Interview with Emil Amos of Holy Sons, Grails and Om.
Approaching Oblivion Blog: Grails has a new record coming out soon titled Black Tar Prophecies Vol. 4. I’ve managed to see some footage of a new song and it has a great groove. Very similar to the sounds one would hear on Doomsdayer’s Holiday or Take Refuge In Clean Living What should listeners expect out of the new Grails album?
The song you're talking about is going to be on the next full-length... you’re right, it does have a sort of 'Take Refuge' vibe. The Black Tar series is more claustrophobic and ill-sounding in general, so it's a good place to put manic mental energies without being too conscious of the mission to entertain or be quite as cohesive, whereas the next full-length is much more stylized and designed in comparison.
AO: Were you or any other members of Grails playing in bands before you formed?
Yeah, all of us had your 'typical early band experiences'... then we started Grails when we were about 23 or so and I think we already felt too old at that point to be diving back into the painful beginnings of starting a band. Portland, Oregon was also pretty dead in '99. There wasn't much reason to think things were going to happen here... but a lot changed between then and around 2004, when a massive influx of people came and injected a sense of youthful optimism into the culture... but by then we were already kind of burnt out and stopped playing here.
In a sense, the trajectory of music that gains popularity has always avoided our tastes and as a band, we've continually crept in while no one was looking. We definitely had no idea that any sort of 'international psych' sound was going to be perceived as ‘cool’. Head Music had always been something comfortably reserved for the record nerd crew, y'know? Then this last decade underwent some sort of surprising turns in fashion towards harsher, more experimental music.
Things generally return to their same sleepy beginnings though; everyone gets older, some of your friend's bands break up, while others become overnight millionaires for no logical reason... some die of drug overdoses, others keep playing house shows. The sun comes up again and you go back to work. You're never sure how real any of it is or how much of an effect you've had by seeing your 'plays' climb on an Internet site.
AO: It’s fair to say that Grails is making a difference in what is commonly called the post-rock scene (rotten term). It seems that just like any genre, post-rock has gotten into this sort of boxed form of delay pedals matched with tremolo shredding and big muff freak-outs. A pattern that we know so well. Not to smash on whatever is hot, but the Mogwai sound is beginning to grow a bit ordinary and monotonous. Grails is throwing sticks in the spokes of the wheels of normalcy when it comes to this scene.
What is the typical process to writing songs? Do you all bring in ideas individually or do songs tend to come from collective jam sessions?
That particular sound yr talking about was largely finished before it even started... you're not going to see eulogies about post-rock like you do something like hardcore because it isn't really 'about anything'...
In the nineties I was super bummed on the burgeoning instrumental-rock scene,... when it was first really spreading I think we saw it as too easy of an assembly line musically... it seemed characterized by a kind of outrageous lack of humanity. It's sort of like a guitar solo played too well or an impossibly perfect display of skateboarding... you start to realize that in some sense, anyone can execute virtually anything if they learn how to imitate the best things from before them well enough. The whole initial draw of underground music was defying the impulse to perfection and doing something that really reflected 'You'. So a large part of instrumental music, ambient music, noise music etc. struck me as people not revealing themselves but hiding themselves and for me that contributed nothing to art or music.
When I first started playing drums again in the beginning of Grails, I could really only do it my way and bring my sloppier/violent heritage of style on drums… for example,, the drumming in the Circle Jerks didn't seem like much of a 'technique', as much as a way to be in the world. After you grasp that kind of articulation, it seemed like a crime to play polite drums on an instrumental song.
In terms of song-writing within the band format, I like to bring songs in relatively finished and try not to work in the jam-writing format too much... that's a sound that is sort of well-tred and has that clearly identifiable quality of 'jamming'... whereas more focused compositions generally seem to hold more radical potentials for me.
AO: When I first heard your songs about 2 years ago, I assumed that Holy Sons was a full band and not a solitary music project. The music is very hypnotizing and personable. It seems you venture deep into yourself and it is very noticeable and commendable.
From what I understand, you have roots of being involved in the hardcore/punk scene as a teenager. Could you go into detail on that at all? Can you describe your impulse to get involved?
