Stephen O’Malley


Posted: Jul 27, 2009

Long format interview posted here:

by Grayson Currin, posted July 27, 2009

Judging by the consistent criticism that Sunn O)))'s metal-based drone experimentation suffers-- that is, it's boring, self-serious, humorless, and mean-- perhaps one wouldn't expect Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley to be cruising around Manhattan, tossing around Sarah Palin-as-MILF jokes, and listening to voice mails from Jim Jarmusch. Maybe you wouldn't expect Anderson, who's also the entrepreneur behind Southern Lord Records, to crowdsurf, either. Or for O'Malley, a prolific improviser and composer who's generally busy with seven projects at once, to empty bottles of wine on crowds of kids in the front row.

But while scavenging for a parking space for a van full of amplifiers and guitars, O'Malley told such jokes and Anderson relayed that message ("The best thing I've ever seen," Jarmusch said). And when playing their last show in Manhattan's legendary Knitting Factory just two months before it closed its doors, they surfed crowds, poured wine, and booted a kid off of stage, all while sustaining a vortex of rapturous sound.

Indeed, despite the robes and the crushing tones, O'Malley and Anderson aren't too serious to sit and laugh over stories about their friends and bands and the gear they play. After finally finding that parking spot, that's what we did in the first of two (appropriately) extended Sunn O))) interviews.

Pitchfork: So you crowdsurfed at the Knitting Factory, Greg.

Greg Anderson: Totally inspired by Atsuo Mizuno from Boris. I had a great time. New York is always a great show, and part of it has to do with the fact that I feel a lot of stress here. It's a challenge. Finding a parking space, just everything. I feel really lucky. The shows have gone really well. It's a payoff. The reason the shows did well is because we overcame these challenges.

Stephen O'Malley: I used to live here, so it's cool to see who comes out. It's pretty surprising to be able to get the audience riled up with our music, too. The whole crowd was reacting last night.

GA: There was a moshpit.

Pitchfork: Do you remember the first time Sunn O))) played New York?

SO: We played at Tonic in New York, I think, New Year's 2003 [Ed.'s Note: January 2, 2003.] That was right after we started touring, and a lot of stuff happened that year that lead the band to where it is now. The first time a band plays in New York that you're hearing about, it's kind of an event. I remember having that feeling, and Tonic has this history as an experimental venue. That year, we came into that scene for the first time.

GA: We weren't going to play live. It was more of an idea of being in the studio, or Stephen and I drinking a lot of wine and getting high and playing loud riffs. There were never aspirations to go out and tour and play shows. It became a thing where we realized the impact of what we were doing would be best felt in a live setting because people's stereos suck, or listening to it on a computer or an iPod. It was like, "Let's bring it to them as loud as possible." The physical element of what we're doing is really important, and we wanted to get that across.

Pitchfork: What were you hoping to achieve when you started Sunn O)))? What was the point?

GA: It started in Seattle in a rehearsal room called Mars. It was friends jamming on as many amps as we could string together. I moved to Los Angeles in 1996 and formed the band Goatsnake. Steve came down shortly after that, and we wanted to keep playing music together. We'd played together in Burning Witch and Thorr's Hammer, and we wanted to keep it simple and keep playing music together in some form. That was the easiest thing. We didn't need anybody else-- just the two of us playing music. We didn't have to rely on anybody. Our aspirations, even to this day, are still really minimal. We keep our expectations pretty low, and we've been fortunate that things have happened. It makes it even better because you don't expect it.

SO: The title of [last fall's] tour, the Shoshin Tour, is what Greg's talking about-- always having the mind of the beginner. It has to do with your philosophy of how you do things, but it also allows you to always be surprised by the results, good or bad. Trying to keep the expectations low keeps it real. In music, people get their expectations boosted by things that happen. If you try and keep your expectations low, then there's less disappointment. Even with simple things, like power problems onstage: It allows you to be creative on the base level with any kind of problem.

Pitchfork: Such a philosophy seems like it would open you to trying new things, especially collaboration. That's always been an important part of that band, or at least not long after GrimmRobe.

