In many ways, Greg Anderson and Petra Haden’s collaboration couldn’t have come at a better time. In a world filled with turbulence and uncertainty, Devotional is the kind of album that not only underlines the darkness, it also operates as an agent to escape from it.
The driving force of drone overlords Sunn O))), Anderson is a veteran of the esoteric sound world. Also a part of the road house doom blues outfit Goatsnake and post-hardcore-inspired Engine Kid, Anderson runs Southern Lord Recordings; the label responsible for some of the most vital releases since the turn of the century.
Having released music under The Lord moniker earlier this year with his debut album Forest Nocturnes, Devotional sees Anderson joining forces with singer/violist, Petra Haden.
Previously working together on the first two Goatsnake albums and Sunn O)))’s ØØ Void, like Anderson, Haden is never far away from the new music landscape. A member of That Dog and formerly of Tito & Tarantula, Haden has glided across different orbits in collaboration with the likes of Bill Frisell, Mike Watt, and Josh Homme.
Together on Devotional, Anderson and Haden catch lighting in a bottle. Spending two months in the company of this release, its presence fails to recede. If anything, it grows stronger, like a wild spirit that forms the bedrock of your day. A clear indication of a high-watermark release.
“I usually don’t like listening to my own stuff,” admits Greg Anderson, who alongside Haden joins me over Zoom just days after the release of Devotional.
“When it’s recorded and it’s done, I’m done. I’m on to the next thing,” he says. “But this record, I listened to it all the time. I am not ashamed to say that I really am super proud of it. And I think probably because it’s very different. Also working with different people, working with Petra, of course, it just makes it an enjoyable listening experience, which I can’t say about everything else that I’ve done. It’s that weird thing where I don’t like to listen to my own music, but this one is an exception. I find myself going back to it and finding different things and really enjoying the vocals and the different melodies that I’m hearing.”
Haden delivers the vocal performance of the year. From the icy pulse of the opening title track to the cataclysmic rush of Ma Anand Sheela and the thunderous roar of The End of Absence, Haden’s fearless vocalisations oscillate between the fault lines of emotional heaviness and open-sky euphoria. Her voice riding across the hell storms conjured up by Anderson who, from the very first note, delivers blistering tonality and core-shuddering bass weight.
Devotional sees two artists gate-crashing a holy communion. This isn’t music inspired by religion. It is the religion, and during our hour-long conversation, we talk about everything from influences, collaboration and recording methods, to one of the finest albums released this year in Devotional.
Sun 13: You’ve both collaborated on early Sunn O))) and Goatsnake records. Had you kept in touch over the years talking about any further collaboration?
Greg Anderson: “Not really, unfortunately. I don’t know if you remember this, Petra, but you came to Europe with Goatsnake shortly after we recorded the first album. We were in Holland together. Do you remember that?”
Petra Haden: (Laughs) “I think…”
GA: “We had one rehearsal together in Amsterdam.”
PH: “I don’t remember anything anymore.” (laughs)
GA: “And why would you? That’s good. If you remember that, I might get a little worried, actually.”
PH: “I mean, I remember those days recording the Earthlings? and Goatsnake. I was playing with so many people. I have a faint memory of the studio.” (laughs)
GA: “There was a rehearsal place that we would always gather at before a tour. Sunn O))) does this often as well. It’s next door to the Southern Lord offices in Europe. There was a rehearsal because you were maybe going to perform with Goatsnake at the Dynamo festival. But anyways, a little digression there.
“But no, we hadn’t. I think we reconnected at the Sunn O))) show in Los Angeles in 2019 at The Mayan. We had invited Petra to perform with us at that show, and she did, and it was amazing. I don’t even remember meeting up with you before the show. She just appeared on stage that night. After the show we reconnected and talked about maybe doing something in the future, which is what I had tucked away in the back of my head for a nice rainy day or a nice sunny day to remember later. Then when I had some new material I was hoping to record, I asked if you would be wanting to do it.”
PH: “Yeah. I was excited after that Mayan show. I remember just wanting to do more. I’m so happy that it worked out. I mean, look what we did!”
S13: Can you tell us process behind Devotional?
