sunn 0))) “It’s like an onion, man, all the layers and shit.”

A few weeks ago, I took an extended lunch break from the dregs of my day job to get a sneak listen of Monoliths & Dimensions, the new album by sunn 0))) (yes, their preferred spelling). I was invited to the Bonati Mastering Studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn, where Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley were hosting the listening sessions. As Stephen pressed play, he cranked the volume to its threshold and snapped the knob off, leaving a room full of music journalists to wade in the ear-numbing toxic sonic sludge that is sunn 0)))'s music. The album commenced in classic sunn 0))) styling: churning guitars, monolithic riffs, and creepy vocals, but before its end, we were subjected to a tapestry of varying modes, emotions, and textures heretofore unheard on a sunn 0))) record. The most shocking part? I actually felt uplifted by Monoliths & Dimensions.

After listening to the album, I sat down amongst the din of a bustling Dumbo bar to talk to Stephen O'Malley about the new album, sunn 0)))'s recent shows celebrating the 10th anniversary of their debut Grimmrobe Demos, and their infinite roster of noteworthy collaborators. But mostly, I attempted to delve into their sonic philosophy and find out what exactly drives them as a group and where their musical sensibilities and ideals truly lie.

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So, the new album, Monoliths & Dimensions... where was it recorded? Mostly in Seattle?

Yes, mostly. There were some sessions done elsewhere, mainly in Vienna, there was a choir session there.

But you and Greg did most of the recording in Seattle?

Yeah.

Did you then send the tracks to the other collaborators?

Oh no, everything was done live.

So everything was done live with the musicians in the studio?

Yeah, over a lot of sessions, and Greg didn't come to all of them, but I was at every session, including the Vienesse section.

You're living in Paris now right?

Yeah.

So I guess that made it easier to travel around Europe.

Exactly, and someone needed to be there... also Attila was there because he lives in Budapest. He actually drove; it's like a four-hour drive from Budapest to Vienna.

Sounds like a nice drive.

His car is something else too. He calls it the Millennium Falcon. You can connect the dots.

So you worked with Eyvind Kang, who is a composer. What was that like? Was it a joint compositional effort, or did he actually do the composing?

Greg and I wrote all of the foundational music, and he made arrangements based off of the music. And like all of the collaborators, we gave him free reign, but there was a lot of discussion about direction, instrumentation, how we want do it, you know, the vibe, reference points and stuff. He was able to take our music and put it into the language of music, so he's like a translator for us musicians in a way -- you know, like translating our music into their language.

Would you say that this album, as opposed to your other albums, is the most composed?

Definitely.

Is it different, I mean, are most of the other sunn 0))) albums improvised?

Ummm... There's a lot of improvisation in all of our work, but it's hard to say what is or isn't more or less improvised.

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"That's an important part of sunn 0)))'s philosophy: keep it grounded, keep it realistic."

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But you would consider this album your most structured?

Structured, well, yeah. Ultimately, it's the most complex we've ever made, structurally.

I gotta ask, because one of the best aspects of getting a Southern Lord release is the packaging…

That's cool; I do all the design.

I know you do [laughs]. So are there any interesting packaging ideas coming with that?

Yeah, I mean, we're doing a jewel case for the CD, but the booklet is printed on really cool papers and vellums. I wanted to use a lot of translucency, so also the CD comes in this [unintelligible] card, which is made out of vellum, so you have these different layers of translucency, like the music. Actually, when you get to the cover artwork, it's on page three of the booklet; page one and two are sheets of vellum, so you can see it through; and then through the “O” card, you can see through that as well.

So the name Monoliths & Dimensions; where does that name came from, and what does it mean to you? I mean obviously sunn 0))) has a pretty monolithic sound, but as far as dimensions, are you talking about parallel dimensions, other hidden worlds?

