Interview: Greg Anderson (Sunn 0))), Goatsnake)

So how did the writing process work for 00 Void?

What we decided to do for this one was for each person to bring in an idea, and then actually hash it out in the studio. So there wasn’t really any prior rehearsal – it was really just about getting good sounds and tones out of the gear we owned and had access to, so that when we went into the studio it was fresh and new for everyone else. We wanted to keep it spontaneous with as much improvisation as we possibly could.

So was it still very much a learning process at this stage, in regards to what you could expect to produce from both your gear and these improvisations?

Most definitely. This was the first time we went into a real studio; previously we’d recorded in someone’s house that was converted into a studio, with limited gear and resources. We made the first demo – which ended up being the Grimmrobe Demos – on $400, so we’d never had a budget or a studio with really nice equipment. This time around we put a little bit of money together to go into the studio and work there, and it was a really nice studio in Hollywood at which a lot of really famous records had been made.

I’d been in the studio with several other bands, and so had Stephen [O’Malley] and Stuart [Dahlquist], but as Sunn 0))) it was a totally new experience. The bands that we’d been into the studio with before were all essentially traditional bands with drums, bass, guitar and vocals. Even though the music might have been eclectic, there is definitely a commonality in the recording; when you go into the studio it’s like, “this is how you mic the drums, this is how you record the vocals, this is where you put everything…” you know, all the stuff you learn in trade school. But with Sunn 0))), you throw all of that shit out of the window: there are no drums, if there are vocals then they’re added later and they’re not rehearsed, and you really want everything to bleed together into this monstrous wall of sound. So learning how to deal with that in the studio was a whole other learning experience for us. The engineer was actually a friend of ours – Scott Reader – and he’s played in Kyuss, Obsessed and Goatsnake, so he knew what we were doing and understood the low-end aspect, which was really important for us.

Considering everything, I think it came out really well. It’s really interesting to look back – now it’s really old hat for us to go into the studio and really know what we’re doing, but throw in the fact that everything was improvised in the studio too, without rehearsal…that’s one of the reasons that I think it’s important to keep it in circulation and documented properly: considering the circumstances and the way it turned out, I think it’s a really cool record.

So has this lack of rehearsals been a constant throughout the writing process for records since?

Well nowadays, playing live is the rehearsal. The last record we did in the studio was Monoliths & Dimensions, and while a lot of that was written in the studio, or pieced together from edits, a lot of those ideas were also worked on live as well. If something really cool happens live and we’re still working off that idea three or four shows later, we’ll go “okay – let’s just remember that for when we go into the studio”.

With 00 Void, there wasn’t any of that as we rarely played live. We’d probably played live once or twice by the time we’d made that record, and the live performances back then were just about incorporating the riffs from Grimmrobe. So 00 Void stands alone in some ways, as none of those pieces were performed live…maybe one of those tracks was incorporated into a live set later on, but essentially it just stands “as it was”. That’s it: it’s a one-time thing.

After we made 00 Void we felt like we’d finished a chapter of the group as well. We’d made these records that had a lot of similarities, and were both closely tied to our influences – Earth, early Melvins – so I felt as though we’d made a statement. We couldn’t make those records again. So when we went to do our next record in the studio, which ended up being White1, we really tried to change it up completely, and vowed that we would try to make each record different from the one before it. Sometimes it’s subtle, and there are a lot of people who say that it all sounds the same, but I think that those who analyse it and study it can notice the differences.

So how natural is that process of finding new places in which to take your sound?

I think it’s completely natural. As fans of music, our tastes are really diverse; we really absorb a lot of different influences and they come through in the playing as well. I guess if we just listened to bands like Earth, Melvins, St Vitus and Eyehategod, then we’d probably be making the same stuff over and over. But we’re seekers – we’re always really excited to hear bands that are really unique and taking music to other places. And I guess that’s how we like to view ourselves as a band: as trying to create something new and interesting rather than playing the same old thing that we’ve already done.

There seems to have been a greater amount of people involved in Sunn 0)))’s over recent years, and you seem to grant many of these collaborators a real voice in the writing process. Is bringing new minds into the writing process a means of keeping it fresh?

Exactly. 00 Void was the first record that we did that for. Grimmrobe was just Stephen and I with Stuart filling in on bass, with the engineer doing some keyboard stuff too. But for 00 Void we worked with vocalist Pete Stahl, and Petra Haden did some violin, strings and vocals on it. That was the first time we really experimented with different players and incorporated them into what we were doing, and for me that sparked off everything that came after that as far as collaborations worked.

