Om's Al Cisneros blazes his way through sonic archaeology
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In the history of stoner metal, there has never been a lyric more thoroughly crucial than “Drop out of life with bong in hand / follow the smoke to the riff-filled land” from the title track on Dopesmoker, the third and final studio album by the seminal stoner-metal band Sleep. The man responsible for the lyrics was bassist-vocalist Al Cisneros, who currently fronts the bass-drum duo Om. He began his music career as a founding member of Asbestosdeath, a metal-punk band that evolved into Sleep in the early 1990s. Sleep—which also included former Asbestosdeath members Matt Pike and Chris Hakius—recorded a trio of essential Black Sabbath-influenced records. But after the band spent nearly two years working on Dopesmoker, Sleep’s major-label follow-up to 1993's Sleep’s Holy Mountain, its label, London Records, refused to release the hour-plus, single-track album. Sleep broke up amidst the turmoil in 1998; Pike then started the heavy-metal band High On Fire and Cisneros took a hiatus from music until late 2002, when he said “the music [had] reached an intensity where it had to be externalized.” He reunited with Sleep drummer Hakius in 2003 to form Om; the band has since released four full-length LPs and two splits, one with Six Organs Of Admittance and the other with legendary experimental band Current 93. Its latest, and first studio album with new drummer Emil Amos of the band Grails, 2009’s God Is Good, further explores Om’s cosmic, slow-building song architecture. Prior to Om's show tonight at DC9, Cisneros spoke with The A.V. Club about Om’s new record, his newest band Shrinebuilder, and sonic archaeology.
The A.V. Club: Coming from Sleep, how do you feel about the current influx of bands playing “stoner-metal,” a genre you helped invent?
Al Cisneros: I don’t really feel one way or other about it. If it's actually people smoking and finding riffs through research, then that should in some way always reflect [Black Sabbath guitarist Tony] Iommi’s early treatise… but in a lot of "stoner rock," people take one pipe hit and get all paranoid. I dunno how stoner that is. [Laughs.] The chairs are occupied by Iommi, Butler, Ward, and Osbourne. That’s where Sleep learned. The first four Sabbath albums were university.
AVC: Sleep recently reunited at All Tomorrow's Parties. Is that the last we’ll see of that band?
AC: The two shows provided some much needed closure after Sleep disbanded on London after how much work we did on [Dopesmoker]. It provided some healing—it was fun to play the old songs together. There was still a lot of love there. Those are my brothers.
AVC: Since Dopesmoker, your records seem to stray from the normal 10- to 12-song albums to records filled with fewer, longer songs. How conscious is this decision?
AC: It’s not conscious—the song always tells us how long the song is. Its essential to listen to the inner song. Of course the outer one forms itself. Those things happen, where the riffs wanna land when they come to the ground or how long they sustain. That’s all there and when one is really open to the music, it will tell you. It’s the only way that it works.
AVC: Comparisons have been made between Om’s music and Tibetan Chant music. Is this a big influence on you?
AC: I believe the similarity is in the percussive, metered monotone rhythm the vocals take on. But I haven’t listened to much Tibetan Chant—the music is from an internal source point. It's an expression of how I see things, of what I hear inside.
AVC: What was it like recording a live album in Jerusalem? How did that come about?
AC: We had an opportunity, a promoter contacted us and facilitated in getting us out there. It was one of, if not the most memorable show thus far. We went to the Western Wall on the second day of Hanukkah in 2007. We spent the night prior to the show walking around the Old City. You could feel the vibrations in the air. It was overwhelming. On the actual day of show we were able to visit Golgotha. That experience put me into a completely different space. Our set started at 9 p.m. and ended around 3 a.m, but it didn’t feel like that much time went by. It was kinda like a personal experience of relativity. It seemed as if only 45 minutes went by. The audience was with us at every note. We all cried together. I will always remember Jerusalem.
AVC: Any plans of going back?
AC: I’d like to. We’ve talked about it but nothing is scheduled right now.
AVC: What happened with Chris Hakius, your fellow ex-Sleep rhythm section member who continued with you in Om until recently?
AC: He mentioned that his heart wasn’t in it any longer and out of respect for the music he wanted to step down and I respect that. We still talk and are still friends. He’s since basically retired from playing—he’s onto a different phase. For me there is no end to the song. No option.
AVC: So you’ll keep playing until you cant play anymore?
AC: It couldn’t be any other way.
AC: Wino [Scott Weinrich] called me up about three and a half or four years ago, and wanted to do a band together. I hadn’t played with a guitarist since Sleep, but it was certainly an exception to the rule to be able to work with him. We sent each other riffs, talked about the song ideas. After some time I suggested we bring in Scott Kelly. The three of us continued writing; at that time we had “Solar Benediction” and “The Architect.” In January of 2008 Chris left Shrinebuilder as well as Om, so Wino, Kelly, and myself began to look for a drummer. I called Dale [Crover], went down to L.A. and he and I jammed all the material we had thus far. The parts became songs and the band’s sound immediately took shape. We all continued writing and rehearsing, all four of us knew we had something special. We’re already writing new material for a second album.
AVC: How did you hook up with Om's new drummer, Emil?
AC: He and I met on the first Om/Grails tour a few years back. We just really connected, speaking a rhythmic language, talking about music and life. When Chris stepped out, I called him up. We started to work together—it was immediately conducive. Emil’s playing style is very energetic and lyrical, permitting a real dialogue between the instruments, which is the very premise of a rhythm section. His style has also freed the pocket to flow, to groove. I’m really happy with the new album.
AVC: How was writing and recording God Is Good different because of Emil’s involvement with Om for the first time?
AC: Emil and I are both songwriters, and we’re in tune to the same sorts of nuances. We both readily intuit what sounds right —why a part works, or conversely why a riff, break, or melody needs more attention. We easily and readily understand the ideas of each other. This facilitates rapid development of songs. We’ve both spent our lives hearing, listening, and creating music, and that combined with the understanding and communication exteriorizes the music in such a way that the outer, externalized song accurately reflects the internal song within. There were some times in the past with Chris where the finished outer work did not accurately reflect the inner sound that motivated it. That becomes difficult because you can’t carry the music, it’s supposed to pass through like a current through a wire.
AVC: Do you feel like you’ve finally arrived at your musical destination, as if your previous records were part of the journey?
AC: Yes and no. Even now it’s part of that journey. The process continually unveils new ground. The records are sonic reports of where one is in that journey at that time.
AVC: That sounds exciting.
AC: I’m very excited. Om has started working on material for a fifth LP. I know God Is Good just came out, but that’s the way it is. The songs never stop. Based on that there’s lots of forward energy. It’s a good time right now.
AVC: You’re working on the next record already?
AC: We’ve already got things going toward it. We’re just in the writing phase—I often compare it to sonic archaeology. We’re already uncovering new relics. The songs have always been there and always will be; the musician uncovers them. They didn’t make them. They were there pre-existing in the universe already. That’s why it resonates in the common heart.
AVC: Have you always felt that way?
AC: I have always felt that way, definitely. Yeah. Most certainly. I compare it to sonic archaeology [Laughs.] It's kinda like that.