Well, actually "Dimensions" was kind of the working title of the album from the beginning and it kinda came from a few places. One of them was just very literal about exposing, elaborating on the music, and exposing all the different elements... or trying to. But then also, it's a little bit of a jazz reference, a '70s jazz-sounding title in a way. There are actually a lot of jazz albums called Dimensions, and that's why we didn't wind up calling it that. And "monoliths," that's totally sunn 0))) [laughs] -- you know the vibe. In a way, it's a bit of a play on words like many of our titles are, but I think it's also a very descriptive statement about the music and the concept of the album as well, exposing the different planes of this mass, which is the music and the presence of sunn 0))).

Have all your recent shows been performances of Grimmrobe?

Not all of them, but we did do a tour in the states; we played four shows in the states.

I was at the Knitting Factory show, which was awesome by the way.

Yeah, we played one in London, now we're gonna do...

Primavera?

Yeah, we're doing like 12 European ones and also four in Japan, and then I don't know if we're gonna do more as a duo. We kinda did that because the band was 10 years old last year and also as a bit of a stress relief from this record, which had so many people involved -- kind of keep the core in perspective as well, to show some contrast to the fans. People who love sunn 0))), they love that first album, but they're gonna love this album too; they get to see this extrapolated version in a way and hopefully showcase through this record the musicality that exists in just the guitarists -- which is the compositional approach we used with the arrangements -- to really elaborate on the musicality with acoustic instruments, which are generally seen as more musical.

Well, there definitely was a lot of resonance in the album. Will you be trying to perform the songs off Monoliths & Dimensions live?

Uhhhhhh, that's a question.

It is a question.

Well, it's a question for us too. We have some opportunities to do that; there's a festival in Norway that's approached us. Actually, it was the same curator who put together the concert that became the Domkirke record. He now works for this massive classical music festival, and he's like “you wanna do something” and we're like “dude, this is what our record is.” We're talking with him about it, but obviously it's new territory for us to do especially live. I mean, it's one thing to do it in the studio, with isolation rooms and stuff, actually multi-tracking. We weren't playing guitars with a string section standing next to us, but live that's what it is. It's not gonna be like a metamorphosis of our band into a big band; I don't want to do that. That may actually cause too many restrictions in the long run. I think we're gonna try to score it as a special event-type thing, I think that's the only way to do [it].

It's interesting, because listening to the album, you definitely get a sense that, more so than any other sunn 0))) albums, there are dynamics and rises and falls -- and just every instrument, the way they're mixed, seems almost like if you changed it just a little bit, it would be totally be off. All the resonance and all the dynamics just seems so precise; it would be a testament to be able to do that live.

Yeah I hope we can [laughs]. I'm not sure we'd include everything. The other restriction though is that we have to learn how to play music differently than we do. There's so much fluidity and flexibility with our live concerts that it would be a challenge to find classical musicians who are that open, but maybe we will. There are other key ways. We've been talking to Eyvind Kang about other ways -- there would have to be a conductor right? But other ways maybe where we're conducting techniques to allow it.

That would be awesome to see a sunn 0))) show where there was a conductor; would he wear the robes too?

That's the other thing: we'd need to make like 30 more robes. It's not even in the equipment budget.

I've never seen a robed conductor, so that would be a first.

Maybe the choir could bring their own robes.

Yeah I've definitely seen robed choirs; they definitely have their own robes. You've said that sunn 0))) was originally intended as a tribute to Earth; with that in mind, was it a special prize to finally work with Dylan Carlson, and is it true that his guitar parts were transcribed to the female choir?

Yes! They became, well, that track in particular...

Which was "Big Church"?

Yes, "Big Church," which started with Greg, me, and Oren [as well as] Rex Ritter playing synth and Steve Moore [playing] organ on top of that. Dylan came in and did this guitar part, then that became the source for that choir part. It's like an onion, man, all the layers and shit. But yeah, it's a total pleasure to play with Dylan; he's an awesome musician. Besides being a fan of his music, he's a fucking inspiring great guitar player.

Yeah, and I noticed on the album the guitar sounds by obviously Oren, you, Greg, and Dylan, but were there any other guitarists?

On that track?

On the whole album

Greg plays bass on most of the tracks actually; he plays guitar on "Hunting and Gathering"; on that track, that's all the guitarists.

