Sunn O))) Creating Open-Ended Drone Metal at the Gothic

Sunn O))) makes drone metal. It's as eerie as it sounds.
Sunn O))) makes drone metal. It's as eerie as it sounds. Courtesy Sunn O)))
The drone-metal overlords in Sunn O))) aren’t interested in doing what other bands are doing, especially live.

Concerts by the cloaked Seattle duo of Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley include amps as far as the eye can see, a thick layer of fog and bone-rattling volume. It’s weird. It’s unsettling. It’s heavy. It’s what Sunn O))) (just "Sunn"; the O))) is an emoticon for the vintage guitar amp brand the band is named after) does best.

“People can expect to feel what we’re doing. Beyond hearing it, you will also feel it. It’s a bit more of an immersive experience with Sunn O))),” Anderson says, adding that witnessing the ferocity of Metallica during the 1985 Ride the Lightning Tour firsthand “altered my DNA in that moment.”

“I’d never heard anything so loud or so powerful," he says. "Ever since that moment, that’s what I’ve been chasing and wanting to do with my own creation of music. It’s about the presence of volume.”

Unlike Metallica, however, Sunn O))) doesn’t necessarily have an agreed-upon set list to pull from every night. Anderson and O’Malley have been playing together for more than 25 years at this point, so the two open themselves up to the cosmos and put forth whatever strikes them in the moment.

“There’s ideas and riffs from the albums that we play. It’s...a living and breathing organism that’s being birthed and dying at the same time. Hopefully it’s something new for us every time, and for the audience, as well,” Anderson says. “There are usually some rough, skeletal ideas that we have. The idea is that they’re more suggestions. Hopefully, what we would like to do is expand off those ideas and go into different directions.”

The band hasn’t officially put out new music since 2019’s Life Metal and Pyroclasts, but, Anderson says, some original material has been a byproduct of recent concerts.

“New music is happening at the shows. A lot of what Stephen and I are doing is improvised, and there are a lot of new ideas that came out of that last run of shows [in December],” he adds. “There’s been some ideas exchanged over the last couple of years, too, and talk of what we wanted to do next. We haven’t had anything concrete or finalized yet, but we’re really excited to pursue that sometime this year. Again, the shows that we did in December and the stuff we’ll be doing in January and February have been really inspiring, and sparked a lot of ideas we’d like to pursue further this year.”

That is to say, you should see Sunn O))) live when you get the chance. And if you’re in Denver, you’re in luck: The duo is playing the Gothic Theatre on Tuesday, January 31, with Kali Malone providing support.

For those who aren’t familiar with drone metal, it’s a niche subgenre based on repetition and resonance. Guitar chords are struck and sustained for what feels like forever as the tone and reverb become more important than the players behind them. Anderson calls what Sunn O))) is doing “all-encompassing in a lot of ways.”

“It’s open to people’s interpretation to it. Some people’s experience with what we do and the live shows, it really varies. I think that’s exciting and different,” he says, adding that he’s been in more traditional bands that aimed to conjure certain reactions and emotions from audiences. “With Sunn O))), we kind of threw all of that out the window and left it completely open. It’s kind of ironic, that with that loose concept that we have, it’s been the most successful band that Stephen and I have been in.”

He likens the process of creating alongside O’Malley to meditation, which sometimes involves blacking out at time while on stage.

“What I like to get out of it is to clear my mind of everything and get into an anxiety-free state and try to enjoy it and create music. I love coming up with new ideas, new riffs and music. This is my outlet for that,” Anderson says. “[Spacing out] is ideal. You know, when that happens, that’s a good night. It doesn’t always happen. Or sometimes it happens in a reduced capacity; it’s not as full on. That’s to be expected. You have nights that are totally amazing, then you have some nights that aren’t quite there.”

That heady approach has served Sunn O))) well, and is a reason that traditional band practice isn’t necessary.

“When we get together, it’s more about being in the 'here and now' and being present and letting ideas come naturally between the two us. Because we’ve been playing together so long, it does come naturally,” Anderson says. “There’s a melting that happens. It’s like the boiling down of steel and lava.”

Sunn O))), 7 p.m. Tuesday, January 31, Gothic Theatre, 3262 South Broadway. Tickets are $35-$40.
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