Sunn O))) and Ulver Are Not Miles Davis and John Coltrane: Stephen O’Malley Demystifies the Making of 'Terrestrials'
For fans of metal and experimental music, Terrestrials, the collaborative album by American innovative drone/extreme metal duo Sunn O))) and Norway’s ever-morphing sonic explorers, Ulver, was undoubtedly one of the most anticipated releases of the new year. The album was recorded during an overnight session at Ulver’s Crystal Canyon studio in 2008 and developed and refined as time and distance allowed over the next several years while the bands focused on their own respective projects, notably Sunn O)))’s landmark album, Monoliths and Dimensions, and Ulver’s electro-classical fusion on Messe I.X-VI.X, and its first ever tour. The result of their combined efforts is a very beautiful, largely serene three tracks that seem to build naturally into an emotional, climactic finale. It’s a true merging of Sunn O)))’s love of analog tone and instrumentation with Ulver’s ambient and electronic finesse.
I spoke with Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley soon after Terrestrials was released via Southern Lord Records, the label run by fellow Sunn O))) cohort Greg Anderson, as he was starting to absorb the mountains of press surrounding the album. Along with being a prolific artist and musician, O’Malley is also a well-published music writer and published the black metal fanzine Descent through the 90s. More to the point, he is an ardent music fan and despite the sometime questionable state of modern music journalism (we both had our gripes...), he enjoys reading interviews and criticism to get a clearer understanding of how other artists approach their craft. This month, it just happens that one of his own projects is a hot topic of discussion, and he’s a little baffled by some of the impassioned response to what he considers to be a fairly straightforward and pleasant experience making music with friends. Turns out, the Earth did not shift on its axis when Sunn O))) and Ulver gathered in Oslo that fateful night, or at least that’s how O’Malley tells it. After that was established, we talked more about the making of Terrestrials, the nature of collaboration, and the general psychology of music interpretation.
Noisey: The first collaboration between Sunn O))) and Ulver was on the song “CutWOODed” a few years back. Did you have a previous relationship with them, musically?
Stephen O'Malley: I’d been in touch with Kris [Kristoffer Rygg] for quite a long time, from '94 to '95. In those days, there was this whole pen-pal, tape-trading thing in underground music because there was no internet, of course. So you’d write each other letters, copy tapes, and send demos and fanzines and shit. It was a cool time. I met interesting people all over the world through doing that, and Kris was one of those people who I eventually met in person. So we’ve just been in touch. I was a fan of Ulver, and that’s why I got in touch with Kris in the first place. It was before any of my music really was noticed at all.
Sunn O))) started in the late-90s, and eventually we were working on a record called White1, although at that time it was just called “The White Sessions” because at that point we didn’t have an idea if it would be one or two records. We had been getting into collaborating with other musicians. We had done some stuff with Merzbow on our third record. White1 was our fourth record and we decided to ask other people that we were in touch with but didn’t really have a connection with; Outsiders of our circle. We asked Julian Cope and he said yes, and that was great. I asked Kris if he would produce this other track and he said, “I don’t want to do it by myself because I work with this other guy in Ulver, Tore [Ylwizaker], and we’re a team.” They produced this track that turned out to be pretty cool. We didn’t end up using it at the time, but we released it later in this box set.
Then I was in a group called Æthenor, which Vincent de Roguin and Daniel O’Sullivan [member of Ulver who has also performed a handful of shows with Sunn O)))] got going. It was a live group and we invited Kris. He had never really done live stuff—this was before Ulver started doing live gigs. We did a few tours together, and it was just great.
Then Sunn O))) was going to play Oslo, and Kris asked if we wanted to come to the studio the next day and do a session. Greg and I love Norway, so it’s great to be able to stay there, and then to get to work in their studio and be able to do something creative outside of the show was really cool. We had a great session, which I have to say has been very romanticized in the press releases and reviews.
The reviews are interesting. Even with two groups like Ulver and Sunn O))), who are both known for experimenting and doing whatever they want, there seems to be this expectation, like it’s this night session, and you’re waiting for the sun to come up, and then you’re supposed to “destroy the sun with your guitar tones.”
That’s all nice and easy to write when you’re sitting in your college dormitory, but the thing is, we’re musicians, you know? We’re making music together and we’re trying to play something interesting together. I appreciate the fact that people are trying to interpret these things, don’t get me wrong, but I’m always baffled by people’s expectations and the way they will critique something based on the limitations of their expectations. It used to drive me nuts. It’s interesting how people keep their blinders on when they’re not familiar with something, sonically. I read one review, “Sunn O))) dominated the session, some of it sounds like Sunn O))) throwaway tracks.” What Sunn O))) records are you listening to? To us, it doesn’t sound like Sunn O))) at all.
