Honesty in Sound: A conversation with Randall Dunn

Jeff Terich
Randall Dunn debut album

Randall Dunn is best known for creating music behind the scenes. He’s a prolific producer, mixer and engineer, his name having graced the credits of a wide range of artists from post-metal soundscapists Earth and Sunn O))) to singer/songwriters like Marissa Nadler and black metal miscreants Wolves in the Throne Room. But this month he releases his debut solo record Beloved, an atmospheric work of dark ambient, post-industrial and eerie electronic sounds. It’s completely separate from and entirely attuned to the kinds of records he’s made with other artists—massive, spacious and heavy with shadows.

As I talk to Dunn about Beloved, it’s Election Day, and results are just beginning to trickle in. And though Beloved isn’t a work that calls out specific incidents by name, Dunn confirms that the climate of the past several years is one that’s played a heavy influence on the direction of his music. Yet as his solo debut, it’s also just a small sampling of a heavy amount of work that’s likely to see release in the not too distant future—recordings that are likely to showcase a different side of his music. “I think that I’ll try to find a bit more hope,” Dunn says of his next project. “So hopefully the election will go well.”

We spoke to Dunn about his new album Beloved, the psychological climate of the earth and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone.

Treble: How far back do the seeds of this project go?

Randall Dunn: As it exists now, it’s probably got music that’s up to three years old, with maybe some fragments that are even older. Seven or eight years. But I got the full inspiration for how I wanted to make this particular record in about the last year and a half. I’ve been working for solo music for a long time, but this was the first of it that congealed into a cohesive language for a record.

Treble: Was there a clear direction in mind as you were working on the album?

RD: I think it’s really as far as direction, it was kind of the culmination of a lot of studies with a couple different synthesizers and just ways of making music in general. I’m always studying because I make records for other people so there’s kind of a never-ending study happening. But this particular one was just more birthed from a sense of feeling really confident of how I make music in the studio.

Treble: So much of the record has an ominous dark tone in its atmosphere. Is that something that you’re intentionally seeking out?

RD: I am, but I’m never dualistic about it. The intent when I’m making something isn’t dark or light, it’s a bit more varied than that. With this one it was a bit more about being honest with the pieces of music I was making, and some of that relates to having a tumultuous couple years before this, and the general psychological climate of the earth, probably. You know, I’m sure some of that is related to that, as a lot of my friends’ music is a bit more psychologically intense these days. The intent is never that I’m doing something heavy or light or anything like that. It’s just about being honest.

Treble: You’ve worked with a lot of other artists in a producer/engineer capacity—have you applied some of what you’ve taken from those experiences toward your own work?

RD: Yeah, of course. I really value the time I get to spend with other artists in the studio and woodshedding ideas with them and learning what works about everybody’s process. It’s a super informative thing working with all these people over the years.

Treble: There are two vocalists on the album, Zola Jesus and Franklin Fisher of Algiers. Were you thinking of them specifically when you were writing those songs?

RD: I knew that I wanted to have vocals on the record and that was a big part of the mood of the first and second sides, and part of the journey of the record. I thought about who I wanted and had an idea about type of vocalists. Obviously I worked with Algiers and really just connected with Frank a lot and asked if he was interested to guest on that track. I had one idea that sounded like a Coil track with Sam Cooke singing over it. And the last track, Zola Jesus turned that around really quick. I knew I wanted her voice on that and what she did on that is really beautiful.

Treble: I’ve heard that part of what you like to capture when recording is imperfection, or maybe a less polished sound.

RD: I think there’s an honesty in sound you can hear, and if you polish it too much it’s just a different compositional tool. I don’t prefer one or the other but I do like a lot of analog equipment that doesn’t react in a predictable manner or allow you to make music in a predictable manner. And the sound of a lot of that equipment motivates you to make more sound on top of it or in reaction to it. I think a lot of music now sounds very similar because people are using very similar programs or plugins, so they all have similar reverbs. I try to stick with reverbs and outdated digital gear that’s very unpredictable and acts up a bit, I like the sort of probability of things going awry and trying to wrangle that.

Treble: Considering the breadth of artists you’ve worked with, from Marissa Nadler to Wolves in the Throne Room, can you apply some of the same techniques across the board or is that not realistic when the artists are so different?

It’s really difficult to approach them the same way, that’s for sure. I try to listen to what people want to do and try to figure out emotionally what they want to do with the narratives and let that dictate what the sound is. I also try to set each record up in a location that’s conducive to getting artists away from their comfort zones and away from home. I like to set up in different studios a lot, especially ones I haven’t worked in. You get the sense that there’s gear there that you wouldn’t normally choose, and you can react to that and be inspired by that aspect.

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