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Full Force: In Conversation with Holy Sons’ Emil Amos – Part 1

Holy Sons’ sensational new album, Raw and Disfigured is set for release this Friday and we talk to Emil Amos in the first part of an exclusive two part feature.

Despite the sun trying desperately to shine through, like always with Emil AmosHoly Sons project, the thunder clouds remain a constant shield from hope and happiness.

On Raw and Disfigured, Holy Sons new long-player, there are more of those lightning bolts emerging from the ominous iron-grey skies.

Holy Sons is hands down the most misunderstood musical project of the last thirty years.

How it hasn’t reached a broader listenership adds to the mystery. It’s outsider music beyond outsider culture, generating a feeling that you can only truly understand the Holy Sons remit if you’ve participated in the darkest furrows of existence.

Over the past decade, there has only been a handful of artists who have consistently delivered album after album. With Raw and Disfigured, Holy Sons reaffirms its position in this esteemed broad church of artists constantly delivering high-grade art.

The Holy Sons watermark juxtapositions are ever-present. Look no further than opening song, The Loser that Always Wins. A homage to the underdog chasing that elusive victory.

Sonically, Raw and Disfigured isn’t too far removed from the later releases in the Holy Sons cannon, but it doesn’t need to be. Not counting Amos‘ lo-fi crate digging oeuvres (namely the Lost Decade series), his last three albums, In the Garden, Fall of Man and The Fact Facer are a modern day Berlin trilogy if ever there was one.

Amos has carved out his own cinematic world through the scope of Holy Sons and since the cult-lauded Decline of the West, no one has come close to trespassing these terrains.

Muddled in misery whilst persistently trying to escape a substance-riddled haze, Raw and Disfigured is a sweeping representation of the best kind of psychedelia and downer-pop laments.

It solidifies Amos’ reputation as the true master of these themes, dispensing inward doom-balladry inspired by escaping reality for ten years in favour of seeking refuge in philosophy books and psychedelics. On Raw and Disfigured, his darkest and boldest offering yet, we have an artist at the apex of his creative powers.

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With echoes of Dennis Wilson, Pink Floyd and various other ’70s touchstones remaining ever-present, there’s AM radio reverence drifting through these songs like thick sheets of fog, led by Lost in the Fire and Slow to Run.

The tender melodies that dip into the realm of pop (look no further than the Daniel Johnston cover of Held the Hand) and the subtle arrangements that have been fermenting in ketamine (spearheaded by the tear-jerking Lady of the Hour) sit beautifully in front of anxious syncopated percussion – this time provided by Sonic Youths Steve Shelley.

The intermission of nine-minute instrumental, Cóiste Bodhar, draws from Amos‘ sonic foundations of his other equally revered projects, Grails, OM and Lilacs & Champagne. It doesn’t feel out of place in the slightest, though. It’s a meditative piece that infiltrates and fractures Raw and Disfigured for the final frontier, led by album highlight, the atmospheric hedonism-inspired Night Like This.

His first double LP since the aforementioned Decline of the West, Raw and Disfigured is unquestionably a seamless snapshot into the world of Holy Sons.

It’s music that reaches the deepest parts of your soul, talking to you in a unique language. When fully immersed in the world of Holy Sons, it wholeheartedly makes you feel like there is nothing else you need in life.

Raw and Disfigured may just be the greatest double LP in underground culture since Polvo’s Exploded Drawing. Only time will tell of course, but this feeling doesn’t seem as if it will subside anytime soon.

In the lead-up to the release of Raw and Disfigured, I was fortunate enough to speak to Amos. We spoke via Skype in what turned out to be a conversation that lasted just short of two hours.

For the benefit of Raw and Disfigured and to align with the themes of Amos’ equally-lauded podcast, Drifter’s Sympathy, we decided to run the full transcript of the conversation.

For this reason, the feature will run in two parts with the second to be published in the coming weeks.

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Sun 13: Are you back living in Chapel Hill now?

Emil Amos: “Yeah. We moved here in 1982 when I was little, but the only things that really seem familiar to me these days are the concrete and the street names. I was just driving home from the grocery store thinking that when I was a kid, you might see Sonic Youth walking down the sidewalk here… or Henry Rollins or J. Mascis hanging out in the Cat’s Cradle parking lot down the street from my house.

