steering clear of the mainstream
since 2001

june 2010

20 questions
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with grails' alex john hall

Combining the hypnotic bliss of a snake charmer with a penchant for heavier psychedelia, instrumental collective Grails have quietly separated themselves from the herd with a series of ultimately sublime releases. After a couple of self-released records, they were signed to Neurot Recordings based on a demo submission alone, a rare occurrence but one that clearly befits the band. Since then, records have come out on Southern, Important, and most recently, Temporary Residence Limited. Be sure not to miss Take Refuge in Clean Living, a dense and delicious effort that is my favourite of the bunch.

2008's Take Refuge in Clean Living


1. First of all, what is the significance of the name Grails?

A "grail" is of course just a reference to some specific obsessive pursuit. But the other story is that we had a short amount of time to decide on a name and that's the only one we all agreed on.

2. Introduce each member of the band and name something interesting about them.

Emil Amos - drums/guitar/whatever, favorite Metallica record = Kill 'Em All
William Slater - bass/piano/keys, doesn't have a favorite Metallica record
Zak Riles - acoustic stringed instruments/elec guitar, favorite Metallica record = Master of Puppets Alex Hall - guitar/samples, favorite Metallica record = ...And Justice for All

3. One of the most striking features of your releases is the musicianship exhibited on them. What are the musical backgrounds of Grails' members?

Bill has some formal music training, the rest of us were self-taught. But we all started off in the typical way, 13-14 years old with shitty guitars in our bedrooms, and a stack of tapes and CD's regarded as divine scripture.

4. Perhaps in the most rudimentary sense, a lot of Grails music could be described as psychedelic or meditative. But what do you see as the ideal setting for your music? How do you envisage people listening to your albums?

My favorite times to listen to music are early in the morning (with coffee) or late late at night, the waking times when the lines are blurred between the dream state and mundane daytime consciousness. It's at these times, with active headphone-style listening, that albums have absolutely changed my life. I can only hope that we've created something that's actually worthy of that kind of listening.

5. How is it that an album can absolutely change your life? Is there a particular album that has, and how did it affect you?

I didn't mean for this to sound corny, it's just something that belongs to the realm of universal experience. There's really no further insight.

I think I listened to A Love Supreme 12 times in a row once after eating some really strong mushrooms...that's a great record.

6. How did you become connected with Temporary Residence Ltd?

We'd known Jeremy for a while through mutual acquaintances. And he lived just up the street from us while he was living in Portland. Eventually we had to stop flirting with each other and just get down to it.


7. Which current bands' music do you really respect? Are there any bands who you see as kindred spirits?

People ask this all the time, and we usually just point to our homies up in Seattle, folks keeping it super real in bands like Earth, Master Musicians of Bukkake, Sun City Girls, Secret Chiefs, Diminished Men, others.

8. Design is a large part of Grails' albums. What inspires the cover art? What background do you have in terms of visual art?

Again, no formal background in visual art, just a lifelong obsession with album art. We've tried to view the artwork as an opportunity for expression to be capitalized upon. The images are totally essential for communicating the album's intent, shaping its perception. I don't think we'd be doing ourselves (or anyone else) a favor if the cover was just another painting of a bird, with 'untitled' songs, y'know?

When we were kids, we'd listen to records alone in our rooms with headphones on, poring over every inch of the album cover, reading every word of the liner notes. I think we've just tried to honor that tradition.

2008's Doomsdayer's Holiday

9. There's an interesting line between producing a statement of intent and creating a work that can be interpreted freely, isn't there? It's interesting that no music can be truly divorced of its context; no matter what, the cover, or the first 10 seconds of the record, or the track titles, (etc. etc.) all serve to prime the listener with regards to what to expect. Only a complete amnesiac would be able hear something and interpret it completely on their own terms. On the other hand, more experimental and freeform music is better able to isolate sound from concrete context. (This is all my interpretation, of course). How do you feel about Grails' music "standing on its own"? Where does it stand? What context do you intend to conjure up?

