Levitation Q&A: Sunn O)))

Saturday at Carson Creek Ranch – robes, fog, records, et al.

Kings of avant-garde drone, Sunn O))) overwhelms Austin this weekend for the first time in 14 years. That’s in support of Kannon, the Seattle metallers’ first non-collaborative LP since 2009 and one that hearkens back to the group’s ambient grunge. Guitarist/bassist Greg Anderson addressed its distinctive sound becoming festival friendly.

Austin Chronicle: It’s interesting that you’ve become a festival band.

Greg Anderson: That’s kind of ironic, because there was a point about eight years ago when we were unsure if we wanted to actually play in festivals. We’ve had a few bad experiences where it just didn’t seem like an appropriate place for us. But a lot of that had to do with placement on the bill – like, for example, playing in the daytime outdoors [chuckles].

It was also a different time. Different things were happening within the group. The group that’s playing at Levitation has developed a lot over the last couple of years. I feel like we’re a little more experienced and can handle ourselves better [laughs] – feel more comfortable playing in a festival situation. The concept of the festivals that we’ve been invited to play over the past couple of years makes it more of a special thing, and it’s a good way to be exposed to people that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to be exposed to this group.

We came to that realization and started having more respect for the whole concept of playing festivals. We embrace it now. We have a lineup that we’ve been playing with that just did a Southern U.S. run of shows, and that’s the lineup that will be playing at Levitation, which is me and Stephen [O’Malley] with guitars, Steve Moore playing Fender Rhodes and trombone, Tos [Nieuwenhuizen] playing Moog, and Attila Csihar is our vocalist. I’m really happy with this current lineup. It’s sounding really diverse and great and heavy.

AC: Speaking of Attila, he has his own storied history in black metal via Mayhem. How did you hook up with him?

GA: Probably like the early Nineties, Stephen O’Malley had a magazine called Descent. He interviewed Attila and they struck up a friendship. When we did one of our first tours in Europe, I think it was in Austria or Vienna, Attila came to the show to meet with Stephen, and we invited him on that night to just get up and do vocals. From that moment, we’ve been working together off and on.

The first studio stuff he did with us was on the White 2 record. We also did a lot of playing and working together around [2009’s] Monoliths & Dimensions, and have been full on with him as a member of the group since then.

AC: He seems like the perfect choice, given the way he uses his voice as a texture as much as anything else.

GA: Yeah, he really pushes it as much as he can with his vocals. He’s not interested in doing things in a conventional way. He really wants to explore different things with his voice, and that’s one of the reasons I think that we work well together. Because we’re the same way with what we’re doing with the music. There’s a strong bond between all of us, and we get along really well. It’s gone from this part-time, sporadic collaboration to him being a strong, important part of Sunn O))).

AC: Speaking of collaborations, you’ve been making records with other people: Boris, Ulver, and Scott Walker, which was pretty mind-boggling. Given the distinctiveness of your music, how easy is it to work with other artists?

GA: I don’t think you can measure how easy it is. A lot of time it’s a mutual respect and desire to work together, so it just unfolds naturally. Those collaborations haven’t always been easy. A lot of times it’s very challenging. But I think we definitely thrive on the challenge. Something about new possibilities being presented to you – you have to approach it with a very open mind. So that’s what we try to do.

For example, the Scott Walker collaboration was about walking into this ready to learn. I wanted to take something away from this and really just kinda soak it up like a sponge. Scott’s coming from a very different direction and mindset when he’s creating his music. And there’s some amount of being comfortable in what Stephen and I have in terms of what we’re doing. There’s a chemistry between us that’s been developed working together for 20 years or so.

So to do something in a different way – different recording, writing, and composing techniques – it’s really exciting. I like to step outside my comfort zone and embrace that.

AC: Who’s on your wishlist that you’d like Sunn O))) to work with?

GA: Man, I don’t know. I get asked that question a lot [chuckles]. I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest with you. At the moment, for this last studio record we did, it was like, “Let’s make some music together again.” That’s what was great about it. It was back to just stripping it back a little bit and not relying on having so much collaboration, extra instrumentation, extra textures, and colors on the record.

It was more about going back to how we started out, with the knowledge that we have now [laughs]. Which I think is developed in some ways. If you listen to the first two records versus this last record, there’s a lot of similarities and common threads. I think the songwriting, playing, and production is beyond those initial recordings, but it still has that feeling, you know? I think it’s cool to tap into that.

AC: Thanks again for taking time to do this. I’m looking forward to the show.

GA: You know, we haven’t played Austin since South by Southwest 2002 or something, which was a very, very different incarnation. Well, it was Stephen and I, but really kind of before everything [laughs] – before the robes, before the fog, before we’d made that many records. Plus it was South by Southwest, so it was a mess.

So it’s been too long since we’ve played there. I’m really excited. The lineup looks great, so it should be good.

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Sunn O))), Levitation 2016, Greg Anderson, Stephen O’Malley, Steve Moore, Tos Nieuwenhuizen, Attila Csihar, Mayhem, Scott Walker, Boris, Ulver, SXSW

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