On the evening of July 30th and 31st, a thick haze of artificial fog will envelop Festsaal Kreuzberg. A fog so thick that one can barely see their own hands in front of them, let alone the stage. But then: a tone will emerge from behind the veil of smoke, tremendous in size and intensity, sinister and puerile in nature; a sound so loud that the venue’s foundation will tremble, the ice in drinks will melt faster, bones will rattle, and pants may be shat. The smoke will subside to reveal two specters swathed in black robes, wielding magic axes: Sunn O))).
The men underneath the robes are Stephen O’ Malley and Gregory Anderson, two American musicians who cut their teeth playing in death/black metal bands in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, until they formed Sunn O))) in 1998. Borne out of their background in metal, Sunn O))) eschews the technical fetishism of black and death metal, and is known for spartan, experimental drone compositions. Their experimental edge alienated some of the diehard metal fans, while attracting fans of the avant-garde/noise/experimental electronic ilk. They’ve released eight studio albums, three collaborative albums (including one album with the late Scott Walker), and a plethora of EPs, demos, and fan-servicing live albums.
On the note of their fans, their upcoming performances in Festsaal Kreuzberg (dubbed “Let There be Drone”) will be populated with quite a diverse crowd. Metalheads of all manner, avant-garde & noise weirdos, culture vulture-y hipsters, stray pigeons, and goth dads will be shoulder to shoulder at the venue, communally bathing in the waves of O’Malley and Anderson’s glacially slow riffs.
But they weren’t always the black robed underground icons that they are today. In a phone conversation with Stephen O’ Malley, he revealed his humble beginnings as a young black metal fan growing up in the suburbs outside of Seattle.
Just about everything interesting has been reported about Sunn O)))’s latest album, Life Metal, so we took the opportunity to get glassy-eyed with Stephen and reflect on his career trajectory. We spoke about Sunn O)))’s 21 years of sonic destruction and his beginnings as editor-in-chief of Descent Magazine, his metal fanzine from the mid to late ‘90s. The first issue of which featured interviews with black metal musicians like Burzum, Emperor, Accursed, and more—certainly a more impressive lineup than this publication can boast.
Schmutz: You founded your metal fanzine, Descent Magazine, in 1994, an era before the scene had highly accessible, international platforms like Bandcamp. What was it like interviewing people from the international metal scene from your home in Seattle?
Stephen O’Malley: Well, not only was it before Bandcamp, it was before the internet, before email. Even CDs weren’t that common in those days. In those days it was really about tape trading or writing letters, making connections with people around the world. It was quite exotic to me, to do that from my little life in Seattle, you know? Getting a letter from someone in Poland was quite an exotic thing in those days. You couldn’t just open up your computer and chat with someone like that. Even researching stuff was very difficult.
But of course, everything is connected in a life. And I think those days of doing that fanzine and participating in underground metal music in that way was formative, and set me on a path that somehow has led to where I am today. Including a passion for connection with people all around the world and music all around the world.
Schmutz: How have you perceived the metal scene has changed in that time?
Stephen O’Malley: I’m not going to try and be an ethnomusicologist on the metal scene of the past 25 years. But what’s pretty incredible about metal is how prevalent it always is. So how open and progressive can it be? While at the same time having a deep core of like, traditional conservative, creative, standards as well.
Nowadays, I’m not really involved with the metal scene so much. I certainly have a lot of connections with people involved in it and a lot of those connections are actually from those days of my fanzine. The music and creative work I’m doing now relates to metal and there’s certainly elements of it, but I’m certainly not like, keeping up on the metal underground scene like I did when I was 21 years old. It’s actually frankly quite boring most of the time to me. One of the cool things about metal music—I always thought—is that you can emulate your heroes, musically without having to really, you know, be trained in a conservatory or something like that.
You could pick up a guitar and get a good heavy metal pedal and start your own band that sounds like Nihilist—at least to your ears. And probably people from your social group may not have the reference, so it would still feel fresh and new. There’s this relation to folk music in that way. There could be a band that sounds like Nihilist or Dissection in every country and that’s fine. But on an international scale, you only have Nilhilist, Entombed, and Dissection you know. But locally there’s all these permutations.
