Greg Anderson came up in Seattle’s hardcore scene, and at a young age began playing in bands and touring. As his love of music continued to expand, he eventually formed the heavy indie band Engine Kid. Inspired by the dynamics and heaviness of bands such as Slint and Codeine, Engine Kid continuously explored different directions, offering up bombastic covers of artists as varied as John Coltrane, Neil Young, and even John Denver. As Greg’s interest in various subgenres of metal grew, he began to look beyond the melodicism of Engine Kid and along with friend Stephen O’Malley, formed the death/doom project Thorr’s Hammer, which quickly transformed into Burning Witch. After relocating to Los Angeles, Greg began playing with Goatsnake, and eventually reunited with Stephen, playing as Sunn O))) (simply pronounced "Sun"). He started the impressive Southern Lord Records (with Stephen’s help as art director) which they’ve been able to use as a platform to unleash their own music, as well as that of bands they love. Greg was kind enough to talk with us, and we had a great discussion about his musical history, what it’s like running a record label in 2020, his thoughts on streaming services, making a record with Scott Walker, and of course, coffee.
Hey Greg, How's it going? Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hey, Ben. So, I'm Greg Anderson. I play guitar in Sunn O))), and run the label Southern Lord. That's it!
You've been in a ton of bands over the years. Could we start with you filling us in on that history?
Yeah! I've played a lot of music over the years. Starting in about 1985, I was the vocalist in a hardcore band called False Liberty out of Seattle, Washington. Basically, I was in high school and it was sort of my introduction to underground music, hardcore and metal. It was really fun, short lived, we put out one 7" and a demo. Played a handful of shows, and it was my first time performing live with a band. We actually went all the way from Seattle down to San Francisco, did a little west coast tour in 1986. It was a lot of fun.
Right after that band split up, I had another short lived band that really didn't do much, but the next thing of note was when I picked up the guitar and I formed another hardcore band called Brotherhood. We were probably around for about the same amount of time (about a year and a half) but we accomplished a whole lot more. We put out a 7", did a full US tour with another Seattle band called The Accused, who were kind of heroes of ours, guys we looked up to. These were guys that really turned me on to punk and hardcore. They were the first hardcore band I ever saw live. It was the first time I ever saw people slam dancing, or people jumping off the stage. It was pretty mind blowing, and being able to go on tour across the US with them a couple of years later was pretty incredible. I learned a lot, and it was really a great time.
After that, I moved to San Diego for a little while. A short period of time, like 4 months? Played in a couple of bands there, guitar in one, sang in the other. It feels like I was really productive for the time I was there, but I didn't really fit in, you know? I was a kid that grew up in the Northwest. I didn't really fit in with the beach culture. Hot weather, sunny all the time, I just wasn't really used to it so I didn't last long there.
So, I moved back up to Seattle, and basically immediately formed another band, playing guitar, called Galleon's Lap which was really influenced by what was happening in DC at that time. Rites Of Spring, Embrace, Grey Matter. We were really into Squirrel Bait, too. This was the first time in a band that I was really exploring melodicism, not only in my vocals, but also in my songwriting and stuff. It was cool, a fun band. Almost like a summer band, you know? (laughs) Get together over the summer to go on tour, everyone's got a break from whatever their lives are. Bands like this in the summer were kind of a thing in my 20's, I've noticed. It was cool though! We had this great rhythm section, a guy named Eric Akre and Nate Mendel. They both went on to do bigger things after that band. Eric was in Treepeople, and Nate was in Sunny Day Real Estate and then joined the Foo Fighters, who he's still playing with. It was cool, another short lived band, we didn't even release anything while we were around. After we broke up there was a 12" that came out. This band was kind of a set up to Engine Kid. That sort of music, and learning to play my guitar beyond box chords and all that, but exploring melody, etc.
So that sort of led into Engine Kid, but the idea for that really came from me being into post-punk/post-hardcore stuff. Stuff coming out of the Touch & Go label like Slint, Rapeman, anything Steve Albini was involved in. Also, bands like Bastro, Bitch Magnet, Codeine. I really got turned on to those kinds of bands and that was the kind of sound or direction I really wanted to pursue with Engine Kid. Um, so, that band was a lot heavier than some of the bands I had been in in the past, but again exploring melodicism in the song writing, and especially the vocals. That whole thing was really fun, you know? That feeling when you're creating music that is outside of your comfort zone is really exhilarating. I honestly hadn't felt that with a lot of the other bands I had played with, because it was all a little more formulaic, you know? With Engine Kid, even though (especially at the beginning) we were like maybe derivative of Slint, for example, we also were discovering this new music for us, something we hadn't really experienced before. We had just heard all these bands and were like "What is this? it's really different!" We really just continued on with that groove. It was always about exploration, you know? We were really into Sonic Youth as well, and everything they were doing with different guitar tunings. We learned about using noise as one of the weapons in our arsenal.
Engine Kid, photo by Samantha Daake.
As the band progressed, we got heavier and heavier, we just sort of got louder and louder. It was really the first time for me to be sonically experimenting like that.
Engine Kid was definitely the first project of yours that I was aware of, and remember being surprised by the horn section (comprised of members of Silkworm) on your John Coltrane cover on Angel Wings.
