Interview: Greg Anderson (The Lord) on Cults and Collaboration

When you think of drone metal and doom, one of the names that comes to mind is probably Greg Anderson. Whether it’s for his work with Sunn O))), Goatsnake, or as The Lord, he has made music that has completely invigorated the genres and made him a household name for fans. He is preparing for the release of a new album under his solo moniker, The Lord. Every project of his has brought on creative people to collaborate on sonic output, and The Lord is no different. On his new album, Devotional, we see him collaborating with Petra Haden for the entirety of it, and we got to speak with him about the process behind everything.

When you start working on music, what do you feel differentiates tools and ideas for The Lord versus any other projects of yours?

Well, everything I’m doing under The Lord is all mine. It’s just me as far as the composition and the creation of the piece of music, so there’s no outside input. There’s no input from outside musicians; it’s solo. There’s other people that I’ve collaborated with, but that’s after the music and the main ideas have been written and composed and oftentimes recorded. All the music I’ve made almost all of my life has been with other people, and the creation of that music is  individuals bouncing ideas off of each other and that ends up creating the final music. This is all coming from me so there’s less filters, less input.

One of the artists you’ve gone back to collaborating with on multiple occasions is Petra Haden, who also works with you on the new record, Devotional, what has it been like working with her?

The majority of those compositions were all done by myself , and I would demo the ideas at home then I brought them into the studio with Brad Wood, and he has been really important in the final realization of those tracks. And Petra’s contributions on those tracks and on that album are more reacting to the compositions that I wrote. Brad has done a lot of editing and construction of the final piece of music with the structure and the more technical aspect of it.

Petra and I have not really made anything in the moment together although a lot of what she does and her vocal contribution has been in the moment, just listening to the compositions and recording those initial reactions and improvisations.

Did you record in the studio together, or did you record separately?

I was in the studio with her, but I had minimal input and actually, the way that the studio is set up, the control room with the board is in a separate room from where the tracking takes place. It’s a different building actually. There’s a small building with the control room and then a second building about 20 steps away through a few doors where all the tracking happens, and of course there’s talkback mics, and we communicate that way, but Petra’s performance was more herself. She’s an incredible musician, and for me, it was more about letting her be as free as possible and really interested in her reactions and what she was coming up with rather than giving directions, and sometimes she would ask questions but it was very minimal on my part.

She just came in the studio and went for it, and I think she is a master of improvisation as well so, I knew and was excited for what she was gonna do. I didn’t have to have all of these ideas ready to guide her through anything, that wasn’t what I was going to do or what we were going to work on together.

You don’t have any lyrics on the record amidst Petra’s vocalizations; however the record comes with poetry by Ian Astbury for each song. How did those writings come about?

Petra had asked me if I had lyrics ,and I didn’t have anything, and a lot of the things I heard from her and the things that we had worked on together ages ago were wordless vocalizations, and I liked that. I like the anonymity of the vocals; it allows the listener to create their own thoughts and perceptions from it. It can be anything; however it makes the listener feel and what it evokes from listeners can give it the lyrics they want.

There are strong themes on the record, and there are tracks that I shared those ideas with Petra, but they were also developed later on when songs were being mixed. Ian Astbury has been a real strong supporter of other music that I’ve done, especially with Sunn O))) and released through the Southern Lord label, and I shared some of the early recordings and demo of The Lord recordings with him and he really liked them a lot. He would write me back with his observations or feelings and visualizations that he got from the music that were just amazing. A lot of them had to do with nature and what he heard and saw in his head when he listened to these tracks, so I asked him if he would be interested in jotting some of that stuff down and elaborating on it with a unique take on liner notes, and that’s what was provided for the back of the album.

Yeah, I mean, they’re gorgeous. I’ve seen the layout and everything, and it looks wonderful, and I really like the words he made for the record; I feel like they’re very fitting.

Thank you so much; yeah, it’s really a trip. Not only am I a fan of his music, but as a person, he’s really intense, and he’s a very deep thinker, and that’s one of the things that we bond on. Our obsession with different kinds of music and he’s really forthcoming about sharing his feelings about things, and he does it in a way that gets me more excited about the music. He was inspiring throughout the process as well, sharing rough mixes with him, and he’s a huge fan of Petra’s, and sharing that stuff was really exciting. He was really pushing,  like “You gotta do more of this, you gotta keep going” and he wants to make short films for the music which he talks about often. The ideas he had for some of the short films and videos are what he wrote in the liner note poetry. To me, he’s an important part of this record as well. 

