I feel Sunn O))) before I see them. It's five minutes before 6 p.m., and I'm standing on the corner of Broadway and Westport in Kansas City, preparing for a conversation with the band's guitarist, Stephen O'Malley, when I notice a sound that makes me think a dump truck has dropped a transmission onto the pavement behind me. I look up from my trusty black notebook and locate the sound. It's coming from the side door at the Riot Room, where Sunn O))) -- pronounced simply "Sun" -- will be playing in a few hours.
I cautiously sidle up to the door for my appointment with O'Malley, hoping to make my presence apparent without interrupting the jackhammer-like guitar work that is going on inside the building. A few minutes later, the music stops and a medium-sized man with shoulder length hair and a well-kept beard emerges from the smoke that has wafted under the door. I've warned him that I'm tall, so he knows it's me. After we exchange pleasantries, I ask if they're close to being finished with their sound check so we can sit down and talk. He looks down at his watch, then back up at me, and says, "I think we're going to need another hour."
Later, when I do get to talk to O'Malley, I figure out our first, brief encounter could have served as our interview. Sunn O))) takes its sound seriously, but not because they want to entertain or because they want to please some hack music writer. The members of Sunn O))) take their sound seriously because it's what matters to them, and they are their most important customer.
Depending on the source, Sunn O))) -- from now on, "Sunn" for the sake of sentence convenience -- is a drone metal band, an ambient metal band or possibly a punk-influenced doom metal band. The two presiding members, O'Malley and Greg Anderson, met in Seattle where they began experimenting with loud and heavy guitar work of the sort that Black Sabbath might have employed if their audiences had been deaf.
I was introduced to Sunn in 2006 by an excellent New York Times Magazine article with the cute headline of "Heady Metal." Two weeks after reading the article, I discovered on pollstar.com that Sunn would be in Kansas City in a few days. I downloaded its latest album, bought a ticket, and began a brief junket into the land of heavy metal.
Heavy metal has gotten a bad rap over the years. As a child, I thought the genre was made up of scary music built for addled teenagers like a neighbor of mine who wore RATT T-shirts and drove a Trans Am. Later, I thought it was a brand of music purveyed by groupie-loving, hairspray-employing heathens who danced around the stage wearing tight pants. I thought those things because that's what most everyone thought in the 1980s. Metal had been hijacked by hair bands anxious to co-opt the genre's tough-guy image in order to sell records with pop-metal songs.
Of course, the public can be forgiven its ignorance. Heavy metal is inherently difficult to define. It seems widely accepted that Black Sabbath is the originator of the genre. But from there it becomes difficult to trace a genealogy. Judas Priest? Iron Maiden? Maybe, but in retrospect, even those bands seem cartoonish compared to the real thing. After my talk with O'Malley, I've decided that true metal is hardly cartoonish and is most definitely smarter than people think.
In my life, I've met between five and 10 people who I was completely sure are smarter than I am. That doesn't include people I'm fairly confident were smarter than I (hundreds) nor people who could be smarter than I, but with whom I've not spent enough time to really know (hundreds more). I mean only people I'm sure about. Chuck Klosterman is on the list. Tim Floyd is on the list. And now, Sunn's guitarist Stephen O'Malley is on the list.
I've long theorized that a musician has to be nearly brilliant to play complicated, heavy music. The arrangements are too difficult for anything less, which is why I assume that Trent Reznor is probably smarter than, say, the guys in Vampire Weekend -- Columbia-educated though they are. I haven't had conversations with every metal- or heavy-rock band, so I can't speak to the intelligence of all their members. But after my conversation with O'Malley, I haven't found anything to disprove my theory.
After our talk, the first thing I wrote in the black notebook was, "Kind of on a different plane." I felt, for much of our conversation, as though I was lobbing up questions and discussion points while hoping he wouldn't laugh at them. By the end of our 30 minutes together, I felt a sense of relief that we had made it through the conversation without him making fun of one of my many ludicrous conjectures about music.
