Southwest Terror Fest 2014: Greg Anderson talks all things SunnO))), Goatsnake and Southern Lord Records
Interview by Parisa Eshrati
A few weeks prior to SWTF, I had a chance to speak with Greg Anderson about his many musical projects. We discussed his upcoming collaboration with Scott Walker, jazz records, some hilarious Spinal Tap moments, and more.
You’ll be coming here in just a couple of weeks here for Southwest Terror Fest. I wasn’t actually too sure of this, but have you ever played in Tucson before with any of your bands?
That’s a really good question. I don’t think so, but maybe one of the bands I played with in the 90’s played in Tucson. I know Sunn O))) has played in Phoenix, I believe it was in 2007 or 2006 when we did a west coast tour with Celtic Frost. It was really fun, we played some big warehouse space in Phoenix. But yeah, I haven’t ever really played in Tucson in a really long time or if ever! [laughs]
I've always felt that the desert atmosphere is the perfect place for heavy, drone music so perhaps people are more understanding of that kind of music. Do you ever notice any differences when you’re playing in intense desert places rather than in more condensed cities like L.A. or New York?
That’s a really good point, actually, that would make a lot of sense, but I’ve never actually seen that. We do really well in the bigger cities, New York and L.A. as you’ve mentioned. It doesn’t really seem to me that the surroundings of the city or town that we play in have an effect necessarily on a larger audience or smaller audience or mindset of the audience. There is no discrimination there, or favor in any other way.
You’ve been living in L.A. for some time now and running Southern Lord Records. Do you feel that on a more personal note that since you’ve moved from Seattle that the physical environment of where you’re living influences the atmosphere of the music you’re creating?
It has actually been kind of do the opposite. Moving from a very grey and rainy environment to a very bright and sunny environment, you would think the music would turn a little more upbeat or happy but it’s not. On a personal note, the change was the biggest thing that’s happened to me in my life. I’m not sure if it was the dynamic of moving out of somewhere I’ve lived in my whole life and being challenged with something new that I’ve thrived in or if it’s the weather. But one thing that’s amazing about southern California is that there are no restrictions. It’s always fairly good weather so you’re not confined to do stuff, like you are in Seattle because most of the year it’s not pleasant to be out in and it’s all indoor activities [laughs]. It’s just a totally different vibe, really. I don’t know as far as the music goes, but in a nutshell I’ve been more productive in LA than in Seattle. I feel more inspired to be creative out here than in Seattle. Out there, I was in a rut and running into walls. Moving here really opened up a lot of doors for me and I really like it.
For the festival, you’re headlining two nights with two different bands. Do you find it hard to be playing with bands with two very different live atmospheres back to back?
Well, this is kind of one of the first times that we’ve ever done this. Goatsnake hasn’t been very active since the beginning of the band. It’s been somewhat sporadic when it comes to our live shows and activities, and Sunn O))) has been the main thing I’ve done musically the past 15 years. This time is just happened to work out. Goatsnake is working on new material, so we’re working on playing shows again. It’s going to be a challenge, but Goatsnake is playing on Friday and Sunn O))) is playing on Sunday so we have a day off in between to pull it together [laughs]. But I’m excited! I’m really honored to be really involved with the festival. The lineup David Rodgers [of Godhunter] has put together is great and made really good choices. I’m honored to be part of it, whether it’s playing or watching bands on the label playing.
I’ve been living in Tucson for a few years now and it’s not very often we get the chance to see all these bands at once. It’s a great opportunity for us too!
Yeah, I think that’s another thing I really like about it and was appealing. It’s exactly what you said. Tucson is not a hotbed for a lot of activity and I think it’s cool that when it’s a place that doesn’t’ get a lot of that it tends to be the better show. The people are really appreciative, they are hungry for it, and they’re not jaded. In the bigger cities, even S.F. or Seattle or L.A. or Chicago, you’ve got two or three shows every night to check out unlike other places and you actually get really excited about it. I think it’s just a slam dunk when it comes to the lineup, really strong all the way around. I think people might even travel from other states and outlining areas to it because it is such a strong lineup.
