An Interview with Stephen O Malley
Long hair, a beard, and a leather jacket could brand Stephen O’Malley as an archetypal heavy metal musician, but the massive wave-pool his guitar creates in Sunn O))), Khanate, and various visual art collaborations is more akin to the precise, scarcely oscillating soundscapes of minimalist drone composer Tony Conrad than any flint-fingered pseudo-Sabbath acolyte.
Tapping into complex compositional practices without ditching metal’s compelling visual aesthetic, O’Malley excavates and expands the genre, remapping its coordinates with the lowest frequencies imaginable, in the process mutating its compositional scope: an insistent, visceral buzz transforms sludge drifts into chiropractic chords that strike like thunder cracks. (Stand still during a live performance and you’ll feel the stuff ricocheting in your bowels.) Loud though hardly harsh, the sounds start low, intensifying incrementally until they’ve transformed the entire listening area into a dank chamber teeming with elegant sustain.
O’Malley and Seattle-based Greg Anderson formed the band Sunn O))) in 1998, continuing a long-term collaboration after the 1997 demise of their previous group, Burning Witch (Anderson had left in ’96). The duo crossed over last year, following the release of their eviscerated black-metal-inflected sixth album, Black One, which has garnered New York Times coverage, Reichian exegesis in Artforum, shows at the Walker Art Center, and interviews for Swedish National TV and radio. Adding to the sensory overload of the Sunn O))) experience, the duo obscures themselves in clouds of pea-soup fog, dressing in hooded robes, periodically thrusting guitars toward the sky.
O’Malley’s other band, Khanate, is less overtly theatrical, but the drama-scream quartet remains one of NYC’s most cathartic live acts. Unlike Sunn O))), Khanate includes a full-time, hyper-precise drummer, Tim Wyskida, and an absolutely possessed vocalist, Alan Dubin. In this robe-free context, O’Malley keeps his back to the audience, strategically nursing feedback from an amp tower, occasionally glancing at Wyskida and bassist James Plotkin as they nail each explosion. When they do, the club rumbles.
Beyond these mainstays, Sunn O))) & Boris teams Anderson and O’Malley with Japanese psyche-power trio Boris. Their collaborative album, Altar, will be released on Anderson’s Southern Lord label this fall.
Outside of music, O’Malley has been a well-regarded graphic designer since the mid-’90s, lending distinct architectural deconstructions to album covers, flyers, advertisements, and clothing. Recently, he’s stepped into the art world through collaborations with modern-gothic salt-sculptor Banks Violette and a forthcoming theater piece with French director-choreographer Gisèle Vienne, the author Dennis Cooper, and laptop destroyer Peter Rehberg, a.k.a. Pita.
After sitting down with O’Malley to black coffee and Hungarian sweets a few months ago, we’ve spoken at length on a number of occasions at various New York City locations.
I. PLANAR SOUND
THE BELIEVER: You live on the Upper West Side. I don’t know anybody up here.
STEPHEN O’MALLEY: Exactly. I don’t, either.[Laughs] I moved up here because of my wife. She’s a long-distance runner. We were in Williamsburg for a bunch of years and she was coming out to Central Park every day to train. We got sick of our shitty railroad apartment, then 9-11 happened and Manhattan prices went down. I like this neighborhood:on the east side of Broadway it’s actually pretty diverse—there’re parks nearby, and it’s not on the strip.
BLVR: So she’s a professional runner?
SO: She’s not professional, though she’s been getting extremely good results recently. I don’t know if she’ll turn pro, but she ranks in the top ten in a lot of the races she does. She was third for U.S. women in the 2005 New York City Marathon with a time of 2:43.
BLVR: Ever go running with her?
SO: I’ve tried in the past, but these days, no way. A good run for me is three miles. She does minimum ten per day, as far as I know. It would be like the tortoise and the hare without the cleverness on the tortoise’s part.
BLVR: A friend of mine was wondering how Khanate’s drummer maintains his slow-mo tortoise pace for so long.I could say the same thing about you—your projects involve a lot of drone, sustain. Live, you stalk the amp and eke different tones from it. Do you ever get tired of the build and just want to jam into a Van Halen–style solo?
