What is Psych?
“We were somewhere on the edge of Bootle when the drugs started to take hold…” This weekend, Merseyside plays host to the Liverpool International Festival Of Psychedelia. A few years ago, anything calling itself a ‘psych fest’ would have featured Hawkwind, Ozric Tentacles, some Megadog-style trance techno act and a load of people in luminously painted clothes and dreadlocks. These days, psych is a much more variable and interesting beast. ‘Psych’ has become the most-used word on press releases. Everyone, it seems, is psych – from stoner rock bands to indie flavour-of-the-months, shoegazers to cod-Kraut rockers.
Psych has become an interesting escape route. (Want to avoid the ‘indie’ tag? You’re psych! Fed up of being called ‘stoner rock’? You’re psych!) But it’s also a scene filled with some genuinely exciting music, a place where metalhead and mods, indie kids, hippies and hipsters rub shoulder to shoulder, bound together by a love of out-there music.
At the beginning of the summer, Classic Rock visited the Austin Psych Fest, the city’s sixth annual celebration of all things ‘psych’, entertaining 4000 people across three stages on farmland by the Colorado river, and boasting a bill that featured prog, garage rock, indie, Roky Erickson and the reformation of Billy Gibbons’ pre-ZZ Top band, the Moving Sidewalks.
Backstage we collared Rishi Dhir of rising Canadian psych-pop act Elephant Stone and Brian Wilson sideman Nelson Bragg and asked them: what is psych? This genre-hopping conversation was the result.
Rishi Dhir: “I guess psych has become such a vast umbrella term, right? I mean, you look at [the Beach Boys'] Pet Sounds, [The Zombies'] Odessey And Oracle, you look at Krautrock – it’s just music that’s slight off the norm. It’s not predictable but at the same time it’s familiar. So you talk about [The Jesus & Mary Chain's] Psychocandy and the Stone Roses-”
Psychocandy wasn’t seen as psychedelic at the time – at all.
RD: “No – psychedelic has become an umbrella term for something else. It’s just a new marketing term, right? It’s like, when I started Elephant Stone and when the Black Angels [the hosts of Austin Psych Fest] started, we talked about psychedelic but it wasn’t like what it is now. I remember in my old band the High Dials, we called ourselves a psych-pop band and people were just dismissive in some ways. I remember someone describing psychedelic music as being bloated and not concise, but the Beatles were psychedelic – look at Tomorrow Never Knows, it’s two minute songs but that’s as psychedelic as it gets, y’know?”
[I interviewed Creation records boss Alan McGee once - it was at the height of Oasis mania and it was all about rock'n'roll and cigarettes and alcohol and I pointed out that Creation had been famous for putting out these sorta fey jingley-jangley C86 indie-pop records. He said "Fuck off! That wuznae C86 - they wur psychedelic punk records!" It seemed mad then, but makes sense now.]
If you speak to Billy Gibbons about the Moving Sidewalks he’ll tell you that his generation of bands started playing RnB and that and the pressures – the psychological impact of – Vietnam and the impact of LSD made the world go topsy turvy.
RD: “Yeah, I guess there was like R’n'B, mod, freakbeat… I remember when I was young, freakbeat was like psychedelic music to me.”
RD:: “The Creation, The Action, The Move, the Small Faces – it’s just words that people made up at the time, right? They credit 13th Floor Elevators from Austin as being the first band to actually coin the term ‘psychedelic music’.”
If there’s one thing the bands at Austin Psych Fest have in common, it’s that there’s no preening frontmen or cocky guitar heroes. It seems less macho, maybe more female friendly?
Another member of Elephant Stone [drily]: “It’s all the psychedelics. Killing the ego.”
C’mon: no-one’s on psychedelics here…
RD: “I could pull up some guys who are on psychedelics right now. But the thing about psychedelic music is that you’re a music fan first and foremost. [Shouts to someone approaching] Nelson Bragg! He plays with Brian Wilson. He can tell you about psychedelic, man. Pet Sounds?”
[We are joined by Nelson Bragg. An American percussionist, vocalist and songwriter, Bragg is best known as percussionist-vocalist for Brian Wilson's band from 2003.Bragg was in Austin to play with feted 80s psychadelists The Rain Parade.]
Do you think there was something lost, then, in the 70s when everything got a little heavier and nastier?
RD: “No. You got Big Star, you got Bowie, you got T. Rex – there’s so much great music in the 70s. You got The Jam.”
Nelson Bragg: “The first Hawkwind record, was that in the 70s?” [It was 1970.]
Yeah – but is that psych?
RD: ”I dunno. Anybody can be psych.”
Isn’t that power-pop?
RD: ”That’s just another label.”
Yeah, but we ARE at the Austin Psych Fest – the label is kind of important.
NB: Prog became kind of the new psych. And Miles Davis’s albums became the new psych. Any 70s Miles is gonna be-”
RD: “I think psych went glam, right? That’s where you got T.Rex and Bowie… Well, look at Yes. They started as a psych rock band and then got more proggy.”
