Archive for the ‘psych’ Category

Album Review: The Roaring 420s – What is Psych?

Friday, July 11th, 2014

There’s a bubbling-under sort of cottage industry in sixties revivalism. And it’s been around for at least a couple of decades now, occasionally popping into the mainstream consciousness to enjoy a charting single or album. Of course Oasis raised the practice to fetishism in the 1990s, shifting millions of units for their trouble. And the (admittedly more modest) success of Rhino’s Children of Nuggets box set proved that, for many, the sounds and aural aesthetic of the 1960s have never really gone away.

Today we have Elephant Stone, The Allah-Las, The Black Angels and many others. Each has their own style based in whole or part on what was happening in the second half of the 1960s, but each, too, has their own identity. And the similarly-named (yet quite distinct from one another) bands The Fuzztones and The Fleshtones have been keepers of the flame for the more garage-y end of 60s style.

Paradoxically perhaps, it requires more than a modicum of originality to earn success in 2014 while reaching back half a century for one’s musical touchstones. The Orgone Box is one act (based in the UK) whose music somehow builds upon the sounds of old while transcending the eras to create something fresh and lasting; look for my review of their Centaur album soon in this space.

Another group of note with a similar level of quality is The Roaring 420s.

Okay, now that you’ve had a second or so to chuckle at the group’s name and get it out of your system, you’re ready to digest (or, ingest) their music. Yes, this is a case of band name as truth-in-advertising, though the music of this German-based group often suggests the intake of something stronger than a bit of weed.

Judging solely by the music, there’s little or nothing to suggest that The Roaring 420s are from Germany. In fact their sound is firmly rooted in mid 1960s Los Angeles: you’ll hear strong hints of The Music Machine, The Electric Prunes, and even (shudder) The Doors. The group has a real knack of combining the vibe of yesteryear with something far more important: a hook. Every track on What is Psych? is loaded with at least one – sometimes two, occasionally three – killer riffs or hooks.

The Roaring 420s come blasting out of the gate with “Bury My Burden” sounding for all the world like a much more pop-leaning Black Angels. Fuzzy guitars and a heavier bass than is usually the case in sixties garage stomp forward, aided by some especially tasty combo organ work. And it’s the keyboards that push the music on What is Psych? past the very-good mark toward something really special. The band’s call-and-response vocal approach (employed on some but certainly not all tracks) pulls the listener in, if they weren’t already all-in.

Typically, songs of the type one will find on What is Psych? are of the three-minutes-and-out variety. It’s a testament to the strength of the band’s songwriting and arranging that many of the cuts on What is Psych? extend well beyond that mark. Catchy soloing that actually goes somewhere is backed by hypnotic backing; even at seven-plus minutes, a tune like “Bury My Burden” never so much as threatens to wear out its welcome.

The band cleverly builds its arrangements in a way that means sometimes one member is turning out a memorable solo, while the rest are providing sympathetic support. But then, perhaps, the bass and guitar will engage in lockstep riffing. Then it’s Florian Hohmann‘s combo organ and Timo Elmert‘s guitar in octave-apart unison. Then, maybe Martin Zerrenner‘s bass and Hohmann’s keys. And it all works, anchored by Luisa Mühl‘s solid drumming.

In places (as on “Blue Jay,”) The Roaring 420s sound like early Velvet Underground supercharged with the sort of pop sensibility the VU wouldn’t display until Loaded. (And the 420s are not nearly as dark as the Velvets; they seem to be having a good time.)

Like Elephant Stone (who, at will, they they can sound like) the 420s make intelligent use of sitar, as on “These Woods of Stone.” But their shimmering, riff-based pop tunes – exemplified by “Another Chance (to Blow)” are where they truly shine. The Roaring 420s have figured out to just what degree they can employ repetition: more and it would be overkill, less and they’d be leaving riffs on the table (so to speak).

Mid-album (especially on “Hey Hey Rider”), the group seems to take a brief detour into a slightly different style, one that suggests a Blonde on Blonde era Dylan crossed with, I dunno, The Fugs. Hohmann does his best Dylan but ends up sounding more like Lou Reed. But on “Yes I Am” the quartet make it clear that they won’t be pigeonholed on every tune. The bright piano work that forms the track’s basis illustrates that there’s still room for expanding the parameters of what-is-psych, Sixties style.

It’s Blues Magoos time on “You Had to Learn it the Hard Way,” taking a familiar blues lick and building a track around it. The result threatens to yield a less notable tune, but the “ba-ba-ba” vocals suggest what might’ve happened if The Mamas and the Papas dropped by a Magoos recording date.

Thick fuzz riffage against a piano backing makes “Saturday Night” alright for this album, though here the lead vocals sound curiously like Tom Verlaine. The folky strains of “Pill Hill” suggest the Velvets’ more gentle, contemplative moments. Rhyming “jello” and “pillow” is a bit dodgy, but the Al Kooper-style organ work means they earn a pass.

The Roaring 420s save the best for next-to-last: the slow chugging vibe of “Tourist” crosses a Neil Young and Crazy Horse approach with (again) Television, and the result feel like epic storytelling, whether it is or not. After several guitar solos – none of which feels excessive – an extended (and finely textured) keyboard solo conjured pleasant memories of the late Ray Manzarek. Even at eight minutes, not a second of “Tourist” feels gratuitous or wasted.

