Grails is a band shrouded in mystery. That’s not because of some great promotional effort, but because the seldom-touring and geographically far-flung outfit changes their style as they please. At various times in Grails’ discography, fans could point to the band as an experimental noise group, a heavy metal band, a free-jazz collective or a classical orchestra.
To hear co-founder Emil Amos tell it, that un-boxable and ever-shifting sound—Grails’ central mystery—is what has sustained his band for the past 18 years. The group’s latest album, Chalice Hymnal, trades some of the band’s darkly claustrophobic tendencies for majestic wide-open spaces. That’s about as fine a point one can put on an LP that dabbles in everything from krautrock to smooth jazz. Amos points to Italian and British “library music” as a prime influence for the album.
Still, the band continues to evolve. Its current modus operandi is propelled less by muscle than by a legitimately moving sense of sonic scale. “The way you transmute anger can become very subtle as you get older,” Amos tells me via telephone. He’s walking the streets near his home in Bushwick, the M train occasionally rattling by above him. “You start to perceive that there are other ways to be angry, and there are other ways to be impossibly dark.”
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First off, I really love the new album. I’m still sort of living with it, but it’s very moving and layered.
Well, thank you. It’s always interesting to see the ways that people view this band. Grails is very lucky. We’ve always had this strange surge of enthusiasm from journalists and the audience. Sometimes they’ve liked the band more than the band has liked itself. Grails always seems to find listeners, and as the years go by, that makes me want this band to be even more idiosyncratic. We’ve really taken advantage of that opportunity over the years.
So that desire to keep changing springs from the goodwill the band has with fans and critics?
Yeah, I think it’s afforded us more leeway than any normal band usually gets. Most bands put their eggs in one basket; they’re like, ‘We’re just going to perfect a sound.’ We want to be fuckin’ free to do whatever we want. It’s always escaped being a band, and it rejects being a band. I love that about it—it offers me total freedom, you know?
I wonder, when you first launched this project, did you have any sort of aesthetic outline of what you thought it might be?
No. Grails formed as sort of a side-project. Holy Sons was already playing in Portland, and [Alex John Hall] just kinda came up to me and was like, ‘There’s this art show coming up, would you just want to play drums?’ The fact that no one in the band was a leader and no one really cared to lay out any sort of ground rules meant that the entire band was just different forces pushing against each other. So we formed in a complete fog of confusion, and we stayed there for like three years, with no sound, until we got signed. We kind of pulled our shit together for the first record. But we were incredibly depressed and just hopeless about our situation, in a way. Grails really turned that sort of morbid Portland feeling into a sonic thing.
That’s the Doomtown spirit! How did that transformation happen?
We started going to Europe. We felt almost like a commissioned avant-garde band: We would play for small audiences, and we would experiment with the shape of what was possible between the people and the band’s vocabulary and the instruments we had onstage. But we didn’t have any one aim. There was something we didn’t like about ourselves. This band has been around for 18 years now, and there was a really strange haze of confusion about what was happening in the underground back then. Bands like Animal Collective hadn’t happened yet. We were just sort of living in the graveyard of the ’90s. People had a bunch of old moldy Godspeed and Fugazi CDs sitting around in their bedrooms, you know? And nothing really exciting happened. The explosion of the noise scene was still years away.
Instead of going forward like bands do to sort of pursue money and opportunities, our process of self-discovery was more like we were erasing the parts of ourselves we didn’t like and amplifying the parts that were grotesque, so we finally could arrive at Black Tar Prophecies, which was really the major turning point. We found a sonic internal world that was really ours. I’d never heard any other instrumental band be truly lo-fi, or experiment with cassettes in that way. I didn’t even think we could do it, but we tried it, and the response was so good that we kept fanning the flames on those experiments.
What was it that turned the band into something you guys did like?
Essentially, Alex and I were so bummed out and depressed and kind of lonely in Portland that the one way we both discovered we had a community in time and space, outside of our immediate surroundings, was through record collecting. In our separate ways, somehow, Alex and I got obsessed with music from all over the world, and the more we fed that curiosity, the more the band really became a truly legitimate enterprise. It started to really have a mission. Bands like Earth and Sunn O))) existed around us, but none of those bands could just change shape at any moment, you know? Those bands were defined by their definitive shape. Grails was like, ‘What if one song wants to be Turkish psych, and the next song wants to be [a] Korean piano ballad?’ That’s a kind of freedom that we somehow figured out through record digging. That’s where I think we really got excited.
It’s interesting that you were in Portland, a city that’s known for making a lot of music, but it took discovering global music for you to really find a home. I wonder what it was about Portland that felt isolating and depressing?
