Grails Interview: “The Cinema of The Mind”

The ever-exciting, genre-escaping, mind-bending cult music heroes Grails released their latest record Anches en Maat last year, and it was a great comeback that seemingly received universal acclaim. Months later, we talked to the guitarist Alex Hall to catch up and talk about the band, music gear, dreams, Istanbul, and more.

How was 2023 for you? 

Musically, it was thrilling. We played the first Grails show since before COVID. We all flew from where we live to Portland in order to rehearse for a week and play a little festival show. It was the first I had seen a couple of guys in the band in years. I think everyone was a little bit nervous about how it was going to go after such a long break. We had all been in touch a lot in those years, group textings and all that, but still a bit anxious about how easy it would be to jump in again. But we did jump in, and it was fantastic. And then we did the first tour since 2019 in October in Europe, and I can’t really express how rewarding that was. Then we released the new record, and we were really pleased with how that was received. It has just been a great year.

In another interview you made in 2018, you say that “there was a period a few years ago when you all had assumed that Grails was over. But it turned out that it was really hard to just walk away from.” 

I feel like we said that a few times. (laughs) Maybe that’s just a healthy way for a band to exist, you know? We have never had a careerist sort of attitude about it. The only reason to do it is that it feels fresh and very much alive to us. As long as Grails continues being that, we’ll keep on doing it.

Anches en Maat is your first studio album since then, and we all lived through that pandemic era and went through stuff. What made Grails harder to walk away from this time around? 

We weren’t at first very sure that we were going to tour the record. When we finished the record, we were really happy about it, but we didn’t really know if that was something we wanted to do anymore. We are in our forties now, and I know that is not a super old age, but we’ve been doing this for a really long time and it’s just hard work. I don’t need to complain about our profile and where we exist in the music world, because we’re very satisfied with it. But in order to play big shows like in Berlin, London, or New York, you also have to do smaller shows. Financially it is demanding, and you are far away from home. We weren’t really sure if that was something we wanted to do anymore. But then we got together back in the summer. For me personally, I was motivated by the thought of “I missed these guys!” We have such a great time together. Everyone was just excited to see each other and the music flowed naturally from that.

We started this record at the end of the last East Coast/US tour. We played the last show in Atlanta, Georgia. Then we headed to a friend’s studio to record all of the basic tracks. We were really excited about those and then the pandemic happened and, probably like everyone else during that period, our motivation fell off. I heard the same thing from a lot of other musicians and bands. It was really hard to find the energy to work during that time. The world seemingly stopped moving for a couple of years, so it took a long time to finish the record. But we are actually starting on a new record right now. Because we have been so hyped about how this one was received. It’s been really exciting for us.

Your music often sets abstract images in my head, and that was no different for Anches en Maat. And for the field of instrumental music in general, I find it liberating that there are no words to limit what the song might be about with concrete words. And lately, I have been thinking a lot about something a friend of mine said: “Words kill the purity of thoughts.” How do you feel about this quote?

Yeah, I think that’s right. As Grails, we always make the music that we want to hear. Personally, I always approach Grails as a listener. I want it to be the music that I wish other people were making. There’s this thing that we want to hear, and no one else is doing it, so we have to do it ourselves, I guess. That doesn’t really answer your question about words and thoughts, but the music we want to hear is this immersive, active listening experience. I don’t mean to use words like ‘trippy’ or other pedestrian descriptors of psychedelic music. But it is a transformative experience, and hopefully it is that way with others as well. It sort of becomes the cinema of the mind.

Do you often see vivid dreams?

It’s funny, I was just talking to my wife about dreams. We discussed our dreams just yesterday morning over coffee. ı don’t really have an active dream life, and I don’t know how this relates to the music, but dreams are basically the place where I actually get a peek around the curtain. I realize there are these narrative threads that I confront in my dreams, and some of those, as it turns out, have been around for years. Your brain has this separate life, and you only get a glimpse of it from time to time. That is the reason why David Lynch’s films are so powerful. Maybe that comes from his TM practice or something, but he has such a grasp of the subconscious. He understands it and portrays it in the film better than anyone. Hopefully, Grails will have that same effect. That would be fantastic. That’s the best way that I could describe it. 

I have a feeling that David Lynch would love Grails if he ever listened to you.

That would be the ultimate compliment. That would be fantastic. I have to admit, I was a bit jealous when I saw the band Chromatics on Twin Peaks: The Return. They are good friends of us who are also from Portland. Fantastic for them, what an amazing experience it must have been to make that appearance.

What is a Marxophone, and how has it become such a strong presence in your music?

That’s such a cool instrument, and one we haven’t used in such a long time. It’s actually an American instrument. None of us have actually owned one, it was just this instrument that was in the studio of mixing engineer Jeff Saltzman, who mixed three or four of our records, or at least big chunks of them. It’s this medieval, stringed instrument, with these hammers that are played with a keyboard. It could easily be an instrument from any culture or place.

What is the strangest instrument on your collection, do you think?

