Guitarist Stephen O'Malley was raised in Seattle and is currently resident in Paris. His earliest releases were made in the mid-90s with doom metal band Burning Witch, the obscure power electronics project Sarin and the one-off Nordic doom metal band Thorr’s Hammer. In 1998, in partnership with his former Burning Witch and Thorr’s Hammer bandmate Greg Anderson (also of Goatsnake), he founded what is probably currently his best known project, Sunn 0))), a doom.drone band explicitly intended as a tribute to Earth, the seminal Seattle scene band founded by Dylan Carlson, and named after Earth’s favoured brand of (Sunn) amplifiers. In the same year, the duo also founded the cult Los Angeles-based label Southern Lord, which releases material from the plethora of projects which both artists are involved in, as well as work from many other bands. Sunn 0))) continues to revolve around the core duo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, but the band has frequently used well known guest musicians, such as Julian Cope, Merzbow, Attila Csihar, Malefic (Xasthur), Oren Ambarchi, Z’EV and Justin Broadrick. Stephen O'Malley is also a graphic designer, and is responsible for most of Southern Lord’s album sleeves, posters and advert artwork.
HH: Do your surroundings influence your work, and if so, how has Paris influenced what you do?
I’m not sure that Paris has specifically influenced me so much as the fact that I’m just constantly visiting new places and living basically as a vagabond. Even though I'm living in Paris, I’ve been travelling way more than I ever have, so while I’ve changed my base to Europe, that’s opened up a lot of flexibility for shorter travel and more gigs. The influence is more about lifestyle choice and the mentality it produces. Seeing new places, trying to understand people’s languages and cultures. Though of course, I’ve been influenced by being in Paris. It’s a pretty interesting city, the fact that it’s so old and deep, while still being very, very urban. You know, a lot of cites in Europe don’t really have that hardcore urban feeling, which I came to know in New York. London does, of course, Berlin sort of does, but there aren’t that many other cities where they have that feeling. That’s been a crucial influence, I think, living in an urban environment. That was certainly an influence in New York, much more directly, in my music and art. In Europe, it’s more about the age and depth of the culture, how you can be in that urban environment in Paris and then take off for two hours on a train and be able to look at a 13th-century chateau. That’s pretty trippy, and also inspiring.
HH: Do you feel part of the long tradition of American artists in exile in Paris, people like Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, or Jim Morrison?
Yeah, it’s amazing how many American artists and writers spent long periods of time here... I think it’s sort of an unspoken tradition. I didn’t come here for those reasons though. There seems to be a level of, I don’t know, ethics, that exist in France governing the nature of communication and interaction between people, that certainly doesn’t exist all over the place in the US, in my experience. It’s interesting to learn how a sense of politeness and basic respect for people helps the communication process and helps people to get along. Also, the lack of need to drive yourself, through your work, to the very limits of your exhaustion is nice. I think these are things which thinkers and writers of different eras have come to appreciate. And of course Paris has this culture of meeting and talking, which again doesn’t exist in all cities. One thing I really like about the urban environment is that you have to interact with people. Some cities, like Los Angeles and Phoenix, have infrastructure which is all based around moving around in a vehicle, so you have the capability of living in a major city without having to actually encounter people while you’re moving around the cityscape. A proper urban environment, like New York or London or Paris, requires that you are actually facing people and interacting with people every day, just as part and parcel of living in the place. I think that’s really important, sociologically and psychologically.
HH: I wanted to ask you a bit about growing up in Seattle. Most people know that Sunn 0))) was inspired by Dylan Carlson’s band Earth, but how much of an influence was the wider Seattle scene of the late 80s and early 90s on you? Were you into bands like Tad and Mudhoney and Nirvana?
Yes, those were the bands I was into as a teenager, and actually those bands have held up over time, I’m still a fan of those three bands. I heard that Mudhoney released a new album recently, and Tad has a new band. Greg and I have become friendly with Tad recently, which is pretty cool, because when I was 16 years old, I was totally into God’s Balls and Salt Lick. All those albums are really great heavy records. As a teenager, they were part of my constellation of music, for sure. Nirvana, I think, were one of the best bands to emerge in the end, despite their popularity. They were one of those important bands for a generation. Soundgarden were cool as well. They had the most obvious metal roots through Voivod and Mercyful Fate, I think that comes through. I really love some of Soundgarden’s guitar playing. Those were all important bands.