Well, you have to remember, it was 1999, so there were like twelve bands there. It was in a rebuilding period, like a basketball team with no stars. Our first show was at this place called The Medicine Hat on Alberta. Death Cab for Cutie would play there, and there would be like four people who paid to be in the audience. Colin Meloy [of The Decemberists] would do songwriter nights and I would play. No one knew you you were, no one cared at all. It was like a ghost town. There was nothing going on. It was all the shambles of Elliott Smith and all that stuff—the wreckage. The only band that was really stirring up waves in our minds was Jackie-O Motherfucker, and they kind of helped Grails maybe believe that it was possible to do something like that. They got on the cover of Wire and we were like, ‘Holy shit, you can make that music and people will pay attention to you?’ There was no reason to believe anyone wanted to listen to Portland bands at that point. But I have so many memories of that period, and they’re starting to become a little more positive. I was super depressed through a lot of those years, but looking back now, it’s almost like I was a little boy, you know?
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So here you were in Portland, no one was paying much attention to you, you were bummed out. How did you find the confidence to tour the world in an avant-garde instrumental rock band?
It was a really slow process. By the time things actually kind of mattered—by the time we even were touring the U.S.—we’d been a band for five or six years. I would say that the central thing that facilitated our birth was just the fact that we were absolutely certain that nobody in the world gave a shit about us. That creates such a freedom, because you just feel so unwanted. Even as you drift from city to city in Europe: If you’re playing Berlin on a Monday night in some random little smoky art center, you don’t really get the sense that you’re important. You have the sense that you’re kind of born to be forgotten, and that ends up assisting you more than confidence, because you figure, ‘Well, we have nothing to lose.’ When you’re at the bottom, there’s really nothing bad that can happen to you. We sat down there for a long time, and I think we finally just got bored, and we got tired of being intimidated.
We were about to break up, probably in 2002. I remember we played a Friday night, and one or two people had paid to get in, and we were just like, ‘What the fuck are we doing? Why are we even subjecting ourselves to this?’ And then we got signed by the Neurosis label. It was the first time they’d ever signed anybody from hearing their demo. They called my house and said they’d been looking for us. And then we played a show to celebrate the record we’d recorded at Type Foundry, and it was totally packed. And instead of feeling good about it, I just felt worse.
There were also a lot of happy experiences that we’ve had over the long haul. I only tell that version of the story because I think it’s important to explain what it’s really like for a musician coming all the way from the bottom of the gutter—from the trenches. It was helpful for me to read these stories, and it’s helpful for other musicians to think about. Because it doesn’t fuckin’ matter! Make the art you want to make, even though the entire culture is absolutely obsessed and focused on success.
Is the whole band in New York at this point?
No, I’m alone in New York. Alex is in Berlin now, so we have to Skype like every other day. Zach is running a farm down in Louisville, Kentucky. Jesse’s out in Denver. We’re completely spread apart.
Do you all get together in the studio at some point?
I don’t think we’ve gotten together to play since, I don’t know, 2007 [laughs]? I don’t remember the last time we were in a room, except for practicing for tour. But I have an addiction to recording, so If I’m walking down the street and humming something, or if I go in a studio and sit down at a piano, I just have to hear that stuff on tape. I want to hear it immediately. Once the composition exists, in any form, then it wants a home, and then I text the label and I’m like, “Hey, I think we’re going to do another Grails record,” and it just slowly starts percolating. But it takes years to do, because there are so many moving parts to the whole process. We’re not The Clash, we don’t go in the practice room every night for 10 hours.
It just takes years of digging for us. There’s so much music, and there are so many schools of thought. It just takes so much time and so much reading and so much listening and so much collecting of instruments, that over time a band like Grails can really cover a ton of ground if it’s excited and paying attention. And luckily, that’s been our central fuel: listening to other people’s music and loving other people’s expression and being able to flip it into our own sort of frontier.
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Is there a tendency toward muscling it out and making it louder, just because there’s that energy in the room?
Yeah, exactly. When you get in front of people, a lot of that planning just goes out the window [laughs]. You get in front of people, and the anxiety hits you, and the alcohol hits you, and you realize that for people to see a show, there has to be some blood and sweat.
This record seems less dependent on that sort of muscle than some of the earlier Grails stuff. It’s a little less metal.
You know, there’s a time to bang on things and just kind of try to destroy your instruments, but there’s a very poisonous way of being dark and being insidious that you learn by listening to really sophisticated, dark, Italian piano ballads. Once you get addicted to the kind of high-minded expression of these feelings, it seems to end up staying. It’s like it gives you a broader picture, a wider picture, of what it really means to be human.
But there’s a surprisingly obvious place that exploratory music comes from, because we all grew up listening to, like, Led Zeppelin. Our music goes back to the same old Junior High inception points, but also always shoots past them to some minimal Croatian avant-garde composer we still haven’t wrapped our heads around. We’re always pulling from something old and something that we’re just now finding out about.