Sunn O))) trade dark for light on Life Metal
Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley talk Steve Albini, guitar rigs and the new album.
Image: Ronald Dick
Two decades into their thunderous journey, drone maestros Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley are keeping the volume knob set to 11. Their upcoming eighth album as Sunn O))) – Life Metal, arrives on 26 April – will bring you face-melting, gut-shaking tones, but not exactly the doom anthems you have come to expect from the cloaked duo.
As its title hints, the forthcoming LP projects an air of triumph instead of ruin. Recorded and mixed on tape by illustrious engineer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies, Shellac), Life Metal is one of two releases Sunn O))) have slated for 2019, not to mention a long string of live dates.
Guitar.com caught up with Anderson and O’Malley to chat about music as a two-headed beast, desert island guitar rigs and, of course, the new record.
Going into Life Metal, did you guys have a clear idea of what you wanted in terms of guitar sound?*
Stephen O’Malley: Yeah, somewhat. We’ve been working on our tone and obsessing over it for 20 years now. Each of us has our own preferred guitars and pedals. The front-end for us is different but the amps are similar, they’re the ones we’ve always used in this band.
Greg Anderson: I’d say the amps are probably the main part of the band’s sound. We’ve spent a lot of time doing demos of the pieces for the record and during that process, we explored a lot of different pedal configurations, amps and dynamics as well. In the pre-production session for the album, we kinda went into that a bit more, and then in the studio with Steve Albini, we also spent a lot of time dialling the right tones for each detail.
*Scroll down to check out Sunn O)))’s rig
We understand that Life Metal is the first time you guys have ever done all-tape production ever. What inspired this decision?
S: We pre-recorded on tape before on several records actually, but we’ve never gone on all the way through the mastering on tape. We’ve been mixed on tape before on the ØØ Void record, but in the last few times we’ve worked on tape, it’s been mainly for tracking. To get that first colour of tape, and then move to Pro Tools or whatever on the computer for arranging, and then mixdown.
When we decided to work with Steve [Albini] – and of course that’s his method – he works on tape all the way. Working with him dictated that, but it was something we were excited to do as well. It changed a little, with regard to our method of recording, mixing and arranging.
Apart from his mastery of the equipment, is there anything else that he brings to the table that you feel no one else can?
G: These are masters of sound, and anyone at that level has got their own character, and strong character about how they do things, approach things and talk about things. That character’s on its own and I won’t compare it to anyone else. But you can say that [Albini’s] a master-level guy with sound, and that identity is very particular. That’s because they’ve been inside of it for so long, working, studying and mastering the techniques and possibilities.
I like working with [Albini] because he approached Sunn O))) in a way that a cinematographer would. Our sound and setup were established and he was just capturing it in as realistic a manner as possible. There wasn’t a lot of embellishment with the backstory or anything like that. It felt like that was what we were doing. That’s what our tone is. It really comes across in the record that way. Rather than being super involved artistically in the song or tone composition, he just catalysed us to be able to flow with the ideas.
S: Yeah, it’s that sort of anti-producer thing which was actually inspiring in a way. That instilled this sort of motivation in us and this confidence to do what we did. By not having him pick apart each track or even make any sort of comments at all about the arrangement of the songs, it was like “well, we’re all good and confident in what we do here, let’s execute something like that”. That was inspiring for me with him.
You guys have spoken about the challenges of recreating that live feeling on a record. How do you overcome that?
S: Well, deciding to work with Steve, that was an attempt to try to overcome that. I won’t say it’s something we’ve struggled with, but it’s been a challenge over the years to make records that sound like the live thing. There are so many limitations with that, basically due to people’s listening habits and what’s possible with headroom and recording techniques. But we’ve come close a few times. Anyway, a record for us is something I always saw as being different to live.
G: I’ve almost felt that it’s a two-headed beast, where the album and recordings are one representation of the band, and the live shows are another. I think it’s great and cool to have this in two sides, but I think with this album it was about trying to capture some of the spirit as well. The aesthetic and the sort of the subtle nuances that happen during a live performance, with each instrument reacting and interacting with each other. I think [Albini] was successful in capturing these.
What was behind the decision to release two studio albums in a year?
