“Big Church,” by the L.A./Paris duo Sunn 0))), begins with a female chorus. Then a low-tuned, distorted guitar powers up like a muscle car, and the juxtaposition between the chorale passage — all altos and sopranos — and the creeping guitar pattern (baritone and bass) is striking. Both move slowly and with great intent, beauty colliding with darkness, melting into a mysterious other. This other glides into a layer of orchestrated feedback and male chanting, courtesy of Attila Csihar, too quiet to comprehend. Then a long drone, a solitary church bell and a swath of rich silence that proves John Cage’s theories. Another guitar ignition bursts forth, as though Sunn 0))) guitarists Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, joined on this track by Earth founder Dylan Carlson and Oren Ambarchi, have discovered and unlocked an infinite cavity inside their guitars.
There are no drums. The beauty is the anticipation, the waiting for something big to happen. It’s 10 minutes long, so we’re not in any hurry. Where epic rock songs of yesteryear such as “Sister Ray,” “In a Gadda Da Vida” and “Losing My Edge” find beauty in serialistic, Steve Reichian repetition, fewer are the extended songs that use space and time to craft something huge, which takes patience and concentration to resolve. The prog-rock bands of the 1970s made long songs that took advantage of the space, but ELP, Yes and King Crimson used the full album sides to show off their chops and quote melodic patterns from baroque and romantic sources. They used “classically trained” as an excuse.
Sunn 0))) offer big ideas gradually, thoughtfully, create a monolith of sound and then mold it into something graceful but menacing. It’s no accident that their new album, Monoliths & Dimensions, features a cover painting by sculptor Richard Serra; the band’s output feels heavily inspired by Serra’s massive series of Torqued Spirals.
West Coast Sound recently sat down with Sunn 0))) co-founder Anderson at the offices of the record label he co-owns, Southern Lord. Located in East Hollywood, the second-floor Lord HQ is much less dark and menacing than the records that the label, a consistently surprising and barrier-busting metal imprint, delivers. We asked him about the genesis of “Big Church.” What follows is an edited transcription of the conversation.
WEST COAST SOUND: I’m obsessed with “Big Church.” Can you tell me about the making of that song?
GREG ANDERSON: The funny thing about “Big Church” is that song almost didn’t make it on the record. The initial tracking to the record all happened in Seattle in a studio called Litho, which is this amazing studio in this really great area called Freemont. We also recorded the Altar record there, the collaboration with Boris. A funny side note about the studio is that it’s actually owned by Stone [Gossard] from Pearl Jam.
As all the other pieces on the record, it was basically Stephen and I in the tracking room writing the pieces — writing the record. We create the foundation, basically. That’s how all our records start: he and I bouncing ideas off of each other. Someone comes up with a riff, or we come up with a riff together. We write everything together, a lot of it in the moment in the studio. And that’s how the “Big Church” riff came about. The other ideas we had for it were adding Dylan Carlson’s clean guitar part, creating the silences. Oren [Ambarchi] was on guitar as well during the tracking of that.
We played this church in Norway, which we made a live record out of, the Dømkirke record, and we’d been influenced by the atmosphere. We kind of wanted to have something somewhat reminiscent of that sound or that feeling. And when I say that, it makes it sound like we had some sort of plan in mind. It’s a lot more loose, a lot more improvised. It came together really slowly, where we did the riffs and the tracking and the ideas and the silences, then [vocalist Attila Csihar] came in and did the vocal.
Then it just kind of sat. We didn’t know what we were going to do with it. With the silences and the way they were in the initial tracking, it didn’t sound finished to us. We didn’t know whether we should fill the silences or have some other instrumentation added to it to complete the piece.
Then we had this idea of working with a choir. [Arranger] Eyvand Kang’s wife is this amazing vocalist, Jessika Kenney, and she is studying and is a master of Persian vocals — and she’s a white punk-rock chick from the Northwest. We can totally relate to her; we’re from the same underground music scene in a lot of ways. She’s got this beautiful voice, and has been taking it and studying all these different styles from different regions and countries, Sufi music and the like. We wanted to have her involved with the record in some way. Eyvand had this idea for a choir, and we talked to Jessika and she said, “I’m working with this experimental women’s choir in Vienna.” And we were, like, “Of course you are.” [Laughter.] [Jessika] contacted the choir she’d worked with. Eyvand was there. Steve was able to attend, Attila was able to come, which is great, because it was his concept.
I wasn’t able to be there, but everyone said it was perfect. The arrangement for the choir is based off of Dylan’s guitar part — which was a reaction to our part. It was like, the core; Dylan’s reaction and tracking; then the choir reaction and tracking. So it was really kind of a multifaceted, dimensional piece.
It was one of those magic things where we’d basically written the song off. Okay, it’s not ready. It’s not going to be on the record. Let’s focus on something else. And then all the sudden, boom, this idea comes, and then it just explodes. Then it becomes one of the most important parts of the record.
Sunn 0))) perform with the Accused and Eagle Twin at the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts on Tuesday, August 11.