You and Stephen O’Malley have stated that the best way to hear Sunn O)))’s music is live and try and go astray from digital releases since it doesn’t capture the sound. So if someone is unable to see your show, what would you recommend is the best way for someone to hear the music?
On a good stereo, preferably with a vinyl release in a room without distractions. Without a phone or computer or tv, or any other sort of distraction. I think that Sunn O))) can be enjoyed in several ways, it doesn’t have to be 100% focus. But for some people to get it, it’s the kind of music to immerse yourself in. If you’re distracted with your phone or whatever, you’re gonna miss that. It’s gonna be background music…but that could be good for some people too. Some people like it because it’s hypnotic or can be meditative. But yeah, just on vinyl with a room without any distractions for an hour or so to check it out.
Speaking of vinyl, what are some of your favorite records in your record collection?
In my collection?! Oh man, that’s too hard. I love vinyl and I purchase a lot all the time. Not necessarily a collector when it comes to things like colored vinyl or limited pressings, that doesn’t concern me. I’m more just about having the music and the packaging.
The stage performances for Sunn O))) are obviously very complimentary to the music. When you’re on stage and hidden from the audience with the fog and wearing robes, what kind of mindset does this create for you?
Somewhat relaxed, actually. It sort of takes away the dynamic of feeling obligated to entertain an audience, which for me can be distracting at times. If you get caught up in what the audience is thinking for this kind of music and you try and get a reaction out of them, it can ruin the whole process of creating the music for this band. It’s interesting because it’s the opposite for Goatsnake since it’s a pretty traditional band. It’s a heavy blues rock band, really. Bass drums, vocals, guitars, with you know, verses and choruses and solos [laughs], so it really lends itself to entertain people in a traditional way. I mean, we all have our own take on the music which is unique, but we have a singer who is trying to entertain a crowd in some ways [laughs]. The playing is for ourselves, and if the people don’t like us it really doesn’t matter to us too much. It goes with the whole dynamic of a rock and roll band playing for a crowd, you’re trying to connect with them in a way that’s sort of black and white and right there in front of you.
With SunnO))), that dynamic is completely blurred and different. We try to remove ourselves from that whole interaction with the crowd. It’s more about creating the music and getting into our head-space and zoning out of those outside influences, so to speak. Creating something totally in the moment and a lot of what we do is improvisation. So if you’re distracted from a guy yelling “You suck!” then it’ll throw you off and get you out of that zone [laughs]. It’d be hard for me to make a decision or making a statement on what I like better. I think both of them have different aspects that are appropriate for each. I hope that people pull away from a Goatsnake show more than a normal show. But yeah, we’re four dudes up there in t-shirts and jeans doing different things that rock and roll bands do whereas SunnO))) is a totally different approach to ways of presenting music.
Speaking of doing rock and roll things, what has been some of the most This is Spinal Tap moments for Goatsnake?
Ahhh…man. There has been way more This is Spinal Tap moments for Sunn O))) for sure [laughs]. Every band has their their This is Spinal Tap moments, but SunnO))) actually has more than any other band I’ve been in. What we do and the way we present it and the requirements for that are different. It’s not very easy for us to just play a regular venue or a club. We actually try to steer away from that and play venues that are unique and different and create a unique experience for people. Like, SunnO))) would never play CBGB for better or worse. Or in LA we wouldn’t play the Whisky or Roxy, you know? The infamous clubs that cater to a specific thing, we’re not appropriate for that.
So with that, there’s a lot of funny things that happen. We get booked at places that don’t make sense. One time, we played in Dekalb, Illinois which is a college town…and we played a coffee shop. It was 2009, and we were in the middle of Midwest tour. It was either play this place or have two days off for a drive. So we figured it’s a college town and it could be interesting, but we didn’t know until we got there that it was literally a coffee shop with an open mic night with a tiny stage [laughs]! So you could smell the espresso roasting while we were playing and people were eating pastries and sitting at their tables with coffees. And the promoters were such fans and they jumped on the opportunity to book us, and they went overboard taking care of us and were amazing, but it was not the right venue.
