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Subsonics transcending times [2003-05-11]

The heaviest band in the world came to Belgium for two gigs in early april. On the first night I hooked up with Steve O'Malley and Greg Anderson and had a little talk with them.

The gig that followed turned out to be one hell of a crushing experience. Two days later I was begging for more an went to the other gig. A Sunn concert is a one in a lifetime experience you just can't afford to miss... Drone power!
Their albums are excellent too, check out the review of the new one White 1 (here). Picked by us as the album of the month...

m[m]: Youíre touring to promote your new album. Could you tell us a bit about the recording of White1 ?

g: It was recorded with Rex Ritter and Joe Preston who are here tonight. Steven and I had the idea to collaborate with different people and Rex offered to have it recorded in his studio. Itís in Portland Oregon, North West of the US, and that was close to where Joe lives (Olimpia). We all got together and tended to let it all happen, there wasnít much rehearsal. Weíd just sort of let the tape roll or the computers roll so to speak, they werenít really any tapes (laughs). And we just went for it...

m[m]: So you have nothing composed when you get in the studio?

g: Sometimes we have a few riffs, to use as skeletons. We let things happen naturally.

m[m]: What about White2?

g: White was meant to be a double album, but we couldnít get everything together in time so we decided to let the first come out, so it has its own life, and then have the second one come out. It will be a little different but in the same vein because a lot of it was recorded from that same session. One track, about half the record is done. We had some vocal contribution, a collaboration with Attila Csihar (Aborym, of Mayhem-fame -m[m]). Itís awesome, itís really epic he does this kind of chanting, this mantra kind of stuff. Itís my favourite thing weíve ever done, Iím so excited, I canít wait. Iím dying to put it out... We actually played a couple of shows with Attila on this tour.

m[m]: On 00 Void you can hear all the guitar strings being pulled, Flight of the Behemoth is much more massive, crushing and White 1 seems to bring even more things. That would surprise many people: it is actually possible to take drones quite far...

g: That was the whole thing! The main thing about Sunn is evolution. We donít want to make the same record twice, so every record we want to do something different. We even talked about making a record with a full band, singer, drums... Which might be something we will do in the future. That is something Iím proud about Sunn. Itís still Sunn, it has got elements of drone and lots of subsonics but we try to make things different every time.
s: White 1 is really the most progressive album weíve done. A lot of people think that our first three albums are very similar but thatís not true. Those albums are very different from each other: in textures, compositions, sound quality, all these things. Itís quite a hard puzzle to deconstruct for the listener

m[m]: Is there any aim behind Sunn? At least Steve seemed to say so in some interviews.

g:  Steve is a little more philosophical about it... To me, itís a very free, open thing. Itís about letting go any preconceived notions. Even every shows that we play have a very free structure. We use a skeleton but we let the chemistry of the people involved take it and try to guide it. Itís very different from doing Goatsnake, Khanate or Burning Witch. Itís just so free... There is no game plan, no written set of rules, no leaders, itís just letting our chemistry create the sounds.
s: Itís all about the chemistry of the players and creating a mental state. Sunn is very much about improvisation, every gig is very different. Weíre doing this music that makes time very flexible, if there is one aim, itís transcending time... Whether weíve been playing for half-an-hour or an hour, you canít tell.

m[m]: When did you guys meet up?

g: We went to the same highschool. He is a little younger than I am, but we had mutual friends. I was in a band called Engine Kid that was heavy but really melodic and I wanted to do a full-on metal band. So me and Steve started Thorrís Hammer together.

m[m]: What did get you into that kind of heavy music?

g: Iíve always been a huge fan of The Melvins and Sabbath, stuff like that. Actually when Steve and I ran into each other in 1994 after having not seen each other for a couple of years, I was like  ďhey, Iím getting really interested in some underground metal stuff, could you put me in the right direction?Ē and he said ďcheck out Disenbowlment, check out WinterĒ and shit like that. So he turned me on to stuff that I didnít know about... But heavy music has always been important to me. When I was like 16 I was in an hardcore band, and thatís heavy shit too (laughs)... Iíve always been attracted to the intensity of heavy music. But the first band that really changed that way I thought about music was Melvins.

