An interview with Sunn O)))

· Thursday March 10, 2016

Sunn 0))) could be the loudest band on Earth. They could be the heaviest, the most influential, the most underground, the most important or the most metal. Whether they are these things or not, they are definitely one of the nicest and most intelligent and dedicated, paving the way for hundreds of metal, post-rock, noise and art bands all over the world for the last twenty or so years. We talked to one half of Sunn O))), bassist Greg Anderson, ahead of their Australian tour, and I got pretty excited about loud noises. Thanks for that, Greg.

Angela Schilling: Hey Greg, how are you? Where are you now?

Greg Anderson: Hey, I’m good! I’m in LA, that’s where I live and work. Where are you at?

AS: I’m in Adelaide. Really looking forward to the show in a few weeks.

GA: Yeah me too, I’m looking forward to it.

AS: How did you and Stephen (O’Malley) meet? Was it a completely natural start, or did you know you had something but had to work a little to hit the right spot?

GA: Stephen and I grew up in the same neighbourhood in Seattle, in the northern suburbs. We went to the same high school actually and he was a bit younger than me, and we met though some mutual friends. We were into underground music basically, into punk and hardcore. We met and hit it off, and it was both of our obsessive love for music the reason. He was at that time really into and knowledgable about underground metal, death metal and black metal. I was more into post punk and hardcore, but I was also really fascinated by what was going on with metal. He turned me onto some different music and I turned him onto some different music and that was that. We started playing music together in 1994, we had a slow death metal band called Thorr’s Hammer, that was when we first started playing together. Playing the kind of music that we had created was exciting and we were both really into it, it was kinda coming from different backgrounds. So we continued playing together from that point on. We had a band shortly after Thor’s Hammer dissolved called Burning Witch, then after that we started messing around with the idea what became Sunn O))).

AS: What was it like, being into more underground music at a time when a particular scene was so heavy and influential in the area?

GA: From my point of view, underground metal and death metal and black metal was pretty much non-existent in Seattle. Grunge did a pretty good job of wiping everything out, there was nothing left. But a lot of those bands we both really like a lot and they had a very metallic influence, they just created their own sounds with different influences. But yeah there was kind of this lack of… there wasn’t much metal going on in Seattle. One of the things we bonded over was our love of those Seattle bands, especially The Melvins, who of course are highly influential band for us, and Green River and Mudhoney and Tad and Sound Garden and Nirvana, all those bands we love and its another thing we could agree upon. The music that we were creating though, didn’t have much to do with what was called ‘grunge’, it was more informed by more extreme underground metal.

AS: You’ve done so much collaboration in your careers, and one of the most interesting was that with Scott Walker a couple of years ago. How did that come about? It's a bit of a strange pairing to a lot of people.

GA: Scott Walker was an artist that Stephen and I both got into at the same time, probably about 2004/5. Someone we both thought was amazing, very different and strange and beautiful and fucked up. We loved his voice and several years ago, about 2007/8, we were in the middle of making the Monoliths and Dimensions record and we had some ideas about potential vocalists we’d like to collaborate with. That was kinda the first time in the history of the group that we had a shortlist of people that we wanted to work with that we really didn’t know - all the collaborations that we’d done up to that point were with likeminded people that we already knew, in the same scene. So we reached out a little bit further, we asked some people, and Scott was on the top of the list for that. Nothing ever came of it at the time. He actually never responded to our contact to him at all. But what he had been doing was listening to our music over the years, and he actually came up with an idea - instead of lending vocals to a Sunn O))) record, he had an entire concept of his new solo record with Sunn O))) as the band. Without us knowing. It was very strange for us because a lot of the people we work with, it makes sense, it’s not like some crazy far off idea. But this one was so strange. It was kind of one of those moments - when we found out, we couldn’t believe it. It’s too bizarre. We had heard rumours from people in England - that music festival ATP, the organisers had asked us about some demos that were floating around of Scott Walker and Sunn O))), and they were like 'How come you didn’t tell us', and we were like, 'we don’t even know what you’re talking about.' Very strange. I honestly didn’t believe any of it until he sent the demos over for the record. He had conceived and composed the music for it and sent it over to us to check out. When that moment happened we knew it could be real.

AS: You'd hope it was real.

GA: Haha, you’d hope so, it would be an incredible prank if it wasn’t. But yeah, for me it was an incredible learning experience. I really tried to approach the whole thing with a very open mind. The other strange thing about it was that Sunn O))) had never been in that position before, where we were given music that was already written. We’d never done it, everything we’d done was us initiating and steering the ship or it being an open / free / improv session. This one was very orchestrated and strange for us. I was really there to soak it all up and to learn. The actual recording experience was a lot of fun. Listening to the record now, it’s weird 'cos it took a different shape from when we were recording.

AS: And you went over to Scott to record?

