When Om’s Al Cisneros isn’t playing bass guitar, he’s been known to teach chess. “They are complementary to each other and say the same thing in my heart,” he says. “They uncover the same things to me. In a lot of ways, practicing one is practicing the other. I’ve never really thought about it before, but I don’t usually pick up the bass until I have something, the same way you wouldn’t pick up a chess piece until you have a move.”
Cisneros has been a prominent figure in underground metal for years, but his gentle, unassuming demeanor is a far cry from what many would expect from a musician associated with what is typified as an aggressive, macho genre.
Om, the intense, hypnotic bass-and-drum duo that he founded with drummer Chris Haikus in 2003, has been reinventing the way that many people perceive heavy music. Its songs are cerebral but accessible, spiritual but unreligious. Om’s music could be used to excite the apathetic as much as it could serve as a meditative soundtrack for the hyperactive.
In a live setting, Om takes on another dimension. The walls rattle under the colossal vibrations from Cisneros’ bass cabinets, fuelled by his carefully selected custom amps; the huge, warm sounds that come out of them seem to enter the body, resulting in a feel that is like being caught in the eye of a storm.
“I feel really safe sometimes, if that’s the right word, when the speakers [fuzz out] like that,” Cisneros says. “Descriptions [of music] can be stereotypes. It’s very peaceful.”
When Haikus amicably left the band in the spring of 2008, Cisneros sought out Grails drummer and Holy Sons mastermind Emil Amos to take his place. Things have been good ever since, as the title of Om’s fourth studio album and first featuring Amos on drums, God is Good (Drag City), suggests.
“It’s just true,” Cisneros says of the title, which, true to form, decontextualizes religious iconography from its traditional meanings. “We’re in the journey right now, and we wanted to sing about it. It’s the word symbol we came up with. You can’t explain it. The more you try with words, the more you try to explain what it means.” As each word passes, Cisneros sounds vaguely frustrated at trying to communicate such esoteric thoughts out loud. “You can feel it,” he continues. “Everyone can feel it.”
Amos is more direct about the title. “It makes me think of a really hellish LSD trip,” he says, “where at the end of the whole thing, you meet this sobbing resolution that things actually are okay—the fact that you know, in some Jungian sense or in a Carl Sagan book, [that] the creation of this universe came from the first moment of good winning over evil.”
Cisneros began exploring the depths of heavy metal as a teenager in the late ’80s, when he and Haikus formed punk/metal hybrid Asbestosdeath. The band added second guitarist Matt Pike (now guitarist/frontman of High on Fire) and by the early 1990s morphed into Sleep—a riff-brandishing psychedelic power trio, a band that owed more to the bluesy grooves of Black Sabbath and Pentagram yet whose sound was filtered through a set of musicians that had also been exposed to Bay Area hardcore and thrash.
“We all dropped out of high school—I think every one of us,” Cisneros recalls. “We were all having hard times, and we were friends through music.” For the young friends, music became more than just a hobby. “[It was] our lifeline,” he corrects. “I wouldn’t have made it through those times without it.”
Sleep grew a following, and with the release of its second album, Sleep’s Holy Mountain, many believed that it had the potential to cross into the mainstream. The band signed with London Records to release its third album, tentatively titled Dopesmoker, a single, hour-long epic song that had taken the band years to perfect.
The label, rather than appreciating what it had, saw it as “noncommercial” and toyed with remixing it and dividing the song into pieces. The band was horrified and eventually broke up under the strain, but the album later surfaced as the segmented Jerusalem on Rise Above Records, and eventually, an unabridged version of Dopesmoker was released on Tee Pee.
Sleep left a legacy not only because of its primal, heavy sounds that have influenced others, but also because of its unwavering commitment to its vision of its art, no matter what the stakes.
In the aftermath of Sleep, Cisneros stopped playing music for seven years. “I just took the time to go back to school—and live, really,” he says. “I didn’t want people to tell me that I had to do Sleep. I wanted to know what I wanted and what was right to me.
“I used that time to find it and to cultivate it. In finding that, the songs that I had already been hearing were able to be treated with the respect that they deserved, and I was able to document the ones that really stuck with me. It was time to play; I needed to heal, though, first. When Sleep had broken up, I felt like I had died. It meant so much to me. It meant my entire life. When it went the way it did…I never knew that there would be a return to playing.”
As the songs began to accumulate, Cisneros called Haikus, and the two teamed up as Om. “From that point forward, we were going to do it,” he says. “It was like being able to live over again with a different appreciation, being able to be connected.” Beginning with 2005 experimental album Variations on a Theme through the awe-inspiring Pilgrimage (Southern Lord) in 2007, Om impressed listeners with the intense yet organic feel of its music.
It bucked convention with minimal, droning sounds that were punctuated by Cisneros’ staccato, mantra-like vocals in pieces that could last upwards of twenty minutes. “It is all about the feel and the duration of the art, how it needs to be, and the distance it needs to be,” Cisneros says. “I’d be fighting myself thinking about wanting to write a song a certain length.”
That same intuition on which Cisneros relies for writing music came into play when he asked Amos to join his band. The two had recently met when Om and Grails played a short string of shows together, but otherwise they were virtual strangers.
“We knew only enough about each other that we knew that we got along,” Amos says. “We knew that we both worshipped [prolific jazz and fusion drummer] Billy Cobham, Pink Floyd, and dub. We had some heated late-night discussions [about music], and that was about it.”
