Total telepathy

Watch Us Wreck The Mic: Psych’s new rising
By Matthew Whitehouse | Music | 8 December 2014
Photography Jamie Wdziekonski

Kikagaku Moyo at Austin Psych Fest 2014. Photography Jamie Wdziekonski

Taken from HERO 12: Darkness Falls, out now

Over 45 years since the airwaves were first awash with the sounds of people turning on, tuning in and dropping out, psychedelia is making a comeback. From original psychedelic bands reforming, to a new breed influenced by the experimental sounds of the 1960s, the result is a group of artists that sound different, but of a piece, swathed in tasseled leather like they’ve just stepped out of Granny Takes a Trip.

But this is more than sunshine, lollipops and raiding the Syd Barrett dressing-up box. With festivals taking place from Austin to Berlin, Copenhagen to Liverpool, it’s about kindred spirits everywhere, psychedelic communities providing an invitation to tear up the rulebook, follow your impulses and make music with the brakes off. For a genre that was incredibly short-lived in its original incarnation (only nine months after 1967’s Summer of Love, it had been ousted by the blues rock of Fleetwood Mac and Jethro Tull) psychedelia remains, in 2014, an alternative to everyday life, a profound connection for people to share in an increasingly fragmented society.

Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream: this is Psych Rock’s New Rising and the world is about to turn from monochrome to psychedelic.

Kikagaku Moyo at Austin Psych Fest 2014. Photography Jamie Wdziekonski

There’s an old saying in Liverpool that you’re never more than 200 yards away from a copy of Love’s Forever Changes. It’s an oft-repeated story, but in the early 1960s as American blues records flooded in from through its docks and merged with the British folk popular at the time, the setting was paved for some of the most truly out-there music of the past fifty years. Not only can the city lay claim to its most revered sons, The Beatles, creating what was arguably the first psychedelic record with Tomorrow Never Knows in 1966 (although it’s a hotly contended issue with Donavon’s Sunshine Superman and The Byrds’ Eight Miles High both in with a strong shout), it can also lay claim to producing one of the best when, in 1967, a band from Liverpool put out a true psychedelic masterpiece not in Sgt Pepper, but in Michael Angelo by the Kirby-based 23rd Turnoff. In fact, psychedelia is so much a part of the city’s history that it’s no surprise Europe’s leading celebration, the Liverpool International Festival Of Psychedelia, attracted over four thousand people to its redeveloped warehouses in September.

“Probe Records must be one of the main reasons [for its continuing popularity],” says Ade Blackburn of Liverpool band Clinic who, along with San Francisco’s Moon Duo, headlined the festival in 2013. “It’s been in Liverpool since the early 1970s. They always had – have – a lot of good psychedelia and put on gigs etc. I started listening to all the garage punk compilations and The Seeds through Probe and hearing about them through Echo and The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes. I’d imagine the same was true for [other Liverpool bands] Walkingseeds and Mr Ray’s Wig World. The weirdness in Liverpool is always bubbling under.”

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard at Austin Psych Fest 2014. Photography Jamie Wdziekonski

It’s that weirdness the festival seems to capture so well, reconciling the Aquarian oddity of psychedelia’s past with the unbound, experimentalism of it’s present. Although the bill does contain a certain amount of period fetishising – ‘Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be someone off the cover of Buttercup Sandwich Skies Vol. 9’ – there are bands, such as Moon Duo, for whom psychedelia is just another word for musical extrapolation; a mindset more than it is a sound.

“We improvise as we go, try to find sounds that work well together to get the point across and trust our instincts,” describes guitarist Ripley Johnson, who formed Moon Duo as a side project from his other band Wooden Shjips in 2009. “We build everything up from basic structures and have some idea how we want it to sound, but in many ways have no idea what we’re doing in the studio.”

Whereas British psychedelia tends to be quite concise (to the extent that there are surprisingly few British psychedelic albums), American psych is at its best when exploring uncharted territory through the sort of long-standing jams captured on Moon Duo’s latest release Live in Ravenna. While a lot of it keys into the fact that stateside psychedelia grew out of the blues (compare, say, The Grateful Dead’s 1968 Anthem of the Sun with Pink Floyd’s more European avant-garde influenced Piper at the Gates of Dawn) it also has a lot to do with the country’s embrace of cultural eclecticism, Moon Duo’s Johnson listing Neil Young, The Velvet Underground and jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler as just some of the very disparate influences upon his own work.

When asked whether all music, if successful in its ability to expand one’s mind or grow one’s understanding, could be considered psychedelic, Johnson suggests that it should at least be transporting: “I find a lot of modern pop music psychedelic, though not really mind expanding. That’s OK. Sometimes it’s just about feeling. Sometimes you need to get numb or just forget for a while.”