It’s very interesting to see how it fleshes out after you release something, to see how people hear it and put it into their own perspective. Another one I read was like, “They’re doing something new and different and going beyond the boundaries of anything they’ve ever done before.” Calm down, you know? It’s only a record. It’s something we’re doing together artistically, but we’re not Miles Davis and John Coltrane. We love it as a piece of art. We’re proud of it, but come on...
Does it feel weird for you that people put things like, “the most important metal band of our generation,” on Sunn O)))? How does it feel to receive that type of compliment?
I mean, yeah, wow! How do you take compliments? Compliments feel good to a degree, but I’d be shocked if any of those people writing that really think that and they really have been like when I was kid and discovered Slayer. If that’s happening to young people, that’s amazing, but we’re not in a position to understand what that means to those people and their perspective. We’re old guys, you know? Greg talks about hardcore bands from the 80s all day long. I try to break it down to something very simple: If it’s turning people on and inspiring their imaginations, that’s great. You can’t ask for more than that. If they’re having pleasure out of something you’re doing, that’s great.
I find the psychology of interpretation of music very, very interesting. You can really mold that in certain ways. I’ve done that experimentally, not only with music, but also the visual side, the artwork, and text. For this record, Kris and I wrote this text together with this really great author and editor of these occult books, Mark Pilkington. We decided, “Let’s write a text telling the story, otherwise people are going to come at this from every angle. Let’s give them something to grab onto.” It’s very important what you reference initially because that molds the entire interpretation of 90% of the writers. Like if you say, “Philip Glass.” They might not know a lot about Philip Glass, but they’ll talk about it.
It’s kind of a game, in a way. I worked in advertising for about eight years in New York as a creative director, working on commercial advertising. Eventually I left that world to do music because luckily there was some success with music that allowed me to take that step, but I still have all that stuff in my head about marketing. And Greg runs the record label, so he’s obsessed with marketing. I don’t mean this to be cynical. It’s not cynical at all. It’s careful. For us, It’s a way of molding the image. That’s what marketing is. With music, it’s unfortunate that sometimes that needs to be part of the picture, but when it’s not, you can get lost among the other 10,000 bands.
It’s like creating a context for yourself.
Maybe not creating it, but explaining your context. You have to have a context in order to represent yourself properly.
So OK, this record came out this week, but there have been reviews for about a month so I’m just thinking about that stuff now. Once you release the album, that’s what happens. But as far as making the album, as far as it being Ulver or Sunn O))) dominated, it totally isn’t. It’s Kris and Tore’s studio, so they did the first mixes based on the material. I went up there several other times and did other instrumentation, reamping, replaying some things, adding other guitars and different instruments to it, then mixing it. We did it together. I can’t imagine a more honest and respectful way of working together, and enjoyable too.
The only thing weird about it was that Greg wasn’t really involved after the recording part, but that’s fine. In Sunn O)))’s catalog, Greg and I haven’t always been involved so much in every track. Most of them we are involved in, but not all the time.
How does that work? You must have to have a lot of trust in each other to do something that carries the Sunn O))) name in order to step out of it.
We’ve been playing music with each other for twenty years and have known each other even longer, and a lot of these steps we’ve been able to have in our musical evolution has been together or with the support of the other person. We’ve done a lot of stuff together and we take different roles. The record label for Greg. I’ve been a part in it since the beginning. Greg has supported my other groups by releasing the records. I’ve done artwork for his other groups. We decided very early on that we could do anything we wanted with Sunn O))) as long as we both agreed on it. Not that we had to agree on every point, but we agree on the principle of doing something, so that’s our basic rule. It’s the only rule, actually.
It is interesting to see a duo where relinquishing some control becomes a really big element of your progression.
It’s just trust, the way we’ve been brought up as people, and also in our musical upbringing, coming out of hardcore and punk rock where no one is going to support you except your friends, the other people in the community, and the people in your band. That’s how underground metal works too. That’s how Ulver works. Some of the bands got into the label thing, but Ulver’s been pretty self-sustaining. That’s why they’ve made a lot of daring turns.
What elements have been similar in your collaborative experiences, and what becomes different because of everyone’s distinct personalities?