It’s funny; I hadn’t thought about this record for a while. Maybe that’s because we were never really touring around that time – all of our records over the past six years have been heavily toured and distributed well, whereas 00 Void came out in limited quantities at a time where the interest level in the band was not where it is now. It’s strange going back to look at this record and doing interviews about it; I kind of realise that this was really the spark for everything that came after it.

The record that came out after 00 Void – Flight of the Behemoth – is actually a bunch of old studio tracks plus a remix by Merzbow. It’s more tied to the Grimmrobe era and is more about Stephen and I as a duo. White 1 was when we really tried to flip the phase and come out with something that was challenging and different for us; it sparked off of the spirit of 00 Void.

I can imagine some listeners would have struggled to see how you would have initially taken your sound to new places, given that there’s a real purity at the core of those early records. Perhaps they would have viewed the addition of new textures as muddying the intention of it.

For me it doesn’t muddy the intention – I think it just enhances it. In a nutshell, that’s what we were thinking with Monoliths & Dimensions. Typically we’d spend no more than two weeks on a record in the studio; really living in the moment, and adding to that “core” that you’re talking about there. But with Monoliths… it took two and a half years – there was a lot of scrutinising of every little thing, and trying to create something that was way beyond what we’d previously done. That included different instrumentation and even different groups of instrumentalists, like the woodwind and horn section on “Alice”. The other thing that was really expanded upon as far as Sunn 0))) goes was working on each piece as a composition and trying to match our vision for it.

Getting back on track…there are some die-hard fans who think that the best Sunn 0))) is when it’s just two guitars. I know there are people like that. First of all, you have to be pretty open-minded to listen to Sunn 0))), and you have to have a taste for it. But I think people appreciate the fact that we’re expanding and doing something different, and I don’t think that they think that we’re betraying the core; I think they find it interesting to see what we did with the core and how we enhanced it. Like I said: it didn’t make sense for us to keep on making those records after 00 Void. We’d made two records that were a complete, bow-down homage to our influences. That was cool, but if it was going to be interesting for us personally, we had to take it somewhere else.

STEPHEN O’MALLEY / ATTILA CSIHAR / GREG ANDERSON 

PHOTO BY KERRY O’SULLIVAN

 

It’s obviously a testament to your efforts that your fanbase has grown to such an extent.

The thing is, there are a lot of bands out there. If you don’t like Sunn 0))) you can listen to your Motorheads and Iron Maidens…and that’s fine; I listen to those bands too. But for Sunn 0))) we always wanted it to be something different. Stephen and I had played in traditional bands – in particular, I’d played in Goatsnake, which was essentially a straight-up heavy rock band with a lot of blues influences – and I love playing that kind of music, but that’s not the kind of band we wanted Sunn 0))) to be. In fact, we wanted the “membership” of the band to be really loose; Stephen and I would be constant, but everything else would change from album to album.

It reflects on our live show too. We’ve played a lot of shows with the same four people, but then sometimes we’ll change it up: we’ll do one tour with a bunch of different people, and then the next tour they won’t be involved. So we try and keep it interesting in that way.

It’s great that, regardless of how you change up the line up, the material at the centre is a constant and always remains strong.

Well thank you. That’s how we’d hope it turns out as well. I think there are endless possibilities with it. The core can be described in two different ways: one is that it’s flexible; the other is that it’s really simple. I don’t think it’s simple; it is minimal, or at least it can be, but I think that’s the beauty of it – with that, you can actually build other things on that foundation.

When we came out with those first two records, some people were going, “This is just bullshit – it’s just a couple of guys standing in front of their amps”. But for someone that’s really into it, there’s a lot going on – people keep saying that it’s really easy, but not many people are actually doing it because they don’t have the focus and concentration to do it.

We wanted to expand it and make it interesting: not only for ourselves, but for the listener in some ways too. That’s why we had to move on, and that’s why we keep trying to move on – whether it’s forwards or backwards. We’ve been working on a lot of stuff lately that is just the two of us again, and we’ve done a lot of shows like that as well. That might be something that we do in the future; reaching backwards with the knowledge that we have now. We’ve been through a lot, and the last record was such an ambitious endeavour that I ended up learning a lot. In the process of making it I feel as though I lost what it meant to me to play this music, but now I’ve found it again…or at least come to terms with it.

When we started doing the duo shows again we just had a fucking blast. Not that we don’t need all that other stuff, but we just forgot how fun it was in the beginning. So that might be explored…we’ve already started down that path a bit, so that might be the next thing to happen.

