Chapter & Verse 1. In the beginning there was Asbestosdeath. Power-trio from
couple of singles coughed out before splitting. The rhythm section, Al Cisneros
& Chris Haikus, went on to form Sleep with likemind Matt Pike. Stoner overlords,
creator of the mighty 'Vol 1' & ' San
Jose California ' albums in the
early 90s, Sleep are a legend in sludge, perhaps the ultimate distillation of
the stoner spirit. Broken by label idiocy, Pike formed High On Fire, Haikus
& Cisneros became Holy
Mountain Om. 05's 'Variations'
and 06's 'Conference Of The Birds' suggested that the duo had finally found the
real freedom Sleep couldn't satisfy, the music some mindmelting invocation of
forces Tibetan, medieval, metal and monstrous. Yesterday, some clown gave me
Cisneros' landline. Today, I lift up the speaking device, punch a long list of
sacred numbers into it and hold my breath, trembling with anticipation as I
wait for the voice of God, or at least one of his closest confidantes, to
answer and deliver his gospel’n’testament unto my puckered ear. The earspeaker
crackles into life.
Can’t quite communicate how perfect a beginning to my chat with Al Cisneros this is – something to do with the fact that it’s 7am his-time, something to do with the almost too-perfect SoCal hippy wonderment in his fragile, high voice, a lot to do with the fact that ‘Pilgrimage’, his band’s latest opus has been eating away at my desire to speak to it’s creators every time I crank it. I mean, fuck, are you hearing this shit? “Pilgrimage” is rock unmoored from the groin, head or heart and allowed to roll on solar-winds all the way back to the birth of the cosmos: it’s guitar music freed from the harassle of focus and allowed to hum along with the dark matter of the universe, the slow-grind of tectonic movement, the distant hiss of ancient star-static. It’s ten-billion years old already and it’s gonna go on forever and I sure as fuck don’t wanna know what amp-settings they used. I mean, I don’t wanna speak to you man!
“Neither do I!” chuckles Al, when I ring back. “At the level we’re at it’d be dumb and arrogant to refuse to speak to anyone about the music but I hope to hell that no-one listening to
Om reads my words as they listen.
That would be terrible. I don’t mind talking about the band, I don’t even mind
talking about the music but all of it is kind of after the event, looking at
something from outside it. You’re stopped in your tracks and asked to make ‘sense’
of something who’s very nature makes it something IMPOSSIBLE to step outside of
and see objectively. I find it easy to do a ‘rock’n’roll’ interview about the
usual band bad habits. But to talk about the music, well, hardly anyone wants
to talk about that cos it might imply some thought, or some idea.”
Let’s give it a go. ‘Pilgrimage’ unfolds over 4 tracks of varying length. To be honest Al, I don’t know the titles and I don’t care, I listen to it in one go so it can work it’s voodoo – at no point do I feel the need to THINK, I’m simply immersed in a mammoth work I don’t wanna find my way out of.
“I have no recommendations as to how to ‘use’ Pilgrimage. But I do find it’s an album that reveals things when you listen to it quietly. On your own, in the morning, when no-one else in the house is awake. PLAY QUIET should’ve been emblazoned on the sleeve.”
Interesting – why quiet when your band is so associated with extreme volume?
“It seeps in that way. It doesn’t fend you off or engulf you. It kind of creeps into your consciousness in lots of ways. I’m not saying that’s the only way to hear it, but it’s one of the more interesting.”
How traumatic was emerging from the making of 'Pilgrimage' and returning to day-to-day life: it sounds like it was created in nigh-on hermetic isolation, free of cares, clocks and concerns.
“Not true. This is something I want to emphasise. We don't retreat into a different mental state when we record. Recording is part of a process that includes rehearsal, playing live, working songs out but to pick out the recording end of it as separate doesn't really capture what it is – it's all part of the same Om continuum, the rolling constant activity that being in this band is.”
So the intricacy and precision of 'Pilgrimage' IS painstakingly planned then – we're not just eavesdropping on the band, we're hearing the result of a long period of paring-down and perfection.
“No, that's precisely what it isn't. It's not a 'long' process cos that implies it has a beginning and an end. It still goes on. I think you need to realise that.
