by carl wilson

Here Comes the Sunn0))), Again


There were many bright spots in this weekend's Sunday Times Magazine piece about art-metal by John Wray, despite its predictably narrow focus on Sunn0))) and, peripherally, other Southern Lord bands, and despite the even more predictable angle of "look! metal isn't just by dumb people," which is annoying since, as I said in my own Sunn0))) piece a couple of weeks ago, metal has always been one of music's most intensely autodidactically intellectual genres, as its preoccupation with mythology and arcana gives blatantly away. It would be more accurate to say that Sunn0))) and kin mark a level of self-consciousness at which metal becomes not just intellectual on its own terms but able to translate it into conventional art-world-intellectual terms, less of an outsider form - a dynamic you can hear the musicians negotiating in their interviews. But it still had much to offer: First, everything about Boris, a band I don't know very well, thrilled me, with its upper-case (rawk) and lower-case (experimental) identities - it's great when double-neck-guitarist Takeshi enthusiastically suggests that Metallica ought to try the same thing. Then there's all of Sunn0)))'s dancing around how much they are kidding with the robes and fog and Satanism - they get how funny metal is but also think it can be seriously valuable, which is just the right blend aka philosophy of life. It's very endearing when O'Malley can't quite bring himself to say that "Southern Lord" is a metal term for the devil, or when Anderson says that the robes function as not only costumes but a kind of performative isolation booth - they help shut out the audience, i.e., the embarrassments of being on-stage, while also giving the audience pleasure by heightening that same silliness of the proceedings - and when he takes umbrage at the idea that he's not into melody (an understandable assumption to take from the band's drone-based sound) and says how much he loves Stevie Wonder. (It's less endearing when the writer feigns - I think it's feigned - surprise at their interest in formal minimalism, as if that weren't obvious in the music. It's pandering to the very reader prejudice the article is purporting to upset. Several times in the piece I wondered how much the magazine editors influenced such moments.)

But most intriguing of all is the way O'Malley taxonomizes the audience. This passage is worth quoting in full:

"Three basic types of people come to see us play," O'Malley told me. "First, the people who are really into experimental music or metal the passionate music lovers; then you've got the spectacle crowd, who come for the robes and the smoke machines; last, you have a group of people who are more interested in the physical aspect of it. Those are the people who are just like, I'm going to stand at the front of the stage for an hour and a half can I take it? Will I wet my pants? Will I puke? I'm going to be at the very front, in front of these amps for 75 minutes, and then when it's done I'll feel liberated, or I'll feel like I've beaten the band or whatever, no matter how tortuous it is." I pointed out that it's fairly uncommon for a band to divide its fan base into the aural, the visual and the tactile: I'd expected him to make a distinction between metal and experimental-music fans. O'Malley nodded politely, then did his best to bring me up to date. "In the past three or four years, since the point when the Internet started becoming the primary source for discovering music, the lines between different styles have really begun to blur." He spread his arms as he said this, looking at me almost slyly, as if he were about to perform a magic trick. "There's so much access to so many different types of music now, it's no wonder that people aren't categorizing themselves so sharply. It's pretty awesome, really."

These are the sorts of insights you can only get directly from musicians themselves - not the Internet stuff, which I think we're all realizing but was articulated particularly well there, but the notion of looking at audiences less in genre-sociological categories and more in functional terms of their relationship to the music. Because I happened to watch Julien Temple's Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury tonight, which includes a great piece of archival footage of Shane McGowan and a girlfriend as punk fans singing Anarchy in the UK, it occurs to me to think of the old Pogues audience this way: Not just as a mixture between Irish-folk fans and punk fans, the way the music explicitly suggests, but as divided between the people who came for the drunken party and those who came for McGowan's poetry and the musicianship; this captures more about the experience of being at those gigs, and the clashes between factions of the audience, than the genre reading does. It's a kind of reception analysis reminiscent of the way cultural-studies sociologists like Simon Frith, or someone like Christopher Small, have looked at musical events: A 360-degree view of how the trappings around the (small-m) music actually form the social category of what we mean by Music. (Small calls it "musicking.") It's a question I plan to ask more musicians in interviews in the future - what do you observe about your fans, when you are on the road, that might be different than critics' armchair speculation? I'm often relatively uninterested in doing interviews, because I'm not very into writing personality-profile journalism, but that sort of data seems extremely critically fertile, and unavailable unless you're able to go to many of a band's shows in person.

PS: This was also one of the occasions when you wonder how much the Times the newspaper and the Times the magazine communicate, as Jon Caraminica did an extensive, strong piece on art-metal in Arts & Leisure (picked up in the Herald Tribune) last year. I'm not complaining - each had different strengths, and I guess you can't expect that readers will have read the prior piece - but it reinforces the suspicion of disconnect.

| Posted by zoilus on Monday, May 29 at 3:18 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)



If you've never checked out Anderson's earlier band "Engine Kid," they're worth a listen too. More like Crazyhorse than death metal. But cool. I think they even started getting some horns involved toward the end.

Posted by j-lon on May 29, 2006 2:04 PM



Carl, I can confirm from experience that the Times Mag and the Times proper don't communicate well. (In fact, the Times is famous for not communicating, period: in the past there has been tons of embarrassing overlap between the daily Arts seciton and Sunday A&L.; This has since been rectified with more integrated Arts coverage.) Not that long ago, I pitched and was assigned a piece on Benjamin Biolay for A&L;, and was on my way to Paris before anyone realized that the Magazine had a Biolay profile in the can for many months. And guess who made this important discovery? An eagle-eyed editor? Nope, 'twas Biolay soi-meme...

Posted by Jody on May 29, 2006 7:47 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson