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Based in Paris, Stephen O'Malley is a musician, composer, graphic designer, and head of the Ideologic Organ record label, among other robes past and present. While incredibly active both individually and collaboratively, he's most commonly associated with the "experimental metal" project SUNN O))). He's one of those artists who exude a genuine devotion to what they do, thoughtfully probing various practices and obsessions.
We conducted our conversation this past fall, many harrowing months ago—"slow music," O'Malley succinctly notes, thinking back to this chat. For more timely reflections, I recommend his recent post about the environmental impact of touring.
Sunn O))) performs tonight, March 17, 2017, at Knockdown Center in Queens, NY.
Stephen O'Malley When I was growing up you had to have a name for your band. There was always a name, and it was never your actual name.
C. Spencer Yeh It's an important part, definitely.
SO But what's more important is that point when you say, "This name is ridiculous and restrictive. So, why?" Some might call it an interesting difference between serious and unserious music.
CSY What do you mean?
SO Well, using your actual name to present your own work versus making up this structure that's probably arbitrary, and not conceptually very well thought out for presenting the work of mainly one, or few, of a collective.
CSY I think about the noise scene, where people create all these different band names to contain different interests and approaches. The name immediately starts laying a foundation for a mythology, a certain energy and particular vision you might not be able to achieve with your own name.
SO That's true. There's a whole aspect of metamorphosis that happens when you're making music. To some extent even traditional composers have their consciousness go off to another area. As a solo artist, trying to control different masks is exciting and inspiring, and it may help a musician understand how to do things. One figure, many sides—a polygon.
CSY You've traveled through a variety of different outfits and they function very differently, not just with the music and compositional process but with performance as well. At this point, if you were to come up with something other than working under your own name, what would that be?
SO What confuses me is when you're working with all these other names, and then there's some comment: "This reminds me of that other thing you do." Well, of course it might because they all share a common element. (laughter) I've done a bunch of things under my own name and played shows as a solo artist, but that came after being in Sunn O))), which has so much identity by itself. If I extract myself from that particular live setting, somehow my own solo work becomes minimalist music again.
Sunn O))) created all these performance elements that framed the music in a live setting very well. But in the case of my solo work, if the sound is so strong, why not just try to let that be in its own space? You could say, arguably, that Sunn O))) is that same sound, but there's also an entire visual, semi-theatrical, ceremonial subjectivity to it. I get really excited when a musician I like creates a new project because there are so many more ideas than just the sound. But in the case of my solo stuff, let's let the titles and music itself drive the concept. I think the noise scene, or the black metal scene, is a great example; a lot of players live in different places, and it's not really a possibility to have five people get together to make a group. It's like DIY—do all the ideas you please and make all these other versions or reflections of your own self. Psychologically it's really compelling.
CSY So for your solo work, you wanted to reframe things anew by focusing on the sound itself, without the theatrical or performance elements, which seem to spring from collaboration with others.
SO Totally, and also from compromise. Like, "How are we going to be on stage and do this music?" Some people need to be comfortable, some need to be invisible because they're shy, and some need to be out of their minds. Collaborations with another person—maybe they become a third thing, part of a triangle that has its own title. Or maybe the album title has enough conceptual weight behind it. There's all these things to consider. One of the things I like about obscure music from wherever is that you don't really know who's involved or what it is, or even how it's made.
CSY Can you imagine if every band name ever proposed actually became a band, like in an alternate universe?
SO There'd be some fucking horrible bands! But, there already are some horrible bands. I think it's actually happening, man. (laughter)
CSY So, you actually don't even need an alternate universe.
SO This alternate universe is comprised of real bands with bad names that you're already ignoring. There's millions of them. And there are so many labels these days just releasing all of the stuff no one's ever heard of, from the past. There's this label in Germany called Hell's Headbangers and they release so much obscure, weird thrash music mainly from '80s Germany. I was reading some comments by Fenriz from Darkthrone recently, and he's defined this music. He calls it "shit thrash."
CSY (laughter) Shit thrash?
SO Yeah. CDs are so cheap now that I'll just buy a few seven-euro albums of shit thrash bands and just check them out. Do you know about the "die-hard" edition in the metal world?
CSY Tell me about the "die-hard" edition.
SO It's like the mail-order edition of the vinyl reissue of an obscure thing that comes with extras, but you have to order it from the label directly. It's really beautiful, kind of like an art edition. Nuclear War Now! Productions, this label in California, they're masters of the "die-hard" edition. Their "die-hard" edition of the Nocturnus demos from 1987 and 1988 is a gatefold with colored vinyl, posters, stickers, a zine—and it comes with this fucking horrible, huge patch that's like a foot across. It's insane, and also why I bought the edition, actually. It's made out of fake leather and looks like it was drawn in the back of math class in eighth grade. It's fucked, but the music's amazing, too. It's so cool that this guy, thirty years later, makes this weird edition and so obsessed with it that he goes the extra mile with these dudes, who may or may not care about that '87 demo tape they made anymore.
CSY Now I'm thinking of the many "die-hard" equivalents in other genres and niches, like limited-edition horror DVDs. They're trying to find the most awkward tin can to put the disc into. You can't even put it on the shelf. You don't know what to do with it, but you still grip it. So, about Nocturnus…
SO Nocturnus is from Tampa, Florida. They put out some demos, got signed to Earache Records, then put out two CDs. They were the first death metal band to have a synth player. It was a terrible moment for synths, especially in metal, and Nocturnus was either totally hated or totally loved—all made more complicated because one member was from the really respected cult band, Morbid Angel. Basically, in the history of extreme metal, this band from Tampa inspired most of the Norwegians.