GA: “Probably like a lot of artists and musicians, I had a lot of unprecedented time on my hands during the pandemic. A lot of it, for me, was spent thinking about music, and then playing it, and writing some stuff. Really for the first time ever in my life, I had never done any solo type material; any music that I’d ever created was with another band, or other people. My creative outlet was playing in a room with other people. So when that was taken away, so to speak, I decided to try playing some music on my own, and I really got into it. I did a deep dive on it, and I really enjoyed what I was coming up with. I taught myself how to use a digital eight track recorder, which I had never even known how to use. Any ideas I had in the past I’d recorded with my phone or a tape recorder, something really primitive. So I taught myself how to record stuff, and I started making these recordings or demos in my garage. I had some stuff that I really enjoyed, and I wanted to take it a step further.
“Having my recordings, and [given] my expertise and skill set on this is pretty limited, I decided to call up another person who I had met at that Mayan show. That was a great, fateful night because I also met this producer, Brad Wood. He was really excited to meet us and he loved the show. He said, ‘You know, if you ever want to work on something, I’m local. I live in Los Angeles, so it’d be great to do something sometime’. So that was another thing I kept in the back of my head.”
PH: “And I’ve worked with him since 1995. He recorded a record I did with That Dog. I’ve known him for years.”
GA: “I knew, or I thought that he had recorded with you, Petra. So, I was like, ‘Oh, maybe this could lead to doing something with Petra, who’s also at the top of my list of people to call to see if they want to do something’. (laughs) So it was a perfect storm there in a way. I just started working with him recording, and then I contacted Petra and told her about some ideas. I sent her some music and she reacted positively to it and wanted to work together, so that’s what we did, and Brad facilitated it.
“His studio is amazing; it’s got a laid-back casual atmosphere. It was such a strange time for everyone, trying to figure out what was going on around them in the world. For us all to come together to be able to do something during that time was unique and special as well. And for me, a much-needed catharsis, a release to do something and express myself in a way that, at that time, I had a lot on my mind, so it really was valuable to be able to get that expression out [in] some way. Brad’s a top tier musician and engineer and producer; he was able to capture and help with everything in such a great way. I’m proud and excited about the way that it turned out.”
S13: Having worked with Petra in the past, he’s worked with such an eclectic range of artists. He’s not involved with one scene or genre. It’s like all-encompassing in the world of production. He also did your Forest Nocturnes record as well, right?
GA: “Yeah. My stuff with him has been a collection of works, and then there’s different things. The way that record started, I was commissioned to do a soundtrack for a horror movie. That was in the middle of me recording the pieces that Petra contributed to as well. So I was kind of doing all this at the same time, and when I got that opportunity to do the score for the movie, I just focused solely on that.
“He has been so important in the creation of everything, too. His suggestions are essential to what ended up coming out. And like you said, to me – especially for the last 20 years – I’ve always worked with producers who are very steeped in the world of heavy music and really like dark saturated tones and sounds and bands and artists. Brad has a very different experience and legacy of working with very different types of artists. That, to me, was appealing and one of the reasons I wanted to work with him, because I wanted something different. Even though it has a lot of the characteristics and elements of my sound and the bands I’ve worked on, I wanted a new frame for it to be presented in so that it was unique. And then, especially working with Petra, and what she brings out in that music that I wrote, to me, she brings out a beauty in this music. That kind of unorthodox and unexpected, you know?
“So Petra and Brad together, it’s like their experience and their music that they’ve made over the years is very different from the music that I’ve made. I liked that. I didn’t want it to be the same thing and something that was instantly recognisable and familiar. I wanted it to go down some different paths. It wouldn’t have been the same if I worked with people that I’ve worked with in the past.”
S13: The tone on both records struck me, but with Petra’s vocals it’s more noticeable on Devotional. It feels more like Goatsnake at quarter-speed rather than Sunn O))) – I’m not sure whether you thought about this, but the tonality feels more visceral which I think aligns perfectly with Petra’s vocal range.
PH: “When I got your music, Greg, immediately I was so excited. I was like, ‘Oh cool. I get to do some improv and just kind of freak out’. I was going through kind of a weird rough time also and I needed this outlet. I was just thinking too much, you know? I had so much fun just doing what I do, which is, I hear and I improvise and I play violin or I sing with other people’s music. I just like improvising, and that’s what I feel like I’ve always done best. It’s really hard for me to write a song. I write with other people, I’ve written songs with a verse, a chorus, and bridge, I try, but it’s so hard and I don’t write words. That’s one of the other things I was a little nervous about. I was like, ‘Are there going to be words? Do you want me to sing words? We need a lyricist?’ Greg was kind of like, ‘Okay, calm down, this is all about just having fun’. I just remember that I wanted to take a breath and remember that this is just about having fun and relaxing.
