Originally published in Arthur No. 27 (Dec 2007).
My favorite story about Om, the bass and drum duo of Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius—the rhythm section of now defunct drone metal icons Sleep—takes place on the back patio of Los Angeles club The Echo. It’s a cool winter night in 2007 and we’re all gathered here—hippie goners, young punks, indie rock squares—to take in a few breaths of fresh air before the band takes to the stage inside. One group stands out from the crowd: two women and a guy who are having a whale of a time, gesticulating wildly and laughing like crazy. At one point the dude approaches a hipster who’s nervously dragging on a toothpick joint. Our man offers his flask to the young fellow and a confusing exchange takes place: I can tell that he’s looking to swap quaff for toke, but for some reason he’s having trouble communicating this. I catch on about the same time the stoner does, giving up the doobie to the guy and his gal pals: They’re deaf, this happy trio of Om heads. That’s how deep the band’s sensual, mantra-like music goes.
Om collaborated with Six Organs of Admittance—the revolving music-making entity with Ben Chasny always at its core—twice in 2006. First on a split 7-inch on Holy Mountain and then again on “The River of Transfiguration,” the 23-minute drone super session that closes Six Organs’ The Sun Awakens album. Both men’s music deals in imagery and themes—apocalypse, geometry, birds, light, deserts, mountains—for introspective rather than epic ends, suggesting transformation and inner change. This is high-minded, deep work, more in line with the allegorical tales of Alejandro Jodorowsky or Paul Bowles than the sword-and-sandals juvenilia of Robert E. Howard.
Chasny’s new album on Drag City, Shelter from the Ash is a richly textured affair, with tamboura-like drones running beneath guitars that move from gentle acoustic signatures to searing electric passages. His gorgeous duet with Magik Marker Elisa Ambroglio, “Strangled Road,” brings to mind the grim visions of Cormac McCarthy and the mournful vibrations of vintage Richard and Linda Thompson. Jet engines roar in the background of “The Final Wing.”
The new Om album, the Steve Albini-produced Pilgrimage, is their first for Southern Lord. It contains some of the band’s most gentle work, with long stretches of quiet, sometimes fluttering bass and muted drums leading into the cathartic chanting of “Unitive Knowledge of The Godhead” and then closing out the monolithic bass raga, “Bhimas’ Theme.”
Both Cisneros and Chasny have resisted the identities that could be easily assumed given their iconic and prolific output—the former a stoner metal avatar, the latter a cryptic forest folkie. Instead, as their conversation below reveals, they’ve chosen to take on the humble mantle of “friend,” both to each other, and to anyone who sits before the speakers, transfixed by their resonant, circling explorations of repetition and change. —Daniel Chamberlin
Ben Chasny: I wanted to talk about how you come up with your vocal phrasing, because some of it, especially on Pilgrimage, is heavier than a guitar. It’s like extra percussion.
Al Cisneros: Definitely. It’s in everything that we do. It’s essential, especially being in a two-piece band, not only that the vocals have a melody, but it’s much more important that they have a rhythm. Really, it’s all drums, the whole band’s drums. When I play bass it’s a drum, it’s in the fingertips, it’s a hand drum. The vocals are a drum too. The whole thing is just rhythm. The vocals are constructed in a way to keep the whole thing in interplay between the three instruments, you know?
Ben: Yeah, and it’s another rhythm in itself, a cross rhythm over it.
Al: Like when we play a riff, without even thinking about how the vocal part goes, it just happens. It’s just fine tuning it after the root’s there.
Ben: So it’s not a labor-intensive process, it’s all very natural?
Al: The labor part comes in after the root is established and takes it to an analytical place and that takes a while. But the first part takes place automatically, even if it’s the first time we play the riff, as it’s playing.
Ben: Wow, that’s crazy because your phrasing is so complex. Sometimes you will start a phrase three beats before the riff, sometimes seven and it seems so complex. It is awesome to know that it is just a natural thing. That is a totally different brain space than I am used to being in. When I make up my singing parts I am just singing what I am playing, you know?
Al: It seems like it’s similar to the way that I am hearing your records. For example, the beginning of “School of the Flower,” it’s incredibly structured in that sense, the way the vocals contrast and go in and out. I don’t know, it seems that way to me.
Ben: I think we’re similar in the way that sounds come before the words come.
Al: That’s what I mean about the second stage, the analytical stage where you fine-tune it.
