The Power of the Riff, the righteous metal and hardcore-encompassing spectacular that has bludgeoned heads the last couple of years exclusively on the west coast, makes its triumphant debut in Brooklyn this weekend. Organizers Greg Anderson (of Southern Lord and doom metal overlords Sunn O))) and Sam Velde (terrorizing frontman of L.A.’s Night Horse—acting on a tip from Brooklyn Vegan’s Fred Pessaro—have brought with them a jaw-dropping lineup of acts on and off Southern Lord: NYC hardcore legends Agnostic Front and Detroit’s Negative Approach will play alongside metal visionaries like Pentagram and Winter. As if playing the part of curator wasn’t enough, Anderson and bandmate Stephen O’Malley will don their trademark gloom ‘n’ doom robes for a much anticipated appearance by their trailblazing, cataclysmic drone band.
Sound of the City caught Anderson at his Southern Lord office in L.A. to talk The Power of the Riff and the future of sunn O))); the interview started just as OFF! guitarist Dmitri Coats burst into his office.
Does Dmitiri from OFF! hang out at the Southern Lord office a lot?
[Laughs] Well, he actually rents out an extra office space that we have in our building. He has his OFF! stuff in there so he’s in and out.
Was OFF! close to signing with Southern Lord instead of Vice Records?
No, not really. We did a 7-inch with OFF! about a year ago last summer. But we might work together in the future. We work well together and we really like what those guys do.
OFF! played The Power of the Riff in L.A. just recently, too.
Yeah, they were great. It was great to have’em there.
How did you go about choosing the non-Southern Lord’ers, like OFF! for the west coast version and Negative Approach and Agnostic Front for the east coast Power of the Riff?
It’s myself and my partner Sam and we’re basically act as curators for this thing and it goes beyond [being a Southern Lord band]; it’s basically bands that we like. We’re both huge music fans and there’s ton of non-Southern Lord bands that we like [laughing]. It’s really whatever we’re into and friends of bands, as well. There’s no real strict criteria. [Laughing]
Were bands like Negative Approach and Agnostic Front instrumental in your aesthetic trajectory, knowing you were immersed in the hardcore scene growing up?
The thing is, Sam and I both really kind of come from the same background and lot of similar tastes in music. We both grew up and got into underground music in the ’80s and the hardcore scene and we have a lot of similarities as far as taste and things that we’ve gotten into over the years and worked together on here and there. People we’ve been involved with or labels and bands we’ve been involved with or friends with or whatever, there are lot of threads between him and I and that’s what ends up coming out The Power of the Riff shows.
How did it come about that you’d bring The Power of The Riff to New York this year?
We’d been talking to Fred Pessaro from Brooklyn Vegan—he’s an ally and a good friend of ours—and he suggested it, actually. We’d been slowly expanding this thing. We’ve done shows up to the coast and Power of the Riff would start in L.A. and then some of those bands will branch out and do San Francisco and Seattle. So, slowly, we’re spreading our filth here and New York made a lot of sense to everybody [laughing]. New York’s a great, great place for shows and really enthusiastic and supportive audiences. With Fred’s help, we decided to give it a shot.
How do you compare the audiences in L.A. to that in New York?
It’s different but I think the audiences there [in New York] seem to be a lot more rabid [laughing]—I guess that’s the word. I don’t want to say they are more enthusiastic [than the L.A. audiences) but they seem to be a little more selective and really dig into the underground stuff, whereas in L.A., people are kinda more like open to whatever. They are not as choosy or as particular to me as the New York crowd.
It seems to me in New York it doesn’t really matter who you are or what band you are, people are gonna come to your show and you’re gonna have some rabid fans there that know everything about what you’re doing. I’ve noticed that all my entire life with New York—with whatever band I’ve been in, whatever size it is—there was never a bad show in New York. There is always a bunch of people that will go. I tell people, “If your band ever had a bad show in New York, you probably really suck.” [laughing] It’s like, in New York, you’re always gonna have a good show there, whereas in L.A., that’s not necessarily the case. L.A. can be very fickle and it’s more difficult to actually put on shows [there]; the venues are fewer and farther between than in New York.
I’ve always had really great experiences in New York and New York’s always been very supportive with anything I’ve ever done musically, especially now in the last couple of years with sunn O))). We’ve always had great shows in New York and great memories. We have a good following there.
Can you point to any shows sunn O))) played in New York that stand out?
Yeah we did a show in 2007 at the club that used to be the Limelight (Avalon)—an old church that was converted into a space. We played there with Boris and that was a great show. We also played a show a couple years ago at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn with Eagle Twin and Pelican and I think Earth played that show, too. That was a special show. It was sold out and that venue was really unique and interesting and really old and that made for a really unique atmosphere at that show.
