"Hello, is this Al?"
"Yes, this is Al."
And with that, all of the questions I'd written disappear, evaporating off the page and into the ether, the product of intense thought and study exploding into a tempest of gibberish before my very eyes. I knew this moment would come — I had set up the interview, obviously — but there on the other end of the phone was Al Cisneros. Al from Om. Al from Sleep. Al, master of the slowly unfurling riff — Headmaster of the Heavier-Than-Hell School of Music. Al who played bass on Sleep's "Dopesmoker," the greatest hourlong metal song in history. Al who formed Om and expanded the spiritual and philosophical terrain of heavy music with their records Variations on a Theme, Pilgrimage and Advaitic Songs. Al was on the other end of the line, and my interview questions had disappeared ... but do I really want answers anyway?
If you are of the opinion that instrumentation can be as much a narrative and conceptual tool as lyrics — or video, artwork or all the other non-music things we associate with music — and you're the sort of person who can read each note, each progression, as a way of pushing a story forward and explaining greater truths, there isn't much to ask of Al Cisneros. The way that Cisneros' songs unfurl — the way each riff expands and each chanted vocal wafts through like fog off the Cumberland — leaves a lot of room for finding your own answers. The drums, which veer between marshaling and mystical, keep your brain on point, pushing you deeper into a low-end cosmos within which you will find the answers. And I have to ask this dude questions?
"Uh, um, mumble mumble arranging?" I ask. "Mumble mumble live? Uh, um mumble again?"
"We just played a European tour, a tour of England and Ireland, so we've got it down," says Cisneros. "We're really happy with the set. We're looking forward to it; a lot of the new album will be played."
Cisneros is politely trying to answer questions that are more akin to those posed by a high school newsletter writer than by an alt-weekly writer in one of the music industry's epicenters. Cisneros, it turns out, is a very nice and gracious dude. But this is not helping things. The state of Zen I had achieved after listening to Om on repeat all morning had hit the road — I had climbed the mountain and was speaking to the master, and all I could think to say before tumbling backward down that incline to a gruesome and rocky death was, "Huyyup, uh huh, pffft!" Why did I invite journalism into my happy space? If anything, Om, Sleep and bands of that ilk — slow, heavy, often intense and obtuse listening — are where I run to escape from music journalism, retreat from being a hyperconsumer for hire. But questions, damn it, I must ask questions!
"Uh, mumble mumble Nashville mumble mumble."
"It's been great, the reaction to the new album has been great. We're really excited about doing U.S. shows, it's been a while. ... "
Oh great, Om hasn't played Nashville. Ever. Neither has Sleep. I knew that. Is that my voice? That's my voice. Stop talking, Sean. Put your foot in your mouth already and let the dude talk. Do it for Sean, Sean. And do it for all the people who hate when you write yourself into a story, and all the people who hate when people refer to themselves in the third person. Do it for them, Sean. Ask a damn question.
"I LIKE YOUR BAND A LOT!"
That was not a question. That was the furthest thing from a question. Damn, dude, are you a 15-year-old Twittering at One Direction, or a seasoned journalist interviewing one of the most pioneering artists in heavy music? Clearly, the former. This is not very metal — not very metal at all. Would it be uncouth to call this whole thing a wash, throw on Om's latest, Advaitic Songs, and zone out to the haunting string swells of "Gethsemane" or the minimal and stirring hand percussion of "Haqq al-Yaqin"? Or maybe I'll take it all the way back to the simple drum-bass-fuzz setup of Variations and follow that up with a trip down Doom-Metal Memory Lane with Sleep's 21-year-old Volume One — which stands as one of the pummeling titans of the genre and is in fact great for assuaging a panic attack, as weird as that sounds.
" ... [It develops] over the course of time as we've been growing as musicians ... "
Ack, the panic attack! I got so distracted thinking about how awesome Om's "Cremation Ghat II" from God Is Good is — That sitar! Those drum fills! — that I forgot to worry about my lack of sensical questions. I was too busy drooling over the bass tones on Pilgrimage and thinking about that moment when, about 11 minutes in, Cisneros hits that lone high note on Conference of the Birds' "Flight of the Eagle" before dropping into a seismic rumble for a few bars. That note is incredible. Now, just to find something intelligent to say, something to make up for the fanboy fawning and awkward compliments, something to shut off the spigot of slobbering bullshit.
"Thanks for talking to me, Al. Have a great day."
"Definitely, we're looking forward to coming to town, and it should be a great show."
That should work. Dopesmoker here I come.
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