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Holy Sons - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 12 / 10 / 2003

Holy Sons - Interview


Emil Amos's band Holy Sons spent a decade in self-imposed musical exile, but have now released an album 'I Want to Live a Peaceful Life' through FILM Guerrero. He chats about it, and the other albums and EPs he has planned for the near future

Emil Amos is the frontman and sole permanent member of the Portland, Oregon-based group, Holy Sons. Amos, who also plays the guitar in Pseudosix and the drums in Grails, two other local groups, first formed Holy Sons, which he has described as having "been built to be an occult personality" in 1992. He has released using the Holy Sons moniker three previous albums, 'Lost Decade' ( 1999) ; 'Staying True to the Ascetic Roots, 2001) and 'Enter the Uninhabitable' (2002) and has also recorded approximately another 1000 songs. Steadfastly refusing to play to the mainstream in any form, he, however, never promoted any of them, and even locally, has until now remained a hidden and obscure talent. 'I Want to Live a Peaceful Life', Holy Sons' fourth album opens a new chapter in the group's history. Recorded in the Type Foundry studio in Portland, with well- respected local producer Adam Selzer, it is the first Holy Sons' recording not to be recorded on lo-fi equipment. It has also immediately given both Holy Sons and Amos a higher profile by being released on the highly-regarded local label FILM Guerrero. Amos plays most of the instrumentation, including guitar, drums, percussion, keyboards and organ, on 'I Want to Live a Peaceful Life' himself, and has combined them and his sparse, often burred vocals with spooky atmospherics and creaking, warped sound effects. The album has been described as "somewhere between Neil Young's 'On the Beach' and Richard Thompson's 'Pour Down Like Silver', and, totally defying conformity, is reminiscent also of the work of such musical mavericks as Daniel Johnston, Roky Erikson and Syd Barrett, with its eccentricity and oddity. Pennyblackmusic talked to Emil Amos about 'I Want to Live a Peaceful Life' and began by asking him about his self-imposed decade long musical exile. PB : Holy Sons have been until now something of a lost band. There have been three previous albums, and there is also a whole heap of lost recordings, but until now very few people even locally in Portland have heard of you. Why has there been so little publicity for the group up until now ? EA : I think the most simple answer would be that when I was growing up I developed this affinity for cult musicians - it seemed obvious to me at the time that the best things were somewhat hidden, hard to find and were inexplicably tied to failure in the eyes of recorded history... and often the people's lives involved with cult music ended in tragedy or went horribly wrong along the way. This all seems funny to me now because in reflection I see that I have taken every step unconsciously to become a cult musician ... which, inevitably, meant painting myself into a corner where I was unable to be heard.. and catalyzing that process perfectly every chance I got -I think during the 90's I was either too busy taking drugs with my headphones blasting to sit down and figure out a marketing scheme or I was just depressed about the whole situation and that paralysed me further- I never once gave any music to any labels, yet sat around cursing everyone for not listening to it ..... now I realize that I was pretty crazy for expecting people to find me when I made it impossible. Also I was really angry at the state of "underground" music and how it's trajectory was swinging back towards commercialism and the same old rockstar paradigm-I didn't want to encourage or be part of a corrupt situation that fostered more disposable nihilistic music-it seemed soulless and satanic to join with all the bands jockeying for position within a scene ruled by money and hype and exploit what I considered to be a time of opportunism thriving on the death of creative music. PB : It is rumoured that the front cover photo of 'I Want to Live a Peaceful Life' is that of Don Henley during his High School days. Why did you decide to put this on the sleeve. Are you a big Eagles fan ? EA : Well, I wish the cover of 'Peaceful Life' had a better story behind it - it isn't Don Henley - I've worked at a homeless shelter for about four years now and I've had a series of absurd situations... but in this case a local church was trying to recruit one of our 'clients' and gave him this tract called something like 'Fear, Loneliness and Dying' and on the back was a picture of the preacher who wrote it - he looked strangely serene and deceptively complacent ... I knew that the album title should be 'I Want to Live a Peaceful Life' and my