SO: Oh, I don’t know, not really. My hand doesn’t move that well, for one. [Laughs] I’ve never really gone down that road.The closest I’d get to Van Halen is cooking the hell out of the tubes. To me, there’s a lot of interaction in what I do: every detail’s a choice; it’s not just feedback.There’s an attack here; you only need to move one degree to get a difference in sound. It’s very involved. And I think our drummer really enjoys this super-coiled tension where he’s in command. Everyone has to follow him, so he’s almost the director—of tempo, anyway.
BLVR: I saw Khanate at the Mercury Lounge a few months back—my friend dropped his beer when you guys chimed in together.
SO: Yeah, it’s like, what’s the purpose of a payoff in music? It’s the climax of a sentence or a paragraph or whatever. There has to be some big event and there has to be a resolution, conventionally. But why does it have to exist in the structure of a song? It doesn’t. It can be pure build that lacks a conclusion—or the whole structure could be spun as the conclusion.
BLVR: That’s reminiscent of Tony Conrad.
SO: I’m a fan of Tony Conrad’s music, but I don’t know very much about him personally or historically, aside from the albums. His music takes one event and opens it up, blossoming the tone. It’s not so much an examination or analysis; it’s another way of hearing, a old way of making sound, actually. By listening to the tone and the detail of the sound, a one-point detail becomes more planar.
BLVR: What else do you listen to?
SO: Recently I’ve been trying to check out more Roy Orbison. Khanate had a concert in Nashville, and we went to this bar called the Sherlock Holmes Pub, which was basically a shrine to Roy Orbison.They had a huge projection screen on the wall with an Orbison concert from the ’60s. The concert was amazing—completely hypnotic. They had this set of lights that said Roy Orbison on the back of the stage—huge, maybe twenty feet wide—and it would flash at different paces. Now, combine the lights with meter tricks the band was doing with the tempo: He would sing the verse from one of his hits, and then he would leave the stage, waving; the crowd would be screaming, and the band would double the pace of the song while he was gone.When he came back out, they’d do the next verse. It was totally cultish.
BLVR: In a quieter way, Sunn O))) creates a similarly cultish vibe. I mean, it’s mind-blowing to see what a smoke machine can do: at the December Northsix show the column in front me was like a tree trunk in some foggy valley—steam drifting up from some swamp, or whatever—and then these guitar-toting druids materialize.
SO: [Laughs] Where our performances take place is a big part of why we use the smoke and robes—I mean, it’s strange to do that kind of performance in a bar in Boston.These elements act as a contrast to that space. If we played in a music theater, it might lessen the necessity to have robes and smoke, or make the purpose of those trappings much more apparent. By amplifying the visual side, it in turn amplifies the direction of the music. For instance, each time we’ve switched the colors of the robes it’s been for a reason.When we first started,we told ourselves it would be too obvious to use black. Like, what are we,some teenagers from Norway? No,we were teenagers from Seattle, but… [Laughs] but now, it’s an appropriate time because the music has moved in that direction.The people involved have been into exploring different states of mind. Black One is more emotionally charged than our other albums—it’s challenging people. It’s like, OK, now that we’ve gone through this, we can try using black robes, and it’s not going to be a gimmick. Though,actually,speaking of a gimmick with robes… Brian Turner from WFMU posted this video from The Richard Pryor Show in the ’70s. There’s a skit where he’s fronting this band called Black Death and he kind of looks like Funkadelic—he comes flying down with this huge insane hairdo,bat cape,makeup and stuff… there’re coffins onstage, smoke everywhere—the coffins open up and these dudes emerge in black robes… it looks like Sunn O)))! It’s Richard Pryor fronting a Funkadelic version of Sunn O)))! I guess that means we’re part of that lineage, that camp of rock and metal. But there’s got to be a lite aspect to something so heavy—to validate it.
II. BLACK ROBES
BLVR: How many different styles of robes do you own?
SO: We’re on the third generation now. The first ones were these gray and red medieval peasant, druidic-looking ones, which only Greg and I were using.The second ones had embroidery—Vatican or Catholic-inspired stuff, looking back on it. Now we have the black, simple ritualistic-looking ones.
