The word “timeless” ranks among the most overused arts clichés of all time, but when you think about it in a literal sense, the word takes on a far stranger meaning. Only work of the highest quality stands outside of time, outside of culture and outside of measurable quantification. All of which is to say, we use the word “timeless” far too much.
That idea comes up again and again when I’m talking with Emil Amos, who’s just released his 14th record as Holy Sons, In the Garden. It’s a gorgeous but heady melange of spacey psych and dusty country, wrapped in the faux four-track indie rock gauze of famed recording engineer John Agnello’s perfect ears.
But like Amos’ other projects—the experimental doom of OM, the post-rock of Grails, and the instrumental hip-hop/psych of Lilacs & Champagne—you sit with these songs long enough and genres fall by the wayside. Once the pithy labels fade away a much more meaningful exchange starts to happen between Amos and the listener.
It’s the artist’s total immersion in his sounds, the dedication to distill a song to its true essence, that’s been guiding him through 50-plus records over his career. And it’s only our patterns of consumption, our inability to separate ourselves from the cultural systems that dictate how we absorb and understand new music, which still delegates an artist of Amos’ prolific hustle to cult status.
“That whole idea of returning to a simpler time when things were right and good, the whole American myth, is a product. It’s interesting to think that there wasn’t ever a golden era.”
I caught up with Amos over the phone recently while he was on a break from rehearsing with OM in Albuquerque, N.M., the week after his Holy Sons backing band moved out to California. Though he was in the throws of transition, Amos’ fluid shift between projects was nothing new for him, and this natural ability to multitask underscored his complete dedication to the creative process.
Our chat fast became a fascinating look into the patterns of cultural consumption, the existential dread of audience apathy, and the idea that our warm and fuzzy sense of sonic nostalgia might, in fact, be bullshit.
I can’t bring myself to buy $4 cups of coffee anymore.
Yeah, my back-up band all works at Stumptown, so I get the hookup. But they’re moving to L.A. right now so I guess I have to adjust.
Well I know you often get questioned about shifting gears between all these projects so fluidly, and it doesn’t seem like you prioritize one over the other in terms of importance. Is it fair to say that you’re in a very strong creative transition now, since these dudes moved out West, and you’re on a short tour out West, and you’re in New Mexico rehearsing with OM now? Is that change-up something you’re used to or is it still a little jarring?
It’s like a lot of things in life as you age, you know? You see something coming at you from really far away, and as it gets closer your body and mind just start to acclimate to what it requires of you. And then eventually, one day, you wake up. And you’ve gone from a little boy that played with military figurines to someone who’s in a war, you know? It becomes normal to you to do what you need to do to your body to travel constantly, to wake up with a different band in a different country every day. Your responsibility is very clearly to the audience that’s paid money and wants to see some semblance of professionalism.
You mentioned Stephen Malkmus at the show and I was thinking about how he probably couldn’t have started Pavement at any other point in his life. The Jicks are great, and he’s a family dude now, but when you’re on the grind between touring and recording, it becomes a family and community in of itself, right? That same level of commitment you have to give to fatherhood goes toward the bands.
I think you’re implying what is sort of the elephant in the room for musicians. It either becomes a job or it doesn’t—the economic reality can’t support you continuing. So you’re either tied to it and shackled to it like a normal job, or you never even get to that point of being able to function that well and travel and promote yourself. That’s a vicious struggle, especially for young people trying to join the army of musicians in an oversaturated climate where really no one cares. People don’t care as much as they used to, and being in a band is not quite as vital as it once was in people’s eyes. I think it’s just so ubiquitous and disposable.
“Musicians are generally buoyed up by their time and the climate around them. There’s a saying by Confucius, ‘pray that you’re born into an interesting time.’ Because if you’re born into the wrong time, you’re just fucked.”
So if you’re gonna go back to the period of Pavement, Pavement was a band of its time. And they knew that, they called themselves the last of the SST generation, you know. Musicians are generally buoyed up by their time and the climate around them. There’s a saying by Confucius, “pray that you’re born into an interesting time.”
Because if you’re born into the wrong time, you’re just fucked. No one can do anything about that. Context really is everything. If you think about fame and the nature of making a lot of money, people hearing what you do or seeing your paintings, context is everything. Everybody knows context is also totally arbitrary, so it’s a bitch goddess, you know?
But you manage to hop from project to project and somehow not make everything sound ubiquitous. Not everyone can say they’re in a noise or post-rock project then then go make a hip-hop-infused record and have so many fans come along with them. What it boils down to for me is that those people at the Union Pool show weren’t just there for your birthday; they were there to see you, fans of all your projects. It all comes down to the energy in the room.
