Pub date September 23, 2009
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer


SONIC REDUCER God Is Good, the name of Om’s new long-player on Drag City, may run the risk of landing the heavy, heavy drone dealers in the gospel section of your clueless big-box retailer, but founder-bassist Al Cisneros couldn’t help the tug of title: "To me, at this point, in the journey of my life, that’s really all I can say."

The soft-spoken, spectacled musician, all in black with his instrument tucked beside him, laughs a little — and who can blame him? The longtime Bay Area fixture has been tackling some major changes in the past year. I almost don’t recognize him, now shorn of his long, black tresses, amid the bustling throng and espresso-machine groan of Muddy Waters at 16th and Valencia streets. He waves goodbye to his wife, whom he followed last year to San Luis Obispo, close to where she’s attending graduate school. In ’08 he also said farewell to the drummer he’s played with since high school, Chris Haikus, who quit in the middle of the last Om tour and retired from music. And after our chat, Cisneros will drive up to Portland, Ore., a commute he now makes regularly in order to practice with Om’s new drummer Emil Amos. Cisneros, who, with Hakius, once made up two-thirds of the legendary doom/stoner metal trio Sleep, is fully awake and in motion — and everything appears to be falling effortlessly into place.

"I have to keep playing," he explains. "I have music all the time, and it has to come out." To that end, Amos, who’s also in Grails, slipped into the drummer’s seat perfectly. "His playing style spoke my language directly when I first saw him playing drums," Cisneros murmurs. "The specific lyricism that he puts into his drumming, aside from the flow itself — which is beautiful. It was absolutely what I’d hear inside in many riffs and many parts I have, the complement of what I hear. There are certain fills, the way he’ll sit in a beat, the way he’ll be with a beat — it felt so familiar."

So he called up Amos on the chance that he would be able to work on a scheduled Sub Pop single. The two had already bonded during late-night rock-philosophy jam sessions while Om and the Grails were on tour a few years ago. After each show, Cisneros, Amos, and Hakius would hang out and analyze everything from dub to Billy Cobham — "the extremely nerdy academic aspects of the records we grew up with," the amicable Amos recalls by phone, taking a break from his day job at a Portland homeless shelter. "We’d get into philosophical debates, almost Platonic dissections of, when a verse ends and you go into chorus, what do you do on drums in this specific situation, in 1971? It was just this weird way of talking about music as a metaphor for spiritual education. We’re obsessed to that level. I think Al’s brain just thought, who can I trust?"

Remarkably, Cisneros — a man who has a Sanskrit passage from the Bhagavad-Gita tattooed on the left hand he uses for fingering — was right on, and though the two had never played together, a three-day rehearsal in Amos’ basement yielded the 7-inch. The Steve Albini-recorded God bears out the partnership, picking up the tempo, folding in tamboura and flute, and coming close to realizing the sounds in Cisneros’ head — the only other instance, he says, occurred with Sleep’s Holy Mountain (Earache, 1993), and "in the best way, we didn’t know what we were doing. It happened to us." Still, he offers, chuckling, "I don’t want to be in Sleep for the rest of my life."

For metal monks, as well as spiritual disciples of any order, the key is to focus on the practice — not fixate on whether or not Amos has a beard, a discussion the drummer says he’s found on some online forums. "I’ve never seen another band that gets so much attention about changing one bass guitar pedal or overdubbing one extra tambourine," Amos observes. "Nobody would say anything if Men at Work switched out a bass, but in this band, there’s the sense of trust between an artist and audience. It’s a delicate thing."

And it sounds like Cisneros has found an understanding new foil in his ever-evolving dialogue. "It’s a joy to work with Emil," he says softly. "The interplay between the instruments — the very premise of having a duo is to have a conversation between the instruments, and it literally happens nonstop when we play."


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