“I think if I stop and analyse things too much, it could fuck it all up” – Greg Anderson on his collaboration with Petra Haden, Devotional
“Ever felt a sound?” asks what was once an advertisement for the Sunn amplifier company, now co-opted as merch for Sunn O))). It’s a fitting mantra for a band that focuses on rumbling drones conjured by piles of 100-watt amps. These drones have always provided a fertile base for collaborations with numerous left-field artists: and now Greg Anderson (electric guitar stage right) has brought the collaborative touch to his solo project The Lord.
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Devotional is a collaboration with vocalist and violinist Petra Haden. Anderson and Haden had worked together before, over 20 years ago now. She played on the second record from each of Anderson’s two best-known projects: Goatsnake’s Flower Of Disease and Sunn O)))’s ØØ Void.
Devotional, however, draws more on Sunn O)))’s freeform nature than Goatsnake’s stoner doom. And, similar to Sunn O)))’s many previous collaborative efforts, the record is centred around spur-of-the-moment decisions. “The actual work before recording was extremely minimal,” Greg says. “Petra is an absolute master of improvisation. I mean, it’s in her DNA: her father is Charlie Haden. It’s definitely been passed down. And so for half of the album, she asked me not to send her the demos, or any ideas at all. She just wanted to show up and react to what I’d recorded.”
“The album is two different sessions. Side A was recorded in December of 2020. And Site B was recorded in April of 2021. So for Side A, she had listened to the demos and she’d asked for them. And then for Side B, she just wanted to react to it. It’s interesting because side B is my favourite – and that was the one where there was no prep work. Nothing done beforehand. She was listening to those ideas and those riffs for the very first time ever in the studio and reacting to it. We did very little editing, we cut some things, looped others, but it was pretty rare.”
This conversational aspect of their collaboration wasn’t just limited to the studio. “We played our first live performance for this about a week ago, and I was blown away. We just went for it. We had all this music that we’ve been working on, but we didn’t really use those ideas. It was just totally in the moment. And she’s so great at that.”
In the case of this approach, Greg takes the view that extensive rehearsal – or any rehearsal at all – is limiting. “I feel like rehearsal and preparation, as useful as it can be, can end up being prohibitive rather than encouraging. And so I like removing that from the process – it’s complete freedom. That’s one of the methods of Sunn O))), that openness. If you have it completely open you can be receptive to all these interesting things that happen in the moment. And it’s such an honour to play with somebody like Petra, who’s so gifted at that, and has been doing it their entire life.”
It’s not a new approach – Sunn O))) is almost entirely based around being in the moment. Indeed, standing in front of that kind of backline going at full blast it’s hard to be anywhere but the moment. “That’s something we decided was going to be a huge part of Sunn O))),” Greg says. “To not practise, to not rehearse. And really the only time that we do get together, for what you would call a rehearsal, is when we’re trying out gear for an upcoming tour.”
“On Life Metal, there was a bit of pre-production that happened, because we were recording with Steve Albini. We needed to be somewhat prepared for that because everything that he does is so in the moment and live, so we wanted to have some ideas to bring in there, almost as a security blanket, so we weren’t completely flying by the seat of our pants. But after years of playing in bands that are traditionally structured or, you know, with instrumentation and songwriting, it’s really, it’s really refreshing and inspiring to do something that’s the opposite of that. And I feel that’s what Sunn O))), has always been.”
Image: Avalon / Getty
Greg’s music is – unsurprisingly for a guy in a band named after an amplifier brand – inextricably tied to the gear it’s being played through. But we’re curious as to what led to that initial choice that defines Sunn O))): the Model T. “I mean, in the beginning you don’t have the knowledge or the experience with the gear. And the 1980s were a different time for gear, the knowledge about it and its availability,” Greg says. “So for me it was emulating what my friends had, using what was available to me and what I could afford. I love the sound bands got with gear they just had access to.” One particular example Greg highlights are Black Flag: “The tone that Greg Ginn got was old Peavey PA heads – it’s pretty amazing some of the sounds people got from gear like that.”
“As far as Sunn O))) goes, our sound came from that sort of lineage, using what we could get our hands on,” he adds. “We were also really into the sound that Buzz Osborne from the Melvins was getting, and he was using Sunn amps, which were everywhere in the northwest. It was an inexpensive, entry-level brand all over all the pawn shops in Seattle. So that was what we could use, and ultimately inspired my entire playing.” So it really was a different time for gear, then – if you’ve ever scoured Reverb for a Model T recently you’ll know that “ubiquitous” and “affordable” are no longer really descriptors of those amps.
But for his work as The Lord, Greg explains that it gave him a chance to use some of the other pieces of gear he’s been collecting over the years. “I kind of have a bit of a gear problem. I’ve got so much stuff that I’ve collected, and it just hasn’t been getting any use. Especially with the pandemic, I was like, ‘man, I’ve got all this gear in my garage – I need to either use this stuff or get rid of it.’ And I had the opportunity to do so with this recording.