GA: Yeah thats right. We were basically invited to record in the studio near where Scott Walker lives, that was one of the stipulations, that the studio had to be near his house. He has a producer that he had worked with on several of his albums, and that guy was a huge part of everything. Honestly, everything was written out before we got there and we were given parts to play. It was more of him telling us what to he wanted to hear. But then when we were there, a lot of things happened in the moment and that to me was really exciting because the rapport between Scott and us was really good. We had a lot of respect for him and I think after the session he really grew fond of what we were doing and sort of understood it a little bit more. That lent itself to some moments that were not preconceived. He would be like, 'I got this sound in my head, can you guys do something like that?' and we would try and get close to that. We were pretty far ahead of schedule so he said 'Hey I got this unfinished song, maybe we should give that a shot.' So he brought in a song that was incomplete, and we finished it with him. In the beginning when we were first approached for it and we were given the demos, we were under the impression that it was gonna be a Scott Walker solo record and we were the hired guns. But after that recording session and everything that happened in there, he decided that he didn’t feel comfortable with that and that it should be a shared title - Scott Walker and Sunn O))) on the cover. Thats what I was talking about, like after a while he realised that we were just more than some studio musicians.

AS: Your latest album 'Kannon' is accompanied by a feminist essay by critical theorist and artist Aliza Shvartz. What was the motivation behind commissioning her to be part of the album?

GA: I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve only read it one and a half times. It’s an overwhelming read for me personally, I think it’s amazing. Its something that's unorthodox when talking about metal, you know - feminism. Feminism can be really powerful, and there's no reason that its not appropriate when being talked about with something like metal. She had written an essay before on a feminist stance on Sunn O))), which is where we got the idea from. The idea of having liner notes on the record was that it's something that rarely happens, if at all, on metal records. It was an homage to jazz records from the 60s and early 70s that we really liked that had these really in-depth writing about the recordings. Sometimes it was just talking specifically about the technical aspect of the recording, and the music, and sometimes, especially later on in the 60s, it would kind of go further out. To me reading those things give it a sort of…you can potentially listen to it slightly different, or it brings a different element to the record. And thats what we were going with in having her involved with her essay.

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of things…it’s vague but there's a lot of things that Sunn O))) do that are very unorthodox. Sunn's a very unorthodox and strange group and in some ways, not on a soap box trying to do it, but we're somewhat challenging the old guard of metal. It goes beyond that - what is music? Challenging that whole idea. I think something that is really important is to continue to challenge. We’re already challenging the listener with the music, and aesthetically, whether it be the graphics or text. We don’t have very traditional vocals or lyrics, sometimes it’s just sounds. It's interesting to have something challenging to the audience.

AS: There's a certain performance element to your live shows, can you elaborate on that?

GA: Well, its not really conscious and I’m not comfortable with the term. It can be considered performance but the whole concept of the live show with the massive amounts of fog and the robes and stuff, was meant more to give it this sort of massive anonymity where it was taking away the individual of each person on stage, and where everyone was together 'en masse'. Obviously that can be a performance, but when I think of performance I think of it as more premeditated, somewhat ego-driven. I look at it as sort of more complimentary to the music. That was the thing for us, deciding how we were going to present this music. We played shows in jeans and tee shirts in front of our amps and it just didn’t feel like the right way to present the music. We were more concerned about the typical things you’re concerned about when you’re playing in front of people, which is basically entertaining. Can we take away the dynamic, that obligation to entertain?. I didn’t feel comfortable trying to provoke a certain reaction out of the audience for this kind of music. I’m in another band, its a rock band basically - bass drums, guitar and vocals, talking to the crowd in between songs - you hope that people get into it, that they sing along or clap or bang their heads or whatever, thats what we’re hoping for and you’re pandering to that. With this group I didn’t wanna do that at all. For us, it’s a dilemma, should we even be doing this live? We realised that the physical presence of the sound, with all those amps and cabinets, was a really important part of the group and sound, and you can’t do that through recordings. Most people don’t have those stereos, unfortunately. It was that if we can figure out a way to take away this requirement to entertain, we’ll feel more comfortable ourselves in doing this.

AS: It’s about a reaction, or some type of connection, more so?

GA: I think it is. I’m trying not to be concerned with what people think I’m doing. It’s more about getting any kind of reaction. If someone hates it and runs for the exit, that doesn’t bother me. I wanted this group to create some sort of reaction, not ‘they’re ok, I could take it or leave it.’ Sunn O))) is really polarising in that way, we have this really dedicate loyal following of fans that are really into it, and we have a lot of people who absolutely despise it. To me thats perfect. Again, I try not to be too concerned about what people's reaction is, I like to be inside the music as much as possible and create it. Sunn O))) is a great outlet and escape for me personally, I try to keep it like that without having any expectations of success or failure. What we’ve accomplished so far has been incredible to me and a miracle - I’m already happy and content.