With your music, you are a big fan of collaboration, having done quite a few in the past over the course of multiple projects. What are your favorite elements of collaborating with other artists?

As far as the stuff under The Lord, I really enjoy creating the music and having an idea of who I’d like to ask and see if they’re interested in working with me. Some of the stuff is written with somebody in mind and hoping they’ll say yes. With the Petra stuff, we’d worked together before, and we want to continue to work together, so I already knew that we were fortunate enough to work together on this so I had more purpose and more vision for this and it was stronger because I knew who was going to be involved. I like the interaction, and as I’ve gotten older it’s gotten harder to be in a functioning ongoing band. It’s cool to do shorter-term things or things that doesn’t have to be a full album or something you’re gonna get in the band and go work on, it’s just mutual respect for each other and making music together and experimenting. That’s part of what it’s about.

Working with William Duvall, I’d been a huge fan of his for a long time, and I had written some riffs and had some ideas and I thought his vocals would be really, really cool on it and I was really, really fortunate to have him like the track. I sent him some demos, and he was like, “Oh, man, this is really cool, I would love to put some vocals on this for you,” and I really enjoy that.

It doesn’t have to be this long-term thing or a commitment; let’s just work on something here and now, and if it works out, awesome, but if it doesn’t, it’s no big deal. Whereas with a band, you’ve got a lot of baggage and more expectations which can affect the music; these are more just sparks in the moment to work with interesting people on.

When you do collaborative work with vocalists who utilize lyrics, how do you approach the lyric writing process? Do you like to provide lyrics to vocalists you work with, work with them on lyrics, or give them free rein?

Free rein. I’m not a lyrics person; I don’t write lyrics very often. I have in the past, but something that really started in the late ’90s with the bands I was in was that I was not the singer, so I was not writing lyrics. I wrote a few things for a project I had a couple years ago called This White Light, and I worked on lyrics with the vocalist of that group, but it’s not really something I do. Every once in a while, I have an idea or a couple lines, but if I jot that down I use that more as inspiration for me or a reminder when I’m writing or finishing the piece of music. Maybe it’s a phrase or a description of something and I use that as inspiration for the music.

In the case of William Duvall and Robin Watte, who I worked with as well, and Attila Csihar on the Forest Nocturne record, those lyrics were all stuff that they came up with, and I think that it was a reaction to the music as well, and the things that they were hearing and feeling when I presented it to them as well.

The content of Devotional was very much inspired by Indian classical music and the Rajneesh movement, especially the life of Ma Anand Sheela. When did you learn about the movement and what drew you to it for inspiration?

I guess you can call it a morbid fascination with cults. I actually grew up in Seattle, Washington and, as far as the Pacific Northwest goes, it was not too far from where the Rajnessh compound was in Antelope, Oregon. When I was in high school, I would go to Seattle to see a lot of record shops and cool stores and when I would go there on the weekends you would see groups of people in all purple handing out literature and that was something I was really fascinated with. Through different news sources, I found out that it was this cult or commune that was happening so I was really fascinated by that whole story.

Then a couple years ago, there was a documentary series that came out—I think on Netflix—called Wild Country and it was all about that. It had a really in-depth look at the Rajneesh with interviews, and I found it completely fascinating, what they created in the middle of nowhere in Oregon. That the followers had such devotion and commitment to their guru, Osho, and the inner workings of his organization was run by Ma Anand Sheela, and then there was this whole drama around their relationship disintegrating and her taking a lot of followers to follow her instead of him and accusations of murder, and it was a really fascinating story.

I thought Ma Anand Sheela, the interviews with her in particular in that documentary, was really fascinating. Her personality and viewpoint on things, I really liked the story. I was listening to a lot of Indian classical music at the time and watching this, and I wanted to create something that evoked that.

