Story: Nick DeMarino / Photo: Seldon Hunt
"Oh, I thought you were mowing the lawn." It's late, so this conjecture is simply ridiculous. We writers do strange things, but cutting grass by moonlight isn't one of them. A housemate happened to catch me listening to Monoliths & Dimensions (Southern Lord, 2009) at low volume and mistook the band's trademark amplifier swells for the moonlight howl of a lawn mower muffled by cheap insulation, probably asbestos. I know, I know - listening to sunn O))) at anything but a deafening, bowl-loosening volume is blasphemy - but it was late and I didn't want to interrupt my other housemate's sexual escapades.
It's noteworthy that my roommate only caught the beginning of the album. While earlier releases from the L.A./Paris duo of Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley can often be played at length to similar effect, their seventh studio album is of a different ilk. If he'd come downstairs five minutes later, he'd have been treated to deep, guttural vocals rambling about the Hollow Earth, a stark piano, and smart string and horn arrangements. That's right, there are string and horn arrangements on Monoliths & Dimensions. After 11 years, sunn O))) and their endless string of collaborators have cracked the nut of classical instrumentation. Fear not, for this isn't some misguided jaunt with a big city Philharmonic; the album consists of four compositions that rely just as much on the additional instrumentation to advance the melody as they do on the wall of amplifiers for which they're named. It's primarily an exercise in dynamics. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a restrained effort - sunn O))) still deliver primal tones and rhythm - it's just that they're more dynamic and... tasteful.
Despite Anderson and O'Malley's 2008 rejoinder to the original studio and live line-up (namely, themselves), Monoliths & Dimensions features familiar voices, most notably art metal vocalist and man about town Attila Csihar (or Tormentor and Mayhem fame), as well as guitarist Oren Ambarchi. Add to this Eyvind Kang's emotive string and horn arrangements, two choirs, and a distortion-less ballad, and you've got the new record. Most notably, these songs contain progressions that evolve measure by measure in a sprawling fashion. The atmospherics are second to the arrangements, a first for the group. And sunn O))) has never sounded better.
Without further ado, Greg Anderson of sunn O)))...
What are you up to?
Well, I'm headed to Europe on Wednesday and just trying to sort things out - it's been maniacal here. Sunn O))) is playing for two weeks [in May] as a duo.
Like for the decade anniversary shows held back in 2008?
Kind of. We kept it going beyond that, playing here and there. We've gotten a few requests for it. We just got back from Japan after a week's worth of shows as a duo. It's been invigorating. It's also kind of an easier thing for us to deal with, 'cause it's just two of us. It's easier to move quickly and get stuff done without all of the other elements and productions.
Is it mostly the Grimmrobe Demos (Hydra Head, 1998; Southern Lord, 2000) material?
It's still mostly the first album with some improv and other riffs. It's in the spirit of the first album.
I'm having trouble picturing that for the new record.
At first [Monoliths & Dimensions] was sort of a reaction to us making this album. It's so massive - it's the most ambitious thing we'd ever gone through. We both agreed, let's play just the two of us without any other instrumentation. It's pretty invigorating; it rekindled the spark of us playing together and how fun that actually is. It's interesting for audiences, too. They get to see candidly what the core of the group is. Here it is: raw and naked. It's more apparent that way. It gives audiences some depth - they get to see how the pieces are constructed.
I'd imagine, in the midst of making something so complex, that'd be a nice rejoinder.
Well, actually, the record was finished tracking [prior to the Grimmrobe 10th anniversary mini-tour] - we finished the mixing last year. We started the duo shows in October and finished the last of the mixing in November. We did a few things last year, not as many live performances [as years past]. We played with Attila and a couple of other players in Norway last summer, a few things before the duo stuff. I had this 10th anniversary idea, just Stephen and I playing how we started. It's something we've continued in the face of this album being released.
How are you going to pull off material from Monoliths & Dimensions? You've professed your love for Miles Davis in the past - this strikes me as similar to trying to get together all of the players on Bitches Brew.