Yet another member of Elephant Stone: “I think the guys doing psych now, it’s not so much about musicianship like the prog bands were, it’s more about //sound//.”
RD: “We’re about songs.”
NB: “That’s what I’m into! That’s why when you see Kaleidoscope tonight you’re going to hear songs that will freak you out! Well crafted 4 and a half minute masterpieces, every one of them.”
[There is much chatter about 60s psychedelic pop Brits Kaleidoscope playing that night. Frontman Peter Daltrey is the only original member. I interview him later. He can't define psych either.]
NB: ”The great psychedelic band of the 80s, Rain Parade, played here on Thursday.”
RD: “You remember Rain Parade?”
Yeah, they were like REM…
RD: ”Paisley Underground. Another label! I watched an interview with them in the 80s and they were asked, ‘What’s Paisley Underground?’ It’s the same as asking, ‘What’s psych?’ It’s all of us who grew up on the Beatles and the Nuggets compilation.”
You never grew up on the Beatles, c’mon – what age are you? [He is 35.]
RD: “I grew up on the Beatles! I listened to the Beatles when I was 7. I grew up with the Beatles.”
He’s right of course. In a way we all grew up on the Beatles. And Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix and the Sex Pistols – we couldn’t help but absorb it all. So maybe that’s the thing: the original psych only had blues and r’n'b and folk to draw from, now you’ve got shoegaze and punk and death metal…
RD: “And electro and new wave…”
NB: “There’s a trajectory for sure, a very specific lineage. There’s a psych tree. And Syd Barrett is the base. Immediately after him was the Beatles. Then the Kinks were-”
NB: “Revolver and Piper At The Gates Of Dawn were recorded at the same time…”
RD: ”That was Sgt Peppers and Piper…”
NB: “So Revolver really was the first, I stand corrected. It was the Beatles, then Syd.”
One of the Elephant Stone: ”And was it true they were all recorded in the same place?
NB: “Yeah, both done at Abbey Road studios.”
RD: “And [The Pretty Things'] SF Sorrow…”
NB: “And the Zombies’ Odyssey And Oracle.”
RD: “Four of the best records of the 60s, man.”
NB: “Done in the same building. SF Sorrow is [whistles].”
It’s like The Who before The Who quite got there.
NB: “Tommy before Tommy.”
RD: “I dunno. A Quick One While He’s Away? That song right there…”
NB: “The first sitar on a record was the Kinks in ’65…”
RD: “They didn’t use it. On See My Friends, that’s not a sitar.”
NB: “That’s not a sitar?”
RD: ”It’s a guitar.”
NB: “God I love this guy, he sets me straight!”
ES: “I read a story about the Kinks. Ray Davies was flying to Australia and they had a lay over in Bombay for a few days and walking the streets he heard these fishermen coming towards him singing the melody and that melody was See My Friends.”
NB: “With a suggestion of sitar.”
RD: “For sure. Super-droney.”
NB: “And then, kind of, the music went away. By ’68 it was gone. And then there was Hawkwind.”
Why did it end in ’68? It was just done? A cliche?
NB: “The concept of flowery music was over. Everyone went to blues and boogie. All the colours went to sepia tones…”
Woah! What about Jimi Hendrix?
NB [ignoring me]: “…Except Sunshine pop. In ’68 and ’69, and that was like [sings a jolly, easy listening, swinging tune]. Groups like, well, The Sunshine Company.”
Os Mutantes [who were playing at the festival that night] are a bit like that, aren’t they, with that sorta doo-woppy, easy listening…
NB: “Yeah, but they were seriously trippy.”
Elephant Stone dude: “Easy Psych.”
RD: “Easy psych, I like that!”
NB: “But psych pop, sunshine music – by ’69 both genres were gone. An then there was like, basically, Black Sabbath started in ’69, Led Zeppelin…”
Unidentified Elephant Stone dude: ”Iggy Pop?”
RD: “Velvet Underground?”
NB: “I would say that that the Stooges, in their own way [sings repetitive Stooges riff] – that’s one chord for 6 minutes. They were, like, the Godfathers of punk but he was really taking psych…”
So let me get this straight: what you’re saying is that psych is punk and prog and sunshine pop and…
RD: “…R’n'B and blues and new wave and mod… But then Rob [Fitzpatrick] who runs the festival, he picks the bands. And I know who he’ll say ‘no’ to, it’s funny.”
Actually I spoke to a band last night, Scorpion Child – they’re an Austin band and you could easily describe their music as psychedelic rock. They were a bit confused about why they didn’t make the bill. Maybe it goes back to that thing: the singer is a bit of an old school preening frontman, the guitarist plays solos…
RD: “Psychedelic is more than a sound, it’s an attitude, right? A preening frontman could rub everybody up the wrong…”
NB: “It’s really about a certain musical vibe that occurs. For me there’s two approaches: you write a trippy song which involves a classic song structure – which is what the Rain Parade did and the Beatles. But then there’s the ‘let’s-play-one-chord-for-five-minutes’ approach and that’s great too. That’s coming from the east – that’s the eastern influence. The western influence is…”
RD: “The west is song structure and harmonies…”
NB: “And the east is one chord, one drone kinda thing.”