BLVR:Who makes them?
SO: My sister, who’s a fashion designer.
BLVR:What else does she design?
SO: She worked in preteen/teen lingerie for a while in L.A.… strange niche.
BLVR: People tend to overemphasize the robes.
SO: Yeah, definitely more and more, but we made our own beds with that one.At the same time, the robes are a very simple way of entering another state of mind. We use them for the ceremony of the performance, which isn’t steeped in any real doctrine or anything, aside from the music and the sound itself. But it’s also significant in a meditational way, with the trance. It’s a uniform. It’s also adds to the ambiguity of the people involved with making the Sunn O))) sound. Actually, though, with more direct attention focused on the robes, it’s become more of a personality-based thing—a stylistic identifier.
BLVR: You’ve put a lot of thought into each aspect of your work—are you doing drone for the same reasons as Conrad or La Monte Young?
SO: I don’t think drone really requires a purpose. The old archaic sound: literally vibrating your molecules. I love a lot of music—Indian classical music and its old structures. Listening to something like that, based on several thousand years of development, makes me feel totally inadequate.The actual nearsightedness of my eyes is how I feel with music at this point.You question the point—why you’re making music, performing for people, releasing commercial products.
BLVR: With Black One it seems you’ve pushed toward a purer sound.
SO: The work of Sunn O))) is not just one record at a time—it’s a culmination of everything we’ve done. It gets more specific and more liberating. The more you understand your work, the better you can execute it, and the more honest and accurate it is. Black One’s certainly the most focused we’ve been as a group, as a duo. Everything about the production’s more meticulous than any album I’ve ever been involved with.We did a lot of plotting to make it cohesive, to make it more cinematic. Some of our other stuff—White 1 & 2—worked as an overall collection, but the tracks were more individualized.The concept or the mood sort of comes after the fact, with repeated listens.With Black One we went in with a more specific idea of what we wanted to accomplish.The live aspect of Sunn O))), to me, is more important than the records. It’s about the life of the idea, the actuality. It’s very different to get that across on an album because of the sheer physics of sound. On this one, we’ve gotten closer to that.
BLVR: When the album was released, the press—myself included—got pretty obsessed with the fact that you recorded Malefic’s vocals while he was in a coffin. Which, of course, was in a hearse…
SO: In a way it’s unfortunate that nearly every single review talked about that as if it were a gimmick. I kind of regret letting the cat out of the bag on how we recorded the vocals, but the wave of comprehension’s cresting and it seems people are genuinely appreciative of the album.
BLVR:Was it essential that the vocals be recorded that way? I know Malefic usually records by himself. Was he intimidated by the studio experience? I imagined it as a way of giving him his own private vocal booth.
SO: Yeah, in a way. A booth stylized to a guy named Malefic! It was a decision used to amplify the presence of the atmosphere through claustrophobia and suffocation. It went beyond a prop usage or acoustical value. This became an important symbol of the fact that we were trying to touch death and the spirit of those emotions a bit with the sound. For Malefic, I don’t think it was intimidation as much as it was inexperience. He literally had never worked in a studio, though he’s recorded and released several records. It was interesting seeing him integrate. He’s a very creative and intensely observant musician whose ideas usually end up in left field.
BLVR: Malefic (as Xasthur) toured with you on the East Coast this past winter. Have audiences been receptive? He’s this tall, spectral guy in corpsepaint emerging from the smoke and, more or less, howling.
SO: I didn’t realize he was so intimidating, and I also didn’t realize that his projection on the stage was so intense. He’s interesting and mysterious—a weird cross of sociopath and conversationalist. I was impressed by the way he affected audiences on the East Coast dates; it was really powerful.There was a good response.When he emerges, he really cracks the sound open—it gives it violence and an intimidating twist.
BLVR: At Northsix, I saw people pumping fists whenever he started.
SO:That’s kind of strange.
BLVR:Well, they were moved! [Laughs]
SO: He acknowledges the audience and plays to them, which is something the rest of us don’t do. Greg does some rock moves, but Xasthur changes the focus. The guests and the members are integral to our aesthetic, but still, the overall experience is Sunn O))).