So it’s fascinating sociologically how this relates between different cultures. But it also shows that some of these core, simple needs of a group dynamic and group experience are really everywhere and present in all these cultures too.
But the music world—especially the underground—is so much more organized in business and commerce now, compared to how it was when I was doing my fanzine. It’s much more open and accessible for a band to actually make something, put it on sale, and have it marketed online than it was when I was doing my fanzine. And it seems like the resources are much better. But on the flip side, of course, it goes directly to that conversation that everyone’s had a million times that’s also pretty boring. There’s just a flood of material. How do you navigate through that flood of material to find the experiences that resonate with you? But that’s another kind of topic.
Schmutz: In your first issue of Descent, you interviewed Varg Vikernes (Norwegian black metal musician known as Burzum. Famed for his Neo-Nazi ties, and murdering his friend and collaborator, Euronymous). How was it for you to correspond to someone like Vikernes, a convicted murderer with radical right wing views?
Stephen O’Malley: It was really exotic. I didn’t know anyone like that. I had never made contact with anyone like that before. Someone who had committed crimes and was in jail and who had professed this like, radical ideology about how the world should be. I was living in the suburbs of north Seattle, where there’s a lot of white people and a lot of folks from Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam. That was my scene. I didn’t know anyone like [Vikernes]. And metal music was for me—I guess up until that moment—about fantasy and the visualization of fantasy.
In those days, the story about the white power and Nazi stuff wasn’t worked out yet by everyone. In those days, the information about that was coming from different angles. It was rather in this sort of paganism/revolutionary cloak at that time.
It’s a real pity that Vikernes blew it so early in his life, because he was a tremendous artist and had a lot of potential—as an intellectual as well. He was just severely misguided and then had this prison experience when he was so young that ruined his chance of observing and appreciating culture and the world. In retrospect, 25 years later, when there’s been books written about it, a lot of academic critique and writing about it—it’s a kind of mythical moment now.
Schmutz: Talking about Vikernes and Burzum brushes on a topic that’s on a lot of people’s minds right now. How do you separate the art from the artist?
Stephen O’Malley: Looking at the history of art, if you start going into character qualification of artists, you’re gonna run into a lot of problems. Where do those qualifications arise? And those qualifications change over time too—what is acceptable and what isn’t. So who has the constitution that dictates what is correct and what isn’t? I also think it’s extremely distracting to focus on this topic in art and music, especially on such a tiny level. There are serious problems in the world. So if you’re like, ‘oh, you listen to a band who once wore Nazi armbands in 1982 when it was actually fashion and punk to wear something provocative and it had a totally different meaning, you must be a bad person.’ It’s like, give me a break.
But a lot at the time, of course it is part of a valid conversation to ask why you are interested in music by someone who has terrible beliefs. But to make it a criteria of a character assessment of who someone is, I think it’s absurd. It also places music and art in the sort of lower category than it’s potential to inspire big, profound and moving thoughts, which is why it’s beautiful.
I think, ultimately, this kind of topic is highly fueled by limited attention span shouting culture from the internet. People have been brainwashed to feel like their voice, their opinion means something. And in fact, it’s just another piece of data, you know, amongst billions and billions of pieces of data uploaded every second that no one pays attention to for more than one second. It’s like snow. So maybe people have been like this throughout history, but I think that the immediacy of the ego at this time in our culture, makes it seem like a big topic, when it’s actually very juvenile and ignorant.
Schmutz: Fair enough. But moving onto the topic of your own music career, do you remember the first time you performed in front of a crowd?
Stephen O’Malley: Actually, when I was a teenager I was in a bagpiping corps. We did some performances in different situations in front of a lot of people, but that was a very different thing. But I also had a band called Thorr’s hammer. I remember the first show—I think that was the first time I was on stage with an electric guitar. The show was in a club that was in the back of a Chinese restaurant called Red Dragon, in Ballard, Washington. We were sharing the stage with a local, you know, B-team / C-team black-death metal band called Darkened Wood, who were our friends. It was exciting.
Schmutz: … the back of a Chinese Restaurant?
Stephen O’Malley: [Laughs] Hey, that’s where you played you know. These days, there’s a lot of metal from Seattle and the West Coast now. But it goes in cycles. And when we were doing our thing [Thorr’s Hammer], the cycle wasn’t quite ready for more extreme stuff yet, so it was pretty marginalized. Plus we were like nineteen, so we didn’t know what to do.
