Imagery, concept, and sound: Stephen O’Malley of Descent, Burning Witch, Hyperion Ensemble, Sunn O)))
[Ed. note: We're squeezing in one more post from Amelia Ishmael before we introduce our next blogger-in-residence later this week. Enjoy!]
Stephen O’Malley is a wildly prolific musician and artist.
He is perhaps most widely known as a guitarist for the band Sunn O))), which is a sound project he has performed in art galleries and concert venues with Greg Anderson since 1998. Stephen’s other sonic projects include Æthenor, Burning Witch, Khanate, KTL, Lotus Eaters, Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine, and Thorr’s Hammer. He has also worked collaboratively as a musician, producer, and composer with some of the most important musicians and composers in contemporary music including Boris, Merzbow, and Attila Csihar.
In addition to sonic art, Stephen has a history of designing, curating, and art directing album cover art and design since the early 90s—including those for Earth, Burzum, Emperor and Melvins. He has also worked with the French choreographer and theatre director Gisèle Vienne and the American sculptor Banks Violette.
The following interview is part of a larger conversation that I had with Stephen a few days ago. The parts I excerpted concern Stephen’s work with with Iancu Dumitrescu in the Hyperion Ensemble, his zine Descent from the early 90s, and his work as an art director and album designer. His innovations with sound waves—which become very sculptural and psychological when experienced live—have already been widely written about, so for this post I wanted to concentrate on Stephen’s visual work, which has not necessarily received the amount of recognition it deserves. Words really fail me in describing what types of sounds, images, and vision Stephen creates, so I’ll just dive into the interview now, after affirming once more that I think that Stephen is one of the most important figures in sonic and visual art working today.
AI: You were recently on tour. Could you tell me more?
Stephen O’Malley: Recently I was working with a Romanian composer, Iancu Dumitrescu, and we did several concerts last month with the Hyperion Ensemble. He developed the Hyperion Ensemble. There were three concerts in Paris, three in London, and two in Berlin that I played in. But they were Iancu Dumitrescu and a second Romanian composer named Ana Maria Avram. They promote a festival called Spectrum 21. Some guests and variations apply in each city, the same festival never happens twice, but the common denominator is that Dumitrescu and Avram are both conducting the ensemble and a lot of their compositions are what are being played, but not exclusively.
AI: You are performing composed pieces then as part of the ensemble? Isn’t that rare?
SOMA: Playing with an ensemble? Yes. That’s something I’ve just done this year actually through meeting, specifically, Dumitrescu. He’s a composer that I’ve been really interested in for quite a while and I got a chance to meet him in January of this year and play some concerts, or just kind of step into the ensemble, so it was definitely a new thing as far as playing guitar. I’ve played other instruments in the past, and sometimes in different ensemble arrangements and bands in different types of set ups, but that’s definitely a different thing. […] He’s really interesting. He has a really long history; he’s […] been composing and performing his work since the 1960s. His music is pretty hardcore in the 70s actually. He’s working with an orchestra, but he’s pretty challenging. He kind of falls into the bigger category of Spectral music. He’s a historical figure, for sure. This is why I would play with an ensemble: I get to work with this guy! It’s a good opportunity to access a lot of knowledge about sound and just the behavior of being an independently-minded artist.
AI: I’m curious about what kinds of sounds you create… what you do with this ensemble, is it related to your other projects sonically?
SOMA: Definitely. I’m playing guitar. I’m not switching modes and playing classical guitar or something. One of the reasons that we connected was just the timber of what we are doing is similar actually. So I guess in the ensemble I’m playing the low bass role. That’s basically the frequency, or the area. Something like what the double bass is playing, but it’s an electric guitar and amplifier: at least to me, as a player, as a listener, and as an appreciator of sound phenomena.
AI: I was really impressed with your zine Descent. I know that you made it a long time ago, and that kind of impressed me as well because–if I have it right–you were only around 19?
