s a bunch of shops in Japan that have every concert that had ever been recorded. I would say something like 80-90% of his performances were documented and recorded, so we’d come back from Japan with these stacks and stacks of Miles Davis bootlegs. It was inspiring for us to listen to a series of completely different concerts that he gave during the same two or three week period of touring. It’s evidence that his music was always changing and was different pretty much every single time; and that’s also something we apply to what we do.


In the Kannon liner notes, Greg, you send your gratitude to Goatsknake. Living in L.A. does the desert have an effect on Goatsnake sound?

GA: For sure, a lot of that has to do with our vocalist, Pete Stahl. He is involved with that scene. The rest of us live in the city and don’t get out to the desert as much as we would like to. He has a group there made up of dudes that live in Joshua Tree called Earthlings, so he has a stronger connection to it but it’s definitely that sort of music that came out of that scene with Kyuss and Masters Of Reality. The whole scene was definitely influential sonically and lyrically for Pete. But with a lot of SunnO))) material it’s hard to say because the last two records were recorded and written in Seattle, even though I live in LA and Steve lives in Paris or New York. So when we come together; what we make transcends the location, it comes from a different place, I’m not sure where that is…

Goatsnake portrait by Samanthan Muljat

The Sound And The Tech: Travis Bean Guitars And RAT Distortion Pedals

Your equipment is an important part of the world of SunnO))). Both Rat pedals and Travis Bean Guitars contribute to the sound.

SOM: When I got my first Travis Bean guitar it totally changed my sound. This instrument – the electric guitar – is a folk instrument. The applications of this instrument are so broad: from SunnO))) to Thai dance music to blues to microtonal work. For me graduating to playing a Travis Bean was like going from playing a stand up piano at your mom’s house to like playing a Bosendorfer. The resonance and the colour of the sound was a universe apart and that let me learn a lot more about resonance and feedback and how amplification works. The triangulation between player, guitar and amplifier and the energy transference through the air is one of the fundamental ingredients of SunnO)))’s sound. I have a bunch of different ones now, also others based on the TB with aluminium neck; the entire resonating area under the strings is aluminium. As time goes on I rely less and less on effects that colour the sound and mainly use the clean sound of the guitar. Now my distortion effects are dialled back by about 40%. It’s a very different way to how Greg uses his sound but it’s a complement to that too. Greg is the master of the low mid range and the mid range, but mine has so many more harmonics that come through in the very low and high range because it’s got more clean elements from the way it resonates. The complement is quite cool. Its kind of technical but also built round the experience of playing.

Greg, are you still using the same pedals, your Rat?

GA: Always! Yes. It has become an important tool in our arsenal. There are two important tools. One is the SunnO))) model t, the original vintage SunnO))) guitar with two pedals and the other is the Rat. Both Steve and I use Rat pedals; they have always been the weapon of choice, since the beginning.

Is it one of the ones that is still in production? Or is it a vintage piece of equipment?

GA: Well there’s been a bunch of different models that have been made – I have a lot of them. Right now I’m using the turbo Rat actually, but it has the original chip called the LM308. This is the secret ingredient of the pedal. The originals had that until they stopped using them and everyone freaked out. So then a bunch of companies started making clones with the original chip, and then Rat were like, ‘Ok we’re gonna make a version. We’re gonna bring the chip back.’ But I have like, an older one that I like to use for SunnO))), one that I’ve had for 10 years.

I don’t know if I have the very original one that I was using back in the day. That’s kind of a joke between Stephen and I. There was always a Rat laying around, and at the end of a tour or a show we could never figure out whose was whose, because we never wrote our names on them. There’s always been a bunch floating around, I went through a serious phase over the last couple of years, purchasing every single different variation that exists. On top of this there are independent boutique companies that are making clones. I think I’ve got about 15 or 16 varieties of Rat pedal.

Scott Walker And The Soused Recording Experience

With the album Soused that you recorded with Scott Walker, is there an element that comes back in on Kannon? Maybe on some of the vocal sounds that Attila delivers? Is it something that you worked or were influenced by in working with Scott Walker and his voice?

SOM: Working with Scott Walker was so tremendously educational and amazing. I think it really affected Gregg and I in a strong way and probably that will continue in all of the work we’ll do in the future. Working with him and his team in the studio was very different for us because we always produce our own music. At that time Scott was a composer and we were arranging and interpreting our music. In a way it was a bit easier than usual. It was a case of, ‘Ok we are just performing as the band SunnO))).’ So we were playing a very different role but it helped me understand how we can put together complicated music. The only link between those two amazing individual singers with a lot of charisma is the fact that they are both amazing individual singers with a lot of charisma. I think that Attila is probably more directly inspired by liturgical music, chant, polyphonic vocals, that kind of thing, whereas Scott is inspired by things I can’t even begin to imagine. He seems to know about everything, but you know he’s a songwriter, he comes from that sixties song writing tradition. That is his strength in a nutshell. Of course he’s totally avant-garde and he’s an amazing composer.

Working with Gisèle Vienne & Peter Rehberg

Kannon, like most of your other works is collaborative; you have had some collaborations with people like Peter Rehberg and Gisèlle Vienne in the past. How have these affected you?

SOM: There’s actually no collaborations with Gisèlle or Peter on the Kannon record but I’ve done collaborations with them in my other work. Gisèlle is a theatre director, Peter is a computer musician. About ten years ago SunnO))) were invited to work with Peter on some music at Gisèlle’s place. It was a score for a piece that was a big turning point for me in many ways. Musically it was the first moment when we collaborated more with others dancers, choreography also a lighting directors and technical directors. It was a moment where I realised, and learnt from Gisèlle, that the music isn’t the main feature. It is part of a larger structure. Choreography isn’t simply only writing for dancers. For me personally that eventually helped me be more confident when we started working on Monoliths & Dimensions. I was like, ‘Ok, we can have these aspirations. I can sort of see how we can work with all these different people. We don’t know how to communicate it but there is this possibility for us to create a bigger piece, that is really important.’ Similar to working with Scott and his team, the educational part allows you to continue to see a bigger picture and possibilities. I could never have imagined the possibilities at that time Burning Witch were playing.

The Continuing Existence Of SunnO)))

Are there projects on the horizon or is there stuff you are kept busy by until the next SunnO))) output?

SOM: Greg and I have been discussing a couple of ideas already for this year. We are recording and we’ve got some amazing opportunities for next year, for live concerts. We’ve been invited to play in Parma at the world’s largest labyrinth. At the centre there’s a pyramid and someone has invited us to perform in front of or on the pyramid so hopefully that will be pretty incredible. I’d like to do some work with SunnO))) maybe making a film but I don’t know what that is yet. Keeping the band going for this long has been a challenge at times; the rhythm and movement of long term relationships always ebb and flow. Greg and I are at the core of it, we’re really good, old friends. It’s been great to keep this as part of our friendship, and as long as we are inspired we will continue. There’s a lot of optimism behind this group, but we keep humble too, as we like playing guitar together. That’s enough really. Successes are kind of gravy that we can enjoy. So if it goes away… we’ve already been in the position where there’s nothing going on for the band expect for us just playing and recording.

Dømkirke is reissued by Southern Lord this month. SunnO))) have a number of live actions and festival appearances planed for the next year starting on March 31, more details here

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