Stephen O'Malley cracks a mischievous smile as he downs his umpteenth cup of coffee this afternoon. It's late January and we're at a diner in Los Angeles with the Sunn O))) guitarist — who's visiting from his adopted home in France — and the band's co-guitarist and cofounder Greg Anderson. O'Malley will need the caffeine: When we're done here, he'll drive down to Anaheim, California, for the annual National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) convention, where the Electrical Guitar Company will unveil O'Malley's new Travis Bean signature model. Such is the renown of Sunn O))) — a drone-metal band with no drums, no discernible song structures, protracted running times and very few vocals — that one of the world's most respected guitar manufacturers has made an ax in O'Malley's name.
This shouldn't be a huge surprise, though. Perhaps no other entity in the metal universe enjoys the loyal patronage of the stoner/doom crowd, the experimental-music crowd, the black-metal crowd (the duo has worked with Leviathan and Xasthur and enjoys a longstanding collaboration with Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar) and even the modern art world, which has welcomed Sunn O))) performances in its rarefied galleries and museums. Not bad for a couple of bearded longhairs who wear ceremonial robes onstage and started Sunn O))) as a tribute to two of their favorite albums: Earth's Earth 2 and Melvins' Lysol. "I think it's interesting that people see different things in our music that maybe we didn't even see ourselves," O'Malley says. "That gives us another way of looking at it, too. Abstraction is really interesting in that way. If it's engaging, the listener can have an experience that's reflective of their own point of view — in a greater way than a lot of metal bands or art bands."
In 2018, Anderson and O'Malley celebrated 20 years of Sunn O))) by recording a new sub-woofing drone opus entitled Life Metal. Their first new studio album in four years, it was tracked in Chicago with famed producer Steve Albini, known for his work with Nirvana, P.J. Harvey and Neurosis. "We'd been talking about working with Steve for a long time, so we finally made it happen," O'Malley says. "That was our anniversary gift to ourselves."
THE TITLE OF YOUR NEW ALBUM IS LIFE METAL, BUT YOU'VE BEEN CALLING YOUR MUSIC "LIFE METAL" FOR A WHILE NOW, HAVEN'T YOU?
GREG ANDERSON Yeah, it's an inside joke we have when something positive happens to one of us. We'll refer to it as "life metal." The vocalist we work with, Attila, was getting into staying in shape on tour. So he'd use the fitness room at the hotels we stay at and be like, "I'm gonna go do some life metal, bro. You wanna join me?" But the term actually came about from Nicke Andersson from Entombed. We were at a party one time, and he was talking about when Entombed got signed to Columbia. His friends from the Norwegian black-metal and death-metal scene started calling him a sellout and said he was "life metal." It was the ultimate insult — the opposite of death metal — but we thought it was the funniest term.
DO YOU GUYS FEEL LIKE YOU'RE COMING FROM A MORE POSITIVE PLACE THAN YOU WERE IN THE PAST?
ANDERSON I think it's more of a celebration. Last year was our 20th anniversary, so we've kinda been celebrating that we've survived this long. We're also experiencing getting older, which is also a reason for celebrating and having a more positive outlook. But I think one of the things about Sunn O))) is that Stephen and I have always had this friendship where there's a lot of laughter happening. Maybe that isn't showcased so much in the music, but it's always kinda been there. So for me it's more about vibrancy — and recognizing and celebrating that.
STEPHEN O'MALLEY In heavy music, things like humor and laughter make it less serious. But with us, it's part of a bigger, more complex picture that makes it more alive and more real.
THE SATIRICAL SITE THE HARD TIMES PUBLISHED AN ARTICLE IN 2017 ENTITLED "AMPS LEFT ON ACCIDENTALLY RECORD NEW SUNN O))) ALBUM." DOES THAT KIND OF THING BUM YOU OUT OR DO YOU THINK IT'S FUNNY?
O'MALLEY Yeah, I saw that. I think it's hilarious. ... That's their point of view, you know? And humor can validate something as much as a positive review.
YOU'VE BEEN WORKING WITH ATTILA FROM MAYHEM FOR ABOUT 15 YEARS NOW. HOW DID YOU KNOW HE WAS SUNN O))) MATERIAL?
