Music Interviews

Sunn O)))’s Greg Anderson: “I try not to take for granted that we’ll be going for another 20 years” – Interview

Sunn O)))'s Greg Anderson

Sunn O)))’s Greg Anderson (Photo: Peter Beste)

What began as a way for Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley to document their early musical endeavours back in 1998 has developed into a label that’s the go-to place for all things dark, doom-laden, droning and much more besides. 2018 saw Southern Lord and Sunn O))) both hit their 20th anniversaries, and with time running out to join in the celebrations, we found time to congratulate one of the founders of the label and band, Greg Anderson.

Before we launch into talking about the label and the band, there’s the small matter of the pummelling musicOMH took in the name of music at Sunn O)))’s legendary performance at the 2015 incarnation of Temples Festival. What’s the truth about the show that caused nose bleeds, dead pigeons to fall from the rafters, structural engineers to be called in to check the building post-performance, and at least one case of tinnitus?

“Haha, that was a great show, we had a lot of fun at that one, it was amazing. That was an extra loud show,” recalls Anderson. “There were a lot of rumours about what happened. We heard that there were a lot of trips to the local hospital, and a bunch of people were admitted because of our set, but I don’t know about the structural stuff. That place was kind of janky, it was like some shacks. I don’t know how structurally sound it was before we played! That was definitely a memorable set for sure.”

And the tinnitus?

“Apologies!” Greg laughs.

Something not enshrouded in mystery is the beginnings of Southern Lord. The label was initially set up to put out Anderson and O’Malley’s early output.

“Around 1997 we started to have some ideas, and then the first thing that came out was ’98,” he remembers. “I was in a couple of bands, both with Stephen O’Malley. One was Thorr’s Hammer and the other was Burning Witch. Those were two recordings that I really liked a lot, something I was really proud of. Everyone involved was really into it, but we just couldn’t find a label that interested that would put them out. So we decided to take matters into our own hands and release them ourselves – and that was the impetus for the label. Our initial aspiration was to release those recordings only, we didn’t have any grand plans, or know if we were going to continue on with the label or not. We really wanted those recordings to be archived.”

Listening to those records now, it’s not surprising to find they were well received when they finally saw the light of day, or that the fledgling label started to spread its wings further.

“I’m kind of a seeker. I’m always looking for something new.” – Greg Anderson

“After the release of those two records, the reaction was really positive. It was really inspiring actually, and that kept us going with some other stuff. The very next release was by a band that I really looked up to and that were a huge influence on me – a band called The Obsessed – especially Wino’s guitar playing. But the bass player of The Obsessed was a friend of mine, and he’s the one that loaned me the money to release the first two CDs. So with that loan, we were able to get things started. Then he said ‘there’s all this unreleased Obsessed material that would be interesting to put out if you wanted to keep going with this’. And that’s how the next release happened. My aspirations were minimal at the beginning. It was just like ‘here’s some cool recordings – let’s put these out’. As we kept on doing that, we built a platform and foundation to work from, and that turned into what it is today.”

These days do you still actively seek out bands, or to they come to you?

“It’s a little of both. I am still extremely excited about new music and discovering and learning about new music. I’m kind of a seeker. I’m always looking for something new. I’ll often search stuff out or hunt stuff down myself, but we’re also in a position now where people and bands know our name and they like what we do, so we get a lot of submissions that way too. Some of those end up being things that we put out. At least one or two a year, something will come through, that I think is really is amazing.”

“We’ll release a record because we like it and because we think it’s really important and we really want people to hear it. It’s not necessarily like ‘OK, we’re going to release this record, we’re going to cash in, and we’re going to make a ton of money'” – Greg Anderson

Over the course of 20 years you’d expect there to be a few ups and downs, but it would appear that Anderson views the world in a surprisingly positive way.

“It’s funny, I don’t really think of the lows. It kind of evens itself out. I don’t really look at it that way. We’ve been really fortunate. There’s a lot of records that we put out that haven’t done very well or sold many copies, but to me, that’s not really the point. I keep my expectations realistic, so if there’s a new band like, BIG|BRAVE, they don’t sell a ton of records, but that’s not the point. That’s not the business model that Southern Lord is working off of. For us, for better or worse, we’ll release a record because we like it and because we think it’s really important and we really want people to hear it. It’s not necessarily like ‘OK, we’re going to release this record, we’re going to cash in, and we’re going to make a ton of money’. I tend to approach business decisions as a fan first and a business person second. A lot of times that doesn’t work out and records will end up losing money. But fortunately we have a handful of records that do really well that help keep the lights on. We’re fortunate that people connect to those records on a bigger scale, but that doesn’t make those records more important to me personally.”

Personal taste seems to be at the heart of much of what Southern Lord does. From releasing his old band’s material to working with band’s he’s admired for years and embracing the sound that inspired him as a young man, Southern Lord seems reflective of Anderson and O’Malley’s musical interests and whims. Even appearing to go through a crust phase at one point.

