Holy Son of the Bop Apocalypse: An interview with polymath Emil Amos by Lisa Wells
I started reading poetry during puberty, a meeting of kindred logics. Like anyone, naivetes cued up to be crushed. I thought poets belonged in the street brandishing their wine bottle at the moon, in ecstasy and burning at all times. Now I suppose I imagine the annex of cubicles provided adjunct teachers at the state university, the pale skin and bitter ash, the sneering face over the cafe table that’s learned the identity of this year’s Whitman winner. In envy and smoldering. I’ve since been informed that one should never include the word “moon” in a poem. Also; stars, darkness, love, and death. And I guess it makes sense. If the whole of planet earth must submit to domestication, why should poetry be immune?
Because the poem is holy.
Perhaps this is the final naivety to be crushed but it’s where I meet Emil Amos, in his ten dollar Supercuts Taper, to commiserate. Since 1992 Amos has written and recorded more than 1000 songs under the name Holy Sons. While simultaneously recording and touring with heavyweights like OM and Grails, Holy Sons has persisted as a basement project that, despite all efforts to avoid publicity and commercial success, has collected a massive cult following. Until this year, Holy Sons has appeared live just a handful of times, including openings for Quasi, Devendra Banhart, Will Oldham, J Mascis, Daniel Johnston, and a show at a community center in Dharmasala, India (difficult offers to refuse, one presumes.) Some have called the project an exercise in personal catharsis, but it seems to me a strategy for staying in love.
In an era of excessively pleasant indie music, so much chamber folk, so many pretty girls affecting a vocal style like a doped Brenda Lee, Amos continues to explore the shadows; extreme states, despair, spiritualism. He screams sometimes. Unbranded and unencumbered by a single “sound”, each song is its own world, its own experiment. The style shifts but the speaker remains, like a sleeper moving through dreams, or like the chapters of an acid trip. Now, in its 20th year, Holy Sons seems to be emerging publically and I wondered why.
LW: I’ll start by bringing up some old shit. When I begged you to play my birthday party a few years ago you said “I hope Holy Sons never plays live again.” But now you’re touring. What gives?
EA: Historically I dreaded presenting myself, from the very beginning… The fairy tale that most people envision concerning success was never in the cards for me. I just kept writing instead of confronting the dynamic head-on, for almost two decades. I’d flirt with playing shows, but mostly, especially in Portland, I found the whole thing profoundly miserable and ultimately, not the point.
By a series of peripheral factors concerning my other bands I eventually found myself with a great booking agent, and by this later period, I had trouble summoning the energy to really care about the dilemma at all… which freed me up to enter a more experimental state of mind concerning presenting myself.
I had a conversation with a friend in earlier days that, for me, had helped clear up the dynamic partially. I’d asked him if someone were to invent something and/or think a valuable thought, would the point of its profundity be that the thought/invention occurred at all… or would the point of its existence be that it was communicated to the larger community? Without hesitation, he answered that if no one knew about it, then it really didn’t exist. My stomach kind of sank… how people generally view the machinations of our individual will vs. the popular attitude disturbs me.
It was pretty clear that I was a tree falling in the forest with no one around… and I really didn’t see why it should matter that no one knew I existed if my own thoughts and discoveries are of direct value to me. If I was born to make a music characterized by ‘aloneness’, then the frontier of playing in front of people brought that hermetic tradition into a new and more complex arena.
A lotta kids grow up with dreams of playing music and emulate their musical heroes like you’d watch a pro baseball player… a simple mythology that’s inextricably tied to success and social affirmation. But that’s not what I was dreaming of… I wanted to be delivered beyond temporal things to the actual truth… and music is a practical vehicle you can use to reap actual spiritual rewards if you can perceive how to achieve freedom through it.
LW: Your songs are full of religious/spiritual references, psychedelia, ecstatic transcendentalism… lots of trippy godhead stuff in your music videos. At one point you were at work on a memoir about a guru you followed. Can you tell me more about him and how he affected your work?
EA: That was a major goal of mine probably about six years ago but it’s been abandoned for now. At that time some friends and I weren’t sure if he’d died and I was in an in-between period in my life where I felt compelled to write. …But then we located him and it became clear that he didn’t want to be identified or associated with in any public way. There’s definitely an element of paranoia and LSD damage in both of our temperaments, distaste for being made public… but he took it all the way. When we were young I definitively wanted to make records… so I was unconsciously preparing for whatever trials were coming. I don’t think he really had enough naivety or maybe respect for others to really believe it was a worthy endeavor. We flirted with some radical anti-commercial ideological restraints and they ended up helping to strangle his ability to make anything. This is not dissimilar from other idols I’d had…Fred Neil, Syd Barrett, Gene Clark, Danny Kirwan/Peter Green—were all people whose understanding of why they should present music to others became corroded… their naivety destroyed.
In ways, that story is one of the only things that inspires true sadness in me… I actually broke down crying one morning in a bagel shop trying to explain his situation. I felt that we saw the world in the exact same ways… spiritually bereft. We flirted with falling off the face of the earth and not existing… but at some point I pulled out… and he’s still alive so I suppose it could have been worse.
LW: I think that conflict, that feeling of being between worlds really comes across. There’s an ecstatic reverence in your music and simultaneous recognition of death. Like Lorca’s conception of Duende, or the Sufi’s… I love this section from “Things you do While Waiting for the Apocalypse.” It’s such a call to arms!