Dylan's guitar style has really obviously changed since Earth 2, but I think The Bees Made Honey was one of the best Earth albums, if not the best. I just love how it's so much more redemptive; the guitar playing is almost country. It has this weird country feel, and I think there was some of that on this album, where he kind of played more in that style than the Earth 2 style.

Oh definitely. He plays in that twangy tone...

He plays a baritone guitar?

No, he plays a telecaster. The tone though is totally that twangy country sound -- that's his sound, that's the Telecaster, and that's the compression. But what he played was actually based off the musical rule of triads. So he approached the arrangements from a contemporary compositional point of view -- what the guitar sounds like is one thing, but what he's playing has a deliberate musicality.

It definitely seems like his music has become more composed also.

There's improv in Earth, but not as much as sunn 0)))... I think.

Your last studio, non-collaborative album was way back in 2005, which must've seemed like eons ago, but…

Well, we also recorded Oracle.

Well, compared to Black One, which I feel was so impenetrably dark, and just from reading about Monoliths, it seemed like maybe it wasn't going to be as dark. At first when I was listening to it, it seemed like it could've been your heaviest, darkest album, especially with "Aghartha."

Yeah, I think "Aghartha"'s our darkest track.

Right, but by the end of the album, especially with "Alice," you get a lot of spiritual transcendental redemptive feel to it, and I feel like that last Earth album was kind of like that too. What do you attribute this kind of redemptive trend in drone metal to these days?

I don't think it's a trend in drone; I think it's probably a coincidence of the emotional state of the players, and I don't think it's relative to each other. It's just the place people are in our lives. I can say personally, for me, my psychology around the time of Black One was way more fucked up than it is now, so I'm in a way better place, and, you know, Greg is raising a family now, so there's a lot of other elements, the background story. We're people, and this is our life, and this is one aspect of our life, but the state you're in with your life affects you.

Well, my follow up question was if your personal lives had affected this change at all.

Absolutely it's one way we express ourselves, and it's an expression of our personality.

So, both "Big Church" and "Aghartha" -- both titles are nods to Miles Davis, is that correct?

Yeah.

And I saw Greg wearing his Miles shirt, so it definitely seems like there's an obsession with jazz on this album…

I don't think just on this album. I think in general. Actually, one of the only musical agreements we ever have with all of the collaborators is usually Miles Davis and that kind of jazz -- almost everyone is always into it, except [unintelligible], he doesn't get it, and Attila, he's not a fan, though he's not against it. But [Miles Davis has] always been a major touchstone for everyone involved with sunn 0))) and a major inspiration.

And would you say that jazz has influenced past albums musically?

Sure the spirit of stuff like On the Corner, [A Tribute To] Jack Johnson, John Coltrane, the spirit of those albums, that sort of ecstasy possible in free music is definitely inspiring. I don't know if it's directly musically affecting it, but the spirit is.

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"My psychology around the time of Black One was way more fucked up than it is now, so I'm in a way better place."

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"Aghartha" really reminded me a lot of Peter Brötzmann, just sonically through the roof, ripping-your-face-through-your-skull kind of thing. It's definitely really cool. And with "Alice," is that a reference to Alice Coltrane?

Mmhmm

All the harps and choirs definitely had that Universal Consciousness feel to it. Aare you into her idea of universal consciousness and does that play into sunn 0)))'s philosophy at all?

I'm into her music. I'm into the feeling of her music and the emotive quality of it. I'm just superficially familiar with her philosophy. I've just always been into her music. I appreciate the fact that she is spiritually conscious, or was, and I think it's an important thing to involve in your music, but I don't feel the need to be so open about it -- a lot of people aren't, but she was, especially on some of her records. I don't know about the idea of universal consciousness. I guess there's a point to that. I think its an idea that's too big for most people; by definition, the need to understand something like that is probably impossible. It's something you just have to accept -- it's beyond analysis.

I wanted to talk a little more about "Aghartha," that track really resonated with me. What is the story behind it and the lyrics to that track?

