Scott White: How did you guys get started with Sunn o)))?
Greg Anderson: Well Stephen O’Malley had a band together called Thor’s Hammer, part of the mid-90’s. It was more of a traditional band setup, guitars, bass, drums, and vocals. And we started playing music together in that and eventually that band dissolved and we formed a group called burning witch, that band dissolved as well. Stephen and I wanted to continue playing music together, we kind of moved into different places. He moved to England, I moved to Los Angeles. We eventually found ourselves back in Los Angeles, he moved there so we kind of started Sunn as an excuse to continue to play music together, and at that point I had more of a serious band called Goatsnake that was playing a lot, but I still wanted to do some music with Steve so we started doing that, and really it was Steve and I playing through as many amps as we possibly could together, making a bunch of noise playing riffs together, that’s how it started, just really simple, Without any sort of expectations or aspirations. That was about 1998 when we really started playing together and gave it a name, made a recording, which was the Grimmrobes demos which was our first recording. We just played together for a few times and then went into the studio and made that demo. You know, the music was based on a lot of improvisation so it wasn’t something that we…we didn’t spend a lot of time in the beginning, we just kind of went in and did it.
SW: Was there a lot of focus on live shows, or was there basically no focus on it in the beginning?
GA: We played a few shows, but mostly there was no real desire to play the music live, or do what we were doing live. It was more sort of a selfish thing, just him and I playing music together. Playing live wasn’t so much of a consideration, although we did do a few live shows in the early days, and then eventually a few years later we started playing out a lot more. And the last couple of years, we’ve done a lot of shows.
SW: What is it about extremely slow dense music that gets you going? Most people when they’re thirteen are into super fast Slayer-type shit, what was it that made you want to slow it down?
GA: Well, Stephen and I are also into fast music too. I think there’s a few direct and obvious influences for us, we’re both really into the Melvins, and we’re both really into Earth. I thought the concept of the first couple of Earth records, where it was really focused on minimalism and lack of drums and percussion, that was really intriguing for us and that was kind of how we started was really, sort of emulating that way of making noise and making sounds was really a direct influence, especially that second Earth record, Earth 2. It’s not like we don’t like fast music, it’s just playing slow music was something we enjoyed playing together. There was a lot more space and room to create more sound and experiment with…ya know if the tempo’s really fast and you’re on a meter its like beat the clock ya know? Trying to fit as much as you can in a riff, but for us it’s trying to expand that and stretch time with music, creating music.
SW: Was focusing on low frequencies hard in the beginning because you didn’t have bass or drums? Is that why you went with Sunn amps?
GA: Well sunn amps were just a preferential amp for us, those amps are designed initially as bass amps, and even the guitar stuff would respond well to bass frequencies and has more of a bass response than a Marshall, Mesa Boogie, or Hiwatt. So, at the time we were just using what we had, and I was fortunate enough to have a few sunn amps, so that’s what we used. The idea was kind of, through the low tunings and using the settings of the amps, was to set everything so that it really had a lot of bass to it. Personally, I think what sunn was doing and continues to do as guitars has a lot more low frequencies and bass than many bands that have bass. Especially in the metal scene, bass is unfortunately an afterthought for a lot of bands. And the bands that really do have technically proficient bass players, they’re not really working with the spectrum of low frequencies, they’re just creating something that goes under the guitar, or a lot of times, my problem with it, is it follows the guitar, it’s almost like the reason some of these bands have bass players is that it’s the traditional way things are done. It’s like “well we gotta have bass, drums, guitars, and vocals. That’s the way that things are done in music, in bands.” But I don’t know if the low frequencies of that instrument are really given much consideration, and for Sunn it’s the opposite. We want to consider that frequency for sure, consider bass in the equation of things. And I think really, a lot of the bands we’ve played in outside of Sunn or a lot of the bands I guess the…for lack of a better word, the doom metal or the drone scene, those bands are really focused on bass. One of the reasons I’m attracted to it is I really like that aspect of music, I like that sound.
SW: On your new album, I was really interested in hearing how you diversified the bass into other instruments, it wasn’t just guitar anymore. I was especially excited when I heard “Big Church”, just to hear a choral arrangement was not something I expected when I picked up the new sunn cd. Whose idea was it to come in with the choir arrangements?
GA: I’m not sure exactly whose idea it was, we’ve been talking about that concept for quite a while actually in trying to add that to, or integrate it, into our sound, or experiment with it on a piece of music. Really to us it was about expanding the sound of the group and expanding the musicality of the music we were making, I think for a lot of people they just listen to it and to them it sounds like a loud refrigerator, but I think there’s many layers and textures and a lot of depth to what we’re doing. And I think that, especially on this last record, it was a kind of showcase to not only push the boundaries of it but to really present it in a way that is a little more obvious than some of our other records. I think a lot of our other records take a lot of deep listening to hear everything, where as this record, the layers were a bit more obvious. Our idea was to have them integrated fully so that it didn’t sound like something that was tacked on, we didn’t want to have “Sunn with strings” like Metallica did with their record, we wanted it to really be a collaborative record, not only with us playing with these instruments but to really integrate it, and not something like an overdub. And again, something to really try to put some focus on how depth and how much layering there is in the music.
