INTERVIEW WITH SUNN O)))’S GREG ANDERSON
Greg Anderson is all about uniquenesss, whether it be drone/doom kingpins Sunn 0)))’s epic trudge or the ability of his record label, Southern Lord, to stay afloat in a dreadful industry climate. The former’s new album – the sprawling, pretty excellent Monoliths and Dimensions – brings the band’s sound into new territory, a seemingly unthinkable feat considering their MO of slow, simple, and heavy up until now. Though the album was a long time in the making, Anderson has hardly been dormant: he’s spread between Southern Lord projects, the Sunn 0))) releases between Black One and Monoliths, and Burial Chamber Trio (a project with Mayhem vocalist/ frequent Sunn 0))) collaborator Atilla Csihar), among other things. In an interview with Metal Sucks, Greg discussed the changes between his main band’s prior work to that on their latest album, workng with Sunn 0))) collaborators like Csihar and Earth’s Dylan Carlson, and running Southern Lord in a time when running a label is a risky venture, to say the least.
What brought about using orchestration and different sorts of techniques that you guys haven’t typically used as of yet? What led you guys to do that sort of thing?
Well since the beginning of the group, we’ve always wanted to expand the sound of what we’re doing as much as possible and really try to make each record different than the one that came before it. One of the ideas that we had for a new album was to work with some different instrumentation that we hadn’t worked with in the past – strings, brass, and different voices like choir and things like that. It just basically came from the idea of us wanting to try something different and try to make heavy sounding music in a different way. In a nutshell that’s where we are coming from.
Was recording it any different from the way you guys usually record?
Yeah, somewhat. This album took a lot longer than any of the other records that we recorded before. It actually started off a lot like any other record that we’ve made, with Stephen [O’Malley] and I in a recording studio bouncing ideas and concepts of music or riffs off of each other and that becoming the foundation for the album and the music on the album. This album started the same way, but with this one with the different instrumentation on it, that was a different process that we never really done before because we never worked with those kinds of instruments before. There is an arranger and a composer that we work with on this album named Eyvind Kang, who basically listened to what we had recorded (the basic tracks) and then had some ideas of different ways of expanding on them and different ways that he could contribute or have different instruments contribute to them. We have never done that before either, so that was a new process for us. There were a lot of firsts for us on this record for sure.
Are you pleased with how it came out?
Most definitely. I’m really excited about it. It was an extreme challenge for me personally with the whole process and the amount of time that it took to do this record. It required a lot of patience, but in the end I’m really proud that we went through it all. I’m proud of the outcome.
It’s really expansive. I think one of the biggest surprises, which you mentioned, is Big Church. What led you guys to work with a Viennese women’s choir?
We wanted to work with choirs in some way. That was one of the ideas kicked around during the recording sessions. Working with the gospel choir is something we want to attempt at some point. I think a lot of choral music has really interesting and heavy qualities to it. I thought it would be interesting to try and incorporate that with what we do and really kind of blending of women’s voices in a choir with heavy guitars which I thought would be an interesting experiment. That’s kind of where it came from.
You mentioned about wanting to work with a gospel choir too. Would you guys ever consider doing more choral work as far as Sunn O))) is concerned?
Oh, definitely… or incorporating that sort of aesthetic into what we’re doing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a gospel choir but working with vocalists who have that ability to evoke that sort of vibe as well. Throughout the record there is different vocal performances that to me are reminiscent of choral groups and music. I think it’s something that we’ll definitely attempt in the future. I think it would be really to even go as far as working with a Southern Baptist gospel choir or something like that and really try something different in incorporating that into what we’re doing. I’m excited that we were able to try that. Those sounds mixed with guitars, I think, are really interesting.
That leads me to another question. Considering the sort of heaviness and ominous nature of your sound, you wanted to work with a gospel choir or a Southern Baptist gospel choir and recording that live album in a church in Norway, is Sunn O))) influenced by religious or church music in that respect?