It's literal, the idea of Aghartha which is the hollow earth, the continents inside the shell of the Earth with the black sun, so Attila's lyrics are generally about going through the crust of the Earth and arriving at that scenario. When he brought that concept to the table, we had already tracked the guitar parts, but it totally resonated as a topic and gave personality to the song as it developed, the entire second section developed… [says goodbye to someone] and uh, you know it became the face of the track and inspired a lot of the musical decisions, especially with the acoustic instrumentation.

Yeah, I gotta sit down with those lyrics I think and just really study them; I was reading it and kind of thinking that it had some connections to all the theories out there on 2012 and harmonic convergence and all that. It has this feeling of this moment where Earth resonates with the rest of the galaxy and the rest of the universe.

Attila's really into odd ideas and alternate histories and things like that.

Yeah, makes me think of Sun Ra and his ideas on Atlantis and Lemuria.

Yeah, I think those are important concepts to accept or have interest in; you don't have to believe that they're real, but just to be able to put yourself into that state of mind, that opens up other possibilities. Attila's personality inspires me and the music too; that ability to be open towards other possibilities allows you to go further.

How did sunn 0))) and Attila come to work together

I actually interviewed Attila. I had a fanzine in the '90s.

What was the name of the fanzine?

Dissent. And I interviewed him in '94, '95, then I started a label with my friend, called Ajna, which is still around actually -- he runs it still, Tyler Davis -- and we released a picture LP of Tormentor's second demo, }Anno Domini}. Then I lost track of him for a few years, but got back in touch in 2003, while sunn 0))) was doing our first European tour. We were actually playing in Vienna; he was there, and we asked him if he wanted to sit in with us or just hang out or whatever. He came up, and that was that.

He's been on like 4 albums right?

Uhhh…

Was he on White One?

He was on White Two.

And I think Domkirke, Oracle and now Monoliths.

Yes! Yeah...

So, he's almost an official member of the band.

I was talking about this with someone else, the idea that someone has to be considered to be official or a “member” is less important than it is to just be involved. The only people that are really in the band are Greg and I, because we invented it, but he's fucking more important than me on most of these tracks. I think his presence on this album makes the record.

Well, that seems to be where sunnO)) has done the most growing since Grimmrobe: who you've invited down, and who you've decided to work with. And I know you've worked with plenty of noise musicians, Oren Ambarchi obviously, I think Daniel Menche was on this too...

Yeah

And you had him sing on this album?

Yeah, we had four guys, Joe Preston, Daniel Menche, Bill Herzog, and Brad Mullen, who's the singer of The Accused now; they did those.

Manly grunts?

Yeah, like the Conan stuff on the last track.

I thought it was cool how you had both a male and female choir; it almost seems alchemical. Was that done with the balance of male and female energies in mind?

As a graphic designer, I think balance and symmetry is ultra overrated, because the way it's commonly thought of is there needs to be quality involved, but symmetry can be much more sophisticated, and you see that coming out with architecture and sculpture -- actually botany explores that as well. I think it wasn't deliberate to be, like, ‘okay, we got the women, let's get the men in.' There's certainly plenty of male energy in the band. I would rather say that this album actually shows a more female side.

It definitely does. I mean, to hear female voices on a sunn 0))) album is pretty shocking, because generally sunn 0))) carries a pretty distinctive manly vibe.

Yeah, big dudes with beards. Yeah, but you know what, that's an aspect that's in the music already, so showcasing that isn't out of place.

Back to "Aghartha," I gotta know what was that creaking door sound?

Those are upright basses. Four upright basses. That particular part in the track was inspired by this Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu, and he's done several pieces for 6 or 10 double basses that are fucking brutal; it sounds like Swans, but it's all acoustic. Anyway, that inspired us to be, like, ‘alright, we got these guys in here to do some proper playing, let's do this too.' It sounds like the speakers are collapsing -- that was the idea.

And you got Julian Priester to blow a conch shell on that track too?

Yeah.

Did he play anything else on this album or just the conch shell?

No, he plays trombone on the last track too.

How did you come to work with him?

