Randal Dunn by Brent Cody

Dark magi channel heavy jazz, dystopian folk, and experimental cinema.


Left to right: Oren Ambarchi, Stephen O’Malley, and Randal Dunn. Photo by Faith Colacia. Courtesy Drag City Records.

Drone metal luminaries Oren Ambarchi, Stephen O’Malley, and Randall Dunn traveled to Belgium to score a film set in an apocalyptic future where time is no longer linear. They came away with Shade Themes from Kairos (Drag City, 2014), an album where each of these pioneering musicians push into new territory. This collaboration sprouts from the seedbed of Sunn O))), partaking in such ominous atmospherics but only occasionally in the thrum of wall-to-wall guitar distortion. What’s new on this record is an improvisational exploration of a vast sonic expanse where elements of musique concrétecollide with slow-burning free jazz and delicate vocals.

The album begins with a boiling frog scenario: listeners are entranced by a rich, alien texture of analogue synths and hypnotic drums, then the tracks build on one another, each bulkier and stranger with time. This progression leads not to some bombastic climax, but rather to the blissful release that is the fourth track, “Sometimes,” featuring Japanese vocalist Ai Aso. The ill-fated mood is fully restored with the finalé, centered around the slow, distorted riffs familiar to fans of Sunn O))), only here layered with flutes and analogue synthesizers.

I had the opportunity to speak with one member of the trio, Seattle-based musician and producer Randall Dunn, whose production credits include a number of groundbreaking records by artists such as Sunn O))) and Boris, Marissa Nadler, Akron Family, Black Mountain, Earth, and Sun City Girls.

Brent Cody How did you become interested in music and, in particular, music for film?

Randal Dunn Well, I originally moved to Seattle to study sound design for film, then ended up getting sidetracked with music. But the thing that got me interested in the first place, when I was younger, was the sound in David Lynch’s films. And I still kind of approach things in that way, based on that influence, and more generally on my studies.

BC You’ve worked with Stephen O’Malley and Oren Ambarchi before. How did your collaboration come about?

RD I had made a record for a band called Asva, in Seattle, and Stephen had heard it. I’m also in a band called Master Musicians of Bukkake with Brad Mowen, who was the original drummer in Burning Witch—another band that Stephen had worked with. So we had all these friends who knew both of us. At some point, he asked me to produce an album called Altar, which was a collaboration between his band Sunn O))) and Boris. That went over really well, and I began a really long relationship with Sunn O))), doing live sound for them and also producing Monoliths & Dimensions and several other of their records.

Oren I met while he was on tour and I was doing some shows with Sunn O))). We have a lot of very similar interests in processes and it just kind of made sense that we would make music together. More recently, he asked me to produce some records, including his newest, which isn’t out yet. I’m not sure what he’s going to call it. But, I did do Audience of One, his previous record. 

BC How did this most recent collaboration between the three of you get started?

RD Belgian filmmaker Alexis Destoop asked Oren and Stephen to score his short feature, “Kairos.” I was brought in by Stephen and originally asked to produce and, you know, help the work flow. We all agreed, going into it, that it would be kind of open-ended, in the sense that not all of the recordings would make it into the film—or some of it would and some of it wouldn’t. The director of the film gave us some oblique direction, but the music wasn’t made to fit the images, it was made in tandem with some of the images. 

Through this organization called Buddha Art Center, we were allotted these recording sessions in an old radio station in Kortrijk, Belgium. I gave them a list of gear that I wanted to use, basically replicating my studio in Seattle over there. They were able to get all of that, as well as some really cool old analogue keyboards, including a couple of Melotrons, which we ended up using a lot on the record and are, I think, very evocative of a certain era of soundtracks. Then I brought over some analogue keyboards of my own: a Korg MS 20 and a Polysix. So, we set up all of this gear in the old radio station and just started to create.

Once we started recording I ended up playing a lot of keyboards and it naturally turned into a trio. The sessions in Kortrijk were really fluid in that way, and ended up lasting a little over a week. By the end of it we had more material than we knew what to do with. Then we did some additional recording at my old studio, Aleph Studio, in Seattle.

BC I’m just curious, how did Aleph Studio get its name?

RD It’s from a Jorge Louis Borges story called “The Aleph.” I’ve been pretty heavily influenced by his work. The elements of reality and fantasy that he combines and the deep referential nature of his writing I find very compelling. His work really informs how I think about the creative process.

BC Were there any surprises with the instrumentation on the record?

RD I think we asked for a vibraphone, and I wasn’t sure how we were going to incorporate that, but it ended up being a really beautiful aspect of the record. Oren ended up playing a lot of vibes, which turned out great. It’s one of my favorite instruments actually. Also, the degree to which acoustic guitar was used was a bit surprising, even though that sounds somewhat mundane. I don’t think Stephen has played acoustic guitar on a record before, that I’m aware of, so that was kind of a nice change.

BC And you used a shruti box on this record? 

RD Yeah, that was there as well. It’s a very small sampled version of a drone instrument used in Indian classical music, not an actual shruti box. The word shruti actually just means drone. 