brain just juxtaposed the title with the image - and, in that moment, it made me laugh ... perhaps because I knew it was a little bit disingenuous to use because I won't make an album quite like that again for a long time. PB : Is that the preacher on the cover then ? EA : Yes, that is the preacher. PB : The album was inspired in part by Fred Neil, who died shortly before the recording for it began. Who was Fred Neil, and why is he such an influence ? EA : Fred Neil was a complex character in the history of music ... most people know nothing about him and the people who do don't know much either -He was a good friend of my father's in Coconut Grove, Miami, FLA (where I was born) . . Most people probably know of him peripherally because he wrote the theme song to the movie 'Midnight Cowboy' called 'Everybody's Talkin'. His influence on me is three-fold I suppose - Firstly, he was around a bit when I was a kid...though I only remember him from stories my father told. They actually met one night when Fred Neil randomly stumbled onto my Dad's boat and passed out in a corner, in the process missing a show he was supposed to play The second way he influenced me was that his records have this magical slow-motion breathing quality to them that can almost freak you out - check out the album called 'Fred Neil' - his talent was completely off the hook - that's why the younger generation flocked to him (Bob Dylan, David Crosby,etc). The third way he influenced me was that he completely turned his back on fame - my Dad says that he was very paranoid and as he aged he grew more and more aloof - throughout the end of his life most of his old friends didn't even know where he lived - I started to realise that I related to him in ways that I hadn't understood before - there are a lot of stories about him never showing up to shows or recording sessions- stories that he'd come in late, really high and smash guitars if couldn't tune them - one story says that he sold the song 'Everybody's Talkin' for ten dollars to ten different publishers to go get drugs - I don't know if any of this stuff is true so it's safer to assume it's not - but it seemed to me that he surveyed the music world and realised that he'd rather just pull his cards out because it was all thoroughly bullshit - that struck me as the most powerful thing you could do in music.... like the Big Star song that says "they'll zip you up , dress you down and stand you in a row / but you know you don't have to / you can just say no" - that kind of power and insight into the lie of the music industry is intense and definitely had an influence on me - but I'm still meditating on it and trying to figure it out for myself. PB : Taking into account the fact that Fred Neil was such an influence, do you see 'I Want to Live a Peaceful Life' as a folk album then ? EA : Yes, I wanted it to be, somewhat categorically, a folk album because I listen to folk albums around the house and I wanted to make an album that just sits there and emits a gracefulness... conservative like a Doc Watson arrangement or a Kurosawa movie about a stoic samurai - It seemed like Fred Neil's grace is somewhat unattainable so, although people might hear a simple folk album when listening to 'Peaceful Life', to me, it was a challenge to retain such a meditative atmosphere ... and then, the first couple reviews I read of it disregarded the fact that it was, in essence, a folk album (it was blatantly titled 'I Want to Live A Peaceful Life' ) and they wanted more pyrotechnics and rock out of it .... so what can you do? .. I'm sure next time it won't be folksy enough. I imagined, early on, that I would just make a (non-)career out of making each album a genre, in-itself, and have the albums arguing against each other as different world-views - I'm sure that is probably commercial suicide but, to me, it seems to represent real life more accurately to express a larger spectrum of experiences. PB : The songs on 'I Want to Live a Peaceful Life', like all the best folk songs, often seem to be autobiographical, and to deal with a lot of very personal issues such as your uncertainity about the future on 'Family Man', your fear of ageing on 'Getting Old', and feelings of shame on 'All the Wrong Things'. You have been described as combining " a mix of pop confidence and haggard resignation" and having an "ever present tone of careworn self-deprecation". Would you agree with those interpretations ? EA : You know, as long as people apply actual thought to your music and sit down and listen to it with some semblance of patience .. I really can't complain - you know, I'm not asking for much .. or really anything I suppose... I just want to make about 50 more albums and then maybe I'll take a break - there's nothing wrong with those quotes ... PB : Most of the album was recorded