Interview: Sunn O)))
I’m always pleasantly surprised that people stay throughout the whole show, because it’s a long performance. I know myself, personally: my patience when I go out to see live music is short. I might get distracted or go do something and come back or leave early. To see all these people staying and connecting with the music is really cool.
Whereas metal’s most forward-thinking and genre-defining acts have (for the most part) settled within the ever-expanding definition of the genre, Sunn O))) and their wildly unorthodox delving into the deepest depths of sound still continues to bewilder and fascinate as many minds as they encounter. Two decades on, Sunn O)))’s approach to composition and listening seems to have retained its opacity to those quick to dismiss the project as a mere gimmick, all the while growing due recognition within a dedicated community of experimental music fans, within metal and beyond. The Cloaked Wizards now return, breaking their secretive silence with a series of heavy hitting announcements, starting with a string of live dates, two album announcements and a few listening parties for the first of their forthcoming records.: Life Metal. We caught up with founding guitarist Greg Anderson to learn a little more about their latest studio session with Steve Albini as well as their approach to sound and live shows.
E&D: You have two upcoming records scheduled for release this year. The first one is Life Metal, which is due next month, and a counterpart record called Pyroclasts, said to have a more meditative sound. Were these albums written together?
Greg: Both albums came out of the same recording session. When we were putting together the record we had a pretty strong vision for Life Metal, and it was going to be four pieces of music. When we were in the studio, we had this daily exercise where we would either start or end the day by doing some free-form drone. There were apartments in the studio, so we would spend the night there, wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee and walk downstairs to start working. It was great to help us stay focused on the record. We would start the morning off with a very open drone: someone would pick a key and try and work with it for about twelve minutes whilst Steve Albini would record the whole thing. It was a nice way to start the day and shake off the cobwebs from the night before. Often times we would end the night that way too; we would do a session whilst the amps are still on and everything is still mic’d up. We got about nine of those on tape, and when it came time to mix the album we weren’t sure what to do with them. We were really confident with four pieces that we had chosen for the album and it didn’t make sense to include these 5 additional drone pieces, so we decided to make it a separate release on its own. It’s more cohesive that way, thematically speaking. They each have their own character and I think they ended up turning out really massive and beautiful sounding as well.
E&D: The title Life Metal, from what I’ve read, derives from a private joke regarding Nicke Anderson (Hellacopters/Entombed/Nihilist).
Greg: [Chuckle] Yeah… We’re all massive fans of his past bands Nihilist and Entombed. He told a story about when Entombed had signed to Columbia Records in the mid-’90s. His old friends in the Norwegian black metal scene had basically called him and his band sellouts, saying that they were no longer “Death Metal” but “Life Metal”. We thought that it was both pretty absurd and hilarious. It became a term that was used amongst the members of Sunn O))) when things in life were more “positive” or bringing people happiness or health, like exercising [laugh]. We would say that these things were “Life Metal”. Although the term was used as a humorous thing amongst the band, it felt fitting as the album title. The music has this massive brightness to it. The mood has more light compared to what we’ve done in the past. With us feeling that way about the music, we realized that the positive things happening in our lives influenced our writing and the mood of the record.
E&D: At what point did you know this was going to be the title of the record? Did you work on it with this title in mind?
Greg: I think we came up with it in the studio, actually. Stephen suggested it because the music that was coming out had a different feeling. Steve Albini’s technique during the recording process allowed Sunn O))) to really sound alive and breathing. For the most part, the record was recorded live; it was us setting up with our amplifiers and cabinets in a way that we would set up a live show. Steve is a master of micing techniques and a master engineer for documenting the sounds as they are. He’s a genius. When we were listening back to what we tracked, it really had a really different feeling to us. It felt like a very different animal to us. The term “Life Metal” was very familiar to us, so when Stephen suggested it as an album title Steve said, “That sounds perfect”!
E&D: I also understand this record was entirely tracked and edited on tape. I would assume this album was recorded live, given that this was with Steve Albini. Did this cause you to change your “typical” habits with regards to playing or writing or even arranging?
