Interview: Emil Amos from Grails

Grails_John Clark_1

Emil Amos is one busy man. Not only has he been a part of the instrumental rock band Grails for over 10 years, but he also manages to split his time between his solo project Holy Sons and the heavy rock band Om. Somehow he manages it all deftly, and the products of each band will engulf your senses with a wall of pure, unadulterated music. We spoke with Emil about the Grails’ influences on Deep Politics, the drawbacks of producing instrumental music, and the relationship between music, film, and people.

Heave: I re-listened to Deep Politics today to get into the interviewing zone, so to speak. When you guys were recording the new album, what inspired the content? Because your previous albums, although there are themes and arrangements that are similar but I feel like the atmosphere is different on Deep Politics.

Emil Amos: Um…I think that album is sort of a record collector’s, I’m trying to thing of a better phrase than “wet dream,” but a record collector’s fantasy world. Whatever stuff that we’re collecting and currently obsessed with just goes directly right into making the record. Maybe that’s a side product of how we started back when we didn’t think anyone would ever really pay attention to us so it seemed immediately apparent that we’d have total freedom to make our fantasy records… whereas other bands might try to refine one cohesive presentation of themselves. Not only did that seem insanely boring but also just hand in hand with trying to sell yourself… something that we imagined ourselves free of for better or worse. You can usually hear the types of records the band has become obsessed with during whichever era… For example… you can start to see an obsession with more feminine Italian composition coming out over the course of Doomsdayer’s Holiday… where if you went back further you’d see an obvious Turkish or German obsession. No different with how a record collector just gets bored and has to keep moving. In Deep Politics you can see the Italian film music obsession take over… it’s proved to be one of the most lasting influences because there’s so much freedom in film music. They really drew out the fantasy elements in their vocabulary and they also probably felt relatively autonomous because they were fabricating a picture of Wild West that they were inherently disconnected from. I think that kind of freedom is what musicians really want, perhaps even if they don’t know it. We’re trying to get to a place of complete indulgence while pushing yourself into unforeseen places along the way. I don’t think any musician really prefers the constrictions of the marketable personality they’ve invented. We’re really trying to explode those restraints, we just reach towards that world in film music because there’s no restrictions there. You can do anything.

Heave: In your solo album with Holy Sons Survivalist Tales you’re all over the place but that album sounds completely different. How do you balance your work between the two, or your three bands but those specific two bands?

Emil: I guess lyrics are the obvious difference between Grails and Holy Sons but sense of humor is also a pretty essential difference. Holy Sons can probably absorb more types of attitudes because I have the freedom to make a fool of myself in any sort of display of confusion, weakness or to just flaunt an overall flawed humanity. Whereas Grails has more of an impenetrable mood, it’s definitively more stoic in that way. It tries to mock people (laughs)… Well it tries to mock a certain humanism… and maybe its supposed to represent more of a force of nature outside of the human sphere in that way. I think of it almost like a black hole or the Bermuda Triangle or something… a force of nature that’s laughing back at humanity in it’s way. While Holy Sons is more about the inner reality of having to be a person. Its also more built off of those hardcore bands that were free to be funny… sort of like the Descendants… who could laugh at themselves as well as laughing at others.

Heave: Do you feel like in Grails, since you are an instrumental band, that people assign a certain image? For instance you mentioned that you have a lot of influence on Deep Politics from Ennio Morricone so people might say “Oh I see this as a Western album, I see cowboys.”

Emil: Yeah it’s always been a problem since the very, very beginning; but it’s becoming even more clear now that we’ll never break out of a consistent type of silly imagery that we don’t align ourselves with. It doesn’t matter what we do… we could play Nu-Metal, Slipknot style, and people would call it post-rock. We can’t do anything to get away from this kind of genre branding and the Western imagery etc.. I’m not sure what writers mean by ‘Western-sounding’. It doesn’t have harmonicas sadly playing over a twangy acoustic guitar and tumbleweeds blowing by and shit. We think of it as a raw representation of our flawed brain chemistry… but not just a cold genre thesis you know? I can’t really tell if we’re all listening to the same records in terms of the world of music criticism… but I guess that goes with the current climate in general. Everything seems totally aesthetically insane, like nothing makes any sense anymore. The world is just such a soupy, confused, mish-mash and I feel like there’s some sort of fundamental aesthetic confusion going on. So I don’t even know what these certain words mean to other people exactly.

Heave: Well you have audiences that want something simple, which I think maybe the writers or whoever, bloggers, random people who are saying “Oh it sounds like a Western” because it’s something simple to attribute to something that’s not simple, you know what I mean?

Emil: Yeah that kind of makes sense, but it’s ironic because there’s an insidious parallel to that. For example, selling something in general in the marketplace operates by this same exact logic of dumbing things down until they fit on the shelf neatly. I feel like the capitalist impulse is largely about the categorization of things, how we put things on shelves and bring things to each other in the world of business.
So, ironically, perhaps the more people have misunderstood where we were coming from and put us on the “post-rock” shelf in the stores, the better we’ve actually done. Now, that can really be a confusing prospect as an artist you know.  Meaning that the more we’re categorized into marketplaces that actually have built-in audiences, the more we’re efficiently going to be bought and sold as a brand. But the more we go out off on these autonomous directions that are totally unidentified, the less people know what to do with us and the less we get to people. Ironically that’s exactly what the artist instinct wants to do… it wants to get out from under umbrellas of style and logic and it wants to explore itself for what it is and understand itself without any training wheels. So that presents a complex dynamic that’s really hard to abandon. I mean if you want to be a band and get to a show and play to people, you’ll have to play enough of the game that will provide for buying the plane tickets that’ll get you there. Or you can do what Holy Sons has done and just basically avoid it all and make records from your house and not play the game at all. Either way I think you kind of lose something. I think that’s where the problem lies, you either play the game or you don’t… and either way you feel like true communication is kind of losing out in the process.

Heave: Kind of going back to the imagery of your songs, I was watching the videos that accompany your songs on Vimeo. Did you guys make those? I couldn’t exactly find if was you guys finding footage and editing it together or if you were working with someone.

Emil: Oh, I started making those just for fun, which I think reflects a little bit of what we were just talking about, and now it’s become more of a process of the promotion of the band. I think my video account sits there unexplained to this day, just like the way it began. It has been something that I think helps provide more of a face to the band… because when you are instrumental there’s the risk that you’re not really saying much to certain people without lyrics. So I think the videos were an attempt to sort of magnify the aesthetic voice of the band and put a little bit more context to what we see in our heads instead of whatever we were talking about before in a typical tumbleweed scene in a Western movie.

Heave: Where did you find a lot of the clips that you used? I recognized a couple.

Emil: It’s just like record collecting… watching old movies is kind of an addiction. The history of film is another way I’ve found a way to truly understand and enjoy other human beings… and so it provides you with a framework for appreciating human history and communication with one another. So the obsession with records and movies kind of transcends the collecting of them itself… it’s more for me about relocating a true affection for people because I think it’s easy to sort of drift further and further away from comradery and feelings of community, especially in our current environment. So I think records and films are a window back to why we sort of do this and articulate anything to each other… attempting to explore ourselves and each other.

Emil will be playing with Grails in Chicago Saturday, April 30 at the Empty Bottle with James Blackshaw. For more details or to purchase tickets visit Do312.