at the Type Foundry studio in Portland with Adam Selzer recording ? What do you think he brought to the recording ? EA : Well, I actually recorded twenty or so other songs in a folk setting in a different local studio a couple years before in an attempt to make 'Peaceful Life' but I scrapped it all ..... I don't know what was wrong but at the time I was a little anxious about the jump from doing lo-fi for so long to bringing my aesthetic preferences into the studio - so maybe I jinxed it ... a couple songs might see the light from those sessions someday.. Type Foundry is just my favourite studio ... I've worked on about five different albums for different bands there and I'm very comfortable there. I learned about Adam from coming in and guesting on other people's stuff - In the old days I was really confident that I would never record in the same place twice and I guess I was obsessed with variables being used to their advantage ... but then I thought about the Beatles' relationship with Abbey Road .. or Nina Simone's relationship with RCA for twenty albums and I realised you can create chapters of your work and life out of these relationships and really focus in on your songs and arrangements ... I'm systematically watching every movie Kurosawa made right now and what strikes me is that he has the same technological limitations, the same actors and the same scenery in every movie, but he created this big body of work where each movie focuses in on whatever he chooses at the time to reveal about the condition of humans ... it seemed an appropriate metaphor for how I should exploit Type Foundry to my furthest abilities. In terms of Adam Selzer... he's just a lot like me in that I think he understands superstition and the more Taoist truths of recording... he may not say it that way but he just experiments constantly and seems to understand the absurd or endlessly relative quality of what recorded music is 'supposed to' sound like - he was definitely a positive presence all around and is probably one of the nicest guys I've ever met. PB : The remaining tracks were recorded at home. You have said about the recordings you did at home that you were "trying to mimic the quality of the popol vuh soundtracks to old Werner Herzog films" ? What did you mean by that ? EA : I'm sure I failed but I don't know,... Things just happen when you are making any type of art where one day somebody trips and kicks the cocaine into your painting and you just go with it because it always seems like a sign that you have to obey - and then ten years down the line you are the world's premier cocaine painter ... that's a terrible analogy for why you make the choices you do .. anyhow, besides the fact that I feel some sort of deeper kinship to Herzog's vision in amazing movies like 'Fitzcarraldo' , those soundtracks achieve that grainy quality that I've always been intoxicated by - Lo-fi/home-recording methods seem to create the frequencies that most often please me ... but now I've damaged my ears so bad that I will have to stop pushing myself to achieve those things sonically that I used to spend so much time doing - At this point, I've traded my body for these songs so I better have something to show for it that I like. PB : You're also in Grails and Pseudosix. Who are they ? EA : 1) Grails = instrumental, sort of like classical music played by sloppy drunks who grew up playing hardcore ..We're on a label run by Neurosis called Neurot recordings. 2) Pseudosix = sort of a more modern Modern Lovers... working class white soul folk? On a math-rock-esque label in Michigan called Fifty Four Forty or Fight.... PB : When you record it's usually by yourself. You've recently started going out on the road, after years of not playing any gigs, and have taken a band with you. Who is in the band, and why do they not come into the studio with you to record 'I Want to Live a Peaceful Life' ? EA : This is a complicated question .... ummm. .. the whole sound of Holy Sons is based on me not knowing what I'm gonna do before I do it - I know the albums sound like someone sat down and wrote out all these parts and carefully put it together but it's not like that at all - most of these songs I've never played any of the parts before I went in the studio or turned on the four-track- it's important that I don't know what songs I'll be recording that day - it's got to be that way for a number of reasons - it's pretty difficult to produce, write, play and record by yourself and retain the naviety you need to make a recording come to life and satisfy you while your playing it back in the studio - because, most likely, that moment may be the only period of joy I will have in being a part of this music besides the moment of writing it's basic idea - if I don't have fun right then and there it's all pretty