The dominion of Grails

Some bands claim to have an original sound; others glorify the treading of long-stagnant musical water. In the end, the vast majority of music falls somewhere in between.

Some bands claim to have an original sound; others glorify the treading of long-stagnant musical water. In the end, the vast majority of music falls somewhere in between. It’s unique, but in an embraceable and familiar way. Portland’s Grails are different. Their sound is instantly mesmerizing. They combine disparate musical elements from around the world and the end result is meaningful. Elements of folk, jazz and rock all pop up throughout Grails’ newest album, Burning Off Impurities, but no one genre category really defines the band. The Vanguard recently e-mailed guitarist Alex Hall to talk about the band’s upcoming tour with labelmates Mono, the band’s new album and the evolution of Grails’ sound.

Who are the rest of the band members and what are their main roles/instruments in Grails?

Ben Nugent-drums, percussionZak Riles-electric/acoustic guitars, various acoustic instrumentsWilliam Slater-bass, piano, keyboardsEmil Amos-drums, guitar

Grails is about to go on tour with Mono. Are there any other touring plans in the works for 2007?

Yes, U.S. West Coast and Europe, maybe more.

Any Portland shows coming up?

Nothing is scheduled right now-we just played at Someday Lounge last Friday.

On a related note, it seems like Grails doesn’t play live in Portland all that often (though it seems like shows have increased in the last year or so). Why is that? Are you planning on playing in Portland more often in the future?

We decided a long time ago to focus our efforts away from trying to play lots of local shows. It’s an absolute waste of energy to try to make yourself “big” in Portland. We’re selective about the shows that we do play–makes them more special for us, hopefully for others, too.

Grails just released a new album, Burning Off Impurities, on Temporary Residence. What was the process like for writing and recording this album? Did it change from previous efforts?

Yeah, quite a bit. The first two records that we did for Neurot were pretty much just documents of us playing live in the studio–there was very little overdubbing, post-production, etc. We started to get really into production and experimental recording techniques with the Black Tar releases [collected in The Black Tar Prophecies 1,2,3 on Important Records], and it all just kind of exploded with the Impurities stuff. It’s a really massive, sonically dense record.

How have the lineup changes led to the evolution of Grails’ sound?

The only lineup change has been the loss of the violin, which immediately opened up a huge void that we had to figure out how to fill. It really forced us into exploring sonic possibilities beyond the typical bass/drums/guitar format.

On Burning Off Impurities, there is a startling number of instruments used to create the totality of your songs. Could you expound on that aspect of your music? Specifically, how it affects the writing process and the ways in which unique instrumentation defines Grails’ sound.

It just makes sense to have an arsenal of instrumentation if you’re making instrumental music–just gives you a broader palette. It’s the way we stay excited and invested in making the music, by exploring new sounds.

In a similar vein, is there an overarching goal or premise for the music Grails creates?

Only to create music that we all find personally satisfying.

What are the influences (if any) on Grails’ music? (I hear a little bit of “free-folk” in there, but it seems like the music has a really diverse array of sounds informing it.)

Yeah, of course there’s a ton of influences, but I guess they’re sort of all over the map (literally?). Lots of German shit, Turkish and other Middle Eastern/Eastern musics, British and American psych/rock/folk/whatever…lots of stuff.

Are musical classifications (i.e., genres) useful? Does Grails fit within any one genre? Is there a type of music you feel Grails most identifies with?

Sure, genre classifications have plenty of practical uses–they only become annoying when they’re used as crutches by lazy critics (professional and otherwise). And it seems like a lot of people can only think of music in terms of genre, which is fine…but as a result, it’s pointless to care much about how listeners might choose to place you in relation to other artists.

Finally, how do you feel about the Portland music scene? How does it/doesn’t it affect Grails as artists?

The Portland music scene is fine, but I don’t think it affects what we do at all. If we were looking to Portland for validation, we would have quit a long time ago.