I don’t have that many instruments right now. I sold almost everything that I owned when I moved to Europe six or seven years ago. I only kept some of the basic essentials: A couple of synthesizers, some guitars, stuff like that. I’m also not really a collector in that way. Sorry, that’s a really boring answer. (both laugh) I used to have a lot of stuff lying around, but everything had to go.

Does the same answer apply to your guitar pedals?

I can talk about guitar pedals, though my answer could offend you if you are into guitar gear. During the pandemic, I actually had a lot of pedals, but I sold all of them, just out of boredom. I remember playing a show one time. I looked down and realized I hated guitar pedals. Again, this is going to be a very offensive answer, but I just think they are ridiculous! They are great to have in a studio if you are a cork-sniffing tone connoisseur. They can lead to a nice time in the studio and be fun to mess around with, but while playing live, nobody can hear the difference. Nobody cares! You have all these boards with Velcro… Why would you want to have something on stage that has 40 cables? It’s just so stupid. And a lot of the stuff that comes on a pedal board is digital anyway. It’s not like I had an analog-purist sort of circuit that I was running. So I sold all of my pedals and got a multi-effects processor, which I love, an FM3. That’s the only pedal I have right now. It makes live performances so much better.

I love that answer because I’ll probably never hear it again from another guitarist.

(laughs) It always becomes sort of a joke for bands who play in small venues to walk in with a pedal the size of a football pitch. For bands who tour and fly often, we need to travel cheaply. We can’t afford to be packing four or five gear cases in a flight. It’s about making the travel as light as possible as well.

If you want to look deeply into the gears of musicians, there’s this YouTube video series I really like watching, called Rig Rundown. One of the more recent videos hosts Kurt Ballou from Converge. He’s using a processor like me, although a different one. He says a lot of things in that episode that I think make total sense. “Nobody can hear the difference.” He also rejects the idea that everything you do has to be the best. It doesn’t matter in a show. What matters is the performance, the energy, the vibe. You don’t need to have the best gear possible onstage with you in order to play a good show. He’s coming from the same place with gear as I do.

I remember playing a show one time. I looked down and realized I hated guitar pedals. Again, this is going to be a very offensive answer, but I just think they are ridiculous! They are great to have in a studio if you are a cork-sniffing tone connoisseur. They can lead to a nice time in the studio and be fun to mess around with, but while playing live, nobody can hear the difference. Nobody cares!

Alex Hall

What are some of your favorite soundtracks?

Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood score was just fantastic. I also loved the score for Year of the Dog. For this last tour, we had the Klute soundtrack on our playlist. Another favorite is Morricone’s Revolver. I was a little angry when Tarantino used one of the pieces from that in Inglorious Basterds, even though I love the film. He used this little piece called “Un amico” in this super dramatic scene. It was one of my favorite soundtracks, so when I heard it in the film, I was just like, “Oh, you bastard! You stole it!” It at least shows what a good taste he has, I guess. There will probably be more Morricones that I will mention if I go on. Le Professionel’s “Chi mai”, for instance, is just great. Those are the ones that come to the top of my head.

Do you actively listen to Turkish music? And what do you remember about your Istanbul concerts?

Yeah, I love Turkish music. There are Turkish records in my collection that I occasionally listen to, then put aside, and then come back again later. I have been to Istanbul a few more times outside of playing concerts. I would say it is probably my favorite city. I love Istanbul. The last time I was there was two years ago, and it was the first place I flew to after the pandemic started. I’ve visited that record festival in Kadıkoy taking place in September a couple of times. My good friend Emek Can Tülüş, who ran the record shop Zoltan Records, would be there too. I love him. In fact, I have his art hanging in my living room. I would love to go back, and each time I go back, I come back home with another stack of 45s and other new things I discovered. I have a feeling that it will be a life-long love affair.

I wish we could play there again. During the last tour, we were really hoping something could work out, but as it turns out, that’s a little bit difficult these days. I don’t have all the details from the booking agent, but I have heard it is unfortunately a difficult place to put on concerts. We are playing Athens in April, and we were eager to add Istanbul around that, but that just didn’t happen. I hope it is possible later, but if not, I’ll just have to come back and hang around by myself.

What do you think is the strangest, most out-of-reach genre definition you heard about your music so far?

That’s a good question, and it’s kind of hard to answer. I’ve seen other people talk about it on social media threads, and back when the record was released, Emil and I did this Reddit “Ask Me Anything”, where people were asking us similar questions, especially about the post-rock term, and it’s still mysterious as to why people continue to use that definition. It doesn’t sound like that to me. Another person included our last album in the “2023 Psych Rock Overview” list. I was like, “Really? Okay.” 

But that’s just a long way to say that it’s all okay. Whatever people choose to describe it as, if you set out to make genreless music, it’s something that could happen. If a friend of my mother-in-law’s asks me what kind of music I make, I don’t know how to answer it. You can’t get frustrated with someone else if they have the same problem. Whatever attempt people want to take, it’s fine.

You can check out Grails’ official Bandcamp profile here.