Sunn 0))) Pull Back the Curtain on 'Kannon'
Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson open up about the cathartic nature of music in dark times, the strength of spiritual imagery, and the power of the almighty riff.
Photo by Peter Beste
Last week, drone metal overlords Sunn O))) released Kannon, their first new record in six years. The album’s stripped structure and aggressive yet present energy show a marked departure from 2009’s dense and challenging Monoliths & Dimensions. With a title and aesthetic centered around the Buddhist characterization of Kannon or Guanyin, the album’s theme of forgiveness and relief from suffering feels all too timely given recent events in the current home of one of Sunn O)))’s two members, Stephen O’Malley.
I called Stephen in his current home city of Paris and his bandmate Greg Anderson in Los Angeles to discuss the cathartic nature of music in dark times, the strength of spiritual imagery, and the power of the almighty riff.
Noisey: How are things in Paris?
Stephen O’Malley: You know, there’s a lot of sirens and a lot of police. I guess things are safe. There were regional elections here yesterday and the Front Nationale party is totally kicking people’s asses. They’re the far right party. That’s not good. I wonder what’s going to happen in the states now. You’ve got a lot of idiots up there on the campaign trail right now. It’s pretty shocking how people react to things like this.
We’re quite reactionary. This almost feels too timely. One of the big concepts that you put out there with Kannon is that the characterization of Kannon is meant to be perceiving the cries of the suffering. Is the album meant to provide some kind of comfort or is it the embodiment of suffering itself?
SOM: The context is very different now than when we came up with the concept. It’s just music. That’s the first time we’ve had something timely like that with world events. The idea is to open up the possibilities and the impression of what the music is. The spectrum is intensive, immersive, it’s heavy music. But we view the spectrum as wide and open with a lot of different potential impressions: ecstasy, bliss, and these types of feelings come up. There’s something happening when we play this type of music. “Comfort” isn’t a word I like to use. It reminds me of being a child. This cathartic angle to this concept and the powerful immersion of our music is something we wanted to present through this idea.
One thing that happened with us is that right after November 13, we played at Le Guess Who Festival in Holland the next weekend. The guys who put together the festival invited us to assemble part of the program. There were about six shows within the festival that we put on. I went up there and saw a lot of people from France. Having had my nervous system shocked pretty strongly was like “fuck, this is one reason why music is so amazing.” It felt like medicine or nutrition. I’m not trying to be mystical or anything, but this is why we love it.
Greg Anderson: To get that cathartic reaction from an audience is what I like. Just playing music in general that weekend was interesting. It was one of those things where you know intuitively that everyone’s got the same thing heavy in their mind and in the air. All the performances from all the groups that I saw that week had this intensity that was palpable.
I got there in the early morning, took a long nap, then I went directly to go see Om and Bolzer. Jet lagged, just come out from a nap, and the first conversation I have is with this guy from Paris who wasn’t at that Eagles of Death Metal show but he had a lot of friends there. It was this intense conversation and it was very important for him to come to this show even though he lost like eleven friends. Even though he’d lost his friends, it was important to go to this festival and see some music and get out and enjoy himself. I’m not sure how I would react in that situation. I mean there were a couple shows in LA I’d planned on going to after that and I just didn’t go. I just didn’t feel like going into that space. So for other people to have a different sort of feeling about it was really impressive and special.
We had a new record out or coming out right at that time. Then there’s the fact that we curated part of the festival and we played with Magma right before us on the same stage. Also, we didn’t have Attila with us. The majority of the performances in the last six years have been with him on vocals and this was almost like a record release show. He’s a huge part of Kannon. We played with two people we’d never played with before. There are all these things that made this incredibly unique and we were all pretty nervous about it. The reaction and the connection with the audience was so strong and that made it really special.
The title of Kannon also addresses things on a spiritual level. You hadn’t brought up religious context in much of the discourse of prior Sunn O))) releases. Is this something that you find creeping into your life?
GA: No, not at all. There’s no specific religious philosophy that we’re standing behind. It’s meant to be an analogy or a strong iconic imagery to complement the music rather than to stand on a soap box or to make a statement. It’s not that at all. I am not very religious. I wasn’t brought up that way and I haven’t really connected with religion but I don’t really have anything against it either. I’ve always been attracted to the imagery. It’s also the whole devotion and commitment to something is very interesting. Whether it’s a cult or a movement, I think that people’s intensity towards that is really interesting. We’re really intense individuals, and we feel very strongly about certain things, especially music. It has that element to it where people are devoting themselves to something and following it. I was really interested for a long time in learning about different cults. For Sunn O))), and for the label to some extent, it’s the dedication to it that is so intense and draws some parallels with these religions and strong ideologies.