IV. VIBRATIONAL THERAPY
BLVR:A friend of mine was overdue in her pregnancy, so I suggested she listen to Sunn O))), and it seemed to work. She gave birth a couple hours later. Have you heard of similar reactions?
SO: That’s amazing! [Pause] We played a couple times in Paris last year.The second time, our friend brought his wife, who’s nine months pregnant, days away from giving birth. I asked her, “Are you crazy, why are you here?” She goes,“I came here a few months ago when you played and it felt good. I think it’s a good thing, and maybe I’ll go into labor.” She saw it as this sort of holistic vibrational thing.There are the myths of shitting and puking… the brown note, an 8 Hz tone. For some reason in England people really like to talk about it— “Ooh, you made my sinuses vibrate” or “My eyeballs were shaking and I’m hallucinating” or “My feet were fucked up and you cured them.” “My teeth were vibrating so much—I feel like I’ve been to the dentist.”We’re creating other frequencies in the room, which people seem to be into. You’re drinking at the bar and getting a massage from the bass at the same time—that’s pretty great.The physical aspect of sound is the whole point of our music. It’s a way of Spinal Tapping us, too.
BLVR: What you’re doing is fairly atypical according to metal purists, I’d imagine.
SO: I’ve had arguments with interviewers about why there are no drums involved.The straight-up metal press will see a lack of elements. Is it really metal or not? Is it valid? Why do you get certain people involved who are not metal? Metal can be pretty narrow-minded; it can be a pretty limited viewpoint.The thing that’s ultimately ironic is that metal itself is purely about selfempowerment, freedom, and doing whatever the fuck you want to be doing, to your own ends. I think metal journalists can be some of the worst journalists in the world, and I used to be one myself! There are really no credentials needed to write for a metal magazine.
BLVR: Has the attention you’ve received after the release of Black One changed your audience?
SO: Khanate toured in England a few months ago, and the main thing I noticed was that there were a lot of younger people, more teenagers, as well as older guys— forty, maybe older. I was approached by this group of teenage girls in Leeds who were spazzing out—it was a fucking weird, rock and roll type of moment.They told me,“We have this copy of the Satanic Bible and we wanted to bring it for you to autograph.” I said,“Oh, really— why?” They thought it would be the most appropriate thing because in “the scene”—whatever that is—it was commonly assumed that I was associated with Satanism. OK. [Laughs] Whatever myth you want to make is going to be a positive one because you’re turning reality into myth, or creating a reality with your myth, so I’m all for it. If thinking I’m part of a Council of Nine, or whatever the fuck they’re called, is going to help your brain move into a different plane of reality, I’m all for it.
BLVR: Did you sign it?
SO: Unfortunately, it turned out that they forgot to bring the book. I would’ve certainly inscribed my sigil if it were present.
BLVR:What do you think it was that made them feel they could approach you like that?
SO: I think it was a one-two-three sort of situation. On the black robes; two, Black One the album—about whatever they perceived the “Black One” as—some demonic form, the dark “one,” or the aura of the underworld. For someone to be sixteen and have the Satanic Bible, they probably have some relationship to those ideas, however they interpret them; and three, having so much music press on this album, which in itself is bizarre, because it’s one of our most abrasive albums. I suppose it has more acceptable song lengths? Also, we had a cover feature in Terrorizer, this U.K. death/black metal magazine. It’s been a pretty recent thing, but it’s kind of deliberate: we wanted to incorporate darker vibes into our sound.
BLVR: I saw somewhere that Sunn O))) gets “intoxicated” before performances.
SO:We have a wine toast before every performance; it’s a ritual.Then the bottle usually comes onstage, if it’s not already empty. Often Jägermeister is involved. I don’t think we get intoxicated for the performance; I just think it’s a by-product of the particular chemistry of the people involved. Most times it’s purely alcoholic. On the past tour everyone got really into wine—being in Italy didn’t help. Spain, as well….
BLVR:You’re drinking red wine, right? I can’t imagine white would work.
