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Of Metal and Mercy: A Conversation with Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley

on December 22, 2015, 12:00am

As the adage goes, art is a reflection of the society in which it was created, or at least a reaction to it. Even the most underground and extreme art is subject to cultural influence, no matter how removed from the mainstream its adherents believe it to be. By design and by circumstance, Kannon, the recently-released seventh album from doom/drone icons Sunn O))), has turned out to be one of the most noteworthy examples of this rule to emerge out of the music realm in 2015.

Case in point: In a year marked by increased cultural tensions and violence, Sunn O))) has presented an album crystallized around the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon. Also known as Guanyin, the direct translation of the Chinese characters that spell her name is “perceiving the sounds (or cries) of the world.” Likewise, at a time when feminism has become a hotly debated topic in both niche metal circles and in society at large, the band has taken an unexpected step in inviting feminist cultural theorist and artist Aliza Shvarts to pen the record’s liner notes. According to Stephen O’Malley, who co-founded the duo with Greg Anderson in the late 1990s, the purpose of building this particular framework around their record was not to espouse any particular agenda, but to open up new dialogue, new perceptions. “Sunn O))) is not a political band and I don’t think it’s meant to be transformed into a political band,” he said, “but Sunn O))) is a platform where one can explore a range of different ideas and not have to be bound by them, or by ideas strictly defined by the potential that exists either, musically or otherwise.”

Musically speaking, on Kannon, Sunn O)))’s first studio album since its seminal 2009 release Monoliths and Dimensions, the group uses that platform to open up new palates of heaviness, trading the orchestral, genre-bending flourishes that marked its predecessor for a distilled sound that is as meditative as it is intense. Recorded with longtime producer Randall Dunn and featuring the talents of frequent collaborators including Attila Csihar, Rex Ritter, Oren Ambarchi, and Steve Moore, the album’s three pieces recall the feeling of Sunn O)))’s full-bodied live sound in vibrant, rich drones and reverent atmospheres enhanced by Csihar’s dynamic, malleable vocals. It could be argued that if Monoliths… found Sunn O))) at their most cerebral, Kannon, like the band’s floor-shaking performances, first hits through the soul. And these days, that may be where many people need music the most.

Just weeks before Sunn O))) was slated to release Kannon, tragedy struck Paris, O’Malley’s adopted home. In light of these events and others around the world, the concepts behind the album embody an even greater weight. Consequence of Sound recently spoke with O’Malley to learn more about Kannon and his experiences in the music community in the aftermath of the attacks.

Soon after our conversation, O’Malley released a solo album, Fuck Fundamentalist Pigs. Recorded shortly after the murders at the Charlie Hebdo office last winter, the album is an impassioned response to fundamentalists, fascists, and others who threaten liberty and safety. Originally planned as part of a trilogy of live recordings due next spring, O’Malley was moved to expedite its release. All proceeds from the limited edition, vinyl-only release will benefit the French Red Cross.

sunn o kannon stream albums Of Metal and Mercy: A Conversation with Sunn O)))s Stephen OMalley

We were planning this interview a few weeks ago, and I’d actually started prepping for it on the day of the attacks in Paris. I couldn’t help but think that the concept of Kannon seemed poignant in a way you hadn’t anticipated – not just about Paris, but the world as a whole. Does the record have any different resonance to you now that it’s been released during these times?

I totally agree with you. It certainly puts a different twist on the conceptual frame around Kannon, depending on how sensitive you are to what’s going on. Some people probably don’t give a shit. Also, there are a lot of right wing people in the metal scene with this “bring it on!” kind of attitude, which is something we dealt with in the text in the record with this set of liner notes by Aliza Shvarts. That’s even more of a coincidence. She’s talking about sexism in metal, basically, but one of her points is her impression of “what is immersion?” and how it sits with your experience.

I live in Paris, you know? Four restaurants that were shot up are within a 10-minute walk from my flat. I wasn’t at the event. I wasn’t at the show. Luckily, I didn’t have any direct friends that were murdered, but I had plenty of friends-of-friends who were. It’s really close. I also lived in New York when September 11th happened. I’m pretty shaken up by it. I don’t want to romanticize the album because of the tragedy, but it gives another twist.

We were trying to present the record in a way that was a spectrum of color. It’s very heavy music, but it’s even heavier because it’s so broad. There are bright, ecstatic elements as well as a very invasive physicality or immersion. The psychological element is quite broad, too. When you put it next to what happened, it’s totally useless and pathetic. Maybe it’s just a coincidence for a few of us that we cropped this idea during a similar time. It’s kind of strange.

Sunn O))) attracts fans from across the political spectrum. What do you think it is about the metal scene that brings these people together?

