In his Hollywood office, Southern Lord Records founder and Sunn O))) bassist-guitarist Greg Anderson is filing away records from his day's listening. The pile includes a vinyl reissue of demo recordings from '80s New York hardcore greats Agnostic Front. Anderson loved metal and hardcore during his 1980s teenage years in Seattle and still breaks it out regularly.
Given the speed that drove his musical passions then — he refers to seeing Metallica on the Ride the Lightning tour in 1984 as a life-changing experience — it's ironic that the sound he has become best known for is the lurching, atmospheric drone metal of Sunn O))).
After the dissolution in 1998 of his stoner-doom act Burning Witch, Anderson and fellow Burning Witch guitarist Stephen O'Malley moved from Seattle to Los Angeles. Around the same time, they had become obsessed with the uncomfortably rumbling drone of Seattle band Earth, and began making music in a similar vein.
"The idea was to play as slow as possible," Anderson says. "The two of us were going to just play guitars through as many amps and cabinets as possible and play riffs that were derivative of Earth. We were taking a riff and really just beating it to its death."
The pair called their new project Sunn O))) (pronounced "Sun"). Alongside a rotating cast of co-conspirators, they have bludgeoned audiences all over the world ever since.
A live Sunn O))) experience can be a patience-tester for the uninitiated. The band drowns the venue in as much fog as possible, then takes the stage obscured under monk's robes. Their mostly percussionless din is cranked up as loud as possible through multiple amplifiers. The vibrations of every riff ripple through the concertgoer's trembling body.
The band developed a cult following throughout the 2000s as word of the Sunn O))) experience spread — a reaction Anderson never could have anticipated from the band's early shows, which did not feature robes and fog machines.
"People hated it," he remembers. "There were shows in front of two or three people, usually friends of the band. Anytime anyone heard our music, they thought that we were just noise. It didn't make any sense to them. We really thought that no one would understand or like what we're doing."
For a while, Anderson and O'Malley considered making Sunn O))) a studio-only project. The tide shifted after a 2000 performance in London opening for British hard rockers Orange Goblin. They performed that evening hidden behind their amplifier stacks. When the crowd reacted positively, Anderson realized that the music worked better when its makers were hard to see. He and his bandmates have been shrouding themselves in fog and monk's robes ever since.
"It brings anonymity to us, so it's not about the band onstage but about the mass of the sound," Anderson says. "It allows us to conceal our identities and bring in some mysticism as well. This is unorthodox music, so the presentation should be unorthodox as well."
That unorthodox presentation can blindside unsuspecting audiences and venues in discomforting ways. A performance this past summer at the Temples Festival in the U.K. reportedly gave several fans nosebleeds and damaged the venue's soundboard, causing an hourlong delay of the next day's performances.
Anderson insists that while he wants to create an immersive experience for concertgoers, he doesn't want to send anyone to the hospital.
"It's not a conscious decision to try to make people uncomfortable," he says. "We're not trying to hurt people. The idea is more like taking a drug, if you're smart about it. You've got your setup to enjoy the trip. We encourage people to watch us in a way [that allows them] to be comfortable and withstand the experience."
While their true power is felt in a live setting, Sunn O))) have learned how to maximize their studio output. Their seventh album, Kannon, came out last week. The three-song, 34-minute set is a minimalist affair consisting mostly of pure drone, with vocal chants courtesy of longtime collaborator Attila Csihar, lead singer of the black-metal band Mayhem.
Sunn O)))'s previous album, 2009's Monoliths & Dimensions, was a more sprawling work, featuring contributions from more than two dozen guest musicians, including a horn section and a women's choir. That work is also the reason why it took six years for another Sunn O))) album to finally surface.
"Monoliths & Dimensions, at that time — and I actually still feel this way — was our greatest accomplishment," Anderson says. "I wasn't sure it was ever going to end. Sometimes a song would twist into something else, but we would be excited about following that path until we felt satisfied. It was a lot of work, a lot of struggle, and it was really expensive. My wife and I also had our daughter during the recording of that record."
In a reversal of their earlier notions of keeping Sunn O))) a studio-only project, Anderson and O'Malley then contemplated a future consisting only of live performances.
"There's this intuition that the next thing you do, you want to make it better and beat the thing that came before it," Anderson says. "After Monoliths, we didn't even know where to go next. It turned into this obstacle. No one wanted to go through what we went through to make that record again. There was a lot of tension, and at times it felt like this was going to be the end of the group."
Sunn O))) returned to the studio only when avant-garde vocalist Scott Walker reached out to the band toward the end of 2013, asking them to collaborate on an album with him. That became last year's critically acclaimed Soused.
"It was an unbelievable honor to be asked to work with him," Anderson says. "We both thought that we just had to do that."
Initially, Anderson and O'Malley were under the impression that they were going to be the backing band for an album already written by Walker. But the album became a true collaboration once recording began, with Walker asking Sunn O))) to perform as they would on their own albums. The experience was amazing for Anderson, and revived his and O'Malley's love of jamming together in the studio.
"That experience was really the catalyst for us to make a new record as Sunn O)))," Anderson says. "It made us realize that Monoliths & Dimensions shouldn't be looked at as a curse. It should be looked at as a blessing. We realized that we enjoyed creating music together in the studio. What the hell had taken so long for us to do that?"
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Seemingly every band that has even moderate success spawns copycats. But for now, other bands attempting to pull off what Sunn O))) does, musically or aesthetically, remain nonexistent. And when it comes to sheer volume, they still have no peers, as a favorite anecdote of Anderson's illustrates.
Last summer, David Byrne invited Sunn O))) to play Meltdown, an annual artist-curated festival in London. "Motörhead had played the festival years prior," Anderson says. "After we played, several members of the staff came up to us and said, 'That was amazing, you guys were louder than Motörhead!' I didn't care about anything else at that moment."