We Don't Stop the Sound

Step into the SunnO))) chamber

SunnO))) the band sometimes gets less credit than SunnO))) the set of supposed side effects—spontaneous orgasm, spontaneous bowel dysfunction, spontaneous people leaving the show complaining that SunnO))) play too slow or that SunnO))) don't actually play at all. But that's a credit to guitarists Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, who have found very complex things in their very simple setup—without their roster of rasping-in-a-casket collaborators, the naked SunnO))) sound is two guitars and a private Stonehenge of vintage Sunn amplifiers, which lent the band their name and which are some of the most powerful amplifiers ever built. There are no vocals or drums or verses or bridges or choruses to cheapen the experience, and there are two heavy robes and a lot of heavy fog to further not cheapen the experience. The New York Times called it "heady metal," but SunnO)))'s most fundamental connection to metal—besides members' previous bands Khanate and Goatsnake—is preferential residency somewhere deep underground, where tectonic shifts fracture buried dinosaur bones. As a band, it's something like sculpture or psy-ops experiment, and as music, it's ("strangely," notes Anderson, used to the bug-eyes he must get when he says this) closest to jazz—a jazz band in infinitesimal increment, improvisationally adjusting infamously gigantic riffs with a jeweler's tiny tools. (SunnO))) demands "an almost ritualistic listening with greater and greater care, a real desire to find the strange and almost microscopic gaps," notes a definitive Arthur magazine essay.) And as a House of Blues act—well, Anderson is laughing happily about that. A challenge, he calls it. But headliners Celtic Frost asked and SunnO))) answered: "What an honor!" says Anderson. And the pleasure is ours.

OC Weekly: Did Sunn the amplifier company know about SunnO))) the band?

Greg Anderson:Back when Sunn tried to make a comeback in the late '90s—which unfortunately fell flat—they were trying to get new bands and I had talked to them about endorsement. Then one day I called back and they were like, 'We've discontinued that line.' I'm kind of surprised we haven't heard from anyone at Sunn—I hope they're not offended! It's more of a tribute—we have the utmost respect for Sunn amps.

Rock & robe. Photo courtesy Southernlord/Jenn Garrett
Rock & robe. Photo courtesy Southernlord/Jenn Garrett

You love them the same way the engineers who designed them did.

From my understanding, Sunn amps go back to the Kingsmen. When "Louie Louie" took off, they were playing bigger and bigger places and the PAs weren't keeping up. So they created Sunn amps to play bigger places and keep up with the audiences. I think that concept is amazing. When we play live, those are the only amps we're gonna play—the only ones with the power and tone and everything we're looking for. It's perfect. I'm surprised there hasn't been a revival of Sunn. The state of new equipment is junk—it's kind of pathetic. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like one in 10 musicians is really concerned about tone. There are a million players who are technically better than me, but those people—what the hell? You're a great carpenter but you've got shitty tools. I might not be a great carpenter, but I've got great tools! A lot of people are like "Give me a Marshall JC900—I'll make it work!" I could never do that. We've turned down incredible opportunities in exotic places because we can't get the amps we need. A Marshall backline? The name of the band is Sunn.

You toldThe New York Times that SunnO))) is about "tone first." Did you mean instrument tone or psychological tone?

It's both—the band is somewhat named after a guitar amp that creates tone, and we would not play live shows without Sunn amps. So that's the music tone. But psychologically—there's a darkness to it. That's our writing style.

You've said before that SunnO))) is 90 percent improv, 5 percent prepared ideas and 5 percent preparation.

One of the things Stephen and I really bond on is appreciation and respect for jazz. I'm pretty obsessed with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I'd never claim to pull off what they do, but the spirit and energy—especially the improv and the electric Miles stuff, and Coltrane before he passed—that freedom and that spirit are something we try and channel when we approach SunnO))). We both played in structured bands before—SunnO))) is an outlet for us to throw away structure. To put away normal ideas and see what direction to go in. Stephen and I are huge music fans. I'm not concerned with genres—I listen to everything. I'm really an ultra music nerd. To us it's silly to stick to one thing, and it's exciting and part of our nature to explore.

What were the very first SunnO))) shows like?

It wasn't that comfortable for me personally. We didn't plan on making SunnO))) a live group, but when we played live, we noticed something we couldn't transfer to CD or vinyl: the presence. The first shows were pretty crude and primitive. It came to a point where the audience reaction—the puzzled looks—was affecting the way I was playing. I couldn't get into my normal trance with it. I spent four or five shows on that tour behind the amps so the audience couldn't even see me. I just wanted to get into that element—I didn't want to look at the audience. Then we came up with the idea—let's experiment with the live shows, turn them into something more of a performance or a ritual, instead of a gig with dudes in jeans and T-shirts. That's where we came up with the costumes and the fog—once we added that, I was able to not worry about the audience because they were being entertained by other things, and now it's turned into what we were hoping. When you come see us, whether you like it or not, it's not like Guns N' Roses—it's almost like theater. We don't want it to be just another rock & roll gig where you drink beer and maybe get some hot chick's number.

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