AS: For the gear nerds: what’s your current live set-up?

GA: The Australia shows are gonna be different because we’re flying in. One of the most important things for us is the specific amplifier which is the Sunn Model T amp, from the early 70s. They’re basically antiques at this point. It’s become a real challenge, we’ve become completely dependant on those amps and we really will not do a show without them. That’s limited us as far as what we can do or where we can go. When we’ve come to Australia before we literally air freighted our amps there. The cabs aren’t important; we’ve been to Aus three times now and we freighted our amps, and it’s super expensive and those amps are old. It becomes a logistic nightmare. A couple years ago we started working with a good friend of ours, an electronic genius, and he has come up with a small version of that amp. Its a pre-amp that contains a lot of the same sounds and tones as the original Model T but you can pair it with a power amp. Thats what we’re going to be doing for the Aus show. The problem is that we’re pairing the pre amps with Ampeg sets which are these huge amps, very heavy. What we’re doing is using between 12 and 13 of them on stage and we gotta source those as well! So it doesn’t completely solve the problem, but it makes it so that logistically we don’t have top deal with freighting huge amps.

AS: Have you played with Magma before?

GA: Sunn O))) was asked to curate this festival in Holland in November - we invited them to play and they were incredible. I got into Magma probably about three years ago, it hasn’t been long but I fell hard and fast for those guys, they are an amazing group. One of the most exciting things about doing this show was that we were going to be playing with them again.

AS: One of the tracks on ‘Kannon’ is a re-record of a live take from Norway. Why did you decide to go back on this, is it something you do often?

GA: Yeah, the main riff of Kannon 3 was originally played and recorded at a church in Bergen, Norway. It was a really special event. You gotta realise that in Norway, just outside Bergen, was where a lot of the church burning happened - the churches were burnt by members of the black metal scene. One in particular was the guy from Mayhem and we had the singer from Mayhem singing at that show, Attila. First of all, Attila is Hungarian, not Norwegian, and he’s not part of that group of people that did the arsons and went to jail, but he was in that scene and played with the most notorious band of them all. For Sunn O))) to play at this super old cathedral, at the volume that we play at, and have the singer from one of the most notorious black metal bands of Norway, was a really extreme juxtaposition. We were really nervous because we didn’t know what was gonna happen, it seemed very strange that we were even allowed to do it. We talked to the main person from the church and I’m not sure if he knew all the details of Mayhem’s past, but he just told us that he was really excited that young people were coming to church again (laughs). Attendance had been dropping off in the last ten years, so…. There’s an amazing organ there as well, and this incredible musician that we’ve collaborated with, Steve Moore, he played the pipe organ during the set. You’re really using the room, trying to get the most out of that and working with all the acoustics. Anyway long story short, there were some ideas that we wanted to try out at that show, the idea was that we wanted to play something that we hadn’t played before. There’s a lot of improvisation in that show. One of the things that was played was 'Cannon', spelt with a C at the time. A couple years later when we were in the studio it was like, ‘hey we really liked that riff and how that worked at that show, why don’t we try that again?’ A lot of times during recording, if there’s something thats improvised live that we really thought went well, we might try and play that in the studio.

AS: Is Atilla coming with you to the Adelaide Festival?

GA: Yeah he is! Steve Moore that I was just talking about, he’s also going to be in Australia. He played that show that we did with Magma at ATP, and that was the first time we’d played with him for about five years, so it’s really special. He’s an incredible trombone player, so he’ll be playing that and also Fender Rhodes. It’s just incredible timing ‘cos he’s here with Sufjan Stevens. I’m really excited about that show, it’s going to be amazing. We’ve been working with the organiser David Sefton for a long time now trying to get this to happen. We played this amazing festival in Tasmania and we had coffee the morning after our show, talking about this. So now the time has finally come and I’m really excited about it.

AS: I think Adelaide audiences are getting used to the beauty of the physical connection with loud music, we’ve been treated over the last few years thanks to David Sefton and Unsound Festival. It’s really important to you guys, right?

GA: We played a show one time in Oklahoma, not a town really known for underground music so to speak. There was probably only about 75 people, a small show. I remember these kids coming up to us after the show and telling us they’d never really heard a band played loud before. It reminded me of when I was a kid and first started going to punk shows and stuff, and how in your face and visceral that was; just how exhilarating that was, to feel the intensity. It’s always exciting to me, we’ve been really fortunate with this group to play in front of some audiences that otherwise probably wouldn’t be interested in underground metal music. Obviously we’re very different and that’s the appeal, but that’s really exciting to me and one thing that keeps me wanting to play in this group is that first exposure that someone might get from what we’re doing. Festivals like this, I have a feeling that it’s going to be like that, where a lot of people have no clue. They’re going to be confronted with or immersed in this volume.

AS: Thanks so much for chatting to me, we’ll see you at the show.

GA: Cool, thank you!