Kikagaku Moyo at the LA Psych Fest 2014. Photography Jamie Wdziekonski

Austin Psych Fest 2014. Photography Jamie Wdziekonski

Just as the psychedelic revivals of the early 1980s – London’s Groovy Cellar scene and LA’s Paisley Underground – took place under shadow of Thatcher and the Cold War respectively, so too are today’s artists making music during a period of social and economic uncertainty. It seems that in times like these, musicians are faced with two choices: you can either take the social realism route and address the problem head on or, to quote a lyric from She’s Only The Grocer’s Daughter by Groovy Cellar regulars The Television Personalities, you can “Relax your mind and float downstream, pretend it’s all a very bad dream.” For bands such as Washington stoner rockers Dead Meadow, it is invariably the latter.

“People have always been looking for a way to escape everyday reality and experience something grander, whether it be through religion or art,” says vocalist Jason Simon, whose lyrics take their cue from the work of writers such as JRR Tolkien more than they do the stresses of everyday life. “It is so hard to disconnect these days. We all walk around as if we were constantly doctors on call, expected to answer mobiles and texts at any place and time. I imagine a larger number of people are simply craving a deeper level of escape in their music as it becomes increasingly hard to do so day to day.”

Eddington Howard of psychedelic hip hop trio Oddience offers a more transcendent view: “I think we’re in a time where more people are exploring and expanding their minds partially because the internet makes it easy and normal to do so and partially because there is a conscious/metaphysical shift happening on earth leaving us more curious and open. Part of the 2012 Mayan calendar theory. The fact that the abstract or experimental is becoming more popular shows that evolution is real.”

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard at Austin Psych Fest 2014. Photography Jamie Wdziekonski

LA natives Oddience are just one of growing number of hip hop and RnB collectives taking the forward-thinking ethos of psychedelia and running with it to create unorthodox new sounds. From the late J Dilla- inspired drones of Madlib and MF DOOM to heavily hallucinogenic sounds of Flying Lotus, black artists are increasingly using psychedelia as byword for anything that disrupts the structural components of hip- hop in standard time. And while drugs are as prevalent on this scene as they are in any other (see New York rap duo Flatbush ZOMBiES, whose debut mixtape D.R.U.G.S. spoke explicitly about the effect of bath salts among other substances), Oddience are on the side of the majority when they insist they are not a requirement for making transformative music, vocalist Miche Maya going so far as to list pregnancy over THC as her most psychedelic experience.

“It depends on which way you want to transform things, but all in all, we would say no,” agrees Miles Michaud of fellow Californians, the Byrds-indebted Allah-Las. “It takes a certain mindset and drugs might amplify or alter that mindset but they will never create it. That’s something you have to create yourself.”

That DIY attitude is what links all these movements, from indie labels like Melbourne’s Chapter Music, who specialise in the sort of dreamy psych-pop that has proved successful for fellow Aussies Tame Impala, to the abundance of young British guitar bands now wearing ‘psychedelia’ as a badge of honour, such as Johnny Marr-approved Londoners Childhood. “People will always seek an escape from the mundane, be that through music, through drugs, or purely the mind,” believes vocalist Ben Romans-Hopcraft. “I see psychedelia as music or art that’s inspired by a supposed ‘higher’ consciousness. A tool for unlocking parts of the mind not accessible in day to day reality.”

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard at Austin Psych Fest 2014. Photography Jamie Wdziekonski

And the unlocking has only just begun. If you’re inclined to make more than pastiche, then psychedelia offers the requisite freedom to do so. And with so many different strands of it, there seems to be new generations of fans all the time, new generations of artists wanting to take a leap into the sonic unknown and keep the spirit of experimentation alive.

You would be forgiven for thinking Sérgio Dias had seen it all. Leader of the influential Brazilian band Os Mutantes, he first began making music under the military dictatorship of the late 1960s, before disappearing in a lysergic haze a few years later. Although for a long time turning down offers to reform (Kurt Cobain tried, without success, to get the Mutantes to open for Nirvana on their South American tour in 1993), they enjoyed a resurgence of interest following the release of a compilation put together by David Byrne on his Luaka Bop label in 1999 and eventually reunited for a series of concerts in 2006. What does he think the eternal appeal of psychedelia is? “The original psychedelic movement was the epicentre of a vortex of new discoveries in the human race,” he says, with no little wonderment. “We attained in the 1960s and 70s total telepathy. Just imagine what’s yet to come…”

All photography Jamie Wdziekonski

Read Next