That's hilarious! Did you even get to do the full amp set up?
Kinda, that’s the thing with this stuff. Our approach now in a situation is just to roll with it. There were a couple hundred people there and we didn’t want to let them down, even though it was kind of ridiculous and embarrassing. But these guys came from far places or took time out of their busy schedule to see us play, so we’re not gonna pout about it. Let’s have some coffee and espresso and play!
I guess that’s a perk of playing in a coffee shop!
Yeah, it was funny! We drank a lot of coffee and it was good.
Another point I’d like to mention is how you’re drawn to any kind of music with a darkness to it, whether it’s pop or rock or whatever the genre is. What are some artists that are not necessarily metal that you’re been really enjoying lately and still find to have a dark essence about them?
I’ve gotten into some Muddy Waters, the album Electric Mudd. It was his first record that he used electric guitars which is awesome and heavy in its own way. I’m a huge fan of Miles Davis and late 60s/early 70s period. There’s also this vocalist Sean Smith from Seattle. He’s played in a band called Brad and Satchel. Some of it is a little too pop-y and cheesy, but he has an amazing voice. He has a lot of soul for a white guy from the Northwest. I’ve been a huge fan of his stuff for a while, but recently got in a kick lately of his solo stuff. The first two Satchel records are great.
I know you’ve mentioned how Bitches Brew is one of your favorites. Do you think this album is what got you into heavy music, since it is a pretty fucking heavy album, or was it more of transitional thing throughout your life?
I mean, I heard Bitches Brew for the first time in the early 90s. Basically my path with music started off with Led Zeppelin and AC/DC and eventually found harder stuff like Metallica and Motorhead to punk and hardcore, and that’s how I really got involved with creating music or releasing music. It was through underground music, especially punk and hardcore. Over the last 25 years or so, my tastes have evolved besides underground. The first jazz I got into was John Coltrane and that opened the doors for me - Miles Davis, Dolphy, Mingus, things like that. I’m a huge fan of music. If it hits me in a certain way, there’s not a genre that I don’t like. I can’t think of one genre that I don’t like.
Let’s talk a little more about the label. What are some projects undergoing that you’re especially excited about or maybe even some new releases you’ve been stoked on lately?
There’s a release that came out a couple weeks ago. It was the latest Earth record. I think it’s an amazing album and Earth is one of my personal favorite bands of all time. Dylan Carlson is a huge influence on my music for a really long time. This is the 5th album we’ve done together on Southern Lord. I think it might be one of the best albums they’re ever done. I was kind of involved in the creation of the record and some of the ideas, so I feel personally attached to the project. The reaction has been really strong and positive which is cool. Although Earth has a loyal following, it’s been kind of limited. I think people pigeonhole them into a certain style of music, and I think this record really exemplifies that there is much more to this group than people might have thought. It’s like SunnO))) in a way that it becomes more apparent that it can be way more than you initially thought it was. There is depth to it, not a surface thing. I think this record have that effect on them.
SunnO))) is currently doing a collaborative album with Scott Walker called Soused. How did you guys all get in touch and hose idea was it to collaborate?
It’s interesting, back in 2007 and 2008 we were in the process of making the album Monoliths and Dimensions. We kind of had a few people that were hoping to collaborate with and Scott Walker was one of them. Stephen and I are huge fans of his music and vocals. We thought it would be really interesting and something special if he could do vocals for one of the tracks on the record. We tried to make contact, but we didn’t hear anything back. Scott Walker has a reputation for being very reclusive and doesn’t do many interviews or doesn’t play, we heard rumors that he doesn’t have a phone or computer. So we contacted his label, 4AD, and they were really enthusiastic about the idea because they like Sunn O))’s music. But yeah, we didn’t hear back.