Yeah! Something I still say all the time is that I'm a massive fan of all types of music. When you grow up playing in hardcore bands, there's a bit of a rule book that you're following. What's cool or not cool to like, or really you were just content to stay within the boundaries of the genre. Engine Kid was all about discovery though. Probably around 1991, I heard A Love Supreme for the first time and was like "Whoa!" So you start listening to that, and then you discover Miles Davis, then you discover Eric Dolphy, Mingus, and so on. That led to Mahavishnu orchestra, John McLaughlin, Weather Report... I mean, it just sort of spiraled out of control! But, that was the spirit of that time and that kind of music, you know? Just discovering as much as we could that we had missed out on while being hardcore kids.
Of course, Marijuana was also very helpful! (Laughs) Discovering all these things for the first time was such an incredible feeling. Exhilarating!
So, we got really into jazz as well, and attempted to do a John Coltrane cover for that Angel Wings record. We had Tim and also Joel Phelps from Silkworm play on it. Silkworm was like our "brother band" because in Seattle at that time in the early '90's, everyone was just obsessed with a certain style, you know? Grunge! All those bands were getting really popular. So, our thing, coming from the punk scene as well as exploring new types of music, left us saying "Well, we're not gonna do that!" I mean we liked some of it. We were really into TAD, Soundgarden, Nirvana of course, but I feel like our punk attitude was like "That's being done, so we're gonna do the opposite." We were kind of the outcasts and we were lucky that we found kind of kindred spirits in Silkworm, although I don't really think they came from the punk scene. They were also trying to do something different in Seattle in the early 90's! It made us stand out, we all got a lot of criticism for it, so we kind of banded together. We played shows together all the time, hung out, toured together, made split records, played on each other's records, things like that.
John Coltrane's "Olé", as performned by Engine Kid.
So, that's the story of Tim playing on the record. It's pretty amazing that we're still friends all these years later. Not that something bad happened or anything like that, it's just one of those amazing things in life. We've been friends for almost 30 years now! I feel real fortunate for that. My mom definitely did something right! I still have all these friends that I've had for many years. I'm really grateful for those connections that have lasted that long.
So, Tim played in Sunn O))) all of last year during our live shows, and on the records Life Metal and Pyroclasts. He really was sort of the ambassador between Sunn O))) and Albini. I mean, we already had a relationship with Steve, he had recorded the first Engine Kid. That was so long ago though. We recorded that record in his basement, which was such an experience for us. Like, we were just fanboys in awe! He was... kind of a different Albini than he is now, he was a bit more snarky, you know? Ha ha! We had kind of expected that, based on his records and stuff, interviews we had read. We kind of knew what we were getting into, and it was just part of who he was. We were there to record with him, warts and all! (Laughs) It's funny though, because all these years later, recording with him as Sunn O))) he was still the same guy, and he still had the same view points, comments, etc. Like you'd finish a take and ask "How was that?" and he'd say "I don't know, it's your record." He'll definitely let you know he's not there to give you his opinion, and that hasn't changed! He's there to do a job and record your band. He was cool, and it was cool to see some of the characteristics that were still there. Even after all these years, all the records he's made, even that Nirvana one, he remains unphased by it all, unchanged, you know? It made me only have more respect for him. So, these are different scenes and such, but it's cool. I guess as you get older you start to recognize and value that more?
That's cool. So, from what I know, Sunn O))) even toured with Silkworm, right? I remember Andy telling me that and just kind of being blown away. I mean, these are two things I love, but that seem starkly different.
Oh yeah! We weren't really a touring band, but whenever we went out to the Midwest, we would always hook up with them. In fact, we once did a show in Milwaukee, with Pelican, Silkworm and Sunn O))) and that was the first time Albini saw us. We were ill in awe, and kept in contact since then. He came to a lot of the shows after that in Chicago, and Tim wouldn't miss one. He would always be there, as Andy often would be. So, yeah. The connection still remains, which is great.
So, near the end of Engine Kid, I was getting full-blown obsessed with metal. It kind of became one of the reasons that the band broke up maybe? (Laughs) Our direction, where we wanted to go, was just getting splintered. The bass player was always kind of neutral, just up for anything, a great guy! The drummer, also a great guy, seemed to want to explore the melodic direction further. Near the end, I just didn't want to do that anymore. We were even at the point where it was becoming an instrumental band.
Sort of as an side outlet at that time, I started a death metal style band with Stephen O'Malley, who was somebody that grew up in the same neighborhood as me and went to the same high school. I'm a little bit older than him, like about 4 years? My very first girlfriend in high school had a little brother who was this goth kid, and he was curious about all the fast hardcore I was listening to all the time, and I turned him on to it. He sort of carried the torch at our high school that I had left behind in a way, and Stephen O'Malley was a metal guy that he went to school and was friends with. There were very few people that were into underground music. So, me and Stephen struck up a friendship and he started turning me on to all of this underground metal that I was unaware of, especially all the stuff that was coming out of Scandinavia. That stuff was pretty cool! He and I pretty much became inseparable, and that friendship sort of influenced my direction in music and the end of Engine Kid, really. Then, he and I started a band called Thorr's Hammer.
It was also pretty short lived. The vocalist, Runhild Gammelsæter, was a Norwegian exchange student living in Seattle and she was also really into death metal. You really gotta understand that in '94 or '95 in Seattle, metal was essentially erased by grunge. It wasn't "cool" anymore, and the metal heads were starting to get into grunge. Like Alice In Chains, you know? Those were all metal guys that discovered grunge. Metal was basically dead, so finding anyone that was listening to that kind of music at the time was super rare.