Would you ever make another record in the same manner as Monoliths & Dimensions?

No, I don’t think I could do that again. I say that now, but that could change. It’s like what I said about the first two records – we said we couldn’t do that again, but I’m just saying that we’re probably going to incorporate that into where we’re going next. It was a long process, and personally I was going through some stuff; my wife and I had a child, and trying to deal with family life while making this record seemed to never end. I don’t mean that in a bad way. We used to all come together and brainstorm these ideas that we couldn’t just pull off in one hour – it was like, “well we’ve got to contact a string section now and a harp player…” things like that take time. So I’m not sure what the next record is going to sound like, but I’m pretty sure we’re not going to have the same approach as the last one. We’re just going to try and do something different. I don’t want to repeat that record, and I don’t think it’d be possible for me; mentally or physically. There was so much time and energy involved.

What makes it even more difficult is that the main players on that record – myself, Stephen, Attila [Csihar], and the engineer Randall [Dunn] – lived in a different city to eachother. Randall lives in Seattle, I live in Los Angeles, Stephen lives in Paris, Attila lives in Hungary. For us to get together for that record was difficult and expensive. While some of the playing on that record was spontaneous, more thought and analysing went into the album than in anything we’ve done previously. We learned that while it was a great experience, we could also do it other ways that are easier on our brains and souls!

Despite all of the logistical difficulties and strains over that two and a half years, it’s fantastic to see – from interviews and performances and the like – that you seem to still have retained a real strength of connection with the material.

I think that’s a great observation. It’s always going to be with us; more so than any other record. There were a lot of things that happened live that are reflected in that album, and I think there are a lot of ideas that we worked on that made us stronger as a live group. One of the main things about that record is exploring dynamics and working with quiet spaces – basically, going from a huge wall of sound to complete silence at points. We still try to incorporate that into our live shows now.

You say that you didn’t play live much back when 00 Void was released. It’s strange to think that the “physicality” of the sound now feels like such an important aspect. Was that ever a consideration for you back then?

Well…like I said, we probably played about two or three shows before going into the studio for 00 Void. At that point we were still thinking that this was just going to be a studio project, and that we weren’t going to play live.

After the album was recorded, we did a short tour supporting Goatsnake and Orange Goblin throughout the UK. Stuart and I were both in Goatsnake, so it was easy and inexpensive to get Stephen a plane ticket for him to come out. Plus the label that was sponsoring the tour was also putting out 00 Void, so it made a lot of sense. We tagged along basically and opened up the shows. Anybody that had come early to see what was going on immediately left for the bar after we started playing! It was like an instant room clear. It was completely inappropriate for Sunn 0))) to be opening for two heavy rock blues bands, so it didn’t really make sense. We really loved what we were doing anyway, but we still had the mind-set that it just wasn’t something we should play live. For the first two or three shows we played just in our street clothes in front of our amps, but I just couldn’t handle it so I went behind the amps for the rest of the tour – by the end of the tour we were all behind the amps! We just didn’t want to see the reaction…not because it was a bruise to the ego, but it would throw you out of your concentration of creating the sounds. When you’re on stage with a rock band, you’re trying to encourage the fans to get into what you’re doing; you’re trying to entertain a crowd. We didn’t care about that – we just wanted to play for ourselves and make our noise, you know? So people’s reaction really just fucked up our focus. And it was weird to then get on stage with Goatsnake and try and do the exact opposite of what Sunn 0))) was doing. So after the tour, we all silently decided that that was the end of playing live.

But after playing a few more shows…as you said, no one is going to be able to get the physicality of this through their stereos, and it’s important to bring this to people and try to make a connection on how it feels for us. When you get into the studio, compromises are made; it doesn’t always sound good to have eight Marshall cabinets and eight Sunn Model T heads playing at full volume, and you can’t really capture it properly. And then take that down another step to factor in the device the person is listening to it on…I just don’t think it’s going to make the same impact than if you see it live and feel the volume.

So that was when we thought: “Well, how are we going to do this so that it’ll be comfortable for us?” That’s when we came up with the idea of concealing the identities and being anonymous, and being one with the music with the robes and the fog. Luckily for the group, it’s really helped – it’s made it so that we can play this in front of people so that they can experience it how I would like them to experience it.

I can imagine that it might have been misread as a provocation in your early gigs, even though the music isn’t about pissing people off.

