Originally lumped in with the post-metal boom of the early 2000s, Grails rapidly developed to be a truly uncategorisable entity. Capable of delivering terrifying darkness and piercing light, they’re one of the most consistently intriguing bands of the 21st century, and with Chalice Hymnal, their first record in six years, they’ve delivered yet another masterpiece of instrumental prog-psychedelic-just plain awesome rock. We spoke to drummer Emil Amos (also of OM, Lilacs & Champagne and Holy Sons) about the joys of reinvention.
First off, the new album is pretty much the first addition to my ‘Best of 2017’ list so kudos to you for that, and the tour can’t come quickly enough. It’ll be great seeing Majeure with you, that’s quite the pairing. How did that come together?
I think we’ve been talking to Zombi for years about doing shows live but they’ve been in different places every time so this time it seemed like a really easy thing to do would be to grab one of them and put him in the same van with us. It just seemed more convenient. I think they’re hard to wrangle in terms of schedules so we just grabbed Tony (Paterra).
It has been quite a while since Grails recorded or toured so how was it getting back into the writing mindset?
I don’t know if you ever read any of the press releases back around the first record, Burden Of Hope, back in 2003 and we had already been a band for over three years and had already sort of broken up, like, three times and gotten it back together by then, so we already felt kind of old and depressed. “There’s no hope for this band, there’s no hope for us!” But journalists and labels and people just kept coming out of the woodwork to encourage us all the time. Back in the early 2000s, people would champion the band so we’d say, “Okay, we’ll do one more show!” My point is that we’d always treated it as kind of a side project so it always died after each record and then we’d have to cobble it back together and decide what it was going to be. It’s not that it wasn’t inspired but we got to reinvent the band after each record and I think the audience responded well to that. Our main influence, in that way, was probably Sun City Girls because they showed that you can just ignore the marketplace and truly be an artist, so if we didn’t think too much about the people paying attention to us and reinvented the band every time it was exciting for us, so the band became based around record-digging.
You can see that Grails basically turns out whatever influences it’s listening to at the time, which I think is really unusual for a band; to be able to flip their influences into their records really fast. Most bands start out like, “We want to sound like Black Sabbath” and then they sound like Black Sabbath for 18 years, so this is the opposite of that kind of formula. We wanted to be totally free. One of the local bands that had been playing in Portland for a couple of years before us was Jackie O Motherfucker and they set this template; they showed us that you can be completely formless and music doesn’t have to be any one identifiable thing. We didn’t actually listen to them a lot but it was more that they set this bar. We were able to start with this idea that we definitely didn’t want to go backwards into the 90s bands, like Godspeed and Dirty Three. We wanted to push forward from that stuff and so it helped us to disassemble the band each time.
The new record is kind of like the same old process but you’re right, it has been so long that I think it was a little slow going at first, but once we finally got some of the songs to where they needed to be the whole thing was the same process as always. You start to see what the album wants itself to be and sound the way it wants to sound.
Despite that and the amount of territory that you’ve covered over the years, there is still something in there that is quintessentially you. No matter what you put out, Grails’ voice is still there.
I would say that the audience and journalists have always seen that better than we have. A lot of the time, we think that the albums are kind of a mess, all over the place, and then in the final week of manufacturing the record we agree on the cover art and song titles and then all of a sudden, in a very short amount of time it’s manufactured and they send it to us; you hold it in your hands, all of a sudden, magically, things seem as though they were always planned out but up until that point, we’re usually scrambling. I don’t mean that in a bad way but we’re trying to keep things fresh and improvisational as possible until the last second but I think other people have always been more aware of what it is we do than we are. Yeah, there’s a melodic strain that runs through the records. It’s kind of unconscious, though. I met Alex Hall in 1999 and he came from that school of minimal – maybe Arvo Pärt or maybe Dirty Three – melancholy composition, and I came from the opposite; total drug-induced, freak flag-flying, chaotic lo-fi, so those two things didn’t really mesh at all. When we decided to start a band, we didn’t even think there was a way to join those two things but as you see, over the years we’ve figured out a way to do it and in the middle of it is the birth of our melodicism that kinds of melds into this one melancholy thing. It all turned into its own thing but I think you probably see it better than we do.
