- Stephen O’Malley: “I finally found the courage to admit that Sunn O))) is very alive and very essential and a positive experience in my life, rather than having to deal with these other concepts of morbidity, depression and violence.”
- TRISTAN PRIIMÄGI
The drone (metal) mainstay Sunn O))) is having a very prolific year. In addition to their wonderfully titled new and somewhat brighter album “Life Metal” that was released in April, they’re about to put forth an accompanying piece to that in the end of October, titled “Pyroclasts”, that was borne out of the same sessions with the legendary Steve Albini, and was inspired by a daily habit of starting and finishing the studio sessions with 10-12 minute improvised drone, to clear the mind and synchronize the minds.
It translates wonderfully to the music of “Pyroclasts”, a tidal wave of warm sounds that seems to invite everyone to dive right in and get swept away.
Stephen O’ Malley was kind enough to talk about the album, and the constant revolving of Sunn O))) and the planets around it.
A little less than a decade ago I took the liberty to send you a translated excerpt of an Arvo Pärt interview, where he listened to Sunn O))) track “Big Church” and commented on it...
Yes, I remember. Funny, how he looked at it like some children playing.1
Another remembrance from the past. In an early interview I remember reading, you mention a running gag between you, a question “When will the drone bubble burst?” How would you answer to that question now?
Unfortunately, I think we were that kind of people back then, who didn’t have a lot of expectations about our longevity. That’s because we were grateful that we had those experiences and opportunities, Speaking for myself, I felt that that was really exceptional for us and wouldn’t last but I think since I became a little bit older it’s vital to have courage in your work as an artist and whatever the “drone bubble” is, I think it has more to do with opportunities of fans coming to concerts or something. We kind of keep things in check with that because it’s just the way how the music industry works with touring. There’s a limitation there for us, but I think as an artist I kind of regret a little bit having that point of view. It’s a little bit self-defeating, you know, rather than being humble. When I look at artists that inspire me, or that I’ve worked with, that do create incredible pieces of work that really affect and move people, and they have courage and they take risks – they’re not talking of it all falling apart all the time. Of course they might consider that when they’re having troubles but that doesn’t affect their vision. Or maybe it does, depending on the individual, but the artistic need to create it beyond that.
Your longevity has largely become possible because you have really branched out as an artist, into neoclassical, abstract, avantgarde music and elsewhere. Where do you stand these days musically?
Personally I find myself in the end of summer and going into the autumn which is redefining a lot of stakes in creativity, in music and on the personal level too. I feel a bit adrift and part of that is just about being part of the Sunn O))) experience now – doing touring, a lot of touring around the world and dealing with that music. Being inside of that at the moment. My own personal interest in music is that I am deeply curious and I’m always listening to new things. I guess my latest obsession has been Imran Khan, a Hindustani musician. I’m very much into Hindustani music, and all he music. Just that I’m now going into that universe deeper – in a deeper way. Enlarging my knowledge of it. Each individual master musician – be it in jazz or any other type of music; contemporary composition – is a whole universe in themselves.
I’m really trying to be in the present when we go through the touring because Sunn O))) is most alive when it’s being performed, so that’s where I’m at right now.
So, how does metal still fit into this colourful universe? Do you still see it as a sort of backbone, as this is where you originally come from?
Metal? Oh yeah, we come from metal. We’re middle-aged guys now, so it’s not just one identity. There is a clear Bathory reference on “Life Metal” – “Between Sleipnir’s Breath”2 – and there are other references too, to our metal roots. I like to say that we are able to use references in our music in a different way than maybe a metal band would. Where they are emulating the reference, we use it more in a manner of contemporary art approach, where you are making reference to historical art, or the history of art, within the work. And that’s really exciting.
But metal… I mean, I still have long hair. I wear black clothes. I still like Mayhem. But the world’s so colourful, you know. The need of defining one’s basis so strongly … The communities are very rich!
Have you also thought about the Body vs. Head dichotomy in music? There seems to be a very intriguing conflict there, because a lot of your side projects are head music, but metal is often more about the visceral power of the riff, or what not. Where does Sunn O))) belong in that divide?
