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Full Force: In Conversation with Holy Sons’ Emil Amos – Part 2

With Holy Sons’ “Raw and Disfigured” being crowned Sun 13’s Album of the Year, we reconvene with Emil Amos for the second part of our two part conversation.

With Holy SonsRaw and Disfigured having now emerged into this new world of increasing uncertainty, the more one listens, the more everything falls into place, making more sense.

Whilst feeling a warmth to these songs, after a while you get the sense that it’s not warmth at all. It’s comfort. Like truly seeking refuge in a place of safety.

Pure comfort in music is so hard to come by and only truly arrives when the secluded parts of your soul have been unlocked. With Raw and Disfigured, Emil Amos has proven that he is the master locksmith. Through instrumentation, that perennial charm still remains in the Holy Sons arsenal, but with Raw and Disfigured, things are enveloped in a new shade of darkness, led by Amos‘ fiercely diaristic themes.

“It’s never a character, it’s never a storytelling device, it’s never any of those things songwriters always said about how you can’t find them in their songs and all that bullshit,” said Amos during the second part of our conversation.

“I never understood the idea of acting through music. There’s so much to say about life that’s immediately, intrinsically interesting… and there’s real people out here that actually still need music to mean something.”

The conversation continues with Sun 13‘s second part of the exclusive two-part feature. For those who missed the first, you can read via the link below.

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

Holy Sons (photo credit: Mark Pettit)

Sun 13: Four Walls and Slow to Run feel like major pieces of the thematic thread of the record. Like an ode to existential dread. They remind me of Slow Days from Survivalist Tales

Emil Amos: “Four Walls is the title of a podcast episode I’ve been slaving over for the next season of Drifter’s Sympathy [Emil‘s long-running podcast]. It comes from a chapter in the Tao Te Ching that says you can discover the entire universe from within the confines of your bedroom. I was extending that to say you can have as many cars as you want or all the money in the world but, because of these inescapable four walls of consciousness, you’ll only ever really be able to experience this one thing in front of you now. So your main obligation is to understand how to appreciate and maximise this one opportunity. You’re totally right, they’re both ‘No Exit’ style odes, for sure…”

S13: And that kind of feeds directly into Transformation

EA: “That song came from a moment on a train in India in ’98… hurtling through time and space in the middle of the night and sneaking back to the bathroom with no shoes on… stepping through the various filth and fluids on the floor and smoking some hash off the back of the train… getting really high, looking off into the sky and thinking, ‘why do I do this?… Am I really only living the cliché life of a druggie and that’s it?… Why do I keep returning to drugs?… and I think my brain replied, ‘there’s nothing wrong with transformation’.

“It’s the oldest rite. We reach outside of ourselves towards a certain kind of objectivity. Diving into a really cold pool or a new relationship or a new job in a new town. Transformation, in a shamanistic sense, is the oldest wrench or device we use when we’re at a stagnant point internally.”

Emil Amos at Sonic Youth's Hoboken studio (photo credit: Mark Pettit)

S13: Coiste Bodhar is the strangest cut and feels like a bridge in the album. It breaks up your usual template in favour of similar influences to Grails, Om and Lilacs and Champagne. Was it a hard to decision to include?

EA: “It was. I’d recorded most of the back-end of the record really quickly at home just before handing it in. It felt like the front of the record was too dense and didn’t have enough room to breathe. I’d tucked my voice on a lot of it almost too much… that can work to pull the listener in, if they have enough patience to get to know the songs. That particular technique came from records like Polvo‘s Exploded Drawing, which was an old favourite of mine.”

S13: Oh, yeah. We could talk about that all night…

EA: “That record is one of those things where, the more you listen to it, all the subtle decisions just sound better and better over the years, you know?”

S13: 100 per cent. It’s their best album, by a distance.

EA: “The way Ash [Bowie] often tucks his vocals because he never really loved his own voice… it gives those records an obtuse, narcotic effect because you never really feel like you can have access to him.”

S13: Definitely. There’s an insularity with his voice. There’s almost like… an aloofness?

EA: “Totally. There’s a shyness to it. It can give you the feeling that this person really didn’t make this record to impress you… that this person was going through something and made it just to get through their own internal situation.

“Back in the days before the internet, the mythology of small underground bands like Polvo loomed very large… it was hard to believe they were real people and, as a fan, you could log some serious time wondering about these mythological beings. The more the band’s reticence tried to push you away, it created a charm that really pulled you in. Whereas now nothing really seems to have that distant, dreamy power.

“So the first part of the record was supposed to have that opaque feeling, which is generally a terrible commercial idea because it means someone will have to listen to it a lot before they can really figure out what’s good about it. So the end of the record had to open up the ceiling to let the listener feel a little less claustrophobic.”

