Game of Drones: interview with Stephen O’Malley


Stephen O'Malley (left) and Sunn O))).
Stephen O’Malley: “I finally found the courage to deal with these other concepts of morbidity, depression and violence.”

Stephen O'Malley (left) and Sunn O))).
Photo: Roland Dick
Stephen O’Malley (left) and Sunn O))).
Photo: Roland Dick

The drone (metal) mainstay Sunn O))) is having a very prolific year. In addition to clear the mind and synchronize the minds.

It translates wonderfully 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 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 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 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 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 tory 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 dichoto 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 to 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 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 be more sensitive.


Sunn O))) concerts are great because you are sort of 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 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 sto 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 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 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 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 tor 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 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 say.

It was a long time ambition for us 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 –


2 „Life Metal“ begins with the same intro as Bathory’s album „Blood Fire Death“ from 1988.

Sunn O))) (US) presents ‘Life Metal’ at Russian Theatre, Tallinn

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