Well, actually Eyvind Kang. Seattle has an incredible musical foundation; there are amazing, amazing musicians in the jazz and classical field, and he lives there. Eyvind Kang works with him, so does Steve Moore -- actually Steve Moore's his student, or was his student, and also Stuart Dempster, so it's just kind of weird connections man; they just come about. It's like we got to know Eyvind through Rambo; we got to know Rambo through Dylan; we got to know Dylan because we were fucking fanboys [laughs].

"Big Church" -- it definitely felt like that was a big step for sunn 0))), because there is still this stygian, dark, evil sunn 0))) foundation, but then you have these angelic choirs, and I know we just talked about that in terms of symmetry, but was this purposeful, by trying to mix these transcendent and stygian sounds. What were you trying to achieve?

"Big Church" was a challenge to create. In fact, it was the last track to really become cohesive on the album. It sat for a while -- it didn't really come together until we organized the choir, and I believe it's the most important track on the record, in several ways, and actually the new music, even beyond "Alice." It also showcases the core concept of the record, which is to expose and elaborate on the musicality that's always there with the guitars and then to showcase it through acoustic instrumentation and vocals in the case of "Big Church."

I think I almost heard a riff in that song.

There are three riffs, played once -- once each [laughter]. Actually, there are a lot of riffs on this album.

It's not that the other albums didn't have riffs, but it seems that a lot of those other albums featured the kind of single drone churned out over and over again; this one seems to have more of that Earth 2-type playing, where it's still really droney, but there are different notes being played basically.

[Laughter] That's funny, because I'm so interested in hearing the different ways people perceive our music. Greg and I consider it to be all riffs; in fact, our setlist is comprised not of song titles, but of the names we've come up for our riffs.

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"That's the other thing: we'd need to make like 30 more robes. It's not even in the equipment budget."

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That's cool that you name your riffs.

Oh totally, each riff has a name. Like the duo show, the setlist is just the names of the riffs -- the songs don't matter. It's just one piece of music.

What is that huge long foreign word in "Big Church"?

It's a compound word from Hungarian; that was a judgment from probably the inquisition times, so what is that the 16th century? It was a judgment from the church but also a legal judgment. Basically, it was the ultimate exile from the church -- the translation is something like "your desacralized because of your own actions, that you brought upon yourself, to the point that it's impossible to be sacred again." Actually, judgment comes up as a topic in a bunch of our stuff.

Churches come up a lot too…

Yeah.

Is there something behind that; you don't consider yourself religious in any way, right?

No, I consider myself spiritual. Churches are great man.

And they're also full of resonance…

Yeah, they're definitely resonators.

And that kind of ties into my next question: you played with Stuart Dempster on this album, from Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening Band. Is Oliveros' philosophy of deep listening and sonic awareness something you apply to sunn 0)))?

I think there are parallels. I'm not totally aware of her exact philosophy, but definitely listening deeply and intently is definitely how I approach music that I love, and it's certainly a big part of being in a band.

She's done a lot of recordings in these naturally resonant places, like caves -- she's done a lot of church recordings, cathedrals, cisterns. Another person who's done this, someone who you released last year, Lustmord, who also records in caves, crypts, other underground catacombs…

Also, Daniel Menche does a lot of that. He just made a record entirely of waterfalls, but behind the waterfall.

Does sunn 0)))'s sound also attempt to mirror the Earth's natural resonance, and what factor does nature and the Earth, the elements, play into sunn 0)))'s sonic philosophy.

We're not trying to mirror the sound of the Earth, but I do consider music to be a focusing of the natural energy of the Earth. We're all part of a larger circuit that's happening, just the metals, all the materials are used to make music. It's manipulating the energy, but I consider myself as a musician, to be one part of that circuit, more of a filter than a creating force.

It's funny; you hear a lot now about how the sun is at a solar minimum, a period where there are no sunspots, when the sun is at a very low period of activity. Even NASA has said that, as we approach 2012, the sun will begin to flare up and become a lot more active.

That'll change a lot of the electronics stuff.