SOMA: Yeah, when I started it. It was basically right after high school. I was also accessing underground networks and stuff to kind of discover more outside types of music. In the 80s and 90s it wasn’t easy to find underground music from other parts of the planet, it was a very different situation. One way you’d learn about new music is through trading tapes with people, pen pals, and writing letters. That’s the main way actually. But the other way was zines. And I had ambition at that time to do something a little naïve actually. I thought I could contribute to the scene I was enjoying so much, and the way I was going to do that was to make a fanzine. Because I was a fan, and I still am a fan. And I think that was a really important lesson in meeting people from other parts of the world that shared similar interests. I never traveled or anything until I was in my twenties, not internationally. So it was a pretty significant step in my awareness of just what’s out there, and, more specifically, what you have no idea is out there; being surprised by it.
AI: Were there zines that you were looking at before you created this one?
SOMA: I knew a guy who did a mail order company called Moribund Records. It was also a label. It’s still around actually, but it’s pretty different from what it was back then. At the time he was distributing a lot of Black Metal tapes from Europe, mainly from Scandinavia, and Southern Europe, but also Poland, and places in Eastern Europe. I discovered Black Metal fanzines mainly through him. There were some Death Metal fanzines in some shops like Tower Records at the time which I found, including one called The Fifth Path, which was really amazing, but that was more of an underground occult music fanzine. There were some U.S. ones, like this one called Petrified Zine from Florida. The guy who ran that zine ended up turning it into a record label called Full Moon Productions, which I think is still around. They’re not as active as they were in the 90s though. There were some other fanzines from New York that I got. There were a lot of Death Metal fanzines which would sometimes write about bands from… what was considered then to be an offshoot of Death Metal basically, especially these Scandinavian Black Metal bands which were seen to be an offshoot of the Swedish Death Metal scene. There were these amazing European ones, which I finally found. The main one was Slayer Magazine, which I think anyone who’s interested in that type of music knows about. There’s this compendium of every issue of that zine that was published recently by Bazillion Points Publishers in New York. It’s an amazing historical document actually about not only the Black Metal underground, but the Metal underground period because it started in ‘83, I think. There’s also another magazine called Mortician Magazine from Holland, that was really amazing.
For me, and for a lot of these magazines, to get it offset printed was considered to be a huge deal. So you can imagine what the scale was. I think that at the peak of the interest in Descent magazine, which was probably issue three, we printed 2,000 copies. So that was the size of the scene, at least that was interested in my magazine. That issue had a lot of bands that were… like, Satyricon was the cover band, Emperor was in the magazine, and all these bands that are like classic bands now. But it’s a fanzine you know, that’s kind of the level it was at.
AI: How many did you say were printed of issue three?
AI: Really?! Wow.
SOMA: So it’s not a lot, for a magazine, but this is also a period when bands were selling thousands of demo tapes, self-produced stuff. It’s hard to compare the Norwegian and Swedish Black Metal bands to the Swedish Death Metal Bands, but the band Nihilist I think, one of their demos… they sold something like 6,000 demo tapes. Just through the mail and little distributors. It’s pretty awesome. It’s like I said, a different climate. I mean, who knows how many downloads happen these days? I’ll see a link for Sunn O))) on youtube and it’ll say 600,000 views. It’s hard to imagine what the actual population that’s interested in stuff like that is, but at that time it was like: okay, you have this many copies and their gone. It’s doubtful that one guy’s buying ten copies to resell on ebay because it doesn’t exist, that whole market didn’t exist.
AI: Was Descent xeroxed or was it off-set printed?
SOMA: I never xeroxed it actually, even the first issue was offset. The second issue was printed on really shitty newsprint paper. I found this place that was really cheap and it was web-printed, like a newspaper basically. For the third issue I somehow found some money from a friend to use full color on the cover and nicer paper and that was a pretty strong step, for me personally, as a designer and for the magazine because if it’s got color than it’s really professional, at that time, you know? I mean, people used to advertise stuff where it said “it’s pro-printed on glossy paper,” this is something that would be in the description.
