“The exchange of art is perpetually off balance in a sense because the concert is free of any bondage [for the audience] – it’s the end of their day, they’ve finished work, they have a beer in their hand and they are probably trying to meet a girl.”
The anomaly of Portland's Grails doesn't stand with the fact that there is no singer; it's that they can communicate a miasma of ideas and emotions without lyrical signposting. Rather than focus on tried and tested formulas inherent within instrumental rock, the quartet of Alex John Hall, Will Slater, Zak Riles and Emil Amos incorporate all of their influences – ranging European soundtracks, Eastern folk, and an almost spiritual inhabitation within the fluidity of rhythm – to create something sinuous and indefinable, thus the tangential shifts in various releases. Amos admits that his other musical experiences – he also drums for hugely influential doom-metal band Om – don't really prepare him for the Grails aesthetic; it's very much its own entity.
“The exchange of art is perpetually off balance in a sense because the concert is free of any bondage [for the audience] – it's the end of their day, they've finished work, they have a beer in their hand and they are probably trying to meet a girl,” he explains. “They're at the show and they're looking up at the stage, so all the pressure is on us. The audience is free to let the world melt away so this idea, this picture of the art that they love, is their focus.
“We aren't really allowed to do that; we're at work. So as we're playing we can't enjoy the chorus of a song the way they can, because I'm thinking that I don't wanna drop my stick, one of my cymbals has fallen down, and I have to keep this whole ship steady. So it's the audience that's experiencing the pleasure areas of their brain, but mine isn't. It's odd to think of the amount of effort that goes into creating this stuff, but I'm not experiencing pleasure as I'm creating it. I'm doing the hard work, all of the time.”
Last year's album release Deep Politics saw their musical focus shift to encompass '70s Italian Giallo compositions alongside the sweeping suggestiveness of their French contemporaries, in the process creating a brooding classic that nonetheless had critics and fans alike reaching for new genre staples, spaghetti post-rock being one of the most touted. Amos is wary of the double-edged sword that is taking umbrage over labels that don't necessarily fit.
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“Looking back at [Deep Politics] it was more of a record collector's fantasy album,” he continues, “the truest crystallisation of all the music that we were all listening to at that very point. But then again I think that is what we do, which makes Grails very different from any band I've ever personally known too. It's a template where you are able to recycle anything you've heard, anywhere, from any part of the world, almost immediately. With vocal-based music you couldn't do that anywhere near as fast, to hybridise as much. But then again that's our job. I don't mean that in a compulsory slavery kind of way either. If you are a DJ your job is to go dig for records, so you're crawling out in different directions at all times, through all eras and cultural plains for something that changes your perspective that gives you something unique to your set, and Grails operates in the same way. Our occupation is to inadvertently understand the last century of recorded music, so the songs come 50% from direct inspiration from what people have accomplished, and 50% is just raw melodies that come out of us. Where those two things meet is what dictates our sound.”
This impetus on calling Grails a profession may sound like the musical process is tiresome and gruelling, but it's the working mindset that invariably ensures that Grails remains the exciting, organic and fruitful endeavour that it is. “I have four different bands, so music has gone beyond a ritualistic hobby for me; it's become a lifestyle,” Amos states. “So all my pleasure, my pain, even my tasks of the day to day, it's all derived from music. This may sound like the kind of lecture that a monk would give, but the nature of life is not fireworks and successes, it's something that is constantly plagued with problems of trying to find a way to enjoy this thing that's inherently flawed and mortal.
“It's also a big part of my personality to remind people of the negative side of things,” he chuckles. “I don't relate to music being made from the perspective of the winner. I've never been someone who has felt truly acknowledged or absorbed by a larger audience; we've always been complete cult entities that the larger world doesn't even know about, so we exist in our own isolation. We don't have that connection with other musicians or the crowd. It can get a bit strained because you become so far removed from each other. Effectively being a character in this larger random script isn't really satisfying; you aren't getting any sense of bringing something or doing something important, because you never see how it may have touched their lives.
“And every once in a while something special will happen where you kinda get it for a second, but then it goes away immediately and then you spend most of your time in a basement or in your studio, away from the sunlight, and you don't live in any state of glory. The second you finish on a record, you start on another one. The life of an artist is not filled with much soft ground of congratulations. I do what I do because I love it, and hopefully others will love it too – but often that's as far as it goes.”
Such isolation is justified when looking at the finite ways people can come across Grails, either through other artists on their Temporary Residence label, an allegiance to instrumental rock, and most recently fans of Om. It's evident to the Grails collective that they'll always be a peripheral band, which reaps its own rewards for members and fans alike.
“The benefits to being a lonely, isolated artist are few, but they're worth it,” Amos enthuses. “You get much more freedom, you can really flex your muscles. If you feel like no one's paying attention to you, you can really do whatever you want to do. Larger artists at times seem constrained by having the guise of the entertainer; even when you're touring, you're surrounded by people that are focused on how many people are coming in, and you lose some of the artistry when you're forced to talk to people who have no idea where you're coming from. Sometimes it's necessary, but I often need to act as a preservationist. People get swept up in these mainstream ideals to the point where the underground scene today is a bit of a graveyard to what it used to be in the '80s. That level of mystique has been stripped away from many bands, some willingly so. That will never be us.”
Grails will be playing the following shows:
Saturday 13 October - Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
Thursday 18 October - Northcote Social Club, Melbourne VIC
Friday 19 October - Oxford Art Factory, Sydney NSW
Sunday 14 October - This Is Nowhere, Perth WA