m[m]: Julian Cope appears on White 1. What can you tell us about him?

g: He has this website, and he reviewed 00 Void. A friend of mine told me that Julian was raving about our album. I checked it out and it was the most incredible review of music Iíve ever read...  So I wrote him and said ďhey we got a new album coming out, Flight of the Behemoth, Iíd like to send it to youĒ. And he really liked it, and he liked Khanate and Teeth of lions rule the divine too. He really latched on to what we were doing so I asked him if he would like to collaborate with us sometimes and he was like  ďyeah yeah, Iíd love toĒ. We sent him some music that we had recorded with Rex and Joe. He sent it back with his thing and it is awesome. So it became the basis of the new album (laughs).

m[m]: Runhild (ex-Thorr's Hammer also appears on the album. What has she been doing lately?

g: She is very serious about school, biology major I think... She actually came to the States for some kind of program and thatís how we hooked up for the White 1 record. She was actually on the east coast and she came to Portland to work on the stuff for the record.

m[m]: What is it like too meet all those people you like? Joe Preston, Julian Cope, I guess you met the guys from The Melvins...

g: Itís awesome, really cool. Itís an honour. With Joe, itís really great... I mean, everything he has ever been involved in, Iíve been a fan: Earth, Melvins, Thrones. So Iím really flattered that people are wanting to work with us. And they are not just guests, when these people come and work within Sunn, everyoneís voice as its own space. Iím really enjoying having different collaborations, it makes it much more interesting.

m[m]: Southern Lord is the label youíre running. I guess its purpose is to release music you like... But do you manage to make a living out of it?

g: Itís doing well enough but itís really tight. But I live pretty simply, I donít have a lot of outside expenses. I put a lot of work into it but itís so worth it, because itís doing what I want to do... Iím putting out this music, these bands that are friends and it means a lot. And people seem to like it, so itís cool.

m[m]: Any ambitions with the label?

g: Yeah, Iíd definitely would like to expand it, make it a bigger label. I donít want to turn it into Nuclear Blast or Century Media. I wanna keep it a little bit more down to earth, you know, focused. Not so ďall over the placeĒ. I just want to put out bands that, no matter the genre, are intense. I donít want to put out something to make out money.

m[m]: You have other projects beside Sunn. Can we expect some new stuff from Teeth of lions rule the divine?

g: I donít think Teeth is gonna do anything else. I would love to, and maybe in the future we will. But it doesnít seem like it at the moment... There is a new Khanate coming out, itís being finished at the moment, should be out in September, Iím pretty excited about that. And there will probably be some Goatsnake coming out, including some new songs.

m[m]: So can we expect Goatsnake to resume its activities?

g: No, we all have our own things going on, itís hard for Goatsnake to be a existing band.

m[m]: In interviews I read of you, besides the obvious influences in your guitar playing, I was surprised to see the names of John McLaughlin, Miles Davis and John Coltrane...

g: Iím not a technical player but Iím really enjoying those people. I would say, as far as guitar influences, the most direct is Buzz from The Melvins. I really enjoy McLauglin, Davis and Coltrane, their music is inspiring, not so much in a technical way. What theyíve done with their sound is almost other-wordly. If I could get just 1% of that, Iíd be happy.
s: (Shows the Coltrane button on his jacket) If there is anything that we all agree on with Greg, Joe and Rex, itís Jazz. John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra. Maybe itís regressive or something but Iím obsessed with early seventies Miles Davis. You can listen to these records every day for a whole year and theyíd still be fresh.

m[m]: Rex Ritter appears on White1. What do you think of  Rex music and other post-rock bands?

g: I like Jessamine, itís one of my favourite bands and his new band Fontanelle is pretty cool. Another band I really like is Troum.

m[m]: How did it feel to feature in The Wire?

g: I think it made sense. I hope they will like our new album. A cool thing about Sunn is that itís so open, different people are going to appreciate it.
s: That was a major accomplishment which I didnít even think about happening. I realised that my own interpretation of what I was doing was actually too limited. I think that, indirectly, it led to us being invited to the ATP, a huge achievement for any of us personally, itís really great.

