Stephen O’Malley is one half of the seismic drone-rock band Sunn 0))) and he also oversees the design and art direction of their releases. With their new album, Monoliths & Dimensions released on Southern Records this week, we asked him about how the band takes an active role in packaging up some of the heaviest music around…
In the ten years they’ve been creating their own brand of low-end rock as Sunn 0))), the band has released a series of records with covers that both eschew and knowingly reference the visual motifs of the doom metal scene from which they’ve emerged.
Over seven albums they’ve used various artists’ works to try and convey the esoteric, other-wordly nature of their intense music (including UK illustrator Jo Ratcliffe, as shown below). For the latest album, the band approached the artist Richard Serra for permission to use one of his works, Out-of-Round X, on the sleeve.
Creative Review: The visual is an important component to Sunn’s music. [The band wear robes on stage, standing in front of a wall of Sunn 0))) amps, from which they took their moniker.] Does your creative input in Sunn’s album sleeves differ from each release depending on how you feel you want the music to be represented?
Stephen O’Malley: Well, it differentiates with each release with the constant being that I’m personally art directing and designing each piece. This includes the art direction of the commissioned artwork, when it happens. This can be quite literal, like Justin Bartlett working off of my own sketches, or more classically directed, as in Jo Ratcliffe‘s imagery for the Black1 album which was based off of text instruction. I’ve been working as a designer for 15 years, and while these days I’m doing much less of it, I’m still present in the design of each Sunn O))) title.
Each release has a strong visual concept, which attempts to personify what I hear as our conceptual audial approach. This can be an enormous challenge, coming from both an internal perspective of the music, and attempting to have an external interpretive and fresh and clear visual standpoint. Maybe this isn’t the best way to going about creating a well rounded work… but many aspects of Sunn O))) operate in similarly insular, but collaborative, fashion.
Dømkirke, 2008. Art by Tanya Stene
CR: How did the sleeve for Monoliths & Dimensions come about? Presumably Richard Serra sees Sunn’s art as a good fit with his own?
SO’M: I started working on the art direction for this album nearly a year before the design was completed. The main differences, and the main progressions, with this album sonically were the expansion of the timbre through a weaving and incorporation of acoustic ensemble instrumentation and arrangement. The processes of achieving this in an integrated way required a level of layered delicacy and subtleness which was frankly new to our music. I wanted the visual aspects and packaging designs to capture this element as well and this required a lot of breathing time with the various ideas to see how they settled, in the longer term.
Serra is an artist I have been a fan/follower of for several years and whose sculptural work has provided a large sense of inspiration and pleasure when encountered. This blatant elemental use of magnetism and gravity appeals as a physical sense of some of the principles we see in our music as well. I guess we are fortunate to have this sculptural metaphor with our music.
The communication with Serra’s studio was very friendly and encouraging. It was a great surprise, honour and gratification to have the work offered for use to our project!
Out-of-Round X by Richard Serra, as featured on Monoliths & Dimensions, 2009
CR: What was it about Out-of-Round X, that you’ve used on the cover, that appealed to you?
SO’M: I encountered Serra’s painting rather recently actually, but again there was heavy resonance there, especially in the physicality of his surface emerging from a rather minimal material use. Out-of-Round X provides many metaphors with our project’s moniker, the implication of radiation and collective colour, movement and energy in stasis, etc. I’m also very attracted to the title concept, which directly relates to the concept of our track, Big Church, on M&D. I interpreted as simply: working freely outside of the space, physically and of implied societal morals and ethics.
Black1, 2006. Art by Jo Ratcliffe
CR: Can you tell us a bit about the Japanese edition of the record, that includes the four art cards? Is this the visual equivalent of bonus tracks?
SO’M: Our partner label in Japan, Daymare, usually asks for an extra element to differentiate their release from the US domestic one mainly to provide an attractive alternative for Japanese buyers vs. the US imports. Classically, and traditionally, this is piece of unreleased music. Monoliths & Dimensions was a complete album, there were no other relative tracks available. I decided to work with a more archival package design instead, to give more attention to the great visual artists we are working with on the album.
The ‘art cards’ are small prints of the portrait cyanotypes prints created by various photographers and printed by Mathilde Darel. The edition also has a poster of the band at the Temple of the Moon in Teotiuachan as shot by by Gisèle Vienne. Generally the Japanese edition in this case is a more artistic presentation of the visual material than the more commodified jewel-case consumer edition.
The Grimm Robe Demos, 2000 (demo 1998)
CR: How important is the ‘physicality’ of a release to you? [One of the band’s previous vinyl releases, Dømkirke, weighed in at over a pound]. It seems that with more music being experienced digitally, bands are perhaps putting more effort into creating beautiful packaging?
SO’M: I don’t know if there’s more effort being put in than in the past; its probably actually being noticed more as the alternative is a non-physical-space digital file. It’s a long topic which has already been debated endlessly. I feel like the free access and encountering of music via files is actually closer to music tradition than the obligatory purchasing of product containing the musical experience. Nevertheless, we pride ourselves in the object of our efforts. The vinyl especially is an extension of various parts of the aesthetic principle of what Sunn O))) is. The analogue, the historical rock productions, etc., not to mention the sense of scale and space, and of being more permanent.
White2, 2004. Art by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (The Beekeepers, detail, 1567-68)
CR: Looking through your releases, do you have one that you feel particularly good about when you revisit it? The art used on White2, for example, has those faceless figures and works really well with the typography. Where does that image come from?
SO’M: As far as Sunn O))) is concerned White2 is a favorite for certain. The Breugel image on the cover symbolised the psychedelic and illusionary elements which were emerging from the music more presently then for the first time. It’s simply an image of 15th century beekeepers, but seems alien to the viewer’s modern sensibilities. Much as Sunn O))) may exist in some ways in early 1970s heavy rock but orbit far from contemporary metal. Beside this, the typography, graphics and art direction were a highlight for me. It’s implied sophistication, or rather a minimal approach allowing the listener, viewer, to draw their own impression out of the canvas on their own terms.