“So speaking of Peavey PA heads – that’s what I was using on a lot of Devotional, and a Laney Clip, I got that sounding really great. I really enjoyed that. And then there was also some Fender stuff too, an old black-panel Fender Bassman is on there as well. It was fun, to use stuff that may not have made an appearance on a Sunn O))) recording, and definitely not a live show – we kind of tend to stick with the sound that we’ve kind of… you know, perfected over the years.”
That perfected sound has been honed down to just a few elements. “It’s been about the Sunn Model T, or several of them, 4×12 cabinets, and, for me, a Les Paul and a classic vintage ProCo RAT. That’s my sound for Sunn O))), and bands that I’ve been in in the past like Goatsnake.”
As well as providing the opportunity to branch out with gear, The Lord lets Greg explore compositional structures that don’t suit Sunn O))). “I just wanted to have a different sort of framework than Sunn O))) – or even a frame at all! It ended up being about trying to create a piece of music that would express the idea that I had within a shorter, more traditional song structure. Because Sunn O))) is very open ended with very long pieces, you know, 15 minutes or more at times, with just four pieces on a record.”
The specifics of the sonic palette came in part from a cinematic source. “I was really, really obsessed with, and inspired by, the film composer Bernard Herrmann. Particularly the score he did for Vertigo. I really liked the idea of these really powerful, intense pieces of music that were shorter than traditional classical pieces.
“I appreciate and love classical music as well, but looking to Bernard Herrmann and his scores, there were these shorter pieces of music that had these really intense moments and, of course, they’re, they’re made to be alongside the film. But I thought it would be interesting to just sort of kind of take that concept and create standalone pieces of music. That was the inspiration for the Forest Nocturne record, and then the pieces that I made up Devotional are a continuation of that in a way.”
Image: Steven Perilloux
The hypothetical film that Devotional sits alongside undoubtedly would be a religious horror. There’s even a jumpscare on the record – be prepared for the start of Rise To Diminish. “That was a fun track to do actually, Greg says. “I was hoping that she would do something like Tom Araya from Slayer, at the beginning of Raining Blood, where he screams really, really high and then it goes low. That was what I envisioned and asked her to execute. And I thought she did a great job with that.”
Like many great religious horror flicks, the record is concerned with digging into the mindset of cults and their members. One cult specifically: the Rajneeshpuram, whom Greg grew up just down the road from.
“I’ve just always been fascinated with cults, and the people following them. In the mid 80s I was aware of the Rajneesh community – some of the devotees would come up to Seattle from rural Oregon to try to recruit, always wearing purple and all that – I was a 13, 14-year-old-kid, just like, ‘what are these people? and what are they doing?’”
“I was just always fascinated by the mental state that people are in when they’re following these cults, or these religions – my interpretation of it, is that it’s this sort of tuned out bliss.”
The iceberg of the Rajneesh movement is a big one, and we won’t be able to even break the surface here. The track Ma Anand Sheela references the spokeswoman for the Rajneesh movement, who also happened to be convicted of attempted murder for her role in the first ever bioterror attack to happen on US soil. The poisoning of almost a hundred people (through the combination of a salad bar and salmonella) was done in the hopes of swinging a local election towards a Rajneeshee candidate. It is, to put it mildly, a whole thing. Greg’s recommendation for the curious is the great documentary series Wild, Wild Country.
But despite the lofty imagery drawing on spiritual enlightenment, Greg is clear that the point of bringing these references in is not to take a shortcut to some deep, philosophical point: “I’m not trying to convey some message: it’s more just inspired by the aesthetic. There’s also just the kind of the controversy of it all, especially the Rajneesh – there’s sex drugs and murder involved in something that was supposed to be so peaceful and positive. And then it gets this very, sort of sinister and dark twisted side to it.”
The combination of blissfulness and a dark heaviness is a musical avenue that suits Greg. “It’s something that Sunn O))) has really been focusing on the last couple years. We made all this really dark music over the years – or what can be perceived as dark – and with the Life Metal record, we wanted to bring some light to it. Devotional is an extension of that.”
Greg says he avoids over-analyzing what he calls his own “caveman spirituality.” “There’s no – I’m not like a deeply religious person,” he says, cautiously. “I don’t really define it: If anyone ever asks me about spirituality – my extent of spirituality is creating music and being involved in music, I just haven’t really ever thought about it. For better or worse, you know?”
This touches on something broader about Sunn O))): “It’s unorthodox,” Greg states, “what we do, what we create – people have these really varied experiences with it. A lot of people use Sunn O))) for meditation or helping them sleep or whatever, and I always feel like there’s an obligation to reveal some really deep meaning about how we do it. Why we do it. But for me, I just do it because I like it.”
“It’s like how rehearsing can work against you,” Greg adds. “I’ve been in bands where you practise too much, and you just ruin it, you ruin the spark and what you like about it, it turns into something that’s not pleasurable. So sometimes, I think if I stop and analyse things too much, it could fuck it all up.”
Devotional is out now on Southern Lord.
The post “I think if I stop and analyse things too much, it could fuck it all up” – Greg Anderson on his collaboration with Petra Haden, Devotional appeared first on Guitar.com | All Things Guitar.