There’s something about our musical culture that demands us to fit the music we listen to in neat little boxes. And nobody knows the frustrations of such a paradigm more than Om. Formed in 2003 by the rhythm section of legendary sludge outfit Sleep — bassist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius — OM modified the tried-and-true chug of their former band into something entirely unfamiliar: an ambient, psychedelic approach to metal, influenced strongly by Eastern music. And then came the labels: “doom,” “stoner doom,” “gloom and doom” (Okay, I made that last one up, but you get the point). Since then, they’ve released five studio albums, and Grails drummer Emil Amos has replaced Hakius. The band’s latest LP, Advaitic Songs, out now on Drag City, is their most complex, and intricate, to date. It’ll be fun to see what new musical descriptors are flung around this time.
Giddy as a kid on Christmas Morning, I got the chance to chat with Cisneros and Amos about the new album, as well as the roles spirituality plays in music, Desert texts, and what we can expect from the new tour. And of course, we got a little Sleep talk in too. A little more than a week or so after this interview, Amos broke his arm in a skateboarding accident, forcing the band to postpone its fall tour. This interview is dedicated to Amos’ arm, with the hopes that it may heal quickly and whale on drums across America very, very soon.
Your new record is called Advaitic Songs. I did a little research, and I know that “advaitic” means non-duality, or a singularity of which all of us are a part. It feels like it’s a word that describes the album as a whole, but I wanted to know about how it ties in to your musical philosophy and, more specifically, the new record.
Cisneros: Well, it’s not a different approach for this album, from, say, the very beginning record, Variations on a Theme. It’s just more continuity and more traveling on the same path. The title didn’t come first, or anything.
Was there an overarching template from which the songs on Advaitic Songs were written? Or were the songs the deciding factor for the rest of the album as a whole?
C: We just gave the songs the time necessary to evolve, and we kept working on the technical side intensely through the whole process. But the songs have to be complete in their entirety before you can even consider the sequence of the record.
These are things that human beings say after something’s happened, you know? It’s like a post-experience attempt to describe something.
How did you generally go piecing the songs together? Did you start from a percussive standpoint, or did you work with the strings first? How did you go about creating these very intricate pieces of music?
C: Well, like we always do, it starts with either a bass line or a drum beat. Melodies upon the foundation, and finding out which instruments sound best for those melodies.
Speaking of the melodies, I wanted to mention an interesting little personal fact. Your sounds, of course, are steeped in everything from sludge metal to tibetan chants, but I’m really interested, from a personal standpoint, in the Byzantine aspect of your music. I was raised Greek Orthodox, so I’ve had an almost Proustian connection to this record — everything from the cover art to even the songs remind me of my spiritual upbringing and what I’d see and hear at church growing up. How did you guys come to be attracted to Byzantine music?
C: Well, I don’t think so much it’s so much the style of music with Byzantine chants. The writings of some of the Desert Fathers, those are really inspiring, and also really heavy, as well as the mystical sides of the Greek or the Russian Orthodox — such as those of the early mystics. I don’t know. I mean, it’s not like we hear devotional music from different parts of the world and are like, “Hey! Let’s go make a song!”
How did you go about reading these desert texts?
C: It’s part of the importance of life — the different approaches. The music’s a reflection of the path, and within the path, there’s different — an infinite — variety of approaches you can take. There’s not really a destination.
Amos: There’s some new NPR special on reverb, and at one point, the panel expert said that Gregorian chant music was written partially in response to their environment and the reverb in those massive churches, and in a way, rather than us being like Westerners that like Eastern music so much, this is like a mood that all human beings gravitate to in certain ways. It’s part of a larger relationship we’re all in, and it’s like a mode — like Ceremonial music.
People tend to be drawn to labels — drone music or any of that kind of conceptualization that people are really drawing on — and be like, “Oh, this is spiritual music, or doom music.” These are things that human beings say after something’s happened, you know? It’s like a post-experience attempt to describe something. But we didn’t come from the cart leading the horse. We didn’t come from the concept first and try to work backwards. It’s just that when you want to evoke a particular atmosphere, this is a type of zone you go to.
It’s not really like — we’re not really into a specific type of attempt, or a specific scene, but it’s human instinct for journalists and bloggers and people who write one-sheets to try and describe it. And I think it gets a little confused along the way. And we’re kind of assumed to be people that are setting out to make something, where instead it really just kind of emanates. It was a natural expression. Just because you hear a certain scale in your head doesn’t mean that you’re a cultural appropriator.
Every time Grails played New York, Time Out had one show preview they’d written, and every time we’d come through, they’d just reprint it. It said something about how we played “snake-charmer” music.
It sounds like you’re working to tap into a certain type of shared consciousness. A lot of times, when that’s done by a Western artist, people are quick to assume inauthenticity.
C: It reminds me of the talk I heard on tour in Europe. The norm is called “Western Music,” and it’s secular music.