The metal scene is just so diverse. I like metal because it is resistance music. That’s the commonality — whether it’s people from England singing about being pirates, some weirdos from Seattle dressed in robes, or guys from Norway burning down their local supermarket or whatever they want to do. It’s resistance music, but it’s also based on escapism. It can be dangerous for a certain type of person to be immersed in this escapist, fantasy world. There’s kind of a fundamentalism in black metal. It’s in lots of metal, like the pure, traditional stuff. [It’s in] doom as well. So you will see people against progressive music because it’s “betraying” something. It’s a reflection of how people think in society, but it’s kind of an escapist mentality.

This whole period right now makes me wonder what the true responsibility is for someone like us. Not just us, obviously, but Sunn O))) has a lot of attention right now. I’m talking to a lot of journalists for this record. Isn’t it my responsibility to say something smart or make some sort of statement on things? I’ve had this conversation with a lot of musicians, and the answer is: there are a lot of different answers. I was talking to Peter Brötzmann about politics in music, and he said, “Just you doing this is a political statement.” Just doing it, because it’s against the mainstream. It’s different, it’s fresh, and anarchic in a way. It’s not truly anarchic art, but in comparison to social media or Hollywood, the mentality is different.

We had to cancel our Paris show right after the attack because of security stuff. It was a hard decision, too. We were all ready to do it, and it turned out that we couldn’t do everything we do in our show. We couldn’t have a room filled with smoke at 125dB. At heart, I felt like I was letting people down. People on the fringe of things expect, “You shouldn’t be afraid. Your responsibility is to go through with it and make a statement, because if you don’t then you’re falling for terrorism.” It’s actually a little more complex than that. You’re not automatically defaulting to fear. There are a lot of other elements in there.

It makes music seem so useless, but at the same time at Le Guess Who? [the Dutch festival Sunn O))) co-curated that was held days after the attacks], there were a bunch of French bands like Magma, Aluk Todolo, and Chaos Echos, bands who were playing in Paris like Chelsea Wolfe and Om, and many French people. It was so fucking awesome the festival was going on. Everyone was so relieved to be inside this great body of music and partying and also talking about stuff. One guy I know lost 13 friends, but he was there [and told us], “I’m so glad you guys put this on. It’s so great to be here.”

So being there was comforting?

I don’t know if it’s comforting. For me, that word has to do with maternal things. When my adult male friends talk about whether they are comfortable or not I’m like, “You’re 45 fucking years old, man. Why do you have to be comfortable?” But yeah, it had a great vibe. Maybe it was just my point of view, but people were more open, just ready to be in the music and be immersed by it. Some of the bands totally kicked people’s ass because of it. Sunn O))) got to play, too, to this amazing audience. It got pretty heavy, but there wasn’t a dark cloud over the festival. The promoters took special care to keep a good vibe going on. At first I thought it was a little irresponsible, but once I was there I understood why. The festival was in Holland. It was the end of November, and it was already dark, wet, and cold. Everyone knows this is going on. You don’t need to add it on top.

You spoke about having lived in New York during 9/11 and now this. With any trauma or tragedy, you don’t know what’s going to trigger people. I’m sure that’s a reason the promoters would want to keep up the good vibes.

There’s probably thousands of people that were in New York and now Paris who experienced both of those things. I’m sure I’m not unique in that. At the same time, it makes me think that’s nothing compared to what a lot of people deal with on a daily basis. What about all of these refugees running from Syria because their city is destroyed and their family is killed? It’s tragic, of course. From the perspective of the individual, it’s quite heavy, but you can’t lose compassion for other people. That’s the dangerous part about all of it. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot.

By default, the concept of our record deals with that too. We always have the challenge of finding the titles for the songs. It’s abstract music and sometimes the lyrics are pretty out there. What do you title it that gives it this face? For this album, we decided to do it a way that we hadn’t done before. It was more cohesive overall. I wonder if some of the listeners are actually thinking about it that way, like, “Wow, this is oddly timely, in a way.” That certainly wasn’t the intention, but it happens with music sometimes. That’s why music is so attached to time and memory, like when you first heard Reign in Blood and still equate that with what was happening in your life.

There’s been a lot of conversation about feminism in music lately, but I never expected to hear of a metal band actually commissioning a feminist perspective of their music. How did Sunn O))) come to commission Aliza Shvarts, and how does that play into what you are doing?

People are asking about her and why this was commissioned, but not about the feminist point of view, which is what it is, but that’s not necessarily the reason why we asked her, either. I became aware of her when someone sent me a link to a piece of writing that was published in a journal in Brooklyn. In her essay, she wrote a little about Sunn O))). What she was saying about us was totally different than any writer I had read, and she was coming from a feminist viewpoint. I was impressed and blown away.