Greg: In anticipation of recording with Steve, Stephen and myself actually had some pre-production in Los Angeles where we would get together and write. We hadn’t really done that before, as most of the time the writing was actually done in the studio. This time we were really excited but also nervous to record with Steve because we had done so many of our last recordings with Randall Dunn, who is an amazing engineer and producer but who has a very different way of working. It was a very different process of recording and we knew that as we were going into it. We figured it would be on tape and that it would be about capturing the live sound and a singular performance rather than adding a lot of different overdubs or extra instrumentation like we’ve done on other records. We prepared ourselves with that in mind and wrote a lot of stuff together before we walked in. We had some skeletons and some foundational ideas to work off of because we also had a limited amount of time. In the past, we’ve had the luxury of unlimited time. Monoliths & Dimensions took two years to make, so we weren’t so concerned with time, but with this one we had two weeks booked, so we were very focused. We’ve been working on our guitar tone and our sound for so many years that we know what we want and how we like it to sound, and that really helped. Albini commented on that as well, saying that we’d be surprised at how many bands come in that don’t know how to get a guitar sound or aren’t rehearsed. We play live often though and Stephen and I have a longstanding working relationship and chemistry that goes twenty years, so executing and manipulating the tone is something we do well and Albini was able to capture it on tape.
E&D: How much verbal communication goes into the creative process for Sunn O)))? Do you discuss a general idea before developing a track or do you simply jam together?
Greg: There’s some discussion sometimes, but a lot of it is intuitive and playing off of each other. There’s definitely some riffs ideas that are thrown out and things falling together when playing and someone will sometimes come in with an idea or a concept, so it’s a little bit of both. Again, we’ve been playing together for so long that there’s a lot of built-in intuiting and chemistry that is what ends up shaping the sound.
E&D: How do you work with the vocalists you bring in? Do you give free range on the lyrics and vocal delivery?
Greg: It really is free range. We’ve done the majority of our recordings and live performances over the last ten years or so with Attila, and he’s amazing to work with. He’s a brother, he’s part of the family and band, but on this album, we wanted to go explore a different direction and work with different people. Working with Albini was new for us, for instance. When we went into the studio we weren’t sure if there were going to be vocals or not, unless Stephen and I were singing them [laugh]. We did end up inviting Hildur Ingveldardóttir Guðnadóttir to play on the record. She’s performed cello live with the band before a couple of times and she’s done a few vocals with us live at some quieter moments in the set. She’s an amazing person, an amazing vocalist and an amazing cello player. We invited her and we didn’t know if she was going to sing or not, but then we had this idea in the studio and we asked her if she’d be comfortable singing on the record for this one particular track. She ended up doing it and it was turned out beautiful. We haven’t worked with a ton of vocalists. We did a collaboration with Scott Walker and that was more of an invitation on his end for us to play with him, so besides Attila there hasn’t been that many other vocalists. It’s something that comes naturally, we give them complete freedom to do what they want to do. If they’ve been invited or there’s mutual respect and admiration, everyone gives each other the room to do their thing, what we like from them.
E&D: Does that mean they also have some say in choosing the song titles as well?
Greg: Yes, sure! The lyrical aspect is something we don’t really get involved in. However, the lyrics for the song Hildur sings on, ‘Between Sleipnir’s Breaths’, was actually a poem that Stephen found and passed around. We all thought it was really powerful and Hildur adapted it to the track. Besides that, Attila has brought a lot of his lyrics throughout the years as well. Anything that he’s singing is his own lyrics and ideas, and these have definitely weighed into what the titles of the songs ended up being.
E&D: Going further down the production chain, as I am sure your work on sound texture has made you meticulous regarding the record’s timbre, what made you decide to work with Matt Colton as a Mastering engineer?
Greg: Matt had worked on the White1 and White2 remasters that we did for vinyl, and we all thought that the results were great. I really liked what he did, so we decided to continue with him for Life Metal. It was great because we were able to attend the session on that one. He’s easy to work with, he’s very skilled and I think he did a great job.
E&D: Given the very ritualistic and meditative ambience at your live shows, how does the audience factor into your performance? How do you see the audience-performer relationship at a Sunn O))) show?
Greg: Honestly, I personally don’t really pay attention to the audience very much. Sometimes if I look out into the audience it can throw me off or influence my thinking in some ways. It almost puts me into this space where I feel like I’m a “performer” and obligated to entertain the audience, which is more like the traditional rock-band thing. For Sunn O))), with the music being fairly unorthodox and “different”, you’re not doing the things that would usually get the crowd riled up [laugh]. Without choruses or a lead singer trying to get the crowd engaged and involved, it can feel kind of strange to me. When I’m the most comfortable onstage is when I’ve really lost myself inside the sound and I’m in my own space in my head, so looking into the audience and seeing reactions or thinking about trying to be an entertainer takes me out of that space. However, every once in a while I do look out there and it’s always encouraging to know that people are attentive [laugh], especially these days when there are so many distractions. At the end of each night, the lights come up and we see the audience and we take a bow and thank them for coming and staying. I’m always pleasantly surprised that people stay throughout the whole thing because it’s a long performance. I know myself, personally: my patience when I go out to see live music is short. I might get distracted or go do something and come back or leave early. To see all these people staying and connecting with the music is really cool. I’m always impressed at the end of the night, but I try not to let it influence me during the performance.
