Sunn O))) On Their New Steve Albini-Produced Life Metal
Playing minimal metal at maximum volume, sound wave masseurs Sunn O))) are now entering their 21st year as the ne plus ultra of suffocating drone. Still searching for the most accurate representation of their famed, body-vibrating live performances, their upcoming eighth album — Life Metal, due in April — was recorded to tape with famed engineer Steve Albini. Boasts the press release, the LP version is “recorded and mixed on tape via a completely analogue production, from the input of the band’s amplifiers and the air coming off the speakers in front of the microphones to needle touching the pressed vinyl on your turntable.”
The result is an enveloping LP that trades their doomier inclinations for something a little more triumphant. Hildur Guðnadóttir of Icelandic art-rock staples Múm lends breathy coo, penetrating cello drone, and the esoteric halldorophone; composer Anthony Pateras accompanies the band on a Stuttgart pipe organ; and Silkworm co-founder Tim Midyett provides support on bass and baritone guitar. At the same time as they made Life Metal, the band and Albini recorded a parallel album: “a second more meditative LP titled Pyroclasts … which will be revealed in the autumn 2019.”
Stereogum met with Sunn O))) founders Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley in one of the danker corners of a Los Angeles diner to talk about ASMR, sound baths, dead pigeons, and, of course, their upcoming LP. And before you get to the interview, you can watch a five-minute preview of Life Metal.
STEREOGUM: Is this the first time you’ve recorded tape since the first record?
ANDERSON: It’s the first time where we’ve done all-tape production ever. The very first record [1999’s The Grimmrobe Demos] was done on DAT. And then the second record, which was [2000’s] ØØ Void, was recorded down the street at Grandmaster. It was recorded to tape, but then mixed to DAT.
O’MALLEY: [2009’s] Monoliths And Dimensions we tracked a lot to tape, but not all of it. But this was track to tape, edit on tape. There was no computer. It was Steve Albini’s style, you know? Mixed to tape. And then when we got to the mastering, we had an option to cut the lacquer …
ANDERSON: The lacquer was cut from the tape
O’MALLEY: Right, so that was a first. We didn’t go and say, “oh, we have to keep it analog all the time.” It was just an option that we had. It turned out that there was some other kind of life to it that was appropriate for the music. We actually did a comparison, right?
ANDERSON: We did a test from the digital files, mastering from that, and then mastering from the tape. And it turned out we chose the all-tape route.
STEREOGUM: And you can hear the difference?
ANDERSON: Yeah. I mean, it was super subtle to me. But, like Steve mentioned, it had some extra life to it. “Warmth” is an overused term in describing this thing, but that’s kind of what I felt like. It just had something that felt like it was kind of warm and all encompassing.
STEREOGUM: Are you going to do a cassette version? Make it tape all the way through?
O’MALLEY: We should. I was gonna suggest that, actually, at some point. Thank you.
STEREOGUM: Tell me about the title Life Metal.
ANDERSON: Well it’s a relative of death metal. I’ll just throw that out there. The story’s actually kind of humorous. We were at a party with Nicke Andersson from Hellacopters and Entombed. And he was talking about when Entombed had signed to Columbia Records in the mid-’90s. He started getting calls from his old friends in Norway in the black metal scene saying that he was a sellout and that he was no longer “death metal,” he was “life metal.” And [he was] actually getting death threats, I guess. So we thought that was the most insane thing we’d ever heard, and it kind of became an inside joke with the band. Like, when something, like, not gloom-and-doom was happening, it was “life metal.” A vocalist we work with, Attila [Csihar of Mayhem], was getting really into fitness on tour.
O’MALLEY: Exercising in the morning and stuff instead of being dead in the back of the bus.
ANDERSON: So, he would say, “Hey bros, I’m gonna go do some life metal.” It just became this inside joke among the band. I think the title was also a really accurate description or reflection of the music and also the mindset and the mood of the players on the record. Me and Stephen and Tos [Nieuwenhuizen], the keyboard player, [were] just at a point in our life where things were a different sort of tone and mood. And I think that’s reflected in the playing, which is really the important part. I think that the title reflects the atmosphere of the music.
And really, the artwork for the record and the choices made there with the colors and stuff, it’s very different from our other records which are very … there are a lot of dark [tones] and a lot of blacks and whites and things like that.
O’MALLEY: It’s also related to Venom. They started the whole thing. The descriptive types of metal.
ANDERSON: Black Metal, right.
STEREOGUM: You guys talk a lot about the pressure of sound. How did that manifest on this particular record?
O’MALLEY: Well, sound energy is basically what our music is all about. Besides the human aspect, I think it’s the most important element of what Sunn O))) is: creating this, or channeling or enabling this … energy. And it’s exciting to be inside of that and to experience that when it’s happening. In the studio, there’s a lot of volume involved in getting that energy going. It involves a lot of deep listening, too. In the studio with Steve, we were able to set up our tone and focus deeply on our sound characters with different amps and stuff — get it at any level we wanted. And we were super content with that. And then change all the time and never have to worry about how that was recorded.
One of the biggest challenges with recording a record versus our live [show] is translating that feeling onto a record. And that’s been kind of a core challenge we’ve had in the recording process. And we’ve been lucky to work with some really talented people to find ways of doing that. And Steve’s way was, for me at that point, transparent. Whenever we went in the control room, it was like, “wow.” It sounds like we’re standing in front of the amps, basically. Like, really potent. So, in that way, I think it’s a very natural representation of that sound pressure thing.
