Sunn O))), the Mark Rothkos of void-painting expressionist metal, are returning next month with their first studio album in six years — ending the longest wait between blasts in the band’s 15 year history. Kannon, released on co-leader Greg Anderson’s Southern Lord Records, strips the band down from the baroque orchestral arrangements of 2009’s Monoliths and Dimensions, instead opting for a three-song cycle that Anderson calls “a fairly accurate reflection of … the power of the group live.”
That means molasses-slow riffs from Anderson and Stephen O’Malley and, for the first time, vocals on every song, a Tibetan throat-singing-style growl courtesy of Mayhem’s Atilla Csihar. The record also features performances from longtime collaborators Oren Ambarchi, Rex Ritter and Steve Moore.
“Everyone in the band has done a lot of music outside of this band and just being in the studio with all these people it’s pretty amazing,” says O’Malley. “Like everyone is real experienced. It’s not like in the old days [where] Greg and I have taken a bunch of pills and are just getting crazy in the studio for two nights.
Rolling Stone caught up with O’Malley and Anderson to talk about the album, which you can hear in its entirety below.
Would you call Kannon a happy album?
Stephen O’Malley: Happy? I’m happy it’s finished. [Laughs.] This kind of emotion doesn’t really matter to me. What I think is, the color of the record is bright. The music is bright. I don’t just mean the high frequencies, I mean the feeling — the emotional undercurrent. There’s a brighter brightness to it.
Greg Anderson: I think if anything actually, in relation to Monoliths, I think it’s a slightly darker mood. I think that Monoliths & Dimensions was us embracing the light, and I think that continues on to the songwriting on Kannon, too. You know, realizing that there’s more to “heavy” than just bludgeon and black. Heavy can be even heavier if it has a fuller spectrum involved with it, you know, if it has other colors. … I like to use the word “light” because it just reminds me of some of that stuff of coming out of darkness and there’s this blinding light, which in itself, to me, for the first time in my life I sort of realized that’s heavy, too. I’ve realized that there are different ways to be heavy rather than just pummeling a riff into the ground and it having to be, like, all minor and all completely dark.
The riffs seem a little faster than usual on this…
O’Malley: I don’t know if the tempo is faster. I think with Kannon, the way it’s set up, there’s a mantra that emerges. Because of Atilla’s style, because of the melodic aspect of the guitars, I think that mantra, you identify it sooner. It would appear to you that things are being played faster because something sticks more. We played the final mixes to Oren Ambarchi and he’s like, “Yeah, it’s kind of like … Sunn O)))’s pop record.” I’m laughing, but I know what he means.
Have you seen the Black Yo)))ga collective, the group that does yoga to your music in Pittsburgh?
Anderson: Yeah, I’m familiar with that. It’s somewhat flattering, but I also feel like it’s somewhat silly. [Laughs.] I’ve never been a yoga person — it’s not something that really speaks to me or is interesting. But, for me it’s like whatever gets you through the night. It’s an honor for someone to use your music in a way that’s helping them meditate or feel better.
The new record has an eastern religion vibe to it and is named after the Buddhist goddess of mercy. It’s interesting that you’re into the iconography but not, say, actively practicing meditation.
Anderson: That’s an important thing to mention. It is sort of the imagery around that, really around religion, that I think is really powerful. I’ve always thought that. But, ironically, I guess, none of us really subscribe to any specific religion. I wouldn’t consider us to be spiritual people.
O’Malley: I thought it was interesting to have this concept there, one that has somewhat of a relationship to meditation. … I guess this is a cliché to say that musicians are meditating when they’re playing their instruments, but it’s actually what happens, I think. … Musically too, I think it’s pretty strong to suggest, “OK this overall theme involves merciful behavior.” While, at the same time it’s this real intense massive amount of energy and sound. Instead of it being aggressive and brutal music, it actually is presented as this merciful, bright music. … When we’re on tour, it’s not like [a] miserable depressing experience at all. It’s ecstatic.
The promo materials for 2005’s Black One definitely made sure to mention that Xasthur’s Malefic recorded his vocals in a coffin. Is there anything you did to get the right mood in the studio for this record?
Anderson: No. There wasn’t anything as funny or as extreme as that. The reason that was mentioned is because we thought it was so ridiculous. But it was really actually a cool way to recording the vocals, especially for Malefic. First of all, the sound of the vocals and the acoustics within the coffin, I thought they were incredible. It was the perfect sound. Exactly what we were hoping to get. … To me, it helped tell the story and helped give depth to the story of him recording vocals on the record. It just seems like when you listen to that, you would think of that and it would give it more depth.
I guess the thing to me that’s always interesting to Sunn O))) in comparison to most bands, when we record in the studio we do use our entire backline. [Laughs.] So, for Kannon, any given time, you’re talking about 12 4×12 cabs and 6 Sunn vintage model Ts and that’s just guitar. Usually, people, when they’re recording guitars, they’ll record on a very small amp or something that doesn’t bleed into other things. You’re not going for the massive amount of power, you’re going for the most clear sound or tone from the smaller amp. But not for Sunn O))) [Laughs.]
Are you in the room with the amps when you do that?
Anderson: Oh yeah. Most of the time.
Studio are cramped and have glass windows. Is it different to be in this claustrophobic space with these amps pointed at you?
Anderson: It can be depending on the room, of course. It brings to mind the record we did with Scott Walker [in 2014], because usually the studio, the tracking room we work with is pretty big. But the record with Scott Walker, the room was super small and I don’t think he was aware that we were going to bring our entire backline.
We showed up in London with our entire backline and crammed it, literally crammed it into this room using every inch we possibly could of that space. It was insane in there. The volume and just … your whole body. It was difficult for the other people outside of our group, [laughs] including Scott. They couldn’t be in the same room, they had to be in the control room behind the glass. It was just too much. If you would have seen this room, it was hilarious. We walk in and it’s January so it’s cold out. We walk in with our boots and the whole entire place is carpeted with white carpet. Bright white carpet. [Laughs.] Here’s these mongers coming in with these huge cabinets and amps, trying to navigate this maze to get into the tracking room. The first thing we do, of course, is totally make the fucking white carpet totally dirty. Then we spill beer and coffee on it. [Laughs.] Scott, he was totally into it. He’s like, “Man, I can’t believe you guys did this.” We were like, “Yeah, you wanted us to play on your record. This is what we do, we’re not gonna show up with a combo amp [laughs]. This is what we do.