Thorr's Hammer was really fun, and Stephen and I were really enjoying playing music together. When Runhild went back home to Norway, we continued with another band with the same slow, heavy, extreme Metal style that was called Burning Witch.
Nearing the end of Burning Witch, I was realizing I was kind of depressed. I'd been in Seattle for years and years, and decided to move down to Los Angeles. I had the opportunity to play with the rhythm section of a band that I really like called The Obsessed, kind of a legendary doom band with an incredible guitar player, Wino.
Wino had left the band, and the rhythm section was in L.A. looking for someone to start something with, and a mutual friend hooked us up. It was kind of an odd pairing, they were these older dudes who were in this sort of legendary, established band, and I was this young kid who had basically played in a heavy indie band and fooled around in a couple short lived death metal bands. I felt a little bit overwhelmed, honestly, playing with those guys as their skill level was quite a bit above where I was at. It really ended up working out great though, and that was the formation of Goatsnake. We got a legendary hardcore singer, Pete Stahl (Scream, Wool) who's band Wool played a lot of shows with Engine Kid throughout the '90's. They were a super kick ass rock band. The music we were playing was, you know, really derivative of Sabbath, down tuned, heavy, etc., but his vocal delivery was so melodic, very different than that type of music (at least at the time) and it really made it something special. It was great! We had a lot of fun, played a lot of shows. My first time going to Europe was with that band, we played some really neat festivals. We put out some records on the Man's Ruin label, which was a big deal at the time. They were the kingpins of stoner rock and heavy music at the time. It was run by the legendary artist Frank Kozik, and it was an honor to have them put some records out. It was cool! It was a good time.
So, probably a couple years after Goatsnake had formed, Stephen O'Malley decided to move to Los Angeles, and he became my neighbor. In the interest of continuing to play music together, we started Sunn O))). It was really just an excuse to get high together, and play music as loud as possible, you know?! (Laughs) That was about it!
How did you guys come up with the concept for Sunn O)))?
Well, we actually had a few rehearsals in Seattle at the old Engine Kid practice space. It was just a bunch of friends that were really into Earth. At the time Earth only had 2 releases, the Extra-Capsular Extraction EP and Earth 2, and we were just obsessed with those records. Also, we were just really into spaced out music, you know? We were really into Spacemen 3, and Spiritualized. Codeine had some of those qualities as well. Anything that was really slow and spacious. Of course, we were all really into The Melvins, especially the Lysol record as well as anything that Joe Preston had been involved in. He was in Earth, The Melvins, his own solo thing called Thrones.
Those were pretty much the cornerstones for us, really, and we just wanted to do that, while playing through as many amps as we could get our hands on. It was really free and open, with absolutely no expectations. Lots of Marijuana, alcohol, and whatever else we could get our hands on at the time. Mushrooms and such. It was really just a continuous experimentation. There was no structure to it and our aspiration was just to play loud and feel it through our bodies, hopefully we'd come up with a riff that was cool enough to play for 20 minutes straight! (Laughs)
We didn't think we were going to play shows, we weren't trying to get signed and put out a record, we were just going to play together because we liked to do it. We wanted to jam, you know? I always think the word "jam" connotates 2 things; technical ability and something kind of hippy-ish. This is why I don't really use the word very often, but we were just goofin' off. I guess "goofin' off" isn't the right way to put it, but I'd say we would just fuck off, you know? We didn't care what people would think, we didn't even care what we thought really! (Laughs) We were just having fun with it, and it was just another excuse to be in a room with a close friend and play.
Eventually, Stephen moved away from Los Angeles and to New York. We continued to stay in touch and when we would get together, we would try to play some music. Usually, those get-togethers ended up being recordings of Sunn O))), you know?
This band is like nothing I have ever done before. The expectations have always been very minimal. It was really something that was more open and free, and then to have people get into something that was really experimental and unorthodox is really more special than anything I’ve ever done in my life. You know, this band has done more and been more successful way beyond anything I’ve ever done and it’s just kind of the dark horse. "What? This is the band???" (Laughs) Other bands are like “Yeah man, we have goals, we’re going to write these songs, we are going to practice them to death, we are going to get a record deal we are going to play show in front of hundreds of people, you know the rock dream or whatever." With Sunn O))), it was like none of that at all and it's ended up being the thing that people connect with the most. It just blows my mind constantly.
A recent incarnation of Sunn O))), photo by Ronald Dick.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean. I have been a huge fan, probably since White 1 and White 2. I think that is the first stuff I heard.
Cool, those are the records where we really turned a corner. We started out very derivative of Earth and Melvins and we made two records that I really loved and then I was like “Ok, we’ve done this." In the spirit of the band, it was about going in different directions and exploring different things. Those records were the start of that. Different ideas, not trying to, you know, be the heaviest band possible. I feel like we had something to prove there for a while, and we had to get something out of our system in a way. It was like "Ok, well what else is there? We love music, we love exploring it, so let’s do that with this band." That was a weird thing because those were the albums where the switch flipped on for people; it was a really limited audience for the first two records that were really bristly and heavy, but then we got kind of weirder and branching out and that’s when people started really getting into it. You’re into this stuff? Ok cool! That’s weird... (Laughs)
I've always been curious about the songwriting process.
