"Sober People Scare the Shit Out of Me" 

Emil Amos of Holy Sons on living off the grid

Thursday, Mar 10 2011

Though Portland's Emil Amos has made a name for himself drumming for others — post-rockers Grails, doom-metal act Om — he has created a legend for himself as Holy Sons. He's quietly released album after genre-bending album, mostly without any help from labels, modeling his early career after the lo-fi home recorders of the '80s and early '90s. Unsurprisingly, he's worked with living enigma Jandek.

Amos was born in Coconut Grove, Fla., in 1976, to a father who was an associate of Crosby and Stills, who went sailing with Hall and Oates and who, says Amos, was probably the one to show Fred Neil his beloved dolphins from the family boat. Though his mother relocated him to Chapel Hill, N.C., before he had a chance to study under those greats, their spirit of searching informs both his work and his outlook.

Amos' ninth album, Survivalist Tales, borrows its central theme and cover art from early 1900s dime novels and is imbued with an organic eclecticism that makes him a sonic cousin of artists like Beck, Eels, Smog and WHY? L.A. Weekly nabbed a rare phone interview with Amos in advance of his Friday show at the Satellite, where he opens for Castanets.

click to enlarge Emil Amos believes in "bottoms up!"
  • Emil Amos believes in "bottoms up!"

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L.A. WEEKLY: How did you arrive at the theme for Survivalist Tales?

I'm facing a world totally indifferent to what I'd like to talk about, so with each record I'm painting different pictures of the same existentialist dilemma. I thought the idea of someone battling nature, like Jeremiah Johnson, the survivalist, was a good metaphor for unfurling your own psychological development and battling your shadow in the process. Sort of a Jungian process — the inevitable steps of finding a reason to live.

Does such an anachronistic concept really apply to life in the Information Age?

Oh, especially. Carl Sagan spoke about how the universe has created this planet for us, laden with such immense luxury that we can happily coexist with war. We're thrilled to celebrate the religion of distraction, and the point of a piece of art like this is to rip away that impenetrable shroud of entertainment. Holy Sons is about facing your personal reality. You can't wear it, it's not cool, so it's not a commodity in this culture. I don't think it's built to succeed in any way.

Until your last couple of records, you'd never toured or promoted. What changed?

If a publicist, label and booking agent appeared, why would I turn it down? You'd really have to be a fucked-up individual, and that was me in the '90s. I was more interested in doing drugs than walking out onstage and going, "Hey, you seem like nice people. Do you want to hear some cool music?" Fuck that, I wasn't interested. It terrified me because it meant I'd have to start a long journey of examining myself in front of them. At the time, I'd rather have done that by myself, on drugs, in a basement. Playing with Grails for 10 years got me used to being onstage.

Your press release mentions drugs as well.

When you're 16 and you start using drugs every single day and don't let up for years ... I began to struggle with severe depersonalization, where nothing seems real. You don't think you're actually alive. You basically melt down the DNA of your personality, and become a puddle of broken-down potentialities. It took me years to figure out why I would still want to exist, let alone function in front of others. That recovery will always be part of Holy Sons' narrative.

When did you complete your recovery?

Well, never, really. The day you disassemble your psyche on LSD is the first day of the rest of your life. LSD is shamanistic. It's a religious agent. It's not for abusing, it's for learning. To this day I'm still trying to piece together my mind. Mine isn't a cautionary tale: It's something I would do again. The history of the poet is the Faustian way, to destroy oneself to find out what's at the bottom of this highly efficient, trained, ritualized robot.

Was it more than just acid?

Yeah, you try everything, and almost systematically, like Baudelaire would do to write a book, to see what it elicits from you. Luckily I was never addicted to anything that totally destroyed me, because that, in itself, is completely boring and has nothing to do with good art. You're merely trying to push yourself around, see what's already going on in you that's obscured now. A sober mindset can be one of the biggest enemies in your life. Sober people scare the shit out of me. I think they're actually a dangerous entity.

Which segues nicely into a Coconut Grove mention. How did your father come to live there? What did he do for a living?

There's a movie called Cocaine Cowboys that explains the trajectory of what happened to that place. All of Miami's cocaine money came through there, but before that it was a hippie jungle and my dad ... I was so young, I don't know what he was doing, but there's one amazing story where he accidentally brought an international diamond thief posing as Tim Buckley into the country. My dad was living with Joni Mitchell at the time and she fell in love with the thief. That said, I'm probably not even supposed to say what the other families around me were doing. I was baby-sat by these people, and the FBI could easily figure out what and who I'm talking about.

Wow. So, anything special planned for this tour?

I'm not trying to put a smile on and do a dance for people. I don't use those types of devices because the wager is that real life itself, and honesty, is more rewarding than anything a strobe light and a trampoline will offer you. But there's that famous quote in alcoholic recovery that insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results. This is a period of growth because there's nothing progressive about me staying in the basement. I did that. I wrote so many songs. I've got them now. I just don't need to toil down there anymore.

Holy Sons with Castanets, Dolorean, Fri., March 11; the Satellite, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., L.A.; thesatellitela.com; $8; 21 and over.

Reach the writer at christopherlmartins@gmail.com

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