S: Well, both of those records are from the Albini sessions and we were recording them as one session. And at some point, we had to curate the music as we didn’t want to release a triple LP. We think that’s really asking too much of our fans, even though some of them would’ve been super excited for it.
The Life Metal album definitely had more composed pieces of music, and the Pyroclasts LP was more free-spirited, and experimental in nature. I think it’s also interesting to get some space between those ideas for the listener so they can have the pleasure and be motivated through encountering music.
The music of Life Metal are pieces that Greg and I arranged in the pre-production session – in our writing sessions – and came to the studio pretty prepared with. And, Pyroclasts consists of the more spontaneous pieces that we worked on in the studio.
How did you arrive at the titles Life Metal and Pyroclasts?
S: Well, I think with some titles in general, they’re putting language on something that’s essential abstract music, however composed it is. When you put language on it, it creates a different impression for the person on the other side. The interviews we’ve been doing, people have always been asking about the title, and I think it’s interesting to see what someone’s impression is, rather than what we think. Pyroclast is really straightforward. It refers to lava flow, so that’s kind of a metaphorical title. I think Life Metal has many layers, and it can be more of a personal interpretation.
G: I’ve been asked this question as well. It has a personal meaning for me and that’s going to be different for each person. It almost invokes a humorous response to it. For me, as I’ve gotten older and things have changed in my life, a lot of things have changed in a happy and positive way. My perception of the music that we were writing and that was coming out of us in this record had a lot more light to it than the past stuff we’d written together, which had more of a darkness to it. My interpretation of titles is a representation of the mood of the music to me.
Let’s get into some gear talk. Has your gear changed much over the years?
G: On the front-end, yes. Guitars, pedals, yes. Amplifiers and cabinets, not really. We’ve always used the Sunn model T, the original model that was manufactured in the 70s. Preferably the first versions that were made which had either black or red knobs, which is sometimes called the Super T. We prefer the original, black knob ones. Those have always been with us, and have become like the third or fourth members of the band.
The front-end and pedals have changed a lot. Personally, I started out for many years being very minimal with the number of effects used. I would honestly use a RAT pedal and a tuner, and then a splitter box to play all the amps at one time.
That was kinda my thing for a really long time, and then I got deep into the pedal rabbit hole over the last couple of years, so I started freaking out, getting different distortion and fuzz boxes, and became a little bit of a collector of this stuff. In the vein of “I just want to have this pedal, this one rare Japanese fuzz pedal because I want to hear the sound of it”.
My guitar’s pretty much always been the Les Paul, gold top, P-90 pickups. Always been with that since the beginning of the band. The short answer is that the pedals have changed over the years, but the amps and the guitars have pretty much remained the same.
S: We’re pretty loyal to the amp models. We’ve used other amps like the Ampeg SVTs, but in the last 10 years, with the guitars at least, it’s about the novelty.
I’ve played different guitars throughout the band. When the band started, I didn’t own any gear at all – guitars or pedals. I borrowed stuff. I think in the first year, I was borrowing BC Rich guitars from this grindcore friend of mine, from the band Excruciating Terror.
Eventually, I got a silver burst Les Paul, and played that for a while. But the real watershed moment for me as a guitar player was getting my hands on a Travis Bean guitar, which I bought from this guy in a band called Godspeed You! Black Emperor [Efrim Menuck]. I got it in the early 2000s, a standard 1000s, and that was a player. That was when I really started learning how to play with feedback and resonance and music. I’ve been a Travis Bean guy since then.
I play Electrical Guitar Company’s stuff as well – they’re essentially like the new generation of Travis Bean. And as far as the front-end stuff, I’ve gone through a lot of different things with different distortion and stuff. But it’s a RAT thing too, I’m copying Greg’s tone with the RAT.
I have a RAT that I love. It’s a big box and great, with a Keeley mod on it as well. I’ve become a really big fan of tape delay. And I have a bunch of different Maestros and VOCUs and stuff like that. Some of which I play on stage, and also in the studio of course.
On the record with Steve, I brought a bunch of Hotones and stuff like that. Like live guitar players, I’ve got crates of pedals that have been used, but probably for a month, week, or a couple of years. But where I’m at right now, I’ve got that RAT, a Pete Cornish G-2, a Klon Centaur, and some splitters.
But what if you had to pick a desert island setup?