SO: Yeah. [Laughs] The Blood of Christ, or whatever….
V. BLACK METAL DOVE BAR
BLVR: So there was a melee when you played ArthurFest in Los Angeles.
SO:That was the first time Xasthur played with us.We had a black coffin onstage in his honor. He performed with us for about five minutes, and then the power went out. It was the second time it had gone out during the set—maybe twenty or thirty minutes into a one-hour piece. The second time the power goes out, it’s really bad.The first time, you can usually recover, but the second time it’s very hard, especially when you have a very special guest who’s just joined in. It was a small theater; people were sitting down. I gave the cut sign to Greg. Greg lost it and threw his guitar down. He went over and pushed one of the PA stacks onto the crowd. Then he went across to the other side of the stage and pushed the other one down. Luckily it didn’t land on anyone— people were scrambling, diving for safety. We made it backstage to our room. Greg was fuming, and these humongous security dudes came in, and they were like, “You’re staying here, we called the cops.You guys are fucked for vandalism, destruction of property, etc. You aren’t going anywhere.” We started arguing with them because they were totally out of line, pulling stormtrooper moves—regardless of what had happened in the theater. So we’re cornered in this room for forty-five minutes. Dylan Carlson from Earth was there, and he said, “I’m not going anywhere. I got your back. Don’t worry. I’ve been in L.A. County. It fucking sucks.” All this time, Xasthur, who didn’t make it to the backstage area, keeps peering in, now and then, wearing full corpsepaint and black robes. Eventually the LAPD shows and gets the security guys out of there and are like, “Don’t worry about it.” The whole situation was squashed in about ten seconds. Of course the security guys are getting paid five dollars an hour and they’re pissed off, having to hang around with this racket. We finally get out of there only to discover that our vehicles have been towed, including Xasthur’s! [Laughs] First I get our truck out of towing, and then I find Xasthur roaming around in robe and corpsepaint in a Rite Aid parking lot. He says, “My car’s towed, you gotta take me to get it out of towing.”
SO: Someone bought him a Dove bar. The feeling shifted there. The black metal purist with corpsepaint and pseudo-militaristic weaponry—the lycanthropic warrior, or however you sling it—was transformed into something completely surreal. That’s something I respect most about the guy—he’s a surreal enigma. He’s ghoulish, sure, but there are other moments when you can glimpse a very different state of mind.
VI. BASS-WAVE SAUNA
BLVR: Can you tell me about the new project with Boris?
SO: Boris and Sunn O))) have been discussing doing a record together for a while. We’re calling the record Altar—it’s a concept based around volcanoes. Atsuo and I were discussing this for at least a year,and finally did the initial recording in Seattle last October and some overdubs in December. So far we have several Seattle friends as guests, including Dylan from Earth, Joe Preston, Kim Thayil, Bubba Dupree, Jesse Sykes.The results so far are varied and go way past where either group’s ventured.
BLVR:Are they rock songs?
SO: They’re not really rock songs, but there are pieces with rocking stuff. I guess it’s experimental rock. It’s more rock-based, relatively speaking—drums on some tracks. The one song with Jesse Sykes is an ethereal pop song—or something. [Laughs] Then again, there’s some really “out” stuff, as well. For “Akuma No Kuma”Atsuo does a ten-minute drum solo with synthesizer layered over it. The same track includes vocoder vocals by Joe Preston, who sings about a bear on the brink of hibernation: he goes fishing for salmon, has a dream, goes back to sleep. There are also some trombone blasts by Steve Moore of Earth. It got very sci-fi in the last phase. Another track, “Blood Swamp,” is a twenty-minute drone thing with ten players on it including four guitarists—all of us are improvising live. That’s the piece you might expect to result from the collaboration.
BLVR: I’m excited to hear it, especially because I know there’s a grand piano involved.You’ve also been making art with Banks Violette.