Unidentified Elephant Stone dude: ”For us it becomes about lines, it become linear and it becomes about tone. As opposed to songwriting which is more vertical and becomes about harmony…”
RD: “We’re about both. We’ll a song like Love The Sinner which is just pure pop and then a son like The Sea Of Your Mind which is just one chord that goes for 10 minutes. But when we talk about the east we’re actually able to pull in real eastern sounds. [He later plays sitar onstage with the Black Angels.] A Silent Moment [brilliant, looping track on their current album that features classical Indian vocals and tabla playing]: when I wrote that it was a pure pop song but then we pull in the drony eastern mysticism and that takes it somewhere else. It’s a fine balance.”
It is: get it right and you write Paint It, Black. Get it wrong and you’re Kula Shaker.
NB: “Aw, I dug Kula Shaker…”
RD: “I never liked Kula Shaker and everyone keeps referencing them with us. We don’t sound like them…”
NB: “The problem with them was that they were really wearing it on their sleeve. They were like, ‘I’m really into this…’ It’s like saying, ‘I’m going to write a psych song now’ as opposed to ‘oops we wrote a psych song’. They were studied. Its like Plasticland in the 80s. You wanna like them but – it needs to have spontaneity. When it sounds calculated…”
RD: “I don’t mind them but when they came out I felt like they were pushing the Indian imagery…”
RD: ”Our artwork – it’s not like we have Ganesh on the album cover right? It’s in the song and its in the concepts and the idea.”
NB: “I’m sort of a fan of both. I like psychsploitation as much as straight psych. I’ll take both, just depends what kind of mood I’m in.”
RD: ”What’s that album, the King of Sitar…?”
ES: “His I Can See For Miles…”
NB: “But that was people capitalising on the movement. Commercial suits going. ‘Ooh’ and by the way it was already a dead movement, they were so late at it. It’s always the way – sideburns became popular in 1970. That was the straight world’s way of trying to be hip – but it was already too late. The shit was dead! I love those records. I love it when people show up late to the party and make a fool of themselves – that is the best. Not the best. It’s kitsch.”
Well here’s a thing: maybe psych has an inbuilt fear of making a fool of yourself. Maybe it’s a bit too cool-for-school. Maybe that’s why there’s no showboating frontmen or guitar heroes, because everybody’s too scared to put their head above the parapet…
NB: “Some people would think so.”
I mean, Shoegaze got a lot of stick for that…
NB: “Well that started with Suicide back in the 70s. I mean, that’s an attitudinal thing: ‘You’re allowed to be witness to what we’re going to do now’. The Doors probably started that…”
But Jim Morrison was a rock star…
NB [still off-on-one]: “‘Ignore this [gestures to surroundings as if pretentious rock god]. We’re just three guys doing our thing and if you dig it that’s cool…’”
RD: “Us and the Black Angels. We’re pretty different. They come from that school of lets play one chord for six minutes, whereas I’m like, ‘Let’s write a pop song’. And then they wanted to add more chords and shorten it and I wanted to take the pop song and have less chords and elongate it. And somewhere there’s a cross and you see the common ground as they reach. Their new record is pretty poppy. It’s great. Some beautiful songs. And for us it gets pretty dark sometimes.But there’s still always light behind the clouds.”
NB: “I just love that we’re having this conversation in 2013. That this festival exists now is so fucking weird for me…”
ES [looks at me]: “But psych music? I dunno what it is.”
NB [watching as I switch off the recorder]: “Did I just ruin your interview?”
THE LIVERPOOL INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF PSYCHEDELIA TAKES PLACE AT CAMP & FURNACE 27th AND 28th SEPTEMBER 2013.
Weekend tickets are priced at £45.00 (pbf). Day tickets are priced at: £20.00 (pbf) for Friday 27th September; £25.00 (pbf) for Saturday 28thSeptember. Available from bidolito.co.uk, ticketweb.co.uk, Probe Records (Liverpool), Piccadilly Records (Manchester), Jumbo Records (Leeds).
Bido Lito! – WEEKEND TICKETS http://www.bidolito.co.uk/gig/liverpool-psych-fest-2013
Bido Lito! – DAY TICKETS
Ticketweb – WEEKEND TICKETS http://www.ticketweb.co.uk/event/liverpool-international-festival-of-psychedelia-tickets/38697
Tags: 13th Floor Elevators, Big Star, Brian Wilson, elephant stone, Hawkwind, jesus & mary chain, Kula Shaker, Pink Floyd, rain parade, Small Faces, Stone Roses, the action, The Beatles, The Black Angels, the creation, The Move, The Pretty Things, The Stooges, The Who