S: A desert island backline for me would be a Travis Bean Standard koa model along with a [Sunn] model T full stack. I could even do a half stack for a small club or beach hut. I would also choose a Les Paul with P-90s and go with the model T. I would take a RAT too, but I would need to bring along an EHX Sovtek Civil War Big Muff as well.
For the first time in 20 years, I took the RAT out of my board on this tour, and I’ve been using the Civil War Big Muff with an EQD White Light, which is a nice boost that adds colour. Those are the two effects that I’m using. I’ve switched from the RAT just for this tour. Stephen’s playing is different from mine, but I always think it’s cool to have different distortion tones. The muff is sounding really nice when it blends with Stephen’s guitar on this tour.
What’s an aspect of your rig that would surprise most guitarists?
S: My pedalboard is about to collapse at any moment. I use the velcro and zip ties and stuff, I just end up with screws missing all the time, and cables fall out.
G: To comment on that, something more about the record. One thing we sort of experimented with was vintage Fender amps – Stephen used a Blackface Champ, and some small single-speaker vintage champs and a Vibrochamp I think. I used a Deluxe Reverb as well. That was different for us. There are also times when we’ve played with just the two of us live. We’ve incorporated a Fender Twin with each setup, so you have an extra push over the cliff.
We did a few duo shows last year, and in one of those shows, we had an extended backline that involved four full stacks each, three Ampeg stacks each, a half stack, a Sunn half stack with a vintage Sunn cabinet, a 50-watt vintage Sunn – like a Sonaro and Solarus – and a Fender Twin on the very outside wings. That unit basically had the reverb turned all the way up along with its treble. We also used the backline for frequency splitting.
I think guitarists that I meet, like Matt Sweeney for example, they’re just surprised that we’re playing that much gear on stage and it sounds awesome. You can play feedback for five minutes and it’s very musical.
If someone wanted to achieve the Sunn O))) sound on a budget, what would you recommend?
S: Well, we were on a budget, and that’s how we came to the model T. It’s hard to believe now, but those amps were affordable in the 90s, like $200 to $300 a piece. I’m pretty curious about the regional tube amplifier history, especially in the US and England.
I’ve been to Israel before, and there’s a whole regional tube amp history there too. I’ve played some interesting amplifiers there, basically coming out of the Fender and Marshall tradition.
G: That’s a good point. You said that we were on a budget. To put it in perspective, Sunn was kind of the Peavey of the north-west. They were a regional company that was making amplifiers for a reasonable price for people. I’m talking about the solid state gear in the 80s, but it was designed and marketed to beginners or a guitar player on a budget who couldn’t afford a Marshall or a Fender. Especially a Marshall, because those were more expensive and they had to be imported from England.
It’s funny that there are all these different tube amps which were small-run and regional. There’s a company called Earth from Arizona that made these great massive tube amps that were really inexpensive, cheaper than a Marshall.
I think for us, it’s about really focusing and obsessing over your tone. That’s how we came to where we are now with our sound. I think if you want to get the Sunn O))) sound, it’s more about getting your own sound that works for you. To us, we really want to put the focus on the amplifier.
- Guitars: TB1000S, ECG DS Ghost, TB1000A
- Amps: SUNN Model T 1972-75, SUNN 2000S, SUNN 1200S, Ampeg SVT blueline
- Effects: Proco RAT big box (Keeley Mod), Cornish G2, P2, J Rocket Archer, Bright Onion splitter boxes, RE-201, Vocu VTE-2000, Lehle mono volume, TC Electronics polytune2, Oto Bim, Bam
- Strings/accessories: D’addario Chromes flatwound .74 .56 .46 .36 .24 (unwound) .17 (unwound)
- Guitars: 2005 Les Paul Deluxe Gold Top w/ Black Dimarzio Super Distortion P-90s
- Amps: SUNN Model T 1972-75, SUNN 2000S, SUNN 1200S, Ampeg SVT blueline
- Effects: Turbo Rat (w/LM308 chip), Electro Harmonix/Sovtek “Civil War” Big Muff PI, 4 way splitter box, EarthQuaker Devices White Light, Aguillar Optimizer, Ernie Ball Jr. Volume Pedal
- Strings/accessories: D’Addario .54 .42 .32 .20 (unwound) .16 .12
Life Metal drops 26 April. More information at southernlord.com.