Individually, we listen to different sorts of church music whether it is monks or religious music. I think it’s a subtle influence. It’s not a real obvious influence to me. I think there are qualities of that music that I’m attracted to. There is heaviness and an ominous feeling to that music. It also has a lot of depth and purpose to what it’s doing. I think it’s interesting to try and channel some of that within what we do as well. It’s kind of what I view as Sunn O))) attempting to channel these sort of outside and not so obvious influences within the framework of what we do which is considered by some to be drone or metal or whatever. To me it is heavy music, and it’s about embracing and incorporating these different inspirations and influences to making what we’re doing, playing heavy music, different.
Speaking of incorporating outside influences, although Monoliths & Dimensions sounds different than Black One and a lot of the other stuff you have done as a whole, “Alice,” the last song on the album, is just drastically different than a lot of the stuff you guys have done before. Even with something as simple as involving major chords and subtle uses of melody, something like that sounds really different compared to the darker stuff you guys have done before. Is this a sort of signaling of a different direction you guys are going to go in or more of experimentation?
I think it’s more of experimentation. I can see us doing more material in that vein that could be similar to that. That’s one thing that we try to avoid is to be on a specific path that we have to be confined by. That to me seems a little limiting. I look at what we’re doing as always moving, whether it is forward or backwards, but moving in some sort of direction. That’s not to say that I’m not proud of what we did or that I don’t like what we did, it’s just that I think that there are other places to go as well. I think the whole idea of that track was to create a piece of music that was heavy without the massive wall of sound or the over-saturated guitars. It was really trying to make a track that worked with a little more subtle dynamics and wanted to be dark and heavy but without the massive distortion. That’s one of the basic ideas behind that track. Obviously it evolved into something much bigger with more depth than what I just mentioned. I remember sitting down and working on this piece with Stephen and it was “let’s use one amp instead of seven and let’s not use the distortion pedal. Let’s see what we can come up with that has that aesthetic within it but different.”
Dylan Carlson plays on that track right?
He actually plays on “Big Church.”
Oh, okay. You guys have worked with him before. I know you guys did a split with Earth too. What’s it been like working with him due to the fact that he’s been such a big influence on the band and almost like a jumping off point for you guys?
I have a lot of respect for Dylan. His work that he did in the past was very influential to the very beginnings of Sunn O))) and continues to be influential. Where he is going with his music now isn’t much different than the album that he made in the 90s, and I have a lot of respect for him for not falling back on that and growing as a person and a musician and doing something differently and taking serious chances. When Earth came back a lot of people thought it was going to be a return to the older sound that basically had been so influential on so many bands. I think they really surprised a lot of people. They surprised me by going into a completely different direction with it. I think that sort of courage to make a bold move like that is really inspiring as well. It’s not only inspiring, it’s the way he approaches music and the way that he moves forward with music that is also inspiring. We have been really fortunate to do a lot of shows with Earth and put their records on my label. We’ve become really close, and it’s become this sort of family that we formed the last couple of years and Dylan has become a very important part of that. It was great to have him on the record of course. I think what’s really interesting about what he wrote and performed on the record is that guitar part is the foundation for the choir.
They worked off of his notes and that was the notes that they used and worked on for what they recorded for that track. It was really cool with this multi-layered thing. Everything was sort of inspiring each other in a way. Dylan had worked off what we had written, and then the choir worked off of what Dylan had written. It was this really cool, evolved flower [laughs]. Or growth of some sort.
Speaking of collaborators, how did Sunn O))) and you come to work with Attila Csihar?
