Emil Amos is part experimental rock musician and part philosopher poet. Amos is a champion of stripping away the layers of conditioning we accept as payment for being part of a mainstream society that demands obedience to arbitrary rules of identity and what we are allowed to desire and aspire toward. As a member of OM and Grails, he helped rewrite the ways in which experimental instrumental bands are allowed to conceptualize their music instead of falling into a trendy mold.
With his solo project, Holy Sons (due at the Larimer Lounge tonight, Wednesday, March 23), Amos writes pop songs with warped edges from a completely different angle than other artists writing pop. Holy Sons' 2010 album, Survivalist Tails!, manages to be both challenging and entrancing at once, making it one of the most consistently intriguing releases of last year. We caught up with Amos recently and talked about his songwriting, his unique approach to just about everything in his life, as well as his stint as the drummer for Jandek on the west coast.
Westword: You're the drummer for OM and Grails. How do you see your role as a drummer in those bands?
Emil Amos: I'm not a drummer, really. I was a drummer when I was thirteen or something like that. Then I kind of quit because I started getting into songwriting. When I got into songwriting, the guys from my old band left all their instruments over at my house after practices, so by the time my band broke up, when I was a kid, around age fourteen, I had gotten addicted to this idea that using those instruments I could make anything I wanted to make, almost entirely removed from the idea of being in a band or music as most people hear it.
I wanted to be as self-indulgent as you could possibly be. I wanted to make something so selfish it transcended all previous definitions of, I don't know, selfishness. I thought, This is it! This is my way to be alone. My way to get away from everything everybody has tried to get me to do. I always felt like in my life I was dragged everywhere. I never understood why I had to learn this or go look at a painting. I didn't want to go look at other things that other people had done in the world. I was bored by it.
I saw this opening to create something, and in that way it had a multi-purpose private world that suited the purposes of therapy, and it was also athletic, and it was like imaginative. There seemed to be some elements of aesthetic artistry. It fit so many different purposes, and I learned all the various parts of the process, like a photographer spends all that time in a dark room and have to use all the parts of the process more frequently than an outside would think. An outsider just sees a picture. So I just dove into that world of the process.
I only played drums as a necessary evil just because they had to be on the songs sometimes. That made my lifestyle a completely melodic entity. I wasn't trying to have a job. I barely wanted to respect the art of the song. I didn't even care. So by the time Grails started, the whole band was an accident. We didn't know what we wanted to do, and we formed almost against out will.
So I found myself in a similar position, and I was like, well, with all this freedom, considering no one is going to pay attention to me, I sort of start with that assumption, then I might as well do whatever I want. So my style became completely sloppy. I was looking for a way to make drums create an emotional atmosphere. Like if I felt maniacal or psychotic or off-balance, chemically, I would want to express that directly on the drums. I didn't want to have an occupation like timekeeping. That seemed very far away from where I was in my head.
I learned about the role of what you have to do in a song to some extent but from the wrong direction. Sort of coming backwards at it, you know? When people complain about my drum style, by the time I got into OM, it has a much more of a concrete role in the song for the drummer, I just figured they don't understand where I'm coming from. Like if they understood about the history of how I approach drums, they'd probably totally understand. I'm not that interested in a blatant consumer opinion. That's very far removed from what makes records and how you make records.
How did you come to be the West Coast drummer for Jandek, and how has his music impacted what you try to do as a songwriter and performer?
After maybe six years of playing in town in Portland, no one still knew who I was, really. I just kind of drifted through that culture and I still do. I'm not recognized as someone who spends all their time making records and travelling around the world. People don't even know who I am.
There was one guy who happened to know who I was, and he worked at record store, and I was in there shopping. I was in there for a long time and I was checking out because I needed to get back to work and at the very end of the transaction, he said, "Oh, I've got a question to ask you." The atmosphere about it was strange. And he said, "Well..."
He started talking, and it seemed like it took him thirty minutes to get to the point. He was talking about a film festival and things, and he finally said, "There's a performer coming through. I can't tell you who he is, but I need you to say whether or not you'll play music with him -- but I can't tell you anything about it, but I need you to sign this paper right now, if you're going to do it or not, and that's it."