David Berman – dead aged 52: an afterword

S13: What does “Coiste Bodhar” come from?

EA: “In after-school class, when I was about seven years old, some underpaid counsellors would put on pretty inappropriate horror movies to occupy us… so we became kind of scarred by these dark, weird lo-budget movies from the ’70s (laughs).

“The particular film this reference is from was actually a Disney movie that a lot of people probably know called Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It features this old Celtic ghost story where the grim reaper swoops down from the sky in a carriage to take your body away when it’s time for you to die… and ‘Cóiste Bodhar’ is the Irish term for the ‘death coach’ the reaper drives.”

S13: Okay…

(both laughing)

EA: “It’s just another pillar of morose thinking, I guess. It’s sort of been an aspect of the whole Holy Sons cosmology really…. there’s always been banshees and graveyards in the lyrics as early as ’94 when I started using too much LSD. There were all sorts of song titles like Life is like a horror movie.”(laughs).”

Holy Sons - Raw and Disfigured

S13: We’ve talked about Permanent Things and Bloody Strings, but I think Nights Like This is a central track. Like you’re breaking through to the other side and there’s a snapshot of hope, which is something I wouldn’t associate with Holy Sons. Am I reading too much into that?

EA: “I wasn’t aware of that while making it, but certain people have definitely been focusing on that track. I wrote it when I was 17 years old. I’d taken some acid on this particular night and was just very, very happy. …walking down the middle of the street in the middle of the night, filled with this supreme sense of strength and fulfilment on the way to my girlfriend’s house where my four-track was.

“On the way there I was putting the song together while walking down these small town, backwoods roads… essentially just describing how autonomous and strong you feel on acid. It seemed like a funny lyrical spin on the negative aspect of callously throwing everyone away because you’ve discovered this wellspring of independence inside. The whole world makes so much sense in that zone… it feels like you’ll never need to return to the stupid script you’ve created for yourself during the day. Relying on people that don’t love you, making absurd compromises to prove your obedience… working so hard for some kind of external affirmation that’s supposed to transport you to where exactly?  

“It’s a beautiful, righteous teenage moment when you suddenly feel like you can stand on your own two feet for the first time completely. You can’t believe how simple life could be because this powerful feeling tends to elude you everyday… but on this particular night you could leave everything else behind forever.”

S13: It felt like it was the final push towards the back end of the album. Like you were coming out of something dark. It made me smile, like… ‘it’s a happy Emil!’

EA: (Laughs) “When I was 17 I really wanted to hear writers explode the confines of songs as we know them all too well… to break every rule and take me somewhere completely new.  Like David Berman famously said in a Silver Jews song, ‘We’re trapped inside the song and the nights are so long!’

“I remember laughing to myself about the idea of this song while walking towards my girlfriend’s house. I think I was trying to imagine an alternate version of a song like Earth Angel where the singer decided to be totally honest instead …like instead of pretending he was talking to an Angel on Earth, he’d said something brutally true like, ‘I know you won’t ever be the fantasy I need you to be, but I prefer the myth regardless and I’m not even smart enough to get out of this destructive situation anyway’. As a kid I wanted to hear new levels of self-flagellation that you couldn’t normally hear in a pop song. It just seemed worthwhile to try and flip that escapist pop formula on its head.”

MJ Guider interview: “I didn’t set out with a specific inspiration for making the record other than my standard compulsion”

S13: It’d be remiss not to mention Held the Hand. The Daniel Johnston cover. You’d recorded that before he died, right?

EA: “Yeah, it’s really hard to approach a classic song that probably can’t be improved. Some songs are written for that performer’s voice specifically too… like maybe Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne… the world doesn’t really need a cover of a song that’s so perfectly, personally rendered, you know?”

S13: Yeah…

EA: “On the other hand if Holy Sons doesn’t attempt to break some of those rules then I might consider that a failure in itself, too . There was something unexpectedly important about the Descendents covering Wendy by the Beach Boys… just to further signify that they weren’t trying to ape the strict rules required by hardcore. Hearing deviations like that was probably the inspiration behind Holy Sons desecrating things like the Circle JerksBeverly Hills etc. 

“I’d try covering Barry Manilow if I thought I could flip the meaning of the song into my own universe. That particular Daniel Johnston song had been sitting in front of me for a couple decades, sort of daring me to try it…”

Emil Amos at Sonic Youth's Hoboken studio (photo credit: Mark Pettit)

S13: It’s probably one of your best covers. It strikes a perfect balance between the Holy Sons doom-pop balladry and his tenderness and given the circumstances of Daniel Johnston, it’s a very fitting way to pay tribute to him.

EA: “It’s such a rare moment of a songwriter’s life that they might pull up a chair in front of the piano, put their hands down and hit such a timeless chord progression to say, ‘I’ve held the hand of Satan’… That song is an epic distillation of Daniel‘s blues.

