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Strange Birds: The Two Decades and Dozen Records of Emil Amos and Holy Sons

Check out the new video for "Robbed And Gifted," and read a crate-digging interview with the man behind Holy Sons, OM, and Grails.

by Gary Suarez
Oct 25 2016, 4:15pm

Sometimes, a record comes along that nobody seems to get. The 1970s in particular are littered with such curios and artifacts, byproducts of the decade's pivot to album-oriented rock. Record labels with fat pockets doled out budgets to artists with mad imaginations eager for the chance to actualize their musical fever dreams. So for every middlebrow masterpiece like Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, there were crates of strange birds like Richard and Linda Thompson's devotional Sufi folk collection Pour Down Like Silver, and non-commercial fare like Gene Clark's maximalist No Other.

These are the sorts of records that interest Emil Amos, though you might not be able to tell given his profile. Often overproduced records like those exist seemingly in contrast with the prolific musician's broad discography, which includes the meditative doom of Om, the expansive instrumental rock of Grails, and the hip-hop adjacent Lilacs & Champagne. His long-running solo endeavor Holy Sons essentially worships at the four-track altar of Radio Shack and garage sales.

As a proudly lo-fi rocker in the mold of Lou Barlow and Bill Callahan, you don't expect Amos to drop such reverential yet definitively uncool references to the likes of Fred Neil, best known for penning Harry Nilsson Grammy-winning hit "Everybody's Talkin'." So when he confidently compares his just-released Holy Sons album In The Garden to big misfires and unheralded singer-songwriters from four decades ago, it demands an explanation.

"My bands have never been on the pulse," Amos says. "If you look at my track record, it's remarkably out of fashion."

Conceived as a potentially Faustian bargain between Amos and an old friend at a notoriously seedy Brooklyn strip joint, In The Garden marks his entry into a musical tradition that doesn't quite exist anymore, one where high artistry and high budgets mingle. Few good ideas originate in places where impairment drives business, where decision-making buckles under the existential weight of one's own base desires. But the opportunity to make his own 70s-inspired singer-songwriter record in a proper recording studio appealed to Emos's sense of experimentation.

"As a songwriter, that's a clear cut challenge," Amos says of the offer. "Anyone would want to try it, to see if they could jump over a really high hurdle." He agreed to do it, and after a few lunch meetings with John Agnello, he holed up in Hoboken for two weeks with the veteran rock producer to make what would become In The Garden. You can get a glimpse of how that went in the music video for single "Robbed And Gifted," premiering here at Noisey today.

Just days after a record release show at Brooklyn's Union Pool, during which he offset the gravity of his music with spirited jokey banter between songs, Amos was off to the West Coast for Holy Sons and Om shows. It was then that I had the opportunity to speak on the phone with Amos about the motivations and influences behind In The Garden.

Noisey: You can listen to In The Garden and not quite expect what you get at a show like the one I went to at Union Pool, with your non sequitur jokes and anecdotes in between songs. But the record, at least from an emotional perspective, feels heavy. Do you find that humor is a reaction to that?
Emil Amos: Your job as a poet, in a weird way, is staring at your brain in the mirror daily. It's kind of a miserable atmosphere. It's not really healthy. Nobody really wants to criticize themselves in relation to everything constantly. I was sort of the worst of the worst of over-analyzing and trying to climb a philosophical mountain in the music. I finally got to a point where I could have different bands and wake up in a different city and work on something different, sometimes be just a drummer, sometimes be just a guitarist. When I got to that point, I started feeling happier. I didn't want to focus on myself all the time. I realized that was a miserable state of affairs. If you fast forward to this point where you're talking about comparing a serious record with a pretty lighthearted and jovial performance vibe, I think some of that is just me being a happier person.

When it's game time in the studio, your job is to report on what you've learned from living in the trenches and being in the fucking war. It's like an old archetype. It could be Zarathustra and Nietzsche's archetype. It could be someone just out of prison giving lectures at elementary schools. Your job is to report what you took away from the darkest times of your life. You took a really vivid picture about appreciating life and the attempt to appreciate life. That has to be on one hand an intrinsically heavy thing. Like Kierkegaard and other thinkers said, that alone without a sense of humor gets you nowhere. The sense of humor is the saving grace.