SO: Yeah, in November we worked together on a second piece, Six-Channel Bleed, which was installed in Brussels at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen.After that it’s going to Rotterdam at Boijmans van Beuningen Museum and then the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. It came together really well, even though I wasn’t able to do much of the preliminary work aside from planning before the installation. I chose the sound drivers, basically, and then came in and tuned the room to create oscillations. It involved four HewlettPackard oscillators tuned to low frequencies. Two were tuned up to 24–27 Hz, and the other two were 64–67 Hz. We were able to create these really cool, slow oscillations through the gallery, which interacted with a lot of other things besides the sculpture.They emphasized the physical nature of the sculpture with the sound, how it interacts with solid matter. Some of these oscillations were so slow that they actually rattled the gallery, specifically these hanging flourescent lights.The metal trays they were mounted in were having a really good time with some of these frequencies, so you get this buzzing moving across the space as the oscillations passed through the trays.Also, the toilet felt like a bass-wave sauna. Banks and I—actually it’s Banks and Sunn O))) this time—are planning a piece for a London gallery, Maureen Paley/Interim Art, in June, which will be a bit more performance-based. It’s a two-floor gallery: the first floor’s going to be a stage set, and Sunn O)))’s going to perform at the opening,behind closed doors.The second floor’s going to be a cast-salt version of our stage setup— a monolithic back-line backdrop, a PA, seven guitar stacks, a coffin altar, etc. It’s not titled yet. I like working with Banks and have developed a lot of respect for him. Otherwise, the art world is something that I haven’t really had a lot of direct interaction with.The opening, the gallery, the people involved, and the collectors… it’s all very new to me. I still can’t get my head around doing things like this because of the economy built into it. But ultimately, I think sculpture is a really cool parallel to a lot of the sound stuff I do. It’s been interesting talking to Banks and shifting perspective, focusing on different attributes besides tempo, sound levels, volume, frequency pressures… focusing more on the physical aspects of sound.The relationship is very cool.
BLVR: You jokingly called yourself a “Renaissance caveman” the other day.Any other collaborations?
SO: Yes, a theater piece with Dennis Cooper, Gisèle Vienne, and Peter Rehberg called Kindertotenlieder—it’s named after the Mahler composition. I’ve been studying Mahler and really want to discover where he was when he wrote it. Not that the Mahler has a lot to do directly with Dennis’s text, but if I’m doing the music, I owe a level of understanding to his composition. Peter and I are collaborating on the music—it’s Dennis’s text and Gisèle’s choreographing and direction. There’s a band in the script—I was thinking of having a set incidental music that acts as a framework or skeleton, and then the performance would be what Peter and I do live—really improvised. That’s the life of the music, anyway, so I’d rather just grow it that way rather than present a piece that’s more composed.There’s a part in the script where a choreographed game happens— which has rules to it—that the players will be doing onstage. It’s literally a game. That’s what sparked the idea of musical improvisation. It’ll be interesting to see how all these ingredients overlap and shift or modify over time.
BLVR: Do you find, with your own graphic-arts background, that you want to take a more visual role in these collaborations?
SO: I actually did. For the Brussels piece with Banks, I designed the poster and an advertisement for Artforum. That was satisfying and familiar enough. Some of the graphics I do seem to bear some similarities to the sculptural stuff that Banks has done—the shattered geometries. Some other visual aspects I’ve added have been more indirect. At the opening in Belgium for the On Black Wings/Six-Channel Bleed exhibit there were nine Belgians—dudes and ladies—who showed up in full monks’ robes. One guy had a dog-skull necklace on. They’re in this gallery with big collectors from all over Europe—it was fucking awesome. People thought it was part of the installation. I was talking to these guys and realized they were all skaters with robes on—kind of high-water robes, too. I was drunk, so I was joking with them. “What are you guys doing?” I asked. “You’re wearing Vans in a monk’s robe with a dog skull around your neck?”They were like,“Oh, I’m sorry.” Actually, I wish they’d rolled up on skateboards—a bunch of Belgian cavemen on skateboards.
BLVR: Did you crush them with your dis?
SO: I was just teasing. One guy was pretty embarrassed, but I was just teasing them. I think they were more upset that the wine was running out.
BLVR: Well, hell, he did break the monk fashion code.
SO:Yeah, but I was probably wearing clogs, or something.Who am I to talk about footwear?