You’re totally right, but it’s even deeper, more complicated and sadder than that. The patterns that control what people perceive as being important and vital, and the rhythm of what they conform to as being worth their focus and attention that lead them to the stadium, that make them clap for Van Halen—those patterns are largely arbitrary. They don’t really have anything to do with science.
Exactly, they don’t have to do with a pure exchange of communication. If you’re a writer and you sit down for 10 years to write a book, then realize that the reasons why people read books have more to do with whether or not there’s a statistically seductive image on the cover than what’s inside the book, you kind of wanna shoot yourself in the head at that point.
Jon Fine says in Your Band Sucks that’s a big part of why Indie Rock was a failed revolution. That kids don’t go around and trade tapes anymore or sleep on each other’s couches. That kind of network whereby the synapses that trigger you to go and support something have to be arbitrary, or are controlled by entities that have no investment in the community or stake in the ecosystem. I mean you’ve travelled around so much, are there any faint echoes of an ecosystem like that still existing?
I firmly believe that, internally, nothing ever changes. Young people are always going through the same brain chemistry that young people did in the ‘50s, and the first time someone saw the Beatles. Somewhere that’s essentially happening to someone when they hear great music for the first time. I don’t think that goes away, I don’t think that structuralism, like Foucault would say, really determines people’s internal reality as much as they often want to believe.
Everything we’ve ever experienced that seemed vital in our age is always accessible, but it’s almost like the stock market. If people don’t have faith, and don’t have the good kind of naiveté, if they fall prey to skepticism then they won’t create anything that sounds vital and explodes people’s expectations.
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The era of Dead Kennedys you’re talking about in the ‘80s, that’s what was fueling everything—a sense that maybe this was the same spirit of the ‘60s. Hardcore was channeling the same spirit of rebellion, they were essentially doing the same thing. Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat and Fugazi was a massive fan of Hendrix, and obsessed with the protest culture as a kid. So you can kind of see the strains of all that.
MacKaye is a saint in D.C. My best friend ran away from his home in Virginia to be among the crusties in Washington and Mackaye took him in, fed him, recorded his demo. That’s the same extreme community you’d see with the yippies in the ‘60s in New York. And you don’t see it anymore.
Yeah, it’s really hard to see if that stuff still exists, but it certainly does. Have you seen that new documentary HyperNormalisation going around online?
It’s just a basic theory, and I’m not summing up the whole thing. But it’s the basic idea that in the ‘50s the whole idea of “cool” was inextricably tied to rebellion. So if you were “cool,” in the sense of Timothy Leary, you were dropping out of the rat race. If you were “cool” there’s an implied aspect of cynicism to the mainstream flow.
“The commodification of dissent, the selling of rebellion, that’s what the bohemian movement largely seems to look like now.”
Well that was a trajectory of Leary’s, you know? I talked to this dude at the Walker Art Center last year for their “Hippie Modernism” show and he said most of us don’t understand “turn on, tune in, drop out” as a trajectory. So you turn on, be it with acid or science or Jesus. You tune in, find that community sharing your outsider view. Then you drop out, you form a new society, a conscious act of refusal. Leary maybe meant it as a path.
And when I asked to David Crosby about this a few months ago he said, sure, that happened, but the hippie kids never really fully made the change. They were more concerned with appearance and behavior than the core of the shift.
Well what he said is what exactly this documentary says. The nature of “cool” was transmogrified into just the style, just the surface aspect of rebellion. Going into the commodification of dissent, the selling of rebellion, that’s what the bohemian movement largely seems to look like now. More about the appearance of rebellion.
That seems to be enough for some people. Get the picture, say you were there, ride the ride.
But then back to the whole “nothing ever changes” thing, that was the exact thing that Frank Zappa was saying about the hippies and that’s what everybody criticized the hippies for. So it’s always been that way.
But the idea of how to or how not to fully immerse yourself in the essence of something is a good transition into your work, too. It’s not just that you play in so many projects, but you seem to fully immerse yourself in all of them. The new Holy Sons is a wonderful record, but you’re not ornamental about it when you play it live. You let the songs go ragged, you’ll do a rhythm and a solo track yourself that might be two tracks on the record. You didn’t worry about a keyboardist. You don’t need nine guys onstage to create the vibe.
And even with Lilacs & Champagne you seem to get to the heart of sample-based hip-hop. I thought of those old Stones Throw and J Dilla samples with regard to how much melody you’re able to squeeze into a skeletal sample or beat. How do you get to the core of things when you do shift? How do you decide what song is right for which project?
A funny, sort of clichéd term that’s always tossed around is when a piece of art appears to be “timeless,” you know? The idea of a piece of art being timeless, I don’t even know if you can find a word that’s more clichéd than that, it’s so insanely bereft of any meaning at this point.
Totally. But if you really wanna boil down why something ought to be described as timeless, it’s a really interesting scientific occurrence, really.
Oh I see what you’re saying. Literally “not possessing time.”