CSY Going back to "shit thrash," I've been super interested in what people call "amateur" or "real-people" records—people working in their basements, wanting to be like Fleetwood Mac, but they just can't. However, you can hear every inch of their wanting to do so.
SO Lovely. That feeling you're talking about—it's like art brut sometimes. There's a desire for escaping reality and going into this fantasy of the professional, which doesn't really exist. Or it could just be a heavy projection from their point of view of what that energy should be. That's pretty fascinating. There might be more passion in amateurism than with much of the known, famous stuff. Those are the kinds of energies in music I've always found attractive, regardless of quality, expertise, or skill.
CSY Sometimes amateur feels more real, less detached than someone who is trying to make something technically perfect. So, there's a couple of more mundane things I want to ask you.
SO I love to use words like "primitive" and "mundane," because it's never actually the case. What's your mundane question?
CSY Composing for others—do you notate? For example, "Éternelle Idole," published by Shelter Press.
SO Yeah, that music was composed for one of Giséle Vienne's performance works. Some of it was scored. There are charts for some of the parts, but they're more like arrangements based on recordings, some of which were improvised. I played music in school as a kid, but I didn't go to music school or anything like that—but I still try to advance what's possible. I'm figuring out how to do the arrangements for a new record now. Luckily, some of my friends like Eyvind [Kang] are super generous and patient, and they help me with this stuff.
CSY I didn't really study music either, but you begin with a notion of what you want. You hear it in your head and perceive it as a vibe. And you'll know it when you finally hear it, or perhaps you'll achieve something else along the way. At this point, it's just a matter of figuring out how to get there.
SO We come from a generation that has more possibilities to work in a sophisticated way that doesn't involve the training and years of discipline our parents dealt with in order to do things like arrangements. But it doesn't mean the creativity isn't there. For me, I'll be in the studio working, recording ideas, and then sculpting with them. Those then move into a stage where there needs to be a translator to turn the concepts into a format another musician can interpret somehow. I've worked, as have you, with a lot of different composers, and it's always really interesting how people write and use a score. Boiled down, it's a symbol. A very articulated symbol in some cases, and other times just a reference or a small idea to trigger something. And then there's the conversation about what that is—that's the important part.
CSY We've talked before about whether it's Sunn O))) or you solo, it's improvisation within a set array. You are working out this composition over time that you just carry in your bones.
CSY I'm curious about the boundaries of when you enter a situation like performing Alvin Lucier's works, working within that framework. There was a Lucier celebration you were involved in recently, right?
SO Oren [Ambarchi] and I just did some concerts at Alvin Lucier's 85th Birthday Festival in Zurich, with amazing people like Joan La Barbara and Charles Curtis. Oren and I played two pieces together—the first piece was "Criss Cross," which Mr. Lucier wrote for us. It was Ilan Volkov who instigated that. He sees the potential on either side of the fence with this serious/unserious music stuff. Lucier himself was also performing at the festival, along with attending every rehearsal, and also talks and conferences. He's fucking 85 man. He's kicking ass, it's amazing.
CSY So when performing that work, how much of yourself do you put in there? Or is that even yourself when you're playing the Lucier work?
SO Lucier didn't write for electric guitar before he made this piece, but it's clearly his vibe and mind. In a way, you need certain skills to play that piece on electric guitar that come directly out of our vocabulary. My approach is like, "Okay, mechanically I can do this." Based off of Lucier's vocabulary of how he wants to have something like an amplifier intonated, I bring something to the table with being able to hear that sound from the guitar in a way I can work with. My hearing works very well with pitch, and I also strong with timbre and tone on the guitar. I also know a lot about harmonics. Not because I studied harmony in school but because I stood in front of a giant harmonic backline—
CSY —for most of your adult life. (laughter)
SO The most interesting way Sunn O))) has advanced musically has been with the harmonics. That might come as a reflection of our interest in people like Lucier, Tony Conrad, and minimalist points of view that really focus on harmonics and intervals.
CSY So you're tapping into this sense and skillset you had already been developing—though on a stage covered with fog rather than a concert hall. With Lucier or Sunn O))), it's just as much a work for amplifiers.
SO Yes. The second time we ever played "Criss Cross" was at the Louvre auditorium in Paris. I had these beautiful Hiwatt half stacks. The auditorium in the museum is like a piano room with big, stone-hard walls. We decided to put the custom hundreds two inches from the walls, with the speakers pointing right at them, at the far ends of the stage, with the master volume on 1 and the preamp on 2. (laughter)
The sound in that room was incredible. The piece is fourteen minutes long and each guitarist moves across one semitone. One goes up and the other goes down on the same semitone around C. So at the seven-minute mark, it never becomes totally locked in, but the modulation is super slow, if you're really concentrating. The score calls for it to develop into a spinning sound rather than a fluttering. It totally happened in the Louvre space and I couldn't believe it. And you have a hundred-watt amplifier only on 1? (laughter)
CSY Sometimes you have to turn down to tune in.
SO It was cool, man. But also one of those things like, "How did I end up here when I'm thinking about a ‘die-hard' edition of the Nocturnus demo." What's the parallel?