Grails have no singer, but that doesn’t stop them in communicating a wide swath of ideas and emotions using just instruments. They have successfully avoided getting penned in the so-called ‘post-rock’ ghetto where most vocal-less bands struggle to break free from, and bring facets of Italian and French soundtrack composers, an incredibly fluid rhythm section, and more than a passing interest in Asian folk melodies (cf. “Silk Rd”). One of the rare bands that get better as they release each record, this year’s Deep Politics stands as an absolute tour de force, certainly a top 10 record of this year and a crowning achievement. In addition to playing drums and guitar with Grails (and also helping with the LP artwork and videos), Emil Amos also plays full-time in Om, and finds the time to put out at least one solo LP under his guise Holy Sons as well. To say he’s busier than a one-armed paper hanger is an understatement, but I managed to catch up with him after Grails’ excellent set in Boston on their recent US tour. Here’s what he had to say.
I want to talk a bit about the new record…you didn’t play a lot, only a couple songs from it.
Yeah we started with “All The Colors Of The Dark,” and “Almost Grew My Hair” and that’s it I guess, huh?
Any reason for not playing more? It’s a great record.
We tour so little that we tend to stick to a quick run-through of the larger catalog considering we’re not sure when we’ll be back to any of these cities, and people may have never seen the band before. It’s probably also a side-effect of wanting to balance the songs’ styles and let the various instruments each have their spotlight over the course of the set.
You obviously had a couple extra guys in the line up too.
Totally, they are super important. So whether they like it or not, they’re in the band now. Jesse Bates is from Little Rock, Arkansas; he plays pedal steel and drums. He also plays with Bobby Bare Jr., Dolorean, Holy Sons and many others. Jay Clarke plays various keyboards, has a side project called Ash Black Bufflo and also plays in Dolorean and Holy Sons. We’ve known each other for almost 11 years; about as long as our bands have been playing in Portland.
It seems to me that the new record was much more cinematic, a lot of sweeping themes and it felt like it was building off “The Natural Man” from of Doomsdayer’s Holiday.
Good call, ‘The Natural Man’ was the first time we’d really acknowledged the more feminine Italian soundtrack stuff, and its hard to move past that fetishism now because our affection is so deep for it. Secret Chiefs have messed with the Giallo thing too, there’s definitely been a mini-movement of affection for the Italians in the last few years.
The title track of the new record sounds like a mix between Air and Morricone.
I don’t know if any of us have listened to Air much, but I used to have a quote from them stuck on my refrigerator. It said something like “As artists our job is to attempt what we can’t do.” I imagine they’ve obsessed over the same old French records; Space Art, Lard Free, Jean-Claude Vannier, Richard Pinhas in general, but also Pierre Bachelet and stuff like that.
A couple other things I noticed listening to the new record, it seems like you guys have a pretty deep affection for Pink Floyd, especially with respect to David Gilmour’s guitar tone circa Animals, in certain songs like “Almost Grew My Hair” and “I Led Three Lives.”
Yeah, well that’s an unstoppable thing I suppose. I think its kind of rad that he stuck to his guns and largely rejected the trappings of psychedelic music from the outset. He’s always delivered a particularly British existentialism in his melodies and general approach that I love. Whereas Waters conquered his non-musicality with a more aggressive brand of anthemic diatribes, looking back now, Gilmour was really their sonic leader. So you have a pretty fascinating/ancient musical relationship between them representing the attempt to control sound (Gilmour) vs. the meaning of music (Waters), and how you wouldn’t want too much of one without the other.
How do you guys approach writing your stuff? Do each of you bring bits of it, or are there common ideas that get worked into a greater song? How does that process work?
I think after each album comes out everything drags to a halt and ‘the band’ ceases to exist until the motivation to reinvent it rises up and begins the process again. And then the live element occurs on stage in a compulsive and semi-unplanned way almost as an afterthought, while the records are labored over in a back-room like mad scientists, combining chemicals, seeing what happens, pursuing something you haven’t heard before. During the experimental period you shut off whatever narrative voices, hit record/document what happens, then use your post-mix perspective to piece together a cohesive theory later on. You could say that creating cohesion is a kind of task of deception; to borrow Orson Wells’ sentiment.
Do you do the recordings yourself?
We do everything ourselves initially and if we have any sonic problems we generally hire our friend Jeff Stuart Saltzman to fix the mixes up from a much more professional point of view. Because our process of recording is more a type of writing, we spend much more time on our computers than ever holding a guitar. For better or worse.