Yeah, exactly! If you listen to The White Album or something, you’re getting down to a level of expression that’s happening in real time—it’s not referential. And just the idea of a song can be so good, so structurally sound and so economically efficient. An idea can be expressed so quickly and so perfectly that once you’ve scientifically drawn the model of the song it can’t be improved upon, you know what I mean?
So if you hear a song, it could be something really cliché you hear on an infomercial like Buffalo Springfield singing “For What It’s Worth”. If you extract a piece of art from its time and it’s really written as succinctly as it can possibly be expressed, then that logic will always stand up as a formula, as an equation that works. And most people who are creating art are usually a little bit too inundated with their cultural micro-movement to be able to hone an expression that stands outside of culture.
You’re saying that by focusing your efforts on letting go of that, it allows you to more freely inhabit these different aesthetics without it being a jarring experience?
Yeah, exactly. One person could hear Lilacs and say, “this is so 1993,” you know what I mean? One person could say, “I remember when DJ Shadow initiated this movement of instrumental hip-hop.”
One person’s reaction would be to date it, say this fits in this category. And then another person, hopefully, would just hear the piece as so well constructed that it could stand outside of time. And so when you’re talking about all four groups and hopping from method to method with a sense of total immersion, once you see how great pieces of art are made and you’re paying attention to what the person did right, you don’t imitate the surface level of what they’ve done, you see the spirit of it.
“If you center yourself with the same ambition of progression and the true spirit of creativity as a free, open-ended, no-ceiling thing, then you sort of want to see where something goes. There’s no imitation left.”
You’re channeling it.
Yeah. If you center yourself with the same ambition of progression and the true spirit of creativity as a free, open-ended, no-ceiling thing, then you sort of want to see where something goes. There’s no imitation left. You’re seeing where something goes, what it wants to be. And if you pay attention to that thing then you can be loyal to the creative force that wants things to exist. You get out of the way, you don’t try to manhandle it.
And if you’re just present you offer people something of much more value that just showing off some over-rehearsed skill. Your job is to be exploratory, your job is to see where a piece of art wants to go if you’re totally present. I think that’s what you’re tapping into. Just caring about the art itself creates a more immersive thing, you know?
Every kid when they’re growing up wants to make something original. That’s what a kid wants to do. When they hear Eddie Van Halen or Fugazi, part of their brain thinks they wanna be just like them. But they’re really being drawn toward expressing themselves. They really wanna find out a way that they can do that, too, for their own voice. And so you’re tapping into a level of expression that eventually happens if you give yourself over totally, to the complete commitment of making art.
You can’t appreciate the classics as a fetish, you have to step inside them and be them rather than imitate, I guess. This is interesting in the context of your music, too, because you don’t strike me as a nostalgic dude. I mean Decline of the West turned 10 last year and you reissued it, but when you’re looking at this back catalog do you have that same level of fluidity? Less about “where was I when I wrote this?” and more like “what was I when I wrote this?”
[Laughs] I think I’m lucky to be super addicted to the process. If you were a photographer and you just wanted to skip the middle part, all the work, you would quit. You have to enjoy being in the darkroom, enjoy the process of developing photos. I’m lucky that I got super addicted to putting together and arranging experimental music at an early age. Other people find it laborious? I don’t know.
Making music is not a field day. It requires money and effort all the time. At some point as a kid I just succumbed to it. I’m not gonna be the best skateboarder or basketball player, but the one thing I have power over is my own intelligence. And if I improve my brain I can say things in ways that other people wouldn’t take the time to refine. I’m not gonna throw my body down 14 flights of stairs like a skateboarder.
This is sustaining you, not depleting you. Maybe that’s the difference.
Exactly, really well put. But a journalist recently said I make too much music to catch up with. I don’t really agree with that.
But you don’t expect me to have listened to everything, do you? That seems like a left-brain comment.
Totally! If you wrote like 50 books, I’ve released almost 50 records.
Well I call myself a big Dylan fan but I haven’t listened to all his evangelical records. Doesn’t mean I’m not a big Dylan fan.
The beauty of it is there’s always time to go back and study eras of Dylan. But nowadays, this journalist said it in a way that made me feel like [he was] pointing more toward the fact that it’s almost impossible to be present these days. That pretty much nobody actually absorbs anything.
A comment more on him than on you and your process?
I mean, it takes a few years to make a record, and I can only put out a record every six months or so. To say that it’s somehow impossible, you know, it’s accidentally pointing toward the manufacturing and the processing of art as being hyper-important. Really, art in of itself is what’s important, the content. Not necessarily how it’s been promoted to you or something.
