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Sunn-O))) Interview

by Mark Hensch

Mark recently had the chance to speak with Sunn-O))) Guitarist/Bassist Greg Anderson. For those unfamiliar, Sunn-O))) is one of the most highly regarded bands you'll find in the metal underground that produce something new and exceptional every time out. Here is Mark's conversation with Greg:

ThrashPit: Drone/doom is not a common genre of music being played. How did you and Stephen O’Malley first formulate Sunn-O)))?

Greg Anderson:
I first met Stephen out in Seattle. We were both into a very wide, very eclectic range of music and hit it off right away. We started playing very low, heavy, and slow music in bands like Thorr’s Hammer and Burning Witch. In 1997, I ended up moving to Los Angeles to start a band called Goatsnake, and through this, Stephen eventually moved from Seattle. We wanted to continue playing music together as we had before, so Sunn was basically an excuse to keep playing. There were no real aspirations when we started the group at all, just the idea of playing loud, heavy riffs together. That is basically how it came about. We liked the black metal of bands like Mayhem and heavy American stuff like the Melvins or Eyehategod. All these influences kind of came together and we’ve had Sunn-O))) ever since.

ThrashPit: Would you say that Earth was a big influence on you?

Earth and the Melvins were two groups that both Stephen and I were really into. We were heavily inspired by both of them. In fact, when we first started Sunn, it was basically just me and Stephen throwing Earth riffs back-and-forth at each other. That’s really how we started and we eventually branched out into our own material and our own ideas. It truly is a big influence and a huge part of where we came from.

ThrashPit: One of the things that appeals to me most about your albums is that each seems to have a theme to it. How do you keep such cohesion for such long bodies of work?

I don’t think of our albums as wholly formulate. We sort of improvise and leave a lot of preconceptions out as we are recording. I’d say we try to leave it open so that we can go in any number of unknown directions or some unknown areas. With the “Altar” record, it was really based solely on the whole collaboration between us and Boris. We really left the chemistry of the two groups or entities alone so that the sound could head into its own direction. With “Black One,” that came about with Stephen and I having this idea or concept of a band injecting black metal influences into what we were doing at the time. That one had a stronger theme when we started it, but it sort of evolved in the studio rather than the two of us having this really strong concept as a whole beforehand.

ThrashPit: I haven’t heard “Oracle” yet, what is that album like?

I’d say it is a lot of the same sound. It didn’t really have any concept or really concrete ideas, and most of it is again improvisation. We just went into the studio and just let things happen, just rehearsing a bit and keeping what we liked. We used those few basic riffs as a foundation for a couple people to come in and collaborate as guests on it. The material for that album was actually derived from a sculpture that an artist we know made. He made a sculpture of our backline in London. At first, we meant the material to be a companion piece to that sculpture, but it really just took off from there. Pretty much everything we did with it---the art, the music, etc. ---evolved into an entirely other beast all on its own.

ThrashPit: Another thing I’ve always enjoyed about your band is the amount of guest artists you manage to bring in. How do you incorporate such diverse artists into your sound without having it be forced?

Well, it helps when the people we are working with are open-minded. It just comes naturally that we gravitate towards others who gravitate towards us as well. Together, we all have to have a certain lack of boundaries in terms of what music should sound like. We’ve been lucky as we’ve worked with lots of great musicians and artists who are talented at working in the moment and improvising and so far have avoided those trying to dictate how things are going in the studio. The diversity of the artists we’ve collaborated with, as weird as it might seem, really has no criteria behind it. It just comes down to Stephen and I having really varied tastes, to a point where we get people from Boris to Wrest from Leviathan!

ThrashPit: What are your live shows like? What kind of visual elements do you strive to put out for your fans?

We first try to have the visuals complement the music. What we’re doing is kind of out there as far as the sound goes, what with the lack of structure and traditional things like bass, drums, and vocals. As such, we wanted to present a show where the audience members were seeing something equally unique, rather than just a bunch of guys playing heavy metal or hard rock in their t-shirts and jeans. We try to create an atmosphere that has heavy use of fog and smoke, and we often wear robes in front of all sorts of different lighting effects. We basically wanted to create a very unique ritual for the concert-goer, the likes of which differs from going to a club and seeing a normal band.

ThrashPit: That wording is perfect, as I’ve always felt your music is very ritualistic, being hypnotic and almost spiritual at times. Is this a conscious effort?

There’s not one idea we’re trying to focus on, but we are more about the aesthetic and the atmosphere than say any particular religion or idea. If anything, we just want a ritual around sound and tone, rather than any particular ideology.

ThrashPit: When you collaborate with someone like say Boris, how does that work? Do you think of an idea first, and you go to them, or vice-versa? How do you plot it out normally?

In the case of the “Altar” record, Stephen and I had a few ideas and riffs we already had brought to the table, mostly just as a starting ground. There was no real focus or crutch, and no shortage of ideas when we finally got Boris in the room. We just let things evolve and develop naturally, to the point where most of the ideas we brought in before, most of them were no longer necessary. The ones we did use were skeletal at best, and they eventually grew into something much larger and complex from where it started from. It really was a matter of everyone having left their egos at the door and not being 100% attached to any one idea they had.

ThrashPit: One of the more difficult things in being in a band like yours must be public perception. How do you deal with people who simply think of your music as noise?

To be honest with you, I really have no concern with what critics think of our music. In fact, I really have no idea why their opinions should be valued in the first place. In this day and age, the internet has made it so that tons of people are reviewing things. There is kind of this glut of people that type in a few words on a record simply because they got it as a promo and want free stuff, and I really think that a lot of people aren’t putting much thought into what they’re writing. It is a waste of time! With the internet there are just too many opinions floating around about my band or music in general or whatever. Not everyone needs to read that---why does one person’s opinion of a record need to be taken with so much value? With that said, I try not to pay attention to what people say about our music. For me it really is just about the experience and what the listener gets from it as well. That reaction is much more important to me than anything else.

Due to time constraints and a little bad luck with phones, we had to cut it short around here but the interview was definitely well worth it.

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