Empire of Doom Behind the scenes of Hollywood’s one-man doom record label Southern Lord by Jay Babcock
Originally published in the August 08, 2002 LAWeekly
The Lair of Doom lies on a Hollywood boulevard, upstairs from a Thai restaurant. There, above the ambulance sirens and Metro bus brake squeals rising like so many noxious sonic fumes from the street below, a single industrious man labors intently. Listen close, at almost any hour of the day or night, and you‘ll hear his hearty cackle and—something else: a strange clatter, like the rattle of bones in a plastic tumbler.
Actually, that’s just the sound of Greg Anderson, 32-year-old founder of Southern Lord Records and currently its sole employee, working the phone and tapping out e-mail.
“I‘m here all the time,” says the longhaired, affable Anderson, gazing lovingly at one of the sources of his endurance, a 72-ounce pitcher-bucket of Coke he’s constantly refilling at the 7-Eleven across the street. “But I‘m not looking for sympathy! This is what I like to do.”
What Southern Lord has been doing since its inception in April 1998 is “doom metal,” a certain species of heavy music whose ultimate ancestor is Black Sabbath. Basically it sounds like the product of a bunch of guys smoking a lot of pot and trying to play music slower than the Melvins: bands have names like WarHorse and Place of Skulls, albums have titles like As Heaven Turns to Ash and Supercoven. It’s low-end music for black-clad midnight masses.
But Southern Lord does more than doom metal (strictly defined). Another look at the Lord‘s roster reveals: Mondo Generator, a churning, rumbling post-SST racket led by Queens of the Stone Age/ex-Kyuss bassist Nick Oliveri; SUNN 0))), which features dark, massive guitar sludgework by Anderson and Southern Lord graphic designer Stephen O’Malley; and Khanate, an O‘Malley-led band that Anderson characterizes as “black metal on ludes—it’s got that same grim evilness.”
With recent releases by the latter two ensembles, Southern Lord has begun to attract attention from new quarters. Acclaimed Japanese avant-garde noise warlock Merzbow mixed two tracks on SUNN 0)))‘s latest record, Flight of the Behemoth; Julian Cope has been an outspoken public champion (he’s called the just-released Rampton by Southern Lord supergroup Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine “an endless ambient Ragnarok”); and SUNN 0))), much to their surprise, found themselves being profiled this past spring by influential British artsy-music magazine The Wire. A recent East Coast tour by Khanate was attended as much by drone seekers and experimental music aficionados as the usual collection of stoners and adventurous metalheads.
Doom, it seems, is everywhere.
What follows are the Ten Commandments of Doom: both a how-to list for would-be micro-label operators and the slightly abridged tale, told in his own words, of how Greg Anderson found his grim calling…and followed it to the bitter end.
Simultaneous Conjugation of Four Spirits in a Room: 2010
13 Mar 4 – 4.30pm
For the opening of ‘The Great British Art Debate: Turner Versus Martin,’ AV Festival 10 brings together two great forces in contemporary culture, the graphic novelist Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen), and musician Stephen O’Malley (Sunn O))), KTL, Gravetemple). Alan Moore will write and perform a new text responding to the energy of the two paintings on show: John Martin’s The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Hannibal Crossing the Alps by JMW Turner. Stephen O’Malley will create a new ambient soundscape, sonically melting in the radiance of the paintings.
FYF Fest, Arthur Magazine and the Eagle Rock Music Festival Present
Sunn O))), Eagle Twin and The Accused Tuesday August 11, 2009 7:00pm $16.50 Advance // $18.00 At The Door All Ages
A sunset show with Sunn O))) in the intimate setting of a historic 1914 library.
Please take note that Sunn O))) will hit the stage at 9:00pm sharp. Limited tickets available.