Stephen has known Attila for quite awhile, mostly through correspondence in the mail. Stephen used to do a fanzine called Descent. He had interviewed Attila for that magazine and was a huge fan of his work with Mayhem and Tormentor. Stephen turned me on to Attila through Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas record. I wasn’t familiar with their record in the mid 90s, and Stephen played it for me. My taste at that time was more being towards things that could be classified as doom metal – the real sludgy, heavy stuff. I wasn’t really a fan of some of the black metal that I heard. I was into Bathory and Venom and stuff like that. I didn’t know about this first wave of Norwegian black metal. I didn’t really connect with it at first, but when I heard that record it really struck me as being very different and that was mostly because of the vocals on it. I was really intrigued by the approach that the vocalist had on it, and that’s when I really started becoming aware of Attila and digging deeper and finding all these other projects that he had been involved in like Tormentor and Plasma Pool and things like that. I just really thought that within the genre that he was put in, he was doing stuff that was stretching the limits and the boundaries and doing something unique. He liked Sunn O))) and some of the things that we were doing on the Southern Lord label, and we just ended up meeting up in Europe at a friend’s show. We invited him to come and play with us. Ever since then anytime we have a chance to play together if our schedules can work out, he’s there. For the last four years he’s been a huge part of our live performances. We’ve done a ton of stuff together. It’s been an honor and it’s been great.
What do you think that he brings to Sunn O))) specifically because he’s been such a present member over the last couple of releases? Do you think he adds to the spirit of the band? Do you think he gets it more than other collaborators may?
I don’t know if I want to judge who gets it more or anything like that. The thing that I really like about Attila is that he uses his voice as an instrument. He’s not just trying to fill in the spaces or anything. His entire approach to vocals is more to me like an additional instrument, like a stringed instrument or something like that. It’s not to say that traditional vocals are bad or something that I don’t like. I love Dio [laughs]. And David Lee Roth and vocalists who are amazing at what they do in the traditional style of vocals with lyrics that phrase in a certain way that have rhythm and cadence and things like that. Attila takes it to a whole other level and another world really, and that’s what I really respect and appreciate about his contributions with Sunn O))) because I think it really propels what we’re doing into a whole other world really. Without him it’s a certain way and I know we’re playing together and the recordings make kind of stand in another place, and I really like that place.
What influences Sunn O)))? Obviously doom, sludge, and black metal have a lot to do with it, but are you and Stephen into stuff like minimalism, musique concrète or modern classical music at all?
Sure. What you pointed out at first is really is kind of on the surface stuff. What truly is influential and inspirational to me is beyond music as well. It’s art and it’s life. I think that any of my favorite bands or any sort of really important bands in music are kind of looking beyond just music and what’s right in front of them for the inspiration. There are other things like life and what’s going on and any emotions and personalities that inspire and influence. The one thing that is definitely something that Stephen and I bond on is that we’re huge fans of music and all kinds of different genres and styles of music as well. I think that that sort of openness to different styles of music is what makes Sunn O))) impossible to pigeonhole. To have this sort of freedom to it is because we’re really into all kinds of different things and basically we’re open minded about music and art.
Which would probably explain how Monoliths & Dimensions came to be because you were just embracing that sort of openness.
What part do the robes and general ambiance play in your live show?
I think there’s a distinction between the live show and the records. I think the robes and the fogs that we use in the live show came about as a way to turn the live show into an event and a performance rather than a regular rock and roll gig where you just go see a rock band with a vocalist, bass player, guitar player, and drummer with verse/chorus/verse/chorus jeans and t-shirts. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that. I’m into that kind of thing myself, but with the kind of music that we’re making and what we were wanting to do with the music and the desire to do something different with it, it got to be important to have a live show that complimented that and was appropriate to that. We actually performed shows in jeans and t-shirts in front of amps, and I felt it was awkward and inappropriate and I felt myself being a little too caught up in the audience’s reaction to what I was doing rather than getting into a place where I really like to be with the music. I think that when we had the idea of turning it into wearing robes and using fog, it really sort of helped to bring me out of the here and now and trying to get into a different space of music and really be transcendental. We wanted to really create a different experience for people. Some people say that it reminds them of some sort of ritual, I think that’s interesting and cool because it’s exactly what we were simply trying to do – doing something different and give the person a different sort of experience when they came to the show because the music is different so you want the live performance to be different as well.