SO: Totally. It also comes into the personality of who we end up collaborating with. They usually have that viewpoint, too, and that makes the collaboration that much stronger rather than having a cast of egos and charismas and styles. It comes back to working on the sound itself as its own thing rather than having special guests. It always comes back to the fundamental structure of the music.

Pitchfork: Who's the most important of those collaborators right now?

SO: Recently, or for the past few years, Attila Csihar has been a major role in the music. His approach has inspired me to keep that idea and the real value of the sound and its capacity to be a real important spiritual experience if you want it to be. He's extremely entertaining in a number of ways.

GA: He's gotten really into this performance art thing where he gets into costumes, and he creates different characters for each show. He's doing it with Mayhem, which is really making that group interesting in a different way. That will be his persona for the show. A lot of times, it changes per show, and it's interesting to see what he comes up with.

SO: It's this metamorphosis that he does. Attila himself is such a unique character anyway, and then he transforms into this other thing that reflects even in his vocal style. I guess he uses it to push past and break the expectations the audience might have of him.

Pitchfork: Speaking of state of mind, you mentioned watching Attila work for the first time in the studio. What’s he like in that situation? And why are you smiling?

GA: [Laughing.] We were hashing out the record, and Attilla was awesome. You never know what is going on with that guy, but you're never surprised. We were in the studio, and studio time can be somewhat monotonous or boring if you're not actually doing anything. So as we were hashing out the original ideas, and he was running around Seattle doing stuff. He would show up at certain moments, and we’d be like, "Oh yeah, Attila is here."

SO: He'd have been partying with Slipknot. They played, and he was like, [in stiff Hungarian accent] "Oh, yeah, we have to go party with these guys." I'm like, "I'm not going to see Slipknot in the arena. We're fucking recording a record."

GA: We'd have been recording all day, and he would be like, [in stiff Hungarian accent] "Come on, man, we got to party." "No," you know? And that's the thing: Of course he knows somebody from that band and is going to go party with them. It’s Attila. But at some points, you'd be like, “What is this guy doing? Is he going to work at all?” You felt like his mind maybe wasn't that in it, and then all of the sudden he'd bust in with this whole thing and would be like, "I've been researching this." It was, "Oh, OK."
He was going to the library while we were recording. He really did step up to the plate and come through. It wasn't just him partying with Slipknot.

Pitchfork: When the tape was on, what was his demeanor? How does he fit into your dynamic?

SO: He brought some really cool performances to the table. At the same time, he was explaining and presenting his plan of what he was going to deliver, and he would say, "OK, tell me what you think. I'm an instrument for you to use. Please think about it that way, so I don't do anything inappropriate." That's really humble from someone like him. He’s a major guy.

GA: That's probably what I appreciate the most about Attila: He's pretty egoless in a lot of ways, especially for a frontman. He was the frontman for the most infamous black metal band there is, Mayhem. And, in a lot of people's eyes, he's a god, but he's the most down-to-earth guy. He doesn't think of himself like, "Oh, I'm the frontman." Even though he's an amazing performer and he can command an audience, he doesn’t have that sort of ego. He is not a prima donna.

SO: He’s not making assumptions that he knows exactly what is best, which I think is a really important thing about Sunn O))) in general. We try to leave the possibility open that there are better ideas for people to think about.
Pitchfork: You mention Attila's stage persona and people's expectations. Both of you get labeled reductively as being misanthropic or mean because of the somewhat mysterious, metal-based music you make.

GA: I can be mean. [Laughs.] Randall is mean.

SO: I don't know. For me, the idea of dark or light doesn't really apply as much as the intensity of it. And maybe it's that intensity that comes across threatening, which can be a mean or a dark aspect. There are other words that are used, like heavy. What does that mean? It just means it's a super-focused, intense version of something. It's not meant to be intimidating. It's meant to be enjoyable and ultra-pleasurable, so that aspect is the real personality of it. It's not like Watain destroying people's psyches with their stuff. It's an intensely pleasurable experience for us.