“It was a notoriously bustling central underground base in its way and there was a seedier, more colourful dynamic with artists and intellectuals everywhere you looked. Kim Gordon recently said in her new book that Chapel Hill was one of the heaviest, most intimidating places to play back in the day because there was a particularly intense, discriminating hive of people that lived and died for underground culture here. And it’s starting to be so long ago, that if I told a young person standing on these same curbs about those times now, they wouldn’t have any reference point for it… they might not even believe me. Before the internet, American regional scenes worked very differently and contributed to the larger conversation in a unique, vital way.

“By the time I got to Portland, Oregon, if I told someone I was from Chapel Hill, most of the time they had no idea where North Carolina was on the map… but if you mentioned it to a rare knowledgeable enthusiast like Stephen Malkmus or Pete Swanson from Yellow Swans, they’d be like ‘Oh shit! The home of indie rock!’

“So yeah, here I am, back at the place where I learned everything about what I wanted to do. But there’s barely any trace of that early history and I generally feel like I’m just standing in front of another mini-mall off the side of the highway these days.”

S13: That leads me into a question I was going to ask with regards to youth culture today as opposed to the scenes in the ’90s. In your Drifter’s Sympathy podcast, you spoke about the “Guru” quite a bit in the early stages. Do you think that gurus still exist for the younger generation?

EA: “I think they do… after I told that story on the podcast, younger people started to reach out to me a lot more which just seems like a continuation of that same need for community. When I was growing up, I always dreamt of a day where I would live up in some kind of ivory tower with a select group of hyper-intelligent people.

“I just assumed that once you left high school and went out into the world, you could find your people and build some kind of commune. Then when I got out into the world, I was always harbouring a kind of deep disappointment in each city I moved to. Maybe part of that reaches back to getting into hardcore at a young age because it gives you a platform to celebrate and stoke a kind of extreme disappointment in American culture.

“So the podcast is kind of a long promise to myself to voice what could have been or a result of that desire to congregate with fellow outsiders… which has now literally helped me find my people.”

Drifter's Sympathy

S13: Makes perfect sense… On the podcast, do you have to put on a different hat and approach this art form differently as opposed to, say, going on tour with OM or recording with Grails or Holy Sons?

EA: “I definitely had to break through and trick myself into believing I could find a universality within the subject of your own personal trials. That was really hard at first, but ever since I was a little kid, making records and/or opening up this kind of creative dialogue that can go as deep as I want to go, is effectively what I wanted to do. As a kid I probably thought I could be a skateboarder or a basketball player, but once I really looked in the mirror and realised I could never be professional at those things, I was hit with a pretty all-encompassing depression and music was the only thing sitting in front of me, saying ‘you can do anything you can possibly imagine if you dedicate yourself to this fully’.”

S13: Onto the album, Raw and Disfigured. It feels like your most personal record to date. Maybe your darkest, too. Would you agree with that?

EA: “I just got out of the mixing process so I haven’t been able to see it in a larger context yet. But you saying that instantly makes me feel better. It took me almost the entire decade of the ’90s to arrive at what someone might call my ‘sound’… and I’m just starting to accept or realise that it’s really a thing that’s ‘mine’.”

S13: I think you’ve had your sound since Survivalist Tales. And we did meet at an All Tomorrow’s Parties when you played with OM down in Camber Sands… I said that Survivalist Tales was the best thing you’d ever done and you gave me a really funny look, but I think you’ve had that sound since then.

EA: (Laughs) “That’s hilarious. What situation were we in? Where were we standing?”

S13: We were at the merch table.

EA: “That’s really funny.”

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S13: As always, your arrangements have this great emotional depth. It gives space which magnifies your lyrics. Does the music come before your lyrics?

EA: “No… I mean, I have artist friends and I read so many interviews with my heroes as a kid where they said they write the music first, but… I never understood that all. I always saw the emotional approach to songwriting in the way I’d imagine Ian MacKaye might’ve conceived of a Minor Threat song. He woke up and went to practice and something was bothering him that day, right? And he was either forced to put it into words because it was driving him crazy, or he desperately wanted to say something to his peers that he thought might make things right again emotionally.