pointless..... so the dialogue a band has with each other has to be created by me making up the parts on the spot. It sounds the way it does because I've probably done it this way too many times - it should sound totally fresh, like some sort of revelation... but it just sounds like songs.. - in theory, the best music magnifies the idiosyncracy of the player and lets their knowledge/experience shine like a pearl .. to me, it's about idiosyncracy above all else ... and playing alone is supposed to exemplify that to the most pure degree - the live band constantly changes but mostly combines members from Grails and another Portland band called Dolorean PB : Holy Sons seem to have been given something of a career boost by becoming involved with FILM Guerrero? How did you first get to know its owner, John Askew, and would you agree with that ? ES : I was working with Adam Selzer early on in the studio and one day he said he'd give some demos to John because he'd probably like it - previously I had no way to get around the fact that I wouldn't let myself give anything to labels ... I would have had to trick myself somehow to get around this aversion - so the fact that it all came about pretty easy after that put everything in a strange light.. .after years of complaining within a month all three bands I was in were signed to different labels and all I could really do was shrug and smile stupidly - FILM Guerrero is super great for several reasons - I feel like John is entirely on my side and just wants to make great records - John knows about the various Catch 22s and waves of media mind control you are up against in the music world because he's coming from an artist perspective also(John Askew fronts the band, Tracker-Ed) - I'll probably always work with him on some level. PB : You're soon going to re-release through FILM Guerrero an album from 2001, 'Staying True to the Ascetic Roots'. In what ways do you see it differing in tone from 'I Want to Live a Peaceful Life' ? EA : Hhmmm... 'Staying True' was like a gentle move from lo-fi to higher-fi - so it was an important step for me to see how or if I could do it - in the 90's I don't think I really listened to music that much.. just made a lot of it - I think I had a Sentridoh tape and a record by America,.. maybe some Daniel Johnston - I was on the outside of music, the magazines and everything that was going on... and then one day, towards the end of the decade, I went into a record store ... I felt like some sort of early man in a huge supermarket y'know.. embarrassed for people and myself - I put on some headphones at the listening station to listen to, what was now, modern music and I was kind of shocked .. I felt a little left behind because people were experimenting with stuff I had no access to... and I probably knew inside that no one would ever really listen to me if I did lo-fi for the rest of my life.. so I got curious.. it seemed like there was a pretty big challenge ahead of me - so 'Staying True' was like stepping into that new situation with more tracks and all that - I don't think I knew what a mixer even did because i had never even had any kind of EQ on my four tracks, they were so cheap and old - so 'Staying True' is an interesting mid-point that mostly exposes where my mind was at at the time.. 'Peaceful Life' is just more confident in terms of experimenting with the aesthetics a studio can grant you - with all the damage to my ears.. I needed something I liked that wouldn't hurt as much to listen back to ... PB : You're also thinking about releasing a collection of "unheard lo-fi stuff" entitled 'Eyes of the Echelon'. What's going to be on that ? EA : This is a compilation of just the 90's Holy Sons stuff I've been trying to piece together for a few years now - it's really hard to put together that much stuff and sequence it - I've never approached anybody about releasing it so I will have a hard time starting now.... I'll just keep digging and re-editing for another decade and that's fine PB :. What other plans have you got for the future ? EA : An EP is done called 'Decline of the West' - and another album is basically finished but may go through some more changes before it sees the light - otherwise I have tons of other ideas and other stuff recorded .... if you know anyone with a new credit card tell'em to write me . PB : Thank you

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Holy Sons - Interview

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Interview (2006)
Holy Sons - Interview
Back for a second interview with us, John Clarkson speaks to Grails drummer Emil Amos about his solo project Holy Sons, and its latest record 'Decline of the West', which takes its influence from German philosophy and 70's Avant-Garde and electronic band

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