But you know, Greg and I, as much as we were into Earth, especially the Earth 2 album, we were and still are also super-into the Melvins. Over time, Melvins were probably a bigger direct influence on our music than Earth has been, just because they were a band that had guitarists and songs, and while Sunn 0))) is more of an abstract approach to heavy guitar music, a lot of our other work has been involving songs and tunes and vocals. The Melvins were super-important. Earth was the band that we championed, though, because honestly, no-one gave a shit about that band. It’s really awesome that Dylan came back and formed a new group and made some really incredible records which are so creative and beautiful. Way beyond. The album Earth 2 was kind of an anomaly in a lot of ways, because it was straddling the line between minimalist music and metal like Morbid Angel and Slayer, and then being released on Sub Pop. It was an enigmatic album, and with associations with Nirvana as well [Dylan Carlson of Earth was a close friend of Kurt Cobain’s – HH], although of course there was never any musical relationship between the two bands, at least superficially.
HH: At what point did you become aware of black metal, and the Norwegian black metal scene in particular?
I was listening before I was playing music myself, I don’t know, in my late teens, maybe? I was doing a lot of tape trading of death metal, and encountered Mayhem, I guess in ’91 or ’92. I got really into it. Darkthrone as well, of course. Darkthrone is a different story, really. I liked their Soulside Journey album when it came out.
HH: That’s the album they’ve disowned now, isn’t it?
I don’t know. I doubt they disowned it. I mean, it’s early material. I don’t know what relevance an album that’s 20 years old has to a 40-year-old musician now, it’s somewhere in their history but not really that important. Darkthrone, of course, is really important, for the influence they had on a lot of the other bands who were coming out on Deathlike Silence and labels like that. You couldn’t buy that stuff in the States, or rarely, all mail-order. But all of that stuff was available through tape trading. I ended up producing a fanzine called Descent, which started in ’93, I guess. That was my 18- or 19-year-old self’s attempt to fit imagery to the music or whatever. But it ended up being pretty important, in terms of spearheading my interest in bands at the time, and my writing, and my knowledge of the music, because I had to know what I was writing about.
HH: I was looking at the performance schedule on your website (www.ideologic.org), and you have dates coming up with Gravetemple, Sunn 0))) and KTL (Kindertotenlieder). Are these your only current projects, or do you have other things going on as well?
It’s really interesting how people get to identify the name of projects, and how having several different experiments going on can seem like a huge amount. I often get people asking about where I find time to do all this stuff, you know? But that’s what I do, and things are always changing too. You meet people and decide to work together, and the name is the last thing you think of. Sometimes, the least important thing in a collaboration is the name of the project, I think. It can simply be a tag for the recorded music. There are several other projects going on, but nothing really important enough to talk about. I'm doing stuff solo for theatre, and I'm talking to some other bands about different ideas and concepts.
HH: As you know, I interviewed Oren Ambarchi recently, at the Supersonic festival before the Gravetemple performance, and I asked him this question, but I’d be interested to get your take on the same question – what is distinctive about Gravetemple as opposed to say, Sunn 0))), since the band includes Oren Ambarchi and Attila Csihar, both of whom have also appeared in Sunn 0)))?
I don’t tend to think of the two things as opposed, or having to have their own character, but Gravetemple is primarily Attila, Oren and I, and I think what we conjure up has a very strong taste of its own. The most obvious aesthetic difference would be the fact that we have a drummer, but that’s just another instrument. It’s more of a mood thing, you know? Gravetemple is more focused on spontaneity and an experimental vibe. A character is just one personality, so it takes two to explore these different elements and sides of people, both working and playing over time, as you get to know each other much more intimately as friends and collaborators. I think Gravetemple is certainly another step along that sort of communication and exploration over time. But again, this goes to that whole issue of names and naming and categorisation. I think it’s overrated. The big difference between Gravetemple and Sunn 0))) this summer is that Gravetemple is existing right now! Sunn 0))) hasn’t existed since, I think, January was the last time we did something, and for me, it’s always about what is the present. Things are only existing in the moment, in the present, everything else is a recorded document or a memory, or an anticipation or a plan. So Gravetemple happens to be the convergence of four people, or at least it was two weeks ago. Now it’s another memory, a wave in the bigger picture of circles.
HH: Oren also told me that there is a new Sunn 0))) album recorded ,but it needs mixing, so do you have a schedule for that?
Yeah, we’ll be working on that over this summer, and hopefully finish it by September.
HH: Does it have a title yet?
No, not yet.
HH: I’ve seen you play live a few times now, with Sunn 0))), with KTL, and now with Gravetemple as well, and it’s always been under very low light conditions, with lots of dry ice, and with Sunn 0))), of course, you wear black robes with hoods. Are you shy? If not, what brought about this decision to be so visually elusive?
Shyness is part of it. But I like to create a veil between the audience and the musicians. I don’t really consider it to be a performance. It’s not a performance for an audience, it just happens to be that the way we’re really able to draw attention and play as loud as possible is on the stage with a big PA, and that’s the optimal way of doing this music in a lot of ways. I think it’s more interesting to be hidden, it becomes less about the individual people or ego or character than it is about the sound being made. It’s a pretty simple way to go about creating this veil, through fog and low lights, but those are the elements that exist in this rock band. With a more theatrical venue, more equipment and more creative lighting direction, it could be done in different ways, and it sometimes is with KTL. We’ve been doing performances with a different approach that way. It’s also nice because, you know, it’s not athletics, it’s not necessarily something that should be scrutinised in that way, there should be different versions of what’s happening for us and for different people out there, depending on their ability to see things or conceptualise, with the darkness acting like water in a watercolour painting, smudging and blurring thing. Where the sound comes from becomes less important than what the sound is in itself. I'm also very influenced by ceremony and ritual, and so I've taken elements from that, and my own experience of doing performances is a ritualistic one.
HH: What about volume? Your live shows tend to be extremely loud – is this essential to the power of your music?
It’s obvious [laughs]!
Yes, the shows are very loud, it’s essential.
HH: How can that be replicated for home consumption?
It can’t. That’s one of the big challenges of making albums, actually, particularly for Sunn 0))). Sunn 0))) is such a physical force, it almost has more in common with sculpture than it does with playback entertainment or songs. It’s difficult, you know? We’re always experimenting technically, and we’ve worked with some really creative engineers and producers in order to try and capture that force, certainly not simulate that live experience, but to give a sense of challenge on our albums which is as crucial as it is live, in a physical sense. In order for it to translate to the albums, it has to be loud and heavy with bass, but when people are listening to Sunn 0))) albums on iPod earbuds or whatever, then inevitably there’s a loss of the physical sensation. But you can still have a translation of the substance of that physical presence and volume through the depths of production and layers of detail. That’s why the albums are interesting and sustain interest over time, I think, because they have a capacity for unfolding and revealing new elements which can surprise you even after listening to the albums many, many times.
HH: Do you have a preferred format for recordings? I intuitively suspect that you’re a vinyl buff. Is that right?
Yeah, you know, I love vinyl. But I'm a designer, and I think pretty much any musician, if visualising is important to their work, will say that an LP jacket is preferred, because there’s more space obviously. Vinyl can sound amazing too. I don’t agree that it sounds better than CD, especially with a lot of music that has a lot of sub-bass. That’s hard to put on vinyl, it’s always a challenge for us to get good cuts on vinyl, and a lot of times you have to take what you can get, because you can only go so far with it. But on the CD format, the capacity, the range is wider, unless you have a very super hi-fi to play back with a turntable. I would say that vinyl is also probably aesthetically closer to tube amplifiers, but I don’t know if it’s really that important.
HH: I was wondering about the physical qualities of vinyl – the heaviness and blackness seem to reflect your characteristic sound.
Yeah, sure, it does, but there’s also another aspect I've been thinking about recently. The Sunn 0))) and Boris album Altar was a triple LP, and there were over 10 000 copies of that printed, and ignorantly, it only later dawned on me eventually how much of a waste that was. Each one of those things weighs over two kilograms, so we’re talking about over 20 metric tonnes of materials just to produce the vinyl format of that album. It’s absolutely insane in that light. I mean, having awareness of that kind of usage of materials is frightening when you think about it. And like, you tour all around the world as musicians. What is the residue of all that touring? But vinyl is the classical format of recorded music, and it represents that analogue approach to things. The tradition of recording music has been analogue, and vinyl is the last part of that. We're moving from sound to sculpture to architectural scales I guess.
HH: Are you concerned about the threat that digital downloads pose to all forms of recorded media?
I used to think of downloading as some sort of disaster, but over time I realised that the only people who are really going to be affected by this are those who are trying to own music, and music has always been proprietary over the last 60 years or so that the recording industry has been around. In the long run, for the kind of music that I'm involved with, it’s only beneficial that more people get to hear it, whether they’re downloading, or tape trading or whatever. First of all, there are people living in places where they can’t get hold of the CD, or it’s very costly to mail order stuff like a two-kilogram record from Los Angeles. I'd be pleased if they were downloading or file-sharing Sunn 0))) stuff in China, for example, because I don’t know how it’ll surface if they get exposed to our ideas and our sounds. I'm still a little bit optimistic about this. I think, OK, people are using this for preview purposes in a way, and if they’re really liking it, then they’re going to want to have the actual artifact, the CD or the record. The internet and downloading has replaced radio as well, to a vast extent. When we were talking about how I got into black metal, there was a very important radio show when I was a teenager, a death metal show on the local college station, which turned me on to a lot of bands. And there was tape trading, which was kind of the same thing as file-sharing.
HH: I read in a previous interview with you that you played bagpipes as a teenager. Is this where your interest in drone instruments began?
Yeah, I think so, a little bit. I was living in the suburbs of Seattle, and I didn’t really have a lot of exposure to different cultures and music, but then I started playing in this marching band. It was pretty exotic, I guess, for that age. The Scottish Highland bagpipes have these drone pipes, as you probably know. A drone is just a series of overtones, and the intonation of those, and training yourself to listen to that is one of the initial steps for any creative individual wanting to make music with drones.
HH: At what point did you relate playing the bagpipes to the rock music that you were listening to?
Not until afterwards. The sort of things we’re talking about didn’t come together in my mind until ten years later, I guess, after I'd had a chance to reflect on it and think, oh yeah, that was probably where that came from. In the interim, I'd broadened my interests in rock music to experimental rock. But I do think my experience with the bagpipes was an influence on my work. Another thing about the bagpipes was the incredible power and volume of the overall band, with the drum corps and so forth, which had a fucking insane power. It’s hard to appreciate, without doing it, the amount of energy in a marching band like that. It’s really intense, and that became my benchmark for acoustic music, being as powerful as a stack of amplifiers.
HH: How important was the decision not to use drums in Sunn 0)))?
I don’t think there was ever a decision. The band started with two guitar players, and it evolved based around Greg Anderson and myself and various collaborators, and drums just really never came into it until later. We have used drums and drum machines on a number of recordings, but it’s never been an essential element of the sound, probably because our sound is based on long waveforms rather than momentary material.
HH: What is it about drones which attracts you?
I think drones are just such a strange concept, because they’re actually one of the more basic forms of sound. Drones are all around you – I'm sitting near a river and that’s a drone, a plane goes over and that’s another drone. There are the sounds of industries and traffic, insects, and those can be drones too. Some of the earliest forms of music are rooted in these kinds of listening experiences. But I think doing slow music at loud volume with long waveforms appeals to me because of the focus it can provide into the detail of that long, large sound. It’s a real pleasure to be able to meditate on stuff while you’re playing it. I think that’s what attracts me.
HH: A lot of people talk about your music in terms of meditation or contemplation – does it feel like a spiritual exercise for you?
Absolutely. I mean, I by no means know how to define my own spirituality, but I think it’s something to do with knowing yourself and your world in more than your physical form, and certainly, in being involved in creating music, we’re accessing sound. It’s not the main reason, but it comes across a lot in terms like meditation or trance or drone, or the whole visual metaphor that always gets applied to our music. When people write about Sunn 0))), there are always these incredible visual metaphors which come out, and that’s really a pleasure to read, because I've always had a visual relationship with listening to and making music. I think that’s a version of spirituality, accessing that meditative area which is beyond that normal material space that you occupy most of the time.
HH: Do you have an affinity for minimalism in the visual arts, since the feeling of one large, monolithic object that is found in the work of say, Richard Serra, Carl Andre or Donald Judd seems to me like a visual analogue of the drone?
Sure, absolutely, I appreciate a lot of so-called minimalism. I think that sculpture is very important as a way of relating to the space that you’re in as well, and I think minimalism in form is awesome, very meditative, and often containing much more information than highly detailed, super-realistic pictures. Like, if you take a painter like Gerhard Richter, who was a minimalist and also doing a lot of very realistic painting, then often the minimalist work has so much more information or potential for information and stimulation of thought than the super-accurate, realistic works, just because it’s so much more reflective of your own thinking and cerebral process. What minimalism does is provide a focus for reflection, and being able to re-analyse and explore your thinking process, through the suggestion of a painting, a visual image, or a sculpture, a physical image.
This interview took place by phone on July 24, 2008. The low quality of the tape recording unfortunately made a complete transcription impossible, but plenty of interesting material survived.