I'm fairly sure he was able to get most of those people on the same stage. We'll do more material from the album, or in that theme. Most will play, but not the entire line-up. It would be a massive undertaking to get some of the instrumentation on the record and try to pull it off in a live setting. It's something we want to do in the future. It's a huge challenge, a lot of work logistically. We're setting aside some time in 2010 for that: special events, one-offs, [but] not a tour - there's no way we could afford or pull that off. It would be detrimental to the music or the group, way too much to take on, and it would probably destroy us. The material on the album, a lot of it is doable. I really think we can pull it off with a few other players; an expanded line-up but not a super line-up.
How else did you end up with this album? What intentions inform it?
Initially we had an idea that we wanted to work with some acoustic instruments. That's the simplified explanation. As with all of the records that we've done, we're in a studio bouncing ideas and riffs off of each other, creating a foundation and a core that's built upon with different instrumentation and layers.
How then did this album end up so different?
One main thing that shaped the record was that Oren [Ambarchi, guitarist] and Attila [Csihar, vocals] were in the studio. After we tracked the record, we handed it off to Eyvind Kang [violist and composer] in the hopes that he would elaborate on it and collaborate on the material with us. He did a great job. We didn't want the strings and horns glommed on and unnatural - we wanted it to sound as natural as possible, to expand the music. This isn't the L.A. Philharmonic jamming with sunn O))); this comes from an experimental and avant-garde background, a way of writing and composing music. So, I thought that it'd be an appropriate thing for us to work with someone like Kang. He could really relate to where we were coming from and could do something tasteful, not tacky, and that's what he did. He organized the string and horn ensembles from his friends and peers he's played with over the years. There's this community of musicians in Seattle... Stephen and I grew up there and that's where we met and lived most of our lives. The music scene goes through changes, has spikes of popularity in the culture, and it's an amazing place for musicians. I was not aware of the depth of musicians that are there playing interesting, challenging music, or [who are] willing to experiment. Musicians like Julian Priester - his career is amazing. He's played with everyone: John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Herbie Hancock. These musicians are so open-minded. You have to be, it's just something that shouldn't be taken for granted. It still amazes me that we had these players with all of this history, especially compared to Steve and I - which is night and day, as far as playing and technical ability go.
How much direction was given to these people?
There were definite responses and reactions to what Eyvind had done. He did some tracking, for some of which we were present and some we weren't. We'd react to different ideas, say, 'Okay this is a really great thing that happened, we'll work with this when mix time arrives.' That's the way it's been for the last few sunn O))) records. There's a lot of tracking without boundaries or rules; we try to play very uninhibited and pick out the gems later, during mixing. It was more focused than that this time [laughs]; definitely more methodical, in some ways. The editing process and mixing should not be discounted, though - it really shapes these pieces. Just raw tracks may not make any sense in comparison to how they turned out. There's a lot of really analytical editing and mixing that's done.
How did you hook up with Kang to begin with?
Kang? He actually worked on bonus material for Altar (with Boris; Southern Lord, 2006). He's a friend of Randall [Dunn, engineer]. He and his partner have both worked with Eyvind before, recording collaborations, so they have a strong relationship with him. When we talked about initial ideas for the record - that it would be great to work with acoustic instruments and strings - the first thing out of Randall's mouth was that we needed to contact Eyvind. He's amazing. He does this sort of thing often and is really skilled. There are a few of his records I have and am a huge fan of.
It seems like sunn O))) has had Attila and Oren in tow for a while now.
Yes. Attila and Oren came in for the live show. Attila has been on a few records; Oren has been on a few records. The main difference between those recordings and this is that it's the first time we were all in the studio together. That was, to me, a defining point of the record. We were all together, writing and bouncing ideas. With Attila, he's on Oracle (Southern Lord, 2007) and White2 (Southern Lord, 2004), and in those cases Steve and I had completed tracks, sent them to him, then mixed them. There was no face-to-face interaction. We weren't in the same room or even in the same country. This time we had some ideas, got to hear the lyrical concepts and get inspired to come up with something based on that. It really made for a strong collaboration. It was an amazing and really cool way to work. Same thing with Oren: he contributed to the Black One (Southern Lord, 2005) album. We sent him final tracks and he basically added some over dubs and layers on things. This time we actually worked together, with everyone helping [together at once].
Did the additional arrangements inspire you to head back to the studio?
