Emil Amos :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

By his own admission Emil Amos is a workaholic. Holy Sons, his singer-songwriter project that has been active since the late nineties, boasts a bottomless catalogue that runs the gamut from drug-damaged lo-fi artifacts to lush and ambitious records like his last, 2020’s Raw and Disfigured. Then there’s the primeval psychedelia of Grails. The cinematic, sample-heavy Lilacs and Champagne, a project that feels equally indebted to DJ Shadow as it is to Pink Floyd’s soundtrack for the 1969 film More. The scorched earth sludge of legendary Sleep-offshoot Om. But one of the most rewarding and enthralling projects of Emil’s prolific career is Drifter’s Sympathy, the deeply personal podcast he launched in 2016 that documents his youth in Chapel Hill, NC where he rubbed shoulders with giants of the underground, first experimented with drugs and came of age under the tutelage of a local acid-casualty turned guru. It’s one of the few podcasts that could accurately be deemed a piece of art.

Along with the narrative episodes there are also a batch of installments each season dedicated to the artifacts and progenitors of the outsider musical lineage that Amos is so indebted to: rare soundtracks, Del Shannon, Laurence Vanay, Sun City Girls, R. Stevie Moore and his fellow-travelers in the home recording underworld. It’s only appropriate that Emil feels a connection to these outsiders as he is himself wildly underrated in his time, toiling away in the shadows of the music industry and churning out some of the most inspired and original work around. We recently caught up with Amos to discuss Neil Young, Wu Tang, the upcoming season of Drifter’s Sympathy, the vinyl manufacturing crises and the shadowy history of his father’s friendship with David Crosby. | m allan

Aquarium Drunkard: In the early 2010s I was attending Hampshire College up in Western Massachusetts and my best friend Brennan was a huge Holy Sons fan and turned me on to your records. We really bonded over the music but also the void you seemed to fill in the culture. You’d do interviews and go on other people’s podcasts and talk about the bleak realities of being an artist. When did you start to realize that you wanted to play an active role in telling your own story with something like Drifter’s Sympathy?

Emil Amos: It started back in the early 90s… living in my own little cave and watching bands like Sebadoh and Pavement guide our little culture; always dreaming of being part of that dialogue as a kid. Messy, lawless art rock looked like this totally viable world you could inhabit if you just brought some good ideas. But then when we got out of high school, it seemed like the other kids went off and followed their dreams while I ended up sinking into a very serious depression and disappearing instead. I couldn’t imagine myself as any kind of ‘entertainer’ and pulled away from the entire communion of underground culture. Recording as a daily ritual was the place I ended up being more comfortable, sort of patching myself back together. Then almost 10 years later when I got to Portland, it didn’t really matter how little I wanted to get on stage anymore. It was more of a life or death situation to just try and get the music out of my closet and into the world. But by then, the style of music I was generally categorized within had become extremely unfashionable. People didn’t know what I was talking about anymore and ‘Electroclash’ had become the dominant style in Portland which really embraced a fashionable approach. Whereas I was working at the gnarliest homeless shelter downtown and most of my clothes were borrowed from there so I wasn’t really in step with the times. I’d go and play shows with just an acoustic guitar and people were like “What kind of music was that?” I’d be like “You’ve heard of John Lennon right?… he played an acoustic guitar.” It all made me feel insanely confused for another good ten years. So when you feel left out in the biting cold, you eventually have to learn to tell your story in a way where others can see themselves in it.

AD: So it was a way of framing your career and your work and maybe making it more accessible to people?

Emil Amos: Completely. The podcast was a place to reassess how I’d gotten here, while exploring the lineage of outsiders that I descended from. I was watching the Wu-Tang TV series recently and thinking about how RZA had to, not only disengage from the label system to make the first Wu Tang record, but then 30 years later he had to write and produce his own TV show to explain to people what it was that he’d actually done and contextualize it for them. Like only he alone can see the gist of his own story and people often need to be spoon-fed that information in a larger context to really see the hero’s journey for what it is. In that sense you realize that art is something you have to perpetually push upon the world because the world doesn’t really need or want it… until it seemingly fulfills some perceptible purpose for consumer culture later on. It’s a big fork in the road when you realize there’s a massive mountain of disinterest in front of you and you’re either are up for scaling it or you’re not. A lot of my heroes eventually got burned out and I think I understand why. But I’m still out here on my little island with these ancient, hardcore punk values, shipping the podcast and all these records out into the void.

AD: How did you start putting together the idea for the show?