Sunn O))) (live, 2009)
Besides Agnostic Front, there isn’t much NYC and Brooklyn representation in the lineup of The Power of the Riff.
I will say this: my partner Sam and I, one of the things that we do try to do with The Power of the Riff in L.A. is really encourage getting local Southern California bands to play. Given more time in the future, I think we will reach out and dig a little deeper and try to get more New York bands involved in this. I gotta says also, I don’t want to forget about Winter. They’re a New York band [laughing] and one of my favorite bands of all time. Also Salvation and Agnostic Front are of course N.Y. bands. Stephen from Sunn O))) lived in NY for a long time. Sunn O))) has very strong ties to N.Y.!
The couple prior years of The Power of the Riff had corporate sponsorship behind it and it was a free event. But this year it’s completely free of any backing. Did you get sell out accusations from diehards about having Converse back the fest?
Yeah, I don’t care about that kind of stuff, man. I’m a 42-year-old dad and husband with two kids, ya know? I think this whole idea of corporate sponsorship in underground music is really a fluke and it’s kind of a blessing in a lot of ways. Nowadays, with resources dwindling making it harder and harder to do stuff and less and less money to go around for this music, there’s never a lot of money available in this scene at all. So for somebody to come in and basically throw around a bunch of money and increase the resources for bands and promoters to do stuff, it’s kind of a small miracle. But I really don’t think it’s gonna last long because at some point somebody is gonna start running numbers and go “We should be buying cars! What are we doing?” [Laughing]. I say use it while you can and take advantage of it and use it for something good. I don’t think there anything wrong with it. Everybody has their own opinion about it and if you don’t want to be involved with it, then don’t. There’s several bands we’ve reached out to that have declined our invitation because of involvement we’ve had with corporate sponsorship. There are other bands that have turned us down because they know that’s what we’ve done in the past. And that’s fine. It’s not gonna make me any less of a fan of that band. Everyone’s got their different reasons and different things and different ways of operating. I’m not gonna judge them.
I will say with this Power of the Riff this year in L.A. and this one in New York, there was absolutely no corporate sponsorship involved in it at all, which I think we’ve… milked the cow dry, basically [laughing]. I think the time is running out for this [sponsorship] kind of stuff. I think people are like “OK, well, this really isn’t benefiting us the way we want it to.” I think it’s gonna end sometime soon.
It’s been a few years since Sunn 0)))’s last record, Monoliths & Dimensions. Are you guys working on new material?
No, we’re not really working on anything new right now. We have discussed some ideas about what we would like to try to do. But it’s really difficult for us to get together these days because we all live in really far-away places from each other. Stephen, the other guitar player, lives in Paris and I live in Los Angeles and the vocalist we’ve been working with a lot lives in Budapest, Hungary and our sound engineer, he works and lives in Seattle. So, we’re all living, basically, as far as we possibly can from each other—but not on purpose! [laughing] So it becomes difficult for us, logistically, to get together and do stuff. But there definitely is a desire to make a record and to do something together; it just hasn’t happened yet.
Interestingly enough, Stephen and I have been get together. He’s been coming to L.A. here and there for various things over the last year and whenever him and I get together, we basically just go into one of the unused Southern Lord offices and play riffs together, ya know, kind of basically how we started in the old days in the late ’90s [laughs]. But we record that stuff and we actually put one of the recordings as a 12-inch that we’re selling on the tour only of those recordings. So that, technically, is our newest stuff. But honestly the material on it is really reminiscent of our very first record of ’99, The Grimmrobe Demos: the two of us playing riffs with no extra instrumentation or anything like that—just pure, you know, power and riffs. [laughing]
Considering that all of you are spread out geographically, how difficult is it for all of you to come together and play a Sunn O))) show like you will this weekend?
It can be. The way that we can do this is by advance planning. Everyone now has intense schedules in their lives, whether it’s work or family. Everything has to be planned out pretty far in advance—that’s the only way we can do this. The last couple of tours that we’ve done together have been really great in the chemistry between the players and really strong. We were kind of worried because we’d taken a break between the end of 2009 and about the summer of last year—we kinda took a break from playing. We had done a whole lot of touring—for us. We’re not like a typical touring band. For us, it was a lot so we decided to take a break and when we got back together, we were all kind of questioning what this is gonna be like and if we would be able to pull this off. But it did go really well and everything was really great—the response was great, the playing was great, and everyone got along well. So, that’s what we are kind of hoping to continue here. We did all those gigs in Europe so this is the first time we are playing in the States since the summer of 2009. We are looking forward to trying it here! [laughing]
The Power of the Riff, with Sunn O))), Pentagram, Winter, Agnostic Front, and many others, takes place tomorrow and Sunday night at Warsaw.