2225 COLORADO BLVD. LOS ANGELES CA 90041 323.226.1617
Arthur goes back a way with Sunn 0))). We featured a beautiful photo of them to accompany the editorial in Arthur No. 3 (January 2003). Our second release on the Bastet (now Arthur) label was a Sunn o))) live recording in an edition of 500 entitled “The Libations of Samhain” with a cover by Savage Pencil, specially pressed by the genius W.T. Nelson, released in 2004. Long sold out, it now fetches $100-plus on internet auctions. Here’s the cover:
Sunn o))) at the September 2005 ArthurFest at Barnsdall in Los Angeles was one of the weekend’s most anticipated sets, and was easily the weekend’s biggest fiasco—as the set was climaxing, with vocalist Xasthur about to emerge from his coffin, the sound cut out. Totally. Not to return. Frustrated Sunn o))) members felled speaker towers, resulting in near-injuries to audience members and minor damage to the stage, which in turn led to near-arrests of Mssrs O’Malley and Anderson by on-location LAPD. Yikes. Plus, their van got towed! It’s funny now, but it was pretty harsh at the time. Here’s the poster by Arik Roper, now sold out, for ArthurFest:
Anyways. The guys ended up on the cover of Arthur No. 20 (below) and now they’re international weirdstars. Go figure. Actually, go see them. Actually, go feel them in Eagle Rock next week. We will be.
Years later, she was still calling her sister, trying to understand what exactly had happened. It still made no sense to her, but her sister, older, couldn’t help. Her sister had completely forgotten—or would have if the younger sister wasn’t always reminding her. The younger sister imagined, each time she talked to her sibling on the telephone, each time she brought the incident up, her older sister pressing her palm against her forehead as she waited for her to say what she had to say, so that she, the older sister, the only one of the sisters with a family of her own, could politely sidestep her inquiries and go back to living her life. Her older sister had always managed to do that, to nimbly sidestep anything that came her way so as to simply go on with her life. For years, the younger sister had envied this, watching from farther and farther behind as her older sister sashayed past those events that an instant later struck the younger sister head-on and almost destroyed her. The younger sister was always being almost destroyed by events, and then had to spend months desperately piecing herself together enough so that when once again she was struck head-on, she would only be almost destroyed rather than utterly and completely destroyed. As her mother had once suggested, the younger sister felt things more intensely than anyone else. At the time, very young, the younger sister had seen this as a mark of emotional superiority, but later she saw it for what it was: a serious defect that kept her from living her life. Indeed, as the younger sister reached first her teens and then her twenties, she came to realize that people who felt things as intensely as she were either institutionalized or dead. This realization was at least in part due to her father having belonged to the first category (institutionalized) and her mother to the second (dead by suicide)—two more facts that her older sister, gliding effortlessly and, quite frankly, mercilessly, through life, had also sidestepped. Indeed, while the younger sister was realizing to a more and more horrifying degree how she was inescapably both her mother’s and her father’s child, her older sister had gone on to start a family of her own. It was like her older sister had been part of a different family. The younger sister could never start a family of her own—not because, as everyone claimed, she was irresponsible but because she knew it just brought her one step closer to ending up like her mother and father. It was not that she was irresponsible, but only that she was terrified of ending up mad or dead.