GA: If you're a sadist. [Laughs.] That's pretty much what I think. I think there's a lot of mystery to what we do, and that's something we go for. People can interpret it in many different ways. I would hope people wouldn't be intimidated. That's definitely not what I want to get across.

Pitchfork: You've certainly engendered some mystery. On the cover of the Thorr's Hammer EP, Dommedagsnatt, the first Southern Lord release, you're plainly visible. But, when you're pictured on albums now, you're generally obscured by something.

GA: It's taking away the ego and giving it an element of mystery. We've had our photos on every record except for Black One, so there have been some photos that have gone with the record.

SO: Also, the robe is not a uniform, but it serves a similar purpose, where all the musicians involved will be on a similar level. The sound and the amplifiers are more the star of the show. Like last night, when Tony Conrad was playing, I was watching from the balcony with a friend, and we were like, "Look at all the amplifiers studying his playing." They were personalities onstage. I think it's interesting with the smoke, too. It puts some haze and blur between the performer-entertainer role and the real experience you're having of the music itself.

Pitchfork: How many amps do you keep onstage now?

SO: Yesterday, we were laughing because Greg bought a few Model Ts recently but he forget. He was like, "Hey, man, I usually have seven."

GA: Six.

Pitchfork: Six Model Ts?

GA: Yup. Part of the reason I have so many amps is because I provide backline for Boris when they come over. These days, it becomes more cost-effective for people to fly in and do a coast rather than have to drive all the way across the country. In some ways, we're trying to be strategic about where we have our amps placed, where we have our arsenals, so that we can fly in and do a couple of shows rather than having to spend all that money on gas and a van and all that crap. It's not like I'm hording amps. They have a purpose. The reason I have six Model Ts is because they always come in handy. There's no way they're going to be collecting dust. They’re going to be put to use. On that last Boris tour, Takeshi used my Model Ts. I don’t think he had really used Model Ts very much before, and he was so excited about them that when their tour ended, he was like, "Where do I get tattoo?" He went and got the Sunn O))) logo tattooed on his arm. He was like, "Model T!" That was pretty cool.
Tone is really important. A huge aspect of what we're doing is that we're really concerned with having the right tone, and good tone. Those are our favorite amps.

Pitchfork: How did you first become interested in the Model T?

GA: I had one in Engine Kid, actually. I saw this band called Lice, with Tim Green who went on to be in the Fucking Champs. I went and saw them play, and they were like an Eyehategod-style band. He was playing this amp that had this insane fucking tone, and I'm like, "What is that?" I was familiar with Sunn O))) amps because of Earth and Melvins, and I knew Buzz [Osbourne, of the Melvins] played a lot of the solid-state stuff. But I was not familiar with this behemoth tube amp. I found one in Seattle at a flea market, at the Fremont Flea Market. It was just sitting there next to a bunch of jeans and coats that this guy had. I was like, "Oh my god, that's the amp Tim Green had." I bought it and had it for Engine Kid. I went on to play it in every band since then.

Pitchfork: Last night, you were selling a limited-edition version of The GrimmRobe Demos, and-- as expected-- people were breaking their banks to own one. Sunn O))) and Southern Lord have long been into limited releases. Is that a monetary concern, or does it go beyond that?

GA: The whole idea of the limited stuff started with an idea to help fund the tours because touring is expensive, as everyone knows. A lot of the time, you're not making very much money at the shows, or your costs are so high you need something else to help fund it. That's kind of where it started out: Let's create these limited things that will help fund that. But it also became a reward for people that came to the show. We can give them something special that they can't get anywhere else. I think that's something people appreciate. It's a win-win situation.

SO: It's cool to work at making stuff like that, too. I'm really into design, obviously, and just to be able to work on these smaller projects, a lot of the time it's stuff we really like. Sometimes we're like, "This [music] doesn't need to be unlimited. This should be smaller, harder to access." The mystery of the discography is similar to the stage mystery stuff. Some obscure moments have happened live and also on these releases.

Pitchfork: Speaking of design, Sunn O))) and Southern Lord both create big, ornate packages. The vinyl packaging for Altar, for instance, suits me better than the music.