Om as a band don't 'create' as such. We're simply ciphers
for what's already there.”
So you're not the songwriters?
“No. The songs are already there and they've been there forever and it's simply allowing yourself to be open enough to pick up on them. To us, whether we fit as jazz or blues or metal or classical or whatever doesn't matter. These songs have been in the air since the dawn of time and we're just channels for them, for that energy.”
And that high, wavering tone of Al never sounds more convinced – s'a voice you can scarcely credit as being from this age, so pristinely piped in from the late 60s does it sound. Al speaks of music with a sense of wide-eyed wonderment you wouldn't expect from someone so long in the game, let alone someone burned so badly by the blundering buffoonery of the biz. But before you smartarses write Cisneros' mystical communion with
Om's music off as so much beach-bum blather actually
LISTEN to 'Pilgrimage'. No move for it's half-hour duration seems 'contrived'
as such, rather it really does seem like these songs exist as natural entities,
with all the dreamlike unselfconsciousness of natural life – parts of
'Pilgrimage’s title track emanate from your speakers as free as breathing. This
isn't a play between improv and accident, and anything as violently penetrative
as ‘vision’ or ‘ideas’ barely come into it – rather you get the real feeling
that this is music seemingly conjured from the ether, tapped from a source
without any place/space/time other than everywhere/anywhere/always.
“Our music isn't about finding the 'right' anything – the right riff, the right sound, the right space. Mentally, spiritually, and hence musically we're constantly tapped into the music that already exists, so that constant battle between thinking and instinct that making music is with most bands simply isn't an issue for us. We decided from the beginning with
Om that as
soon as it feels like we're the big commanding authors of our sound, then we
weren't getting it right. 'Pilgrimage', like everything we do, is an attempt to
annihilate our egos.”
When you're recording is your mind elementally empty or dazzlingly FULL.
“Both, but it's not just the mind, it's the body and the soul and the whole being that gets taken by this music – live is where we feel most at one with the music and the universe because it's instant, there's no time for your mind to get in the way. But 'Pilgrimage' isn't saying that you've got to concentrate on your spiritual side. It's saying THERE IS ONLY ONE SIDE. And all is spirit.”
Tryina think about what other musician could’ve said that to me. If they weren’t dead I’d say Alice Coltrane, James Brown, Bismillah Kahn. Certainly not anyone you’d consider peers of Om, although in a weird way Om are redolent of a fusion between spirituality and music from a different age, the kind of elemental interplay that usually only happens when your religious and musical education are simultaneous, like it was with blues, plainsong, raga and gospel. Bismillah Kahn learned music in mosques and temples. What’s your excuse?
“Well you couldn’t exactly call Sleep a religious upbringing but at the same time – me and Chris have always been trying to tap into something bigger than just scenes and habits. Being in a traditional ‘band’ can kind of distract you from the point of making music in the first place. I see what we do as tapping into a sacred vibration; music is a medium of holy exploration and a journey to other planes of existence. You learn about yourself and the universe through music. Since the beginning the universe has been based on vibrations of sound and light and energy so for us to step out of the materialist cycle and work through the form of music is essential – I can’t stress enough though how this isn’t some godlike act of creation – we’re simply attuning ourselves to the background, trying to approach the centre of things. To me, music is THE sacred world science, and everywhere you look, everywhere you hear, you can hear that strain for transcendence going on.”
Is your wariness of the auteur theory of rock’n’roll informed by what happened with Sleep?
“Me and Chris can’t change the way we play together – you’re always gonna be compared to previous bands because you share that history and that exploration. But I think now, we’re aware of the immortal nature of music, the way it simply doesn’t matter who buys or tries or joins you on your musical journey – Om music knows it’s contribution to the universe rather than being so concerned with what it’s doing today, this month, this year. ‘Pilgrimage’ is out now, is part of the energy of the universe. I don’t feel relieved, happy or even anywhere near creatively spent –
Om goes on every second of
our lives. We’re already making a ton of new music. The day I wake up and don’t
hear music constantly going on in my head is the day I die.”
A long road already travelled & eternity to play with. Zero in and join the march inward.