SW: A few years ago, you had begun to work with Attila, and as a big Mayhem fan I was stoked for that. How did you come into contact with him?
GA: Steve was in correspondence with him in the early nineties, Steve had an underground metal fanzine called descent and he actually interviewed Attila for that magazine probably in 91 or 92, so he had been in contact with him through that and was interested in his music, as I was too. Personally, my favorite black metal record was the “De Mysteriis dom Sathanas” record that he sang on. There’s a lot of black metal music out there and I really thought it was exceptionally unique and really stood out and was really my favorite black metal album and really because of his vocal performance. I think the music was really cool on that record, really well written and very interesting, but I think his vocals were really what, to me, was the best part of that record. And you know, he’s the type of person that’s kind of like minded to Stephen and I as very interested in pushing the boundaries of music within the genre and experimenting as an artist. We ended up making contact with him around 2001 or 2002, and invited him to, we were on one of our first trips to Europe, we invited him to come see us play and we talked about collaborating. He was very interested in what sunn was doing because it was so spacious, and he felt like he could really do something interesting within what we were doing, without any sort of restrictions. When we started working with him, it was before he had rejoined Mayhem, he was very…he’s always open to different ideas in expressing himself. But I think that working with Sunn was a really good outlet for him and I think sort of influenced some of his work he did with Mayhem. I think the stuff that he’s doing with Mayhem now and the last record he was on was also very different and it was cool to hear his progression and seeing them live was the same thing, he’s definitely working in an experimental mind set within what can be considered a somewhat traditional black metal band.
SW: Was it strange to fit in a vocalist during live shows into what you and Steven were doing?
GA: No, not really, we were pretty excited about it. It’s always, whether it’s a vocalist, keyboards, a trombone, upright bass, any sort of instrumentation we’ve been able to collaborate with has always been interesting and I think it’s exciting to do that, especially when it works. And with Attila, he just gets it, and the chemistry between Attila and Stephen and I is really strong and I think that it comes up with some really, really different music, ya know?
SW: So this year you guys are curating the Roadburn festival in Holland, what’s the band you’re most excited to see?
GA: uh…I’m really excited to see Winter, I think that’s gonna be really interesting what they come up with or how they sound, I never got to see them back in the day so I think that’s pretty cool. I’m also really excited to see Caspar Brotzmann Massaker, because I haven’t seen him play since the mid nineties, I was actually in a band that went on tour with him in the united states, and it was kind of at the beginning of Stephen and I’s friendship and playing together, and that was one of the artists that was, I guess, considered to be non-metal that we both really liked a lot, I think it’s gonna be really cool, I’m really looking forward to it.
SW: Did you get to choose the entire lineup for the show?
GA: Yeah, for that day. There’s four stages that day and one of the stages was curated by Roadburn, which is this good size theater, it’s actually outside the main venue, called the Midi theater and they had a concept for that. I guess when they ask artist’s to curate one day, it’s for those three stages. So I think we picked like fifteen bands or something, and on the other stage they picked about four bands. But good picks too I noticed, Place of Skulls is playing, they put out a couple records on Southern Lord and I think Voivod is playing that night too, which is cool. I think that’s one of the reasons we were chosen to curate, the organizers of Roadburn and Sunn and Southern Lord, for that matter, have very similar tastes in music and sort of on the same page. It’s an honor to do, for sure, but when they saw our lineup they were excited to see who we picked and hopefully realize that they made a good decision and that we get it.
SW: I’ve noticed that after years of listening to your music, I rarely see U.S. tours, do you not like touring or is there some other conflict?
GA: It’s difficult for this group to tour, because everyone lives in a different place. No one lives in the same town, or city, or state. I live in Los Angeles, Stephen lives in Paris, France and Attila lives in Hungary other players that we’ve played with live elsewhere as well so getting it together logistically is difficult, and it’s really important for us to have a specific backline which is really large so to be able to travel with that and to be able to find venues that are suitable for that is not always easy either, we can’t really play…there’s several clubs that are sort of the typical places you would play in a town that wouldn’t be appropriate for what we do, and it’s also sort of a choice of the group to try to play alternative places. If possible, a church is always interesting and fun to play in. Just different places, to us the setting of where we’ll play is a part of the whole experience so we’re trying to offer a unique experience for the audience member, and if you just do it at the local black box bar pick up spot in your town, it’s not really the appropriate spot for what we’re doing, ya know?
SW: Are there any plans for a small tour in the near or distant future?