“You can see that Grails basically turns out whatever influences it’s listening to at the time, which I think is really unusual for a band; to be able to flip their influences into their records really fast.”
If each album is the product of its influences, what were you listening to this time around? Correct me if I’m wrong but I’m hearing a lot of late ‘70s and early ‘80s prog in there, like Yes and Eno.
There were some prog bands around in Portland back when we started but our band was kind of the opposite. We didn’t really grow up on really angular, complex music as much and so prog now is more something we’re getting excited about quite recently. Everybody knows what it’s like to grow up in the underground – you’re codified. If you’re into straight-edge hardcore, that’s what you’re into; you’re not usually into straight-edge hardcore and metal and country and rap, all at the same time. We’re rescripting our record collection history. It’s hard to find a soul in a lot of ‘70s prog when you’re young, it’s hard to find spirituality in it, but when you’re older, if you’re lucky, you can go back and see eras for what they really were, like how innocent they were. As much as punk music tried to say that prog was this blustery mistake, you have to go back much further than that, like to 1965 when The Velvet Underground would have been forming, you have to think about how rebellious this music was in terms of its value to the counterculture. It was super-important and I’m not trying to be dramatic but it was a part of rebelling against The Man in a very real way, so by the time you get to prog in the ‘70s, it was just assumed that you didn’t want to make commercial music. If we go back to that time, you’d have been a lame idiot to want to make commercial; you’re supposed to be free and out-there, jazzy and super-knowledgeable and skilled, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a really cool approach to making a record, it’s just that culture has gone through so many changes and prog has gotten a bad word through so many of those changes, so it’s kind of a feat to go back and understand the human underbelly to that kind of complex composition. We try to focus the lens of what’s good and soulful and redeeming about all these forgotten genres and bring them back from the dead.
I do wonder about that myself – it seems like jazz and prog are seen as an old man’s game; you just hit a certain age and they click.
Totally. Not only are we resolutely underground record freaks, we have no interest in what everyone else is doing. We want to go away into our forgotten realm, but we also have absolutely no interest in new music. We’ve never cared about it since we started, so when Grails went to Birmingham or Exeter or something, and out in the crowd of not that many people were three dudes in their 60s, we would know we were doing something right. Those people have seen it all and they’re pretty discerning. It’s not just some brand-new band that some kid thinks invented some bullshit new sub-genre. That’s sad that kids think that new bands have invented stuff that’s so insanely watered down but when you get a guy in his 60s in the crowd, listening to it like he’d listen to Les Paul in a small jazz club, he’s perceiving the intellectual decisions you’ve made. That feels so much better.
You’ve been doing a huge amount of Holy Sons material in the past few years. Does that play much of a part in how you approach your work in Grails and OM?
One good thing is that I made music my entire life so early on that if I’m researching old records, I could be flipping through and whereas a normal person is just wanting something nice to listen to that night, I can be researching for any of our purposes. I could be searching for samples for Lilacs & Champagne, I could be looking for something to DJ that night or eastern music for OM, or lost American music for Holy Sons. They all intermingle and are conjoined in the sense of a true love for music, a truly open-minded lust for any kind of honest sound outside of time or culture, something you can find anywhere that makes you feel like you have a relative somewhere, lost in time and space; something genuine that got through the cracks of the record industry – in that sense, I think any of these bands are influenced by all the same things, and completely different things, all at the same time. In a practical sense, it’s strangely convenient because I can go into a store and then, in one day, track for any of the bands all at once without even thinking. We start a new session and I can throw down drums for Grails, start another session and play piano for Lilacs, then another and play acoustic for Holy Sons. That’s my life, what I do every other week, so it’s pretty convenient that all these bands can exist side by side.
You seem to have an interest not just in musical anthropology, but in anthropology as a whole, particularly in regards to spirituality. Does this interest affect how you view the role of music in your life?
The legend of people like George Jones and people like Hank Williams, total lifer musicians, is that in about fifth grade they just walked out into the woods like a little Indian guru and were called to music, and they just dropped out of school and played music constantly. All they know is music, all they understand is the world through that lens, and so I think I started being consumed with it so early on that I never had to think about what I wanted to do because I was already doing it. I talk to people all the time who don’t know what they want to do in life or in music and I’ve never understood that because I’ve always been so busy just doing it. The way to do it is to commit and experiment; talking about things or speculating on them is just nothing. That whole process started so early for me that spirituality as a layer or realm is so tied up with the process of picking up a guitar that I don’t ever have to separate the two things. It’s just something I did as a child so it’s in my blood. I think that’s lucky because the less you can think about what you’re doing, the better because the challenge is to be yourself and a lot of people have trouble figuring out what that is. If you can trick yourself into being uninhibited, if you can let yourself be and really be yourself, you have a massive head start on someone who is trying to figure out what they want to do. That’s going to take a lifetime but if you just be yourself, you have a much faster channel towards eventual profundity.
“Not only are we resolutely underground record freaks, we have no interest in what everyone else is doing. We want to go away into our forgotten realm, but we also have absolutely no interest in new music.”
So is your eventual goal to make writing and performing completely automatic, a process as natural as breathing? Or have you reached that stage already?
It’s already like that. I’m not new at this so it’s got to be pretty natural by now. I was watching this little documentary on Leonard Cohen the other night, which is not something that I normally would obsess over, but the interviewer asks him, “What is success to you?” That’s a terrible question for Leonard Cohen; I don’t know if he even had any way to visualise success. He was a lucky but obscure guy but he answers, “Survival is success to me” and when I was younger I probably would have thought that was really poetic but he’s being ruthlessly honest. He’s saying that he can’t depend on anything but his overall objective is just to maintain and keep producing what’s coming out of him and it makes total sense to me now, that as a real artist, somebody who was born into this occupation, your major goal is to carve out a situation that allows you to make art. Anything more than what you need in the immediate sense is not something that a real artist is super-focused on, they just worry that they’ll have the space, time and ability to make what they need to make, because it’s an addiction. I think the real goal is to maintain that ability.
What’s happening these days with Black Tar Prophecies? Will you be continuing with them and how do they fit in with your ethos of reinventing the band with each album?
We just finished this record and we’re kind of starting to rebuild the live set, so the next record is kind of up for grabs. We’re pretty sure we’re going to make another Lilacs & Champagne record next but the Grails record was so rewarding and – fun isn’t the right word as it was so much work – but we’re really proud of how it plays as something we’d like to listen to. It’s a soothing record in the way that, in our mind’s eye, what it achieved was really satisfying for us so I can see us making some studio time to go in. It’s always a toss-up of economic factors and physical factors so it’s hard for me to guarantee what will be happening next but Black Tar Prophecies is not the number one priority right now. I’m surprised I don’t know because usually I feel like I know but Lilacs & Champagne has sort of taken over the Black Tar Prophecies impulse because it’s really experimental, so that takes up a lot of that energy, but a lot of Black Tar Prophecies has been made in pretty bleak states of mind, actually. That last one is a really dark record! We love it but it’s not a friendly record that your mom listens to. Sometimes it takes that actual state of mind, a really bleak situation that makes you look in the mirror and want to set out to make a full record of hyper-bleak music, and believe me, that’s one of my favourite genres of music. There’s always a time to make these types of record. Like Holy Sons, there’s something that satisfies your brain; it’s an emotional thing, but I’m sure we’ll have more bleak times. We’ll be depressed again so I’m sure there’ll be more.