By Jack Deming
Southern Lord has been redefining heavy since its foundation by owners Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley in 1998, and boasts a lineup consisting of their own iconic drone entity Sunn O))), the Japanese experimental outfit Boris, drone godfathers Earth, American Black Metallers Wolves in the Throne Room, and Attila Csihar of Mayhem fame, among many others.
I called up owner Greg Anderson at the Southern Lord offices in Hollywood for an engaging discussion on current affairs at Southern Lord, changing media formats in music, and their implications for the future of the industry.
So how’s business?
It’s goin’ good! (laughs)
Everything is going alright. CD sales are down a little bit but digital has been kind of taking off for us recently, which is cool - it’s an extra source of income, but not particularly my favorite format of representing our releases.
Yeah, the vast majority of Southern Lord’s releases seem to be put out at least in part on vinyl. It seems that to strive for the crispest and most polished sound possible would be rather missing the point with Southern Lord’s variety of metal right?
Yeah, I think the big problem with digital is the way that people are listening to the albums on small computer speakers which to me doesn’t represent the wide range of frequencies that are on a recording. So that’s kinda strike one, and strike two, to me, is not being able to really have any sort of artwork or packaging that goes with the album, which is a really important part of what we do - we really like to have a nice package and spend extra time and money towards the packaging, because I think, ya know, the artist has put a lot of effort into the music and so the artwork and the package should match that effort so that you have a complete package - I think that with digital you’re not getting that. With vinyl you have a larger format to work with and I think a lot of the time some of these albums can sound better on vinyl versus digital, as it definitely forces people to play them on a stereo that usually has better capabilities of reproducing the audio and the frequencies on the recording.
For sure, for sure. I understand that Stephen (O’Malley) does a lot of the artwork for Southern Lord’s releases, so in addition to that what sort of active roles do you both take in running the label?
Stephen is the art director - he does the majority of our layouts and the album designs, but that’s solely where he’s at in regards to the label - he’s also in quite a few of the bands we put out too, which is a huge part of it. But as far as the business and the day-to-day things go, it’s handled by myself and the staff here at Southern Lord.
Cool, so how big of an operation is it?
We have five employees and about 1800 square feet office space in the middle of Hollywood here, which to me is sort of a strange place for us in some ways, considering our surroundings and what we do, but it works and we’ve got a good thing going here I think.
Right, so are there any new offerings or new blood that you are particularly keen on?
Sure yeah we just signed a couple new groups that I’m really excited about, one is called Black Cobra
, and the other is called Eagle Twin
, and we’re putting out their records sometime within the next four to five months. We also have a new record from Wolves in the Throne Room
who we put out a record from a couple years ago, a group who have done really well and progressed and grown over the past couple of years. Yesterday we released the first solo album from Wino
who we’ve worked with in the past in some of his other bands like The Hidden Hand
, Saint Vitus
, and The Obsessed
, and he also contributed a track to the Probot
record that we put out - but it’s his first solo record, doing all the songwriting and all the singing, and it’s an amazing album.
I know that you have a relatively new project called Ascend, anything coming in the future?
is myself and Gentry Densley who is actually in the group Eagle Twin that I mentioned before whose record we’re putting out. We put out a record last year – Gentry’s someone who I’ve known for a really long time, and I’ve always wanted to do a collaboration with him and finally we put that together. We’ll actually start recording some more stuff we’ll probably have another Ascend release maybe by the end of the year, but for the moment he’s concentrating on his other project Eagle Twin
and I’m also working hard on the release of the new Sunn O)))
record. But it’s definitely something I want to pursue further, for sure.
Cool – So are there any particular things that you look for when signing a new band?
Nothing’s set in stone and there’s no rulebook for it, I mean I really go with my gut feeling – if something hits me over the head and it’s something that I like basically. The label works with bands that I personally really like, I don’t really put out records by bands that give me a chance to you know, really crack into the mainstream or sell a lot of records with, it’s more based on my personal taste and what I’m really into.