Amos, as one might imagine, was caught off guard. “I didn’t know what to say,” he recalls. “My life was in disarray at the time.”
A grueling schedule of music and production projects had left him burned out and reevaluating his way of life. “I became a machine,” he says. “I gave myself to music completely for the first time. I’d avoided it my whole life; I never wanted to make it a job.” To cap it off, “I had gotten out of an eight-year relationship, and the girl left the country on the day that Al called me. My life completely changed in one category, and literally a couple of hours later he called me. My head turned from one reality to another reality.”
With that, Amos joined, and Cisneros’ instinct proved to be dead on. In preparation for a European tour, Cisneros flew from his California home to Portland, where he and Amos spent two days practicing before recording their first piece of music together, the Gebel Barkel 7” (Sub Pop), which cemented a new era for the band. “It’s pretty unreal for a band to assume that they could form like that,” Amos says, “and record their debut two days later and expect that it will be fine. And we did that.”
With the addition of Amos, Om has not done away with its signature style, but both fans and critics have recognized a distinct freshness to the duo’s performance (illustrated on Live Conference, a live rendition of Conference of the Birds [Important Records, 2009]), a reflection of the energy that transpires between the two musicians.
Amos, who cut his teeth on hardcore growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina before branching into more worldly styles, describes the lineup (“crudely,” he admits) as “a hardcore kid and a metal kid coming together,” noting that their musical partnership has opened the gates for what has become a unique friendship. “We’ve needed each other on a level that we couldn’t have seen,” he says. “There are an odd number of coincidences of how we think. We just flow so well; the whole thing has this serendipitous, odd synchronicity to it. The way we came together just worked.”
The two share a similar aesthetic that goes beyond the actual craft of making music. “I look at music as a very serious form of spiritual discipline,” Amos says. “It’s the same thing for Al. The artistic template is the way to pursue your own sanity. … It’s not like a job, but it is a format in which to live. It’s a spiritual work. Work is sort of all we have as humans. We apply ourselves for life as making music, and that keeps us happy. Without that, we would be lethargic and confused. It’s a form of finding yourself and a strata of values within the world.”
“The music happens because it has to, and that’s essential,” Cisneros says. “It can’t be forced at all, or it’s not worth participating in. I’ve seen people sit at a guitar for ten hours, and it’s like, ‘Dude, water’s not going to come out of your rock.’ I don’t even understand it—does that person have to play? If they’re going through all of that, what’s the whole idea?”
Continuing, he muses, “Songwriting seems to be more of a job as an editor rather than a writer. It’s more a process of negotiation and building and learning what not to do. When you have a part that seems right in your heart, you ask yourself, ‘How do I stay there? How do I not go away from that?’”
With Amos, Cisneros stays right in the thick of it. He describes their creative output as a flood, with parts of God is Good coming so suddenly that “We’d record it on our cell phones just so we could have it documented.”
The album, recorded with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio studios in Chicago, showcases Om’s penchant for creating music that is as genuinely emotive as it is heavy, best illustrated on opening number “Thebes,” which begins serenely, building into a rollicking thunder before coming down again.
And though the core of the duo remains the focal point, subsequent tracks weave in other sounds and moods, such as the rhythmic handclaps leading the way on “Cremation Ghat Pt. 1.” (it’s actually danceable) and the help of friends such as flutist Lorraine Rath and Lichens / 90 Day Men member Rob Lowe on tamboura at key points throughout the album. “It’ll always be the bass and drum, but we’ve been using different instruments to lead the songs,” Amos says. “It’s important for the trajectory of where the records are going to find new ways to say things. Live, we haven’t worked [it] out…the band will always be the two guys.”
Designed by Grails’ Alex Hall, the album’s cover art depicts a gold-leaf halo-adorned angel against a stark black backdrop, echoing the softer but nearly identical imagery of Pilgrimage. And like the art, God is Good represents another step in the journey for Om—a heightened sense of focus and wellbeing that doesn’t lose sight of the original goal.
Likewise, this newfound positive energy has given way to a tidal wave of new music that extends outside of the band as well. In January 2009, Cisneros joined Scott “Wino” Weinrich, Neurosis’ Scott Kelley, and Melvins’ Dale Crover in a “masters of underground rock” super-group, Shrinebuilder, whose upcoming self-titled album has been touted as one of the most anticipated heavy albums of the year.
In May, he joined former Sleep bandmates at All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival in the UK for a highly anticipated reunion that marked the first time the legendary trio had performed together since it disbanded more than a decade ago. Amos has been busy as well; among other projects, he has edited and produced Grails’ Acid Rain DVD (Temporary Residence), released Holy Sons’ sixth full-length, Drifters Sympathy (Important), and begun work on yet another Grails album.
This multitude of other projects has served to heighten the duo’s enthusiasm for Om. “One of the things that we’ve been able to do is to start using more areas of the canvas,” Cisneros says, hinting that the best is yet to come. “It has deepened what preexisted, and it has opened what was once contained. It has let in light and energy, and I am totally, totally thankful. The rate that Emil and I work…there is a lot there. We’re so excited with the outcome [of the new albums], but it’s really just beginning.”
Quoting another prominent figure in the genre, Amos concludes, “Dylan Carlson from Earth said it well: ‘I don’t want to make more noise. The world is noisy enough.’ Al and I are trying to create a cohesive sum of what we’ve learned, rather than just noise pollution.”