Al Cisneros has been chartering the path for Om (rhymes with "home") ever since the legendary doom.metal band Sleep broke up in the '90s, and he's swung the rudder hard to starboard recently. With original drummer Chris Hakius departing, Cisneros filled the drum position with Grails/Holy Sons member Emil Amos. God Is Good, their fourth record, has some significant differences from the brooding mantra-metal of the previous recordings. Here, Cisneros and Amos discuss working together, the new album, and the spiritual aspects of music.
Al, on God Is Good, how different was it working with Emil instead of Chris, if at all? Does this record represent an evolution, revolution, or continuation of what Om's been about prior to this?
Al Cisneros: I’ve never been so pleased with the outcome. The record is a sonic report from the path, like an ascending spiral. So, yes, evolution in continuity, like life. Emil’s playing style is very energetic and lyrical, permitting a real dialogue between the instruments, which is the very premise of a rhythm section. His style has also freed the pocket to flow, to groove. My bass playing is able to breathe. Also we’re both songwriters and readily intuit what sounds right -- why a part works or, conversely, why a riff, break, or melody needs more attention. We readily understand one another's ideas. This facilitates rapid development of songs. We’ve both spent our lives hearing, listening to, and creating music, and that combined with the understanding and communication exteriorizes the music in such a way that the outer, externalized song finally accurately reflects the internal song that motivated the process. We’re just getting started. We're already working on material for the next full-length.
Have you always played bass, or did you also play guitar? How did you arrive at that style? AC: The first instrument was piano. I tried clarinet, and in fifth grade I started guitar and took lessons. I remember not being able to get the solo on “Over the Mountain” no matter how hard I practiced -- causing me to feel that I wasn’t cut out for guitar. And to further that, around that same time a growing interest in drums was beginning to eclipse the six-string anyhow. I got an old beat-up drum set for $120 and started playing. I took some lessons, trying to learn rudiments and build up different beats. I think the first time I played with someone was eighth grade with Chris. We really wanted to start a band more than anything. It seemed we were both more comfortable and could play parts faster with me on bass and he on drums, so we traded and I’ve stayed on bass ever since. With the bass its been self-taught, lots of practicing. But looking back I think drums and guitar informed it. It's always felt so natural, like a melodic drum, combining the two.
In Sleep, of course Geezer Butler was and remains a great inspiration, but in those early formative years there was also Steve Harris and Geddy Lee. Along the journey I have learned of so many others, yet they are not what I would call influential. I do, however, feel a kinship in all of us differently expressing the premise-convergence toward the center. At this point in the journey the bass lines are heard within, not caused by outer stimuli, the songs even. All of the work is a process of exteriorization of the sounds I hear and feel within. I try to leave that internal space in quietude so that when the song appears I clearly and readily am aware of it, connect with it and start the process of bringing it to the outer place where it can be shared.
The first time I saw Om was in '06, at the Middle East upstairs along w/ Grails and Jack Rose. Was that tour the first time that you two first met?
AC: Emil and I met on the first OM/Grails tour on the West Coast, I think about four years ago. We really connected, speaking rhythmic language, talking about music and life. Musically when I first heard him play I was really moved -- his specific phrasing was so related to the way I hear riffs, and the energy and life in his playing deeply resonated with me. When Chris stepped out, I called Emil. We talked, and started to work together, immediately conducive. I’ve never been happier playing music.
Both of you are also involved with side projects. What;s going on with Shrinebuilder, Al, and what's next for Grails, Emil? How do you find time for your solo Holy Sons work as well? AC: The album just came out last week, we’re doing our first shows in the middle of next month -- we already have a good start on our second album. Working with them has been great, We’re all familiar with each other’s work and style after all these years.
EA: In order to do it all I generally have to work everyday mixing or writing to keep each band moving forward at a steady pace. My quality of life has had some pretty gnarly dips in the last couple years, trying to get all these releases out -- sleep is the main thing I get bummed about not getting. We've been recording a lot more Grails stuff than it's seemed like we've had time to approach. Next year should see two releases, and I'm confident it's most of the best stuff we've done yet.
Previous records had a strong hint of spirituality around them, and God Is Good comes right out and declares it. Can you describe the overlap of your music with any spiritual/religious connections? AC: Secular subjects feel in many ways like a waste of time to me. For me music is completely in the realm of the heart, and that cannot be compartmentalized or separated from life. It is unified, unceasingly, and God Is Good is a expression of that experience, that the supporting principle element that illumines consciousness is good. There is a certitude/joy that is hard to describe; it isn’t perishable and doesn’t decay. All of the canon is a variation on that theme, the one subject. You could put all the verses from all the songs from all our albums into one narrative -- they are salutes to and reflections on the Reality, the Light, God, Truth, It, That, He, She, the Absolute. So many word-symbols point toward this remainder/background it is essential not to be divided by terminology and remain fixed in the experience of that which is behind the ineffable hollowed name, of that which is.
You just went on tour with Ben Chasny's Six Organs of Admittance and Lichens, Rob Lowe's project. Did you and Ben do any shows together when you were both on Holy Mountain? And were you familiar with Rob Lowe's work at all? I caught Lichens at the last Brainwaves fest and was mesmerized. EA: Rob Lowe actually played with us in Om for this entire tour as part of the band. It really helped us bring the complete sound of the album with its various instrumentation to the live set. In addition, the Lichens sets are easily the best sounds to have around us every night on tour. His sets are always different, but they often remind me of my favorite early Deuter records, which is what I often put on at home daily. He's a huge asset to us on several levels.
Emil, we first at ATP/NY in 2008. Who were your favorite acts of the weekend? What sort of records are you listening to now? EA: Harmonia was super great, and still pushing the envelope of electronic music to an impressive extent. Polvo and Dinosaur Jr. brought me the most sentimental happiness for sure. I'm still catching up on a lot of stuff I missed when I was younger, like My Bloody Valentine, but having been on tour that week with Dinosaur Jr., my favorite band of the '80s, and meeting up there with friends from my old hometown (Chapel Hill), I probably had the most fun I've ever had playing music live that weekend. In terms of my daily listening I always come back to the Germans and the Italians in the '70s. I feel like those frequencies are coded in my DNA.