Holy Sons is very vocal heavy, with lyrics at the fore. Do you find that writing lyrics helps you work through this stuff?
I was actually just having a really long conversation at three in the morning last night with my friend Duncan Trussell who I do these [Drifter's Sympathy] podcasts with. We were on the couch drinking tequila. We were talking about the blessings of being able to transmute depression into knowledge. I don't know if people who don't dive fully into art have this sensation, but there's something that happens when you're miserable. I mean, you feel like you have a fever you're so unhappy. Your skin is giving off heat and you're writhing in pain. There's something that happens when you pick up an acoustic guitar or a paintbrush or whatever and get lost in trying to alleviate or even just express what's going on right in front of you, the pit of misery that you're in. And when you put that guitar down, and you stand up and walk down the hall, it's insane the consistency to which that horrible Catch-22 you were in minutes before is somehow lifted by the act.

For this record, you worked with producer John Agnello. You cultivated this sound together, that analog 70s vibe is really strong here. What prompted the shift to that aesthetic? In The Garden and its predecessor Fall Of Man seem like very different records sonically.
People always said that about Grails. We'd be putting two records out kind of at the same time and people would be like, oh they're so different. But behind the curtain I was working on both things at the same time every time. You just categorize songs into group that seem to have an inherent common thread. When you package it together and put a cover on it, people digest it as though it was born that way.

In this case, it was the first time that an external entity or situation presented itself to me and commissioned a record out of me. Everything else has always been done and made totally selfishly for me. Everything else was always made to make me happy. This occasion was slightly different. I was out at that strip club Pumps, which I don't frequent, in an inadvertent business meeting with one of my oldest friends that runs this label. He just said to me, very sincerely, "I really want to hear you make your Dark Side Of The Moon. I wanna hear you make a huge record that sounds classic. What if I gave you this real budget?" That would never be something I'd conceive of, because I work on the cheap.

The label suggested [producer] John Agnello and I started going to lunch with him. We would hang out like as friends. He booked the time at Water Music in Hoboken. I ended up moving out there and living above the studio in this loft for like two weeks. And we made a record like you might've made [it] in the '70s, immersed completely in old school, pretty much all first takes. Whether you're talking about some classic Eagles song like "Desperado," we just kind of shot for satisfying that part of our brains, because everybody understands that. It wasn't like we thought any of this was done to court a new audience. If you listen to the record, you can tell it's all been done for the same exact reasons. It wants to be itself, it wants to exist, it wants to stand on its own two legs as a piece of art.

Was there an adjustment to working in that kind of studio session, to get comfortable enough to work through this stuff?
There would've been a massive transition factor, a massive intimidation factor. But I'm older now. I had a lot of chances to dip my toe into that atmosphere, especially with the other bands. If you look back ten years ago, I had to sit under the gun for Jandek shows, which were two hour filmed performances with nothing written before. So I had a lot of experiences, like recording with [Steve] Albini where there's no overdubs, straight-to-tape, with Om. I had a lot of experiences where I've been thrown in the fire. I was prepared emotionally. But it still takes so much focus that it's exhausting to have to work, especially playing all the instruments all day long. Each overdub has to sit on top of the last overdub with a completely coherent perfectly metered attitude to it. It takes so much focus that I knew exactly what I had to do...

I moved to Portland, Oregon in 1999. That's when I got terrified about going into studios because I'd worked on four-tracks for ten years and I had no interest in anything else. I loved Dongs Of Sevotion by Smog and things like that. I was like, holy shit Bill Callahan is listening to my dad's old best friend, this guy Fred Neil. This guy literally fell asleep on heroin on my dad's vote, the guy who wrote "Everybody's Talkin'." He missed a lot of shows while he was on drugs. Back around that point, I was hearing contemporary artists reach back to the classic folk rock stuff. My dad knew all these people. When I heard that stuff I was like, fuck, there's no way I can't just try and go into the studio and make my own version. Richard Thompson's Pour Down Like Silver was a big record for me. It's hi-fi, but it's the most religious, intense, genuine expression.