“How many songwriters ever really crack the code and truly end up putting their stamp on the modern song form? Maybe someone like Roger Miller, who can cleverly slip in a chorus like, ‘Dang me dang me, I want to take a rope and hang me, high up on the highest tree’. …the most inventive songwriters can have those eternal moments.”

S13: The song does embody the spirit of Raw and Disfigured. It just fits, like… a nice pair of jeans, or something. A pair of slippers…

EA: (Laughs)

S13: It’s never felt like you’ve had to shoehorn covers into your albums. Anyway… when we were talking earlier about The Fact Facer, Fall of Man and In the Garden, I count them as your Berlin Trilogy

EA: “It’s funny you say that, because the arrangement of Held the Hand comes from two different places. One is Mick Ronson‘s (David Bowie‘s classic guitarist) semi-bizarre cover of Love Me Tender.  He only really made one true conceptual LP and it’s called Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which kind of takes glam to its logical conclusion. Bowie wrote the single on it for him so it’s a bit of a cult classic.

“He decided to do Love Me Tender in this weepy, grandiose style that most people would probably consider quite terrible, I think. He turns it into a massive anthem and milks the song with epic glam-style guitar solos etc. But for me, it’s pretty hilarious and almost unintentionally great.

“The other reference is back when Sebadoh would go out on the road in the early ’90s, they would re-work their most-loved lo-fi songs into big, dramatic anthems as kind of a semi-joke. In the very early days the crowd’s favourite songs were usually always Soulmate and Brand New Love. Those two songs were quintessentially important in that they turned their back entirely on ‘tough guy’ culture and showed that there was a way back to some kind of Byrds-era sensitivity.

“So when you’d go see them, knowing that the crowd had to hear those two songs at some point, they’d rework them into a blustery kind of power-ballad style like Nazareths Love Hurts. And over the years I’d envisioned that Daniel Johnston song in a similar setting because he’s got a few ballads that could’ve easily been blown up into a huge Hey Jude thing that he never really got around to doing, you know.

“It feels serious and sounds serious because of course you’re trying to honour the song… but to hear that kind of semi-trite drum fill open up the song and these somewhat cliché chords drop in on morose church organs… it’s very subtly tongue-in-cheek. You’re taking this thing that’s very intimate and dark and blowing it up into this I Shot the Sherriff thing.”

Bruxa Maria interview: “One should not have to like someone’s art before they can see or accept the value it has to others”

S13: Yeah, but it works… I can also see Holy Sons as being hard to explain to people that listen to things more literally. Banging your head against the wall, trying to get people to understand it outside of more familiar formulas. It’s like Holy Sons is the outsider of the outsiders…

EA: “Right… I’ve never been claimed by or associated with any one movement… I don’t think the avant-garde market recognises that these records are a kind of experimentation with song form in every respect …and the ‘indie’ world is generally shooting for a much more feel-good Juicy Fruit commercial vibe so that’s not really a race you’d wanna run in you know? But the massive grey area in-between them has given me tons of places to go that they wouldn’t want to. So it just gives me more freedom that I’m not trapped under any specific umbrella.”

Holy Sons (photo credit: Eliza Sohn)

S13: How have you been coping with lockdown, without getting into the politics, how’s the day to day?

EA: “I’m just trapped under an avalanche of work either way! The list of things I have to do here is long enough to give me a panic attack if I looked down at it. I haven’t quite finished up a new electronic library record I’m supposed to put out next year. I haven’t had the time yet to dig through boxes of cassettes for Lost Decade IV. I recently found three different lost records on reels and hard drives that never came out and are really important to me and I don’t know when I’ll have time to release those. The next season of the podcast waits constantly while I’m busy mixing music. The new Grails record is getting closer and closer but has been a very complex mixing job. People often ask where the next Lilacs‘ record is and its pretty damn close, too… and the new Om record is constantly moving along all the while.

“I’d like to think that the lockdown rewards you for the good decisions you’ve made leading up to it and punishes you for the bad ones. So if you were trapped in a shitty situation, then you really know it now. But there’s definitely good things about everything stopping around you so you can see your situation clearer…”

S13: Maybe the world needed a pause in some respects because it moves too fast with social media and things like that. People just can’t cope. The human mind isn’t equipped to handle the bombardment of all that.

EA: “I would love it if we came out of this with a whole new sense of being centered by it. We’re wildly aware that most of life is spent caring about and selling each other complete horseshit. So this could be a chance to set a great portion of that aside and get back to a more, immediate core reality.”

Raw and Disfigured is out now via Thrill Jockey. Purchase here.

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.

6 replies on “Full Force: In Conversation with Holy Sons’ Emil Amos – Part 2”

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