At that time, for it to have been Jandek that he was talking about, that was a big long shot because it was really early on. And my mind, just because I'd been into him for a while, thought, There's no way it could be that guy. It was like my instinct knew who it was going to be, and I asked him about two or three very vague questions that I knew, mathematically, would answer if it was him or not if I asked him in the right way. And he just looked at me and nodded, and I was like, "Wow, this is really strange." I looked over at the contract, and I could kind of see the word "Corwood" and I immediately signed it and basically ran back to work really, really happy.
Playing with him was, in a weird sense, life-changing because -- and this is exactly why -- I'd never felt like I could ever find an actual community or communion or kindred spirit. When you play music and you walk into Guitar Center or something, you're faced with such confusion about... it's like you're talking to people playing tennis. When I got on stage with him, in a way, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was in the right place and what I had to say was going to merge seamlessly with what he had to say, and it was going to be the whole reason you make art. The whole reason why a society begins in the first place. The whole reason we live.
It's so elusive, those moments in your life when you can find people who even understand what you're talking about are so rare. I was only invited because the guy in that record store knew those Grails records and knew that I was free jazz enough. It was some sort of weird destiny, and it taught me I could probably do anything that I wanted to do too because it was two hours in sold out crowd and on camera and I had to improv the entire time. In a sense, it was totally challenging, but it ended up being so easy. It kind of confirmed I was going in the right direction. That record store was Jackpot downtown. Jackpot arranged that show.
There's three record stores in Portland that have been friends to me. Jackpot, Exiled and Mississippi. Grails have definitely gotten a lot of the records we've sampled at all three of those places. Around the time Black Tar Prophecies, me and Alex John Hall would wake up, get some coffee on the weekend, go down to Mississippi Records and go, "Dude, we need one more song really bad." And then grab a bunch of ethnic records, go home and bam, then we'd probably have one of the best songs. Without those record stores we would have been bumming.
On Decline of the West, you have a song called "Saccharine Trust" -- I assume it's partly a reference to that great SST band, but what theme do you explore in that song that seemed warrant such a title?
The funny story I have about that is that Jack Brewer, the guy that sang in that band, found me and we started emailing for a while. I was a pretty uptight little straight-edge hardcore kid when I was little. So when I listened to SST I gravitated toward the more by-the-numbers stuff. I like The Minutemen, obviously, but even Black Flag was so intimidating. It scared me because I was so small and the idea of going into a mosh pit was ridiculous.
I was literally twelve or thirteen when I would go to The Cat's Cradle. It was a pretty frightening atmosphere, even if nothing particularly violent was going on. I really knew Saccharine Trust from the SST comp and cover when they did "Six Pack." I just remember there's this girl in the audience, because it was a live taping, actually it was probably staged because she keeps saying, "Six pack!" Super annoying. It got drilled into my head.
I thought to myself that there's only about less than five bands in the history of music that had good names. There's Guided By Voices, Saccharine Trust... It stuck in my head as an intelligent name. That song I wrote embarrassed me because I thought it was too harmless, mainstream and catchy, and I thought if I called it "Saccharine Trust," it would say that I was apologizing for the fact that it was catchy. Kind of trust with sugariness.
It was a reference to the band and Jack Brewer, and I started writing, and he sent me all their records. My idol when I was thirteen was J. Mascis. One morning I was super hung over and I had to go to work, and I just remember running out the door, and I checked the mail, and I reached into the mailbox, and this picture fell out. Jack Brewer had sent me a picture of J. Mascis blankly staring into a manta ray tank. It was just the reflection of his face coming off the glass. It was really obtuse, and I picked it up. I couldn't figure out where it was from, or how it got there, or why he would know I would want something like that but now it sits on my refrigerator at home.
Survivalist Tales! has a real Lee Hazelwood vibe with the lush atmospheres and warm but haunting vocals. What kinds of imagery and ideas did you draw from in writing the material for that album? You seem often to have a concept of some kind with your titles and your lyrics.
Yeah, that's a great call! I've never consciously set out to sound like Lee Hazelwood. He's kind of like Nick Drake because you can't even approximate the weird depth of personalism of those guys. They're so perfectly themselves it's pointless to even try to get near to what they're doing.
