Sonic Titan: An Interview With Al Cisneros Of Sleep & Om

Dr Rock hooks up with Al Cisneros of Sleep and Om to find out what's going on in the world of transcendental stoner rock

Recently, before Matt Pike was hospitalised and then went into rehab, Sleep played in Berlin’s notorious techno club the Berghain. (We’re pretty sure these two events were not related, by the way.) Sleep are on impressive form at the moment and are playing some of their best shows to date, with Pike on guitars, Al Cisneros on bass and vocals and Jason Roeder on drums. On top of this, Southern Lord have just put out a fine vinyl reissue of their legendary long player Dopesmoker featuring mystifyingly bonkers sleeve art from Arik Roper. So with the reissue blasting straight into the upper echelons of the Quietus reissues of the year so far list, what better time to hit the bong with Mr Al Cisneros, the master toker himself, and get all stoney and droney? All Hail!

Hey Al, what have you and the rest of the guys been up to today?

Al Cisneros: We’ve been rehearsing for the tour, we haven’t really toured in Europe since 1993. So we’re looking forward to it a lot.

What made you decide to come back to Europe at this point in time?

AC: We’ve been playing some shows in the US whenever it fits our schedules. So we wanted to get here as soon as we could ’cause we’ve already done the US. We always need to schedule things really far in advance with all our other projects going on.

What other projects are you involved in just now?

AC: Of course Matt [Pike]’s just put out the new album with High On Fire [De Vermis Mysteriis] and Jason [Roeder] just finished a new Neurosis record. Om’s new album [Advaitic Songs] comes out at the end of July so this was the only time for us to come here as Sleep. It’s going to get busy for all the other bands very soon.

A new version of Sleep’s cult album Dopesmoker is about to come out. Is this finally the version you’d been wanting the world to hear all along?

AC: I’m happy with how it sounds, a lot, definitely.

How does it differ to the other versions?

AC: When you hear it you’ll be able to distinguish the differences. This is the one we wanted to put out all along.

Will you be playing the whole of Dopesmoker live?

AC: Not yet but we’re working towards it. We’re really excited with the set.

Your show at Berlin’s Berghain club should be interesting – the sound system is known to be one of the world’s best.

AC: It’s amazing. I heard that one of the sound engineers who worked for Pink Floyd designed those six giant sound towers in the main room. That’s what one of the house engineers said when we recently played there with Om.

Sleep – Dopesmoker [Southern Lord reissue]

Whose idea was it to revive Sleep?

AC: It happened more along the lines of just time. Whatever breaks a band up, over time the individuals reflect in their own way. And sometimes it leads to understanding. And sometimes it doesn’t. We were stoked, ’cause with me and Matt, time helped us to be able do that. I feel really blessed with the band and the way it’s going. It’s also like a dream in a sense because the band Sleep was in ashes a long time ago. And so to have real life in it again is pretty amazing. But it takes getting used to.

How does playing shows these days compare with, say, 20 years ago?

AC: Back in the day, not many people were very into it. It was more of a thrash metal scene. Also punk and hardcore, but foremost thrash, which at that time it was called speed metal. That was in 1988. Sleep didn’t fit in at all. We worshipped Black Sabbath, their early material… It’s definitely interesting. We loved the music then, that’s why we did it. And now, we still love the music, that’s why we still do it. But to have that change from trying to afford gasoline to get to the show, trying to afford guitar strings, literally, trying to be able to find a place to practice or instruments to practice with. And then eventually we were able to rent a tour bus, and me and Matt were like, "What the fuck, this is crazy!" What I’m trying to say is that it is on the outside, where the music’s being received, that has changed. The music itself hasn’t. It’s still the same.

Why do you think it’s suddenly so much more popular?

AC: It may not be specific to one style of art; it may just be what happens overall. Think about it, in literature, film and music, if enough time passes people will eventually get it, it seems… But yeah, it’s an interesting question. Something to always think about.

Who would you have played with back in the day?

AC: One of the things that was neat recently at the Roadburn Festival, Sleep and The Obsessed performed, and we played the same exact show together that we did for five bucks in 1993. And at the time no more than 40 people would’ve been there. Same guys, same bands. And almost the same songs. We played most of Holy Mountain, parts of Dopesmoker, Obsessed played most of Church Within. So that was really cool for us, for me and Matt and Wino and Guy [Pinhas] and Greg [Rogers]. But back then we mostly played with a lot of punk bands, from what I remember. And the San Francisco area back then, the metal type bands, it would always be at the shittiest venues and they would charge the bands that were just starting out money – they would charge them money to play. To make it even harder on people wanting to start a band and make music! So we didn’t play too much with the metal bands.

When did you first notice Sleep getting more popular?

AC: I took a long break from playing music after Sleep broke up and I went back to school. At school even I was like ‘Woah, man.’ I got to talk to Matt and friends of mine and they’d say how popular the band was. I didn’t think anything of it but when we first started doing shows again and you look out and there’s like 2,500 people you’re like, ‘Fuck, what is this? This is amazing!’ It’s like I said, it takes getting used to because, you know, it’s just… overwhelming!

It’s crazy but only a very few people would’ve been able to hear your most famous album Dopesmoker back then, right? Because at first it was only available as a bootleg.

AC: Well, London Records intended to put it out but never did… But this new one is the one that we think should’ve come out first time around. It’s a bummer when you work so hard on something and then different editions of the work get presented that aren’t yours. It’s heartbreaking.

Was it ever explained to you why all these different versions came out?

AC: Different record people would explain their own way but it doesn’t matter, I stopped listening after a while. It’s just like, you can only hold up for so long when your work’s being… It’s pretty much a bummer, it’s pretty depressing.

As many different versions of Dopesmoker as there are, there’s equally as many pieces of artwork. What did you originally envision for it?

AC: Well, we were always working on it but never saw it being finished. But this piece by Arik Roper for the new one is the one we’re happy with.

Tell me a tour anecdote that’s made you laugh recently.

AC: Matt showed up late to soundcheck, so I took his amps and set them up on my side. That’s going to happen if he’s late to soundcheck again and then he’ll be on time, or my sound will be even better [laughs]. That’s the only funny thing that happened at the last show that I can think of right now. Luckily Matt showed up so we moved the amps back. But what if he hadn’t shown up ’til 20 minutes later? Then his amps would’ve been turned to full and he would have had to listen to Om! [laughs]

Touring with the guys now compared to touring with the guys back then, what’s different?

AC: We’ve changed as people. It’s better to tour now. We’re way more focused on music than like, 20 years ago.

What’s your personal highpoint during your current set?

AC: I look forward to the whole thing; we’re trying to make it so that there aren’t any lulls. We want the whole thing be good. That’s the goal.

And lastly, what’s been your high point with Sleep?

AC: There hasn’t been one. I mean lots of good stuff has happened, but I don’t really think of it in that way, it would make everything else seem less good. Even looking back at the hard times, it was tough but we made it through. So yeah, on the whole I’m really happy.

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