Then we started hearing rumors from different people in England that they heard Scott was making demos for us, but we hadn’t heard anything about that form him or his manager! We thought maybe it was a joke or a false rumor, so to speak. Then actually a year ago we got a contact from his manager and the owner for 4AD that instead of doing vocals on a track for SunnO)), Scott was wanting to do an entire album and wrote music with us in mind. We were like, “Wow, this is amazing”, and couldn’t really believe it. We got the demos from him and had contact with him directly, and then it started to take shape. We went to London at the beginning of this year and met with him for the first time in the studio. We recorded 5 tracks for the record. It was a great, amazing experience. It was very special to me because I was such a huge fan of his. He’s in his 70s and has had so many experiences in his life and career, so to work with someone as obscure and weird as SunnO))) was really cool. Imagine your grandparents, you know, wanting to listen to SunnO)))! It’s very strange. He’s an amazing artist. I felt like a student during the time and wanting to soak up as much as I could. I want to learn something from this experience. And that’s what it was for me, it was like going to class.
The album is very different. I don’t know…sometimes I don’t even know of what to do think of this record. It’s an incredible experience and the music is so strange, really. It’s hard to comprehend of what it is or to make sense of it in my mind. Since we made that record, I’ve been focused a lot on recording with Goatsnake because we made our new record in July. So my headspace is in two entirely different worlds. One is in Goatsnake, which is a more traditional heavy rock heavy blues, and then this really sort of avant-garde experimental music we made in England with Scott. For me, I really haven’t wrapped my head around what this album is. It’s dark, and beautiful, and ugly and strange. It’s weird. I’m excited for people to hear it. I think it will through people through a loop. Especially those not familiar with SunnO))). I think that Scott in some ways, even though his last few records are very experimental and avant-garde there’s that voice of his that’s melodic that has qualities that even though the music can be strange and the context of his vocals can be strange, there is something about it that is melodic that has more appeal than something like…basically extreme underground metal.
It’s like meshing two worlds there.
It is! Scott has his whole past of being a pop singer with a lot of traditional and commercial leaning and has fans that have followed him into his weirder experimental stuff. So those people have no concept of SunnO))) is like and will open their doors.
When is the release date?
I think it is mid-October. I’ve got Oct 22 written down on my calendar but it could be sooner than that.
During an interview for The Roadburn Festival in 2010, Runhild Gammelsæter stated that Thorr’s Hammer “might make some new music in the future”. I know that that’s a pretty vague statement, but how likely do you think a Thorr’s Hammer reunion is?
Unfortunately, I think it’s pretty unlikely. That was the last chance for us to do something because at this point everybody is so scattered geographically. The drummer is in Portland, I’m in L.A., Stephen is in Paris, Runhild is in Norway, and bassist is in Amsterdam. The cool thing is about that time at Roadburn is that we wrote a new song and played it at the festival. That group only had 4 or 5 songs, about 35 min worth of music in total. We had a longer set at Roadburn so we just created a new song during rehearsal and debuted it that was it! The song we came up with was really cool and showed me if we want to do something in the future we could, but like I said since everyone is in different places it probably won’t happen. But who knows, never say never! I would love to play music with them again though. We’ve had some offers too. Maryland Deathfest wanted us to play but it’s just so hard to pull everyone together to make it work.
I read Runhild has her PhD in biology and is doing research too.
Yeah, she’s amazing. I wouldn’t be surprised if she wins the Nobel Peace Prize. She is a genius and really talented person. I talked to her recently and she has some new music coming out. I’m excited to check that out, though I can’t recall right now who she was playing with. Some other Norwegian musicians.
Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me. I guess one last question, can you name a couple of things that describe the smell of your tour van?
Well we don’t have a tour van! [laughs] But yeah, we’re getting a rental van and it’s going to be a short trip. Hopefully it won’t have the change to get smelly.
For more information on SunnO)):
For more information on Goatsnake:
For more information on Southern Lord Records:
All interviews posted before October 2015 were originally recorded for KAMP Student Radio.