“I remember back when I recorded with Goatsnake, Pete [Stahl – singer] was like, ‘Just let your freak flag fly and just go for it!’ With the music that I listened to lately, movie music, and classical music, and jazz, I really just sing along and make up my own parts. Everything that I hear, that’s kind of how I approached Greg’s songs and recordings, I just wrote my own kind of cinematic lines.”
GA: “It’s like a cinematic voice that you have, too, which I really like. I just wanted it to be as completely open and about freedom and to do whatever you felt, like a pure free flow, freeform expression. I love how you mentioned cinematic. I mean, you really do have a cinematic voice. That’s great. I never thought about it like that, but it is!” (laughs)
PH: “I think it’s because of listening to a lot of Ennio Morricone, and listening to The Mission and all those soundtracks, and Psycho, and John Williams, and singing along to all that. Even as a kid, I’ve always just wanted to just sing in the movies, you know?”
GH: “That was kind of the trip I was on, too. I was listening to a ton of Bernard Herrmann, the Psycho and Vertigo soundtracks, and a lot of John Carpenter, too, and really trying this idea of creating shorter pieces of music. At least shorter than Sunn O))). I was listening to all these soundtracks and how they had these great, intense, shorter pieces. My thought was that I’d like to try to create something like that as well, like, ‘Can I express what I’m feeling or get across what I’m trying to get across in a shorter amount of time in a different framework?’
“With Sunn O))) it’s really open, it’s like, 15–20-minute pieces. So, I was fascinated by the Psycho soundtrack; there’s 10 or 12 different pieces on there, and they’re all three to four minutes long, and I thought it was great with the movement within that period. That was something that inspired me with these compositions. Some of the songs we did on the record are a bit longer, but that’s something that was inspiring. It’s cool to hear you say that, and now I’m thinking too, like, ‘She does have something she thinks and sings in this way that is perfect for that’.”
S13: With an album like Devotional, I’m intrigued about the approach. Do you need to have a theme nailed down before looking at the sonic aspects of a record like this?
GA: “[Do] you mean philosophically or musically?”
S13: Philosophically. I know that there was talk of religious cults like Ma Anand Sheela and the Rajneesh community. I don’t know whether that had any kind of inspiration towards the songs?
GA: “Yeah. These are subjects that I was interested in. I was really fascinated with the Rajneesh cult and their story and what happened with them. I had seen a documentary called Wild Wild Country that really blew me away. I had been aware of the Rajneesh – I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and that’s the area where they had their compounds. In the ’80s when I was a kid, I was aware of it, but there wasn’t as much information that was available. It was more clandestine. So now, years later, with information being more readily available through the internet, it’s easier to get. But anyway, I was really fascinated by it. It wasn’t like this epic concept album at all, I just adapted some of the imagery and the aesthetic for the album, because I thought it was really powerful.
“I was wanting to have some graphics and some imagery and some words, because there are no lyrics, there are wordless vocalisations. Ian Astbury did the linear notes for it. He is somebody who has been supportive of Sunn O))) and a lot of stuff that I’ve done with Southern Lord. I had sent him some of the music to check out and he freaked out on it, he thought it was amazing. He would write me these really long emails about all these things that he was seeing in his head based on the music and these ideas that it reminded him of, landscape and geography and all these different things. I asked him if he would be interested in contributing some of those ideas and thoughts into words as linear notes for the record. I think his words are amazing.
“Long story short, there was no huge concept for the album. It was just different ideas and inspirations that worked and helped represent to me how the music was. I think Ian’s words are brilliant, a real poetry that it’s added to the record. It’s a nice different element to complement the music.”
S13: With Brad Wood having worked with Petra before and Ian Astbury doing the linear notes, it all feels like a perfect storm.