O'MALLEY I have a long history with Attila. I was a fan of his old band, Tormentor, back when I was doing a fanzine. I wanted to interview him, and that's how I met him. That was, like, 1994, when I first got in touch with him by mail. Then, when Sunn O))) did our first tour in Europe, we had a show in Austria. I thought, Well, Austria is next to Hungary. Why don't we invite him? I just wanted to meet him in person and hang out. ... So he came and performed with us a couple of times on that tour. He just came up onstage and improvised. ... His approach is interesting because it's so flexible. Considering his talent and power as a singer, he's so modest as a person. He said to me, "Just think of using me like an instrument. Tell me what to do. What's your vision?" He gives some context to our music in a human way, I think.
WORDS THAT COME UP A LOT WHEN PEOPLE TALK OR WRITE ABOUT SUNN O)))'S MUSIC ARE "TRANCE," "MEDITATION" AND "HYPNOSIS." IS THAT WHAT YOU'RE AIMING FOR WHEN YOU'RE MAKING IT?
O'MALLEY When you're in the music when it's happening, you can relate to all of those things in certain ways. That's one of the valuable experiences of playing music in general, but especially with Sunn O))) because you're literally inside this phenomenon of sound that's happening. You're working with the elasticity of time, physically intense sensations and intense focus by the players. But I don't want to use specific vocabulary to describe it. I like people to come to whatever realization they have from the experience. The important thing is the experience itself.
THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ACCOUNTS OF UNCONVENTIONAL REACTIONS AT YOUR SHOWS — PEOPLE FEELING ILL OR LYING DOWN ON THE FLOOR. HOW EARLY ON DID YOU NOTICE THAT SORT OF THING?
ANDERSON Right from the beginning, really. Some of the early shows we played in Los Angeles were room-clearing. [Laughs]
I'VE HEARD ABOUT AUDIENCE MEMBERS SHITTING THEIR PANTS AT YOUR SHOWS BECAUSE OF THE EXTREMELY LOW FREQUENCIES YOU PLAY AT, BUT I ALWAYS ASSUMED THOSE STORIES WERE APOCRYPHAL. ARE THERE ANY CONFIRMED PANTS-SHITTINGS YOU'RE AWARE OF?
ANDERSON I think there was something in Belgium with "The Slapper."
O'MALLEY Yeah, the 4AD Club in Diksmuide. We played there and there's a famous local guy called "Slapper." He's this older punk guy who wears a shawl and a cowboy hat and he's, like, out-of-his-mind wasted.
ANDERSON He's called Slapper because when he meets you, he slaps you across the face.
O'MALLEY After the show, they were sweeping up and we were told there were remains from someone's digestive system …
ANDERSON Allegedly, Slapper had an accident and abandoned his drawers.
THAT KIND OF ACCOLADE IS BETTER THAN WINNING A GRAMMY AWARD, DON'T YOU THINK?
ANDERSON [Laughs] We've seen a lot of vomit at our shows, but I don't know if that's from drugs or drinking or crowded rooms or what.
O'MALLEY Stories like that, it doesn't even matter if they're true. Let's just say it's another aspect of playing live. And people are drinking a lot at the shows.
ANDERSON Yeah, it seems like lately people are trying to get into a specific frame of mind that involves drugs when they come see us play. That could be helpful at some point, but it also makes me wonder if it's taking away.
HAS TAKING DRUGS EVER BEEN A PART OF THE MUSIC-MAKING PROCESS?
ANDERSON Not so much anymore. In the early days, we were in our twenties, just hanging out with our friends, experimenting with drugs and making music. But honestly, drugs have never been a focal point for this band. It's not like Sleep with pot, where it's integral to what they do and they make no bones about it. With Sunn O))), we've all experimented with drugs and they've been used to create music here and there, but it was never a focal point. "Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to" was never our thing.
O'MALLEY Everyone has their own experiments with consciousness-changing things, some of which are drugs, and that informs your perception when you're in reality. And Sunn O))) is a pretty intense reality when it's happening. There's a lot there all on its own.