Hooded summoners of an eternal, all-consuming and strangely ecstatic heavy rock drone, Sunn O))) sometimes feel less like a band and more like a forbidding but ultimately benevolent religious cult. Yet when Greg Anderson reconnected with his erstwhile Thorr’s Hammer and Burning Witch bandmate Stephen O’Malley in LA in 1998, there was never any grand plan. “It started off as an excuse for Stephen and I to play some music together again,” he reveals. “We basically just amplified our common interests: we were influenced for sure by Earth and Melvins and of course Black Sabbath, but we were also really into jazz and experimental music. We had no rulebook, it was like, ‘Let’s just go for it.’”
Looking back, though, O’Malley acknowledges there was something else going on beyond just two friends riffing together. “I see now that it was a big, decades-long conceptual art project, searching for a different language to describe abstraction – even on the first demo, that was there.” This questing outlook has allowed the duo to surge far beyond the confines of the underground metal scene, pulling jazz greats and reclusive pop legends into their vast orbit. “Who knows what’s going to happen next?” O’Malley smiles. “Greg says Sunn’s like a nuclear cockroach, it’s never going to die.”
The Grimmrobe Demos
(2000, Double H Noise Industries/Hydra Head)
Three glacial rumbles establish the template for everything to come
Greg Anderson: We were given a couple of hundred bucks to record a Metallica cover for a compilation. We worked up our interpretation of “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, just so we could go into the studio and record the other stuff we had been doing together in the practice space.
Stephen O’Malley: It was very experimental. We were probably pretty high a lot of the time, but we were also focused on making something we felt strongly about. We trusted each other; we were just seeing where we could go with our ideas and our tones and loud guitars.
GA: We stole a keg from an L7 concert and brought it to the studio. In my previous experiences of recording, there was always this anxiety that you had one shot and you had to nail it. But with Sunn, we didn’t care about any of that. I think everything was probably one take. For some reason, there was a large metal wrench on top of one of our amps, and there was so much vibration that it knocked off this wrench; it clinked on the ground really loud, and you can hear it on the recording. Ironically, they didn’t use the Metallica cover in the end, because they couldn’t understand what we had done: “There’s no drums on this, there’s no real vocals on this.” We were like, “Yeah, this is what we do.”
(2003/4, Southern Lord)
Recorded at the same time, Sunn O)))’s twin ‘white albums’ find the band branching out in all directions, egged on by the likes of Julian Cope and Attila Csihar of Mayhem.
GA: In the spirit of what we perceive this band to be, it needed to move somewhere. We didn’t want to make another one of those really riff-heavy records. It was like, “OK, well we did that. That was cool. What’s next?” A close friend of ours named Rex Ritter had built a studio in his basement. He was a huge supporter of Sunn and he invited us to his place to make some sounds. And in the process of doing it, I noticed it was less about these bludgeoning, repetitive riffs and more about space and maybe even quiet.
SO: Julian Cope had got hold of [2000’s] ØØ Void and wrote this amazing review on his Head Heritage site. It seemed like he totally got what we were doing, including the lightheartedness of our approach. So when we were working on the White sessions,
we just asked him, “Would you like to do some vocals for this?” We were blown away by what he did because it was really over-the-top linguistically, his performance is amazing. And it opened up another possibility of what this music can be.