As an effective means of communication, any art form is bound by a particular set of parameters....and like you said, in the case of instrumental music, it's not difficult at all to isolate it from its context. So the challenge isn't to create music intended to be interpreted freely by the listener - this is an inevitability. The actual challenge is creating a statement. And in order to do that, it becomes necessary to use effectively all of the available tools, i.e. artwork and packaging. And in a modern era that's trying desperately to strip music of all context for easy consumption, there's something deeply satisfying about being anachronistic in this regard. It's satisfying to create something that will reward those that actually take the time to seek it out.

10. One of the most intriguing aspects of your releases is their accessibility. Despite being a far cry from cookie-cutter rock music, it is easy for just about anyone to enjoy any one of your records.  Have you found that your music attracts a wide range of audiences?

Yeah, it seems to, and perhaps increasingly so. I hope so, anyway! But even if that's true to some extent, it's still a wide range within a narrow demographic. It's underground music, and it's very comfortable with being underground music. It's not something that will ever be of any use to a Maroon 5 fan.

11. What is your perspective on more accessible/traditional "pop" music? Are there bands that you admire that just play solid, infectious, straightahead pop? can music be unoriginal or highly derivative and still be GOOD music?

It's beyond the issue of originality, it just depends on the needs of the listener. As a listener, I want to be taught something, I want to approach the music as a pupil, seeking knowledge or insight or spiritual gain. And "straightahead" contemporary pop music just doesn't offer me much in that regard. 

12. What are your thoughts on the music scene in Portland? How has Grails fit in?

Portland is a great place to live, but we've never really been a part of the local music scene. We've kept our distance from it almost by default, focusing our efforts on making records and playing outside of Portland. The 'hometown hero' thing never appealed to us, I guess.

13. Grails strikes a fine balance between "traditional" songsmithery and more experimental abstraction. Does this reflect the different backgrounds of the band's members?

Yeah, that was certainly true at one time. But I think it's kinda the opposite now, with a unified vision to explore disparate musical territories. And I think that difference gives us more focus.

14. It sounds as if, despite the members' varying backgrounds, Grails is a pretty cohesive lot. Would you say you're more unified than the average band?

I really have no idea; this is the only 'band' I've been in.

15. The story of your serendipitous demo-tape inauguration onto Neurot's roster is one for the ages. What's your secret?

A firm handshake and winning smile. Let 'em know who's boss.

2003's The Burden of Hope

16. If Grails ever created a concept album, what would the concept be?

I don't really get the distinction between 'concept album' and 'regular album'. I mean, of course I understand what people mean when they use that term, but shouldn't every album have some kind of concept? Isn't that the point, y'know? Probably just me. But since 'concept album' is usually just an attempt to excuse some silly amount of, I can't really see us making a "Tommy" record.

17. This brings up an interesting point, because for a lot of bands, albums are collections of songs, often created independently and then assembled (even haphazardly) out of what has been recorded. Clearly Grails' approach is more holistic. Along these lines, how do your records come together? Are songs created around a central theme? Are they written/performed/recorded in sequence or at different points in time? What accounts for the stylistic and conceptual cohesion?

It's funny, after reading it again, it's pretty clear that response has us eating lunch with the kids at the Floyd/Zeppelin table in the cafeteria, y'know? The kids at the Ramones table are totally cool, too, though....but I guess that's just our table.

Whatever stylistic/conceptual cohesion there is with the Grails records comes from our recording style, which is to work on multiple releases concurrently. We develop a large pool of material and then have the freedom to flesh out each release with the songs that seem to belong to it.

18. You get to create the full score for a new film. Which director would you choose? Explain.

Kenneth Anger, directing a sequel to Xanadu (starring Sasha Grey).

19. Alright, i'm calling this right now. why Xanadu, and, most importantly, why Sasha Grey?

The synergy of the thing couldn't be denied. Sasha Grey is this generation's Olivia Newton John...iconic, multi-talented, but with less optimism, more anal penetration.

20. So what is Grails' five year plan?

I have no idea. Our efforts have never been dictated by some career path. I mean, it took this band 5 years to agree to play a show east of Pac NW/California, so who knows?

2006's Black Tar Prophecies vol's 1, 2, & 3

interview conducted by Michael Tau
March 2009
published May 16, 2009



all content copyright 2009