In the mid ’90s, in the cold, bleak north of Seattle, two friends in their mid 20s, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, were wading deep in the behemoth dirge of Melvins and melting into Earth’s expansive, glacially paced, guitar-based soundscapes, heavily influenced by these sounds.
“I met Stephen through my first high-school girlfriend, who had a little brother who was getting into punk and hardcore,” says Anderson, cofounder and owner of Southern Lord Recordings. “He introduced me to a friend of his, and it ended up being Stephen. It was funny, because we were young, punk, hardcore kids from the suburbs with short hair, but Stephen had long, black hair and sideburns. I was like, ‘Who’s this guy? He’s different.’ His nickname back then was Rocker Steve, which I changed to Death Metal Steve—kind of a funny little joke we had. So, that’s how I met him: we basically both grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same high school. We were both really into underground metal, punk, and hardcore.”
At that time, Anderson and O’Malley started playing together in Thorr’s Hammer and Burning Witch. They forged their own paths after the demise of those bands, only to be brought back together in Los Angeles in 1998. In a new city, at the dawn of a new decade, the two went on to form a new band, Sunn O))), and launch Southern Lord with the vision of releasing recordings of these works. “The two bands we had together had made some recordings, but there were no labels that were interested in putting them out,” Anderson reveals. “So, the intention of starting the label was based on finding a place for these recordings and making sure that they were documented, not lost or forgotten. That was our only aspiration.”
On April 1, 1998, Southern Lord was officially established and put out their first CD release by Thorr’s Hammer, Dommedagsnatt. Twenty years later, the label is marking this milestone year with the release of a limited-edition silver vinyl subscription and reissue series.
“I’m extremely honored and proud, and I honestly can’t believe we’ve been able to do this for 20 years. This year has been one of a lot of reflection for me, of going back and looking and really taking the time to think about what we have done,” Anderson explains. “This year, we’re trying to choose some titles from the catalog over the years that were important and make them available again if they’ve been out of print for a while. One of those things was the [self-titled] Probot record that we had the honor of releasing back in 2004. That record was being able to work with Dave Grohl and the people on the record, like King Diamond and Cronos from Venom and Eric Wagner from Trouble and [Scott] Wino [Weinrich] and Lee Dorrian and Lemmy from Motörhead. I think that the hard work of the label and sticking to our vision and releasing quality consistently over the years has really been important and is one of the many reasons we’re still here.”
Southern Lord has been part of the development and the rise of several bands who now help form part of the essential fabric of underground music.
“It’s an extreme honor to work with the bands, release their records, and work hard with them in getting their music out there,” Anderson admits. “When people can actually connect with it and love the band, that’s a really great feeling for me, because, honestly, when we put out an album, the intention is somewhat selfish. It’s not necessarily to put out a record for the band to be really popular and successful. The intention is, ‘Wow, I really like this band. I like their music. I want to be a part of this.’ Of course, we hope that people will like the record, but that’s not necessarily the intention, and if it doesn’t happen—which happens very often with our stuff, there’s a lot of records that we’ve released that aren’t very successful or popular—it doesn’t make them any less important in my eyes.”
As a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Southern Lord, Sunn O))) also unleashed remastered reissues of 2003’s White1 and 2004’s White2. It’s a look at the past that coincided with the recording of the band’s forthcoming album—due out in early 2019—at Electrical Audio with Steve Albini.
“That was the very first recording of Sunn O))) that we ever made, which was literally a cassette tape in a boombox in our practice space in downtown L.A.,” Anderson shares. “It was very raw and brutal and noisy, but Stephen and I both felt it was really special and important to have it available for people to hear, because it might possibly put everything in perspective.”
“When we recorded with Steve Albini, a lot of the ideas that we had for the pieces of music that we recorded were created the same way that the original practice tape was made: me and Stephen in a room with a bunch of amps, making noise and trying to manipulate amplification and tone,” he confesses. “We’ve made some incredible recordings, and we’ve had some amazing opportunities, but it really just boils down to the same thing. In the end, it’s really about the friendship and the chemistry between Stephen and I. That’s what Sunn O))) is about. So, the practice tape recording on a boombox in 1998 has the same roots and the same foundation as a recording at Electrical Audio with Steve Albini in 2018.”
“When you create music like this, especially for me, for Sunn O))), I often feel that I’m in a bubble and my perspective of it is very skewed,” Anderson continues. “I know how I feel when I’m playing it; a lot of times, people are like, ‘Your music is super oppressive and dark and heavy,’ but for me, it’s more like meditative. With this one, Stephen and I both think that it has a different feel to it, that it has more light instead of darkness, and it has so much positive energy in it. When we heard other people have the same reaction to it, I really like that, because one of the things we’ve always tried to do with Sunn O))) is, whenever we made an album, have it be somewhat different from the one before it. Every time we made a record, we wanted to have it stand on its own and be its own entity, and that’s what we hope for. I think that this record has hopefully accomplished that. I’m excited for people to hear it.”
Southern Lord will also unleash several new projects in the next few months.
“We’re working with this German experimental guitar player named Caspar Brötzmann, who released some incredible records in the ’90s with a trio called the Caspar Brötzmann Massaker, whose music was one of the first artists that Stephen and I really bonded over together in the early ’90s,” Anderson shares. “Then, we have a new record from Pelican coming out, and I also have a new musical project that I’ve been working on called This White Light. It’s somewhat different from the music that I’ve been making over the last 20 years in that it has a female vocalist and there’s a lot more melody in the music, but it still has a very powerful and epic aesthetic to it. The bass player from Pelican plays in that band with me, and we recorded some stuff earlier this year with Josh Homme from Queens Of The Stone Age. It was cool to work with him and have his input and help with the writing and everything with the music. So, I’m really looking forward to that project. It’s a bit different than Goatsnake or Sunn O))) in some ways, but it’s still my guitar playing. Hopefully, we’re going to release something from that group next year as well.”
Top photo by Peter Beste