The Gospel According To Luke: Al Cisneros Of Om Interviewed

Ahead of Sunday's gig, Toby Cook speaks to the stoner rock legend about God, one's path in life and the future of Sleep

POWER DUO! There are few words more satisfying to the human soul and yet it’s a notoriously difficult thing to get right – unless of course your name is Al Cisneros and you’re one half of OM.

Formed back in 2003 by the former rhythm section of Sleep, OM in essence continued to tread the path of meditative, monolithic riff odysseys that Sleep had started down with their magnum opus, Dopesmoker, yet since their 2005 debut record, the aptly titled Variations On A Theme, OM have gradually and fluidly expanded their sound to include an array of textures and instrumentation that has expanded their sound to unprecedented extremes without obstructing the tantric flow of Cisneros’ riffs and (current member) Emil Amos’ metronomic yet expressive drumming.

Anyone really familiar with OM will know of the often rather intimidating level of spiritual thinking and references that surround and flow through not just their music but also the lives of its creators – when The Quietus caught up with Cisneros ahead of OM’s show at the Scala in London however we found a man anything but intimidating; we found a truly engaging, expressive individual. As you can see…

Even compared to your last album, God Is Good, the scope of Advaitic Songs is pretty staggering and you’ve moved even further away from a predominantly riff orientated sound – has that always been the plan?

Al Cisneros: I never plan ahead of time it’s just where we’ve arrived currently in our studies and in life – we just go where it takes us, y’know? So this is just the way the songs and the music we envisioned sounds.

How challenging was it pulling in all the various instrumentation used on the new record? I mean, you got tamburas, zithers, Sufi singers…

AC: It just took time really. The record took its own schedule and we wanted to continue to let the work evolve without finalising it until ‘it’ itself was ready; our label was supportive of that and as artists that’s the ultimate goal: You want your finished work to render the emotions you felt during its creation.

How much has the gradual change in OM’s sound coincided with the changes in your own musical influences? And what does influence you these days – is there still room in your life for the likes of KISS?

AC: I’m not really influenced so much by music anymore, more by study, life and ones path and then music being a reflection of that path which has evolved accordingly to ‘you’ evolving. Do you know what I mean by that?

Yeah, that pretty much makes sense.

AC: Well, so I can clarify: when I first started playing music musical influence was obviously far more clear and direct – I mean, there were bass players in bands that made me want to learn bass; practice bass and try writing songs. And those albums, those classic albums have an impact on you differently, they’re directly inspiring. But, as you go on the path through life and you do it long enough, outside influence becomes absolutely meaningless, it actually becomes and obstruction. You want to have a blank space so that you’re actually attentive to what is new and creative in it – you don’t want to inherit other music if it has no meaning at a certain point in your life. You know what I mean?

Yeah, definitely – and whilst we’re on that point, sort of, one of the things that OM records remind me of more and more are classical Indian ragas, improvised dedications to times of day and the seasons. How key is improvisation with OM – is there an almost worshipful aspect to it? Or have I miss understood it entirely?

AC: Well I don’t know if I’d use the word ‘worshipful’ but it’s not separate from the path, the life path I mean. There’s a great tendency in Western music to call music ‘devotional music’ rather than it being integrated into life – obviously all of one’s life is devotional – so the music is a part of one’s life. Do you follow what I mean? It’s unified. We play a certain kind of music and then we go on with our lives; music is our lives and the life is our music – it’s kind of the same thing, there’s not some change of mind set to suddenly practice spiritual life when it comes to music, it’s constant all the time and music should be a reflection of that then.

It very difficult to ignore the religious overtones with OM, the albums titles, lyrics, artwork song titles, etc. – they all seems to have, certainly in recent albums, heavy Judaeo-Christian reference points…

AC: Well it’s not limited to Judaeo-Christian traditions; they all correspond to the inner core of those different traditions, be them Hindu traditions, Judaeo-Christian traditions or Sufi tradition – they correspond to the inner core of them, not the outer ritual ceremony, but the inner mystical, contemplative, philosophical core of those different schools of thought and some of the lyrics resonate with some of the teachings of the saints and of the thinkers in those school of thought that have inspired me in my life, have helped me in my journey.

And again it’s interesting that you say that, I was going to ask what the basis of the references are – I mean for you is it a sense of giving a faithful interpretation of the teachings of these various saints or philosophers, or is it more to do with expressing versions of the stories; the religious aspect or more of a studious one?

AC: I think it’s a little of both. I use anecdotes that have inspired me throughout the themes of the OM songs – it’s my art, I’m a contributor to the collective sound of OM so of course it’s got to have that significance for me or you can’t play the music with passion and for me there’s a great deal of that expressed in the poetry or the verses or lyrics, whatever you’d choose to call it.