But then you’ve gotta go to McLuhan who said “the medium is the massage.” How it’s parceled to us largely effects us on a subconscious level and we don’t even notice it. But this idea of you caring so much about the process so much, I can hear it on the record. And not just because you worked with John Agnello. You’ve said that you’re faking the four-track indie rock move but I get the vibe that there’s a lot more shit going on. It’s a dusty record.
Well it goes back to that word “timeless,” which most people will read and just check out. But the reason that cult music is cult music is because it’s almost too sincere to be assimilated into the machine. So what happens is, a Bill Fay or a Gene Clark record, those are two guys who could not be assimilated.
Oh man, yeah. You listen to Time of the Last Persecution at first and the guy sounds like a born-again, then you listen again and hear all this other shit going on. It definitely subverts. You’re saying those shifts don’t fit a narrative or a marketing plan?
I think that they just don’t correlate with the meat market in their time. [Laughs] They’re too pure. They can only be of great value when looked back on, when someone says, “now that is a pure expression.” But I’m putting out records now and they’re being treated the same exact way that those records were treated when they came out.
Every time a Gene Clark record came out you’d always see the phrase “critically lauded,” which implies no one heard it. [Laughs] I think this is what you’re getting at, though. In the Garden was built on the shoulders of this history of really pure expression, all these cult records that were basically made for the listener to completely immerse themselves in. Critics like them, but generally those records don’t really penetrate, they’re not “of their time,” you know what I mean?
Sure, but you have to wonder if there ever was a time for them. I recently re-watched That Thing You Do! and was looking at Tom Hanks’ Norman Rockwell version of America, how naïve we seemed to be back then, how Monsanto sponsored prime-time variety shows and we were so trusting of all this industry. We weren’t cynical yet. And I have to wonder about this idea of timelessness as it relates to the music of the American heartland—was it ever really that way, the good ole days? We’re seeing this dying, last gasp of the GOP and the American nostalgia. But part in parcel with dissecting this word “timeless,” you have to wonder if the good ole days were always an affectation, always a past time, even when they were new.
Yeah, you’re totally right. I’ve read some books about the birth of the recording industry and early folk and blues. I don’t know if you know this but it proves what you’re saying. Back in the Sears Roebuck catalog at the turn of the century, they used to market mountain music on the first Victrola ‘78s. They would call it “old timey music” even then, when it was really pretty current. So that whole idea of returning to a simpler time when things were right and good, the whole American myth, is a product. It’s interesting to think that there wasn’t ever a golden era.
“As an artist you’re always looking up at this mountain that extends into the sky to a level that never really ever ends…The idea of trying to climb that mountain to win some sort of race is so absurd, and at this point everybody knows that the jig is up.”
Maybe timelessness, as it applies to a piece of art, is one in the same as a piece of art standing outside of time. Maybe the idyllic, perfect expressions are basically a platonic reality. They don’t really exist in our world. It’s the artist’s job to pull that idealism closer to people, put it in front of their face and say, “Look, look—these are the criticisms of our culture. This is what we’re really after. It’s within your reach.” It’s like Buddha saying something and people just laughing at him and walking by.
Exactly. You try your best as an artist and essentially have to shrug afterwards. I can’t expect anything from this record, even if we spend a lot of money on it. I’ve seen how this goes. We’ve all read the books about Hank Williams Sr., all the tragic deaths of Gene Clark or Gary Stewart. We know how Nick Drake goes. We also know that Nick Drake was one of the greatest musicians of all time, but that doesn’t change. The internet hasn’t freed us. Clicks are just the same thing—meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Maybe that’s what the journalist who said that off comment was really projecting. I’m old enough to remember growing up without Facebook, before the term “content” fast became ubiquitous. Whether we’re talking about my words in journalism, liberated from meaning, or a song sold to a Ford Fiesta. Your idea suggests that until we realize how the internet changed us, we accept that everything we’re appreciating and everything we call art is still just content, commoditized because it’s interchangeable and there could be something else there next week that wouldn’t do anything different to our brains.
I totally agree. You figure that the mass brain is going to see that movie on Saturday night with Adam Sandler is a worthless piece of shit, but they just keep going. Any sort of wooden Trojan Horse can be thrown in front of an audience and they’ll still just clap away, you know?
As an artist you’re always looking up at this mountain that extends into the sky to a level that never really ever ends. It’s a lot like Kafka. The idea of trying to climb that mountain to win some sort of race is so absurd, and at this point everybody knows that the jig is up. That there’s no true reward at the top of this endless mountain.
Yeah! Well I thought about Kafka when you talked about timelessness because in The Trial that scene within a scene, the parable about the man trying to stand before The Law is always told the gates aren’t open, “not now.” But it’s always right now. The immediacy of something happening is always dangled right in front of our faces—the promises of government, of a prosperous nation, FDR’s New Deal.
You have to protect yourself at this point. I have to brace myself for a big blast of silence after this record comes out. What’s gonna change? I have to get back to work.