In his Portland, Ore., home, Alex Hall drinks coffee and talks above electronic minimalists Pan Sonic, who squelch from his stereo while he packs for tour. Since 2002, his band, Grails, has toured Europe more than America, but the band's known more for its recorded output than concert performances, anyway. Its six instrumental LPs in as many years are full of psychedelic curveballs and world-music nods; for Hall, it's interesting to see how things so meticulously prepared in the studio will work on stage.
"When we're working on a record, there's never any consideration of whether we'll be able to pull it off on stage," he says of Grails, which formed in 2002 and includes former Chapel Hill musician Emil Amos. "[That] is good for the integrity of the record, but bad for reducing stress in the practice room."
On record, Grails skips through stylistic approaches—a natural-sounding East Indian mantra feeling here, a drone-rich synthetic sheet there—often, sometimes within the same track. On its latest, Doomsdayer's Holiday, the lead number rattles with apocalyptic metal thud; elsewhere, swirling rhythms fall far to the hazy left of such a direct first hit. Holiday was released just five months after the band's fifth album, Take Refuge in Clean Living, a more ethereal, calm effort. Hall describes Holiday as the more visceral of the two, and he's right. But the link is the sense that all Grails music is transportational, that it takes the listener out of his own skin.
This means that the band has to master the patterns one expects in music, then alter them. Grails works through this nebulous territory in the studio, conscious of its potential navigation difficulties in the touring van. Making the leap from the comforts of a band's nested recording space to an open stage can mean sacrificing some of those out-bound qualities, like the intangible ambiance that makes for great mood-altering music.
"We're definitely a record-oriented band," says Hall. "We think of the albums as the real documents of our efforts, the actual opportunities to try to contribute something to the greater musical dialogue."
Judging from those varied recordings, shifting gears sonically seems to renew Grails. Hall says the band is constantly critical of whether its tracks move the listener as intended, and it's developed a pretty sensible litmus test for self-evaluation.
"It's a psychological trick to be able to step away from the song and approach it objectively as a listener would," says Hall. "If you're able to do that, it's pretty obvious if the track is succeeding or not—if it's satisfying that pleasure zone of your brain, or if your brain is projecting things onto the track that aren't yet there." That's another reason Grails prefers being an instrumental band, to have no vocals influence or dampen the otherwise foreboding atmosphere.
It works, too, as Grails' engulfing sound often clicks into that dream-state mode. "Creating moods is just essential in giving the music any kind of transportive quality," says Hall. "If the opposite of 'psychedelic' in music means 'completely sober and earth-bound,' I just can't see why we would opt for the latter. All of the best music ever made in any genre has been psychedelic in some way."
Now, let's see if he can find that higher space from the stage.
Grails plays Local 506 Tuesday, Nov. 18, at 9:30 p.m. Silver Apples, an early synthesizer space rock master and former house band at Max's Kansas City, starts the show. Tickets are $10.