m[m]: The ATP is curated by Autechre this year. Do you know what they think about your music?

s: I havenít talked to them about it. I assume theyíre familiar with us as they invited us at a festival a lot of people want to play but only a few get the chance to. Iím looking forward to meet them.

m[m]: How did the tour go so far?

s: Really great. I predicted that over the course of the tour the music would evolve and that the last gig would turn out to be very progressive for the band. And itís happening.

m[m]: At first you were quite known for your Descent Ďzine and your artworks for Misanthropy or bands like Emperor. Now people know you for your music. How did that change come about?

s: I was doing bands before. My first band to release records was Thorrís Hammer in í95 which gets a lot of respect now. And Burning Witch actually broke up because I moved to England to work for Misanthropy because I thought it was better for  my life and my career. When I moved to New York in í99 I decided that I was tired of writing about other peopleís music because my own understanding of music was so non-global, non-linear. I keep on doing record covers, I do all the Southern Lord lay-outs, I did Troum, the new Emperor, the new Zyklon and other stuff, but not as much as I used to.  I decided to concentrate on my own music, because I think itís more honest and expressive.

m[m]: You worked on a lot of artworks for Norwegian bands. Are you still in touch with all those people? I saw on Ulverís Jester records guestbook that you posted a happy new year message last december...

s: I knew Garm a little bit, I wanted to acknowledge what he is doing, send a little sign. I know all those people from the Descent time, we were younger and we evolved. And Ulver, they have that remix album out... I buy all their albums so I guess you can say I like what they are doing now. I definitely appreciate it.
Unfortunately, I havenít seen much my good friends from Norway lately. I mean, how realistic is it to have a close relationship with someone who lives in Bergen while you live in New York?

m[m]:  I was quite surprised to hear you were a fan of Galina Utsvolskaya work...

s: Iím a big fan, we used some samples of her music on Flight of the Behemoth.

m[m]:  Funny you mention it because I was listening to the CD today and my father told me ďoh that piano bit sounds like UtsvolskayaĒ.

s: So he is into that mystique kind of things...

m[m]: Well he likes Utsvolskaya but also stuff like Diamanda Galas...

s: He likes Galas? Wow... Well my dad likes Ulver anyway, Nattens Madrigal.

m[m]: What about your other projects, Khanate and Lotus Eaters?

s: Khanate has a 12 inch coming out in June on Load records. It has a remix of No joy and the b-side is a song called Dead, from the new album sessions. The new album, still untitled will be released next september. It sounds pretty different sonically. I think it has a similar spirit but you could imagine the first album as being trapped in a basement by a psychopath while this one is much more open. Greg told me it sounded like those 1990-1995 Albini-produced Chicago kinda bands but at 1 bpm. Itís much slower and the tones are much cleaner. There will be 3 tracks on it.

m[m]: Youíre working with James Plotkin. Next step, John Zorn?

s: Well if he wanted to do a guitar Cobra and asked me to play with him Iíd say yes. To me he just seems untouchable... As a person who listened to his music when I was 13, I canít see it happen. But who knows? I had the same feeling listening to OLD when I was 13, you know...

m[m]: What about Lotus Eaters?

s: We have a new album coming out later in the year on Alien8. Probably we will be doing a picture 12 inch on a Conspiracy sub-label. Stephen from Drone was asking about a second edition of the 7 inch on his label, so that might happen too...

m[m]: Youíre a busy man...

s: Well, for Lotus Eaters, I go to Aaron Turnerís studio for one week-end and do half-an-hour of music so itís not as if it takes us a lot of time.

m[m]: Youíre playing with Aaron Turnerís band, Isis, in two days...

s: Yeah, he is one of my best friends. Khanate played with Isis a few times. I think itís really awesome that me and Joe, who are both good friends of them, are going to meet up with them here in Belgium... That is whatís really good with this tour: we crossed path with all those people, itís all about friendship.

http://www.southernlord.com/
http://www.southernlord.com/sunn.htm

Thanks to all the people who took photos at various gigs and posted them on the net.

FranÁois Monti
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