The other side, like I said earlier, is not a separate thing from the goal of one’s life. I mean you could refer to it as training – people have a path of training or people have what some might call a spiritual life, they work on self improvement. Whatever you may call it, the goal of whatever your life is, there’s no separation between music and that, for me.

One of the things that really stands out about the new LP is Emil Amos’ drumming – it seems even more expressive than on God Is Good – given that you’re essentially a two piece band and the connection that seems to be necessary between drums and bass in OM, how difficult was it to find Emil after Chris Hakius retired?

AC: I think if you had tried to do it, just on your own, it would have been impossible to find someone that’s that perfect as a rhythm section partner. I feel, and have always thanked the universe, or something higher, for having been on a tour once where OM and Grails [Amos’ other band] were playing and just having the chance to become friends and Emil wanting to try it, once I gave him a call. Having seen him play drums I knew once we’d had some time playing together it would just start to blossom; I couldn’t be happier, it’s so fun to play music with Emil.

The drums and the bass, in music, to me they have to have a conversation – the drums being the ground – but there has to be a dialogue between the lyrics of the beats and the melodies and rhythms of the bass – all of those things have to go back and forth so, yeah, I couldn’t be happier.

Just moving on from OM – earlier this year you were touring with Sleep and Dopesmoker had been reissued again – is that something that you welcomed or is there a part of you that feels it would be better left alone, knowing that it will possibly never really sound like it did in the heads of those in the band?

AC: Well, no, I think it’s healed. I mean, first of all, the reissue sounds the way we wanted it to. As a band, that means we finally got closure, so we’re happy. Live, with Jason [Roeder] having joined Sleep, for the first time, we’ve started to play Dopesmoker. For Matt and I, knowing this piece of music for almost 20 years, we totally had the sense that it not only sounds awesome live, but it has new feelings in it that don’t correspond to the London Records version and a band breaking up and all the depression that happened. It’s just the riffs that we played once in the 90s and were like, ‘Whoa dude, let’s make a song out of that!’ And that’s how it is now; it’s like the way that it was supposed to be.

I hate to use the phrase but is there a sense of setting the record straight?

AC: Well literally, yeah! The record, Dopesmoker, was set straight! Now we can move forward – we’ve already got new riffs and it’s great. Like I was mentioning in regards to OM playing with Emil and how fun it is, it’s the same with Sleep, it’s a really good time musically now and I’m looking forward to practicing bass right after we finish this interview; we’re having such a good time right now.

Given how much fun it’s been getting back out on the road with Sleep, is there ever a scenario where you could envisage there being new material?

AC: Yeah, I could visualise that – I mean, we practice, we have parts that aren’t recorded, we have new riffs; so we’ll see, that’s all we know. And that’s the way it should be – like we began the interview talking about the OM album and how we didn’t have a schedule and we let the songs evolve; we knew when they were ready, but we absolutely had patience, and waited, and that’s the same with Sleep – things come out better when you that. Don’t worry, it’ll be alright!

With Sleep, OM and Shrinebuilder you’ve been pretty busy over the last couple of years, but there was a period after the demise of Sleep when you left the music scene altogether.

AC: Yeah, and that’s essential – I think it’s essential for people to take time out if they need it. I mean, we started our first band when we were like 13/14; recorded, started playing shows – so by the time Sleep was breaking up we hadn’t even lived the other side of life. And obviously in metal culture specifically, it is all self destruction. That’s all you see around you and that’s all you participate in. It’s pretty much a siphon. So, yeah, I’m thankful that I did that. Or else who knows, there probably wouldn’t have been an OM, there wouldn’t have been this conversation, or today. I’m just happy to be here now. And I’m glad I did it.

This is a good time to explain something actually. When Sleep started, when we started playing music, the big difference between then and now is that I thought that the music was its own primary light and I realised by taking that break after all those things had happened with the band breaking up, going through all that time without music, now I see music as a reflection of the primary life, which is your path, and that’s the primary light, the path is the primary light and music reflects that – when we first started playing I thought that the music was its own light but that’s not a sustainable thing, there has to be a source for it and I had to learn that.

And what was it that brought you back in to the music scene?

AC: Love of music! I mean, I never stopped hearing riffs and making up rhythms – eventually it just felt like the right time.

One last thing Al, just before I let you go, I heard a funny story from Matt Pike the last time I interviewed him where he was talking about the early days of Sleep and he mentioned that for a period where you decided to call yourself ‘Luke’ – for about two years or something – what was that all about?

AC: [laughs] Well, it was a joke really, that was my name in the band; It was an over appreciation of the second title of ‘War Pigs’ on Paranoid, ‘Luke’s Wall’, and so I was just amazed, like "Why is everybody only calling it ‘War Pigs’? It’s also called ‘Luke’s Wall’!" But whatever man, it makes no sense!

OM’s are playing live this Sunday at the Scala in Kings Cross, London, with support from King Midas Sound. Their current album Advaitic Songs is out now via Drag City

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