We were trying to think of ways to elaborate on these [thematic] ideas, the frame around the record and the music, and how to present it. I thought it would be interesting to have her write something more directly motivated by the music. She was in Paris in the summer doing research for something. We had coffee and I played her the music on headphones. Immediately after listening to this record, she took them off and said the most out-there stuff. It was like, “Wow, you heard that? Cool!” It led to her writing this piece for this record. Our intentions were to present it in a way like a jazz record from the ‘60s or ‘70s with text from someone on the outside, like an author or poet. And that’s what it turned into.

Part of our motivation was that there are a bunch of other younger people that have gone into black metal and metal in this theoretical way and have written about it from various points of view. They’ve been heavily criticized by the old guard. I understand why, but I think regardless of what you think of the writing, whether you like it or not, or whether you agree with it or not, they are trying to come up with new ideas and perspectives on this music, and they are inspired by it. So what is the problem? It can be hard to face when you’ve been in something so long that you feel like an authority on it. That’s where the friction is. And you know who these people are.

Of course, on both sides.

Yes, on both sides. It’s an interesting topic. It’s kind of a new topic, or at least in the last five years.

It’s been really fascinating to see how it’s all unfolded. Thinking about Kannon, I haven’t had to deal with what some of my female colleagues have had to go through because they have presented their ideas about metal. Some of the feedback and backlash has been really horrible.

It’s actually a kind of violent reaction. That’s what it is, violence, right? This kind of reaction has increased a lot in the past 10 years. It seems like in the ‘90s it wasn’t such a big deal. There were a lot of women in the metal scene I was in. Maybe it’s that individual voices are so much more prominent than then. I haven’t seen any backlash on this text, and I’m curious about when there will be some. There was one video review with this dude that’s kind of funny. He’s talking about Aliza like she was some disgusting creature or suggesting she was kind of this criminal person. It was like, “Wow, man!”

People who are really generous with their ideas stimulate me. [It was] the same with the cover artist, Angela LaFont Bollinger. It’s part of the collaborative process of making this record. Not only is Attila totally inspiring to work with; all of these other people are adding something, too. It’s not just the music. It’s this frame and this cloud around the music. It’s like the band is this constellation, and this cosmic dust exists around it. I like to do this, and I think it’s important with Sunn O))). It’s a great opportunity to present some of the first theoretical ideas about the band in the way that we present our music.

SUNN O))) photo by Peter Beste 0815 17_web
Photo by Peter Beste

As you said earlier, “What is the responsibility of an artist to talk about politics or make a statement?” To me, coming from an established band like Sunn O))), this is a really big statement in a year where feminism has been a big conversation topic, not just in metal but everywhere.

One of the festival headliners at Le Guess Who? was Annette Peacock. I am a huge fan of hers, and I am so totally shocked [she agreed to play]. It was her first European show in 20 years. I don’t really know much about feminist philosophical rhetoric, but for me it’s these powerful artists. That’s a very strong kind of feminism, that a brilliant creative person just happens to be female. Actually, there were a lot of lady musicians that we curated for Le Guess Who?. Not that we thought about it that way. It was just, “This is music we want to put in the festival.”

All of these topics are kind of interesting. The last Sunn O))) record was with Scott, and the topic was basically, “What is it like to work with Scott Walker?” It wasn’t so much, “What’s behind the lyrics?” It really wasn’t our business. On Monoliths & Dimensions the topic was, “Why did you want to go into this world?” The answer was, “Because we got totally inspired by spectral music and we wanted to open up the timbre of the music, open up the color, and open up the spectrum of the sound.” This time, maybe it opened up a little more. I think our music is still opening up.

Like you said, it’s closer to the live experience, which is the best way to experience Sunn O))).

For us, technically, that’s a hard thing to achieve, and it’s always been a big challenge. How do we get the actual sound to come across on a home stereo? How do we record that and technically make it have the presence? Obviously, we’ll never have the volume or the sound pressure, but the feeling…

You worked with Randall Dunn again on Kannon. Did you do anything different this time to get that across?

Of course. Randall is so amazing at mixing and pulling detail out of something, especially on an analog deck. He’s done a lot of records since we last worked together too. He was already amazing last time, but going into the studio with him this time was like, “Fuck, this guy is totally on!” I think our individual experience of producing our own music comes into play. Also, playing concerts. I’m a big believer that your hearing and your ability to focus on different elements can improve over time.

We’ve been really fortunate over the last few years with the reception to the music that has allowed us to play more shows and has also made us more aware of different ways of doing things. That’s what led to those collaborative records with Ulver and Scott Walker [Terrestrials and Soused, respectively, both released in 2014] and also led to this one. I think the band is more DIY now than when we started. We manage ourselves. Our booking agents are people we’ve worked with for 15 years. We do all the artwork and production ourselves. Greg does the label. It’s pretty cool. Randall was doing live sound for us on most of those tours after Monoliths & Dimensions, so besides producing the record together we also had two more years of work together live. All of this integration helps us find something that is closer to what we actually sound like.

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