Interview with Alex John Hall, Grails, Thursday October 2nd, 2008

"Instrumental music is total music." This quote from the Neurot recordings page about Portland's Grails pretty much sums up what they are about. The lack of a singer in their music only compels the listener to concentrate on the music itself and allows him to make his own sense of the emotions the music evokes. From their very first record up to their latest record entitled 'Doomsdayer's Holiday' they never fail to amaze with their music that changed from an early violinist supported sound to an oriental-psychedelic outfit it is today. And while this description may not be enough to describe the wonderful music Grails have created I will rather let their guitarist Alex John Hall talk about Grails in his own words.

l.t.r.: Sophie, Alex John Hall, William Slater, Rover, Emil Amos, William Zakary Riles

R.: Grails have undergone some changes concerning the band members over the years. Could you sum up as far as you can who was in the band and why they left? Who are the current band members?

Alex Hall: The core of the band has been the same four people for the last 7 years. We did have a violinist at one time, but he left in 2004. And sometimes our good friend Ben [Nugent] joins us for tours and recording. But that's the extent of the lineup changes.

R.: Are there any recordings from Laurel Canyon the project that you and Emil Amos initially started with? How did Laurel Canyon sound?

Alex Hall: The early Laurel Canyon stuff sounded like the awkward first attempts of a band trying to figure out how to play together. Which is pretty typical, I guess. It was total confusion - 5 people with very different ideas about music, without a clear idea of what it was they were trying to create.

R.: I guess if I understand you correctly then you wouldn’t allow anyone to listen to Laurel Canyon even if any recordings existed.

Alex Hall: It's not that we'd be horrified if anyone heard it, there's just no reason for us to work on making it available...

R.: On most of your albums (“The Burden of Hope”, “Redlight”, “Interpretations…” and “Take Refuge in Clean Living”) you included cover songs from more or less unknown artists. Do you look for these songs on purpose or are those part of your record collection anyway?

Alex Hall: I'm not sure that I'd classify The Ventures, The Byrds, Richard Thompson, or Sun City Girls as 'unknown'....but yeah, the cover songs are opportunities for us to pay our respects to the greats. The covers are fun for us to work on, hopefully also reminders that instrumental rock music existed long before 'post-rock.'

R.: With the first two albums your sound was different than it is now. One could maybe say that on “The Burden Of Hope” and “Redlight” you sound like a really heavy version of Dirty Three. After that the sound changed into something different. You incorporated psychedelic and oriental influences. How did it come to that?

Alex Hall: The first two Grails albums were recorded at about the same time, but spaced out by a year for release. Those records are basically just live recordings in a studio; there's very little in the way of over-dubbing or post-production. It wasn't until we got into home recording that we were able to delve into production and real experimentation. And with that came the freedom to start incorporating anything we liked, connecting the dots between A and Z. Call it the Faust-ian method....

R.: Could you elaborate a bit further on that? What do you mean by “Faust-ian method”?

Alex Hall: I just mean that we were inspired by bands like Faust that rejected boundaries and approached music with a genuine sense of adventure.

R.: Do you feel that you created something new with this sound or do you see connections to certain genres/bands?

Alex Hall: There are always points of reference no matter what you do. But the goal has never been to develop some specific NEW sound, rather to develop a creative process that can be inclusive of ALL sounds.

R.: With Emil Amos now being the second part of Om – does change something for Grails?

Alex Hall: No, not really. We just have to plan stuff farther in advance.

R.: The new record starts with what seems to be spine-chilling screams from a woman and galloping horses. It reminded me somehow of Italian horror flicks of the seventies. What’s the intention behind this?

Alex Hall: To reference Italian horror flicks of the seventies.

R.: Was it intentional to record such a “heavy” album?

Alex Hall: In a way. We work on new songs haphazardly - pull a track off the shelf, work on it for a while, put it back up on the shelf, pull up another, etc.... So a lot of the material had been kicking around for a long time, just waiting to find the right home.

R.: Where and how was it recorded?

Alex Hall: It was recorded in what is now our usual method -- basic tracking in a 'real' studio, endless editing and sampling and post-production in our home studios, mixing by our friend Jeff [Saltzman], mastering by our friend Carl [Saff].

R.: Why are there two different covers?

Alex Hall: The label was concerned that some of the bigger stores would have a problem with the more explicit cover. So we agreed to create an alternate cover that they could use for some outlets. But the dual album cover thing was also something we hadn't done before, made the whole project more special for us.

R.: Who created the cover images?

Alex Hall: Better for that to remain a mystery.

R.: Can you live off your music right now?

Alex Hall: No, we all have jobs. I work as a chemist, Bill [Slater]'s a bartender, Emil [Amos] works at a homeless shelter, Zak [Riles] is a bodyguard.

R.: Neurosis will curate next years Roadburn festival in the Netherlands. Have you already been invited?

Alex Hall: Yes, we were very lucky to receive an invitation. Still trying to work out whether we'll be able to do it..

R.: If this helps: Scott Kelly has addressed the Roadburn festival as the best festival in the world and he was right in every aspect....

Alex Hall: Yes, I've also heard this about Roadburn. It's an honor to be invited, but it's also challenging to manage everyone's personal schedules. Hopefully it'll work out.

R.: If you were to curate such a festival, which bands would you invite?

Alex Hall: Just Neurosis, but they'd only be allowed to play Styx and Queen covers.

R.: What are you listening to at the moment? What were the last records you bought / that got your attention?

Alex Hall: I just watched the short film series, True Norwegian Black Metal, and I liked it so much that I bought the last Gorgoroth record....not bad!

R.: What is the next step for Grails?

Alex Hall: There's a dvd project being finished now, to be released in spring '09. Beyond that....Grails exists to make records, so....recording and mixing and recording and mixing.....

R.: Would you reveal what treasures the DVD will contain?

Alex Hall: It's been a year-long video editing project for Emil. It has a bunch of his "music videos", lots of live footage, and a half-hour long film from the first two Grails European tours.

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