GA: No, not right now. We toured very extensively in 2009 and into the beginning of 2010 I think we did uh…close to seventy shows, which for us is a lot. And we did three different tours within the United States, we did a Midwest, west coast, and east coast tour, we did two different tours of Europe, a tour of UK and this was almost all in the support and sort of in the direction of the music that was on the last album, Monoliths & Dimensions, and that was great. I think we did a lot musically that…what came out of it was progressed or regressed in some ways, which was cool as well, it grew and I thought we had some really great shows. But after that, everyone decided, well…Stephen and I decided, that we wanted to take a rest and do other things and see what would happen and kind of waiting. Right now we’re really not sure what the next move is gonna be, doing this Roadburn thing is gonna be great and we’re excited to do that. But beyond that, I don’t know, I ‘m kind of more interested in trying to figure out where, musically, where we’re going to go and maybe thinking about the next recording rather than a live show. Live shows are great, and they can be very enjoyable but doing it on the scale that sunn does it and what’s required for a sunn show is pretty exhausting so it’s not like this band is ever going to be a touring band, like a High on Fire, or something that goes and plays nine months out of the year, it’s just never going to be that way. Not only because of what everyone has going on in their personal lives, but the whole concept of touring is sort of poison to the music for sunn, because when we’ve done long tours I’ve noticed it’s like…you can kind of get stuck or stagnant. And it’s not because the lack of creativity, it’s just a symptom of the road, and being on it and the monotony, and the kind of negative aspects of touring can definitely affect the psyche of the players, which in turn affects the music. So I’ve noticed for us, it’s best to do a weekend worth of shows or a one off type of situation rather than night, after night, after night and I think that kind of kills the music, at least for me. And we’ve seen that happen in the group before.
SW: I know I’ve never gotten to see you live, but I’ve heard from people that have that it’s an almost spiritual experience. Is that an aesthetic that you intend for people to have?
GA: Well it’s nothing we can really control; I can’t really control the reaction of the audience. But I do really appreciate and am grateful that people have a different experience at the show and I’ve heard similar stories from people. And that to me is really inspiring to keep playing music and to continue playing live as well. Buy you know, the whole thing for me, about this music, is that, and the way it’s presented, is very non-traditional, so we’re not really expecting or pandering or trying to get any specific reaction out of the audience. It’s an experience, I’ve always said that I don’t really care what kind of reaction somebody has, whether it’s negative or positive it’s just…if they have any reaction, that’s important. I would not want to be in a situation where somebody was like “well you know, I’d rather go home and watch TV”, I’d rather have somebody go “this is fucking terrible, this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen” or somebody say “oh this is great”. Personally that’s what I would hope somebody would take from the show, just some type of effect on that person. Otherwise, what’s the point? There’s so many bands and so many shows and so many things to do these days it’s like…ya know, fuck it ha-ha. I don’t want to just be another…I don’t want it to be boring for people. So, I don’t know, like I said, I can’t control what peoples experience is going to be with it, their reaction.
SW: You’re record label, Southern Lord, has an awesome comment on the back of your albums “Maximum Volume Yields Maximum Results”, and is this humor? And do you guys prefer vinyl?
GA: Well, “Maximum Volume Yields Maximum Results” is sort of, a bit of humor. The reality is that most people’s stereos, especially these days with people listening to shit on their computers or iPods, they’re listening devices are pretty subpar. So expecting people to listen to something on a decent stereo is sort of a lost cause. And you know, not everyone’s an audiophile, people listen to music how they like to listen to music. Some people are really obsessive about their stereos and how they listen to music, most aren’t. But to us it was like, and the whole point of the band playing live really was because we realized that there was no way that any recording we made could be reproduced like it is when you go see it live. So we just put that in their cause we were hoping that people would turn the music up and actually feel it, sort of like they would in an actual show.
SW: When did you start Southern Lord?
SW: How many bands did you start with on your label?
GA: First two releases were Thorr’s Hammer and Burning Witch, actually the first two bands that Stephen and I played together in. So my first was the Thorr’s Hammer record and then shortly after that we came out with the Burning Witch recordings.
SW: On you label you’ve worked with everyone from Pelican, Electric Wizard, Saint Vitus, basically a laundry list of every awesome band. Is there a formula to how you find these bands?
GA: It’s just driven by my taste really. A lot of the early stuff was either our music or people we were in direct contact with. And then as we got a few releases under our belt the label gets more attention and people start knowing about it and people become aware, and bands become aware of what you’re doing. We’ve been really fortunate to work with a lot of amazing artists, and I guess from the very beginning we’ve tried to be as fair as possible with the artists, making sure they’re accounted to properly and paid when they’re owed money. I think, in comparison, to the majority of labels out there that’s sort of a rarity and I think a lot of people know that. And I think the fact also that the label is run by…I’m a musician ya know, I play in bands and there’s definitely some empathy that I have with the bands and artists that labels that are not artist run labels do not understand. I think they’re coming from a much more skewed business side than Southern Lord would. In some ways, that could be one of our weaknesses as well, I tend to work with and give a lot of chances to artists that maybe don’t go out there and tour a lot, ya know there’s some labels where that’s the number one thing for them is that their bands be out on the road constantly and that’s smart and it’s been successful for them, but that’s one thing for us is that I understand not being able to go out on the road because you have a family, or you have a job, or because you’re not in your twenties anymore. So sometimes, we work with artists and support them even though they’re not able to go out there and promote themselves. So, I think there are several reasons why we’ve been able to exist as long as we have; those are some of the things that come to mind.