“There was an immediate realism to it… and a refusal to chase those same old fantasies that waste the majority of our lives. There was a healthy sense of optimism in straight-edge hardcore… the temptation to make the world feel like you imagine it could be… there was a lot of hope in that music.

“Learning to write your first songs in that format was so inspiring and I’ve always seen a direct line from that MacKaye method straight to Lou Barlow and Sebadoh‘s approach in telling somehow exactly how you feel (no matter how ugly it is) to process it all. Shit.. maybe Holy Sons is actually post-idealist, post-hardcore in its way then…”

Holy Sons (photo credit: Mark Pettit)

S13: It all starts with The Loser that Always Wins, which is quintessential Holy Sons. Those dagger-through-the-heart juxtapositions. Was it an easy choice to make it the opening track?

EA: “No way.”

S13: Seriously? 

EA: “I didn’t want to do it. Because of coming from that Minor Threat school of short songs. As a kid I thought you never needed to repeat a single thing in a song, you never needed to insult the audience with that kind of AM radio mentality. It seemed self-indulgent to need more than two minutes to get your point across. There was a deliberate movement back then to be as direct as possible. But when Grails started I was forced to absorb a completely different side of recorded history, which was ‘long-form’ or for lack of a better term, ‘pretentious music’. 

“Growing up in the ’90s… I didn’t understand record collecting. But when we started Grails, I had to stand back and listen to records in directions and genres I’d never considered before and realise that pretentious music (laughs) can be totally redeeming and worthwhile!  The idea that 20 minutes of wind chimes slowed down 200 per cent could be a totally healing sonic experience would have never occurred to me back then.

“With The Loser That Always Wins, I was in a bar in Toronto. I was sitting with a bunch of kids that had gone to a Grails show and someone was making light of how it often seems like I don’t ‘try’ or that I don’t care about what happens to Holy Sons. I think I was drunk and made some joke about being ‘the loser that always wins’ and it was just too real and dark that it kept making its way back into my mind over the next few days and became the idea behind that song.

“There’s often some sense of revenge taking place in outsider music. You can feel it in Ariel Pink. There’s that Smog song that says ‘there’s nothing I’d rather see than for you to fail’. There’s a sense that you’ve been denied your whole life and in one burst of anger, a song is born that encapsulates the outsider’s need to return to the scene of their oppression and steal back some kind of triumphant moment.

“That song’s also largely influenced by the first Neil Young record where they used a much more hi-fi method of overdubbing to build these really beautiful ‘future-folk’ textures that he abandoned. And because Neil Young left that sound behind and never went back to it, I always felt that maybe Holy Sons should flirt more with blustery, over-the-top sounds that are really extravagant and could be turned on their head to be made into a really good thing. That’s probably why I looked at you funny when you said Survivalist Tales was your favourite Holy Sons LP… because it was the most gauzy, hi-fi thing I’d ever done after spending my entire life making lo-fi.”

S13: (Laughs)

EA: “It may have surprised me because there’s a little bit of a playful joke in the decision to reference ’70s ballad production… to play with the bloated, but extremely satisfying arrangements of Wings or Bread or America.

“It’s like what Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain became as a pillar of Stephen Malkmus‘ sound. He said to me once that he never really liked The Eagles, but when he plays with those laid-back Eagles devices within the context of his sense of humour, it ends up ironically creating this super-satisfying sound that people have come to love as this thing called ‘Pavement‘.”

S13: Interesting

EA: “I don’t know whether that explains The Loser That Always Wins but I’m just trying to say that it’s a bit outrageous to start a record with something so selfish and slowly unfurling. I mean, it doesn’t start immediately with a hook like Gnostic Device on Decline of the West. It’s a pretentious move and something I’m still not totally comfortable with, but Holy Sons offers me a total freedom to challenge myself and sometimes you have to paint yourself into a corner just to figure out how to get out.”

