Text by Adam Lehrer
The month of June on Autre’s Friday Playlists column celebrates the most important record producers working in music today.
Of the bands that Seattle-based producer and engineer Randall Dunn has worked with, the musical styles of those bands read highly diverse: Drone, Doom Metal, experimental Folk, Free Improv, etc. And yet, Dunn manages to be able to add a touch of his own sonic vision to every band he records. He seems to be able to find the cinematic flourishes inherent in strange music. After all, he helped Drone Metal titans Earth re-imagine its sound as a Cormac McCarthy-referencing Western blood letting ritual soundscape on 2005’a Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method. Not surprisingly, film was his entry way to music: “I originally moved to Seattle to study sound design for film, then ended up getting sidetracked with music,” he said in a 2014 article with BOMB Magazine http://bombmagazine.org/article/1000148/randal-dunn. “But the thing that got me interested in the first place, when I was younger, was the sound in David Lynch's films. And I still kind of approach things in that way, based on that influence, and more generally on my studies.”
Dunn appears to have the ability to find bliss and beauty within extreme music and the extremity in softer and more angelic music. He can take a Black Metal band like Wolves in the Throne Room and assist the band in dropping lyrics and mutating their violent cacophonies into drowned out ambient washes of feedback, as in the band’s 2014 release Celestite. But he has also assisted Avant-Folkster Marissa Nadler find a sinister undercurrent in an ethereal and quiet sound that has allowed her a fan base that stretches to Metal and Drone circles. It’s stunning that all of the artists that Dunn works alongside; however varied in styles and musical approaches they are; seem to occupy a similar sphere in the musical underground. Even Pop-based artists like Bjork have enlisted Dunn to work on more experimental releases, as in the Icelandic icon’s collaboration with Syrian Folk-Pop singer Omar Souleyman.
Dunn is highly sought after for his unique approach to recording, blending together analog and digital technologies for a sound that sounds pure rather than purposefully vintage and modern as opposed to trendy. “It's the process of working with analogue gear that I find fascinating. I don't avoid digital gear, I actually try to straddle both worlds; a healthy embrace of both mediums, I think, is great,” he said.
Avant-garde weirdo icons Sun City Girls, Metallic Drone progenitors Sunn O ))), Experimental Metal vets Asva, Japanese Metal multi-hyphenates Boris, Post-Rock band Grails, Free-Improv god Oren Ambarchi, Indie-Psych Canadians Black Mountain, Psych-Folk outfit Akron Family, and a slew of Psych-Rock bands are just a small number of artists that have benefitted from the cinematic and orchestral approach to Experimental Rock of Randall Dunn, He is such a formidable collaborator that it’s hard not to think he’d make excellent music of his own as well. And, he does.
Master Musicians of Bukkake, (name inspired by a lurid sexual practice and Moroccan experimentalists Master Musicians of Jajouka), formed by Dunn in 2003 along with rumored members such as the guys from Earth and Sun City Girls members Alan Bishop and the late Charles Gocher, is the purest expression of Dunn’s musical sensibilities and tastes. It juxtaposes the feedback heavy psychedelia native to Dunn’s Pacific Northwest home alongside influences from all over the world. The result is a confounding and hypnotic swirl of drones, North African desert blues, horror film-referencing synths, and guitar ragas. The band’s discography is diverse, but inventive and cyclical. For example, the band purposefully recorded its 2015 LP Further West Quad Cult to be played simultaneously with its 2013 release Far West. Dunn doesn’t she away from studio trickery, giving the middle finger to critics who cry gimmick and making music that excites him.
In addition to Master Musicians, Dunn has showed up as a player on the soundtrack to Belgian filmmaker Alexis Destoop’s short film Kairos alongside Oren Ambarchi and Sunn O )))’s Stephen O’Malley and as a touring musician and as a touring musician with artists like Chelsea Wolfe. Much like Rick Rubin’s reputation in Pop music, artists don’t just go to Randall Dunn for able recording skills; they go to him for a sound and a feeling that he cultivates.