When it comes to the transcendental side of music – you know, the kind of art that can provide an out-of-body experience for its listener and open doors they never even knew were there – Greg Anderson can most certainly be considered an authority.
In Sunn O))), the drone project he started in 1998 with Stephen O'Malley, he’s taken doom music to its most atmospheric extremes, melting minds and eardrums as each chord rumbles into infinity.
He’s also a founding member of Goatsnake, the legendary stoner rock group fronted by Scream’s Pete Stahl, who have released three studio albums and several EPs to date.
And there’s plenty more beyond that – from founding Southern Lord Records in 1998 to partnering up with English doom heroes Lee Dorrian and Justin Greaves to form Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine in 2001, or his scattered recordings over the years with other projects like Burial Chamber Trio and Ascend.
More recently, however, he’s been focusing on his solo output as The Lord – starting with debut album Forest Nocturne which arrived back in April, and October’s Devotional collaboration with singer/violinist Petra Haden.
When we tell Anderson his latest body of work could very well be the most psychedelic thing we’ve ever heard from him, mixing fuzzed-out guitars and hypnotic ambiences with the spiritualism of Indian classical music, he confirms we’re definitely on the right track.
“Yeah, I’ve definitely been absorbing a lot of Indian classical music over the last couple of years,” he explains, talking to Guitar World from his home in Glendale, California. “And it definitely came through into the writing of this Devotional material.
“It’s something that’s been of great interest to me for a long time and pairs well with repetition and meditation, which is one of the characteristics or qualities of a lot of the stuff I’ve written, especially with Sunn O))). This continues down that path but I’m embracing and trying to bring out a bit more light instead of complete and absolute darkness.”
Which begs the question – what kind of Indian classical artists and songs have affected him most, and which ones would he recommend for those wanting to learn more about that style of music? As it turns out, jazz-rock/fusion legend John McLaughlin had a big part to play in the Sunn O))) guitarist’s deep-dive into the mystical sounds of the East.
“I was listening to an artist called Shivkumar Sharma a lot,” answers Anderson. “I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. He’s a master of the santoor, which is similar to a hammered dulcimer instrument. His playing and whole body of work has been really inspiring to me.
“I’ve had the chance to see him perform live a few times with John McLaughlin, who I’m also a huge fan of. I love Mahavishnu Orchestra and his group Shakti, which he formed with Indian musicians including Shivkumar Sharma.
“There’s another artist Stephen O'Malley turned me onto called Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and he’s part of a family of musicians who have had a long history and legacy in Indian music. Dhrupad is the style of music that they play. Over the last couple of years, especially while trying to make sense of everything that was going on in the world, that kind of music ended up being really important to me.
“It was my way of trying to find some happiness and some peace. What I was hoping to do with the music I wrote was create something similar, that felt like a shelter or form of solace during these confusing and troubled times…”
On your latest album, Devotional, you paired up with Petra Haden, who you’ve worked with before in Sunn O))) and Goatsnake. What is it about her voice that lends itself so well to your riffs?
“I was extremely fortunate to have worked with her quite a long time ago. Really, it was the beginning of Sunn O))) and Goatsnake as well. She was on the first two Goatsnake records, dating back to the late '90s and early 2000s. She was also on the second Sunn O))) [record]. It was a huge honor for us at the time.
“I know of her from her father – Charlie Haden, the legendary jazz bass player who played with Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane and many others. She definitely has something special, she’s a master improviser and that’s in her DNA from her father, for sure. She’s been working on that for many, many years and has become an incredible musician in her own right.
“We kinda reconnected in 2019 when Sunn O))) played in Los Angeles. We invited her to perform with us at the show and it was amazing to hear her voice. She also played violin. To be honest, she’s an incredible musician for a number of reasons. After the show we talked about doing more together and trying to perform more often. Then the pandemic happened and everything changed.”
And life as we knew it came to a standstill. So what happened next?