Indian classical music has a lot of sarod and sitar and instruments that are very hypnotic and meditative. This inspiration that I took from the Rajneesh story was to give it a twist. Give it an almost dark, maybe an almost evil-sounding twist. I come from an underground metal background, and so, trying to take these sounds I get from Black Sabbath and death metal and pair them with this more meditative and long, drawn-out droning music. This is somewhat what I tried to create when I think of what that sound is. Indian classical music can be very peaceful, and I love that about it, but I come from something much different, and we’re like that in Sunn O))) as well, so I was trying to make music that was somewhat shorter so the record is like choice cuts or excerpts from the total work. These are pieces that could somewhat be digested a little easier than 15-, 20-minute pieces of music.

Absolutely, that totally makes sense. It’s also cool that you’re into more occult stuff because that’s where all my knowledge of the Rajneesh movement came from.

It’s fascinating, isn’t it? I can never put my finger on why that is, why I’m so attracted to this because a lot of it is really messed up. Like the Jim Jones with the Guyana stuff then the Jonestown massacre, and Heaven’s Gate, I mean, it never ends up well, does it? I don’t know why I’m so fascinated with it. Maybe it’s because I consider myself to be a pretty intense person, and I get really obsessed with things and so maybe I see a connection to how these devotees are with these concepts and they give themselves over to it, and to me maybe that’s kind of what I’ve done with music. I’ve given myself over to music and so I see myself in some of those people and those followings.

Emma Maatman did the artwork for the record, where did the idea for the artwork come from?

Emma worked for Southern Lord; she was a designer for Southern Lord. I had discussed with her that I wanted it to have a religious aesthetic to it in some way. I picked out the imagery for it, and I showed her a few things, and I also love the look of Indian classical records from the ‘60s, and so the typography and some of the layout is inspired by that as well. Some symbolism on the record are actually symbols from the Rajneesh. The bird and the vertigo-looking spiral on the record are from the Rajneesh.

I feel a little weird taking an element like that sometimes, I know it has different connotations for a lot of people and sometimes it’s really negative and really disruptive. I didn’t want it to be like that. It was more about how when I saw those images I felt they were really powerful and very special so I lifted them and adapted them to that record.

I also wanted something that was a little more light. The solo record I came out with before this one, Forest Nocturne, has Dan Seagrave’s artwork on it, and he’s one of my favorites of all time, especially stuff that he did for Dismember and Entombed, and that has a total different vibe, and the music does as well in my eyes. It’s much darker and has a lot more metal, so with this one, I wanted something that was maybe the opposite of that. Something with light and has the right atmosphere and vibe.

As someone who has written an immense back catalog of music over multiple decades, what inspires you most musically in this day and age?

Well, that’s a very tough and broad question. Black Sabbath is such a massive influence and has been my entire life for sure. Their music and atmosphere is something I’ve been attracted to and has been influential forever. I think a lot of the other bands that have inspired me have also been inspired by Sabbath, so let’s just start at the top there even though I dive a lot deeper as a music-obsessed fanatic. I’m into a lot of the offshoots and obscure bands and a lot of those have been influential as well, but they all point back to Black Sabbath.

The only artist off the top of my head that does not point back to Black Sabbath is Miles Davis. That’s another artist who is one of my favorites and very influential.

In the last couple years, though, there’s been a lot of music that’s been really inspiring. Obviously we talked about Indian classical music, but there was one artist in particular, Shiv Kumar Sharma, who is a master of the santoor, and his music was really important and influential. Beyond music, though, and of course this goes for many, many, many different people who come from all different walks and facets and paths of life, but the pandemic. Having to survive through it and face it, that was a huge part of my life and my inspiration.

Really, the fact was not being able to play music with other people in the way that I usually would, like with Sunn O)), it turned me to my garage. I had all these ideas and all this creativity pouring out of me, so I had to figure out how to channel it and focus it, so that’s what all this solo stuff is a result of. I want to communicate through my music, I want to put this out, I want to share this with people. I wanna look at this like a silver lining or a good thing that came out of all of this, getting to play with these incredible musicians that I may not have had the opportunity or chance to if we weren’t in the situation we were in, especially with Petra.

She lives here locally so it was really good to be able to work with her and stay and be creative with somebody who I didn’t get to normally. We both live in LA and, in many ways, were trapped here haha, so we got to make the best of it. And, to me, it got me through a lot of this. Without it, I don’t want to know what would have happened, but it was a way to deal with and cope with what was going on over the last couple of years.

Photo courtesy of Al Overdrive

You can pre-order the new The Lord album, Devotional, out through Southern Lord on October 21 here.

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