OM: INGESTING THAT SONIC FOOD
Al Cisneros revived Om with Grails drummer Emil Amos and release the megalithic God Is Good this week on Drag City. Chess-playing sunrise-watching Cisneros discusses everything but how his drummer’s name is an anagram for ‘SOMA LIME.’ This interview by Dan Collins.
It’s just two guys making all that racket, right?
Al Cisneros: Always. Me and Emil. He joined in April 2008.
Changing drummers in a two-man band is a 50% line-up change. How has having Emil in the band changed things?
Al Cisneros: He adds a life and an energy to the group. His style and the fluidity of his playing have allowed the very premise of the two-piece band to actualize, which is to have a dialogue between the two elements. And he’s also a songwriter, and so we’ve had prolific tense and positive collaboration, where ideas from one of the other will reflect off me or him, and it results in a higher outcome than we would have been able to arrive at individually. I feel like what we’ve done on this album God Is Good has actually most matched up the original concept to how it turned out in the end.
From concept to execution was pretty straight?
Al Cisneros: It was beautiful. It felt like we were being guided. Parts would just appear, and we would just know. We would get this charge. When the momentum goes into its own orbit, the songs, the whole experience carries with this vibration. The entire process of this recording was like this from the beginning until its here. We even have plans for some songs for some splits for 2010.
You guys have been known to play for hours at time. You played a show in Jerusalem for five hours straight. That’s longer than some Warhol films!
Al Cisneros: That was in December of 2007. That show was totally unique. Many of our sets go very long, but that one specifically… it was pretty overwhelming, being in the region and having been to some of the sites locally prior to performing that night and going to the Dead Sea. We were there on the first or second day of Hanukkah at the Western Wall—seeing so many pilgrims doing their vespers. I was able to go to Golgotha and see that. It was incredibly intense, and by the time we were in the middle of songs, it was definitely a different experience. The show went into a morning, and it was sort of an offering of gratitude in a sense for me. And the audience was with every note of the performance. Nothing like it will probably ever happen again. It was really beautiful. It was overwhelming.
Were you extending old songs or coming up with new material on the spot?
Al Cisneros: Both. Things were extended—on their own it felt like—but were just readily there. It didn’t feel like it went on that long. It was a personal experience of relativity.
You often speak the language of physics in interviews—in discussions of patterns that are present at the atomic level and repeat throughout nature, and time and numbers show up a lot when you talk. Do you think music taps into that somehow in a way regular life doesn’t?
Al Cisneros: They’re one study. There’s no differentiation between music and life in that way. Our songs aren’t preconceived in a numerical pattern or sequence of numbers. Those are found through analysis of the work later, maybe, but they’re definitely more of an emotional response of… I wouldn’t even say the ‘authoring’ of the parts, I’d say the ‘editing’ of the parts. Because the parts seem to be there already. As a musician, I feel like I discover the parts the way an archaeologist might.
Viktor Shklovsky said that the purpose of art is to ‘make the stone “stony”’ again—taking things out of life and making them fresh and new for the first time. Do you think you achieve something like that in your music?
Al Cisneros: I’ve definitely felt personally what he’s said. That’s good to know—ha ha! I’m learning every time we play music. It’s a study constantly.
Do you think Om is a more ‘serious’ band than your old group, Sleep? Not that Sleep was flippant. But I don’t see any Om album titles like Dopesmoker.
Al Cisneros: The work you’re hearing now is relevant to where we are in our journey now. Sleep expired in ’97, and so the themes and lyrics were from that place in the journey. Om is where I am now. I couldn’t sing about dragons and pot trappings now.
Is it that things are darker—perhaps politically—now?
Al Cisneros: Oh no, I think that it’s the same. Maybe the darkness distributes itself differently in each era, but nothing’s changed.
You went several years between folding Sleep and starting Om. What were you doing with your time? Catching up on your ‘sleep?’