Well, first off all, the band doesn't practice. When we do get together, it's usually before a tour, and really serves as a way to test out all of the gear. A lot of times we just work on ideas that we've come up with live, and I guess sometimes we work on music. A lot of the music is really created or at least finished in the recording studio. So, each person maybe brings in a couple of ideas, set the foundation with these riffs, and build off of that.
Some of our records, at least before Life Metal, utilized a lot of editing. The engineer would just roll tape for 20 minutes or whatever, and we'd just play. Then, you'd do it again. Then, you'd go back and listen, find the key moments that you really like and edit them together. It's pretty much this whole concept that Miles Davis and Teo Macero were working with on Bitches Brew and those late '60's Miles records. Basically, the composition was an edit, you know? Great moments that happened, and were fused together.
We were really into that idea for quite a while, and had worked with this guy Randall Dunn for many of our records. He's just a great human being, as well as an amazing engineer. It was the 20th anniversary of the band, and we wanted to do something special, kind of as a gift to ourselves. Something on our bucket list, you know? Making a recording with Steve Albini was at the top of that list.
Since we'd really only worked with one guy for many years, we were super familiar and comfortable with him. Stepping outside of that box was going to be something new for us. We were excited about it, but we were a little bit nervous too, you know? So in preparation for Life Metal, Stephen and I actually had 2 pre-production sessions. One was at a practice studio that I had in Los Angeles, and the other in an actual recording studio in Northridge, CA, and we really just hashed out and recorded a lot of ideas, a couple of days at a time. We weren't concerned with complete ideas at the time, just looking for things we liked that we could expand upon in the studio with Steve, but in a more organized fashion then we had done before.
I think those sessions were really great, I was really invigorated and inspired by them. I was excited to go in and work with Steve and I felt like we were prepared. I had this thing in my head, going way back to the Engine Kid days where I was like 'If you're going to record with Steve Albini, you better have your shit together!" We kind of had that over our heads when we went in there, and we couldn't just show up, get stoned and hope something cool came out of it. Since we had been playing together for over twenty years and were sort of so obsessive and particular about our tone, we felt confident that whatever we did was going to be captured perfectly.
Everything kind of came together as we had expected. Steve was really impressed with how particular we were with our tones, how we had obviously worked on them for a long time, and how we knew how to get sounds out of our amps. He ended up being a really great match for us, and the record is one of my favorite things I've ever done for sure, and I'm really glad we got the nerve up to go do it.
Life Metal, by Sunn O))). Artwork by Samantha Keely Smith.
the Pyroclasts record also came out of all of that. That was really cool, it was sort of this thing that we started from the beginning of those sessions. We were staying at Electrical Audio, in the dorms they got there. You'd wake up in the morning, have your coffee and go down to the studio. Everyone would turn on the amps, we'd pick a note and drone. Everyone was free to just play whatever they wanted. We did that like almost every morning, and we also started closing the evening with that too. Steve would let us know he was thinking of wrapping up for the night, we'd ask him to roll tape while he cleaned up and stuff, and we'd do these free form drones. There was no real intention for this ritual, it was just supposed to be a cobweb clearer or something, a relaxing thing to do while we were there, but we ended up listening to this stuff after Life Metal was completed and mixed and we just thought it sounded amazing! We decided to mix it and put it out. The session was really productive, and we got 2 records out of it, in a 2 week period of time! For Sunn O))) that's insane because, by example, Monoliths & Dimensions took over 2 years to complete. It was this massive undertaking.
Pyroclasts, by Sunn O))), artwork by Samantha Keely Smith.
Honestly though, I can't wait to go back and make some more music over there, man. It was just a great experience.
Is there anything Sunn O))) related on the horizon?
No, the way everything worked out last year, we had the records come out and toured extensively... I mean for us! We don't tour like other bands do, but the production that goes into our live shows is a lot of work, you know? A lot of amps, a lot of volume. It's really draining, but in a good way. We usually try to do 2 weeks at a time, but we did that so many times throughout last year, and then the last leg of that tour was this January in Europe. We were actually going to take a break this year, that was our goal. There was some talk of a Japanese tour, which would hve been fun, but then obviously the pandemic hit and everything was shelved anyway. We were sort of fortunate in that way?
So, we don't have any plans at the moment. I think everyone's trying to figure out what's going on right now. I have a wife and 3 kids, so I'm focused on that and also trying to keep Southern Lord alive, you know?
Greg performing live with Sunn O)))
Ok, let's talk about your label Southern Lord.
Yeah, so one thing that happened while Stephen was living in Los Angeles was the formation of the Southern Lord label. The bands we had played in together (Thorr's Hammer and Burning Witch) had both made recordings, but we couldn't find a label to release them. The bass player for Goatsnake, Guy Pinhas, had some extra money and he just loved those records. He told me to put them out on CD and just pay him back in a year.