GA: “I like that kismet, you know? At the risk of sounding cheesy, it’s just this thing about Los Angeles in a way. One of the great things about living here is that it’s a magnet for these eclectic, creative people. You never know who you’re going to run into, or who’s going to come out as somebody who’s interested in what you’re doing, and then possibly working with that person, too. I feel the same way about Petra. Ian is another person. He was showing up at Sunn O))) shows, and then he was mail ordering stuff from us. We kept on seeing his name! (laughs). So, I wrote him a note, ‘This is great that you’re into this. Thank you very much’, and he’s like, ’Yeah, let’s meet, I’d like to talk to you’.
“So we sort of formed this friendship, and then we’ve been fortunate to be able to create some music with him as well. But I really liked that, it’s one of the things that keeps me in Los Angeles, the fact that you just never know. I’m never bored, and you never know who you’re going to meet up with, and those possibilities are endless. I think that’s one of the things about the album, these unlikely meetings and collaborations with people. I love that. I think it’s one of my favourite things in the world, when something is unexpected. I wanted to cultivate that, too; not working with people that are expected, you know? It’s a challenge, you’re challenging yourself, and I think it’s important to keep doing that.”
S13: I would consider yourself and Petra from vastly different sound worlds, and Ian Astbury too, although he collaborated with Boris on the EP they came out on Sothern Lord. I guess coming from different places, not only is it more exciting to collaborate, but the results can take you down totally different paths to which you were expecting in the first place.
GA: “Well, you can’t eat pizza every day.”
PH: “I can!”
GA: “I love pizza, but you know what I mean? It’s good to change things up. A lot of times in the underground metal and punk scene, where a lot of our fan base is and where we came out of, it can be really limiting and there’s a ceiling with that. I’m not into limitations. I think you should work beyond all of that. I want to transcend with the music that I’m creating. Part of that, to me, and this is something Sunn O))) has been doing for a long time, is to work with different people often, and I think that it’s amazing to be able to do that and work with some incredible people. I think it’s important for the growth as a musician and as a human. For me, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I don’t like to be limited, and I feel a lot of the people we work with, including Petra, are of a similar mind.”
S13: Talking about cinematic and John Carpenter, with What Lies Behind Us Lies Buried Because It Is Dead, Petra’s violin really pierces through the atmosphere on that track and it just feels like the centrepiece. Do you remember writing that one?
GA: “I had the idea for the riffs and then Petra, I believe, improvised over it. It’s funny when I listened to that track, I think we should do more of that. We should do more violin. It sounds great.”
PH: “It’s weird. People know me as a violinist/singer, but I haven’t really been playing violin lately. I should be playing more. I started playing violin because I love the sound so much. Anytime I saw someone play, I was hypnotised. I thought, ‘I want to do THAT!’ (laughs). I loved going to classical concerts with my family and was always drawn to the soloist. That’s what I wanted to be – a solo violinist and singer. I love the violin because it sounds like a voice. Sometimes I’d sing along while I was playing and would try to sing harmony. What is our music called?”
GA: (Laughs) “I don’t know. I’ve been kind of classifying it as neo-spiritual in my head. I haven’t verbalised those words, but it is spiritual to me.”
PH: “Yeah, that’s what I described it to someone [as]. I just said it’s spiritual music.”
GA: “I think a lot of people suddenly want to attach some sort of God or religion to that, but to me when somebody asks me that, my response is, ‘Music is the religion’. Music is what I worship. I think spiritual music is fitting for what we’re doing. So yeah, Petra, let’s try to do more of that. When you’re ready.”
PH: “Yes! The world is our oyster!”
GA: “Absolutely. Brad is the master at really adding a lot of depth and dimension to sounds and that’s what I really like about working with him. He has a great ear and knows what to do, and in a quick manner as well. Amazing production.”
S13: The emotional force of Ma Anand Sheela is incredible, and I’d say it’s one of the most emotive pieces both of you have ever done. Can you tell me anything specific about this recording?
GA: “My idea for the beginning of that track was a soft drone. I recorded everything and it was really a heavy drone at the beginning but with a lot of layers. I asked Brad, ‘Let’s do like a softer, more meditative type of drone’. That [meant] decreasing the volume, but we also stripped away a lot of the layers. So many of the guitars on the record, it’s really dense. There’s a lot of guitar tracks on there, which is something that is used to achieve that wall of sound. I was interested in trying to create some dynamics, so everything is not full-on all the time. And really in a way to sort of emulate human emotion. It doesn’t have to be on 10 all the time. You can manipulate it within the tracks so it kind of ebbs and flows. Like life! (laughs). So that was a really decided approach for the beginning of that track.”
