MUSIC No one can agree on how guitar distortion was invented, or by whom. The only thing the experts do concur on is that, like many of humanity’s most excellent leaps forward, it was a complete and utter accident.
Whether it was created by a punctured speaker cone, a faulty cable, or a malfunctioning vacuum tube, distortion is now inescapable. Distorted guitars birthed rock ‘n’ roll, and rock ‘n’ roll birthed the idea that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. For Greg Anderson, founder and proprietor of cult metal label Southern Lord Records, amplified excess is more than just an artistic pursuit — it’s a philosophy. This August, Anderson will appear on stage with his band Goatsnake as part of the Southern Lord Mini Tour, a three-date testament to distortion that will batter the United States’ Western coast with an avalanche of overdriven, fuzzed-out guitar tone.
The guitarist is best known for his work in experimental outfit SunnO))), bane of eardrums and copy editors, whose ribcage-rattling drone compositions and be-robed stage presence were the subject of a widely-read New York Times feature in 2009. If Anderson can be considered the pontiff of an experimental, distortion-worshiping subculture, then SunnO))) is his Easter Mass. But it is his day-to-day work at Southern Lord’s Unholy See that has the more profound effect on the musical landscape.
A CAVE OF WONDERS
Reached by phone in, as he put it, “the caves of Southern Lord,” Anderson is eloquent and good-humored, and though he perches at the absolute pinnacle of metal coolness, he discusses the music in the earnest tones of a die-hard fan: “I’m a seeker, man … when I find out about a band, I want to know everything about them — what other bands the members have been in, who’s influenced by them, who their influences were.”
From the point of view of this kind of music junkie, Anderson is living the dream, effectively populating his label with bands that appeal to his personal taste. Rather than being a vanity project, however, Southern Lord performs an important cultural role, curating a uncompromising collection of metal bands that push the boundaries of the possible by wringing the most out of their distorted electric guitars.
Spread thin over three decades and thousands of miles, this underground community can be ephemeral and capricious. Armed with his own significant talent and an omnivorous musical ear, Anderson rides herd on an army of devil-worshiping iconoclasts, elevating up-and-coming acts to positions of prestige, while simultaneously cultivating older bands that have either been long forgotten or driven deep into the cultural topsoil.
Anderson’s description of his newest signing (and Southern Lord Mini Tour opening act), Seattle death metal-crust punk hybrid Black Breath, typifies the former process: “Over the last couple of years, especially playing with SunnO))), I really turned away from, or wasn’t listening to, much aggressive music. I was actually really into jazz. And then something snapped. I started listening to old hardcore records. I wanted something that was the complete opposite.” Newly re-attuned to the D-beaten tones of hardcore, Anderson received a demo — a four-song, 12-inch vinyl record — in the mail, and couldn’t believe his luck. The album — Black Breath’s self-financed Razor to Oblivion EP — was a distorted revelation. “The font of their band logo was stolen from Celtic Frost, and they listed Poison Idea and Dismember as influences!” Anderson effuses.
Soon after hearing the record, the label headman was due to return to Seattle for the holidays, where the incendiary quintet had a show scheduled. Speaking by phone from his home in Seattle, Black Breath guitarist Eric Wallace describes the madness that ensued. “The details are kinda hazy,” he begins, “but we’ve been telling people that our guitarist Funds [real name: Zack Muljat] and Greg [Anderson] were having an argument about a song that was playing on the jukebox … Funds was arguing that it was S.O.D., and Greg was arguing that it wasn’t, and they were putting bets down and stuff. We ended up singing with Southern Lord after that. It may or may not have been part of the bet.”
Though Anderson’s fingerprints are all over the forthcoming Southern Lord Mini Tour, his band Goatsnake will not headline. That honor goes Corrosion of Conformity, a legendary underground metal band founded in Raleigh, N.C., in 1982. Though they charted in the early ’90s with two albums’ worth of thick, Southern-fried Sabbath worship, C.O.C (as they’re often called) started as a lightning-fast hardcore trio, churning out political anthems over adrenaline-soaked pogo beats. This summer’s tour boasts the reunited three-piece lineup of guitarist Woody Weatherman, drummer Reed Mullin, and bassist/singer Mike Dean, who will perform the group’s seminal 1985 release Animosity (Metal Blade Records) live in its entirety.
Anderson and the Piedmont power trio go way back. “They stayed at my house in 1986, when C.O.C played in Seattle, actually, on the Animosity tour.” While band’s output in recent years has been limited to 2005’s under-appreciated In the Arms of God (Sanctuary Records), Anderson’s curatorial instincts were ever-vigilant. Reached by phone as he decompressed from a tour rehearsal, Dean explained how it went down: “He reached out to us. He was looking to reissue some of our old stuff. We mentioned that we were gonna record a new release. We just started talking to him about doing that, and he said, ‘Hey, you wanna play some shows out here?’ and we were like, ‘Oh yeah!’ It kinda lit a fire under our ass to get some new songs down and go out and play ’em.”
The existence of new songs was of crucial importance to both parties. For better or worse, reunited metal bands has been emerging from their dingy practice spaces lately like underfed jackals, and results are mixed. To avoid getting lumped in with the rest of the Lazarus-rock scene, Dean wrote songs: “The only thing I can do to allay my feelings of not wanting to be part of that is to attempt to offer something new. At this point, we have four or five new songs that we can perform. We’re doing this as part of readying ourselves to do something new.”
Despite all the hand-wringing about illegal downloading, Anderson attributes this explosion of reinvigorated headbangers to “the fact that information is so easily available, cataloged, and documented meticulously on the Internet. It’s like a trail, a path you can get on, on which you find one thing, and it leads to another thing, and it’s just a snowball effect. It makes it possible for these bands to come out and play to three to four times as many people as they did in their heyday. It’s a real testament to the fact that this music is valid and incredible. It needs to be heard, and it needs to be given the respect that it’s due.” With people like Greg Anderson keeping watch for the young talent and shepherding the old, it definitely will be.
THE SOUTHERN LORD WEST COAST MINI TOUR
Corrosion of Conformity, Goatsnake, Black Breath, Eagle Twin, Righteous Fool
Tue/10, 7 p.m., $25
375 11th St., SF