BC Would it be accurate to say that you prefer using analogue gear and tend to avoid digital?

RD No, not really. But it’s the process of working with analogue gear that I find fascinating. I don’t avoid digital gear, I actually try to straddle both worlds; a healthy embrace of both mediums, I think, is great. One can inform the other. But, I learned mostly from people who were making or recording music using analogue equipment. And I find the irregularity of analogue equipment to be pretty inspiring, especially with synthesizers and tape echos and electromechanical reverbs, etc.

BC So you try to avoid plugins?

RD I do avoid using facsimile versions of the same gear in the form of plugins. One thing I don’t like about using them is that it adds an extra step to the process of creating music, where you’re correcting things, or doing other things digitally—things that are just as easy for a human being to do. I will sometimes use digital methods, but I tend to rely on humans and performance rather than editing.

BC Were any of the recordings from Belgium used directly on the album? Or is the stuff we’re hearing on the album worked over?

RD It’s only a little bit worked over—most of what you hear on the album was done in Kortrijk. Although, in Seattle we also involved Tor Dietrichson, who is a really amazing percussionist, and has done a lot of great work. He played tabla on the record and was on the Apocalypse Now soundtrack. He’s a really great musician and great to work with. So, a lot of what we added in Seattle was just fleshing out the compositional aspects of some of the songs, beyond the sort of long form tracks that we put together in Belgium. 

BC Was the stuff in Belgium improvisational? You said you were being guided a little bit by the director of the film.

RD Most of the material we came up with on our own volition. A lot of the music we made over there had a minimal starting point, like a drum beat, or maybe a sound that would, sort of, provoke us in several directions. Then we would do some overdubbing and let the music progress naturally. Through that process the compositional aspect of it was pretty improvisatory. But, then, as time went on, we got more intentional with things and started pulling compositions out of the overall improv. This aspect of our process was influenced by the later work of Miles Davis. Of course, many great improvisors make records this way: they just start recording material, isolate the parts that they find the most compelling, and continue to work with those.

BC (laughter) This is how we get these amazing late releases of five-hour Miles Davis sessions. Any chance that some of the recordings that were unused on this album will be released?

RD There is some more material that will probably be on the Japanese release, but I think the rest of it is probably going to hang out for a while. We’ll probably favor doing some new music instead of continuously mining this one.

BC The fourth track on Shade Themes, which is called “Sometimes,” heavily features a brushed snare and an ethereal female voice, with some minimal background sounds. One thing I really wanted to revisit after listening to this track is the Lynch-Badelamenti collaboration “Industrial Symphony No. 1.”

RD Oh yeah! I haven’t heard that in a very long time. I think with all three of us there is always a little Lynch influence. The vocalist on that track, who is a Japanese artist named Ai Aso, really set a mood. She is a friend of Boris. I had heard some of her recordings and wanted to work with her for a long time. So, we had this track and weren’t sure what to do with it for a while, and then we started talking about vocalists, and I suggested asking Ai to do some overdubs. We had just seen her in Japan around that time, and Stephen reached out to her. She came up with those really beautiful lyrics and was able to record the overdubs in Japan for us, then I mixed it later. It ended up being one of my favorite pieces. 

BC I thought that the last track on the album, “Ebony Pagoda,” which consists of a lot of slow distorted guitars, was really great. It reminded me of the soundtrack for the Kenneth Anger film, Lucifer Rising. Was that an influence here?

RD Maybe obliquely. I’ve always been into film, so the imagery and soundtracks from all of the classic experimental films I’ve seen over the years are probably always part of my subconscious. For example, I’ve always been interested in the film compositions of Ennio Morricone. Also, there is an artist here in Seattle named Eyvind Kang who has been a really big influence on me. I worked with him all through the ’90s, right up to today. He’s a really amazing composer. The soundtracks of John Carpenter, too. Also, again, later-era Miles Davis—a huge influence. There’s so much; it’s kind of endless. I could talk forever about it. 

BC What other film-related projects have you been involved with recently? 

RD A few years ago I recorded the Sun City Girls for the soundtrack to Harmony Korine’s film, Mister Lonely. Other than that, there have been a couple offers recently, but I haven’t really pinned anything down quite yet.

BC Are there any plans for another Ambarchi / O’Malley / Dunn collaboration?

RD I hope so, we haven’t spoke about it, but I think Oren and I are working on a couple things right now, and he has a new record coming out. I imagine it will happen. What I’m really excited about is playing live. I think that’s when the vocabulary of what we are doing is really going to expand. We’ve been talking about going on tour, but we’re all ridiculously busy people, so trying to pin that down is a bit difficult. I’d say it’s probably going to happen toward the end of this year, but you’d most likely get a totally different answer from those guys.

Shade Themes of Kairos is available from Drag City Records.

Brent Cody is a mathematician currently researching and teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University. His research deals with large degrees of infinity and the theoretical underpinnings of mathematics. He also records with Richmond-based band Tromdrone.

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