Ben: The riff comes. Then the sound with the riff. And then, yeah, carving the words out of the basic sound. In that way I definitely relate for sure. You know, when we first met a few years ago one of the things I noticed is that you seem to be possessed by vibration, like you have some sort of higher vibrational ear or something. And I don’t mean in sort of hippie dippy bullshit way, but it just seems like you pull rhythms out of the air. We’ll hang out and then you hear it and mention the rhythm or riff that is there.
Al: Yeah, I won’t say it’s a sickness, it’s just a heavy thing, all the time. Rhythms all the time.
Ben: It almost seems like a curse but you have figured out something to do with it, like playing music
Al: It goes back as far as I remember, ‘cause I remember even as a little kid I would run and hear the sound of my feet in my ears and my breathing and I would start to put stuff on top of it. I didn’t even know how to play an instrument. It was there all the time constantly, and there were all these inner circles, all these textures to it. With that it’s difficult, you know?
Ben: I wasn’t sure if you were aware that you seem to be possessed by vibrations.
Al: There’s no way to not have it and that’s the thing. It’s coming to terms with it and trying to harness it better and better all the time. Also at the same time not being destroyed by it because when it is constant like that, there is no place to rest.
Ben: Right. Do you think you would go crazy if you weren’t playing music? Or do you think you would find other ways?
Al: I don’t know because when I wasn’t playing music in between the bands, I started to first really appreciate philosophies of sound, and sound in silence, and not allowing myself to be near stereos or be around anything. I made it so that whatever was inside would play up to the surface and I was going to examine it, and I realized how many layers of input we all have to deal with. That was important.
Ben: Did you find other ways to manifest that music and vibrations?
Al: At first I deliberately did not because I wanted to make sure that the music I was hearing was worth hearing, or if I should continue to not attach to it. I needed to know if it was valid. The only way to do that was to starve it out by not letting it come out and see how hard it would retaliate. If it didn’t retaliate very hard, the riff couldn’t have been very good. And so it got to a point after long enough with a couple of reoccurring riffs over two years where it was all breakdown. I couldn’t talk and I had to start recording again. But it has to get to that point I think. I don’t want to go around recording a bunch of ideas, it’s just that I let them go and if they are really good, they come back, they stick to you. I can’t expect anyone to listen to music, to have a part stick to them, if it doesn’t stick to the people in the band first.
Ben: Totally. We talked have talked about that before: suppressing the riff, starving it so only the strong riffs keep coming back because they need to be there.
Al: For sure. That happened a lot in the time after the first band. I don’t know, I needed to get away from listening to music and go to a place without sound so I could actually think and see my own mental process. If the riff keeps talking to you it eventually finds its home in a song somewhere.
Ben: Yeah, it’s the riff that survives, even if you don’t pay attention to it for years and years. And it’s one way to get it out of your brain. The third song on Shelter From the Ash is the same way. I’ve had that for ten years and I had to get it out.
Al: Exactly. On everything we’ve ever recorded there are riffs that attain that natural terminus and are permitted to blossom. Over the past few Six Organs albums I’ve heard a lot more drumming and it’s totally linear and organic, it’s just totally natural and it makes perfect sense. And it’s interesting the way that you switch off between Black Wolf, White Wolf [Ben’s electric guitars] and the acoustic and yet all of them are one and the same, the same thing comes through it and it’s nice. I’m just really happy with the new album you did.
Ben: Thanks. Yeah, it just seems like a natural thing, you know. Noel’s drumming is never too complex, just natural exclamation points or something, and repetition. That’s something I was thinking about today: repetition. Contemplation and repetition, do you know what I mean?
Al: Yeah, I think through repetition there’s an established current of frequency that at a certain point becomes self-propelling like an orbit. That takes place of course in all of art, but repetition is like a great healing tool, it’s a great practice, because be it an internal meditation or an external song process, you go into that peeling away of those external layers. You can hit seven points on the target but they are all varied. You want to hit that one point on the target over and over repeatedly until water comes out of the ground.
Ben: Exactly. It’s how I hear music so that is the way that I want to play music too. Repetition. Over and over. Yeah, exactly, because in each of the…
Al: But what I have always heard in Six Organs is that repetition…cyclic, as an underground, as an undertone, a root note, a root cadence, which is constant, throughout the duration of the work, but upon that ground there are top layers, and the top layers do switch back and forth and present various shades and various moods. But at all times there is that constant floor underneath it.
Ben: Right, because when you change that floor underneath it, you change the whole entire emotional shift of the song.
Al: It’s like somebody opening a fucking door at the movie theater and everybody is like, ‘What the fuck?’
Ben: And that’s the thing: the songs are naturally going to be long. It’s not setting out to write a huge song, it’s how it has to be when you are dealing with repetition in music, the importance of repetition.