That makes sense. You’ve given yourself to it. Southern Lord has grown from this cult boutique label to basically its own brand, for lack of a better term. You had your album premiere on Rolling Stone’s website. Without that sort of devotion, would it really be that way?
GA: That’s what I’d like to think makes us different as a group and as a label. I’m not saying we’re better, but that there’s a lot of music and bands and labels right now, but there isn’t a lot of depth to it. There’s great stuff out there, I’m learning and discovering more music now than I was in the Nineties. Bands kept going, there’s just more of them, so you have to have that patience to find them. A lot of people don’t have that, which I understand. As far as Southern Lord or SunnO))), I think what we try to do or what we try to put out is honest, and it’s truthful. I think that’s one of the reasons people connect with what we’re doing.
Sometimes it’s easier when you’ve only got one new thing entering your periphery, but when you click, it can still have that magic. You talked about classic extreme metal innovators Darkthrone and Bathory coming into this record, touching on both the variety and this sort of return to form with Kannon.
GA: That was actually something Stephen came up with. The thing about Darkthrone and Bathory is that each record was something you’d look forward to, because it was always going to be somewhat different than the one before it. With Sunn O))), we’ve always tried to make each record different from the one before in some way.
The marked return to something more direct and urgent after Monoliths & Dimensions seems to parallel the contrast earlier in your catalog between ØØ Void and White One.
GA: White One was a really important record because we’d made ØØ Void and The Grimmrobe Demos, which were two really similar albums in a lot of ways. The important thing for us was to not get redundant doing it again. White One was the very big left turn that we made. We decided to get out and get weird with it. I’m really glad that we did that and that we decided to make that record because it opened the doors and set the table for us to really get to where we are now. It sounds kind of silly, but it gave us some kind of permission to do that. You know, it was still early on in the stages of the group and we weren’t sure what we wanted to do with this exactly. It was like “Can we do something that is totally outside of the realm of metal and will it still be heavy?” We were really concerned with it being heavy enough, but there’s different ways for it to be heavy. It kind of set the table for us to get to where we are now, to be able to experiment and not be afraid to do that. That’s kinda the thing with this record for us and with the last few records: "Let’s try to do heavy in a different way." A lot of it was the use of dynamics and different instrumentation on Monoliths & Dimensions, but it’s something that we’ve been really fascinated with to just play some quiet sections. Working with quiet parts and loud parts can make up part of the puzzle of how to be heavier.
There’s always been a sense of development in Sunn O))), whether in a specific piece or in the band’s trajectory as a whole. Tension and motion are always there.
SOM: You have to manage things and keep it going. I happen to have a paranoia that it’s all going to just go away at some point. It hasn’t blown up so far; it’s actually gone the other way, which blows my mind. With Sunn O))), it’s part of the picture because it’s always been this DIY thing that Greg and I do. We play guitar and we make those records together, but then we also put together the packaging and distributing of the record. Greg’s label produces the physical copies and manages all of that. I manage some other things with the band. I think there’s a point where people go through like, “am I going to give in to the money side of things?” There’s this line of temptation for a musician as they accelerate in popularity. It’s just like any other job, you want to do it well and the rewards happen but it doesn’t lessen the work itself. There’s a lot of fucking email to do, that’s for sure.
GA: You know, there wasn’t an analytical process of “what’s this going to be like?” Monoliths & Dimensions was such a conceptual record and it took us a lot of time. There was analysis and thought, which was something we hadn’t done before. It had always been more in the moment. With Kannon there was a little bit of us trying to go back to not overthinking it. I kind of hoped for the best with it, you know? We feel really strongly about the material for Kannon. Based on the length of the tracks and the way that the record starts and ends, it feels like something that might be a bit easier to digest for somebody who isn’t familiar with what we were doing. It’s not like we were trying to make a record that is less challenging for the listener, but I think Monoliths & Dimensions is extremely rich. For some people I think it could be overwhelming. With Kannon, you can lead them in and draw them in with something concise and it might make sense for the uninitiated. For the diehards, there’s still a lot happening. There’s a lot more meat right away. There’s not a buildup that’s as elongated. The riff is there and to me that’s a reflection of the live shows we’ve done in the last six years with Attila.
That’s a very traditionally punk or metal thing to say “here it is, this is what it is” although the subtlety may be there behind it.
GA: Right. The nuances are there but they’re really part of the mix and how we decided to focus on what we worked on, which is the meat and the riff and the power of Attila, Stephen, and I all together all concentrated right there. Whereas on Monoliths & Dimensions on a song like “Alice” which has this growth that takes time to reveal itself, on Kannon, there’s no curtain to pull back. The curtain’s pulled back already and you’re left to deal with that.
Ben Handelman is keeping it grim and hoppy on Twitter.