GA: To me, the whole concept stems from there's so much hard work, sweat, and blood put into the music, and we try to release records that are intense and a lot of work has gone into them. To me, you need to have a package that complements that. I hate it when with some of my favorite records, the music's amazing, the album's amazing, but the artwork is totally cheap and flimsy. What's the point? I think great music should be complemented by great art and great packaging.

SO: We try and also keep it away from a product. It is ultimately a product, but we make it an object that you want to hold onto, that doesn't just get filed, ripped, whatever. Vinyl is especially important for that right now.

Pitchfork: Greg, you've mentioned that you weren't into Tony Conrad too much, but Stephen is. What's was your avenue into drone?

GA: Earth. Most of my life, I was really into Melvins, and when I heard Earth, it made a lot of sense. It clicked. It had some elements to it that were similar to Melvins, but obviously it was more open-ended and without as much structure. That's how I got into drone.

SO: I got into Melvins, also, but a bit later. I was super into death metal at first. I discovered Earth because Dylan's wearing a Morbid Angel shirt [on the back cover of Earth 2]. My friend was working at Sub Pop at the time and said, "You should check out this band. He's got on a Morbid Angel shirt." [Laughs.] I checked it out, and was like, "Fuck." I loved Melvins-- slow Melvins, especially-- and then with them it's really psychedelic, no drums, super-heavy, slow metal. Slow Slayer riffs: That's how I interpreted it at the time. For me, it opened my mind to the possibilities and the structures of music changing. It was before I was really listening to any other out music. I was 18 or something.

Pitchfork: Greg, Southern Lord now puts out Earth records. To now be releasing the music of the band that basically sent you in a new sonic dimension: That must be an honor.

GA: I think what's really cool about it and the direction that they've taken the music and that Dylan is going in, he could have easily made Earth 2 again, and it probably would have been pretty popular. But he decided to take it somewhere else, and that raised my respect level for him even more. He's experimenting with it, taking chances. I remember when Hex came out, a lot of people didn't get it. They were like, "We want to hear the old stuff." But it's really developed now, and they've not only got a new fanbase, but the older fans, it's clicking with them. Especially on this last record, which has done the best out of the three that we've released. It's exactly what I want to be doing with the label, to work with artists like that, who I have a lot of respect for. It's very rewarding.

SO: I think the similarities between Tony Conrad and Dylan are actually they're two players who have been playing a long time and love their instruments. It's so fresh with their tone. They're so into their sound and developing their sound. Probably about eight years ago, I got into La Monte Young's music and then got involved with the Table of the Elements train and spent too much money on Table of the Elements. One thread that runs through all this stuff is being a music fan and collecting and discovering.

Pitchfork: From Morbid Angel to Tony Conrad through Earth: Is that a big jump?

SO: Not really. I don't think it is. You've got Trey [Azagthoth], and that guy is super fucking into his history. He's making new music. He's a new music guy. It's just that he's in a metal band. I think their music is original and super-progressive every time. I'm not into everything that they've done, but when that Heretic record came out, and I was like, "Oh, another Morbid Angel record with a day-glo video game cover." I checked it out, and the guitar playing was amazing. And, also, the drummer [on Heretic, Pete Sandoval] of that band is completely unique. There's no one like him. People aspire to be that good. They're in that category. But the main difference is structural: How do you arrange your tones? I think the passion and drive for the playing is pretty similar.

In October, Sunn O))) was but a handful of mixing and mastering sessions away from completing its seventh studio album, Monoliths & Dimensions. As it turns out, that album-- released in May-- is the band's most compelling effort to date: Full of unexpected ideas and contributions from an all-star cast that includes Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar, arrangement visionary Eyvind Kang and Earth mastermind Dylan Carlson, Monoliths & Dimensions offers new sides of the Sunn O))) story with the addition of strings and horns and a lyrical cohesion they've never before achieved. It's a reflection of that open and intense vision Anderson and O'Malley mentioned in October.

