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Nowhere Men

26 July 2012 | 6:00 am | Christopher H James

“We have the same amount of money now as when we started: none.”

More Grails More Grails

Perth: home of the Eagles, the Dockers (sort of), fleets of Hyundai Excels and Friday nights spent indoors. It takes some effort to “burst open the doors of sonic perception” in our sleepy municipality, however, that is exactly what the inaugural This Is Nowhere festival has promised to do, and with a line-up that includes the hallowed Tortoise, Xiu Xiu and now Grails, Drum thinks that proposition is pretty much in the bag.

Coming to Perth for the first time, Grails core members Alex Hall (guitar) Paul Spitz (guitar) Emil Amos (drums) and William Slater (piano/bass) are “super excited” at the prospect. Ballooning to a six-piece onstage, “…it's easily the best live incarnation in the history of the band,” Hall remarks. “We're told that it's the closest we've ever come to sounding like the records; customer satisfaction at an all-time high.” What's more, the band will be previewing material from their forthcoming Black Tar Prophecies Vol 5. They're not giving away copious details, but Hall has promised ”…more thrills 'n' chills for headphone stoners!“ Bless.

The variety of “thrills 'n' chills” explored by the band has expanded over time, as each Grails release has built on the last. Starting life as doomy post-rockers, Black Tar Prophecies Vol. 1, 2 and 3 marked a significant realisation of the band's capabilities, as they incorporated Jamaican-style bass, drones and deconstructed wig-outs. The Natural Man from 2008's Doomsdayer's Holiday was an arresting diversion into retro cinema sounds, but their revelation was 2011's Deep Politics, boasting far flung compositions, a finely manicured sound and plenty of extra instruments such as Moog, Morricone-style choirs, pipes, soft keys and radiant strings that powered through in moments of high drama. “Doomsdayer's Holiday was made at the tail end of when we were still touring a lot and represents a little more of the guitar-based/rock song format that was somewhat a result of the instrumentation we travel with,” states Amos. “Deep Politics is made much more like one would make a film soundtrack, with total freedom of instrumentation and the power to make completely 'unrealistic' things happen that flex the studio's more imaginative capabilities.”

Doing all of this on a micro-budget is not easy. “We have the same amount of money now as when we started: none,” says Hall. Although they mainly use traditional instruments, Grails are still “super reliant” on their computers. “Technology has just allowed us to stretch out and make the records we want to make rather than trying to cram all of the recording/mixing into a few brief days in the studio.” While the band respects “the raw punk rock approach to making records, which is effective when called for,” their goal is to create exquisitely manipulated, beautifully finished works – timeless classics, if you like. “If you grew up listening to records like Dark Side Of The Moon…” Amos ponders. “In the modern paradigm, you have to simulate the amount of time, equipment and money those records used to be made with. [Pink Floyd] lived in the studio as though they were making a film and building a masterpiece… so we live on our computers, re-configuring our original recordings until they affect one's brain in the desired way.”

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Besides financial hurdles, the other logistical challenge Grails grapple with is finding a time when the whole band can be convened. “We've made it work well for years, but Black Tar Vol. 5 has proved that we're moving slower than ever. It only has four songs and the recordings started three years ago,” Amos exclaims. “Each record we make with our various groups has to be honored with several tours so it gets extremely complicated as our schedules intertwine. Just the amount of emails and co-ordination can be ridiculous when our various bands need to set out their upcoming release schedules and tours.” The extra curricular work that Grails' men do is complex, even confusing. Hall plays in Harvestman with Neurosis guitarist Steve Von Till. Riles plays live with M Ward. Amos releases records as Holy Sons, has produced lovely drone sounds for Yellow Swans and has drummed for reclusive oddball Jandek. Moreover, he's been one half of the highly regarded stoners-with-exotic-influences outfit Om with former Sleep luminary Al Cisneros since 2008. “I was [in Australia] with Om a couple years ago and had a great time,“ he beams. “Licorice Pie in Melbourne might be my favorite record store anywhere. There's some killer old Australian surf documentary soundtracks we might go hunting for. After I left last time I was so obsessed with Licorice Pie's library record section that I had a friend in Melbourne go record shopping for me and ship them back across the world.” Hopefully Dada's satisfies his craving. Record store owners are still smarting from DJ Shadow's online jibe that the “digging” (hip hop slang for scavenging old records for beats and samples) here sucks.

One thing that's working in Grails' favour is the seemingly growing acceptance of instrumental bands. “Some people aren't as baffled by instrumental bands in 2012 as they were seven or eight years ago,” Hall agrees. “Instrumental music seems to be much friendlier now that it used to be. The ceiling of visibility/popularity for instrumental bands is still pretty low, but the music is more easily assimilated.” The negative aspect of this is that pains need to be taken to stand apart from the large, smelly pack of rather average post-rockers plotting predictably similar paths to those set by their idols. “When we started out, most instrumental bands were trying to sound like Tortoise or Mogwai but today most sound like James Horner soundtracks,” he continues.

Avoiding that inglorious fate, Grails have sourced inspiration from all sorts of weird nooks and crannies, including Sensations' Fix – an obscure Italian prog band of the '70s – and their current faves, Finland's Pharaoh Overlord, who might be familiar to fans of Circle. They're also keen to put as much clear water as possible between themselves and many of the bands that have relocated to their hometown of Portland, which has become something of a magnet for aspiring indie-kids of the US. “Portland is, and has always been, a great place to live… cheap rent, creative culture, et cetera. But these days, Portland culture is just a brand, an exportable commodity. It's really not something to be proud of, considering that much of Portland's contribution to the world in the last several years has been some of the most offensively boring white music ever made,” Hall laments. Times certainly change, and “all good things come to a trend” it's been suggested, but with their commitment to probing the outer reaches of the sonic universe, that's surely something no one will ever accuse this band of. “Grails is camped out more in the school of mood-control and sonic experimentation,” Amos summarises. “It's maybe closer to listening to avant-garde, electronic music in that it satisfies slightly less conscious parts of the brain.” Not sure which parts of the brain qualify as “slightly less conscious,” but we look forward to getting them serviced this October.