I was going to ask about the dark ambient genre and if this is an influence on you, if you consider sunn 0))) to be a dark ambient band or if you shirk that classification.

sunn 0)))'s a rock band. I mean, I've been interested in “dark ambient” music in the past, but I'm not really into it nowadays. It's a little like goth music; it didn't age well. I was a big fan of [Swedish label] Cold Meat Industry in the '90s, but now I fucking hate the sort of martialistic -- like martial is a big word, you know, pseudo-military -- it's just like why? You're some fucking fashion victim sitting in your basement with a sequencer, you know, Ableton Live. But I do appreciate the music, at least some of it. I do like Fear Falls Burning a lot.

You played a show with Thou and Tony Conrad at the Knitting Factory recently, and I thought that nexusing of drone and metal was a perfect testament to sunn 0)))'s musical tastes. Are there any other acts, current or otherwise -- besides Miles Davis and all the jazz stuff -- that you feel really heavily influenced sunn 0))) or this album in particular?

I can just speak to my own influences, which may or may not be shared by Greg. A lot of the reference points of modern composers influenced my musical perspective, like Dumitrescu, who I was talking about. There are also some other French composers, Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, who were all talked about and referenced and stuff, some Morton Feldman [who is actually] someone I've been listening to a lot over the past few years, kind of discovering him finally. Those are some of the musical influences for me personally.

So it definitely seems like you're into modern composition right now…

I love music, and that's been my phase, at least last year. I don't know right now where it is. Actually, I've been listening to a lot of flute music. I don't know why, but there's an amazing Japanese tradition of flute stuff, and also, Noh Theater, the Japanese theater style…

Did you get into this when you went to Japan?

No, well I did see some Noh Theater when I was in Japan. It's amazing, because it's working with time-manipulation, super strong time-stretch, like I experience sunn 0)))'s music to be. But, its pretty funny; you go to a Noh performance, and in the first five minutes, everyone falls asleep, cause its just like [makes a gear screech sound], put the brakes on time, and then you wake up, and that's normal -- that's the normal thing. It's weird. It starts, you get drowsy, and then you come to and you're back at the speed of the piece, which is very different from walking in off the street, of course. Pretty cool. Pretty strong.

I've also read you already have some new ideas for future albums.

We actually recorded a lot of music in the initial tracking sessions, and the stuff that ended up on the record is a portion of that. There's a couple of other things: we did this session with Tad Doyle one day, with Oren (Ambarchi) playing drums -- Tad and I playing guitar, Greg playing bass. That's something I'd like to work on. It's really cool, but very different from this record. It's more like Neu! meets Bathory.

Did you say Neu! meets Bathory?

Yeah.

That sounds amazing!

Oren's a fucking insane drummer

I loved those motorized cymbals on Monoliths.

Yeah, that was really neat. And there's another suite of songs under this concept, called Cannon [Canon?] that we might work on, but who knows -- we're still in the wake's abyss, and the record's not even out yet, and we'll be playing shows and stuff. We'll see. We always have a bunch of ideas… it's exciting to think about working on these bigger longterm projects in between the records and not have a timeline, or at least not a strict timeline, because we release our own records. We do whatever we want basically, within reason.

Well, that definitely must give you a lot of freedom.

Yeah, it's been amazing. I don't think we could've gotten to where we are if we continued working with other labels.

How much of an album's advance money do you typically spend on fog, and, subsequently, are they any significant price breaks for buying fog in bulk?

[Gets wide eyed] Yes, there are! The last time we bought cases of it.

Chavet? Is that the one that you buy? That's the brand I always see around.

I don't remember the name of the one we buy the cases of, but I remember it comes in a black bottle, and obviously we buy the black bottle. As far as album advance, there aren't any, because it's Greg's business, so we don't advance ourselves money, and that's an important part of sunn 0)))'s philosophy: keep it grounded, keep it realistic. We're all taking a risk here, a financial risk too, but we gotta keep our feet on the ground. We're not gonna advance ourselves out all this money and then put ourselves at risk in the future; it's just pointless. I mean, where we are, it's a miracle that we're able to create a living off this in addition to being able to create music and art that we love.

[Photo: Seldon Hunt]

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