I wouldn’t say there is one way to approach a collaboration. You have to find a way to communicate, that’s the main thing. If you’re collaborating with someone new, you’re sort of searching for something. Of course you have the way you present things initially, and so do the other people, but the whole point of collaborating on something is that you want to make something work, right? It’s challenging, but it’s supposed to work, and you want it to work. Sometimes it doesn’t. The prediction of the communication working and the taste doesn’t always work. Sometimes it’s very disappointing because you might get along very well as people and imagine it will be an extremely rich and rewarding experience, and it just doesn’t work. Other times, you’re like, “Yeah, let’s try this. Why not?” and it’s really fantastic.
It’s a way of getting to know each other better. That’s a cliche as well; Musicians communicate with music. When you’re making something together you learn a lot about the other person, in any collaboration. The act itself is very social to musicians. When you’re a musician and you’re with other musicians, that’s what you have in common right away, no matter what kind of music you’re doing, and sometimes you want to elaborate on that together.
I’ve been lucky in my career that I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to work with people I admire as a fan. It’s a learning experience. It’s also sort of generosity, not only on their part, but also on your part, because you’re giving them time and energy, and it can push people. I worked with a composer named Iancu Dumitrescu. He’s been making stuff since the 60s, mind-blowing shit that’s really influenced my way of hearing sound. Eventually I met the guy and he invited me to do something. I thought, “Holy shit! Maybe I shouldn’t, maybe that’s too close to the fire,” but I immediately noticed that when we were doing something together, which was at first a live performance of his music, that he was getting a lot of energy from what I was doing. He’s in his 70s. What is the exchange here? I know he’s giving me a lot of mental stuff—it was invigorating—but what am I giving this guy? The way I was interpreting his ideas was energizing for him, in a way. That’s just one example, but a lot of people that I’ve worked with have been very similar level.
There’s are some bizarre crossings that happen though, like Striborg or Merzbow, or Julian Cope. We enjoy the fact that we’re outsiders, and we’re here together, it’s a strange meeting, let’s do something. It’s like throwing all of these chemicals in a pot and see what happens.
You were one of the first avant-metal bands to be written about in major mainstream outlets like the New York Times Magazine, for example, and one reason people seemed to be gravitating to your music was in part because of--at least for people outside the circle—these seemingly “unlikely” collaborations.
In the frame of the extreme metal scene, they are unlikely, but in the frame of who we are, they aren’t. The problem Sunn O))) always had, and unfortunately a lot of bands have this problem; genre. Nothing fits in a compartment. That’s marketing. Fitting here, then doing something different is breaking something, so you’re “incorrect.” But actually, it’s the opposite for the artists. It’s growth. It’s expansion. It’s a positive action. This is why Ulver is very interesting. They’re breaking the boundaries of genre, but they’re not thinking, “Ok, we made our trip hop record, what genre are we going to break through to for the next record?” I’m sure a lot of musicians do that, but not Ulver or Sunn O))).
Terrestrials took place over a number of years. Did it develop into something very different from where it started?
The main reason it took a while to produce this record was that it wasn’t the main priority for our bands. We were working on our own big records, or touring, and we weren’t in the same city or country, so we had to find time to meet or take advantage of an opportunity. I would go to Oslo to work on a project or for a concert and then I could stay for a few more days and work with them in the studio. After the initial mixes were done by Kris and Tore we decided, “Let’s do this, but not long distance. Let’s make sure we’re together, so I can bring my ideas, and Sunn O)))’s ideas to the production process. The analog sound, reamping, etc., and meeting Ulver with their very much “in the box” way of producing, meaning they do a lot of electronic stuff on the computer, synths, and stuff like that. And that was really important. Those were the elements of the collaboration, and the exciting thing. Considering the circumstances and distance, economy and logistics, we did pretty well with it, I think.
It seems like a real labor of love in a time when geography is less of a consideration of who you’re going to work with. A lot of albums are created over the internet, which can be amazing, but it’s a very different process than what you’re talking about.
It is amazing. There’s been no time in history when you can do that. Music has always been made together until perhaps, the 70s, when you could mail tapes to different studios. Multitracking, basically, came up in the 60s, and then it became overdubs so you could work in several different places over a time period. I work on stuff through the internet all the time, not in real time, but recording and sending files. We didn’t want to do that with Ulver, though. It’s not the same. It’s really about being together, and working together in the room. This is the vitality of music. This is when it’s really happening; The zero point.