After an afternoon spent listening to Monoliths & Dimensions alongside other music critics and Jim Jarmusch in a Brooklyn mastering studio set alongside the Hudson River, we sat down with O'Malley and Anderson in a Manhattan Thai restaurant to talk more about collaboration and control.

Pitchfork: How long has the idea for Monoliths & Dimensions-- mixing the metallic, amplified drone with acoustic instruments-- been gestating?

SO: We talked about doing stuff like acoustic instruments a while ago-- six years ago, seven? For White1, one of our ideas was to do an acoustic instrument record and a drone record. It didn't turn out that way, obviously.

GA: There's no grand, really thought-out plan when we record, and this album's the same. We had some ideas we wanted to try out, but the record that you heard yesterday is really not what we envisioned when we started a year-and-a-half ago. We had a few ideas that we wanted to try out-- like Stephen mentioned, trying out some different instrumentation. But it started the same as every single Sunn O))) record, which is basically Steve and I in the studio, writing and throwing riffs at one another and bouncing ideas off of each other. One of the things that's been really cool about these duo shows is that it is the core of Sunn O))), and that's exactly how it started and that's exactly how it starts for every record. I think it provides an interesting contrast in the context of this record.

Pitchfork: Well, that's what happens right out of the gates on "Aghartha". It's just you two pawing at a riff.

GA: Exactly.

SO: Actually, "Aghartha", that's the first thing we put together in October 2007 with a little over a week of tracking, maybe two weeks.

Pitchfork: Tony Conrad-- of whom you're a big fan, Stephen-- opened that Knitting Factory show in October, and, Greg, you released Stephen's collaboration with Z'EV on Southern Lord. Both of those guys use acoustic instruments to make massive drone music. What do you think the intersection of your history and theirs is?

SO: I think it's about tone and timbre. The way we get our tone and timbre is through our amps. One of the things that was interesting to experience is Attila's vocal takes on the first record, "Aghartha". There's just so much sub-bass in his voice in this one section, You have to focus in on the details of the different instruments. It's not a richness. It's just a personality of the tone of the different instruments and the personality of the blend of the tones.

Pitchfork: How soon did you know you had to get Attila involved with the opening riff?

SO: He was at the session.

GA: That's kind of the big difference in this recording session, especially with the other ones we've had with Attila. Those other recordings-- like with Oracle or White2-- basically Steve and I did the tracking, and Sunn O))) came up with the music. Attila came up with the vocals in Europe, and he sent them back to us, and we mixed them in the States. There was no face-to-face contact. This time, he was there the entire time. He's listening to what we're doing and getting some inspiration from that and really getting to focus more intently on what was going on. He was inspiring us as well, just to hear what he did. Even him coming up, like, "Hey, guys, I've got these ideas for these lyrics." He really put a lot of time and thought into it. It was really cool to see his process, which I had never been able to see before because everything was mailed. You could see how he works, and his enthusiasm was really exciting and inspired us to keep it going. [Laughs.]

SO: It's the first time his lyrics have inspired the personality of some of the music. It's always cool to see what he comes up with, especially in the live setting, what he's talking about and his interests. But he was researching topics for "Aghartha," for example, and he was bringing us all these photos and art. That gives personality to what we were working on.

Pitchfork: How do you feel Attila inspired what made it onto the record specifically?

GA: With "Big Church", what he did on that added to the overall outcome of what we were playing, the vibe of it.

SO: He inspired the spirit of that track-- to go further with the choir, the pseudo-religious choir.

Pitchfork: How did the choir come together? When did that route-- to work with Jessika Kenney-- become obvious?

SO: That track was hard to finish. Of all the tracks on the album, that's the one that stayed incomplete for a while. Finally, we were talking to Eyvind Kang, the guy who arranged the choir part and arranged a lot of the other acoustic instruments, about the possibility of having some other voices, like a choir. As it turns out, he'd work with these people. They're all young, experimental opera singers, basically. Attila was able to come up there because Budapest is a four-hour drive from Vienna. He went, and he was recording in a basement or cellar studio in an old aircraft factory. It was lucky that the timing happened: Eyvind was going to be in Europe doing a festival. Jessika-- who is his musical partner and wife; he works with her a lot-- ended up being the first chair of the choir. There were these people who wanted to try this idea out. Almost everything else-- all the other players-- were from Seattle and from the Pacific Northwest. It's a pretty rich scene there for experimental music and musicians up there.

