East Hollywood-based metal imprint Southern Lord is one of the most respected independent record labels of the '00s, a solid, consistently-surprising label started by two men in the drone metal band Sunn 0))) — Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley.
West Coast Sound recently sat down with Anderson at the Southern Lord offices to talk the business of running a record label, the vinyl resurgence, the failures of digital music and the band's recent Monoliths and Dimensions. Sunn 0))) performs tonight at the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts, the band's first LA show since the band's gig at the Regent Theater in 2007.
West Coast Sound: Though Southern Lord is based in Los Angeles, you don't really play that up.
No, not at all. I mean, if we were actually working with a few bands from Los Angeles, then we would. Then I'd feel more comfortable. It's like regional labels, you know, over the years and they sort of are proud of where they're from or at least make it known that what their theme is, what their focus is. Like Dischord on the East Coast. Even like Touch and Go is a very Midwest-centered label. But, you know, I'm from the northwest. When I lived up there there were a few labels that were very Seattle-focused, Sub Pop and CZ Records as well, and I thought that was really cool but it wouldn't be right for me to say. There are people that live here that are in bands. We're working with Pelican now, two of the guys live here, two of the guys live in Chicago.
They just moved here, right?
A while back. I think they've been here for a little over a year, but those guys tour a lot too so they're not really, their home base is definitely not LA, it's still Chicago. The drummer, Larry, is in a band that we put out a few records by called Lair of the Minotaur. He was in that band, and we became friends through that, so when he moved to LA, he's good friends with Eddie, so he'll come by the office a lot, we're talking about things, 'Yeah we're looking for a label for our next thing.' 'Okay, cool. We didn't know.' So that's kind of how it got started. Progressed from there. And Pelican, Sunn 0))) has played several shows with Pelican, our paths have crossed in different ways.
Last time you played LA it was downtown. How did that come about?
Yeah, at the Regent. It was unbelievable. It was supposed to be at the Key Club. Last year was the tenth anniversary of our first recording — it was made in L.A. actually, and we hadn't played very many shows last year because my wife and I had a child, and a bunch of stuff going on. We were focused on the album, so we didn't really do any live shows. But we decided to kind of take a break from taking a break and play some shows and play them as just the two of us and play material from our first recording, like these anniversary gigs or whatever. And we did L.A., Portland, Philadelphia and New York, just four gigs, and the L.A. gig was the hardest one to book. Being here, you'd think 'Oh yeah, great. We're based out of here, the label's based out of here, it'll be easy.' Of course, it was difficult.
You know, places were booked. Or we had problems with sound issues, like with the level that we play at. Just, you know, some people were interested, but kind of lukewarm. Then, as far as the guy at Key Club was actually really excited. And I thought, this'll be appropriate for this duo show. And then it just fell to shit. He had some problems with the landlord, and then they moved it the day of the show, and it was like 'This is gonna be a disaster.' But, Steve, the other guitar player, doesn't live here anymore, he lives in Paris, actually, so he was flying out here to meet me to go to Portland for the show, and he was saying 'Well, I'm gonna be here, so we're gonna do it anyways, we gotta do an L.A. show' and then when we heard about all the stuff going down, we said 'Well, let's just ride it out, see what happens.' The guy was like 'Well, the place is closed down but I got a theater downtown.' So I said 'That's really sketchy.' We got there and it was literally a gutted-out theatre: nothing, no sound system, no tables.
It's an interesting space. It's cavernous, but the stage is so small.
Yeah. It's an old porno theater. We walk in there and we're just like 'How's this gonna work? I mean, I love the space.' 'Oh, we got [sound guys] on their way with the PA…' And there's this light fixture hanging from the ceiling, and it was like 'If this falls, it's gonna kill somebody,' and we're playing at this ridiculous volume. It was just funny, you know. And that was the thing, it was like this is totally appropriate, but it's really sketchy and I don't know if it's gonna actually happen, if the show's gonna go on. And then it went off. We had a sound system, people showed up, which was a surprise. I was like 'Ah, you know, people are gonna get to the Key Club, they're gonna find out they have to go downtown, no one is gonna want to go Downtown. But there was like over 400 people there and we were just like 'What the fuck?' And it was killer because everyone was stoked, and I think people were excited that it was in this place that had this real dangerous vibe. Like you walk in, and it totally reminded me of being a kid and going to my first punk rock show in some warehouse. You go there and you're just like 'it's totally old and dirty…'
And especially for a band like Sunn 0))).