The incident had occurred when their parents were still around, before they were, in the case of the mother, dead and, in the case of the father, mad. There were, it had to be admitted in retrospect, signs that things had gone wrong with their parents, things her older sister must have absorbed and quietly processed over time but which the younger sister was forced to process too late and all at once. The incident, the younger sister felt, was the start of her losing her hold on her life. Even years later, she continued to feel that if only she could understand exactly what had happened, what it all meant, she would see what had gone wrong and could correct it, could, like the older sister, muffle her feelings, begin to feel things less and, in the end, perhaps not feel anything at all. Once she felt nothing, she thought, knowing full well how crazy it sounded, she could go on to have a happy life. But her older sister couldn’t understand. To her older sister, what the younger sister referred to as the incident was nothing—less than nothing, really. As always, her older sister listened patiently on the other end of the line as the younger sister posed the same questions over again. “Do you remember the time we were trapped in the house?” she might begin, and there would be a long pause as her older sister (so the younger sister believed) steeled herself to go through it once more. “We weren’t trapped exactly,” her older sister almost always responded. “No need to exaggerate.” But that was not how the younger sister remembered it. How the younger sister remembered it was that they were trapped. Even the word trapped did not strike her as forceful enough. But her older sister, as always, saw it as her role to calm the younger sister down. The younger sister would make a statement and then her older sister would qualify the statement, dampen it, smooth it over, nullify it. This, the younger sister had to admit, did calm her, did make her feel better momentarily, did made her think, Maybe it isn’t as bad as I remembered. But the long-term effect was not to make her feel calmer but to make her feel insane, as if she were remembering things that hadn’t actually happened. But if they hadn’t happened the way she remembered, why was she still undone more than twenty years later? And as long as her sister was calming her, how was she ever to stop feeling undone? No, what she needed was not for her sister to calm her, not for her sister, from the outset, to tell her there was no need to exaggerate. But she could not figure out how to tell her sister this—not because her older sister was unreasonable but because she was all too reasonable. She sorted the world out rationally and in a way that stripped it of all its power. Her older sister could not understand the effect of the incident on the younger sister because she, the older sister, had not let it have an effect on her. For instance, her older sister could not even begin to conceive how the younger sister saw the incident as the single most important and most devastating moment of her life. For her older sister, the incident had been nothing. How was it possible, her older sister wanted to know, that the incident had been more damaging for her than their mother’s suicide or their father’s mental collapse? It didn’t make any sense. Well, yes, the younger sister was willing to admit, it didn’t make any sense, and yet she was still ruined by it, still undone. If I can understand exactly what happened, she would always tell her older sister, I’ll understand where I went wrong. “But nothing happened,” her older sister said. “Nothing. That’s just it.” And that was the whole problem. The sisters had played the same roles for so many years that they didn’t know how to stop. Responding to each other in a different way was impossible. Every conversation had already been mapped out years in advance, at the moment the younger sister was first compelled to think of herself as the irresponsible one and the older sister was first made to be a calming force. They weren’t getting anywhere, which meant that she, the younger sister, wasn’t getting anywhere, was still wondering what, if anything, had happened, and what, if anything, she could do to free herself from it. • What she thought had happened—the way she remembered it when, alone, late at night, she lay in bed after another conversation with her sister—was this: their mother had vanished sometime during the night. Why exactly, the younger sister didn’t know. Their father, she remembered, had seemed harried, had taken their mother somewhere during the night and left her there, but had been waiting for them, seated on the couch, when they woke up. He had neither slept nor bathed; his eyes were very red and he hadn’t shaved. Somehow, she remembered, her sister hadn’t seemed surprised. Whether this was because the sister wasn’t really surprised or because, as the calm one, she was never supposed to appear surprised, the younger sister couldn’t say. She remembered the father insisting that nothing was wrong, but insisting almost simultaneously that he must leave right away. There was, the younger sister was certain, something very wrong: what exactly it had been, she was never quite certain. Something with the mother, certainly, perhaps her suicidal juggernaut just being set in motion—though her older sister claimed that no, it must have been something minor, a simple parental dispute that led to their mother going to stay temporarily with her own mother. And the only reason the father had to leave, the older sister insisted, was that he had to get to work. He had a meeting, and so had to leave them alone, even though they were perhaps too young—even the older sister had to admit this—to be left alone. Her older sister claimed too that the father had bathed and looked refreshed and was in no way harried. But this, the younger sister was certain, was a lie, was just the older sister’s attempt to calm her. No, the father had looked terrible, was harried and even panicked, the younger sister wasn’t exaggerating, not really. Do you love me? the younger sister sometimes had to say into the phone. Do you love me? she would say. Then stop making me feel crazy, and just listen. So there was her father, in her head, simultaneously sleepless and well-rested, clean and sticky with sweat. He had to leave, he had explained to them. He was sorry but he had to leave. But it was all right, he claimed. He set the stove timer to sound when it was time for them to go to school. When they heard the timer go off, he told them, they had to go to school. Did they understand? Yes, both girls said, they understood. “And one more thing,” the father said, his hand already reaching for the knob. “Under no circumstances are you to answer the door. You are not to open the door to anyone.”