AI: And now it’s standard…
SOMA: Well, yeah…if you even print magazines anymore. It’s expensive for a twenty-year old guy to drop $5,000. I mean, it’s expensive to me now. But, somehow that’s what was done. And then, eventually, the fourth and fifth issue started using spot-colors on the cover. But the interior was always black and white, so the aesthetic improved and developed but it didn’t become slick, so to say. It became more refined. And this is also a period when I was starting to be a “graphic designer.” I was experimenting with a lot of things. I was a student, you know.
AI: What were you studying at that time?
SOMA: I was studying psychology. So, you can imagine how that fits into stuff I was doing!
AI: Two things struck me about this zine. In the little knowledge I have collected about zines happening at that time, most of the zines that talked about Black Metal were also talking about Death Metal, they were just this collage of different types of Metal, and it struck me that you were focused so much on Black Metal. The other thing that struck me was that, a couple of the questions that you asked musicians in interviews had to do with their opinions of Noise, which I haven’t seen referenced anywhere in Metal zines at that time. Was that something that you saw and that I just haven’t come across: that dual interest in Black metal and Noise?
SOMA: Well, I’ll tell you a secret. I had a whole slew of interviews that I made in ’92 and ’93, including interviews with Earth at the time, Morbid Angel and a lot of other Death Metal bands that I threw away because I got so charmed and mystified by Black Metal at that time. This was a new thing; this was a new style. I tapped into it. I lived in Seattle. No one knew about this shit, except for me and five people in Seattle, and some people in San Francisco, you know? It was because it was new that I decided to focus on that. It was more interesting. Plus the people in the bands, I don’t know, it’s so romantic, looking back on the behavior and the sort of statements that people were making. I mean, classic romantic behavior.
For me it was totally charming to interview people and talk about Odin, rather than talk about Pete Sandoval [from Morbid Angel]’s tennis shoes that he wears when he’s doing double-bass kicks. It wasn’t related to my studies directly, but just my mentality at the time. That’s why that direction was there. But, at the same time, I was a young guy discovering underground music, and anyone that does that, you know, you find one band that you like, and then Oh! They’re related to this band! And I’ll check out this. This is related to that! And before you know it you know all of these other weird styles of music. And it’s so exciting. It’s haunting. So, at that time, for me, there were some… like, Satyricon on their first album [Dark Medieval Times, 1994], they used a piece of music from another Norwegian band called When as an intro, because that’s how Noise and Abstract music was seen by Metal artists, and still is a lot of the time… as intro or intro-music, it’s sort of like credits… like film-credit music or something. But, this band, when I found their CD and their full track—which Satyricon had taken an edit from—this whole CD is just amazing. It’s like Post-industrial music. And this band did tons of amazing stuff too. And also at the time I was getting more interested in World Serpent bands and Power electronics, just different types of music. In my universe, and in my friends’ universe in Seattle these were all interesting aspects of a kind of similar statement, I guess, of our little subculture, or whatever. So it seemed related. Now, looking back, I realize that it’s this sort of fascination with outsider music, but at the time I was more thinking about genre, I guess. Which, of course, is unimportant in the big picture of music, but it helps people find their way around. It’s just codes, these different codes that people make.
AI: So, people were making a connection between, like, Merzbow and Black Metal?
SOMA: Not really, but some people were. It wasn’t on a big scale. I mean, remember that the first Mayhem album had a track from one of the guys from CAN called “Silvester Anfang” So, right there, Euronymous—who was the Kurt Cobain of Norway’s Black Metal scene, like the main guy—was really into Krautrock. And Krautrock had a lot of bands like Tangerine Dream who had members who went and started doing Experimental music. And Krautrock itself was experimental. And Black Metal was an experimental mindset. I mean, today Experimental music means something else than it did in the 90s I think. […] I mean, music by default is experimental. It’s a continuation of ideas that you cherish or are inspired by, so you’re trying to bring things further. But the point of view that “I’m an Experimental musician” is just a role that some people feel they need to play to validate their risks and assessment of how they make music. But that’s okay too, it’s just another kind of code, you know.