That’s a great question and an essential topic for me. Especially this year. And I find that actually metal music seems like it should be about the physicality, but often is not. It’s about the image of how powerful something is. Sunn O))) is physical music. In music, I think a lot of musicians are very disassociated with their physicality in a certain way. It’s more about the mind, it’s about the image, the composition, and the experience of the music. I’ve done a lot of work with dance, and with the French choreographer Gisèle Vienne, and it’s incredible to me to realize how dance is so profoundly, truly physical about the body in a way it’s expressing conceptual ideas, emotion, historical ideas. For the dancer, the body is truly the instrument. I didn’t really realize that in a deep way until very recently. With Sunn O))) we worked with this intense physicality for decades but it’s remained very mental music, except when it’s happening and then you’re inside of a sound field and the physicality is impossible to deny, especially as a player. In the meta level or the real psychological level it’s still disassociative. Just on a personal scale, I’ve gone deeper into practice of different types of meditations. Not with these economic other things, just purely meditation and the practices. And it’s been a good realization about how disassociated the body and the mind are.
Interestingly, the first track on the upcoming “Pyroclasts” album, “Frost”, begins with a tone that instantly reminded me of a meditation bell. Was that intentional?
When I was writing the promotional text for “Pyroclasts”, trying to define the concept,I wanted to be careful about talking about meditation, because, like I said, it’s a kind of new practice for me. One thing I’ve realized through that is that Sunn O))) is not meditation. It’s not meditation music. It can be meditational, have aspects of meditation. Itself it’s only sound. Because it’s a group activity, we’ve never defined it together as a group in a certain way of meditation. It’s very open and even anachronistic (laugh). Or anarchic as well. For each person to be completely their own person within this overarching concept. It’s part of the beauty of what it this.
But with “Pyroclasts”, because it consists of four long drones, I would imagine right away that people who are sensitive to meditation, or practicing it, or are thinking about those terms, may view it like that when they experience longform sounds – something that we have been working with our entire career. And I think that it’s beautiful, that’s really an honour, because that means it’s inspiring them to be more sensitive.
Sunn O))) concerts are great because you are sort of forcing people to take a pause. We are constantly bombarded by messages that are essentially narrative, but the narrative in Sunn O))) music is quite slight. You have to get into it. You are forcing people to get rid of the narrative and not wait for their every next moment be defined by action.
Actually, it’s much easier to think that the modern world is bombarding you than to think that my mind is so distracted by all of this access to information, and all of the lures that are offered to me. That’s much more difficult to deal with. Actually you don’t have to mix, you have to divide your space. Whatever’s around you, is in your own mind.
With Sunn O))) it’s a bit like hitting you over the head with a stone. OK, you have to lie down now and we’re going to hit you with this massive thing. You have to lie down (laugh). But the audience is also making the decision to go into that experience, which then gives us the opportunity to present our work and let the audience respond by being inside of that experience. The way you describe it sounds to me like a positive experience. Taking time. Even though it’s taking time in this hyper-concentrated sound field, which is very intense and maybe very invasive for certain people, on a physical level, or mental or psychological level. It creates very different subjective experiences. In the end it’s still you making the decision to pause in that way.
You mentioned dance before, and I feel that dance is very much about finding the boundaries, or the limitations of your own body, and of physicality. Are you also intentionally looking for boundaries and / or limitations with Sunn O)))?
I am looking for the limits, and it changes all the time. The limits are there, and they’re right in front of you, but being aware of what they are is another challenge. You can’t perceive something if you don’t have the right tools of perception. And I think that’s to do with Sunn O))) as well. In a more defined way I think of Sunn O))) as a collective activity. One thing that Greg Anderson and I always discussed is that we can experience in a way we like and that means doing new things that we haven’t done with the band before. At least the way we perceive it. That might or may not have to do with limits or boundaries that each of us have, but I think that true limits and boundaries in creativity and artistic expression are much more personal, and for me it becomes more about my own ability to perceive what they are. Because most of those boundaries are unnecessary in life and they’re self-imposed and to do with the deeper issues of the mind than with the actual practice of being artistic.
What you get when this is working well, is this profound beauty that is really engulfing and connecting with the collaborators, the audience, the people, their imagination.