Emil Amos: It began as just a gift to myself for making it halfway through life. I was living in New York at the time and I’d be out with friends and mention the idea for the podcast and they were like “Why would you do that?”… It all sounded very obtuse and people are incredibly good at convincing themselves its not worth trying because its probably all been done better already. But for me the world is wildly barren of what I often want to see and it became exciting that I might be able to carve something of great worth out of this autonomous zone in their blind spot. The podcast could allow me to use all the ridiculous information I’d been ingesting my whole life and put it back out there as some kind of organized college curriculum. I mean, this is the kind of thing I would have loved for one of my heroes to do for me when I was a kid. So I said fuck it, I’m gonna try this just for me.

 AD: The standard for podcasts are pretty low and for the most part its a pretty disposable medium but I feel like you really put crazy effort and thought into the show.

Emil Amos: Yeah I injured myself editing it… I damaged the tendon in my right arm from constantly clenching the mouse and had to stop for a good while. Thousands of cuts go into each episode because I don’t want a single moment of anyone’s time to be wasted. So it’s pretty much the exact opposite of what most podcasts are doing which is basically just drumming up disposable content to build a brand and get sponsors etc. I’ve always stood diametrically opposed to that kind of ‘practical’, capitalist thinking and just generally resent that world view even though it could benefit my conditions. Its amazing how many of those people are making vast amounts of money offering absolutely useless horseshit, while I shred myself into non-existence… but if you believe that there could be any kind of eventual justice in the world, the only way to go about your life is to do what you really feel is the right thing.

AD: In your career in general, do you ever feel genuinely pissed off and embittered that you have to work extremely hard for much less of a return than some people?

Emil Amos: The quick answer is YES. And then it passes and I just go back to work.

AD: So when do you think we will get the new season of Drifter’s Sympathy?

Emil Amos: It’ll definitely be ready to drop by March. Unfortunately the recent vinyl manufacturing crisis is greatly going to impact all the records I’ve been working on for the last few years. I made a decision awhile back to spread out my new workload onto 6 different records at once and that’s really come back to haunt me as they’re all almost ready and now it’s suddenly taking well over a year to get a record manufactured. This new vinyl crisis was totally unforeseen and is really fucking up anyone that’s trying to keep pushing the dialectic of music, so we’re all extremely bummed right now. Luckily the podcast doesn’t have to get pressed up so I’ve been working on some other things for Patreon outside of these records to announce soon.

AD: What can people expect in terms of the arc of this next season?

Emil Amos: The last season was super dense with the history of home recording episodes, so I felt challenged to continue that vibe with two new conceptual theses that get a bit deeper. The ideas were pretty lengthy and could’ve easily been built into full books if I really had the time to write, but for now I’m just stuffing all these concepts into the new episodes.

AD: Will there still be an autobiographical aspect to the show?

Emil Amos: Yeah I have to continue the linear aspect of that for sure because the story’s still unfinished. It’s always been my plan to try and take the story up to 2008 because my career and life changed in a lot of ways then. I think its important that its based around a musician talking about making music from the inside instead of a journalist that’s never really made a record. I could tell a story about Gene Clark in a more visceral, emotional sense as someone who produces records and has been up against similar challenges in their life.

AD: You were also kind of around some of these people as a kid because your dad was friends with David Crosby, Fred Neil and some of these people, right?

Emil Amos: Yeah, when I was born my dad was close with them so they might’ve held me as a baby but I don’t really remember anything from that period. My dad and Crosby had a big falling out and my memory is that it may have centered around Crosby wanting him to sail drugs into the country. It’d be nice to know more about all that because my dad is gone but Crosby has selectively ignored my tweets about this stuff! That makes me think they had a pretty massive fight because our other family friends in Miami are still close with him. I was recently told by one of Crosby’s friends that it was my dad that actually found his boat, The Mayan, for him. That period always had a certain darkness to me as a kid, partially because its all just very foggy and maybe also because that scene in the 70s was pretty heavily damaged. My dad was a bit of an eccentric acid casualty who wasn’t a really solid father figure, so maybe my early memories from that time just feel particularly dark around those subjects… the people around me as an infant could’ve been pretty fucked up too? I’m not sure.

AD: Well, that’s a comforting idea.

Emil Amos: (laughing) Right? My mom left him and we moved up to North Carolina and that’s kind of when I became more aware of music on my own. And in that era of the 80s a lot of us kids were pretty uninterested in 60s music because we had the beginnings of hip-hop and punk exploding and I ended up starting a straightedge hardcore band to sort of be the opposite of my parents as we usually try to do. In the 80s you also weren’t really ‘allowed’ to listen to hardcore AND the Grateful Dead unless you were some kind of older eccentric like Greg Ginn from Black Flag.  So I wasn’t initially excited about my parents Zappa and Leonard Cohen records. It wasn’t until I started smoking pot that I got into Joni Mitchell and was like, ‘my god she’s easily the best writer/arranger of her time’ and my mom would be making dinner in the next room and yell out “your dad lived with her for awhile!” and I’d be like… well I guess I better call him and get the story.

