Stephen O'Malley   

An interview with Stephen O'Malley

I wanted to start at the beginning and ask you about your early musical influences and what you had listened to and been introduced to growing up?

I played music in school. I think my first musical influences was when I was a kid watching a Scottish highlander pipe band in a parade. It is one of my earliest memories of really being stunned by music. Then playing bagpipes at some point as a teenager too for a few years or Scottish highland pipes anyway and you know I played in the school band and all that stuff. I didnít start to play guitar or that type of music until I was maybe 18 or so which is kind of late I guess for some people anyway if it matters? But I donít know, as a teenager I was more into the metal side of things and in my early twenties I really got into black metal and electronic music after that I guess kind of opened up into more .... sounds

Did the electronic interest come after you were playing in bands already?

Er yeah well I think so or, Iím not sure, probably around the same time. Seems like my formative underground period was with things besides metal and punk when I was 18 to 20 or so I kind of got into things through power electronics. Alot people go that way through metal I guess.

I was listening to the new Ginnungagap record and the influences came across to me as quite folk based, the Indian music influences and I think there was accordion in there too.

I really love Indian music a few years ago I got really floored by this guy called Shiv Kumar Sharma. (He) plays the hammered dulcimer, and I was listening to that stuff and realised there was a lot of things I could relate to as far as raga music and stuff. Iím not really schooled or I donít have a huge amount of knowledge in the architecture of raga music, but I think itís both at the same time very complicated and very simple and I really respect that itís also very spiritual.

Itís funny because something I heard you talking about in previous interviews and something I have felt very strongly about is the meditative feelings of your music, especially Sunn 0))). I also remember reading on you commenting on people falling asleep to Indian music as being a great compliment to the musician.

Well I didnít actually know that or I read that, one of the most famous Indian musicians Ravi Shankar has a great autobiography and he talks about it, you know your playing these big important concerts, private concerts really for these high society people in wherever in Indian and people are falling asleep then I guess you are succeeding in giving that trance aspect, one of the main aspects of listening to it in certain ragas anyway. I thought that was really interesting because if you fall asleep during a chamber music string quartet or whatever its completely insulting, itís like the opposite of the intellectualism of a lot of types of music.

As far as Sunn 0))) goes, I find (the music) very relaxing to listen to, almost like Buddhist chanting. Is it a conscious decision because of that to avoid having a drum beat? Do you think to have drums or to introduce more vocals would detract from that effect.

I think the main way it would detract since weíre playing guitars, amplified guitars it would start sounding more like rock music, I mean Iím really into drums and drumming. Iím not a drummer but I love watching and listening to great drummers in any sort of setting. I think with Sunn 0))) though that part of the point of performing that music is we have the freedom to go different places which I know is possible to do with a drummer as well. I know a lot of psych bands do that but Iíve never really had the experience with that. My own experience playing with drummers is very structural. One thing I like with people playing drum kits is the adding to the architecture or working with architecture more I guess.

Do you think that is ever something you would introduce to Sunn 0))) in particular?

Greg really wants to do a record with a drummer with songs and stuff, I donít know. It could be something that happens. Weíre always trying to keep it open, if the idea seems like its going to work or itís worthy of following weíll do it. We donít really want to put a boundary on whatís possible with our music even though our music is very simple in a way itís still for us really open broad sort of possibilities maybe cause weíre not real simple or maybe our relationship to music is very simple. I donít know we just try to keep it open so itís always valid at least Greg and I agree.

Again, something which Iíve heard you discuss which really interested me is about the importance of humour in your music and I just wondered if you could kind of elaborate on that because to a lot of people your music would sound very dark and serious in a way.

It is dark and serious but itís not just dark and serious. I donít mean comedy and I donít mean slapstick or something like that but I think not being afraid of having a bit of camp or humour in things is realism you know. Itís just like, do you live your day without laughing? If you do then your psychologically fucked up, you got problems you know and I think if music is a reflection of your personality or a projection of your personality thereís nothing wrong with that. I think that people consider music to be a serious art form and avoiding that is beneficial which I can agree with as well. Itís not like a conscious thing of like oh weíre being silly or campy or stupid. To keep things in perspective is good. (We) can occasionally be quite absurd with volume and things but at the same time itís very powerful you know.

Iím not saying everyone has to be a jolly person but having a sense of humour or light heartedness at least at some point in your personality is more interesting than not in my perspective. Itís a good way to diffuse things and in doing that you come round with a fresh viewpoint on the same thing.

Your music is quite reliant on this raw power and I wondered how you looked upon whether this makes your home recordings slightly redundant in the face of your live shows because people arenít able to experience the power of you music to the same level. An how do they differ when you are approaching both of them?

Erm, thatís a good point and itís one of the struggles of doing recordings. Your never going to get the same power, itís just physically impossible because no one has a PA in their house or a backline to listen to music but I think you can approximate things. Almost miniaturize them or snapshot of what it is and focus in on key things and at least tone. I think miniaturising is what we have to do or make our studio recordings different enough in context that itís achieving something relative to what we do live thatís not necessarily reliant on 12 speaker cabinets. I think our live performance is pretty different to a lot of our records but of course it relates to them.

You play in a number of different outfits with revolving personnel and I was wondering if you feel like you are trying to achieve different things with each band and whether you have specific aims with each of those projects.