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S13: Yeah, those juxtapositions and contrasts. They’ve always been such an important facet to Holy Sons. Another example is on The Hand That Feeds… that line “Everyone wants to be nice but cruel at the same time”. That was a bit of a strange one for me…

EA: (Laughs)

S13: Maybe I’m reading too much into this and while it does feed into your narratives, it’s quite literally a passive aggressive line which is something we don’t normally hear with Holy Sons. Was that the intention?

EA: “I think on the one hand, that particular kind of wordplay comes out of the southern wisdom you hear in songs by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. The way that country music has this strange ability to step sideways into a kind of Zen Buddhist verbiage. Where they can throw a phrase upside down and make a joke that’s super clever but it sounds very conservative on the surface… you might miss it if it goes by too fast.

“The idea is that at the core of our own selfishness, we secretly know our own hypocrisy completely… like Sartre says, there’s a censor in our psyche that knows what we must hide from ourselves. But every person likes to ‘have their cake and eat it too’ instead of confronting this. I don’t really feel like that’s even my opinion necessarily, it’s just basically…”

S13: It’s human nature…

EA: “The idea of the ‘Hand that Feeds‘ is never really something we escape in our lives. It could be David Bowie or Sartre… we have these people that we believe in as children, are so famous that we imagine they’ve somehow escaped the system. We believe that they’ve become a kind of totally independent super-human and that’s just never true. We keep hearing about the coming fruits of escapism as we slave away in the chain gang, but really we always find a new way to become somebody’s bitch.”

S13: Very true…

EA: “There’s a sense that there’s always someone above you. And/or this is just part of the narrative that we must believe. That there’s always someone above you so that we can let ourselves off the hook in terms of responsibilities and make ourselves into the perfect martyr. So the content there is worth a thousand songs and yet you turn on the fucking radio and all you hear is ‘baby I’ve got the money’ or something like ‘drop it right here, right now’ and that obviously really does nothing for the world. But there’s some great saying someone said about how lies travel faster than the truth…”

Holy Sons - Raw and Disfigured

S13: On Permanent Things, there’s a line that’s jumped out at me the most: “Everyone has to lose everything that they have”. The same line ends the album on the song, Bloody Strings. I don’t know… but that kind of feels as if it embodies the whole album…

EA: “Yes totally… (pause) that line is basically the core of the record. If you look back at Fall of Man and The Fact Facer, those are totally autumnal records. Holy Sons never really escapes that autumnal feeling because it’s the sound of living under the shadow of what depression is… and trying to push it out of the way.

“It’s the feeling that those ’70s chord progressions give you… that lilt…that’s the sound we understand as reflecting a true sadness in our century. This record was trying to take that autumnal sound to its logical conclusion.

“That song came from a very specific moment… sitting down at the Wurlitzer in my house and looking out the window, just feeling absolutely terrible. We reach to the blues or hymnals… we reach to singing out loud to get these feelings out of us. And now you’re making me feel like this record might be an important part of the catalogue because you heard that need for redemption. That’s the bottom line.”

S13: I lost my wife two and half years ago, so to hear that line (pause). It’s so true…

EA: “We’re all in this situation together. It’s an inescapable thing that we all decay and will lose everything… and if that idea isn’t delivered with the right weight it could sound like an empty cliche. It’s like the oldest thing anyone could say… mankind’s earliest apocalyptic realisation.

“Songwriters are always looking for a new collection of words… for a new song idea that’s more accurate than the last one and really gets down to what they meant to say in the beginning. If you can encapsulate that autumnal feeling that hovers over our lives as we begin to understand death then you’re reaching for that same kind of spiritual exhaling that church hymnals are trying to accomplish.

“Some of the lyrics of In the Garden were taken directly from the church hymnal of the same name… and entire lines were taken for this new song ‘Up on that hill’ from O Little Town of Bethlehem. There’s always been a perennial idea in hymnals about coming home and accepting death. And if we can bring that into the world of pop songs, then you’re doing a much greater service for our minds than just saying ‘my boyfriend’s back and you’re going to be in trouble’.”

Part 2 of this conversation will be published in the coming weeks.

Raw and Disfigured is out this Friday via Thrill Jockey.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

One reply on “Full Force: In Conversation with Holy Sons’ Emil Amos – Part 1”

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