With no expectations comes room to do whatever the fuck you want. A band like Grails is a modern template for this type of approach to music, at least from a perspective that is mostly tethered to rock. The result has been six or seven studio albums (it depends on how you count certain releases), as well as several other splits, demos, and collections, each typically expanding in scope and expression.
The most recent is this year's excellent Chalice Hymnal, which was released back in February and now has the band hitting the road in a somewhat rare stateside tour.
Psychedelic or experimental instrumental rock is a simple way to describe the music of Grails, but that sort of fails to do justice to the textures. The dynamism is there in drones and hazes, peaks and valleys; sleepy riffs, haunting melodies, and catchy shreds abound in equal measure. These are the kinds of songs that totally fill a room without feeling overwhelming. It's not surprising to learn that the guys in the band are heavy record collectors, with a deep variety in what they love, the kind of variety that leads them to cite enduring influences as mid-20th century Western film scores, obscure library music, and psychedelic krautrock. Chalice Hymnal evokes all this and more, navigating timbral possibilities with spectral composure and a divine appreciation for nuance.
Grails isn't really metal or wholly post-rock, although they certainly are connected to those genres, too. The members are all multi-instrumentalists; a lot of work goes into bringing their sonic visions to life. To see the breadth of their capabilities is to consider that Emil Amos is also in the meditative metal band OM, Alex Hall has worked with Neurosis guitarist Steve Von Till on his psychedelic side project Harvestman, and third constant member Zak Riles also performs in the kraut-psych group Watter, which counts Slint among its members' former groups. Amos also has his own singer-songwriter project called Holy Sons, while he and Hall follow their moody avant-garde electronic impulses in the group Lilacs & Champagne. Bits and pieces of all of this can be heard in Grails, and best of all is how organic the resulting music feels; every sound serves a purpose.
Grails formed in Portland in 1999, founded by Amos and Hall under a different name (Laurel Canyon). Riles joined early in the game, and while a handful of other members have filtered in and out throughout the years to flesh out the songs in numerous ways, these three are the constant propulsive force of the group. Even though all are busy with various projects and now live scattered across the globe, they always find time to continue to build the musical world of Grails.
In advance of their performance at Trinosophes — which is a "UFO in Exile" show, rescheduled after a construction crew working for Elton Park developer Soave Enterprises damaged the UFO Factory building while working on the lot next door, enough for the city to officially declare it condemned — we spoke with Amos and Hall about their new album, the many layers of the creative process, and more.
Metro Times: What does the title Chalice Hymnal mean?
Emil Amos: The record is supposed to come across as a book of hymnals, almost like a religious tome or something that's kind of eternal and passed down.
MT: Is it fair to ask you to pick a favorite song on it?
Amos: Off the top of my head, maybe "Deep Snow II." I'm from Chapel Hill, N.C. and that song, for me, was an unconscious, or maybe slightly conscious, tribute to what ... my favorite local band when I was a kid, Polvo, would [sound like] if they collaborated with early Fleetwood Mac and only used acoustic guitars. I was trying to picture a fantasy genre or something.
MT: What has consistently inspired the music of Grails?
Alex Hall: It's the answer we've given a bunch of times, but it's still nonetheless true. The thing that inspires Grails is our unending obsession with music and constantly digging, discovering new things, turning the corner and realizing there is an entire world of records to listen to, and it never seems to end. Every time it seems like you get to the end of the corridor, you look to the left and there's always something there, a new direction to go in. And I'm really glad that's the case, and I don't think it'll ever end. We'll die or run out of time before we get to the end of the hallway.
Amos: Bands like Sun City Girls ... knew no one was going to like them, so before anyone could even evaluate them, they amped it up and made their music more brutal, more grotesque, to defend themselves and ward off the opponents ... I don't know if anyone would even hear that in something like Grails, [but] we come from that world, the world of obtuse music pre-Nirvana, that wasn't rewarded and had no expectations to be rewarded, so because we cut ourselves as kids in that mold, we're still inspired by that impulse.
So what inspires us is 50 percent what we were born of, this drive like Sun City Girls, to twist the knife into these people who we assumed wouldn't give a fuck about us anyway, and then 50 percent by our record digging addiction, because we found this weird brotherhood in the history of weirdo music.
MT: What part of your own creative process within Grails makes the most sense to you? Or put another way, what is your favorite part of the creative process?
Hall: I wouldn't know how to unpack it, or to break it down into components that way. I think for all of us, just creating, period, is the thing that makes life worth living, makes it worth getting out of bed in the morning every day. That's about it, it's really that simple.
Amos: Me and Alex both, we probably get high off that moment where we actually figure out what the initial concepts are going to be, when the cover art just locks in, and we're like, "Holy shit, this is going to fucking save us." The records look pretty cohesive, but to us, we're always scrambling up to the last second to try to give it a thread that can actually hang together, and to us, these songs have been made over the course of a few years in different parts of the world and so they have really different moods to them ... It [can] feel a little disconnected, and that moment when everything gels together under one umbrella is really satisfying. I would imagine people that don't get to be their own boss in life, and never see their own ideas come to fruition, don't get to experience some of those highs. But there's a moment for us where we're like yeah, this is something that we've been wanting to do since we were fuckin' 12, and in that moment, you feel that lock in. It's very deeply satisfying when you get to conceive of a concept and bring it into the world.
MT: Music and art in general can be a way for people who don't get to do that to be able to experience it a little bit.
Amos: It's this amazing thing. Everybody's a fan of Pink Floyd, and it brings everybody together, and everybody's like, "Yeah, it just sounds so good on a Sunday afternoon, get high and put on Animals" or something, but it's a different satisfaction to think of Animals. To think of the smokestacks and the pig and to bring it into fruition. Unfortunately most of the time, artists don't actually experience much happiness with what they've made; a really famous example is George Lucas says making Star Wars was the worst time of all of their lives. Thinking of it is really fun, [but] having to make it is often not that fun. So there's kind of a lot of ironies mixed up in the process, but in theory, the entity that imagines it all is supposed to experience satisfaction for creating, you know. For us, we try to take it easy and have as much fun as possible. We're kind of a good times party band.
MT: You are, but it's not the image most people have of party bands.
Amos: The reason for that is because we were sure no one would ever care about our band, so when we started we thought we were against the world. This is 17 years ago. We thought man, nobody is going to take us seriously. So we partied. We got to go to cities like Detroit, where we were absolutely certain no one was going to come to the show, [so we thought] let's just go and have a good time. That's the way we built the band, to enjoy ourselves, try to get out of town, and make things that we thought no one would care about. But you know, as far as things have gone, I think that the band has achieved a spiritual success. We don't make a lot of money or anything, but we get to do what we do and everybody leaves us alone. That's pretty fucking awesome these days.
Grails plays Trinosophes on Saturday, Oct. 14; Doors at 8 p.m.; 1464 Gratiot Ave., Detroit; trinosophes.com; $13 in advance, $15 day of the show.