Al Cisneros: I went back to school, and I was working—just studying life. I was constantly hearing songs in that interim—constantly internally working on music in that sense. Playing a lot of personal practice. After Sleep had broken up, I felt eventually dead—not in a positive way. I was uncertain whether I would play an externalized form of music ever again. But the songs created mentally during that interim became incrementally more intense until I had to do it.
In the last couple years, a lot of bands have combined metal with almost space or krautrock. Om seems to be part of that tradition. Even your name evokes a space rock band—like ‘Amon Düül’ more than a metal band.
Al Cisneros: I’m not too versed in that school. I wouldn’t say I’m influenced by that genre, but I definitely have respect for it. I’m not moved by things outside my life, at this point. It’s not why I play music. When I was growing up in music, of course I had outside influences and outside inspiration constantly—going to shows, listening to records, ingesting that sonic food. But now it’s to a place that’s in there. My record collection is small. And I leave that space intentionally open so that I can use the music that comes up inside me.
Most of the people who speak about music the way you do wind up, it seems, playing dissonant noise like La Monte Young or Tony Conrad. But you play something that at its root is always metal. Is there something in you that still wants to rock out?
Al Cisneros: For me personally it’s inescapable in this embodiment, because of how important the first four Black Sabbath records were. The Iommic influence will always be there. It’s an element at this point. It’s like fire, water, Iommi.
Have you ever met him?
Al Cisneros: No. I met Ozzy one time, and gave him my Sleep: Volume II cassette and had him sign a Black Sabbath record. He was promoting some record with Zakk Wylde at the time, so I don’t think they were very pleased. All the records I had were Sabbath records.
The Dio-era Sabbath records weren’t your thing?
Al Cisneros: Those first two Dio-era Sabbath records are iconic, and some of the most perfect metal records ever made! But I didn’t really follow them after Ian Gillan joined the band.
Would you be willing to open for a Dio or Ozzy-helmed version of Sabbath?
Al Cisneros: If we were ever given an opportunity to open for any line-up of Iommi and Butler, it would be the highest honor and privilege.
Even if your record collection is small, do you have a favorite band now? Maybe a favorite L.A. band? Who do you play with down here? Who do you love?
Al Cisneros: Of course Big Business. I saw a band a year ago there called Tweak Bird that I enjoyed.
Hell yeah! We had them on our poster. Are you guys having fires up there near San Francisco like the ones we’re having this week?
Al Cisneros: I don’t want to talk about that stuff!
What do you want to talk about?
Al Cisneros: If you want to talk about the new album God Is Good, that would be great.
Okay—what was your personal favorite song off the album?
Al Cisneros: Oh, man, that’s a hard one, because I feel this album is totally balanced! There’s four songs—there’s four mountaintops. There isn’t a valley on this album for me! I’ve only felt that way in my life before once, with Sleep in 1991 on a demo, and part of 1992 finishing it as an actual album with the thing that became Sleep’s Holy Mountain. That also shared that same thing where it felt the songs were manifesting in this way that was beyond yourself. Fast-forwarding so many years, this was the same experience. This visit comes and takes all the things that you’ve prepared and puts them where they need to go. I’m so grateful to be a participant in it.
That sounds very biblical. Was that inspired by your trip to Jerusalem? I wondered about the title.
Al Cisneros: It’s a continuous theme in all the work of this band. The first album was called Variation On a Theme and essentially God Is Good is a variation on the theme. Or the other records are variations on the theme God Is Good. You can look at it from both perspectives. Same subject, essentially. All of the subject matter and all of the lyrics—all of the verses—tap into that same summary point.
You’ve said your music was often emotional, but it sounds like since the start, you’ve had a game plan.
Al Cisneros: No, each one is its own thing. They continue in sequence.
Not like Queen’s Day at the Races and Night at the Opera?
Al Cisneros: Oh God—ha ha ha! Definitely not!
OM WITH LICHENS AND TWEAK BIRD ON FRI., SEPT. 25, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $15 / 18+. ATTHEECHO.COM. OM’S GOD IS GOOD IS OUT NOW ON DRAG CITY. VISIT OM AT OMVIBRATORY.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/VIBRATIONSONATHEME.