AD: So much of Holy Sons is indebted to the music of that era. Singer-songwriter stuff, 70’s AM radio. Do you think your attraction to that era and that music has anything to do with its connection to your childhood and your father?

Emil Amos: For sure, but it was really only later on that I was able to piece all that together when my guru from Boston would often be listening to stoned, mellow 70’s stuff on old, dingy cassettes and I suddenly realized how innovative and graceful all of it was. Lou Barlow also did a killer cover of Joni’s “Blonde in the Bleachers” and that was a big eye-opener in that sense too. I started to realize then in around ’92 that anyone who wants to become a true-lifer songwriter must absorb everything in every direction… not just the things that you were already comfortable with.

AD: Was there a moment when you had to reckon with the fact that a lot of your heroes weren’t just paragons of sincerity and these poetic figures and that to reach the heights they did, they had to be Machiavellian in a way that maybe you aren’t willing to be? I’m thinking of maybe someone like Neil Young for instance.

Emil Amos: Yeah, Neil Young is a great example of somebody who could probably irritate you with his contradictions if you thought about them too long. At the same time you can always put his records on at any time in your life and consistently learn something. The immense simplicity of his stuff is shocking. It could crush you as a songwriter. But as you get older, I think you also realize that he was part of a wildly unique nexus in time and he had this incredible vortex of opportunity open up in front of him. He wasn’t exactly one man against an uncaring world in his story. He had a solid 60,000 people out in those seats basking in the glow of this new singer-songwriter genre and hanging on his every word. I can’t imagine being born into a moment where that kind of connection would be possible. And maybe there’s an alternate universe where Neil Young would’ve never been applicable to the mainstream at all. But he carved out an incredible space for himself in a remarkably unique and chaotic cultural moment, while the hippies were inheriting an enormous power over a major segment of the music business. Bob Dylan himself wasn’t even really able to render that creative space for himself. Neil Young made the form more touching and simultaneously more commercial in a strange way. That’s a strange confluence of a unique talent and a sympathetic audience that accepted him for what he was. I can’t imagine the greater public stopping the party and focusing on someone that raw and stubborn in that way now. I’m not sure we’re able to enter that kind of convergence anymore.

AD: Were the last couple of records, In the Garden and Raw and Disfigured, conscious attempts on your part to make more accessible Hi-Fi type of records that could maybe reach a bigger audience?

Emil Amos: No, I don’t think I have the mind to think that way. I just visualize these records as experiments. In the Garden was a very expensive record that my friend wanted to bankroll and I had no reason to turn it down. We worked fast; I improvised the instruments on that record pretty quickly and John Agnello mixed it that next week so nothing about it was really overthought. It was just interesting to drop my sound into a different setting because we all love those 70’s hi-fi records and it was a cool dare in itself.I’m working on a Holy Sons record now that I started making back in 2004 when I was extremely poor, but it feels exactly the same to me because it comes from that same place internally. So the great reward for me is that I can stand back now and hear that same person really not trying to be anyone else and the same, identical message is coming through.

AD: Was there ever a period where you had the chance to try to capitalize on some moment or some trend or where you were trying to follow specific rules of what you thought would lead to you being embraced more?

Emil Amos: Most movements that were seen as “raw” in the press by the time I was growing up were usually vastly over-marketed and pretty unbelievable. So if friends tried to hip me to those things, it felt like they were sort of just deeply bored and needing something to do on the weekend, the way a family goes to see a Pixar film over the weekend in some kind of spiritual exhaustion, like a kind of addiction to escapism or the desperate need for a kind of leader, with the emphasis on you not having to do the work. Whereas I felt that my heroes had truly invented something by throwing themselves into chaos, getting their hands dirty and taking actual risks.

 It felt like my music always had something too selfish in it to really be applicable to a crowd. Which was the purpose, to be after the actual grail of Selfishness… to escape any claws of expectation, careerism and embarrassing postures taken on by idiots hoping to be admired by other idiots. And as a kid it never really occurred to me that this attitude would lead quickly in the direction of having an extremely small audience! (laughing). So no, I don’t think I was ever met with the opportunity to exploit any great and obvious opportunity in my time. And rather than all of this being a sad, bitter tale it might just end up being the first time a young person somewhere out there gets to hear the actual truth about what will most likely happen to them if they set out up that same mountain. The music world, like all parts of the world, is full of actors and they’re really fucking good at it. But I was always more interested in what was behind the show. As a kid I saw Lou Barlow breaking down emotionally onstage in front of everyone, unable to make this collective, commercial dream a reality and I genuinely thought that was the real shit …like that was where the real drama was at…. the demythologizing and unraveling of the rock star in real time.

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