“I’d written some music and had been commissioned to do some stuff for a film. I figured I’d go into the studio with a producer called Brad Wood, who I had been wanting to work with. At the same time, I figured this would be a good chance to work with Petra. We both live in Los Angeles and we both probably had a lot of time on our hands with everything being shut down.
“So I called her up and asked if she would be interested and she was. We started working in the studio and did several sessions together.
“What I love about her is her sense of musicality. The depth she can bring just blows my mind. I might have an archaic or primitive riff and she’ll bring out this beauty in it that’s just amazing to be part of. Her voice is very special. There’s only one track from Devotional that she played violin, but I’d like to explore that more with her too.”
The ideas you recorded together feel heavily manipulated – with a lot of ambiences thrown in for good measure…
“To be completely honest with you, I use pretty minimal effects live and in my everyday playing. But I really enjoy enhancing atmosphere and manipulating atmosphere in the studio, working with different effects there.
“Brad Wood is an incredible engineer and producer. He had a lot of really cool ideas and suggestions for direction and overall sound, including the effects we were using. A lot of that came from him.
“When I play live, I hardly use any effects, it’s mostly just gain and saturation. I’m not using delay or reverb. But in the studio, it’s fun to experiment with that stuff and make the vision as epic and grand as it can be. Reverb and delay are tools to help you achieve that, you know?”
So what exactly is your guitar rig looking like these days?
“My setup over the last couple of years has been an Electro-Harmonix Sovtek Civil War Big Muff blended with the Sunn O))) Life Pedal. I love the sound of those Big Muffs, the low end on them is incredible, and the Life pedal came from our collaboration with EarthQuaker Devices.
“Those are the two main pedals for the distortion. From time to time I might use an Aguilar Octamizer: it’s an octave pedal that can produce some incredible subs, but it’s mainly just those two pedals.
“I’m a complete nerd for fuzz and distortion pedals, though. My collection is ridiculous. One thing I love about being in the studio is the chance to use different pedals for different layers and tracks.
“There are many, many guitar tracks on the two albums I’ve done as The Lord. A lot of re-amped tracks as well, which was the right opportunity to go through my fuzz collection and use different things for various parts… there was a lot of stacking! But I always start out with my Civil War Big Muff and Life Pedal.”
Are there any other fuzz collection favorites that you didn’t use this time round but have relied on in the past?
“I loved the original Univox Super-Fuzz. I also love the Ram’s Head Big Muff from the '70s, that’s one I’ve used a lot over the years. Then there are the different variants of the Pro Co Rat, from the original to the Big Box to the You Dirty and Turbo Rat. I’ve been using those Rats for years.
“On the last two Sunn O))) records [Life Metal and Pyroclasts] we tried to bring in more fuzz and overdrive pedals to experiment with and stack in order to create a massive wall of sound. I like the idea of paring different types of saturation, each with its own unique colors and EQ that add to the overall piece.”
And as for guitars, it seems you’ve always been a big fan of the Les Paul Goldtop!
“Yeah… pretty much throughout my life I’ve only had a few guitars, mainly Goldtop Les Pauls as you mentioned. It’s funny, I definitely have had more amps and pedals over the years than guitars. It’s only been a handful of guitars for me.
“The main Goldtop was definitely used, but I recently got an early '70s Black Beauty with Lollar pickups. I’ve actually been using that in Sunn O))) live since I got it. I really like that guitar. There’s also a Dan Armstrong reissue I used a lot on these latest records, especially for lead stuff. That’s about it, those three guitars are all you're hearing.”
Interestingly, your main Goldtop is loaded with P90 Super Distortions – which, despite being the hottest soapbar DiMarzio make, are still tonally different to your typical metal pickup…
“P-90s are just something I fell into around the mid-90s when I got that main Goldtop. At that time my knowledge of gear was pretty rudimentary. I just saw a cool-looking guitar and wanted a Goldtop. I didn’t know much about pickups at all.