I think that a lot of the harsh noise scene exists for that in some ways. In 2007 we got asked to support Celtic Frost on a west coast tour. We get asked to do stuff here and there, and often we decline because it’s not appropriate. Supporting other bands doesn’t work for this group – we kind of have to be the closer. A lot of bands that know what we’re about are like, “I’m not gonna fucking play after that…we’re going to sound like The Beatles!”

But we got asked to this and we did it, because Stephen and I are such complete obsessive fan boys of Celtic Frost, and it came direct from the band too – it wasn’t any kind of management decision or a booking agent trying to beef up the bills. Plus they were able to work with what we asked for in terms of using our own gear and playing at our own volume. A lot of people thought it was an intro to the set. For the first five minutes they were like, “yeah, this is fucking awesome – this is going to be heavy!”, and then they were just waiting and waiting. After 45 minutes, no drums kicked in and no killer death metal grooves came in…so that’s why I say that it kind of depends on the audience.

We do play festivals and that can work. People who go to festivals aren’t going to see one band, so that works a little differently. But if you’re going to see a four-band bill…it’s kind of like opening for Slayer – no matter who it is, no one fucking cares! People are there to see Slayer, and that’s how it was for the Celtic Frost tour; they didn’t want to see any other bullshit. But by the end of the tour, Martin [Eric Ain] was singing with us, so it was killer – they were into it at least, and to me that’s all that really matters!

It reminds me of when I was 14, stood at a music store listening station with “Hell-0)))-Ween” on, waiting for that first riff to drop. I have to admit that I hated it to begin with.

The thing is, I’m really surprised and grateful that people are into this music, and that it’s grown to where it is now. The music is challenging and actually takes a lot of concentration. What I’ve noticed in the last couple of years is that everyone I know has less and less time to do anything, because the world we’re living in is just so quick, and there’s just so much of it. It’s impossible to digest. You can’t just put on five minutes of Sunn 0))). It’s like a movie with a good plot – it’s not going to make sense if you come in halfway through. There’s just too much going on now…too many bands, too much of everything. To actually have someone sit down and actually listen to an album from front to back is nearly impossible, so the fact that we’ve had success is kind of unbelievable.

For Monoliths… we only did vinyl promos, which was a statement of: “this is how it needs to be listened to; if you’re going to write about this and criticise it, then at least give us the respect of listening to it as we intended”. That whole art has been lost – reviewers get so much shit put on their desk that they just listen to a song or two and it’s done.

The other thing we did is that we had listening sessions in studios that we picked – we did one in London and one in New York, and we actually locked the doors! We made sure that they were comfortable – that they had tea, soda, whatever they wanted – and the only thing we let them get up for was the bathroom break. But that’s how we wanted the record to be listened to; we wanted people to sit down, listen to it, absorb it, and then write about it.

It became this really cool experience for people, who were like: “I actually sat down for the first time in god knows when and listened to something without distraction, and just took some time out of my day like a mini vacation.” We had a lot of journalists saying that it was great, and that they actually got to relax and breathe in the middle of what is usually a stressful and hectic day. I just don’t think people do that enough anymore – I don’t get to do that myself. It’s hard for me to sit down with everything going on and absorb an album properly. So in a nutshell, I’m just really grateful that people like the band and connect with it.

That’s the other thing about playing live. They’re really there for the long haul, and I think they look at it as some kind of mental and physical endurance test – to see if they can actually handle it, and then brag about it if they were able to!

I think a big aspect of the live performance is that silence and applause right at the end. It brings such a perspective to the volume and duration of the entire experience.

It does, it does. It’s interesting to see. Normally bands play a song, finish, and then the crowd clap. But for us, it could be a two-hour set with no breaks. We’ve been working a lot with solo sections – Attila will take a vocal solo for 20 minutes or something – but it’s still part of the piece. People might start clapping, but it’s not the end. It’s a way for me to judge how well it went – see how long the clapping is at the end. And in some cases, it’s still about seeing who’s actually left! We still play a few shows where we clear out half the crowd, which is fine – I don’t take it personally – but it just is what it is.

I guess you’re only really playing for yourselves.

I’ve always said that it’s a really selfish group, but we wouldn’t be able to do what we do if people didn’t support it. If no one cared, we’d still be playing in our garage and making noise, because we like playing together and we always will…well, it seems like we always will. But the fact that people have connected to it has made the resources and money available to us to expand. You’re not going to get asked to play a 16th Century church in Bergen, Norway if no one cares.

 

Southern Lord – http://www.southernlord.com/index2.php

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