AI: Were you making music at that time?
SOMA: I’ve been playing music live since I was a kid but I didn’t have a band until around that time, ’93. I started playing in a band with a friend of mine, named Greg Anderson, and a few other people, which was basically like a Hellhammer style band, but also influenced by some bands like Melvins and Earth, who were from Seattle, or from that region.
AI: So, how did making these zines, and starting to play yourself and with these musicians prepare you to work as an Art Director for labels like Misanthropy Records?
SOMA: It was very simple: I fell into it. At that time not everyone was making their own record covers on Photoshop or QuarkXPress or whatever. There were some record labels for whom I sold ads in some of the magazines to try to earn a little bit of money to pay for it, and you know, to buy lunch. So the scale of the label that were buying ads were basically… the guy who bought the ad was also the guy who pressed the record, signed the band, did the mail, did everything. They weren’t all one man operations, but you knew who was behind everything and I was talking to a couple of these labels on the phone—there was a lot of phone calls at that time because there’s no email. One guy called Paul Thind, actually, he had a label called Necropolis Records—which has a really bad reputation historically because they didn’t operate a very ethical business in the end. Anyway, the guy said that someone fucked up the artwork for an album—I don’t remember which one it was—and I said “Yeah I could probably fix that for you” because I knew about design programs and I had taken a few art courses at the university, so I did a few record designs for him and then it turned into: “Yeah, okay, why don’t you do all of our stuff for a year.”
Then I became friends with Tiziana Stupia, she was known as Diamanda at the time—no relation to Diamanda Galas—she was a woman running a Black Metal label, first of all that was the only one worldwide. And she was also 24 and putting out some records, and that was Misanthropy Records. I was talking to her and she was like ”Hey. I want to hire someone to do the art in-house because I have been, up to now…” —this is how the early Misanthropy Records were made: she’d go to a copy shop in London and work with the local guy in—basically the Kinkos—to lay out the Burzum record, to lay out basically all of the early Misanthropy records. She’s like “I moved to another town in England and they don’t have a copy shop here. Would you want to work for me? I could pay for your flight coming over and you’ll get a wage and stuff.” And I was like “Yeah!” I was twenty-three or something, I was like, that’d be good. And that relation lasted a while and when I moved back to the States I just continued. I moved to New York and I just started working for advertising agencies for like five years and by that point “Okay, I’m an art director now, for real, because I make a salary and everything and then at one point my music caught up with that and I quit that whole world of professional art direction to just do music. But I still do design. Now I just do it for people I’m friends with and/or projects that I’m really interested in. So, it’s a few things a month, but it’s not the main thing anymore.
AI: One of the things that made me curious about your work as an art director for these records labels is that, for me coming into the culture later, it seems that a lot of what I recognize as the visual culture of Black Metal was established in the 90s, which was a time that you were drawing from, not only the work that you created for your zines, and gathering influence from other zines, but there’s a… collaboration and evolution of a lot of influences at that time. Where were you getting your inspiration from and how were you adding to it?
SOMA: It depended on the group or the person I was working with. I can say for my own zine I was getting more inspired by proper design and art magazines actually, and artists. I was also discovering contemporary art, at that time, and also contemporary design, and it was sort of an experiment that way too. But for records, you know, usually a band would have an idea, or they would have a personality that you could play off of. And I collected all of these occult books, and books of medieval art, and surrealist art, and different typical things—I mean, they seem typical now. Looking back, I was probably more of a collage artist than I was a graphic designer. I became a graphic designer later when I started creating my own stuff. For the Black Metal records, for example for Emperor, I did all of their albums except for In the Nightside Eclipse , so the first one I did was Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk  and that cover is a collage of Gustave Doré engravings and Simon Marsden photographs, basically, with a sort of colorizing based on my fascination with pot at the time and how I thought that Black Metal music was actually psychedelic music and inspired by drugs as well, which I think they did.