But with Sunn O)))… Sunn O))) exists, you know? It changes a lot but it really does exist, and it grows with the individuals within that. Of course, they are part of Sunn O)))’s metamorphosis, but they also have their own lives.
You mentioned beauty, and it’s kind of evident that you have rediscovered beauty now, with putting forward two albums with warmer tones, warm-coloured covers, a title like “Life Metal”… With Attila Csihar as the singer, Sunn O))) was definitely a darker entity.
Since we did “Monoliths and Dimensions” in 2009, I finally found the courage to admit that Sunn O))) is very alive and very essential and a positive experience in my life, rather than having to deal with these other concepts of morbidity, depression and violence. I’d been at that stage a long time and I think that “Monoliths and Dimensions” worked with that in a more complex ways than “Life Metal”. But it only has to do with the title! We give that title and our audience is so open to what we’re doing. This is a true honour that the public is so open to our ideas and our self-interpretation and presentation that they accept it. So, you accept now we have finally come to this place. And it only has to do with a few words. It’s really interesting. The music is our life and it’s very alive as well, there’s no denying that. I haven’t defined it and I don’t know if I would define it so much. We’re presenting another possible point of view of this abstract work that we have worked on for decades. I think it’s very genuine and it’s something we share within the group – this point of view. Somehow, we have been articulating it this year in a way that’s definitely different from the past but also in way is accepted by the public and I’m very grateful for that.
You and Greg are both instrumentalists. You have deployed a whole array of vocalists in Sunn O))) during your career. How do you decide who to use and whether to use vocals at all? There’s none on “Pyroclasts”, for example.
It’s different in each individual’s case, of course. And it’s also not quite right to talk about “using someone”. Sometimes it is: Attila would often say to me in the past: use me like an instrument. Direct me where you want. I wasn’t able to do that very well, to be honest. My individual approach within Sunn O))) as a kind of artistic director was always: You are here, that’s enough. You participate in this activity and that’s enough. So with vocalists it’s in some ways the same thing as with instrumentalists. It’s about the personality, being involved in this group activity which is important. Their style, their talent, their passion.
We recently worked with this incredible musician Petra Haden (Haden was already a guest musician on Sunn O)))’s “ØØ Void” album in 2000 – T.P.) live on stage. She was an amazing vocalist and it was really spontaneous. I played a “Pyroclasts” piece in Los Angeles live with her, and that piece is amazing because in some ways it’s very simple but it’s so open that we can invite guests in just to participate in the Sunn O))) experience. And it doesn’t really require much preparation, it’s just purely about the moment. And it was wide open for her. With Hildur Guðnadóttir’s performance on “Life Metal” we were creative in a compositional way I proposed this poetry to her to work with and we talked a lot about the style of the duophonic melodic structure that she worked with performing that, and then she just approached the album. Of course, she’s working with some of the overtones of feedback in other instruments and being an accompanyist to that kind of thing. That was a bit more structured, the way we worked together.
And of course with Scott Walker it’s that he composed the music and the vocals, so we were his instrumentalists. So, it’s really different with each person, but our approach is quite open. There might be some exchange about technical side of things but it’s like if you’re there, then you participate.
How was it working with Steve Albini? Sunn O))) wouldn’t strike you as a standard Albini band, that evokes tinny distortion, confrontation, transgression.
Well, YOU wouldn’t think that we would be the kind of thing that he worked with! We wanted to work with him for a long time, and Greg Anderson and I did work with him in the past with other bands in the nineties and had really great experiences. We have been in touch with Albini over the years, also sharing a stage with Shellac, his band. Some of our closest friends are very close with him, so we’re in the same tribe, so to say.
It was a long time ambition for us to really work in the studio with him and it was the right moment last year to take that step. In a way it’s a risk, having the courage to go into that experience to be together and make the most of it, because his method is so based on the performance of the music rather than the post-production. We focussed on post-production a lot with the last few albums, but on the other hand we’ve done so much performing n the last ten years, that the live version of the band is very articulated and at this point it was great timing, and it was great working with him.
1 It’s also mentioned in the Quietus interview - https://thequietus.com/articles/07783-sunno-stephen-o-malley-interview-void.
2 „Life Metal“ begins with the same intro as Bathory’s album „Blood Fire Death“ from 1988.