GA: That's the most exciting part for me, just to see what's going to happen. You might have an idea of what you think it's going to sound like, but we don't give much direction, if any, to the players.

SO: There will be a lot of discussion, but it's not like, "Come in, and play this chart." Well, it was in some cases for some of the arrangements, but usually they come up with their own parts or improv.
Pitchfork: We've talked a lot about Attila, and what he brings to the table. He's all over this album, just as Eyvind is. They seem as present here as both of you. Has it ever been difficult to let people into the fold completely?

GA: I don't feel like it needs to be defined, but Sunn O))) is always going to be the core of Stephen and I. There's not going to be another full-fledged member, but other players are definitely a huge part of what we're doing. We like to keep it open, so we're not tied down to one specific thing or one specific group of people, allowing other people to move in if we want. Attila is someone we'd been working with so much in the last couple of years in performing live. There was some really great stuff that was happening onstage. When we invited him to be part of this record, we were thinking of some of the things we'd done live and hoping to capture some of that on the tape.

SO: It's also not a big need to control. It's great to just leave it open to their interpretation. The results are not what you expect and generally better than what you hoped for if they're in the right state of mind. Attila is.

Pitchfork: How did you meet Attila?

SO: I did a fanzine in the 1990s called Descent, and I interviewed him in 94. I started a label with my friend Tyler Davis. It's called Ajna, which is still around. One of the first things we did was a Tormentor picture disc in 96 of the Anno Domini demo. I was in touch with him then, and we got out of touch. We hooked up again four or five years later. Sunn O))) had the opportunity to go to Europe in 2003. It was our first European tour. We were trying some things out with collaborators, and we invited him to come up to Austria. He came up, and we hung out. The first show we played was in Austria, and there were like two people in the audience. Pita [the sporadic live Sunn O))) collaborator Peter Rehberg, who also runs Editions Mego] played with us and Attila. Attila is the current face of the band. It was kind of an important show. Ever since then, he's become more and more involved. We've become really good friends, and we've done other projects together.

GA: Southern Lord put out a compilation record [The Beast of…] of all of his works-- well, not all of them, but a lot of his works-- with different bands: Mayhem, a track he did with Emperor, his bands Tormentor and Plasma Pool. I put that out shortly after I'd met him. He's definitely one of my favorite vocalists-- ever.

Pitchfork: What do you remember about the interview?

SO: He talked a lot about playing in Tormentor in the 1980s and playing shows in Hungary and the scene there. It was the fucking Iron Curtain, and it was illegal to have concerts because they're public gatherings. Well, they weren't cracking down on it, but it's a totally different story than shows we play. He was a major vocalist then on a super-underground level. There used to be festivals in small towns. I thought that was pretty interesting because at the time, especially, it was so far away from my exposure to music. The appeal of black metal to me in the early 90s was the fact that it was exotic and such a different muse. It was my first experience with European culture. Even in that interview, he was really open about his experiences and generous with his knowledge and personality, like he is when we play with him.

Pitchfork: It is a completely different trip, growing up and into black metal in Europe. He's only a few years older than both of you, for instance, but his earliest reference points predate yours by centuries.

SO: Europe must be so different to grow up in. I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, which is very different from Norway. The perception of culture is much more immediate around a generation or a decade. Growing up in Europe, there must be a depth to the cultural awareness because it's all around you. It must be interesting to encounter things that are from the 16th century as a teenager.

GA: I never had that experience growing up.

SO: Some of the oldest things I remember experiencing were Native American things, which are the root of this country and which are fairly old. But the manifestation of that stuff is from the 19th century. There's a limit of awareness to the 19th century, and not that that's bad, it's just different. The States is an immediate culture.