Something that had kept me grounded in L.A. was that I had gotten a job at Caroline distribution. Even though I was basically a grunt there, just assistant to people, making copies, getting coffee, I just loved the job because I learned so much about music. They were distributing labels of all kinds and I was getting turned onto a ton of music that I would have never known about, and it was just a huge rush. Kind of like we were discussing earlier, that feeling discovering music for the first time, at Caroline I just had all of that at my fingertips, basically. It was amazing, and I learned a lot about how the music business worked and didn't work, you know? I really had no clue. I had done fanzines and had a little 7" label back in the early 90's that released a few things, but that's all done out of your bedroom and you don't have a clue. You don't really know or care about what's going on. You just love the music and are thinking "these are my friends" and maybe you sell a couple hundred dollars worth of stuff, but it's more about being a part of the scene and contributing to it, you know? So to learn more about how the business worked on a larger scale was amazing. I just loved it, and I had Southern Lord going, though it was very small, still run out of my apartment and stuff, but now I had some of the knowledge about how things worked and how to get more records out there. Really it's about sustaining it, you know? Just keeping it going and continuing to release cool stuff on the label, and that's basically what it turned into with Stephen's help. Stephen's involvement with the label was purely on the graphic side. He did all of the design, all the presentation. The artistic angle was all him. I took care of the business and, I guess what you would call A&R duties. Again, our aspirations were pretty minimal, but thanks to the knowledge and connections from Caroline I could push it a bit further. We got really lucky with some of the records we were working with, and people started getting into what we were doing, and we started building a following.
As I said earlier, Stephen moved to New York pretty early on and his involvement with the label kind of decreased over time, and I kept it going without him, really. Sunn O))) continued though, and Southern Lord became a platform for us to release our records. At the time, the music was so obscure and unorthodox, had such a limited audience that finding people that were into it, especially labels, was really a challenge. So, we just said "Well, we'll do it ourselves!" and we started putting out the records.
You know, to me, Southern Lord was about having a platform that we could work from. Obviously this goes way beyond Sunn O))) and includes other artists that we liked, but without question, regardless if people liked it or not, we had a place to put out this stuff we were doing. It became really shocking to us when people actually bought the records! (Laughs) People started getting into it, and every record we put out, we would press more and more copies than the one before it, you know? The demand was starting to grow, which became really surprising and encouraging. People were open-minded enough and connecting with this music that was really experimental. For us, the band always seemed like a selfish project, we just did it for ourselves, we were super close friends, and we liked playing music together. That's the way it remains to this day, but we're really thankful for having some success with it, because we now have more resources to do more stuff. It would have always continued regardless, and that was kind of the thing. We had a label and distribution as a platform, so there was no stopping us.
So, when you started Southern Lord in '98, were you putting stuff out on vinyl?
No, no, no. At that time, vinyl was very unpopular. Most people weren't really doing vinyl, it was all CDs. In fact, I think the first thing we pressed a record of was a Goatsnake EP called Dog Days. At that time, and for several years after that, it was way more about CDs. That was it, there wasn't even really digital. When we did start doing some vinyl, it went really well. As far as packaging, we really spared no expense, and it turns out that people really like that. We realized that when we could afford to make vinyl, we were selling it. So, again, it was really inspiring. In fact, early on, I did a 7" subscription series. Sub Pop was such a huge influence for me as a label, so I did something similar to that which went really well, so we figured that we should consider doing vinyl with our releases. Once we started doing that and kind of making a name for ourselves with our vinyl, things sort of started taking off in that regard.
In those days, the production was kind of primitive on that stuff. Plants we were working with had basically given up, you know? they were like barely open! You'd call them up and they'd be like "Oh really? You wanna do that?" (Laughs) and we'd say we wanted to do 1,000 or something and they'd just be like "OK! GREAT!!!!" It felt like they were even maybe a little rusty with the manufacturing part of things, so there were errors and stuff. There would be issues sometimes getting test pressings you could approve. That happened quite often back then. This was before the vinyl boom happened, and I think they were surprised. They were kind of on their way out, probably working on closing up shop and then in comes an order. "Oh wow, OK, fire that thing back up! We got a live one here!" But it was cool. I think one of the positive things about the vinyl boom is that plants started having more resources, people started working more on their quality control so they could compete with everything going on, so many new plants opening up and everything like that. You kind of hear about new plants opening up all the time. I get hit up by these places now, looking for business. It's pretty crazy, and I think it's great, you know? When we were first starting the label, I was listening to a lot of cassettes. I of course had a CD player and a pretty large CD collection. My old vinyl, especially a lot of my old punk and metal records, those were like my prized possessions. I just always thought that the 12x12 format for the artwork and packaging was way superior to a CD, regardless of your opinions on the sound quality. To me it was such an important part of the whole picture, this jacket. When I was a kid I would stare at those jackets for hours! I mean, you'd pore over the thank you list to see who they were friends with or who they liked, you know? That was a way to discover other bands! "Well, Corrosion Of Conformity thanked Neon Christ, so I'm gonna have to search that out, right now!" So in the late 90's when records weren't really being made, it just sucked. For us, when we were able to press vinyl again, it was like going back to an old girlfriend or something. If at all possible, this was how we wanted to present the music we had been allowed to put out.
Luckily, it went really well! To me, it's not only my favorite format, but it's the most important part of the label to be honest. This is how I'd like our releases by these great bands to be digested.
Nice. Beyond just how crazy everything has been in general in 2020, over the past few years it seems streaming has taken a larger role in how music is released. I'm curious how this has impacted a label like Southern Lord, considering the care and effort you put into physical releases?
There's been no slowing down, in fact we've seen an increase. We had our best year ever last year, and even this year has been great. It's totally insane. I feel like this whole panic in the industry that started with "Ok, it's all gonna be streaming now, all digital. Physical media is dead" didn't apply to independent underground music at all. It was all about the major labels and the more commercial music. But, the underground, in my opinion, has brought it. I think that the internet, digital and streaming have all been tools that are helping all these labels thrive and survive through all of this.
