In conversation with Grails

Interview by Shannon Lawlor

Grails are an experimental-rock band hailing from Portland, Oregon. Initially forming as a ‘no-strings-attached’ side-project, Grails soon gained notoriety after the release of their mind-bending, introductory LP The Burden of Hope in 2003 via Neurot Recordings (Neurosis, Tribes of Neurot) and have triumphed in mystery and enlightenment ever since, releasing more aura-altering movements of sound throughout their curious career. Grails’ sound is difficult to define in one sentence – but their merging of aged, current and modernized influence leaves for an open-ended, open-minded experience to virgin ears. Whether it’s psychedelic, crushing, instrumental rock, or Eastern-inspired melodious, trance-inducing ceremonies – Grails know no boundaries.

Among the inevitable mysticism surrounding Grails, they eventually found their home at Temporary Residence Ltd, releasing their exceptionally dark, yet spirited 2007 LP, Burning Off Impurities, met with contagiously positive acclaim. There may be prolonged periods between releases, but when emergence strikes – elation ensues. In 2017, Grails released their ethereal, illuminating 9th studio album Chalice Hymnal via Temporary Residence Ltd, and have just announced a European tour including UK dates starting May 3rd; bringing their enigmatic, soul-crushing, awe-inspiring brand of art-rock across the pond!

We caught up with multi-instrumentalist Alex Hall of Grails on history, superstition and their upcoming European tour:

For anyone foreign to the Grails’ celestial mysticism, how would you personally describe the music you collectively create?

The dumbest part about being in Grails is having to describe the band to your in-laws. And not because they won’t “get it”, but because it’s a basic question that deserves an answer. I usually just say “instrumental art rock”, and then hope they don’t look it up on YouTube later.

Your latest aura-blooming LP Chalice Hymnal was released in 2017 by Temporary Residence Ltd, could you detail this presumably arduous recording process? And how did it compare to creating and producing 2011’s intoxicating Deep Politics?

Both records probably took about the same amount of time to actually make. The reason for the extra long gap was just related to other circumstances. In those years Emil [Amos] and I started another band called Lilacs & Champagne, and put out 4 releases. Zak [Riles] started another band called Watter, and had a couple of kids. Emil moved to New York and I moved to Europe. Emil was super busy with OM and Holy Sons as well. There was a period of time a few years ago when I think we all had assumed that Grails was over. But it turned out that it was really hard to just walk away from – and we realized that there was really no reason to.

Between records, what would you say are the biggest challenges to face when it comes to influence, concept and setting surrounding an album’s creation and production period?

The time in between records is actually the most fun. Sort of like an unofficial R&D phase. We just do what we do normally and buy records and consume tons of music and begin to form ideas about what the next thing will sound like.

Do you feel your relationships have evolved since the early, unpredictable and volatile stages of the band (ala Burden of Hope 2003-era)? Obviously, the lineup has changed, but “evolved” can certainly mean many things!

We’re older now, and less tolerant of bullshit! We’re 100 times more organized now than we used to be, which actually makes functioning within the band a lot less stressful and more fun as a result. Looking back, it seems unbelievable that we made it from show-to-show on tour without any major catastrophes.

And do you find yourselves comfortable within the perceived ignorance of that whole “band-as-a-product” kind of ethos – as opposed to being free from any confines of industry manipulation?

Well, the band IS a product. But it’s 100% our product. Some might view this as a feat of artistic integrity, but the truth is that we’ve just never known how to do things any differently. What may be seen as integrity is the product of our own ignorance just as much as virtue.

This one probably comes up a lot, but it is indeed a strange ordeal to have undergone: Your former violin player Timothy Horner disappeared after tour, at an airport back in 2005 only to be discovered at a homeless shelter months later. Could you give us any more insight into what happened to Timothy during his missing period? How did he end up in a shelter, and where is he now?  

That’s a story that I think we may regret telling, or ‘half-telling’, anyway. Not because we’re tired of being asked about it – but because Timothy is a person, and over time it may have been construed  as disrespectful. I have absolutely no idea where he is or what he’s been up to since that last day I saw him – but I hope he’s doing well!

Grails are set to embark on a European tour in May, visiting countries like Poland and Lithuania for the first time ever. What are you most exciting for about this tour? Any personally-set goals?

Yeah, I’m super excited about the eastern European shows! I have a huge fondness for that part of the world and the band has never played in many of these places. Much of eastern Europe just has a very deep and perceptible, soulful quality that I find intoxicating. I’m especially hoping that we have a few extra hours to hit some record stores in the Baltics – got a big wantlist of Melodiya titles from those countries in particular.

Fusing together a plethora of sounds and influences into Grail’s ferocious, yet impassioned tone – from doom-metal leanings, to Eastern-scaled world music, to deep trip-hop etc. Individually, where do you all meet on influence? Musically speaking, or otherwise.

We all come from various underground musical subcultures. So while there’s plenty of overlap in our respective tastes, it’s more of an underground mentality and ethos that we share. It’s a basic understanding that one’s spiritual needs won’t be met by superficial mainstream garbage, and that one has to dig and keep digging to find the things that inspire.

Are there any pieces of equipment, instruments, hardware, relics or anything else that you feel is absolutely essential in constructing Grails’ unique and signature tone? Any invaluable sentiments in your gear collection?

There’s an instrument called the Marxophone that has somehow made it onto almost every Grails record. It’s a hammered string instrument, sort of a cross between an autoharp and a dulcimer. Any time you hear a vaguely eastern-sounding, high-register string instrument on one of the records, that’s probably it!

Could you possibly detail the inspiration, or meaning behind the track “Silk Rd”?

It just seemed like as good a title as any for an Egyptian skate-rock tune. “Silk Road” is the name of a popular Kitaro record that you’d be likely to hear during a hot stone massage. It’s also the name of a “fancy” tea shop in most any given city in North America. We thought abbreviating Road as “Rd” was funny. Was it funny? I’m not sure…

Care to share any memorable, weird, fascinating Grails-related stories over the years whilst on your travels around the world? I know I’d love to hear them!

I’m sure that every touring band has specific cities or places that hold a special appeal, or with which they imagine some kind of connection. It’s a superstitious fascination that actually makes touring more fun! For Grails, Istanbul is definitely one of those places. And maybe Prague as well. And we used to think of Florida that way, but we scratched it off the list after the last tour. The network of spiritual centers is apparently subject to bad experiences at Red Lobster.

So, other than undeniable mysticism – what does the future hold for Grails?

We’re planning to meet in the fall at Emil’s family property in rural Georgia to start work on the next record. But beyond that, no idea!

See upcoming Grails tour poster below:

Order Chalice Hymnal by Grails

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