In the late 80's the underground was more like a little family and, from my little kid perspective at the time, it was pushed along by the scholars in the college DJ and record store culture. The record store was where you'd go to talk about records during the day... and then at night I'd go over to the old Cat's Cradle. This was kind of the ground floor era for modern "indie rock" bullshit because hardcore had left a bit of a wake after having died and having previously paved a youth rock methodology in the early 80's.
There wasn't quite the same kind of hipster phenomenon that you see today. I haven't given it a lot of thought but maybe this new beast is some sort of global imitation of some sort of NYC club kid vibe... In the 80's in Chapel Hill people were calling the grimier, more creative/eccentric class of young drinkers and musicians "townies". A townie had some sort of personality/soul or individuating factors... unlike a 'hipster', which is generally more of mass phenomenon now...
...There are periods over the years where it seems like everyone's imagination hits a wall (the death of hardcore) and things sit stagnant for a few semi-boring years while we wait for something new to occur. Then, without warning, the collective unconscious spits out the next Calvin Johnson or Steve Malkmus and we fall under their spell and the clothes change er whatever.
Out of the 80s' boiling cultural kettle J.Mascis blasted forth from the collective youth spew and was ripping weird obtuse music that morphed hardcore with shit like the Cure, reached back into 70's guitar hero stuff and looked forward with a newer brand of un-self-conscious/but self-conscious weirdo inward songs. The first Dinosaur record was basically the first day of the rest of my musical life.
AO: Great record. J.Mascis is one of my favorite song-writers.
When J.Mascis hit you could feel things really change because any confusion about girls or doubting yourself that you were supposed to hide away in the hardcore years was suddenly being accepted as good song material! Paul McCartney and J.Mascis must have put into my head that one person could play all the instruments and make records by themselves (because, really who gives a fuck about Todd Rundgren?).
AO: I do. Nearly Human is a great record. Parallel Lines running on forever…but that is beside the point. When and how did Holy Sons come to surface?
EA: I had several volumes of stuff inside me and saw an entire world inside the act of recording so for 10 years I didn't really have the mental energy to do much else. In addition, you had to be a relatively well-functioning, presentable person to want to be an entertainer... but I wanted to break into the mental home!
I didn't want to be on a fucking stage telling people to buy our stickers and t-shirts in the back y'know? That didn't look fun or even seem like a remote possibility…So, Holy Sons became a huge tape vault worth of therapy sessions that I still re-work and re-record now.
AO:Have these “Tape Therapy Sessions” helped bring light upon the issues that were eating you earlier on? How did you start sharing them with other people and how did your first fan-base develop?
Recording was where I was putting everything I was going through, so it offered me something that other humans couldn't in it's reflection. Maybe I was spoiled by these benefits and drifted further away from the earth. Retreating inside myself was an endless frontier... I believed the best way to spend my time was to research the world, as the Tao Te Ching says you can, by yourself in an empty room... basically talking to yourself for years on end like a wilderness explorer up in a cave... laughing or crying at discoveries with no one to share it with but yourself. ...it seemed less messy and more efficient than to deal with others.
Through the nineties I was unable to present myself on any level... cassettes were passed around by people who'd had personal experiences with particular songs// it was completely removed from the music world as it is read about and sold... I think Holy Sons still retains a lot of this autonomy and personal connection. There's hardly any music left where you can tell it's about the making of it and not the selling of it.
AO: Lyrically your most recent record “Criminal’s Return” on Important Records deals with themes of growth, mind-expansion, government conspiracy, and a great deal of personal reflection. The musicality has also developed and progressed into something new.
Where exactly did the title Criminal’s Return come from? Are you satisfied with how the record came out?
The title was stolen out of turn-of-the-century dime novels. I can't get away from meditating on history or crime in general... and they're useful in a piece of art... like 'Crime and Punishment' for example, which uses moral transgression to set the stage for some of the major emotions we deal with: guilt and repent, hate vs. admiration of others, redemption and spiritual transformation. Crime, in some sort of ancient way, is where we test the bounds of our conventional thinking and our individual fate, so in unavoidable ways it always remains a relevant way to open up a conversation about ourselves.
Like most of the records I'm making, I'm sort of aware that it's just one side of an argument so I usually find it pretty easy to bury myself in the next record as a sort of rebuttal.