Stephen O'Malley interview

Stephen O'Malley needs no introduction. From Burning Witch to Thorr's Hammer to Sunn O))) and a million other projects, the man's slower-than-maggot-death riffs have launched a million clone ships into the seas of modern music.

Mr. O'Malley was nice enough to chat with us about living in Paris, the old days in Seattle, and cassettes. Read on.

Hammer Smashed Jazz: First off, when constructing this interview, I got this distinct feeling that you wouldn't want to speak about WHY you moved to Paris, but I have a feeling that the move gave you some much-needed breathing room... maybe some space and time to reflect on your accomplishments, and where to take it from here?

SOMA: Why would it matter why someone changes location? Have done so may times in my life, and likely will further searching for that settlement which Im not sure exists. Actually I haven't really had much down time at all, could use that time of reflection, space and time. I guess its never enough.

HSJ: Without resorting to lazy journalism or hyperbole, I would have to say that Sunn O)))'s last studio album, Black One, really seemed to be a watershed moment in modern heavy music, not just for the listeners, but for you as well. It almost seemed like this perfect convergence, or validation, of all these musical points in your life, from your early black metal/Descent days to the amazement of hearing Earth2 for the first time, and taking drone to a new level. Did you feel a keen sense of accomplishment after that record was released, having successfully merged these important musical influences of yours? And does that have anything to do with why the next Sunn O))) LP has taken a while? Did you need a break from Sunn O)))?

SOMA: Thank you. Yeah, Black One was very satisfying. In retrospect it accumulated not only the points you mention but the overall fucked up period seems quite obvious listening to the music made around that time.

It doesn't seem to me to be a break in SUNN O)))s activities, maybe the live action, but certainly not in the overall arc. There's been 4 record releases between Black One and now, not to mention a lot of work keeping the catalogue alive in other parts of the world (Japan), etc. Most importantly we've been working on completing a quite intensive studio recording by means of the new album. A year and a half's work, tremendous logistical work and organization in getting this one finished. Why is it getting more complicated to do this? I must say that as time goes on the resources available around us has increased all of the potential, but also made things more complicated in a way.

That said I think "Monoliths & Dimensions" is quite obviously a strong step in the arc of SUNN O)))s long history.

HSJ: The first black metal record I ever bought was Immortal's "Battles In the North", and I always felt so fortunate that I started there, because,god knows, nine out of ten black metal records could've ruined me from ever listening to the stuff again. What was the first black metal record you ever heard? Or maybe, what was the first one that blew you away?

SOMA: Yeah I would say that in my experience 95/100 or even 97/100 black metal records are probably not warranting a second listen, or even a complete one. Not necessarily a bad way to make your point.

That record was a bit controversial when it was released, the stain of touring with Morbid Angel was blatant on the production and composition I thought. It also represents what is probably Immortal's most interesting signature and the last interesting record in their oeuvre. First back metal for me I guess was Slayer "Hell Awaits" probably in 1989. That blew me away and literally opened the gates for black metal/satanic related music which remains an interest to this day.

HSJ: Well,if you count Slayer! So, everyone knows about the Earth/Sunn O))) connection, but I don't think I've ever actually heard you talk about the fact that you actually lived in Seattle when Earth was first kicking. How did you first hear about them, and was there a local buzz going on? Ever see them live back then?

SOMA: A friend of mine from the hardcore scene worked at Sub Pop around the time the second Earth album was being promoted. He thought I'd be interested in the band because of the Morbid Angel tshirt on Earth2 and he was right, it blew me away of course. Along with Souls At Zero & Lysol probably the 3 most impactful albums I had at the time, right before I was getting demos of Burzum, Manes and Emperor, etc. Saw em live as a duo at Sub Pop Ultra Lame Fest in 1991-2 I think? Earth2 material and Oroborous if I recall correctly. Funny part were the hardcore jocks in the pit amped out of their minds for Seaweed who were following Earth on the bill. Thoroughly confused by the meditations they were witnessing, heckling, etc. Was greeeeeaaaat.

HSJ: "Sound pressure" is a term that is used alot when describing the Sunn O))) experience, so it is really surprising to me that you guys have yet to release something in 5.1 Surround or something that plays multiple discs at once maybe. Anything to try to take the home listening experience to the next level. Have you guys ever talked about moving past the standard CD/LP formats? I would think that sound alchemists such as yourselves would be all over this.

SOMA: I think 5.1 is useless. No one has a system, and if they do its not very good for music. Its very difficult and a constant challenge to try and recreate the dimension and power of the live concert, which is to me the apex. Perhaps this could be accomplished in the setting of a film music designed for a proper theatre surround, but we've neither had the contacts nor opportunity to explore something specific like that yet.

HSJ: I'm still surprised that you've never actually had your own full-on black metal band, even though there are elements of it in KTL, Thorr's Hammer, Burning Witch, and of course Sunn O))). Has that thought ever crossed your mind?