AI: This box set that was just released for your latest project Burning Witch [1995-1998] includes a catalogue of images that you’ve collected mixed with images that you’ve created, right?
SOMA: That’s exactly what it is. Literally I had a file, my “Burning Witch” file, and that’s all those images. And then some of the images that I used on those records I would make collages out of. The second album, Rift.Canyon.Dreams , that’s just a collage of a bunch of pseudo-scientific acoustic diagrams mixed with Stanisław Szukalski
drawings. And, you know, this Burning Witch icon, I don’t remember his name, this amazing photographer, but he did this series of black and white photos on plants… [Karl Blossfeldt] So I found one of a poppy, and did a collage with some Austin Osman Spare automatic drawings—he was an amazing artist that I was very inspired by in many ways at that time, and still appreciate a lot. It was kind of a cross between a punk rock way of making album covers and my collection of occult imagery. I actually got a lot of flack from one of the other guys who was in Burning Witch at the time. He was like “What is all this stuff? It has nothing to do with the band.” And I was like “Actually, it has everything to do with the band, as far as I’m concerned.” I did all the artwork for the band, I mean, I did all of the art direction, and this is a file that I still have in my filing cabinet from that period. I think it’s very relative. It shows a little about the mindset behind it.
AI: So you would come across these images and define them as something to file away, in relation somehow to Burning Witch?
SOMA: Well, they were interesting really. That would be the whole thing.
AI: But, these images ended up with the Burning Witch project and other images ended up with the other projects you were working on?
SOMA: Yeah, you’re right. Um, I think a lot of the Burning Witch ones are an uneducated, early interest in acoustic phenomena and also occult phenomena, which I had at the time. That was one of my interests in Black Metal, because I was very interested in occult, which was very tied with Black Metal at the time. By definition, that’s what Black Metal is. Black Metal means Satanic Metal. Of course there’s a lot of other ways that people have used the tag too. But that’s the original, the core definition of it. And that’s part of it. Also, just exploring these ideas. And exploring art as well, like, Austin Osman Spare and Stanisław Szukalski.
AI: It sounds like you’re wildly curious in investigating these images and the knowledge around them and collaging the ideas in order to make some kind of vocabulary for the sounds you’re working on…
SOMA: Yeah, basically. I would call it more research than curiosity, although I guess it’s the same thing in a lot of ways. With Burning Witch it’s pretty obvious that that’s the role of that aesthetic, of that group. And maybe that’s one of the things that makes the group’s music seem different is because it had that aesthetic instead of, I don’t know… at the time heavy music bands were more coming out of the Hardcore scene actually, so they had more of a crusty Punk type of aesthetic.
AI: How would you contrast the images of Burning Witch from, like, Sunn O)))?
SOMA: Sunn O))) is really experimental as far as what we’re doing with music, and this has increased over the years. It can be less reliant on creating symbolism with the artwork and it can just create suggestions of metaphor and impressions, I think. That’s the thing with Sunn O)))’s music, or music and art. I’d say the White albums define that pretty well. The artwork is just one image, one found image, and the thing is with both of those images on those two albums is that they’re semi-abstract, or at least bizarre looking, so you don’t know exactly what’s happening. There are many possible interpretations, which is what we’re trying to prove with that music, what we’re going for in some ways. But if you turn those CDs over you also find a kind of technical diagram on both of them. So, in some ways that’s sort of a continuation of it. Burning Witch might have been a primordial version in a continuation of exploring relationships of imagery, concept, and sound. Which is art direction, that’s gone side-by-side with the music for me, and continues to.
AI: Yeah… that’s awesome. I love that… [And then I paused a little, and we went on to talk about sound waves, and Banks Violette’s artwork, and the entertainment and art market politics and distinctions, the difficulties—and maybe inappropriateness—of writing about or describing sounds, art and music criticism, etc. Eventually my mind was so blown, I had to end the interview to get some air… I'm extremely thankful to Stephen for sharing his thoughts!]