We spent about two weeks doing basic tracking... we'll call it that. We didn't need to go back; we tried to record everything we possibly could and didn't leave until we were done. Any sorts of ideas we had were overdubs. Oren listened and came up with ideas that he wanted to put in, so we revisited it quite a bit later in the mixing process. A lot ended up being [added] as layers and textures. We kind of had to work in that way because of the fact that Stephen's in Europe and I'm in L.A. and the studio is in Seattle. The logistics were another big challenge, getting everyone in the same place without a huge travel cost, which happened anyways. We decided, let's leave here satisfied. It's not like we can forgot to do something and track it next week.
You left there spent.
[laughs] It wasn't that dramatic. It is what it is. The leftovers will be on the next thing. There was a lot of stuff recorded besides what's on the record, extra pieces that didn't fit or weren't ready. This could have been a double album but we decided to be more focused, to really concentrate, and came up with pieces that really worked well together.
From Black One to Altar, sunn O)))'s approach has changed a lot. I know Altar is a collaboration with Boris, but that aside, how do you chart the path from Altar to Monoliths & Dimensions?
You got the spirit of it - both bands' personalities are apparent on the Altar record. I don't know if it's a transition to this one. That record was done at a certain time, when both groups were together making music in the studio. Of course, that experience is important to where we are now, but I don't think I can pinpoint an exact transition. One of the most important things about this new record is that it's the result of a lot of live shows with Oren and Attila. A lot of things we did at those shows are here. Also, the guy who recorded us, Randall [Dunn], does live sound at our shows and really knows where we're coming from, down to minute details. He was the only choice to capture what we were doing. That's the most significant reference point. Besides the acoustics and Eyvind, the idea was to capture the chemistry of the live players on stage in the studio. There are some points on the record that definitely remind me of what that feels like.
Which points in particular?
Particularly "Aghartha," where we've been doing some heavy, abrasive riffs and bring it down to silences and creaks, minimal sounds as Attila comes in. At some shows, Attila would start out by himself and just sing, like on Domkirke (Southern Lord, 2008), just him and a church organ. Other times it would just be myself and Steve. Sometimes it would just be Oren and Attila; there have been shows where we've done some heavy riffing for 20, 30 minutes, then Steve and I left and just Oren and Attila played. We worked off of that idea, with dynamics. It's not just full-on bomb blasts. Black One was this massive assault; there's no real mercy on that record - it's relentless. I love that record for many different reasons. With this one, we explore dynamics and see if we can make quiet sections just as powerful. "Alice" is an exercise in that: to make a song without ridiculous distortion that's still heavy.
So, let's run through Monoliths & Dimensions one track at time. How about "Aghartha"?
That was the first song we tracked - the first thing we did in the studio. The main riff was something Steve came up with. A lot of the sessions are based on improvisations, but there's always a jumping off point, an icebreaker. One person will bring in a riff or an idea. It was pretty cool that the first notes played on the album were exactly how they came about in the studio. We went in, had the amps set up, and Steve's like, 'Hey, I have this riff.' The vocals, to me, are really impressive. Attila is one of my favorite vocalists. Whether it's with Mayhem or even back in Tormentor, his style and approach, especially to black metal vocals, is unlike anything I've ever heard. De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (by Mayhem; Deathlike Silence/Century Black, 1994), on that one in particular, this guy is amazing. It's almost a spoken word thing, that's how powerful his voice is. He has so much low end, there were points in the mixing we had to tame it - it was overpowering the mix. This guy's voice is more powerful than a wall of amps when he's mic'ed right.
There's also the piano. A lot of people haven't talked about that. Eric Walton, his part is so fucking understated and so powerful. He's got a pseudonym, Skerik - just look it up. I'm pretty blown away by what he's done. He's played with pretty much everybody. And the thing is, his primary instrument is saxophone - he's an absolutely incredible sax player - and he didn't play saxophone. It was really cool for him to try something different. He is the one who said, 'Hey, I've got this idea, I'd like to play piano.' 'You can play piano, too?' It's a minimalistic part, but that guy has talent coming... out the ears [laughs]. I love what he did.
What's with the lyrics about tunnels and the inner world?
