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Interview: Emil Amos of Holy Sons

Holy Sons’s latest album, Drifter’s Sympathy, is one of my favorite albums of the year so far, so imagine my glee when Emil Amos, the man behind the record, agreed to an interview with Spectrum Culture. Via email, he was kind enough to answer a few questions on his other projects, his parents, film tastes and how skateboarding is kind of like that scene in Star Wars when Han gets frozen in carbonite.

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Holy Sons is a solo project of yours- you play all the instruments and composed all the songs. Is there a particular reason why you work alone on this project?

Different bands serve different parts of myself that sort of need to breathe… different ways of satisfying the need to rid myself of various psychological toxins and fulfilling a long-standing obligation to myself to get some serious work done. In college it started to dawn on me that the only way through the lethargy, absurdity and depression was to plow straight through it all by developing an old-fashioned work ethic. Holy Sons began so early that I barely notice the process of how the records exit my brain. It’s a daily ritualistic recording reality that began almost 20 years ago. It’s like breathing.

You’ve worked (and are working) with a number of different music groups and musicians in the past- Om and Grails come to mind. How are they different from Holy Sons?

Grails is a collective that, in ways, wasn’t really meant to be but we pulled it up by it’s bootstraps and saw it through at a very casual pace. Om came by surprise and completed the trinity of bands, helping to make music a real job, which, as something I’d avoided before, has improved a lot of the basic conditions of playing …and it’s like being a full-time drummer again… which is part of me coming back, full circle, to how I began playing as a kid. I didn’t really play drums for almost 10 years through the ’90s. On the one hand, now I’ve got more freedom to make music in my life but on the other I was pretty sure I had an ulcer when I woke up yesterday morning. Between the three bands music has become a sort of full-time religion.

What sort of music did you grow up around? How does it affect what you currently create?

My parents were old enough to be ground-floor hippies and my grandmother was an art critic for the Courier Journal, so we were always surrounded by art in some way. I was born in Coconut Grove/Miami FLA. To understand that kind of environment back then you should watch the documentary Cocaine Cowboys. There’s also a lot of good books on the JM/Wave CIA station there, Havana and the mob’s relationship to Miami, and Florida as a gateway of all sorts of crime that help describe the chaos and insidiousness of the place. My father knew all sorts of people like The Bee Gees and Hall and Oates and he hung pretty tight with Crosby, Stills and that crew. The Eagles, The Beatles, everyone had a house in Coconut Grove… it was sort of a secret, much smaller San Francisco in terms of being a birthing ground for the hippie lifestyle. My mom waited tables at the Mutiny, which is the main night club they mention in Cocaine Cowboys. She was waiting on Neil Young there when he wrote the lyrics to “Star of Bethlehem.” The stories kind of go on and on. You might say it was a womb of the East Coast folk-rock scene and that’s always been in my blood but by the time we moved to Chapel Hill I was becoming a teenager and got into hardcore and skateboarding, which was about my generation instead of theirs. In skateboarding they often say that once you become a skater you never truly leave it and hardcore seems to go hand in hand with that. I often picture skateboarding and hardcore crystallizing my mind as if I was ‘carbon frozen’ like Han Solo was in Star Wars. They gave me a platform for my incessant ranting, which is still in full effect. You can read books on periods or movements and you can dabble in hobbies but sometimes there is no substitute for actually being there in a place and time and really giving yourself to it.

Ok, here’s an easy one- what sort of music do you listen to, when you’re not listening to your own?

The CDs in my car right now are:

The Troggs- Singles

Heldon- Live ’75-’79

Stelvio Cipriani- Solamente Nero

Scientist- Scientific Dub

Sebadoh- Wade Through the Boggs

Vangelis- Sex Power’

Holy Sons latest album, Drifter’s Sympathy, is an eclectic record and you’ve mentioned German music in the ’70s as a primary influence- how so? Also, Drifter’s Sympathy is a highly thematic album- would you consider it a “concept” album?

I could probably say that experimental German music in the ’70s has been the single biggest influence on my adult years of making records. As a kid, Holy Sons was dabbling in a strictly American vibe, you know…and I was proud of celebrating the dirt of homemade American punk and flying some sort of junkie freak flag for it. Starting with Decline of the West you can hear the German influence starting to clean the songs up, introduce more synthetic sounds and make them more efficient as a kind of pointed dagger to deliver their message. The loose concept of the title “Drifter’s Sympathy” is from a re-enactment I saw as a kid after school one day on a crime show, something like “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol.” I remember watching a lot of ‘Superior Court’ and real crime shows after school for some reason and certain re-enactments stuck in my head. In addition, I have some pretty bad memories of watching episodes of Cops on LSD. A top 3 after-school re-enactment high light list would be:

a) the time on Superior Court when a kid had accidentally drank Drano thinking it was orange juice… he had to take the stand with a voice-box whilst suing the company for packaging the Drano in a cardboard carton too similar-looking to OJ.

b) the time on Rescue 911 when the kid got his tongue stuck on the surface of the freezer and had to call 911 and struggle to describe his condition.

c) I think the phrase ‘Drifter’s Sympathy’ came from a particular re-enactment I’d seen of a guy who’d lost direction in his life. It began with the camera panning down in an autumnal scene by the side of a highway somewhere in the Carolinas where this ‘drifter’ was throwing stones in a ditch and staring listlessly into the water. An old couple was driving by in a mini-van when he lobbed a rock at their windshield and cracked it. They pulled into the next gas station and called 911, which alerted a highway patrolman, who eventually found the guy walking further down the road. When the cop drew his gun and told him to stop where he was, the drifter slowly turned and started casually walking towards the cop with a little pocketknife in his hand. Consequently, the cop shot and killed him right there… the scene ended and then went directly to an innocuous commercial about a mattress warehouse or something like that. I’ve never been able to get that episode out of my head. As a little kid, for some reason it really disturbed me.

There’s also a snippet of Alfred Hitchcock dialogue in a one of the tracks- how does film influence your music? And what sorts of films do you largely watch?

Film is definitely a pretty consistent obsession for me, I usually watch one a night before sleeping but I think I’m the kind of person that uses their obsessions to fuel creative endeavors or educate themselves instead of just hording statistics and alphabetizing a bunch of shit. When you’re a kid and you hear something really kind of alien or sleazy sounding like Tangerine Dream’s soundtracks to Risky Business or Sorcerer, those era-specific moments stay with you and often make a perverse return in your own art. I’m stuck in watching most any espionage films right now… I’m a sucker for stuff like Marathon Man, Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View.

The artwork on your albums (and website) seems heavily influenced by collage and juxtaposition- is this something you actively work towards?

I think we’re collectively going through some sort of aesthetic crisis these days. When I look at the covers of the records assaulting the public daily there seems to be a type of general aesthetic confusion going on. I have a friend that’s older and grew up just before punk really hit and he often laments how the punk phenomenon took away the ambition of bands to really learn how to play their instruments or make more ‘developed-sounding’ records. That’s pretty analogous to how Photoshop has put the formerly-respected craft of visual art into the hands of the non-visually-inclined these days. I think record covers are basically like a song, essay or film in that they must have some sort of focal point or a central piece of meaning… if the image is going to have any power at all it can’t just be a collection of peripheral elements. Virtually every record cover you see now has a fucking eagle on a pogo-stick or a pyramid balanced on a ice cream cone or some shit. We’re kind of languishing in a post-modern graveyard y’know?

by Nathan Kamal

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