Wolves in the Throne Room
Your latest SunnO))) release, the live double album Dømkirke, was interestingly recorded in a Norwegian Cathedral in Bergen - you’ve got a pipe organ in there and you collaborated with Attila of Mayhem; had a project in a venue like this been on your mind for a while prior to this?
Yeah we had opportunities to do that a few times, and that was my favorite church that we played in – we’ve played in around five or six churches over the last couple of years, and that event in particular was really special as it was put together as part of a festival whose promoters went out of their way to pick a special setting for Sunn O)))
, and basically had this concept for us to play in this cathedral and work with the actual church organ built into the cathedral. We had never had a chance to do that before, all the churches that we had played before weren’t quite set up like that. And considering the history of heavy metal music and religion and churches in Norway along with Mayhem
and the Norwegian Black Metal scene was a very interesting dynamic for the show – and then having Attila who is the singer for Mayhem play with us was also very interesting. The fact that the church allowed it to happen was kind of a small miracle in itself, (laughs)
because of the fact that one of the most famous Norwegian churches that was burned down by Count Grishnackh is five miles away from the church that we played at, so it was a very unique and special experience – we didn’t even plan on releasing material from it but it was recorded, and once we heard how that turned out we thought it would be a great opportunity to have it documented properly.
Yeah it’s an absolutely fantastic record – you mentioned a forthcoming Sunn O))) release?
Yeah we’ve actually been working on this for quite a while - we started October of 2007 – and there are several reasons why it has taken so long. One of the reasons is that we really sort of stepped out a bit and tried to go in some different directions with this one; we’re working with a lot of acoustic instruments, strings, horns – we’re incorporating a lot of symphonic elements into the record but not in a way that’s like ‘Sunn O)))
with strings’, and it’s not you know, Sunn O)))
playing with the San Francisco Philharmonic Orchestra, not like a Metallica
orchestra situation, but it’s with a composer and arranger named Eyvind Kang
who worked with us and helped arrange and orchestrate things into a really experimental and avant-garde way, so it definitely sounds different and interesting. We were really fortunate to work with Attila again on this record – this’ll be the first time that we’ve actually worked in the studio with him, on all the other recordings that we have with Attila other than the Dømkirke
record we sent him the tracks and he recorded the vocals in Europe and the two performances were mixed together - so this was the first time that we were actually writing and composing the material in the studio together which was a really great experience because I think its way more developed than any other stuff that we’ve done with him. I really like the other stuff that we’ve done with him – but this is a step up. So I’m excited, it’s finally finished (laughs)
and we’re looking to release it sometime before summer in around April or May or so.
What is your favorite setting to listen to music in terms of environment and medium and such?
Hmm, in my house, sitting on my couch or in a comfortable chair (laughs)
with my stereo – I think that’s my favorite – with a glass of wine. Unfortunately I don’t get to do that as often as I would like to because I have a wife and a daughter, so it’s kind of a treat to be able to listen to music totally how I want to - I mean sometimes I’m just listening to music cranked up as loud as it can go in my car (laughs)
In closing, how do you feel about the looming digital age in which we live and its implications for not necessarily the economic, but rather the aesthetic future of music and the record industry?
Well, I feel torn - I mean on one hand we’ve completely embraced it and we’ve made our catalogue available for digital distribution, and on the other hand like I said before, I’m not a fan of the format. Problem number one is that you’re starting off with the computer to listen to music - and that really sets it up for failure right from the start (laughs)
. But I do understand the convenience and everyone’s obsession with the quickness of just getting it on their iPod, and what we’ve seen by offering our catalogue online is that people are downloading it, but also maybe turning around and buying the vinyl or the CD because they want the packaging and they want to hold it in their hand, because what we’ve done with the packaging is something credible and its something worthwhile, and its worth your time. I think that especially independent labels where this is the norm will be alright and possibly thrive, especially with vinyl sales. But with the major labels where it’s just a throwaway commodity, I think that that’s where people are just going to download it for free - and therefore those are the companies that will be in the most trouble. But for us, CD sales have gone down a bit but the vinyl sales have gone through the roof – but for right now, knock on wood, things are going well and people seem to appreciate what we’re offering.
Official Southern Lord Records Website
Official Southern Lord Records Myspace