An Artist of the Layers: A Conversation with Stephen O'Malley
12.05.06 by Keith Boyd
Our world, the one we navigate through, interact with, add to and take part of, is nothing if not the accumulation of countless layers. When we're given the rare instance to slow down and examine our experience we see this as clearly as the lines of strata demarcating geological epochs in a canyon or excavation. Some layers are external. Our jobs, road rules, the various "official" relationships we have with coworkers, store clerks, even family. Others are internal. We have experiences that form our opinions which in turn shape how we view the things we encounter. Some layers are environmental. The shape of our room, the landscapes we encounter daily. All of these borders and edges and resonances can be viewed as a living 3-D (4-D?) mosaic of which we ourselves are but one piece. In a sense, becoming more aware of the scope and influence these layers have on our lives allows one some measure of control in relation to them. This is not to say that we ever really control anything. What we gain is perhaps a greater handle on our responses and thereby we play a bigger role in our lives. In a sense to engage with this point of view is to become an artist of the layers. This is high art indeed and allegories are useful. Stephen O'Malley is one of these allegory spinners. Even a cursory look at or listen to his art will give one a sense of the crushing enormity of layers and an example of how perhaps to channel them or ride them.
Perhaps best known for his work with Greg Anderson in Sunn O))), Stephen O'Malley is an artist with a lot of irons in the fire. Besides Sunn O))) he has played in Burning Witch, (The Late Great) Khanate, Lotus Eaters, Ginnungagap, KTL and any number of solo and combo one-off performances. Although his musical output displays enormous range and diversity there is an underlying connection tying it together. A sense that you are experiencing a nexus of impulses and influences all colored by the hand of a deep listener and thinker. There are minimal drones, buzzing Black Metal riffs, Low end defunked bass lines. It's all there deep in the layers.
In addition to his music, Stephen is also a graphic designer and fine artist. His fantastic website, www.ideologic.org, is an on-going documentation of his work and interests. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Stephen O'Malley from his home base in New York City. Here's what he had to say:
First of all let me tell you how much I've enjoyed you music and all of the iterations I've heard it in. It's a real honor to speak with you.
Oh, thanks a lot, I appreciate it, it's very nice of you to say.
I wanted to start off talking to you a little bit about your visual art and it's relationship to your sound art. Is there, and if there is what are they, a common inspiration or impulse that guide these two separate art forms for you?
The impulses come from any number of things, most of them being pretty regular experiences of life I think. But I wouldn't say that the visual and sound stuff are separate art forms at all. A lot of the times they are related in that they are pulling directly toward the same concept or project. Although they are different formats, they tend to overlap as music has always been very visual for me.
I get a sense in your music of reverberation and the overlapping of layers upon layers followed by an element of decay. I also see this same element in your artwork. Would you say that this is a conscious decision to work toward this effect or is it just a byproduct of the medium you work in?
I think that there is a certain amount of density in our music that gives you a lot to explore. The density all comes from one tone essentially. Each sound and frequency has so much to experience inside of it. I'm just really into density. A density of sound, and a density of visuals. A lot of the imagery comes out of the moment while you are creating it. There's an element of freeform that comes in while you're working on a piece.
When you play live, what is your method of formatting the music? Is it improv, is it a planned improv?
I would say that despite the perception that it's really a huge amount of improv, it's not true improv. There's generally a scope and structure, at least in SunnO))), that we work around with our performances. There is something in the language of that word, improv, that implies a mastery of one's instrument, and while there are some people who play with us who are at that level, it's not really about that. The main thing with improvisation in SunnO))) is how we play with feedback. That's all improvised and is actually a big part of our music. The way we shift pitches around with guitar riffs allows our music to be driven by the feedback.
You and Greg have always worked with a lot of different people. This time, however, you did the whole album with Boris. How was that different than your normal methods?
It was excellent for me. Also the planning and logistics were really intense. It was a lot of work just to get all of the people in one place at the same time, and then rent the equipment, move the equipment, and plan a tour around it. In a lot of ways it was a relief. The main difference was that Greg and I weren't totally directing the show. It's not that in SunnO))) we're telling everyone what to do exactly. But the final word is usually one or the other of ours. In this case it was nice to have different people stepping in and guiding different tracks on an equal level. It was great having all of the different voices and it allowed us to open up and experiment.
I was checking out your website while you were recording Altar, and you had some pictures of what looked like the group of you listening to a playback and doing some mixing. Having recently done a bit of this myself, I was wondering if you ever have the experience of hearing sounds that none of you remember playing.
Oh sure! It's a common result of the way we work and it's a technique of how we perform live. We're four guitar players, or whatever, playing the same chord. We're actually turning into one overarching instrument or chord. You can get a bit metaphysical about it. It's sort of like, we're not in SunnO))), but that SunnO))) is the thing that gets created by the sounds we play.
In terms of technique, how do you achieve such intense sustain?
Well, in a sense, you're riding the sound pressure in front of the amplifier. The guitar gets the resonation, and you control it that way.
Do you mean, by knowing when to come with the next strum on the strings as the sound fades?
No, more knowing where to place the guitar in front of the actual vibrations to help create a feedback loop.
When I recently saw you live, there were times when people's bodies would just bend with the sound. It was incredible to see and experience.
I would love to be in the audience for a SunnO))) performance because I've only experienced it from the stage volume. The PA is another amplifier and it's an addition to our back line, that's how we treat it. So yeah, I guess you could say it's pretty burly!
It seems that there are people who get it right off, and don't need any background knowledge of who you or where you guys are coming from. And then there are people who instantly don't get it , and no matter how you try and explain it to them, they won't go there. I don't know if some people are just wired for the drone, or what.
Well, we're not trying to force it on anyone, or oversell it, so to speak. We prefer people to experience it in whatever way they want. I think we're pretty fortunate that there are people who do get it, as that allows us to make records and tour.
I find a lot of your artistic output and surrounding visuals (your site, the Southern Lord site, the robes, your artwork) to be incredibility ritualistic. How did that come about and was there any progression to it?
Well once we decided that we wanted to play live performances we didn't wan to be on stage walking around in t-shirts and jeans! Basically it's fucking boring! A lot of minimalist groups do do that from the point of view of not wanting to appear pretentious. I don't think it's pretentious at all. I think it helps achieve a certain state. Then once we made that decision to incorporate that into our live shows we realized how it really allowed us to shift our state of mind, we started adding other ritualistic elements to this ceremony and the next thing you know you really are creating a ritual. I've found that it's been a real benefit. A benefit to the sound and the experience. it helps honor the fact that we are being conduits for this incredible frequency display. Another great thing about it is that no matter who's on stage everyone is on the same level. It allows everyone to get into the same head-space a little more quickly. THe ceremonial aspects make the entire concept and project that much stronger.
I find that when I do art or music I have certain rituals that set me into a more heightened and creative space but with the way you all externalize it, it really gives people an outlet or a mode in which to enjoy their experience. In that way I would analogize it to ancient Greek theatre where the viewing was meant to be a catharsis or a breaking out from the mundane in order to gain insights to your life and mind. I view what you guys do as an extension of that same ritualistic impulse.
That's the great part of doing it. How powerful is that to be able to change the atmosphere or state of mind of such a regular place like a black-box club or music hall for an hour? To shift all of these perceptual things pretty highly and then when you stop it all snaps back into place and people go on with their lives. That aspect of doing it is pretty validating.
I used to see bands like Psychic TV and Crash Worship back in the day and I view experiences like those and what you all do as being big services to humanity. It gives people a chance to dissolve a bit and experience a different reality.
People are highly ritualistic and also incredibly drawn to the ceremonial. I mean so much of even the regular stuff we do is ritualistic but people just don't acknowledge it or perceive it that way.
I check out your website (www.ideologic.org) pretty frequently and I think it's super. One of the things that I love is that you do is highlight musicians and artists you are enjoying and many times I'll go search them out and have found some real jewels. Is there anyone right now playing music or doing art that you've really been enjoying?
Well I've done a bunch of posts lately about Pan-Sonic and I've really been digging that. I've been a little blind towards art lately and have become more obsessed with music again!
You're on the go constantly. How do you manage all of the tours, recordings and gallery shows?
I don't know!
I think a part of it must be that they're all going so well that you're striking while the iron is hot and the momentum of success pushes you along.
Maybe a bit. For a long time I operated with that, "I have to strike, I have to strike..." mentality but then I realized here it was 2-3 years later and the projects just keep coming. So, it gives you space to slow down, look at your options and be a bit more selective.
You know of course that due to the limited edition nature of some of your work, you guys are instant e-bay fodder! The minute that you put anything out it gets snapped up and I recently read the exchanges you had with Aquarius Records (in San Francisco. AMAZING MUSIC STORE! www.aquariusrecords.org) about the Boris, "vein" lp. I do a lot of ordering from and communicating with them as well and I found the back and forth to be very interesting.
