Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley: "Metal can be absurd and also really profound"
The man who accidentally leaked our January 2011 cover on his blog in the middle of last December brings The Skinny’s year (and his band’s catalogue) full circle. Enter Stephen O’Malley of progressive monoliths Sunn O)))
The title of Sunn O)))'s last studio album – 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions – was particularity fitting: theirs is music that is massive, metaphysical, theatrical, dark and absolutely crushing, yet very much rooted in the language, tropes and traditions of metal.
“For some reason, there’s an arrogance in people's thinking of metal,” guitarist and one half of Sunn O)))'s core duo, Stephen O'Malley tells The Skinny. “People think it’s somehow uneducated, or less capable of being art. Metal music can be absurd and also really profound; it's just a matter of how you frame it.”
Having gone from an oblique and obtuse take on the extremities of black metal, Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson have accidentally become darlings of the metal and experimental art worlds, devastating concerts and galleries in equal number.
Their latest release is a reissue of their first LP, ØØ Void, finally bringing their complete catalogue home to rest at Anderson's Southern Lord label. Originally recorded in 2000, production was shared between the band and former Kyuss bassist Scott Reeder. “At that time, Sunn O))) was almost in an embryonic form,” O'Malley says. “It was a pretty bare bones release that, at the time, no-one really gave a shit about, the labels didn't keep it in print and it kind of disappeared. So we don't really feel that it has had a proper release. The band really solidified in 2003 when we started doing a lot more concerts and working with more experimental music.”
Originally named after the brand of amplifiers that fellow Seattleites and drone pioneers Earth used to create the kind of huge soundscapes which Sunn O))) have subsequently come to adopt, evolve and make their own, the moniker now evokes the pertinent image of cosmic clashes and universal movements.
“Every musician is aware, when they pick up their instrument, of their predecessors and mentors, the traditions and styles that have influenced them. When we started out, we were trying to capture the feeling of albums like Melvins’ Eggnog or Earth 2,” O'Malley explains. “It's not really metal music, it exists somewhere else. That direction helped us solidify our own identity because we certainly did not turn out like a Melvins cover band. Over the years we have both matured... and immatured.”
Sunn O)))'s live show, cloaked in smoke while the band wield mammoth doom drones draped in archaic druid robes, recalls the theatricality of metal and arcane ritual, performance art and therapeutic release; their concerts are also blisteringly loud, an environment that listening to their albums at home cannot always reproduce, irrespective of any label’s claim that 'maximum volume yields maximum results.'
“When we play live, the idea is that we are actively playing the space,” O'Malley elaborates. “That's perhaps the main concept of the band: the physicality of sound. It takes a lot of time to find the right equipment and the right space.”
Their approach to live performance, which sees them play regular venue spaces as well as art galleries, has allowed the duo to deconstruct the traditional band / space / audience differentiations of standard concerts.
“As a kid, I was really into metal,” O'Malley says. “Now I'm almost 40 years old and you have to develop with your experiences and explore other interests. For me, art and sculpture are things I’ve really been inspired by and it's interesting to explore operations with artists in those media; it's amazing how many modes of focussing you can access through collaboration with people outside the group, it's exciting to discover relationships that seem superficially unrelated but are actually deeply intertwined.”
Although Sunn O))) have firm roots in metal, over the past decade they have opened up doom drone as an established genre – having influenced scores of wonderful acts from Black Boned Angel to our own local ritual noise behemoths, Wraiths – but also as an increasingly respected style with academic interest. Although O’Malley does not distinguish between the two crowds, he is aware of the possibilities afforded by some of their less conventional performances.
“Primarily, we are a band and when we have the opportunity to collaborate with a gallery, we try to do something different, but that is not a normal thing for us,” he states. “We play concerts, tour, release records and do, you know... band things. When we collaborate outside of that, it’s a special pleasure to get opportunities to turn things around and have a different perspective on what we do. It's a chance to frame our music differently.”
This notion of extreme metal evolving into high art is not something new, rather it has been gestating underground for decades – far removed from the formulaic crunch of MTV influenced nu-metal. In many ways, Sunn O)))'s music is a direct aesthetic and philosophical descendant from Norwegian black metallers Emperor and their essential masterpiece Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk, for which O'Malley painted the perfectly complementary cover art.
“On the back of that album there is a statement that says they play 'Sophisticated Black Metal Art exclusively',” O'Malley recalls. “That is an album striving for something important; although, recording in a farm in Norway, they didn't have access to performing in the Guggenheim.”
O'Malley is adamant that extreme metal and art share the same ingredients and intent: “The character of the artist and the musician is the same,” he says. “They both crave great art and great music, whilst operating in the economy of hype and trendiness and the need for success and to make a living.”
With the release of ØØ Void, O'Malley is pleased to reflect on what the band have achieved over the past decade and thrilled to give their audience a chance to hear the band's initial recording. “I do think that Sunn O))) has been really fortunate over the years,” O'Malley admits. “When we started, we didn’t have any ambitions other than making music. Somehow it's survived and progressed in ways I never would have imagined. I guess that's what happens when you persist in things over time and pay attention to what you do.”
Alongside the release of ØØ Void, O'Malley commissioned Stephen Stapleton, aka Nurse With Wound, to remix the master tapes; this became a whole new approach to the compositions, what O'Malley calls a “shadow album”, released as Iron Soul of Nothing via his own vinyl only label, Ideological Organ.
“It's been great to present the original album alongside this reinterpretation done many years later,” he enthuses. “It acts as a bridge between periods of the group's evolution.”
With all these influences around him, both artistic and indebted to the world of heavy metal, exactly what was it that sparked O'Malley's initial desire to make these dense swathes of sculpted noise?
“When I was a teenager, I played bagpipes in a Highland band,” O'Malley laughs. “That kind of music was so powerful and moving: there would be, like, nine drummers and ten bagpipers and it was so loud. That was my first exposure to the sheer volume I have been developing all these years.”
It's fitting then, that they say a gentleman is someone who can play the bagpipes, but doesn't.