When you get stuck in a lo-fi ghetto, you become a hard core snob. But at some point you have to acknowledge that a lot of the great art was made on major labels with budgets and back-up singers and horns. At some point you have to reconcile that and try it yourself. This was one of those moments where it was like, oh shit, now it's on me to prove that I can do this stuff.

The stock questions that interviewers have for artists are, like, what are you influences? While everyone comes up with different answers for it and often try to find a cool thing to say, I think, save for certain people with very unique experiences, a lot of our earliest experiences with music are those big records. These major label records that we don't listen to as often now, but that had an impact and can remind us when a musician is working through something.
You're kind of nailing the intent. The intent was to transcend our time, to transcend the trappings and the fashions of this moment and make something that essentially is a form of rebellion. I know no one will see it that way. No one will say, this is a form of punk music. But it truly is out of fashion.

No one generally knows who I am in larger circles because I wanna do what I wanna do. Neil Young did that but he's in a very specific light because of the period he was born into. This record is supposed to be something that goes against what is rewarded. And for that it's supposed to stand out. I don't know that anybody else would see it that way. I talk to a lot of people who'd just see it as another indie rock record that sounds good. It's built to fit with a family of other records, like Bill Fay records, built to live outside of time.

And although all that shit I just said is completely pretentious of me, if someone gives you $40,000 and you go in the studio, you better be a little bit pretentious. You better get fucking serious and you better make something that will stand up for a long time.

Given the circumstances under which you were presented the opportunity to make this record, location notwithstanding, how many times in your life are you going to have the chance to do so with a budget like this, with a producer you want to work with, and with a concept you want to work through? Even if you have a pretentious concept to get you there, it drives the process.
You're essentially repeating exactly what we were saying in Pumps. How many times are people going to offer me the opportunity to make some grandiose, blustery record? Why would you not do that? I was confused at first about it, and I asked everybody I could think of. I asked twenty people what I should do, and every single person was like: do it. I don't even know where they were coming from but I took it seriously.

It's one record. It's not my whole career. It's not something I can really turn down. And now I look back and think, as long as it stands positively in context with all the other stuff and doesn't make everything somehow not fit together for people, it was a great idea.

There's such a disconnect in how we talk about things like artist compensation, the value of an album, and people's perceptions. It's an interesting impulse to me that you'd want to poll your trusted circle and ask if it's the right thing to do, if it's the way to go.
I was just curious about it. My daily existence is already something that runs on a rhythmic path with these other records. It just goes to show you how I wasn't trying to court people by making something commercial. A couple of people have already mentioned this and it's pretty obvious that I was looking at Gene Clark's No Other and thinking, wouldn't it be rad to make your big blustery sellout record that no one liked? Wouldn't it be rad to go back and find that one record that at the time everyone rejected, but you discover this crazy record that people didn't get becomes your entire philosophical cornerstone to why the world never gets anything good?

I can't even tell you how many times I go into artist discographies looking for that record. Sometimes you find this strange bird, and maybe their motivation or how it came about was unusual. I hunt for those records and wave them at people to say, hey this is fuckin' weird.
Pour Down Like Silver by Richard Thompson is, in a weird way, the ultimate version of that. He distilled something so potent about a religious revelation in one's life. And then he never does it again in his entire discography. Never returns to that place again. It's one of the most devout, beautiful, harrowing moments of singer-songwriter history and you never hear anyone talking about it. So it goes to show you that a record like this might be born to die in obscurity. But that's just another reason to make a great record. What else is the point? It's to make something that joins the family of isolated expressions that people like you and I fucking live by. We exist in a secret society of people who hunt for those things.

​Gary Suarez is staying gifted on Twitter​.