JUNE/JULY 2006

Stephen O’Malley

[DRONE METAL ENGINEER]

“WHEN WE FIRST STARTED, WE TOLD OURSELVES IT WOULD BE TOO OBVIOUS TO USE BLACK. LIKE, WHAT ARE WE, SOME TEENAGERS FROM NORWAY? NO, WE WERE TEENAGERS FROM SEATTLE.”
Possible physical consequences of Sunn O)))’s sound:
A beer gets dropped
A PA stack falls into a crowd
A child is born

Long hair, a beard, and a leather jacket could brand Stephen O’Malley as an archetypal heavy metal musician, but the massive wave-pool his guitar creates in Sunn O))), Khanate, and various visual art collaborations is more akin to the precise, scarcely oscillating soundscapes of minimalist drone composer Tony Conrad than any flint-fingered pseudo-Sabbath acolyte.

Tapping into complex compositional practices without ditching metal’s compelling visual aesthetic, O’Malley excavates and expands the genre, remapping its coordinates with the lowest frequencies imaginable, in the process mutating its compositional scope: an insistent, visceral buzz transforms sludge drifts into chiropractic chords that strike like thunder cracks. (Stand still during a live performance and you’ll feel the stuff ricocheting in your bowels.) Loud though hardly harsh, the sounds start low, intensifying incrementally until they’ve transformed the entire listening area into a dank chamber teeming with elegant sustain.

O’Malley and Seattle-based Greg Anderson formed the band Sunn O))) in 1998, continuing a long-term collaboration after the 1997 demise of their previous group, Burning Witch (Anderson had left in ’96). The duo crossed over last year, following the release of their eviscerated black-metal-inflected sixth album, Black One, which has garnered New York Times coverage, Reichian exegesis in Artforum, shows at the Walker Art Center, and interviews for Swedish National TV and radio. Adding to the sensory overload of the Sunn O))) experience, the duo obscures themselves in clouds of pea-soup fog, dressing in hooded robes, periodically thrusting guitars toward the sky.

O’Malley’s other band, Khanate, is less overtly theatrical, but the drama-scream quartet remains one of NYC’s most cathartic live acts. Unlike Sunn O))), Khanate includes a full-time, hyper-precise drummer, Tim Wyskida, and an absolutely possessed vocalist, Alan Dubin. In this robe-free context, O’Malley keeps his back to the audience, strategically nursing feedback from an amp tower, occasionally glancing at Wyskida and bassist James Plotkin as they nail each explosion. When they do, the club rumbles.

Beyond these mainstays, Sunn O))) & Boris teams Anderson and O’Malley with Japanese psyche-power trio Boris. Their collaborative album, Altar, will be released on Anderson’s Southern Lord label this fall.

Outside of music, O’Malley has been a well-regarded graphic designer since the mid-’90s, lending distinct architectural deconstructions to album covers, flyers, advertisements, and clothing. Recently, he’s stepped into the art world through collaborations with modern-gothic salt-sculptor Banks Violette and a forthcoming theater piece with French director-choreographer Gisèle Vienne, the author Dennis Cooper, and laptop destroyer Peter Rehberg, a.k.a. Pita.

After sitting down with O’Malley to black coffee and Hungarian sweets a few months ago, we’ve spoken at length on a number of occasions at various New York City locations.

—Brandon Stosuy

*

THE BELIEVER: A friend of mine was wondering how Khanate’s drummer maintains his slow-mo tortoise pace for so long. I could say the same thing about you—your projects involve a lot of drone, sustain. Live, you stalk the amp and eke different tones from it. Do you ever get tired of the build and just want to jam into a Van Halen–style solo?

STEPHEN O’MALLEY: Oh, I don’t know, not really. My hand doesn’t move that well, for one. [Laughs] I’ve never really gone down that road. The closest I’d get to Van Halen is cooking the hell out of the tubes. To me, there’s a lot of interaction in what I do: every detail’s a choice; it’s not just feedback. There’s an attack here; you only need to move one degree to get a difference in sound. It’s very involved. And I think our drummer really enjoys this super-coiled tension where he’s in command. Everyone has to follow him, so he’s almost the director—of tempo, anyway.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Brandon Stosuy, a staff writer at Pitchfork, contributes book and music criticism to the Village Voice and the Fanzine, among other publications. Up Is Up, But So Is Down, his anthology of Downtown New York literature, is forthcoming from NYU Press in fall 2006.

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