October 7, 2010
Sunn O))) Enter New Dimension
Sunn O))) (pronounced Sun - Oh) is one of metal’s most experimental bands. Their albums usually feature only a handful of songs, many of them longer than 15 minutes. Few if any adhere to traditional rock or metal structures. Instead, they are characterized by an omnipresent chorus of bass guitars, unexpected instruments and phrases and Attila Csihar’s multifaceted vocals. What listeners hear moves past preconceived notions of music straight to experimental sound.
The band’s nontraditional approach has earned them cult status in the metal scene and a modicum of mainstream attention. Founders Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley (who also run the underground metal label Southern Lord) were featured in a New York Times article headlined “Heady Metal.”
The first time I saw Sunn O))) in an opening slot I was completely perplexed. A mammoth wave of bass shook the club’s foundations and rendered earplugs almost useless. It was hard to tell where songs or even passages began or ended. All of the band members were dressed in hoods and cloaked by fog. When the band finished playing the crowd was stunned and silent. I was so intrigued that I purchased two albums the next day.
Sunn O))) recently released their seventh album Monoliths and Dimensions via Southern Lord. About.com had a lengthy chat with Anderson about the new album, the influence of Gregorian chants and spirituality on the band’s music and approach and Attila’s expanded role in the group. We also discussed how Sunn O))) demands attention in a culture that seems fixated on making things shorter and more accessible.
Can you tell me a little bit about the writing process for Monoliths and Dimensions?
Greg Anderson: Steve and I get together in a recording studio and bounce ideas and riffs off of each other. Things developed that way. There were a few things that were brought in ahead of time – each person will bring in a riff or an idea to get started. For the most part, songs unfold in the studio. Oren Ambarchi (Australian guitar player) was part of some of the initial songwriting and Attila Csihar (also Mayhem’s vocalist) was here. A lot of his contributions were added after he heard the initial tracking.
While occasionally dissonant, the new music doesn’t seem as dark or suffocating as Black One. Did you want to include more space and lighter shades on this album?
I don’t know if it was a conscious decision. It’s a result of where our heads are at the moment. When we wrote and recorded Black One we were in a very different head space. Part of it has to do with a willingness to be open to different things and different shades. You could even call it different shades of black (laughs). But that record was pretty dark and deep and intense. This one has some of those qualities, but lets the light in on pieces.
What do you want listeners to take away from the four tracks?
I don’t ever think about how I want people to react . I think it’s more about letting people have the freedom to take away what they want. I don’t try to dictate what that is or the reaction.
Can you tell me more about the opening track “Aghartha”? You start with the typical bass drone and later add a diverse palate of sounds. I heard violins, piano and other instruments. Attila’s voice seems to anchor the track, which takes a number of unexpected turns.
The opening riff, the first four and a half minutes, was the first thing we recorded when we started rolling tape. It ended up being the very first part of the album. It is meant to be performed in two phases. One is the super heavy riff and the second part is a toned down version of the riff without the massive amounts of distortion and saturation. We tried to open up and let things breathe a bit.
We tried to work with a lot of dynamics. There is the loud, oppressive part and then it opens up into a spacious part. That’s where Attila chose to put the vocals and where the instruments come in. A lot of that was just listening to the track. Attila heard it and suggested putting in some piano.
Were you influenced at all by Gregorian chants or medieval music when putting this album together?
Subconsciously. That’s something we like to listen to and I think there are similar qualities in our music. There are some reference points in both types of sounds.
How much of the new material will you incorporate into live sets this year?
I’m not sure. We are going to do a bunch of shows in the U.S. starting in July. We’ve never followed any sort of definitive plan for our records when we play live. With this one we are going to approach it as themes – certain strong themes that we are going to do live. We aren’t going to play anything note for note. That’s never been something we tried to do.
We live in a culture of short attention spans. Your music seems to require attention and go completely against an ethic both in metal and elsewhere that shorter is better. Is that intended?
The attention span is a lost art. With all the distractions today, the Blackberries and iPhones, it becomes difficult to reach people who are constantly stimulated. We aren’t consciously rebelling against that, but I’m proud of that fact that we make a statement. You make a statement these days with songs that are over five minutes and we put four songs on a record. We also don’t put two minute MP3 snippets online. We want people to listen to the pieces as a whole.