S13: Yaman and The End of Absence really underpin the album. They have more of an Indian-inspired sound. How important was the tracklisting in capturing the right balance and energy with the album?
GA: “There were two sessions that we did together. There was a session in December of 2020 which are songs one through three on side A. And then there was a session in, I think, March or April of 2021, and that’s tracks four, five and six, which is side B. When I was thinking about the sequence of the record, after it was completed and mixed, I thought it would be cool just to present them as they were recorded, like a document in a way. I felt like, in some ways, it showed the progression of the collaboration as well. When we started off, there was a vibe there that’s very consistent. And then the second one continues, but it kind of goes into a different [place] beyond that. So I just thought it’d be cool to present it as it was recorded. The vinyl sequence, like side A and side B, I was thinking of it in those terms. So put on side A, and it has a consistent feeling. And side B, it’s not different from side A, but it also has its own journey. The songs fit together really well, and they happen to be recorded together in the same timeframe.
“I think the interesting thing to me about the sequence and those two different sessions is the first session. There was a lot more prep work on Petra’s part. She had worked on some of the ideas at home from the garage demos that I had sent her. And the second one, she didn’t ask for the demos, she said ‘I’m just going to show up and sing’. To me, my favourite stuff from the album is the second session; it really exemplifies the fact that what a master improviser you are, Petra. You hadn’t even heard of what I had written! I was a little worried. I was like, ‘Maybe she’s not into it. Or maybe she’s going to phone it in when she gets in here or whatever, maybe it’s not going to be very good…’
PH: (Laughs) “I knew that I would like it. I went in knowing I would like it.”
GA: “You nailed it. I remember Brad and I talking a lot about it. And I was like, ‘She hasn’t even listened to the demo. She hasn’t listened to anything I’d written, so I don’t know if she is gonna come in and wing it?’ And Brad was like, ‘I don’t know’. Then the first thing that came out of your mouth was… we were just floored! We were like ‘What the hell? This is insane’. So powerful, and so intuitive. I was speechless.”
PH: “I’m blushing.”
GA: “As you should be! That was another reason that I thought those should be grouped together and not broken up. Because there’s such a strong current that runs through all three of those that I didn’t want interrupted. She came, and I think you nailed it within… I want to say you did it in a day, maybe a session and a half? But it was quick, you unloaded so much amazing creativity. And Brad had the task of assembling that, and he did an amazing job. But the outpouring was incredible. It made me think, too. Don’t over think it, trust your instincts and trust the chemistry of the collaboration. You don’t need to over think it and work on it a ton beforehand. A lot of the magic is happening in the moment. Don’t mess with that.”
PH: “Yeah, exactly.”
S13: You’ve performed together live, too.
GA: “Yeah. Just once so far.”
S13: Are there any plans for a potential tour? I know Sunn O))) is touring soon.
GA: “Yeah, Petra’s going out as well with Bill Frisell. We both would love to, right?”
GA: “The one thing that Petra and I did discuss was that if we were to do something, we wanted it to be different. I’d love to play different special venues or spaces. We’re not going on a club tour. I don’t want to do something like that, I want it to be special, because that’s what this collaboration is, so I think the way that it’s presented needs to be special as well. And I don’t know if playing in arenas opening for classic rock bands…”
PH: “Maybe for 15 minutes.”
GA: “Yeah. Or maybe playing a special place, like the Greek [Theatre]. The Greek would be great. I’d love to play there. But that’s what we did discuss roughly was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’d be great to do, but let’s not go play in coffee shops and clubs’. If there’s a special opportunity, I think that’s probably what it will be.”
S13: You’re working on some new material as well.
GA: “Yeah. I had a bunch of new songs and I shared some of them with Petra, and we’ve been working in the studio with Brad again. It’s been great. It’s just fun, we’ve been having a good time. I don’t know what we’re going do with it at all yet. I just really like this whole idea of continuing the collaboration and creating music together when the schedules allow. It’s really good for me, especially in this time for where we’re at in our lives, trying to figure out what’s going on. There’s so much change and things are different, so it’s good to have something that is a nice outlet, and really a good hang session with people, sharing music and creating together is important right now.”
Devotional is out now via Southern Lord. Purchase from Bandcamp.