I remember when we first started hearing all this stuff and thinking "Oh, I guess maybe this isn't going to work out for us anymore" and we weren't even taking digital seriously at all anyway. We were just like "Ah, whatever" and threw some stuff up online. It was available, maybe? (Laughs) But it was so half-assed for us, you know? We just continued to do what we did, put out the vinyl, and we'd do well with it. Then, we started getting more involved with the digital and taking that more seriously. My sort of "light bulb" with that was like "Hey, this is just sort of like a giant listening station." You know, when you were a kid and you'd go to the record store and they'd play you something? That was how you heard something? Or in the 90's when independent record stores got stronger and they'd have listening stations? I kind of looked at digital as a way that people could listen to a record and discover new music. That sort of changed my opinion of it, because I had this moment where I realized that this is how people are discovering music nowadays. It's not like when we were growing up and we were trading tapes. So we decided "Hey, we're gonna get in the game here, and we're gonna have everything up so that people can potentially discover this music."
It just really helped everything. Like I said, it just became another tool, another weapon for us to be more successful. So all that paranoia, negativity and fear that surrounded the music industry, I don't really feel like it applied to a lot of the independent labels. Also, you could look at a label like Touch & Go, and I don't know exactly why they are not existing in the same capacity that they were, and I'm sure different labels have different view points on it, but to me I just see us having our best years recently. This year, even with everything being fucked up, we're having a great year, and that's really just testimony to the following that we've built up over the years, the dedication of our fans. It's pretty amazing. The mail order has exploded, and the other thing that has been extremely valuable is Bandcamp. That platform is amazing. We were one of the very first labels to get in with them, even before they had really developed the platform to include labels. At that time, it was more of a focal point for bands that just wanted to get their music out there and didn't have a label, etc. So, when we approached them and said we wanted to put up our catalog, I don't think they were used to having a large body of work like that, it was about working with individual bands. Obviously, they've become such a popular platform that all these labels started approaching them asking how they could get involved.
Before Bandcamp, there was a company up in Seattle that was formed by these ex-Microsoft employees that had come out of the hardcore and indie scenes of the '90's, and started this thing called DIYSTRO, and it was awesome. It was a very similar type of thing where they put the power to just upload the music into the hands of the artists and labels, so to speak. The labels/artists control the content and the aesthetic of it. I was really behind them, and I really wanted it to happen. The streaming platforms at the time didn't give you any sort of freedom or flexibility to present your own content how you wanted it. Unfortunately, those guys all got out of it and sold it off to someone who essentially ran it into the ground.
I'm a big fan/user of Bandcamp and just think it's the best platform out there. I really love seeing how you guys always participate in the "Bandcamp Fridays" and put up rare Sunn O))) recordings, demos, stuff like that.
They really are, man. They've really developed it over the years and it's extremely artist friendly and flexible. I really can't say enough about what they do. Also, working in an activism angle is amazing as well. You can't do that on Apple or Spotify in a way where you're promoting something you believe in. I feel like they win, and this year in particular they're a huge part of the reason that we've done well, and that a lot of others have done well too. You consider the timeliness and it's even more incredible. What are the other platforms doing? Nothing! Spotify set up some half assed donation thing that's like "Oh! If you like this music, you can donate to the artist." Based on the amount of money we generate from Spotify and how it comes to us, that's not going to amount to a hill of beans anyway!
Then, this whole Record Store Day thing that's been happening, at first I was really into it. It was great, and then it kind of got co-opted by major labels and they just sort of overran the whole thing and really jammed up a lot of the manufacturing. It just became a drag. You'd talk to stores and they'd just be overwhelmed. There were too many releases. The system with which they were getting things was really inconsistent, and they don't even know what they're getting sometimes! They just have to blindly order, which is difficult for independent stores. RSD is kind of a blessing and a curse for record stores, and back to Bandcamp once again, you can do something similar, have a special release on a "Bandcamp Friday" and it's gonna get a lot of attention and traffic. That's what we're gonna focus on now instead of Record Store Day. We continue to support the indies, they are extremely important to us, but I don't feel like RSD is the time for us to support them any more. We just want to do cool stuff with them throughout the year. Those RSD releases can set you up for a couple of months, but we've found that we can also do that through Bandcamp Fridays. We're releasing LPs with Bandcamp exclusive colors now. It's been great, and really helpful for us keeping the lights on this year. Like I said, Things have been going well, but I feel like I'm grinding. It's kind of cool, and reminds me of the early days of the label, actually. You're always kind of grinding, thinking about what you're gonna do next. I feel really inspired right now by music again, last year was so busy and exhausting. I've got a lot of really great irons in the fire, so to speak. Projects I'm working on, or people that I've connected with, but it's all sort of a work in progress for next year. Not much is gonna come out this year. I was really excited to release a great new 12" in September by Anna von Hauswolff, this amazing artist from Sweden. I love her stuff. She toured with Sunn O))) in the UK...
Wait! I guess there is one thing that Sunn O))) has coming up! We did a BBC Radio 6 session while we were in London last year, and it features Anna on vocals and organ, and it turned out amazing. She's incredible. Hopefully we'll be releasing that next year. There's also this band Nadja that we're working on something with. They're a duo originally from Cannda, now living in Berlin. Their new record is being mixed by David Pajo, which is amazing and I'm really excited about. Beyond that I have a few archival things I'm working on. So like I said, I've just been grindin' and hustlin', and it feels good. That's what's keeping me going right now, and keeping me from getting depressed.