SOMA: I had a BM band in Seattle for a few months which never got anywhere. Odin/Moribund was the vocalist and I think it was called Black Horizon. I think BM is too narrow for my ideas... and emotions, without being anomaly to the point of the conservatism of that form of music. Represents sometimes great ideals and flavor but not on my spiritual or creative tip, so to say.

HSJ: Your Japanese brothers-in-arms, Boris, have really become quite the adventurous band over the past 7-8 years. Could you ever see Sunn O))) on a similar path? Maybe a Sunn O))) stoner rock record, or a punk Sunn O))) record?

SOMA: No way on the suggestions but I see where you're going. The new SUNN record is very adventurous... for us. We work with a lot of ensembles of acoustic musicians and even a womans' choir. Boris want to be a big famous and successful unique rock band. SUNN is an experiment in sound and trying to get further out of the orbits and gravities.

HSJ: I am really enjoying the new KTL record. This is the first one that was made as a stand alone studio album and not a soundtrack, correct? It really seems a bit fuller. Did you accomplish what you wanted to with the release of KTL IV?

SOMA: I think it's a great album but to be honest it's a little confusing, ONLY because I felt more detached with the making of that album than with the prior work which seemed to come straight from my bloodline. It's the most unique and honest work we have created, as far as the chemistry Peter and I have developed over the past few years.

HSJ: Burning Witch are now a legendary band, but you guys were considered to be such an oddity when you were actually around.It reminds me of the title of the Human Remains discography "Where Were You When?" I actually grabbed your Towers LP because I was buying everything on Slap A Ham at the time, but was still into bands like Corrupted and Noothgrush. When the Burning Witch set was rereleased last year, did you sit down and give it a spin? Will the long-rumoured reunion ever take place, and would it just be live shows, or would you record something?

SOMA: Reunion... nah. Why try to recreate the glory of something which never really existed. We played small shows in the old days, chinese restaurants and shit. No one cared about it except a handful of our friends, which wasn't a problem at all of course because we were making that music for our own pleasure, not for careerist goals. It took forever to actually release the music, and when it was it was our friends doing the releasing. Its the same now. I actually went through everything again pretty thoroughly with regards to the rerelease. The stuff blows me away, great songs. I always wish I could get a band going with that dynamism again, but the road from that point has been a long one I suppose.

Bottom line: respect the dead and their ghosts. Reincarnation is more important than resurrection.

HSJ: Most every musician would tell you that his latest work is his best or his favorite, but are there any songs/riffs you miss playing? Is there a release in your back catalogue that you are most fond of?

SOMA: I like playing music live, thats where its at for me. The chemistry of interaction between musicians is a total thrill. KHANATE at its peak was a total rush live, miss that.

HSJ: Ginnungagap and Lotus Eaters are two projects of yours I haven't heard much about lately. Are these bands still active?

SOMA: Not really.

HSJ: There are a million and one "drone" bands out there right now, and an equal amount of ultra slow "doom" bands. Do you try to keep up with all of it, and is it at all flattering that you had a hand in the explosion of this type of music? Also,I know that Southern Lord is technically Greg's label, but it doesn't seem that you guys are really that interested in releasing other people's drone records right now. Maybe fear of over-saturation?

SOMA: Well, Greg Anderson runs Southern Lord and makes all of the choices related to his signings, or flock, marketing, strategy, etc. I have no stake in the label beside being an artist and doing artwork for the records. Thats a common misconception.

The discussion of what is or isn't "drone" music or what is or isn't valid either academically referenced or in execution is uninteresting. We are all drinking from a river of tradition of music much older than our species I believe.

HSJ: Being that you cut your teeth on tape-trading back in the day, I'm still really surprised that your music never makes it onto cassette. Nothing sounds crazier than a warbly-ass tape. So whatcha got against cassettes?

SOMA: I dont have a cassette player right now but need to get one. I found this Confessor demos tape recently which I've only been able to play in cars, which is a positive limitation.

HSJ: Favorite Sabbath song?

SOMA: After Forever? First to come to my mind. Great lyrics.

HSJ: I would imagine that you are quite excited to get the next Sunn O))) studio record in people's hands. Any details you'd like to share about this one? I know you guys did a special GrimmRobes Anniversary tour. Was this a clue as to what may be forthcoming?

SOMA: No the tour as a duo, which we also will do in Europe and Japan this spring, is meant to act as contrast to the album. And to highlight the inherent musicality at the core with the guitars and tube harmonics of the amplifiers' timbre.

HSJ: So if you've got a few more spare hours, tell me about what you've got coming up in '09. Maybe some more Temples and Chambers I hope? Anything killer on the art/design side of things?

SOMA: I was just asked to design the new Dinosaur Jr record! Not sure if that will happen though... other cool design work are Pan Sonic & Keiji Haino records. I let the music stuff unfold as it does on its own...

Thanks for the interest and support. Respect.

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