It's the theory of the Hollow Earth, and in the middle is a black sun. It's better if the listener just dives in and looks it up on their own. It's super ironic that it's also the title of a late Miles Davis album - [Agharta (Columbia, 1975)] live in Japan, super psychedelic and insane. It's something Stephen, Oren, and I listen to and reference just when we're talking about music. But Attila doesn't have any idea about it; I mean, I'm sure he knows Miles Davis, Bitches Brew or Kind of Blue, but he's not obsessive and nerdy like us. That's a cool coincidence. It's the one thing that Stephen, Oren, and I all dig together, and then Attila comes in with this. It's a pleasant accident.
I think you were dead on when you referred to the vocals as spoken word-like.
That's the whole thing. Attila, on the surface he seems crazy, and he's this big figure in the black metal scene, but then you find this depth to his personality. He's not a bonehead. It's kind of a common current in sunn O))) that we're for outside listeners. I mean, we do the primitive caveman thing, but you can peel back the layers. There's depth... we're not Motorhead or AC/DC. Nothing against those bands - I love them. But that depth, that's what I'm getting at with Attila's personality. He's got this persona with Mayhem that people think is juvenile, and [yet] he's actually very well-read and intelligent. If you actually look at his lyrics and see where he's coming from, it's not just upside down crosses and satanic sodomy.
That's one of the reasons I get pissed when people dismiss your music as "hipster metal" and move on.
Hipster metal? That's just silly. It's very belittling to the music. I'm the last fucking hip person there is. We're just nerds about music. That distinction reminds me of high school. That's exactly why I got into metal and punk: I couldn't stand the popular crowd, people following trends. My reaction against them was metal and punk rock.
You guys seem to have a sense of humor about your music and some of the inherent ironies in it as well.
We all have senses of humor. One of the things Oren and I bond over is comedy films and comedy TV. 'Have you seen this?' 'Have you seen this?' Even into things like Ben Stiller movies, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, different hilarious TV shows. I mean, we take what we do seriously; it's an important part of who I am and, at the same time, I don't take it too seriously. I'm not trying to be pretentious.
And on to "Big Church" with that lovely subtitle ["megszentsegtelenithetelensegeskedeseitekert"]. Can you say it?
I can't, actually.
I'm guessing the subheading in the booklet is a rough translation ["for your repeated incapabilities of having been 'unholified' deconsecration perhaps in the opposite of oneness in a sacred sense"]?
Yeah, that's a rough translation. It's the longest word in the Hungarian language. The word is used in school to teach little kids the intricacies of the language. It actually exists as a word, and Attila is really into the meaning. It really exemplifies where that guy is coming from, him feeling outcast by society, by the religious majority or whatever you want to call it. He's playing with and challenging religion, especially with Mayhem, which has a long history of anti-Christian themes. He takes that farther with them. I thought it was really cool. We gave him the initial idea of chanting like a priest or monk. That's the simplified version. He says, 'Okay, I'm going to say this word over and over again.'
How did you decide you needed a choir?
It was one of the ideas we had all along. We thought it'd be cool to have a gospel choir involved. The song didn't really pan out - something was missing and nothing seemed to fit. Jessica Kenny, she's...
She's from the Wolves in the Throne Room record!
Yeah, on Two Hunters (Southern Lord, 2007). She knows us through her band Asva. That's how we knew she was interested in heavy and experimental music. We told her about the choir idea and she said she's involved with a Viennese woman's choir and that she was actually going there, last summer, going to work with them and work on this recording for the new Sunn O))) record. She, Eyvind, and Attila worked it out and made arrangements for the choir.
And the result?
I was blown away. That was one of the last pieces of the puzzle, that women's choir. Most of the stuff was pretty much tracked and we knew what we wanted for the mix. The song needed something, but we couldn't figure out what. It almost didn't get included - we just couldn't figure it out. It had those pauses between the loud sections but just didn't feel finished. What the choir did was great. When I said we were trying to work with dynamics, that's the prime example. I think a lot of the records have been full on. Some of White1 (Southern Lord, 2003) was a little more subdued, but only a little. For the most part, it's been bomb blast. I'm totally into that, but working on things in a live setting where we could experiment, that's kind of where the initial idea came from.
On to "Hunting & Gathering."
