Emil Amos is not only the fantastic drummer for the magnificent Grails and Om but also the mastermind behind the one-man folk-inspired soulstrip called Holy Sons. Recently Emil joined Om and replaced the original drummer and since Grails have also turned some stones with their recent album it is high time for some praise for Holy Sons. The following interview is going to shed some light on Holy Sons as well as touch themes like conformity and the demise of the Western civilization. For completeness sake I would also recommend reading the earlier interview with Grails' Alex John Hall. But now, sit back, turn on your favorite obscure 70' record and enjoy reading the following interview with Emil Amos.
R.: Please tell me about the circumstances of how and when you started Holy Sons.
Emil Amos: Sometime in 1992 I went from being obsessed with hardcore to someone who focused only on lo-fi music in a matter of months and ignored everything else developing in music at the time. To me that was just the clear path that underground/punk music was following ...I didn't see the other bands and styles going on at that time as something able to satisfy the specific intelligence I was looking for in music. Like most obsessive underground music listeners I could only really listen to artists that I felt I could totally 'trust'; which is a sort of militant mindset reserved for extremists... it felt kind of analogous to the early 60's folk movement where the listeners were hypersensitive about how truly legitimate and pure a singer's motivations were. I'm saying this while realizing that most people would've and still do disagree with a lot about my perspective. But it's the perspective that made me who I am and the records I make now and I don't feel like I had a lot of control over this development.
R.: As far as I understand Holy Sons is a solo project of yours - you play all the instruments, you sing and compose all the songs. Is this a "living room" project that you do in your free time?
Emil Amos: It used to be just my waking state of being. When I woke up each day I recorded... and, as a kid, I wasn't super interested in much else going on out in the world besides the few fringe things that I found to be of value. But now I've found newer interests in the world, more external issues that I feel strongly about; so the music has become a little less of a diary and more about my relationship to the world. Playing all the instruments alone was always part of the philosophy because it gave me more power to create a total immersion into the world of 1 person instead of watering it down with the common democracies and ambitions of a 'band' mindset.
R.: Apart from Holy Sons you play drums in Grails and Om. How do you handle three musical projects at the same time?
E.A.: I'm just barely pulling it off. When I was younger I wouldn't have had the mental discipline to emotionally compartmentalize these projects and leave my ego behind. Everyday I have to drop whatever record I'm artistically engaged in to switch to a different band or go practice for a tour. Last year I created a nexus of responsibilities for myself that was borderline physically impossible, so this year I'm slowing the flow of releases and traveling so I can try to enjoy what I'm doing. Remembering to enjoy things has become the central issue for me lately. That seems to be the irony of ambitiousness... that the more you attempt to accomplish, the more bullshit you inevitably fill your daily existence up with to get it all done; but simultaneously it's getting in your way. So efficiency has sort of become everything.
R.: Do Grails, Om and Holy Sons complement each other in terms of ideas for songs or do you treat them separately?
E.A.: Yeah, HolySons and Grails have been trading more instrumental songs lately to give the albums more stylistic variation. Each band's sound generates from a certain mood and you generally know what kind of melodies and instruments will fit into that mold. But because the material comes from the same melodic wellsprings inside of you there's always a common thread between the bands.
R.: The cover of your records have an outstanding iconography of collages with images from Eastern, Western and ancient vanished civilizations. What do you try to "express" with these covers?
E.A.: I was heavily influenced by skateboard art growing up... it was kind of cartoonish and surreal but really loud and extreme. Otherwise, I just gravitated towards various strange or disperate aesthestics as a kid and they became a part of my skewed worldview. For example, the first time I remember liking Eastern music was when I was obsessed with a martial arts arcade game called 'Kicker' from around 1986 that had really catchy songs that ran through a lot of Asian scales really fast; we've been talking about trying to cover that video game song recently. I've had a lot of phases of being really into obscure cults and secret organizations that are all somehow connected by the sense that they are hidden behind a sort of psychic curtain; things that you have to uncover or are part of a world behind the world that is sold or taught to you. The name 'Holy Sons' is supposed to be indicative of a secret cult in this way.
R.: "Decline Of The West" is a peculiar title of the last Holy Sons record. What is the meaning behind choosing this title and how does it fit with the themes on the album itself? Do you believe that Western culture is doomed?
E.A.: Yeah, it will eventually die like everything does but I wouldn't say that's a bad thing so much as it's inevitable. Songs like 'Satanic Androids' and 'Slave Morality' are trying to paint a picture similar to Dostoevsky's 'Grand Inquisitor' in that Western consumer culture has gone unchecked for so long, without any sense of self-critique or conscience, that the only pursuit it seems to exalt is the escape of oneself or one's dissolving into 'the crowd'. If you look at something like the state of Hollywood today I think you'll see a reflection of a declining spiritual state; the art of film has winded down this long sophisticated path that experienced very profound peaks to arrive at a bankrupt dead end where art can't really enter into it's equation. I feel like this dynamic is occuring throughout most areas of popular culture... but I guess there's no reason to think that the spiritual errosion of a culture dominated by conformity is any sort of new phenomenon.
R.: Do you see any differences in the way this 'conformity' reveals itself throughout the Western culture? I ask this because to me it seems that in the US it is not so much regarded as a 'shame' to be well adapted to society because this adaption is to a 'free', extraordinary society. On the other hand conformity in Europe is a more problematic notion although it reveals itself in the European view to be more multifaceted than the US. But exactly this view again attests conformity through arrogance. In simplified terms one could say that this is a complicated behaviour based on an ancient tribe vs. tribe demeanor.
