At this year’s Dark MOFO Festival, headline act Sunn O))) intend to elicit a - shall we say - deeply physical response from their audience. We spoke to founder Stephen O’Malley about experimentation, collaboration and being really fucking loud.
Let’s just get it out of the way: Sunn O))) is loud. Promoters have said it, punters have said it; basically anyone capable of sensing vibration in a given area of their body will say it. The experimental drone metal act even issued a mission-statement that read, rather graphically:
”The Sunn O))) mission is to create trance like soundscapes with the ultimate low end/bottom frequencies intended to massage the listeners intestines into an act of defecation.”
Quite. But despite what seems like a well-earned reputation, Sunn co-founder Stephen O’Malley, seems a little sick of talking about it. “I think it’s related to sports, a lot of journalists must have a sports analyst or sports journalist gene in them,” he wonders. “For some reason they think there’s some necessity to find a high score for a certain thing, even though they’re not really related. There’s The Swans, there’s My Bloody Valentine, there’s Sunn O))) and there’s a few other groups that are in this like ‘loudest bands’ category, which to me is like a powerless thing.”
But, under pressure, O’Malley does admit that the band - named after the infamous bass amplifier used to terrorise attendees of the1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Fair - is perhaps a little rowdy. “Sunn’s music seriously though is very physical, it has a physical property in the sound,” he explains. “In order to do that, it demands a lot of energy, which umm, sound equates to on some level, some pressure.”
Founded in Seattle in 1998, O’Malley and regular bandmate, Greg Anderson, first imagined the band as a tribute to legendary doom band Earth - who, ironically, are opening for Sunn at this weekend’s Dark MOFO Festival. Incorporating waves of macerating squall and abandoning any percussion, Sunn create a truly visceral noise experience (often while wearing robes).
O’Malley believes that the ceremonial presentation works to alter the audience’s perception of what they’re in for, making them more receptive to the show. “There’s a difference between performing and entertaining,” he explains. “An entertainer’s definitely a performer, but a performer’s certainly not meant to always be an entertainer. So there’s different expectations there depending on the setting, and the way things are presented.”
But, if Sunn O))) began with one clear purpose, it quickly changed tack toward another. Utilising a broad roster of musicians and regularly breaking through whatever perceived category they’re placed in, the band is unusually open to experimentation. Subsequently, they’re beloved of Swedish Deathgrind nuts and standard-issue nerds with a subscription to the Wire (ahem). “I don’t really care about genre and I don’t really think about music that way,” explains O’Malley. “When you’re writing music, you are always taking a risk based on your own experience regardless of what you’re trying to write. So making choices, trying to incorporate and to understand other types of music that you’ve never worked with before, it’s part of the responsibility of being a creative, as a musician, I think.”
Collaboration has regularly formed a part of Sunn’s process, making joint releases with like-minded bands with disparate tastes, notably 2006’s Alter with Boris and more recently Terrestrials with Ulver. O’Malley attributes the practice of collaborating to the protean nature of the band. “Collaboration is important for everyone, and it’s just as important to Sunn,” says O’Malley. “We have like all of these different elements, people, personalities, charismas together on stage, it can be quite different musically. Over the years I think that’s been the prime transformative aspect of the group.”
And while Sunn O))) is all about changing it up style-wise, don’t expect their Hobart show to be adult contemporary. At the same time, O’Malley believes that the bone-rattling drone intend to create is an expression of joy. “From my point of view, the music is quite joyful and liberating and pleasurable, at least to play,” he says. “The physicality of it, I find it extremely intoxicating and pleasurable actually. It’s not a painful thing at all.”