Schmutz: Things have certainly progressed a bit since then…
Stephen O’Malley: Yeah, it’s been 25 years. I hope things have progressed, but it’s not like it just fell in our laps, man. I’ve been working on music in a very focused way at least since 2004, when I left my last day job. It’s a perseverance of passion, but also stubbornness, you know. That’s the work, right?
Schmutz: Moving a bit further in your career, a lot of press is freaking out about your recording with Steve Albini on your latest record with Sunn O))), but you’ve recorded with him before, haven’t you?
Stephen O’Malley: Yeah. Actually, the first time I ever recorded a record was with him. He recorded my first album with Burning Witch. That was the band that happened after Thorr’s Hammer and involved many of the same people, different singer and different bass player. The only other time I’d been in a studio was to do the Thorr’s Hammer demo, which took one evening, while the Burning Witch demo took about two days. But both were just like, miserable kind of naive situations. But recording with Steve Albini was very fortunate. He took us seriously, and I think it’s a great sounding record. We had prepared everything and in a similar way that Sunn O))) did for the new record. Know the music, know the aesthetic, and then perform it well.
Schmutz: Was it intimidating to be recording with him though?
Stephen O’Malley: Oh man, like I said, that was the first time I’d recorded a record. I didn’t know what was going on. It was impressive to be in a real studio. I was just trying to do my best. And this guy [Albini] had recorded with Nirvana and other bands I knew about. He had just come from England after recording a Page and Plant album—and we were the next thing he recorded. It was interesting working with him.
One of the interesting things about working with him last year with Sunn O))) was I was able to discuss that session with him and try and match up my memory and see if he remembered the same things. Cause that was 23 years ago. A lot of the memories that I had were actually what he remembered too, which was fun to reflect on. And he had a really good impression of that session. He liked our music, he thought we were a black metal band. That was a good start. You know, I don’t know if I had another studio experience like that— being in a good studio with an engineer who took us seriously—until I started working with Randall Dunn actually, like 10 years later.
Schmutz: On the note of Sunn O))), why did you start performing in robes?
Stephen O’Malley: Actually, now that I reflect on why we did that, I can see it was masking. It was an attempt to mask a kind of insecurity Greg and I had in different ways. It has turned into something much more meaningful and artistic in that way. But at the beginning I believe it was simply trying to mask some insecurities and, that’s a little bit of a pity thinking back on it, that those insecurities needed to be masked in that way.
But it was kind of like, okay, there’s two young men up on stage playing slow music and not really moving or dancing or vocals or anything. We didn’t have a light designer. We didn’t have a stage, just a lot of amplifiers and us and small audiences which were filled with, some heckling and some people like pretty verbal about how boring or how stupid they thought it was. But then some people who are like, wow, we really like this. This is radical. And we didn’t think it was radical. Like the concept of doing something radical wasn’t there I think until later. But the concept of being criticized was more, kind of painful I guess. When you put on a mask you can lose yourself a little bit more. And I’m glad we did that because I think it allowed us to transform whatever concept we were developing into something that was able to develop in a more progressive way. That was the first of several other kinds of tools that did that were beyond just having a guitar and your friend playing guitar riffs, you know.
Schmutz: Now, 20 years into the Sunn O))) project, was there a moment where you felt like the project has been fully realized? Or has it always?
Stephen O’Malley: No, it hasn’t. It hasn’t always. And I’m not sure it has. I like to avoid the need to have that feeling in my work simply because I like making stuff all the time. That feeling could kill a lot of inspiration and momentum to try different things. I try to avoid that kind of level of expectation with things and finality. It’s a 20 year-old project which in itself is kind of a miracle.
But through the life of it, there’s been very significant moments, you know, and I think the Monoliths and Dimensions album, making that record and then releasing it and then touring that music was a huge step for us artistically. We had already been crossing over into awareness from contemporary art and theater, but making that record was—on a personal level, super significant. That was the maturation of the band’s possibility. We were not insecure anymore about what we were doing. We weren’t trying to hide in our robes anymore. It felt like an artistic endeavor with meaning.