E.A.: I think you're on to something; I just can't really weigh in on a cultural comparison because I don't have enough experience with living in Europe. On the other hand, although I don't think it's a totally safe scientific assumption to make, I think it's fair to assume that the impulse to conform has to be pretty evenly spread across the world. The rewards would be different in various cultures but the urge to dissolve oneself into a mass is ancient. Companionship with the like-minded blob, relief of individual responsibilities, and the pressure to join, in most societies, seem to be too hard to avoid for many people... maybe for a lack of imagination or bravery... or the need for inclusion as a simulation of real love. It's hard to underestimate people's need to feel liked by others. What fascinates me about conformism is how subtle and convoluted it can be... it finds it's way into every facet of life... I think conformism is my favorite subject.
R.: Would you say that Holy Sons songs are personal in the sense that they reveal something about yourself? Do you see them as some kind of therapy?
E.A.: Yeah, that was basically the whole dogmatic birth of HolySons in that the whole purpose and DNA of the expression was that it was almost a type of radical therapeutic practice... an environment where I could just be myself, whoever that was, and study that thing with no interrupting social awareness, no moral plane, nothing but a room where I could behave in anyway I was moved to and document it. Obviously that's not really something with an audience or the world of music marketing in mind. At the time I thought that was something people might be able to get into... and over time I felt proved wrong... and, as a lover of music, a sense of disappointment in me grew as I felt like I watched underground music snake further and further out into areas I really found useless and impersonal. I carried the sense that I would never be able to really have a dialogue with an audience at all as it seemed to contradict the wish to just be true to myself. In the last couple years that kind of bile-tasting/morbid view has begun to soften in me a little bit... but ironically a new brand of pseudo-honesty has recently been concocted and succesfully sold to the public and that has contributed further to muddying up the arena of defining what 'honesty' and 'rawness' are.
R.: When I play records that I believe to be emotionally 'raw' and 'honest' to other people I often get the response from them that it is too 'dark' and 'depressing'. The misconception of what is 'depressing' owes this undoubtedly to what has been sold to the public over the years as being 'raw' and 'honest'. What do you think? Could you tell me a bit more about what this 'new brand of pseudo-honesty' is and what it contributed to?
E.A.: Are people conditioned to want processed simulations of reality?... yes,,, Do they enjoy the fake versions even more anyway?... maybe... I think Jandek is a good example of something that's so raw and direct that most people's ears can't even identify what it is or how one would digest it. I suppose anyone has the right to say... "this is too raw, process this for me so I can enjoy it"... you'd just hope that everything in their life wasn't pre-processed without their knowing what reality actually tastes like.
After an industry was created around 'underground music' it began to pay to be 'sincere'... so then we got this new phenomenon of bands who are aware of 'the sound of sincerity' and completely aware that there is a reward for that 'sound' ...or perhaps, more innocently, some are mimicking what they listened to and felt was sincere but have nothing to add to the previously covered dialogue.
It kind of reminds me of that movie 'A Beautiful Mind'... in that the focus of the movie's phenomenon was the leading multi-millionaire/model actor playing the schizophrenic genius and getting best picture,... rather than the reality of the actual schizophrenic guy the movie is based on that most people in the audience would step over on the sidewalk while walking out of the movie.
R.: What can be expected from the upcoming Holy Sons record? When will it be released?
E.A.: The next one, "Drifter's Sympathy", was an attempt to create some sonic contrast between the HolySons records. It's heavily influenced by the experimental German records made in the 70's that had less songs but drew out their ideas into longer genre experiments. Their records created an odd kind of fantasy world but somehow remained very personal sounding; sort of pre-new-age, post-acid, bummer/contemplative records... the songwriting could employ any instrumentation or style that could illustrate the overall meditative/explorative mood.
I always found myself, in ways, drawn to the less cohesive records bands made, while popular thought seems to always vote for a smoother, less jarring presentation. If you really love a band, their b-side collections and private demos can often thrill you more than their big/glossy major label presentations. Neil Young is one of the most obvious writers that sometimes disregarded how an album is 'supposed to flow'... and not always to great results. But what if you flipped that dynamic and consciously made records that didn't have an expected sonic cohesion to create more contrast and give each song more weight? You might find that more in outsider stuff like R.Stevie Moore, maybe Kramer's 'Guilt Trip' or more well-known with Sebadoh III and Bee Thousand but it still seems like there's a lot more to be done to upset the expected formulas.
R.: What have you been listening to lately? What's the last record you bought or 'got into'?
E.A.: I've been in a 70's Italian soundtrack phase for awhile now. I constantly move through genres and just listen to things that are new to me to expand my understanding of production even if I don't necessarily like the music. I've always really liked film, music or imagery that make you feel slightly uncomfortable... and, somewhat inadvertently, I often end up making uncomfortable imagery or music; it's not my intention so much as it's what I like. I like some aspect of a piece of art to be a completely catchy hit,... very colorful, melodically saturated and in the pocket... and then I like another aspect of the art to be simultaneously awkward and wrong; that seems to open up the ceiling for creative and unexpected choices to be made. Within both of those areas lies a sort of honesty that rides a balance for me.