I know! it probably ended up being in the top 10 favorite shows I've ever done. Like ever, out of any band. Because it was just like, you go to shows these days and people are pretty jaded. People had this look on their face and this vibe about them that's like 'This is rad! What's gonna happen? Am I gonna get stabbed?' (laughs) People were really, genuinely excited. I mean, I didn't hear one complaint. People had to wait outside, in Downtown, in a crappy area, it's sketchy. People had to wait outside for like an hour before they got their shit together to open up the doors. I didn't hear one complaint. Everyone got inside, people were stoked. The staff — there was no security — the staff that was selling alcohol, they went to CostCo, grabbed as much as they could possibly fit into their truck or their cars, brought it to the thing, set up a makeshift table, and just started slinging drinks. like cocktails and beers, and people were stoked because it was like, there were no shitty bouncers telling them where to stand, and it was like no rules, man. It was the most perfect thing, and it wasn't planned, and that's what made it even cooler.
This time, I'm excited about the place we're playing, we're playing the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts, which I've seen but I haven't been to. I saw the photos online and it looks awesome. And I like Eagle Rock, and it's a smaller place but the promoter is that guy Sean Carlson, and I've wanted to work with him, I like what he does and his whole vibe. The time before we played the El Rey and I really like playing there, but it's a little stiff, it's a little posh almost.
I'm curious about the limited-edition vinyl that Southern Lord puts out, and your thoughts on how that's worked for you. It seems like you did really well with vinyl way before this so-called vinyl revolution.
Well, first of all, we're not creating limited-edition releases to be elitist or to try to prevent people from listening to the music. Like, you get a lot of complaints from people that are like why do you do that when there's such a larger — in their opinion — a larger market for this stuff, why don't you press more in the first place? Basically, the complaint is that we're perpetuating the market. To me it's like, I'm kind of a semi-record collector, personally. I collect records. I love vinyl but I don't do it for the rareness or the value of the record, I do it just because I love vinyl. So like, my favorite record, I don't need to have every color that it's pressed on. If I get a colored vinyl copy, that's cool, but I'm not like I need to be a completist. I'm not a completist.
So, that's where I'm coming from personally. And the whole idea behind limited items is that there's several different reasons for doing them, but one of the reasons is I think the label is admittedly inspired by labels like Sub Pop and labels like Touch and Go. And one thing I really liked about what Sub Pop did was these singles and making limited color vinyls as a way it really just drove attention and interest to the album in another way. By making something with the collector in mind, you're creating this extra attention and press for this record. And people are talking about it because of a different reason than the music, but I guess the theory and the hope is that that talk is gonna get people interested in and listen to the music.
The other real big reason for doing limited stuff, especially as far as Sunn is concerned, is we started doing releases specifically for tours and sell them at the shows only. And we did this as a way for us to earn extra money to support the tour because touring is becoming more expensive with gas prices, just the cost of going out on tour and then, in the case of Sunn, you're talking about different members flying in from Europe and from different places to make it happen. And then you're talking about an insane amount of backline needed to go out on the road, so you're talking about trailers, you're talking about rentals if you don't have what you need for the cabinets. There's a lot of expenses that go into that and those aren't covered by what a band can get for a performance. And so, here's a way to create extra income for this so that we can keep doing this and not lose our ass on the tour.
And also, the way I look at it, it's like a physical reward for the people that come to the shows. Nowadays, everything's available, you can watch it online, you can listen to it online, and so we're kind of thanking the people that come see us for coming to the shows. Actually getting out of their house, away from the computer screen, and physically seeing the show. The reason I say that, also, and the reason I'm so grateful for that is because, to me, Sunn 0))) is a live experience. Our records are one thing, but to me, to get the full picture of what it's about, and the physical experience of the sound, which is a really important part of the group, you have to see it live. So we're also trying to entice people to come out and to see us live. It seems kind of funny in some ways, but if we do a tour, and we announce what kind of tour merchandise we're gonna have, you'd be surprised at the people come out to buy the stuff. I've seen people come to our shows, go in the door, buy the stuff and then leave.
That's gotta be flattering.
It's just weird, this whole merchandise thing. It's just become really strange. I mean, I've never experienced that with any other group that I've been in, and I've been in a lot of groups. And even in groups that I work with, going to their shows or going on tour with other bands, and the merchandise thing for some is totally insane. And I'm really grateful for it, but it's funny, there's a lot of backlash, especially the eBay stuff. It's funny though, I remember Sub Pop and all the limited stuff they did. You didn't hear people freaking out or complaining about it. People were into it, and nowadays, I sort of put the blame on eBay. It's not their fault, but that's what the reasoning has to be for it. Now people are complaining and criticizing our business practices, you know what I mean?