Sunn O))) has collaborated with several really outstanding artists over the years, and I was wondering if you'd be interested in talking a bit about what it was like working with Scott Walker?
Yeah! Um, that was an incredible experience. It was really, uh, strange, to put it simply. Stephen and I probably got turned onto his music in like the mid-2000's, and we got really into his album The Drift. That became a van favorite on tour. It's great when people can agree on something, and it's good enough to make the cut beyond your Walkman device or Airpods or whatever (laughs). That's one of the things I just really love about music; I had no clue who this guy was, had never heard of the Walker Brothers, and we really got into it. All of the sudden it’s like, you discover something like that and it changes you for a while. You get obsessive, and you start seeking out everything about that artist and their music.
Sunn O))) with Scott Walker
When we were making Monoliths & Dimensions, we thought of a few different vocalists that it would be interesting to collaborate with. Kind of a wish list type thing. He was on that list, but nothing really came of it. I think we were able to get the information and music to someone at 4AD through our relationship with All Tomorrow’s Parties people. Honestly, we didn’t hear anything back and I just kind of forgot about it. There were probably 3 people we reached out to and none of them replied! (Laughs) We moved on on to the next thing, and then the guy from ATP told us that Scott was listening to our music. What? That was weird, because he never replied.
Then, we got contacted by his manager and 4AD, and they were saying he wanted to work together. At first we thought this was a prank or something! It was very strange, you know? Several years after we had reached out to him, he's emailing something to the effect of “I’ve been listening to your music ever since that day thinking about what to do.” (Laughs)
So, yeah. Years later, he comes out of the woodwork. He was a bit of a recluse. When he made contact with us, he had already fleshed out a bunch of demos. These were basically his ideas and the compositions. He had recorded some guitar, how he envisioned it sitting in the compositions, but wanted us to replace it all because he didn’t have the gear we had (laughs) you know? Another strange thing about it was that his vocals weren’t on there. Instead of his vocals, he recorded a Fender Rhodes representing the vocal melodies. He wouldn’t even let anyone hear his voice. This was so bizarre, but of course we were blown away and beyond honored that we were going to do this.
So, we ended up going out there and arrangements were made to record. It was really challenging to schedule the recording, because the studio had to fit very specific criteria of his. First, it had to be within walking distance of his house, and um, second, he basically wanted it booked within two weeks. We had to fly over there and all that stuff, figure out gear. Everything happened, everything basically got thrust together with like 2 weeks notice. The studio that we ended up recording at was basically an overdub studio, and the live room was tiny. The live room was probably 150 sq feet and the control room was 75 or something, so it was basically a studio that was used for vocals, overdubs, and commercials and it was all that he could find in the area. The area that he lived in had a ton of great studios, some really renowned studios, I think one of them he had recorded in before, but they were all booked because he was trying to book things with 2 weeks notice!
We had no idea what the studio was gonna be like, we were just given an address. So, we have gear stored at two places. A backline stored in Europe and a backline in the US. We had our backline in Europe driven out to the studio and we showed up at the studio, not knowing what it was -- what it looked like or what the size was. We had our entire live backline in a freight truck. The engineer opens the door and he’s like “Oh you’re the band?” and we had never met the guy and we’re like “We’re here for the Scott Walker session.” “Oh Ok, so you just go, you squeeze past this doorway here and go through the kitchen and squeeze into this hallway and there’s the live room."
So we’re bringing 16 cabinets into this place? It was pure comedy. Also, in the control room, there’s this beautiful white carpet, that was just pristine. Here we come in, huffing all this gear with our construction boots on, it’s raining outside and we’re tracking mud and dirt everywhere. Scott wasn't even there. We set everything up, we crammed everything into the room. We were sitting on top of each other basically, just laughing about the whole thing, but also we were a little bit worried that Scott might be pissed off about all this gear in this small place. But he shows up and he goes in there and his eyes just bug out of his head. “You guys brought the entire backline?” And we’re like “Yeah, that's the sound.” and he just goes "Cool, right on!” (laughs). He goes right into the spot that he sat in the whole time, which is right in front of the mixing desk, with his hat pulled down over his eyes saying “Sounds great guys, sounds great. What’s next?" but he was so impressed that we brought our entire backline that from that moment on he was like “All right, these guys mean business.” that’s exactly what he wanted.