O'Malley and I spoke at length about his band's recorded output. When I launched into the question that prompted the subconversation, I theorized that an act so renowned for its live show would struggle to capture that energy in recorded form. O'Malley contemplated my question and then embarked on a very eloquent answer in which he described Sunn's albums as mere snapshots captured over the arc of an entire career. He said that it is tempting to look back and say, "I wish I would have done a better job on that" or "If I had the chance to do that now, I'd do it so much differently." Obviously, he said, going back in time is impossible. More importantly, though, it wouldn't be particularly helpful. To him, the growth of the band is the phenomenon to chart.
We also talked about the ephemeral and transformative nature of music. O'Malley noted that one of his favorite things about Sunn's live performances is their ability to transform any venue into a musical experience that shuts out the influence of the building's architecture or personality. (A few hours later, I learned that they assist the transformation by filling the venue with enough smoke to choke a chimney sweep.) He said one of the band's goals is to be able to bring the audience an experience that allows them to turn off the outside world.
That night, Sunn succeeded in its goal. The band took the stage in a fog of green smoke that completely concealed them. Once ensconced in front of the now-invisible stacks of amplifiers, the band started in on a bowel-loosening guitar introduction that lasted 20 minutes. Thanks to my cursory research, I was ready for loud. But there was no real way to be prepared for what I was hearing. My entire body vibrated in time to the waves of sound as they washed over me. The hair on my arms stood up. My industrial-strength ear plugs did what they could, but my eustachian tubes started to feel strange after only 15 minutes.
(For a sonic approximation, turn computer speakers to "Deafening," click here, and pick the song called "Cry For the Weeper.")
Eventually, the smoke cleared and it became apparent that there were four robe-cloaked figures onstage. After some Druid-like gesticulations that, truth be told, seemed rather silly after the brutality of the intro, the band's singer started in on what would turn out to be a 30-minute session of part-chant, part-incantation, part spoken-word diatribe in a language other than English.
When he was finished, the band played another 20 minutes of deep, guttural guitar. There was more smoke, more loudness, more of the theme of slow changes in tempo. And then, without warning, it was over.
In our pre-show conversation, O'Malley and I shared our thoughts on the importance of heavy music as a relaxation tool. I find that it's easier to relax while listening to something complicated and heavy than it is to relax while listening to, say, Guster. I theorize that the relaxation comes about because my brain is too busy to do anything but give in, at which point it finally turns off the constant flow of nonsense that it normally feeds me. O'Malley agreed that there is something relaxing about heavy music and, really, that's sort of the point of Sunn's music to him. He finds playing it to be relaxing. He doesn't much care whether other people enjoy it. He's equally ambivalent toward any fame that might come the band's way because of its music. He -- at least it seems to me -- plays the music he does because he likes it.
I asked O'Malley if playing music is fun -- if he could go beyond saying he "likes doing it." He said that it's mostly pleasurable. Then his brown eyes brightened as he said, "You'll see tonight. Our music is kind of like a massage."
As I was being brutalized from 20 feet by music that was being delivered by speakers hooked up to amps that were hooked up to microphones, which were in front of more speakers, I struggled to see the connection. Nothing about the experience reminded me of a massage. It seemed closer to an endurance test.
But then, finally, mercifully, the music was over. The sensation was like nothing I had ever experienced. My body relaxed completely when the music stopped. It was as if I'd been taking a 16-hour version of the SAT and suddenly someone had said, "Pencils down; you're finished."
I'm not sure my reaction is the exact one Sunn is aiming for. I am sure the band members don't care. Their music is uncompromising in its originality and, while I can't claim that I love what they do, I can claim to thoroughly respect their approach.
O'Malley told me that his band is often likened to a musical extrapolation from avant-garde composers of the '60s, the names of which were said too fast for my non-avant-garde-knowledgeable head to process. For his part, he bristles at the comparison, he says, because it seems a little pretentious. In addition, he doesn't like to think that Sunn is building on something else. He told me about how he came to music -- that is, without any real training in it -- and said again that his journey through music is about him and his bandmates and not about comparisons to John Coltrane. (Another oft-made link.)
Under other circumstances, I'm not sure I would have believed him. His answer seemed too pat, too musician. But the look in his eyes as he said it was genuine. And while I've decided that he's smarter than I am, I didn't think he was trying to fool me. My suspicions were confirmed when the band left the stage that night. No thank you. No encore. Just stage lights, the secession of all sound and me, shaking in release after what I'd experienced, whether I'd liked it or not.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.