Al: Exactly. Like even in the old band [Sleep] people would ask why did we write a 70-minute song? Originally it was a 70-minute song that got pruned down through studio editors and record fools to a 50-minute song and people were still like, ‘Why do you write songs so long?’ and for us it was ‘What are you talking about? You don’t sit down and plan it, it’s just there.’ You know when it’s done because you feel…
Ben: Because there has been a proper amount of repetitions that has been satisfying.
Al: Yeah, there is a certain place that’s tapped and sustained. And if it can’t even be tapped and sustained then it needs to be worked on. Yeah, it’s essential. It doesn’t matter what style of music, if that place doesn’t arrive in whatever form…
Ben: It’s just soothing to me. Repetition is just very soothing and when I work with repetition I feel safe to contemplate things in the music itself. I feel safe to set up a foundation to build things that are entirely structured on the foundation that I had just built.
Al: It’s like outer circles around a center, a hub. Unless there’s that hub established which is completely balanced in it’s curvature, if that is compromised at its center than everything that you circle around it is going to be, ehh, you know. And so, of course, of course, that center, that repetition-core, that ground that is tapped, that floor that is provided that sustains throughout the entire work, if it’s not there than the things that are built on top are like a bad building. It will fall.
Ben: Exactly. I was driving around thinking about that today.
Al: Like a shitty chess position. Really! Like somebody that can recite the Sicilian defense to move 19 but hangs a fucking knight as soon as they are out of book openings. You know? Not into it. Not into it. I’d rather see the person that can’t even recite an opening but is a master tactician who can handle anything that’s a surprise. A surprise isn’t a surprise to a person like that.
Al: If the position is not solid, if the center is not controlled, if the pieces aren’t developed, if the king is not castled. No matter what ideas one has about the middle game, they are illusion. The foundation has to be solid. There are certain essentials that have to be locked down in place. And once that’s there, the things, geometrically, automatically, through the laws of physical reality provide their own layers. But if that sound foundation is not there, it’s a chasing game, it’s a dog chasing its tail. Anything. Does that make sense?
Ben: Yeah! Well…I don’t play chess but I know what you are talking about.
Conversation turns to Al’s recent frustrations in interviewers’ and critics’ continued insistence on approaching music only through the genre lens: eg. ‘stoner rock,’ ‘doom metal,’ ‘post-rock,’ etc.
Al: Another thing is the fallacy of genre. It’s deep, it’s deep. There’s these people who are threatened and want to fortress themselves through their status quo ideas of their biosphere around them. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. In that, all they are doing is continuing human history. They’re making another purpose of dividing each other.
Ben: Right, more walls.
Al: And here we are again. It’s really sad actually, because, you know, within music there are all these people that judge each other because there is that phenomenon, that place, at least in American music culture at this time, everybody has their categories in their records stores and their shelves and… STOP! There is a unity behind the differences. There is a great unity, there has never not been that great unity, behind the apparent differences. But the attempted interview reminded me of how it’s not obvious, it’s not cool, and people still aren’t ok with that.
Ben: People trying to own genres and using the genres that they think they are masters of and doubling back and making it so that those genres are as important as their own name to them. You can take that same mindset and it relates directly to war. It’s the same mindset, the same part of the brain.
Al: It’s a tragedy. It’s an ultimate sad self-defeating culture that wants all these divisions up. And then where do you draw the line? Even the people that talk about the divisions are redefining the divisions. It’s very difficult. It’s like a flypaper. It’s very easy to get stuck in the problem while even talking about the problem.
Ben:Yeah, it’s weird. You get people who think you must be playing shows with this band or that band and they always want to know, “then what scene DO you belong to?” And I just think about my friends who just play diverse types of music.
Al: But it goes beyond music though. It’s not even friends who are in bands or work on recordings and write songs. The friends that you have are friends not because of what they do but because of who they are, their character, things that are in their spirit and heart and resonate with you, certainly not reserved to just music. And your point, in agreement with you—if there’s one genre, I’m cool. But if there’s 50 and everybody is mad at each other because of that, then Stop! There’s the one and that is life. We’re all here together.
Ben: When it comes down to it, there is no classification. They are just friends.
Al: Friends whether they are in person or in present life or friends within the common vibration. There are so my levels of friends. They can be in the written word, in the recorded sound…
Ben: Your best friend when you were 14 years old, sitting in front of the stereo…
Al: Geddy Lee.
Ben: Tommy Bolin.
Note: “Transmissions from Sinai,” a 2009 compilation curated by Om’s Al Cisneros, is available now. Click here for all the details.