STEREOGUM: Are you familiar with ASMR videos?
ANDERSON: I don’t know what that is.
O’MALLEY: It’s a scene that uses binaural headphones. They make videos on YouTube. Like, super-amplified recordings of very quiet sounds. They’re pretty sexy ladies, like, whispering into a microphone or like brushing hair.
ANDERSON: And it’s really amplified?
O’MALLEY: It’s super amplified, but with a binaural mic. So it feels like you’re, it’s happening to you. There’s some dubious pseudoscience around it where it’s supposed to change your alpha waves in your brain. It’s very sensual. It’s cool.
ANDERSON: It’s cool?
O’MALLEY: Yeah, it’s kind of, like, some American-style twist on meditation or something, I guess. I don’t listen to it. I like the idea. … I think it’s kind of a twist on meditation. In meditation I think one of the main, basic tools of many kinds of meditation is focusing on sounds and letting your thoughts pass. But you’re focusing on sound, which is happening in the present. And that’s very relaxing, because you separate a bit from the cocoon of the thought.
STEREOGUM: The last time we talked, Greg, you told me you don’t meditate.
ANDERSON: Maybe not in the traditional way. We have our own ways of relaxing and chilling out. As for me, it’s like, sitting in a hot tub. Being in a room alone by myself without my three kids and my wife. Or any sound or any music. That’s gonna be meditation, too. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m against meditation.
O’MALLEY: You know, Pauline Oliveros, the composer, and many minimalist composers talk about techniques of deep listening. Which is absolutely the same thing as meditation. There’s a whole movement of mindfulness, which is kind of the accepted translation of the word meditation now. Which is the New Age-y kind of thing. But I think with music, when you’re playing it, you’re in a deep focus in the present and that’s very, very great. That’s meditation. You don’t really have to define it.
STEREOGUM: Sound baths are really popular right now.
O’MALLEY: Those are funny. I’ve gone to a few out of curiosity. Like, oh, that sounds familiar. How’s that work? I wanna see how other people do it. And it’s always like … this is weak. Maybe for some of our audience who aren’t so into the trends of wellness [a Sunn O))) show] is a sound bath. But you don’t have to name it that.
STEREOGUM: Hildur Guðnadóttir, on “Novæ,” is maybe the most Tony Conrad moment in Sunn O))) history.
ANDERSON: That charge is actually pretty interesting because it’s, in some ways, loosely based on a 20-year anniversary gift to ourself. Where we decided that we would basically do this thing we called a “riff exchange” where one guy basically just improvises freely with riffs for five, seven minutes or whatever. And the other player’s droning. And then you switch. It’s sort of a showcase of influences and interaction between the two of us. And something we’ve done in shows when it’s been just a duo with just Steve and I. But then we kind of decided that it’d be cool to involve a third person. And then [Hildur’s] performance and her playing on it was kind of the gift part of the thing.
STEREOGUM: One of the last Sunn O))) shows I saw was in the Tennessee Theater at Big Ears — this old, historic theater and I’m wondering, could this place crumble down on me? Do you research the physical structures you play in?
O’MALLEY: We spend a lot of time on that, actually. Because, of course, a lot of promoters want to put us in an interesting venue, because then the experience becomes even more unique for the audience. Especially in Europe there’s a lot of health laws about sound limits and stuff like that. And old buildings, often they’re listed [as landmarks] and there’s a law about how they are maintained. And, furthermore, we’re not trying to create destructive stuff.
From a technical standpoint, a technical director of a church or something, they have to look at it technically. It might be risky for the building. But there’s rarely been any problems, because we’re careful about how we do things. It makes the booking process take a lot longer, but when it works out, we have incredible results. There’s kind of like a deep-cleaning bill that we send to churches after we play there, because so much dust always comes down.
ANDERSON: There was a show that we played at a church in Belgium that kind of turned into a whodunit, where the power got cut in the middle of our set and we were trying to figure out who did it. And we think we pinpointed it to a disgruntled janitor who was very upset about what was going on in this church that he probably worked at his entire life. It turned into this whole, like, Zapruder Tape thing. So we think that he cut the power, because there was dust falling from the ceiling. That often happens regardless in old buildings. I mean it’s even happened at the Echoplex — you know, there’s stuff falling from the ceilings. It’s just the sound pressure, the sound waves. It’s like shaking things around.
STEREOGUM: There was a story about dead pigeons falling out of the rafters somewhere during a Sunn O))) show that could use a fact-check. Is that real or fake?
O’MALLEY: I’ve never seen a dead bird. I’ve never seen a dead creature.
STEREOGUM: That’s what separates you guys from Slipknot.
O’MALLEY: I guess so.
ANDERSON: That’s one of the things.
Life Metal is out in April via Southern Lord, followed by Pyroclasts in autumn 2019. North American tour dates below:
04/17 Cleveland, OH @ Agora
04/18 Detroit, MI @ Masonic
04/19 Chicago, IL @ Rockefeller Chapel
04/20 Pelham, TN @ The Caverns
04/24 Philadelphia, PA @ Underground Arts
04/25 Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
04/26 New Haven, CT @ College Street
04/28 Washington, DC @ The Howard