Is there a certain sort of spirit that you think unites the bands on Southern Lord? What makes you and Stephen decide a band on the label?
Well Stephen is solely, and not to belittle what he does, is the graphic designer of the label.
He does about 95% of the design. As far as the business decisions, that’s handled by me and I’m actually the owner of the label. Like I mentioned before, I’m a huge music fan. So I kind of run the label as a fan first and as a business person second. Sometimes that can backfire and sometimes that doesn’t always work out, but that’s really where I’m at. I don’t want to change that, and it wouldn’t work to change that because that’s what I’m comfortable with. I put out music that I’m a fan of. There’s nothing on the label that I’ve released that I have not been a fan of. I think we have a lot of different kinds of bands on the label. There are a lot of bands that you could sort of say that are similar in spirit and aesthetic as Sunn O))) like Boris and Earth, but I really like bands that take chances and are doing something different and pushing the boundaries as much as possible. I also like meat and potatoes stuff like Lair of the Minotaur. We just signed the old band The Accused. I’m into stuff like Weedeater and stuff like that. It’s heavy and it’s intense. It’s something that I really like. I don’t necessarily want to be confined by one style of music or one way of thinking about music. The bottom line is that not all the bands on Southern Lord are experimental and challenging. Some of them are like bonehead, meat and potatoes, kick ass heavy thrash or rock or whatever. I think there’s room on my plate for all these different styles of music, and that’s something I really try to follow and sticking with music that I like.
Now knowing that you’re pretty much the business end of Southern Lord, how do you manage to keep the label afloat during such an apocalyptic music industry environment?
Well we’ve been really fortunate to gather a real strong following to the things that we’re doing. We try to put out releases that are not only the audio and graphic art quality, but the packaging is of the top utmost quality. To me it’s like there’s really no other way to do it. The bands that we work with and the music that I put out and create myself, we put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that and to throw it out into the market with a crappy packaging and something flimsy and cheap to me is really a crime. I think that sort of passion and intensity really shows through in our releases and it shows in the user as well. I think that they get it and like the aesthetic of what we’re doing. We’ve been lucky to have a following and that’s been part of our success is really sticking to that quality level.
After the cycle that Monoliths & Dimensions is going to take, is Sunn O))) going to stay prolific or are you going to take a break?
We’re always doing stuff. This record took a little over a year and a half to come out, but even in the meantime we were playing shows, and did other recordings as well. We haven’t really figured out what we’re going to do with those yet. We’re going to continue to record, and I don’t really see a break happening – nothing long term. To me the focus was on the record being out, working hard on getting it ready for release for the last couple of months, and the next couple of months will be about us performing live and getting out there and supporting the record. That’s like the other phase of the album’s life cycle.
Are you guys going to have a hard time recreating the new stuff on the road?
Well, we’re not going to try and recreate the record exactly how it is. We’ve never been a group that has gone out and played songs on the record; it’s more about the themes on the record and the different ideas on the record. A lot of our performances don’t repeat themselves to the next one. A lot of it is improvised. It’s different every time. Sometimes it is stuff from the records, and sometimes it’s stuff from past records, and sometimes it’s the first riffs we ever wrote and play those for half the set or something. We try to bring in different elements and different players on those riffs and ideas. In particular for these shows that we’re doing we’re going to have Attila with us on vocals, and we’re going to have Steve Moore who did a lot of keyboards and some trombone on the album. He’s coming with us as well. It’s going to be themes from the album that we’re going to play and parts of riffs and different ideas, but we’re going to try and keep it open ended and have a lot of different things happening that we’ve never done before. Then sort of looking at it in a larger picture, one of the things that we would really like to try to challenge ourselves with is to work with string sections, horn sections, or choirs in a live setting. That’s going to take a lot of planning and a lot of different logistics. It’s something that wouldn’t necessarily be toured but a special even situation. We would really like to work on that, but at the moment our focus is on the next four months’ round of shows. A couple of weeks each month we’ll be doing different areas, so we’re going to focus on those upcoming live performances.