Did you build from the ground your own church?/ Down with the written histories /Celebrate the graves that you stand upon
…I wonder how much of that spiritual bankruptcy is owed to carefulness. I mean, ironically, you see it more in poetry these days than in rock and roll but there’s this absolute horror of sentimentality. I suspect our generation confuses sentimentality with blood. People reign in their force to avoid making mistakes. You’ve written hundreds and hundreds of songs for Holy Sons and I wonder if writing that much helps to keep you open to the big forces.
EA: You’ve got a good theory about conservatism fucking with people’s ability to be completely honest. I’d say it’s always been that way though… People have always been embarrassed and hidden themselves to avoid potential persecutions… not realizing that it’s a disservice to themselves and everyone else to camouflage themselves.
I’m always going towards Happiness in the songs… but my version of Happiness is living in union with the way the universe actually is; which would mean admitting the difficulties that appear in an attempt to appreciate it, …having my feet on the actual ground… knowing what’s going on street-level and not being lost in visions of how I’d like the world to be.
In terms of writing, I’d say it’s extremely hard just to say what you mean… there’s an old idea that to learn a craft you need to stop everything for a year or two and live in a cave. But I’d say it really takes a solid decade to get to the bottom of your own point and ability to articulate it… it takes years to purge all the corrupted language and conditioned elements. There are so many celebrated artists that haven’t even really begun breaking down their conditioning long enough to have arrived at a unique statement.
LW: Speaking of street-level, a bunch of your song titles seem to refer to one collapse or another, apocalyptic, cultural. I wonder how your conception of those themes has changed, as an artist. Have the stakes changed for you?
EA: Aging itself, maybe more than the surrounding age, has had a bigger effect on my process. Only because you become more and more deliberate and less about purely capturing a fleeting feeling as if it means everything… which has its advantages and disadvantages. Like you said, Holy Sons was built to be a continuous monologue… hugely influenced by the format of projects like Lou Barlow’s Sentridoh which captured a songwriter in various moments of the day or states of mind in their natural habitat. That seemed way more exciting and interesting to me as a listener. If any phenomenon of ‘genius’ does exist, it seemed much more likely to occur in a crease of less-inhibited-ness, being that the person was free to be mentally wandering on whatever drugs out in the woods with a hand-held tape recorder, not in an expensive/sterile studio at war with the engineer about mic-placement, ya know.
In terms of apocalypses and collapses… a lot of that imagery just comes from moments of brutal dark sarcasm, but there are other layers of truth behind it. Titles like “Doomsayer’s Holiday” or “Take Refuge in Clean Living” (Grails’ records) were originally just jokes that stuck… there just has to be enough of a double-meaning or parallel to my world-view to give them relevance, so I guess humor and dread lead back to the same place. The main thread though, is not that there’s an apocalypse occurring in the physical world like those recent doomsday predictions… but that there’s a spiritual apocalypse occurring constantly… I feel like Roddy Piper in “They Live” if he couldn’t take the shades off. (Not a recommendation of the film.)
LW: Where do you see that apocalypse manifest? Is there a way to be saved?
It may sound strange but I think the idea of predestination is actually pretty accurate, but maybe only when applied through a healthy lens of Taoism. I’m not interested in fighting the world… the world is the way it is by a certain design, so you’re forced to accept that design if you want to be in union with it.
I realize this all sounds very oversimplified, but, for me, a major part of happiness is in apprehending the design to one’s own ‘individual fate’. I became obsessed with this concept in college; everything was predetermined in my mind concerning one’s capacity to be aware, curious or to generally understand themselves. So, in the same way that a constant spiritual ‘apocalypse’ is not a literal physical occurrence, ‘Individual Fate’ is not about how things happen, but more about how our facilities for dealing with life are somewhat individually predetermined. This frame of mind helped me see the world from overhead as more of a larger organism, instead of something that just wasn’t arranged the way I might prefer it.
You have to develop a sense of humor about the limitations of a world that was born malnourished… to say the world is fucked isn’t to say it ought to change necessarily… it’s just like noticing the sun setting.
On Entering at Revelations
Had I known it would be this way
I might not have come. All of us skulking around
like hermit crabs, waiting to get inside
someone else’s life. Bunkers where shells
shock the ground and everyone sleeping through. Had I known
the gods were limping, the knotted cord and terrible ring
of thorns, the psalms reduced to mournful aluminum, 160bpm
and the tachychardic chatter of gunbelts emptying. Had I known
the snub-nosed .357, the subwoofer and the spoiler. The sun
always laughing, tongues of magma
lashing a black thinner than we can imagine.
The moon is long gone
but the light-bars are on and the boys are out
four-bying tonight, screaming “Get some!” Tossing the empties over.
Their faces are as simple as the hill at Golgotha, their smiles
the lightning bolt cracking through. One of them said he wanted inside me
as if it were that easy. As if any wound would do.
The moon gone and the hour late. Someone rolled
the boulder back. We kill the engine and wait
at the pouting lip of the cave for whatever resurrects.
Lisa Wells is the author of Yeah. No. Totally., a book of essays (Perfect Day Publishing, 2011). Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals. Most recently in Plazm Magazine, Ecotone, Dunes Review, Re:Union and 400 Words. Bedouin Books will release her chapbook this fall. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.