It ended up being a really cool collaboration and he had an orchestrator, a guy Mike Warman who basically scored everything and had everything written out in charts and stuff, but we didn’t read music so he had someone interpret. Basically a symphony conductor, because that is what Mark was or is and he basically conducted he band as if we were a symphony or something. It was really cool, it was good for us. Everything we’d done up to that point as far as recording was us, our ideas, our compositions. No one was telling us what to play at all. And this time was "You’re going to play this note for this long and play it in this way" and that was how the whole recording session went and we still didn’t get to hear vocals! He never recorded vocals while we were in the studio. That all happened after the fact. I actually did not hear his vocals until I got an unmastered copy of the record right before it got mastered, it was sent to me. It was all a mystery. The experience of making the record was incredible. Working with Scott and the little bit of time we got to hang with him, we had dinner with him one time, was great. He was very strange. He was awesome. I felt like in the studio we had a camaraderie and we bonded right away. It was hilarious. The first thing he asked me, which blew me away, was “Oh, you run Southern Lord?” I say “Yeah.” He said “I really like the Nails record.” Nails is a totally extreme grindcore band! I’m like “Did you say Nails?” and he’s like “Yeah, I really like that Unsilent Death record.” (laughs) This guy is paying attention, even though it took him two years to contact us and he seemed out of the loop he is connected the ways he wants to be connected, which I really thought was cool. You know? But honestly after we left the studio, the whole thing just got taken out of our hands. We had never been in an experience where we were like a hired band and that is how it was presented to us, but after we had gotten along in the studio, it felt like we had gone beyond that hired band stigma. We got everything done so quickly and before the allotted time was over, that he brought out another track. He brought out this track in the studio and was like "Do you guys want to help me finish it?" We were like "Hell yeah!" So there is a song on there that is actually completed by with help with Sunn O))). It was supposed to be a Scott Walker solo project, but then he wanted to change the name to Scott Walker and Sunn O))). And so we were like “oh ok wow, i guess he is feeling the same way that we are about things” but the way it was handled as far as the completion of the record as far as the mixing and mastering and the release of it, we were kind of shut out of it and so it again felt kind of like we were a hired gun. I had a problem with that because our name was on the marquee. It wasn’t an ego thing for me, it was like “Look, if I’m going to put my name behind something, i feel like there are certain things that we should be involved in. We should be involved in the completion of this, but we were not able to attend anything else after our time in the studio was done. We weren’t allowed to come to the vocal session, we weren’t allowed to come to the mixing session and we weren’t allowed to come to the mastering session. I kind of felt like we were slighted a little bit. I was kind of bummed about how that worked out, you know what I mean. I’d never been a hired musician. I’ve played on people’s records and stuff like that before, but this was a one time thing, this was an entire record.
Soused, by Scott Walker and Sunn O)))
We’ve done collaborations before. We did one with Ulver and we did one with Boris, and they are collaborations. I don’t know. I kind of have this standard that I hold myself to and my art and my work especially Sunn O))) and I’ve been doing this a long time. We know what we want. We’re very focused and the way we want our stuff presented is very particular. It’s very preconceived, we don’t just blow our stuff out there. Not that this was thrown out there, but we were involved. I mean, we run our own label. The only thing that we don’t do on our own is book our own shows, we have a booking agent. But we do our own management, we release our own records. You know, we do our own finances. I mean everything is very DIY. So, it is part of a vision that we have so you know when something doesn’t meet that, you know “This is weird.” What I try to take away from that whole thing is just that sort of experience of being in the studio with Scott. Then of course, when he passed, it was like “Oh man, I am so grateful that we had this opportunity to do something with him.”
I saw you in Chicago at the Rockefeller Chapel, I think the day after he passed away or the shortly after. You guys played The Drift (I think) in its entirety before your set.
Yeah, that was kind of our walk on music for a long time on that tour. I was sad, but felt fortunate that we were able to do something. It is an extreme honor to be included in his body of work. It’s one of those weird things to where it follows you, and you’ll talk to someone and it is kind of like this acknowledgement that there are all kinds of different fans and we are lucky. Some guys are just die hard metal fans or whatever, then you got some who are into indie and some guys are into all of it at the same time, but it’s kind of like one of those tests for people where they feel like if they talk to us about that record that we may think that they are not just a metal head/meat head. You know what I mean (laughs)? "Man, you guys worked with Scott Walker" and they want to talk about him and how they feel about his music because it’s really strange. It's one of those things that we have been talking about this entire conversation with music where it’s completely new to you and it blows your mind. For me, it’s like "I want to talk about this to people." I remember getting into Slint, and if you found somebody that liked Slint and you’d just be like “Oh my god” and you'd talk about it for a long time (laughs) because it is so strange and you realize there aren’t a lot of people who are into it.
I think Sunn O))) is kind of that band. It’s not like we are commercially successful or huge. It’s surprising for people. It’s surprising that they are into that kind of music. I’m surprised that I like this kind of music, but I do. So you want to talk about it and stuff. So I think the Scott Walker stuff kind of added to it and compounded it and stuff. "Oh yeah, these guys." I think it made sense to some people, I get why this works and of course I think there’s a lot of people who that don’t understand it but yeah, I am glad we did it. I’m really glad we did it. That’s my takeaway.
Cool. Alright, let's talk coffee real quick!
You like that stuff, right? How are you making it at home?
Man, it’s pretty primitive. Pretty minimal. I’ve gone through different coffee phases in my life. Definitely have been a pot a day or a couple coffee espresso drinks a day kind of person at times throughout my life, but the last couple of years I’ve been trying to cut back on the caffeine for various reasons. I make myself a shot of coffee in one of those pods. I put some coffeemate in it and that’s generally it for me for the day.
There’s a decent coffee shop by the office and maybe I’ll get a pick me up in the afternoon. They do a Mexican mocha there that’s like pretty incredible. Mexican chocolate with coffee in it so I’ll do that. It used to be an integral part of my life and now it gets me awake in the morning to do what I need to do and I try to leave it at that. I drink caffeinated beverages throughout the afternoon sometimes. Coffee is kind of minimal for me. I guess that’s it! (laughs)
Many thanks to Greg for the extremely fun and in-depth conversation! As he mentioned earlier, Bandcamp is a great way to check out Sunn O))), Engine Kid, and more that Southern Lord has to offer.
Wanna check out Glassworks? First time buyers can use the code DRONE at check out for 20% off of your first order!