Alibi V.28 No.44 • Oct 31-Nov 6, 2019 

Music Interview

A Sacred Syllable at the Beeb

OM Releases Historic BBC Sessions

OM BBC Radio 1

OM has a new record. What’s more, the double 10-inch release was recorded at the BBC and features Albuquerque-based bassist, vocalist and composer Al Cisneros. OM is comprised of Cisneros, drummer Emil Amos and multi-instrumentalist Tyler Trotter.

OM

Before we get to the heart of that story, here’s August March to explain his fascination with the sound, the band and OM’s singular output.

The Sound

When asked, a Vaishnava Sadhu at the Muktinath temple told me—through his interpreter, a 12-year-old Tibetan lad who spoke some English because of an American doctor at the bottom of the Kali Gandkaki Gorge—that OM was the sound the universe (Vishnu?) made when it was creating.

Then one of his entourage warned my trekking party not to attempt the Thorong La pass; the weather was growing sour, the nun intoned gravely. Besides, the sadhu said that if we came back, he would tell us other things.

So we hiked down the hill, stayed at an inn in Ranipauwa. The place was designed for Western trekkers: It had electricity, a flush toilet and rock and roll posters pasted everywhere. One Black Sabbath poster was especially off the hook. I found out that quite a few of the town’s residents were familiar with rocanrol. A dude at the front desk told me that his goal in life was to see a real rock band live in concert.

After smoking a large, dark ball of temple hash, I went to sleep that night as a huge thunderstorm roared through the area, wondering if all of that—the voice of the sadhu, the rock music of Black Sabbath, the droning thunder up on Dhaulagiri—was part of the holy sound of the universe creating itself, sometimes darkly, over and over again.

The Record

Flash forward 20 years and March is still searching out sound, listening to the new record by OM out on Drag City Records titled BBC Radio 1. OM has its heart here in Burque—composer/bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros resides in The Duke City when he’s not busy creating sonic universes with OM or his other notably sci-fi and cannabis-inflected outfit Sleep.

OM
OM
courtesy of the artist

OM just came off a lengthy European tour. That tour included several days in residence at the BBC. While there, the band recorded four tracks from their last two albums. The result of that work—a craftily, scientifically designed art object that contains two heavy duty black and green 10-inch vinyl discs, densely def black and white photography and music that will blow your mind across and through any stormy peak, any hidden temple—really any world at all—as you pass through it, as through some arcane ritual.

That’s what August March thought of OM’s new record. To find out more about this epic new record and the band behind it—while still searching for that holy sound coming out the universe, of course—Weekly Alibi sat down with Cisneros at good old Java Joe’s. The following is a distillation of that conversation.

Weekly Alibi: So, Al, fill me in on the deets.

Al Cisneros: The BBC reached out to our booking agent and we scheduled a recording session into the tour where we’d have a day made available there in the main studio in London. [The session] was to be broadcast on Daniel Carter’s rock show. We went in and set up; they had sounds within 30 minutes. We were amazed at first. We knew this going in—the caliber of the engineers there—but seeing them mic stuff up and get tones and levels, how quickly they mixed and how good it was, amazing. It was like ... Have you seen that book Recording the Beatles?

Yes, I have.

You know, then, how at Abbey Road those engineers were literally, like, scientists?

Right. They had a long tradition of that approach. Rock and roll was a new thing to them.

So they had that work aesthetic. When we were there, hearing it out of the speakers, it was so clear how confident these engineers were. It was just experiencing that level of professionalism. It was something else. Aside from Abbey Road [the only experience I have with that kind of process], I’ve worked with Steve Albini. He has that same approach. It was like a dream.

It’s a very intense recording process.

It’s very math-based. It’s down with physics and cuts off all the fat. It gets right to the best tone. It was that way, working at Radio 1.

Did you decide beforehand which compositions from your tour set would be recorded?

They’d been in our set for the past couple of touring years. Unfortunately we couldn’t do an hour’s worth of recording, so we had to pick three or four songs.

The songs you chose are notable because they show a sort of evolution as a grouping. I listened to the first song and realized that I hear possible influences from ancient folk music plus other non-rock and non-Western music drifting through. Yet, if you look up OM on the internet, sources say that this is a form of heavy metal. But there’s a lot more going on. Discuss.

I sometimes see it described as doom. I don’t get it. I think that, at some point, some lazy journalist, because of Sleep [Cisnero’s other band], described it as stoner doom or whatever. And I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of music it is. It’s definitely a confluence of all the albums, musicians and styles that have inspired the three of us as musicians. It’s hard to describe.

It’s certainly not derivative but rather informed.

Yeah, one of the things I appreciate the most about Emil’s drumming style is this fusion, like this really intense jazz fusion sound and style that he has. As far as my record collection, it’s mostly roots reggae from ’68 to ’82. So there’s no real template for the three of us in a rehearsal room After we drop a groove, after looking at each other, laughing and saying, “This is it, this is it!”

Does improvisation play a part in that process?

There’s more improvisation in the sketch form, before we lock in a part. Once the part is locked in, we want to repeat it in the studio, so it’s not improvised anymore. It’s recited. So, but, yeah, there’s fluidity in that process.

The track “Cremation Ghat I” has a real funk groove to it that emanates from the rhythm section. Is that the heart of the band, so to speak?

Yeah, it’s all rhythm. When the band started in 2003, there was no guitar, just a rhythm section with vocals. It has since evolved.

And now it seems like the guitar and synthesizer parts come into the composition as leitmotifs in the midsections and at the ends of your compositions. That adds to the expansive feel. But there’s never really a lead guitar moment like there might be in heavy metal.

No. As a bassist, it’s an opportunity to write in that direction where ... I mean my favorite rock music—aside from Pink Floyd with David Gilmour, they’re an exception—is by bass-driven bands like Rush and Iron Maiden. The bass is the lead instrument. And to shift that into a focus on rhythm, of course there are riffs, but it’s got to have rhythm. That’s the life blood of it all, the drums and bass.

But despite that spare combination, when I drop the needle on this record—or any of your records for that matter—I feel like I am in a huge room, another world, the other world. Is there an esoteric edge to what’s happening in the course of creating your music?

Not consciously. It’s just a parallel to subjects that are important to me in my real life, the Upanishads, the [Bhagvad] Gita, you know the Dhammapada, Lao Tzu, I mean those are the real inspiring records. And then you get, like, Sabbath on the turntable, which is the second level of inspiring records. The first level is on the bookshelf.

That’s why it reminds me of ritual music. But Sleep takes a different approach, right?

Well, with Sleep, it’s fun because there’s a platform for the appreciation of science fiction. And you can laugh a lot. There’s a carried-over sense of humor from the recording studio to the albums to the shows, with Sleep. That’s how that started. We’d be listening to a record super baked and couldn’t stop laughing about how amazing a certain riff was. With psychedelics, you add a great riff and it’s over.

So it sounds like no matter how you express these things, what the foundations are, you’re creating a transcendent experience via music. Someone more esoteric might say you’re encountering the sublime, que no?

I don’t see it as esoteric. One of the things we were talking about, the doom-rock moniker, come on, it’s just music. Even this stoner rock thing, it’s been taken to its own commercial level. I mean smoking weed and listening to music, that’s stoner music. If it’s music that sounds better when you’re stoned, it’s stoner music.