“I just made them work for my sound and it actually ended up sounding cool, like a very unique sound especially for the music context I was playing in. Those distortion pedals would help create all this extra heaviness. So that sound just stuck with me.
“Getting the volume up has never been an issue for me [Laughs]. I’ve always used tons of amps and things like a Rat pedal to push and boost everything. My setup for a long time was the Goldtop, the Rat pedal and the Sunn O))) Model T amplifier.
“There wasn’t much there, it was a simplistic and minimal setup. Then I got obsessed with different fuzzes, boosts and distortions. I’d start taking it further by boosting my signal more and more at the end of the chain. It was never an issue about volume, to be honest.”
What kind of pickups do you have in the Black Beauty, out of curiosity?
“The Black Beauty has the humbuckers it came with, which is a different kind of sound. I like both. I don’t know which I prefer! I’ve never really thought about it much but yeah… they are two different kinds of pickups with their own sound. I just make them work through tweaking pedals and amps.
“There’s something special about P-90s, they have this gnarlier grind to them. If you listen to the early Goatsnake records, a lot of the sound was because of those pickups. I don’t think they would have had the same vibe or flavor if I’d used humbuckers.
“For the first Goatsnake album, and probably the second one too, it was whatever the stock P-90 was for a late '80s reissue of a Goldtop. I used those for a while and then at some point they crapped out. I remember having a conversation with Wino [The Obsessed/Saint Vitus] and he telling me about pickups, saying I needed to check out these DiMarzio Super Distortion pickups and that they made a P-90 version. So those got switched in at some point after that.”
You ended up naming your band after the amps you were using. Not many groups can say that!
“Yeah! For a long time, it was just about what I could get my hands on and making it work. Sometimes we’d get something that sucked and we’d just have to figure out how to make it work. I kinda miss those days in some ways, because people were really coming up with unique sounds. It was out of necessity. There weren’t all these options and points of reference at your fingertips. Making do with what you have can help create things that are unique. That’s how my sound came about!
“And that’s how Sunn amps came into the picture. They were everywhere in the Northwest because they’re a Northwest company. They were really inexpensive. I was going to shows and seeing The Melvins play in the mid-'80s, which was my first exposure to super heavy music.
“And they were playing Sunn amps. I’d seen those in pawnshops right down the street from my house. They were super cheap. That’s how we ended up using them. They were available and, more importantly, what we could afford.”
Your first as album as The Lord, released back in April, took influence from John Carpenter soundtracks and even had some faster lead work on tracks like Lefthand Lullaby II. Could this be the closest you’ve ever come to shredding?
“Yeah [Laughs]! I guess one of the silver linings of the pandemic, and I think this goes for a lot of people, is that it brought a lot of time to work on art, be creative and experiment. Honestly man, I’ve never done any sort of home recording or solo stuff ever. For me, playing music was always about being in a room with other people. That was the creative process I knew.
“Obviously I had ideas for Sunn O))) and Goatsnake that I’d mess around with and record on whatever device I had in my garage, an old tape recorder back in the day or over the last 10 or so years, a phone. There’s never been any microphones or EQ gear. It’s always been very primitive, recording was just to get the idea down so I could bring it into the rehearsal room and hash out the idea with other people. This was my first time writing completely by myself.”
So there was a bit of learning curve?
“I taught myself how to record using a Tascam digital eight-track recorder. Basically, it’s a glorified scratch pad to get some ideas. I can get some layers going, do some EQs and editing to create actual demos. This was the first time I’d ever done that. The Forest Nocturne record felt especially solo, apart from the last track, Triumph of the Oak, which had vocals from Attila Csihar (Mayhem).
“Sometimes it would be great not having anyone else’s filter and other times I missed it in ways. But overall, it was really interesting to work and create these ideas in isolation and not have input from other people. It’s been fun seeing what would happen musically when I’m by myself.”
- Devotional is out now via Southern Lord.