I have this theory that Lee Hazelwood was a highly contradictory psychedelic maverick or something. The way that he saw the use of reverb was in itself sort of a...I feel like it had something to do with some sort of drug use. Or he saw reverb the way Syd Barrett could hear colors. I think that you're on to something. I generally come at making songs with a combination of total Taoism where I don't really care what happens or the method of how it happens.
On the other hand, I come at it, kind of how you're implying, on that record I'm writing a novel like it's very specifically organized but the way that it ends up sounding in the end...Your job as, I believe my friend calls it, "the arbiter," and inside your psyche your job as an editor is to re-piece together a statement out of chaotic mind energy that just sort of spilled out over the course of months.
The ability to edit it and trick people into thinking something cohesive is going on is what makes things look packaged and sober. Underneath them is wild, really unpredictable kind of chaotic, messy, out of control, irrational states of mind. I don't know how I managed to perform that stuff. I just got lucky that I was sober enough on enough afternoons, I guess, that I was later able to edit it together at night while drinking or something.
With lifestyles like mine, you sort of have to grab any moment you can to type down your ideas and stuff. Most of my ideas for albums and track sequences and lyrics -- they all come on planes. When you're on a plane you can't be distracted and you're stuck. Your mind becomes like a laser beam. Everything becomes totally clear for the first time in months. You just have to take those moments and take down as much as you can.
Why is J. Mascis such an important guitarist and artist to you?
Emil: If you rewind cultural tape to, literally, 1985 or something, a lot of people probably either agree with me or find this relevant but to me, in my world, it was like hardcore had sort of hit this ultimate dead end where it had done this perfect, beautiful thing. It had done this incredible, almost impossible thing.
In my mind, Minor Threat was this really arty band because they seized the ability to communicate. The ability to communicate is something that was squandered over 99 percent of music history. People have fucked that up so bad. They take it for granted, and they piss all over the potentiality of the beauty of music constantly, I think. But Minor Threat got it. Ian took it, made his own, and he said what he needed to say. The urgency was obviously very beautiful but after that's been done, what the fuck do you do? You've got thousands of kids with a Minor Threat shirt on and they don't know where to go.
For me, the only person that really built the bridge was J. Mascis. The Meat Puppets kind of did it right before him but J. Mascis was the weirdo. The true weirdo. I was at a certain age and everything, but after Minor Threat, everybody was kind of over-focused on rule-based music. To have some kind of really bratty, spooky dude that came out of nowhere, smoking a lot of pot and making almost unlistenable, super fuzzy... like contextualizing Peter Frampton songs. That seemed like the most far out random thing you could have done. My mind jumped from one pole to the other like, "Oh, that's where the progression is. Go with the progression." It was just a flashpoint where, basically, what he authored was a new template on how to write a new song.
Both of those two guys played all the instruments and could make a record by themselves. Those two people taught me that you could just do that so those are the two people I think I've descended from: J. Mascis and Paul McCartney. The thing about J. Mascis was that what he sang about, for better or worse, unable to, or on purpose, every single emotion I had been conditioned to hide away from other people.
I was looking at my life and realized you spent most of your energy in life hiding yourself from other people. To rigorized, organized extents. Like Jean-Paul Sartre said, "If Freud was right and there is a sensor that hides unconscious thoughts from the conscious mind, they must also know all of those unconscious thoughts. To some degree they are conscious because you are aware what you need to hide from yourself.
What J. Mascis taught me was that your most valuable artistic assets were actually all those things that you had hidden and had worked to hide all the time from everybody else. That was your best song material. Not only that, you could actually turn your faults into the most beautiful things about yourself by making a piece of art that explains your damage. Why you are the way you are.
Then it was like Lou Barlow rose up and he basically brought that philosophy door-to-door to us. He showed us how to do it. Lou Barlow basically built the church of therapy music. People can say they don't like his guitar sound or whatever but they've missed the point. I feel like the underground community missed the point because there was this new window of progression that opened up of confessionalism, of self-examination.
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I feel like everybody missed the boat on it, honestly, because what's the point of listening to Iron & Wine after you've heard that shit. The world doesn't need pretty doilies and camomile tea after that. They need art.