A: Sure, we do feel a pull toward Eastern thought but at some point, that was just called “thought.” Eastern or Western is a thing that came afterward. Every time Grails played New York, Time Out had one show preview they’d written, and every time we’d come through, they’d just reprint it. It said something about how we played “snake-charmer” music — in other words, “fake music” and not a real expression, so don’t worry about coming out to see it.
It’s like people tend to appropriate anything out of the Western norm of music with these stereotypes.
A: They say if you do an Eastern scale, the critics will be quick to say, “Oh, they’re trying to be transcendental now!” And like, what? How are you so sheltered that you’ve never heard that scale? It’s just a scale.
Speaking of descriptive terms, you’re always labeled as “doom metal.” But based on what you’ve just told me, I feel like “doom” isn’t the right term, because your music’s supposed to be uplifting. How do you feel about that label?
C: At times, it’s a bummer because it’s almost like, I don’t know what the purpose of the lyric sheet is. And it doesn’t mesh with the first record to this new record in terms of lyrical accompaniment to the music. And our album covers, obviously… It’s not doom. Doom metal is like the lyrics to “Electric Funeral” by Sabbath. Words that make you go “Fuck, man.”
I read that one of the things that brought you together as musicians was your mutual love of dub. I was thinking about what you were doing with this timeless source material, and kind of building upon it with new instrumentation and nuances while still holding true to the material. I wanted to ask you what you thought about that. Do you consider your music to be similar at all to dub?
C: In the sense that the primary instruments are drum and bass, of course. I guess in general, bass and drums are the general instruments in that music. Coming out of Sleep for the first time in the late 1990s, I had just had it with the guitar playing. It was so nice. Guitar use in that type of music is rhythmic.
A: Bringing up dub, you kind of answer your question from before, too. Because in dub, spirituality is pretty inherent. It’s not like this separate thing. You would never be surprised if someone talked about spirituality in a dub song. So what you end up with is the question asked [of] most Western music: “Why is spirituality not inherent to this music?” So there’s a relation in Om to dub there too, because it’s an attitude, it’s a way of being.
C: I think you see it [spirituality] in a lot of different parts of history and culture too. For example, in country/blues music, spirituality and the song structures are integrated completely, from the first note all the way through the whole canon.
So what happened? How did we get this point where music lost its spirit, so to speak?
A: That’s pretty easy. The answer is that we made capitalism our religion. So when you listen to music, it’s an entirely different inherent value system. We’re perpetually forgetting the difference between art and entertainment. At the turn of the century, a lot of people were moved towards music as a gospel form. And you can still see that if you watch amazing hip-hop drummers — it’s probably because they were often trained as gospel drummers, and that style is super-complex and subtle and very developed. It’s not lost, but it’s consciously forgotten.
It’s not like we hear devotional music from different parts of the world and are like, “Hey! Let’s go make a song!”
Changing the subject a bit, many Sleep fans were foaming at the mouth for a reunion, and we got one. But is there going to be any new Sleep material, or are you going to stick with touring? Any new Grails material, Emil?
C: Well, our main priority as Om is to really spend a lot of time supporting the record. We put more time into this record than we’ve done, and we feel that it came out really accurately with regards to our initial vision. So we want to support that. That’s the main thing for me.
Sleep is just a really fun band to play in now. One of the pains Matt [Pike] and I had in the past from labels and stuff healed through being able to play music together again. And that’s a terrific reward, to not have those terrible pains when I hear the record. Now, when I hear Dopesmoker, it sounds like a band or a song. It doesn’t cause pain. We had a fun time jamming, Jason, Matt and Me, and whenever musicians do, songs are written and collections are put together on albums. But I don’t know. All I know is it’s fun, and we’re happy.
What about you, Emil? Any new work you’d like our readers to know about?
A: I have four bands [Om, Grails, Lilacs &Champagne, Holy Sons]. In the beginning of the year, I put out Lilacs and Champagne with Mexican Summer, and I’ve been working a lot on another record and maybe an EP, and maybe touring with that. And I have a solo project. Over the course of all of our projects, just the amounts of mail and trying to plan things… That’s why, like Al said, we just try to take one step at a time. We have a lot of work to do with Om… so it becomes close to impossible to say what you’re going to do next, because it’s so complicated to work that out with the labels. But yeah — there’s a Holy Sons record coming out at the end of the year, I did a single with Scout Niblett that’s coming out on Drag City. I’m always working on something. It just depends on which day of the week it is.
What can we expect from your fall tour?
C: We talked about setting up some special concerts in New York and San Francisco with all the musicians who played on the record. In terms of that being possible nationwide or internationally, I don’t think it’s possible, but we’ve come up with a set that represents the entire new album.
A: Rob Lowe from Lichens, a lot of the string parts he can cover on the mellotron live. We’ve been playing as a three-piece on and off for several years.