“With the crust and hardcore, there were a few bands I was listening to that turned me on to that music again. That’s music that I was into when I was a kid and throughout the years I’ve come back to it. Over the last couple of years, I got really excited and into reissuing records that got me into underground music in the first place – Bl’ast, Uniform Choice, Ruin, The Offenders… these are records that are responsible for who I am now and even the fact that I’m even still here. They really inspired me and going back and listening to them now, I’d really love people to hear these again and have them documented and archived properly, working now from a platform where we have an audience that I think would be interested in hearing them. So there was definitely a move in that direction over the last couple of years. Sometimes there’s a couple of bands in a certain style of music that really blow me away. It doesn’t matter what style of music it’s just something that hits me at a particular time.”

If Southern Lord is anything, it’s most definitely authentic. Its development has been entirely organic, built on the back of the hard work of like-minded people, all obsessed (pun intended) with music. The label’s growth has been organic and much of that comes from Anderson’s enthusiasm as a music fan. Talking with him, it’s clear that the excitement of hearing new music and creating something that resonates is at the heart of what drives him, his band, and his label. This has, at times, filtered down into the way that the label promotes its new releases. Something Southern Lord tried out around the release of Sunn O)))’s promotion of Monoliths And Dimensions was to not send out digital formats to journalists, preferring a more direct, authentic approach.

“We tried to approach the promotion on that particular record a little differently. We ended up doing LP promos and sent a limited amount of those to journalists and we did two listening sessions in the studios. We did one in London and we did one in New York. We wanted to have a different approach. Sunn O))) has a new record coming out in April and we might do a similar approach to that, at least as far as the listening sessions go. We thought it was really valuable to play the record in its entirety, uninterrupted, in a nice environment with a good soundsystem for people to listen to and take it in. As far as other releases on Southern Lord go we don’t usually do that. I don’t know, I have mixed feelings on it all, but in the end, it’s about getting the music out there for people to hear it. Figuring out the best way to do that with all the changes in technology and the way that people listen to things is a real challenge.”

The idea of a new Sunn O))) album means that 2019 does at least have something worth looking forward to. Over the last 20 years there’s been a nuanced progression, slow or otherwise, in the band’s sound as they’ve explored different musical influences in their own unique way.

“Well the thing about Sunn O))) is that it’s really just a core of Stephen and I, that’s the way it started and that’s the way it’s always going to be. From album to album and tour to tour, we’ve always tried to make things interesting for ourselves and hopefully the audience by bringing in different collaborators and exploring different directions in sound as well. It’s been 20 years for the band too.”

“I’m really excited because this summer we went into the studio with Steve Albini in Chicago and finished our new record,” he says. “It was an incredible experience working with him. The last few Sunn O))) records have been done in a way that was really time consuming and the approach to recording was very different. It was a lot of sound design, layers and instrumentation to create the final piece of music. This time, we had a completely different way of doing it.”

That new way came about through Albini’s methodology. “We really worked with the way that Albini records, which is really – live. So there’s very minimal overdubs on this new recording. Everything was played live by the band, and it really forced, or moved us in a direction that was very different to the past. A lot of those (old) recordings were edited together, or there were a lot of tracks and takes put together to create the final piece. So that was a really interesting way to work. We basically went in there in the middle of July and got out of there at the end of July with the finished record. So basically, two weeks it took us to make the record, whereas Monoliths And Dimensions took over two years. It was cool, it really made you commit to decisions in a different way and it really upped our game as far as the live performance goes – trying to get everything to sound good as a band in the same room on tape. It was an amazing experience, and I’m really excited about it.“

“I’ve looked up to Steve Albini my entire life, so I guess that made me feel young again. Being in awe of somebody that you’re working with” – Greg Anderson

Steve Albini sees his role as being a ‘recorder’, rather than a producer – working with him suggests that the new album might be as close as it’s possible to get to an album that possesses that “live” Sunn O))) sound, with full bank of amps and all.

“We did that. That’s the sound of the band. That’s the joke, that the 4th or 5th member – or 3rd member, whatever… is the amplifiers. I have our backline here in Los Angeles, and we shipped that to Chicago. In the past, there’d be layers and layers of guitars, and you’d have a basic track, then you’d dub or re-amp that over and over again to create this massive wall of sound. With the Albini recording – everything was a single take. There’s a ton of guitar tracks. Every cabinet is mic’d, maybe once or twice. It’s not that there’s fewer guitar tracks, it’s just that it’s a singular performance. I think that it gives a really different feel. To me, it’s more live and it’s more alive. It feels like it’s breathing and pulsing in a way that our other recordings are not. I’ve got nothing against our other recordings, I love them and I’m very proud of those records.”