There's a lot of riff tracking that was going on, also a lot of experimenting. It was along the lines of 'I got this idea, to use this motorized fan.' 'How about we drop rocks in the piano?' [laughs] Really experimental - we'll call it arty, for lack of a better word. I don't mean to belittle the music, but art fag stuff. All of this was going on in the studio and, at one point, I just wanted to crank up a riff. During a break, I just started riffing away in the style of Earth's Earth 2 (Sub Pop, 1993) record, and they said, 'Fucking great.' We played it ad nausea and taped it. There are lots of additional elements: vocals, horns, the man choir, and over dubs. Once we had the initial track, all of the different ideas sprouted off of it. 'Hey, what about putting this insane man choir on it?' Steve Moore arranged it and his brother Tony [Moore] did horns and some synth stuff on it. Those synths are also something that's from the live setting. We used analog synths, Moogs, with insane low end and thought it would be really cool to have that on the record.
And the idea behind the men's choir?
I'm not sure. The song was just so fucking manly. It was so primitive and caveman like, and we thought it would be cool. Some of my friends who can sing helped: Daniel Menche, Joe Preston, [who is] this amazing vocalist who's worked with High on Fire, Thrones, Harvey Milk, and many others. A great voice and pitch is nice to have sometimes. Also, to me, it seems a little inspired by a church choir, or at least flirting with that idea.
The idea was to try to make a track without the ridiculous distortion and saturation, to play through small amps and come up with something that's still really powerful and heavy feeling. The track is a tribute, inspired by Alice Coltrane. Stephen and I are hugely inspired by her. I wouldn't necessarily say [the song] is directly influenced by it - I'm definitely not a jazz musician, not near the technical ability she plays at or the people she plays with. There's really a darkness to it, but it's sort of uplifting. That's the idea we were trying to get across. We didn't plan on ending the album with it; we had no sequence in mind when we tracked it. This wasn't a concept record.
The fact that it did end up being the last track means there's this uplifting moment at the end. This the first time one of our records has ended on such a positive note. Part of that is Julian Priester's trombone solo. It's beautiful, and for a sunn O))) record that's not very frequent. The initial track was guitar and bass for the first half, and the idea for the strings, harp, and horns came later, basically as Eyvind's idea and reaction to the music. It begins minimally, but really opens up and turns into another thing when they all come in. Eyvind's composition is based on the original tracks and is really amazing. I feel like you're opening this door in some darkness. It opens up and it's revealing. It's kind of revealing emotionally, as well. A lot of sunn O))) records, they're really dark and that emotion gets attached to sadness or anger, and I think the things about this record is that there's a lot more depth to it than our other records. It showcases a wider range of emotions than previous records. This song is a perfect example of that. I feel happiness and joy and bliss. And I even feel that, at the beginning of the track, with Stephen and I in the minimal, breaking sound that opens into a brighter place.
And what's that feeling?
I'm glad. I think, typically, heavy music can be wrongly pigeonholed in all darkness and gloom, that it just has to have a certain mood. Not so much consciously, but we're trying to dispel [that myth] and do it in a different way. That's the simplified version: playing heavy music in a different way. I've been in traditional bands, Goatsnake for instance, and there's a systematic way the music is made. It's kind of limited. I loved playing with that band, though, and actually I miss it. But there's something about sunn O))) that's the direct opposite of that. The one thing I'm trying to do as a musician is play heavy music. Believe me, I love traditional [heavy] music - I love Saint Vitus just as much as Miles Davis. I love traditional doom just as much as experimental music. I like a lot of different music and connect with it in different ways. For what we do, I just want to make something unique, and hopefully people are getting it.
How do you feel on stage when you play?
I'm drained, if it's a good show. A lot of the time, I feel satisfied. All kinds of things really. I feel different things at different shows. It's a chance to excise a lot of different pent up aggressions, pent up feelings. I feel sort of... relaxed and content after shows. It depends on the shows, you know? It can be very meditative, very relaxing.
And your hearing? I imagine you use ear plugs.
I'm just now starting to use protection regularly. I've gotten special ear plugs, musician's ear plugs or whatever, that fit to my ear. At one time, I just didn't feel like I was hearing the music and feeling it correctly with them in. It felt blocked, and I didn't want to feel blocked in any way. I have to learn to play and listen with those things in. Yeah, I have some hearing loss for sure, and I'm sure Stephen does too. It's not a surprise. It's unfortunate. I've chosen my path and I'm not going to complain about it. I sort of imagined my friends and I in the future, having the most powerful hearing aids possible. We'll be yelling a foot away from each other, having shooting matches - hopefully we'll still be friends, as no one else will want to be friends with us. We talk a lot about it, actually - even seriously learning sign language, because the day is coming.