E&D: When playing live, what constitutes a gratifying or successful live show?
Greg: It’s all personal, really. It has nothing to do with the audience, necessarily. Some of my favourite shows had thirty people there and they might not have even been interested. It’s such a journey that you embark on within the set, and there’s a lot of different ways it can go. There have been sets where I’ve come offstage unhappy but where another person in the band would be like “That was awesome! What’s wrong with you?”. Sometimes something just doesn’t click. That happens every once in a while, and it’s really interesting how different people can have a different journey throughout the same set that you’re playing together. For the most part, what I’ve noticed is that when we come on stage and we’re really excited, it’s usually mutual between the players, things just happen the right way and we’re connecting and gelling together strongly. That’s one of the cool things of doing multiple shows back to back on tour; after a couple of nights, things really start to go into a groove and go really well. With that being said, this music and this group can also have a breaking point. To me, two weeks is the maximum amount of time I can do this consecutively. After that, I need to have a break before doing another round of dates. I think it’s better for the music, better for the energy of the players and better for the relationship between the players too. When I was in my twenties and thirties, you felt like you could go forever and tour for months on end, that it’s all that mattered and it’s all that you wanted to do, but as you get older things to change in your life. I like it when it’s more of a set period of time. It makes it more special and it makes the music more interesting too. The musicians are more engaged.
E&D: Stephen once explained that one of the main concepts of the band is the ‘physicality of sound’. At which point did you grow aware of the physical quality of sound, and what made you want to explore this subject?
Greg: It came really early on. Playing with Stephen, we noticed that the more cabinets we were able to have, the more we would start feeling the sound on your back and on your legs. It felt like such a great and powerful experience and it inspired the playing. For us, it was about playing slow. We both really liked fast music, we were really into Norwegian and Scandinavian black metal, Slayer and 80s’ hardcore, but there was something about playing slow that made us really feel the sound. There’s time to feel the sound, the notes and the chords swelling, developing and creating something powerful. That’s how we started realizing that the slower we played, the more space we had to let the sound waves form and do their thing. It’s not rocket science. As we got our hands on more cabinets, the sound became this really powerful thing that you could feel as well as hear. We’d sometimes go to these shows of bands that we liked and we just didn’t find the power that we thought we expected from listening to the album. For Sunn O))), this was a very important aspect: the actual sound pressure and that powerful feeling when it hits you. That’s what we wanted the audience to feel as well. That’s why our live performances became important to us. Our live shows need to be a multi-faceted experience; you’ve got the sound and the feeling of it enveloping and impacting your body.
E&D: Finishing off: can you name one of your favourite albums, movies and books?
Greg: Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock is something I’ve been listening to a lot lately. It’s a beautiful album. Mark Hollis passed away recently and I’ve been listening to that record on this tour a lot. It’s an amazing record. Movie-wise, I saw this great movie that I thought was gonna suck. It’s called Green Room. It’s about a punk band on tour in the Northwest – which is where Stephen and I grew up – playing this gig around nazi skinheads in the middle of Oregon. It turns into this gory slasher-flick. It’s really good because any person that’s played music or been on the road could totally relate to it [laugh]. I was pleasantly surprised at how fucking great it was and how terrifying it was. Book-wise… I don’t read a lot of books. Unfortunately, I just don’t have time. I read my kids books every single night to put them to sleep, so it’s just children’s books that I’ve been reading [laugh]. My daughter is really into the latest Harry Potter book, Harry Potter & the Cursed Child, which is actually a play. We read that together before she goes to sleep every night. I think the last book I read was probably the Rudy Sarzo autobiography. He was the bass player for Quiet Riot and Ozzy. That was really good, it had some great stories in it [laugh]. He’s an amazing musician and he has some great stories about Randy Rhoads. I really love that particular era of Ozzy Osbourne. It was a short period of time and there’s not a lot about it because it was the late seventies. So that was the last book I read.
E&D: I’m out of questions, any last words?
Greg: Thanks for your time!