Whether you’re looking for leaks and bootlegs from across the spectrum of doom and stoner rock, or you simply want to peruse Photoshopped images of topless, winged women wielding a variety of Renaissance Faire weapons, Doomed To Be Stoned In A Sludge Swamp is the audioblog for you.
Sludge Swamp is a collaborative affair, and right now their contributors are commemorating last weekend’s Roadburn Festival — an annual Dutch gathering focused on the hard rock underground, well known among European burners as a “time and place to get high en mass [sic] and bask in the heaviness,” to quote from its MySpace profile — by uploading live sets from Roadburns past.
Right now the archive includes recordings from Witch, Sunn O))), The Melvins, Om, Wolves in the Throne Room, Brant Bjork & The Bros, Masters of Reality, Hawkwind and Earthless (along with loads of lesser knowns) for your downloading pleasure.
“Here are sixteen reports, differing approaches that, through their own individualized methods, access the one ground. It’s a privilege and blessing to have known many of the musicians on this disc, to have shared in song with some, and stages with others. In all cases I have been the healed recipient of their craft sitting alone with my headphones… Here is their auditory journal.” —Al Cisneros February 2009
by Daniel Chamberlin, Arthur contributing editor
For a while there was a lot of talk around Arthur HQ about the idea of “life metal”–as opposed to death metal–and how that applied to a lot of the bands we were listening to. These were artists making introspective, expansive metal that stood out as flashes of color in the unified spectrum of blackness that dominates the genre. Think about the sunshine Sabbath jams of Wino’s various incarnations, the core-cleansing live rituals of Sunn O))) and most of all, the contemplative rhythms of Om.
Om rose from the ashes of long-form drone-metal icons Sleep, and has since produced three albums of thoughtful, minimalist metal composed entirely of bass, drums and vocals. Transmissions From Sinai, the compilation curated by Om’s bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros plays like a companion piece to those albums; the band’s influences and fellow wanderers united by a deep narrative thread of rhythm, resistance and meditation.
Transmissions opens with Lichens’ “Kopernik Trip Note,” eight minutes of vocal tones flowing like liquid mercury through a haze of keyboard drones. The focus on rhythm is clarified with Linval Thompson’s “Wicked Babylon,” a rocksteady classic from the guy that, in addition to producing endlessly satisfying reggae albums of his own, was also responsible with lacing dub legend Scientist with some of his best rhythms.
Grouper’s “Everyone In Turn” is a cascade of vocal melodies underscored by a fog-shrouded piano. The cryptical envelopment continues with Current 93, David Tibet’s long-running Gnostic-apocalypse folk project, and is reinforced by acoustic work from former Neurosis guitarist Scott Kelly, the brushed marching drums of Quix*o*tic’s “The Breeze” and Hush Arbor’s mournful guitar dirge, “The Valley.”
Om tour-mate Mia Doi Todd marks the midpoint of the journey with the romantic bongo jam “Night Of A Thousand Kisses,” followed closely by Six Organs of Admittance’s shimmering “Bar Nasha,” one of several previously unreleased songs in this collection. This flows into the narcotic beats of Om drummer Emil Amos in his Holy Sons guise. A counterpoint follows with Pantaleimon’s gentle folk, all crisp guitar melodies and cool, clear whispered vocals.
From there it’s a downhill run through the blissed-out sunshine psychedelia of Grails’ “Acid Rain,” the intricate contortions of Sir Richard Bishop’s finger-picked raga “Almeria,” and a twin blast from two legendary guitar lifers: J. Mascis, performing the previously unreleased “War” and Wino with a churning anthem of hope, “Silver Lining.” Transmissions concludes with “David and Goliath,” a melodica-and-keyboard-drenched fable of resistance and survival from contemporary British reggae outfit Alpha & Omega.
Transmissions is a countercultural signpost: a diverse collection of music–from searing life metal through gauzy ambient piano ballads to the heaviest of dub –that serves as a soothing balm for whatever may ail you in these troubled times.