The leftover music from the recording sessions for Monoliths & Dimensions: I've heard there's something called Kannon. Tell me about that.
Kannon is a 35-minute piece in three different parts, "Kannon 1," "Kannon 2," "Kannon 3." Stephen demoed it and brought it to the studio. It turned out really cool. It was one of those things, like with "Big Church," that just wasn't completed. Other pieces were developing so strongly and working together so well that this one was included in this batch. We've already kind of thrown it around to people we wanted to work with, who could make it really cool, but it's still a work in progress.
There's also something that's not mentioned very often: Oren, Attila, and I play together as Burial Chamber Trio, the three of us. When it's Stephen, Oren, and Attila, they have Grave Temple as well. These side projects were a fun thing for us to do during the down time. Stephen couldn't join us in Seattle until a little later, so Attila, Oren, and I got there early. We thought, 'Let's record in the studio, get a chance to get our gear set-up and be the guinea pigs for this.' We did a full day of tracking the day before he got here. So, Stephen showed up and we started the sunn O))) record. In between, during down time, Randall or one of us would do something totally insane. Attila was kind of bored once, hadn't done anything that day, and said, 'I want to do something. I want to do something.' So, it's [like], 'Okay, why don't you go do gorilla sounds for two hours' [laughs]... Hmm, I think it was more like an hour. We also recorded stuff we were doing live with Burial Chamber Trio. Attila had been listening to a lot of classical, old Chinese opera, and did some of that - really insane stuff. We did this really primitive percussion with wood blocks, just fucked shit up. With that wood block, there were so many splinters the studio manager comes out and starts vacuuming. So, we started making these sounds with the noise and recorded it while he was vacuuming. There are other things: Sun City Girls, spoken word, and Steve O'Malley's dad playing a mouth harp. Really messed up stuff between takes. There's a whole album there that has yet to see the light of day. It was the comic relief for the record, a nice break. It takes a lot of intensity and focus to track sunn O))), so we figured, 'Let's do something completely fucked and tape it.' Randall's been threatening to finish up the tracks. That's always his threat: 'I'm going to ask some crazy sitar players to play on it.' I'm sure he'll do it.
The press leading up to this record was kind of strange, vinyl-only promos and all. I, for one, am in love with it. Do you think you'll do that for all of Southern Lord's releases?
So far I've been really impressed with the reaction to it. Unfortunately, it's costly. I'm having a whole battle with the Internet - it's a different way to do things. I mean, now the record is already available on the Internet. There's no way around it. So, I guess this was an attempt to sort of try to prolong the length of time it'd be off of there. Just in the last day, I've been told it's online, up on some blogs. That's pretty good for a record that's coming out in one week. I'm trying to make a statement about the music. It's not right how people are listening to it. I'm not trying to keep it from people or journalists. I just don't want people to listen to the record on a fucking computer, period. It needs to be heard on a proper stereo that can translate the frequencies. To me, a journalist, especially if you're a music journalist writing about music and giving your opinion to readers, you should be listening on a good stereo and a turntable. I know people are listening to it on their computer. I want to try and change that. It may be in vain, but...
And the general reception to this?
We were contacted by a record store that was playing a promo. They wrote back said they liked that the sides played at different speeds, that it required attention [ed. note - sides A and D play at 33rpm, while B and C play at 45 rpm]. Again, they're not just popping it on iTunes and playing it through tiny speakers. I'm glad we did it this way. It was really expensive. I don't know if we'll do it again. I think it's definitely something I'd like to try again, depending on the record. We have this list of people who are interested and have turntables now, [whom] we can work with in the future.
And did anyone take you up on the listening session in New York. I mean, anyone who wasn't from New York?
There were actually listening sessions in London, Berlin, and New York. No one flew in for New York. The offer was out there but no one took us up on it. We wanted to control the listening environment. I'm not a control freak, but thought it would be a really cool way to have people listen to this, to make sure it's going to be the experience we want people to have. That was an important aspect of it for us. It sort of separates this from other releases. We're artists taking time to make something really unique. That's the whole theme of where we're coming from.