All of which suggests a very different listening experience this time round. “There’s just a different vibe on this new album, which is cool,” he suggests. “We’ve really worked a lot to develop the band live. A really important aspect of the band is the live performance. I think that working with Albini with the way he records, his methods and the execution of it, is more of a reflection of the live sound or feeling of Sunn O))) than in the past.”

Talking about the recording process seems to fill Anderson with something approaching glee. It almost sounds like the experience made Sunn O))) feel like a new band again.

“Somewhat. I think the enthusiasm of working with Steve made me feel like a kid again. We worked with the same people for the last couple of records and they’re great. They’re amazing people, very skilled. There’s something about Steve that I’ve looked up to him my entire life, so I guess that made me feel young again. Being in awe of somebody that you’re working with. It was cool. I worked with Steve in an old band that I had in the ’90s. We’ve had bands on the label that recorded with Albini and I’ve heard the stories. I’ve remained acquaintances with him over the years and there this classic idea of Steve Albini – that cold, snide personality that you come to think of. When we worked with him, I was a little nervous but he was very enthusiastic about working with us.”

And it all turned out well in the end. “It was really strange, because the first thing you think of when you think about an Albini recording is how great the drums sound, and we don’t have any drums. So it was like ‘how’s this going to work?’. But it was something we wanted to try because we’ve always admired him and he’s always been supportive of Sunn O))). He’s come to shows in Chicago and he’s told us he’s a fan of the band, which is extremely flattering. The fact the he was excited about trying different things and into what we were doing pushed us along.”

Returning to the past briefly, Southern Lord has been celebrating its 20-year existence with a subscription series, which raids the crypts a little, whilst also highlighting a few new ventures. Pinning Anderson down on what his favourite releases of the last 20 years proves to be an almost impossible task, however.

“We’ve been really lucky, a lot of times when we work with a band, the records that they make for us just end up blowing me away. There’s this energy that happens.” – Greg Anderson

“The subscription series – what I wanted to do with that was to bring a few things from the vaults that were never released on vinyl like The Want or Toadliquor or stuff that hadn’t been available for quite a while and there were a few things that were brand new. So there was some kind of thread to the beginnings of the label was what I was looking at. We had the Probot album in there, which was an extremely important album for the label and one of the favourite things that we’ve ever done. That would be in the Top 5 for sure. It’s so hard for me to pick, I’m always bad with those kinds of questions. Probot would be one of those… I really like Blind Hole by this band called Dead In The Dirt, they were an incredible band, unfortunately they broke up shortly after it was released. But to me that record is an unsung classic in our catalogue.”

After a little more headscratching…

“The first Earth record that we released – Hex – I’d rate that really high. I’d also put the first Nails album that we released, Unsilent Death in there. That was amazing, and heavy. And it was interesting working with a new band, helping them and being a part of them really exploding and doing well. That was a lot of fun, it was an honour to release that record. It’s hard – every record that we release is a favourite. We’ve been really lucky, a lot of times when we work with a band, the records that they make for us just end up blowing me away. There’s this energy that happens. They’re excited to work with us, we’re excited to work with them and then they make an incredible sounding record. A good example of that is a record we released last year by Unsane. They’ve been around forever, but the record they turned in is one of the best records they’ve ever done.”

Whilst trying to compile an impossible list of his favourite five releases, we wonder who, if he could work with anyone, would be at the top of his wish list.

“I don’t know if it’s even possible, or if they’re making records any more, I would really like to work with Slint. One of my all time favourite bands. That would be the one – if they came back to make another record in 2019….that would be the one for me.”

A Slint release on Southern Lord would be the one for most people. It’d certainly go some way to getting the next 20 years off to a good start, as if a new Sunn O))) record wasn’t enough.

“I try not to take for granted that we’re going to be going for another 20 years, it’d be great if we were. We’re just going to keep doing this for as long as I’m still excited about putting out the music and people want to hear it. Next year we have a really big year planned with the Sunn O))) record, there’s a new Pelican album, a new Big Brave one. Personally, something I’m really excited about is that we’re reissuing all Caspar Brötzmann Massaker records. One of my favourite guitar players ever and it’s an honour to work with him. He released five records with his band Massaker, a three-piece band that he put together, and they were released in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s. We’re re-issuing them all through 2019 and into 2020. This year was an incredible year for us, one of our most successful, so I’m hoping we can keep the momentum going. We only played two shows with Sunn O))) in 2018, and we’re going to be touring a lot – hopefully playing everywhere.”

Sunn O)))’s new album will be out during 2019, and the band will be touring Europe in March – more information here – although there are no UK dates as yet. 

buy Sunn O))) MP3s or CDs
Spotify Sunn O))) on Spotify

More on Sunn O)))
Sunn O))) – Pyroclasts
Sunn O))) – Life Metal
Sunn O)))’s Greg Anderson: “I try not to take for granted that we’ll be going for another 20 years” – Interview
Festival Review: Desertfest 2017
Sunn O))) @ Barbican, London