Justin M. Norton: When dealing with reviewers you prefer to have listeners hear the music in person and only send vinyl copies to journalists. Can you tell me more about this approach? Your music is sold digitally via iTunes and other outlets. Is it a fear of piracy or do you want people to hear your music in a more intimate setting?
Greg Anderson: This is the first time we tried to do this. It was kind of an experiment. The intention wasn’t to be elitist or keep music away from people. It wasn’t a statement against piracy. It was about how people listen to music in general. We didn’t want people to listen to it on a computer, period. So we released it to journalists in advance on a format they couldn’t play on their computer. We thought we might have a chance of forcing them to listen to it in a way that's appropriate. The frequencies we used on the recording, particularly a lot of stuff on the low end, can’t be reproduced on a computer.
I understand the way people are comfortable listening to music. But if you are going to call yourself a journalist and print your opinion of our music, then I think you owe it to the artist, the label and the person who is going to read the review to listen to the album in a way that’s optimal for the record, rather than listen to 20 seconds while you are fiddling with your Twitter account on your iPhone. If you are going to solicit us and we are going to send it to you then you are going to hear it properly, the way we intended. It’s also a statement that if you are journalist writing about music you should own a turntable. If not you should reconsider what you are doing.
We wanted to keep it off the computer as long as possible, even if we eventually sell it on iTunes. There is a real problem with advances when someone puts it on a blog and makes it available for free. I didn't want people to have any preconceived ideas when this album came out. There is an element of surprise and discovery of music that’s completely lost now.
Mythologists have often talked about creating a “sacred space” with religious rituals and music. Is your intention with your music that listeners tap into something larger or outside of the normal realm of experience?
I hope that listeners get that experience from our records. One of the ideas of the group is to provide something different from the normal verse-chorus formula. Whether it’s a live performance or records, we want to offer something challenging and different. If people can go into a different space or if it puts them in a trance, or if it gets them outside of their normal life in any way, I think that’s great. But there’s nothing intentional, although the way we do things encourages that.
So you do feel there is a spiritual component to your music?
Sure. I don’t feel comfortable pinpointing anything concrete or any sort of religious affiliation. It’s more like a very enjoyable or blissful experience and that can be spiritual.
Attila has been involved with the band for years and seems to get more involved with each release. How did you get to know Attila?
Steven did a fanzine back in the ‘90s and he interviewed Attila for his magazine. I’ve been following him starting with Tormentor and Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas record. I was fascinated with his vocals and I thought he was really unique, especially for the black metal scene. Digging deeper I discovered some of the other bands he was in, like Plasma Pool. He was always doing something different with his vocals.
We met him when Sunn 0))) toured in Europe. We invited him to come to Europe with us and do whatever he wanted. That’s where it started and it’s developed from there. He did vocals on White 2 and the Oracle 12-inch.
During the last three or four years he's done a lot of live performances. He’s been an important part of the live group. That was one of things with this record, we wanted to bring out Attila’s involvement and capture some of the stuff we did live. There was some great stuff that happened live and we were hoping we could bring some of that out.
He seems to shift quickly between black metal and what’s required from him on your music.
That’s the thing. There are no set rules. We never tell Attila or anyone we play with what to play at all. There’s an inherent trust with these players that they have with us. We let them do their thing. If you listen to the stuff Attila does with Mayhem it’s very interesting. The stuff with Sunn 0))) isn’t as formulaic or restrictive. That’s not to belittle Mayhem at all. I think they are incredible and I love their music. But our music is experimental and Mayhem’s music falls within the confines of metal and black metal. There is more of a chance for him here to weave his craft.
The first time I saw Sunn 0))) in an opening slot I didn’t know what to think, but I was intrigued enough to go check out your music. Do you often get a confused or perplexed reaction from your audience?
It’s experimental music without a lot of structure and without what people are used to seeing. If they haven’t been exposed to what we are doing and are just listening to Motorhead or Manowar it might seem pretty strange. It might be a turnoff. But I realize it’s not for everyone. We aren’t trying to win a popularity contest.
Do you often hear from people who said they didn’t exactly know what to think of your live performances so they needed to take a deeper look?
Sure. We’ve been really lucky . We’ve been selling records and people are coming to shows so it’s obvious many people are taking a second look. I’m grateful for that.
Where do you think you fit in today’s metal scene or are you consciously trying to create your own niche?
We just do what we do. I don’t think of where we fit in the metal scene, although we are linked to that in scene in a lot ways. If some people connect to it that great and if not that’s fine, too.