Yeah, otherwise there wouldnít be separation. A very good friend of mine who has been doing music way longer than I have, an older guy and heís got a lot more experience in life with a lot of things. He said Ďwhy do you have all these different names for stuff why donít you just use your name, whatís the difference?í Well, I guess I havenít achieved a place in my creative life where my ego is that big, or not even that big but strong enough to validate that, or needs to validate that sort of thing. Sunn O))) is very much a partnership with a very good friend as itís core and our mutual exploration of certain things with, you know not a huge amount of expectation. Itís more like exploration I guess with that group. And weíre somehow fortunate enough to be able to get a lot of interesting musicians involved. Like people relate to it in a cool way. One of the most recent guys who has been involved in Sunn O))) is Oren Ambarchi. When I first started listening to his music heís a guitar player from Australian sort of avant guitar player I loved his music, I had no idea he would be interested I thought he was a very strict intellectual guy and he would just think it was stupid what we were doing but I was totally wrong, I mean he is a very intellectual person but I guess we are too. There are different ways of doing things. Itís pretty interesting who relates, itís pretty broad too.We got quite a lot of different eccentric weirdoís doing stuff with Sunn 0))) which is fucking cool I think.

I was under the impression that many of your fans were from a metal background and that perhaps it was strange for you people being introduced through places like the Wire or through All Tomorrows Parties and stuff that didnít hadnít come through that metal line but from what your saying it sounds like you always anticipated it was a much more open project. I wondered if you felt that people who didnít have that metal knowledge were perhaps missing out on something you were trying to achieve with what you were doing.

Well maybe itís like, we are metal heads and I consider metal to be a foundational element of what we do but itís not all that weíre doing. I think what weíre doing is an abstraction of those ideas. Through that people donít have to be so devoted to the sound . I think to be a metal fan you really need devotion to the music, to the more serious kind of music thatís what I mean we relate to, real metal music not fucking Judas Priest or something like that, although I like them too. We have a new album which weíre finishing up now called Black 1. Itís interesting because when we started I think our music was mainly listened to by people who were metal fans, open minded, so like an abstraction of metal and then it sort of smoothed over to people who were into abstract music and I think that is our biggest portion of our fan base at this point. So we just did this album now called Black 1 which is like we have spun 180 and this album has a lot of more metal elements from the abstraction side. Iím thinking that might be how people are going to take it.

I think I was introduced to you from that more abstract music scene and for me itís been interesting to work my way back to the metal side.

I mean, thereís this whole thing that metal is a bad word for a lot of people you know, caveman music (laughs). Iím certainly not on some sort of quest to validate metal but who knows, itís interesting when you meet someone, I met this French guy recently and he was like Ď you know what, I was a huge fan of GISM and jap core stuff in the late 80ís and then I was kind of into grindcore and then I got out of it and really got into avant improvisational music for 10 or 15 years but then I got into Sunn O))) and it kind of reopened this door back to when I was 18 because when I was a kid who you were or what you listened to really defined who you were and what your social life was as well, thatís what this guy was saying. Itís totally true but as time goes on it doesnít really do that. I think marketing makes it that way quite a bit in music.

I think thatís an interesting point. I think when your young if you listen to a certain type of music that doesnít fit in with what other people do it can really ostracize you.

Thatís what this guy said. I was into metal and then I got into whatever, acoustic jazz and lost those friends. And thatís too bad but I know what you mean. Your identity is so much more important when youíre younger but I think that being into metal when your not young still has that stigma on it somewhat if you a 35 year old dude with long hair and tattoos and free spirited and crazy in a way at times thatís a little different itís kind of adolescent too to some people but I think it is also a very free way of thinking.

I suppose people grow up in a way and realise that music is music and if itís good and interesting then thatís a good thing.

Exactly thatís kind of my point.

With Sunn 0))) I know you have collaborated with people like Merzbow and I was wondering if the guitar will always be integral to what you do personally. Have you done any purely electronic based music?

Iíve done stuff thatís more abstract without guitars but Iíve always used strings. Iím still at a point where I like playing guitar, I love the sound of resonating strings I havenít done pure electronic music yet I think. I mean itís certainly a possibility, I mean the ginnungagap project is probably where that sort of thing would happen. Thatís sort of like a spontaneous improvisational thing.

How did it come about? Was it something you set up with the idea of having revolving members?

Well what happened was I started recording things with different people. The things were really good I thought and I was trying to figure out how to put a name on them and was like oh weíll just put the players names but then I thought maybe there should be some over arching name you know where the constant in this is my involvement and my direction basically is what happens those are the three records which happened so far. I mean the definition of the name is kind of like a nuclear metaphor,

Was it from Norse mythology?

Yeah itís supposedly, in Norse mythology, the absence of space between two forces of matter which ultimately collide and create the universe, create matter, which I think is a pretty cool metaphor for what we do.

Out of interest where did the name Khanate come from?

I was kind of obsessed with the Mongolian khans for along time, read a bunch of books on them and went to some art shows. I thought that word was a really great word. The definition of the word is itís the name of the kingdom of khan or empire is called a khanate. The khanates were never really solid because the Mongolians were so nomadic and they moved so fast in the way they conquered over Asia and eastern Europe and then that control lasted a relatively brief period of time in history and then reverted back and the way they gained control over the vastly different cultures is interesting in that it wasnít a suppressive control, it was like a military control to start with but was actually really procreative in exchange of language and art and cultures and continuing to support the local cultural way of life and stuff like that. It wasnít really a suppressive thing.

I mean I think that the blatant metaphor when we chose the name was just like a huge space it wasnít to do with the cultural thing it was to do with the space and the brutality of it.

Itís a cool word anyway.