How about the art work? Is that all in house?
We have to do everything in house in order to keep the aesthetic lens focused, we don’t understand why anyone would forgo the power of their own articulation to someone else. It seems like a big waste of everyone’s time if you don’t know what you want to say.
Has your time playing with Al Cisneros in Om influenced the way you play drums on the current Grails stuff?
No, because with Al I have different responsibilities, and the sound of Om has its own sort of religious tenets. Grails is more about just being myself in a moment and following whatever biorhythms… whereas Om is more about adhering to a ritualistic method. So I think there is a beauty to both things and they shouldn’t really intertwine too much.
Are you guys going to be working with Rob Lowe on the next record?
We’ve basically already finished the record and Rob’s on at least 2 songs.
Oh, its done!?
We’re going back in to re-record a couple songs because we want them to be better, the watermark got progressively higher as some of the newer songs outpaced the original recordings.
How do you guys approach your tour decisions? I know you play Europe quite a bit and the East Coast, but you don’t do much in the Midwest, or the West Coast which is where you are based.
We’ve actually never driven a van across the country for a tour. We’ve always flown since the very beginning of Grails so we can do short blasts and everyone can get back to their various responsibilities. The idea is to maximize the small pockets of time we have to make the band real, but never to actually turn it into a business or something…
Like an obligation.
Yeah, in that way the band exists as a fantasy that we were able to invent because the audience and the labels we’ve worked with gave us total freedom. In that way I’ve always considered it an ‘experimental band’ rather than the other tags we get.
The Black Tar Prophecies titles: Do you have a certain style of music that you aim for with that series?
It reminds me of Spaceman 3’s Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To concept. With the amount of homework that goes into the full-length records, I think Black Tar restores our faith that music is still a type of spontaneous magical process. It’s hard not to decimate the mystique of music when you have to pick it completely apart while making records… So the Black Tar home-recording process leaves things a little more unresolved, ambiguous and exciting for us.
With your song titles, do you guys affix any certain meaning to some of the musical pieces or is it kind of like Mogwai where they have fun with the tags? And what does PTSD stand for, if anything?
It’s an attempt to have a sense of humor which is really the important in this type of music, with song titles, videos and the overall attitude. Unfortunately there’s probably a good chance that our sense of humor is getting lost somewhere along the way. Music is generally better when its perversified, turned upside down or absurd, not when the band is flaring their nostrils in a narcissistic ecstasy. We’re still a lot like sarcastic/proletariat little hardcore kids, people looking to laugh at themselves as well as everything else. PTSD= Post Traumatic Stress Disorder!
I’d also like to ask about your recent reissues of the first two records. Neurot didn’t reissue them. Why did you do it yourself?
We used to dream of having our own label but have never had the time to pull it off. I think the re-releases are a way to flirt with a sort of solution to the current music climate’s economic and ideological conflicts. To be able to offer music directly to the listener is radical because that relationship is the most real, fundamental purpose of making these records. To establish a purer communication outside of classifications and built-in sub-cultures feels right and efficient. I wish we could do more of it, but you have to also accept that expansion is also an intrinsic piece of the concept of communication. Even though that might sound like a dirty word.
Any chance to reissue the early Laurel Canyon material?
I doubt it now. If any of those ideas were good we might as well just re-write them, at this point there’s just too much new material that always needs months of mixing so that’s what is constantly calling for our attention.
Lastly, “Predestination Blues” sounds a lot like Sun City Girls, and you covered their “Space Prophet Dogon” on your first record, The Burden Of Hope. Tell me about their influence on your sound.
About 10 years ago, I was hanging out at the Trumans Water house a lot in my early Portland days. Their approach and particular heritage of record-collecting had a big impact on my thinking and they were all unanimously obsessed with Sun City Girls. There was one particular SCG show at Dante’s in Portland that completely blew my mind, a woman handed me a massive joint in the audience and I took it up to the Trumans guys in the front row while Alan destroyed a killer version of “The Look of Love” sitting in a chair with his hat on backwards. It was easily one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. They sped through every genre and all their greatest stuff with a certain ease that night, I’d been needing/waiting for something like that for a long long time. Grails had been needing a foot-hold to break out of a certain stuffiness we’d sensed was implicit in our instrumentation and Space Prophet was a perfect way to bring a specifically drunken/animalistic thing to the live set in the early days.