I really agree with Allan's side of that in that he's coming to it as a guy who buys records for his record shop and has to deal with complaints from every dedicated customer base who spend thousands of dollars a year with them. I mean some of their customers only buy music through them, I myself spend a lot of money with them and I've been in the position as well where Ill order something and think it's a done deal only to get the e-mail that says, "Sorry, sold out" and "Would you like to choose something else". And it's like well of course I could choose something else! Your store has probably 50,000 records I want to listen to but it's still a pisser you know? But on the other side a small run allows you try out different things without getting too deeply invested. It's expensive to press records. To press 500 records is going to cost over $3,000, just for the pressing. And while at this point, it's not too difficult to get financing for that, it's still somewhat of a factor. And for a long time, it really was. It was a question of resources. A group I did called Lotus Eaters with Aaron Turner from Isis and James Plotkin is a good example in that, you know, I basically drained my bank account to do it. But there was a satisfaction from doing it and viewing it as a project, at least a different type of project, more hands-on, and that's very fulfilling.
I have a few of your guys' more limited things that I've collected, and I find that I really enjoy them just as objects. I'll take them out just to check out the artwork. One is the "Veils it White" vinyl with the woodcut and another is the "White Box" with the real photo on the front. There's something about that that if they were mass-produced would be a bit of a crime. It makes the whole experience closer to say, "fine" art and at the same time very engrossing and tactile. Another example is the "Black One" vinyl. The cover is so heavy and thick and the artwork really jumps out at you. Even though it's a product and a consumer experience, it's still rich and satisfying. You really get a sense of the work and quality going into them. I admire the fact that you guys take the time to do these short run projects for those aspects alone.
Well, the people who make the sleeves for Southern Lord, like the "Black One" are a small, small printing company. Literally, they print the sheets and there's three women who sit there, pull the back of the sheet by hand, cut it and paste it to the cover, every one by hand. And then all that artwork was done specifically for "Black One". It was meant to be its own experience. Something can be a consumer experience and still be powerful. The guy that did "Veils it White" silkscreened every one of those records. Or, you know, with the "White Box", I had to go to L.A. to do it. Greg was like, "If you want to do this, you have to come out here and put it together yourself." So I had to go out there and mount all those photos by hand. My friend took the photo and then this lady in London went into her studio and hand-printed all of them.
So what you're really ending up with is a piece of art.
I mean, it's still a music project, but you want to try and get closer to that, I guess. It's an object but more of an artifact, I think that's probably a better word for it.
Shifting back to music, you all have worked with a number of vocalists, and I was wondering to what extent you are involved with the lyrics or how they are singing.
The beauty at the core of what SunnO))) is is that it's about freedom. And a part of that freedom is being able to invite people like Attila Csihar and Jessica Sykes to do something and then letting them do it. So as there's a kinship and a friendship, naturally you have conversations about content. Then that person goes away and filters that through their own processes and comes back with something about, say, the Kali Yuga or any other number of things, and I can totally relate to that.
In the live setting are the vocals being manipulated by the sound person?
I can tell you that our sound guy is incredibly important to our live sound. He manipulates the PA and that's where the vocals are so yeah. It's the interaction of the vocals with the other instruments but for the sound guy, that's a bit like his instrument. I mean he makes it sound good for everyone but he's also playing it like an instrument and sculpting it as well.
In your music and some of the music I've been turned on to by your website and DJ sets I feel as though I'm hearing parts of a continuum. It may have some different intent or tonality but there is some connecting thread from say Pandit Pran Nath, Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, The Velvet Underground to the notes in "Black One".
I feel incredibly connected when I listen to PAndit Pran Nath and I feel totally connected to a lot of different things. I mean one idea I like about the drone is that you're basically tuning the frequency with all of this external energy. your perception shifts and you become a catalyst for frequency and resonance. It's funny that in terms of connecting the fact that we are essentially metal heads with this other stuff leads to a lot of criticism for even mentioning it. Not that it really matters but it is there. But I'm listening for my own pleasure and enjoyment to whatever catches my ear. It's also interesting how things seem to need to be connected to others in order to be valid or there has to be a category where there's a relationship between things that you can define for it to actually exist. I don't know maybe someone like Greg is the catalyst or connection between Oren Ambarchi, Graveland, Big Black and Funkadelic. Maybe he's the tuning fork where those vibrations all connect and maybe I'm the guy who connects Pandit Pran Nath, Burzum, Steve Reich. So of course there are these threads, so many threads. It's that way in life too. I went to Israel with Oren Ambarchi and Attila Csihar! Think of that trio! I mean what the fuck? How did that happen? Plus we were in Jerusalem!
I hear what you're saying in hat these connections need not actually be there for something to have value but for me they give things a context.
Yeah that's right. It gives a context and it also builds one. It's an accumulation of uncountable layers.