The fuzzed-out, low-key “You Will Never Be the Same” ends the album on a blurry note, providing a calming chill-out to send listeners home after this trip through the past. But not too calming: in spots, the tune feels like C.A. Quintet‘s dark classic “A Trip Thru Hell.”

For those who dig the psychedelic vibe of the 60s but want strong melodic underpinning, but who insist upon something they haven’t heard before, The Roaring 420s’s What is Psych? may be just what the doctor ordered.

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The Universe of Captain Sensible, Part Two

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: Your album The Universe of Geoffrey Brown is very “visual,” in that it creates a mind movie in the listener’s head, much like old radio programs. Were you looking to put something together that was in line with radio dramas of old, or did that not figure in to your thinking?

Captain Sensible: Yes, I love radio. But I don’t care for film and TV too much, it has to be said. You sussed that did you? Movies did hit all up for you: you’re a passive sponge soaking up whatever you are given, reacting in exactly the way the film creators intend, and your emotions are prodded and controlled at will.

I feel very strongly that we should all be more aware of how we are being manipulated by what we watch. Audio leaves more to your own imagination and your thoughts can wander into areas of your own choosing. Much better, in my opinion.

I listen to BBC Radio 4′s Archers soap about rural English farmers. It’s a bit boring at times, but it’s brilliantly done and it makes me laugh. Some of the characters have been going for 40 years or so! Not the cows, though; they all ended up in pies years ago.

BK: You played some of the Universe songs in the concert documented on Live at the Milky Way. Did it ever occur to you to mount a live-performance version of Universe?

CS: Yes, the songs worked great live. But I feel the audience needs to know the story for interest to be held in some of the more meandering pieces, so I will probably only perform the album in its entirety if we’ve either staged the whole thing theatrically or – cue cries of “hypocrite” – gotten Geoffrey Brown made as a movie prior to gigs.

BK: Copies of The Universe of Geoffrey Brown are not easy to find. For that matter, none of your albums is particularly easy to locate in North America. But of course you’ve enjoyed much greater success in the UK. What do you say to the argument that your work it “too English” to be assimilated by American audiences? (The same argument is sometimes leveled at The Kinks, Small Faces, etc. so you’d be in good company.)

CS: Maybe…I dunno. You won’t find me complaining that I could’ve been a contender or whatever though, as I’ve had a pretty fun time as a muso over the years. I was crap at getting up in the morning, so the jobs I attempted upon leaving school generally only lasted a few days owing to poor timekeeping on behalf of my laziness. Thankfully I am not usually asked to work until the evening these days…although I have missed a few flights over the years.

BK: Your last studio release was in 2002. What are you up to musically these days?

CS: Funny you should ask, as I’ve (laughs) just made a concept album with ex-Damned bassist Paul Gray entitled A Postcard From Britain. It was written and recorded with the aid of some of the acoustic instruments hanging on his living room wall, like bouzouki, sitar, mandolin, et cetera.

We decided to write a bunch of songs which have as their theme things about the UK that we find annoying, amusing, or plain daft. So there’s plenty of potential for material there! The lyrics were mainly written in Paul’s local pub, so as you can imagine we had a real laugh naming names and poking the occasional accusing finger.

Plus of course being a closet progger there’s no shortage of acid tinged guitar solos on the record! Postcard was recorded in a garage in Wales; we love the finished lo-fi feel. Vinyl copies are now available from Easy Action Records. Or as is more normal these days, MP3s from Amazon and iTunes.

BK: What was your reaction when you learned that Aggronautix was doing a Throbblehead of you? Do you think it’s a good likeness?

CS: Yes, not too bad at all! They got the nose right, anyway (laughs). They worked from a picture of me onstage, giving the audience the finger.

But doing one of Captain Sensible? What the makers were thinking, I dunno. But it gave me a good laugh when I saw the Throbblehead for the first time, as can be seen in the video on Aggronautix’s website. And to be in the company of maniacs like GG Allin, Roky Erickson and Jello Biafra is good stuff in my book.

I dig the sales pitch too: “Let the good Captain tell you to ‘sod off’ on a daily basis as he gives you the ole two finger salute. Limited to 1000 numbered units he’s accurately sculpted right down to the beret, seething sneer, and leopard-print pants.”

My own one will blend nicely in a display cabinet with current residents the Dalek, Zippy, Dennis the Menace, Betty Boop, some Homepride Flour men, Doraemon and Commander Shore from Stingray. Which dates me nicely, as you have to be a certain age to know most of those!

Once described by a music paper as “one of the world’s most disgusting slobs,” I see myself as a possible antidote to the slick choreographed mainstream so-called entertainers that make you wanna hurl a brick at the TV screen every time they appear. So with that in mind, I wholeheartedly endorse this excellent new Sensible figurine. Every home should have one.

The Captain Sensible Throbblehead is available from Aggronautix.

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The Universe of Captain Sensible, Part One

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Concept albums have been around for quite awhile. Opinions differ as to which was the first of the lot: some say The Pretty ThingsSF Sorrow, while others pick the most obvious and high-profile release, The Who‘s Tommy. Still other insist that Freak Out by Frank Zappa‘s Mothers of Invention deserves the nod.

All of these are valid choices, as each holds together – to varying degrees – in one form or another. And the “concept” form remained semi-popular through rock history, applied to projects as diverse as Rick Wakeman‘s all-instrumental The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The TubesRemote Control, and XTC‘s Skylarking. But one thing that all of these albums mentioned so far lack is a narrative story line. The interspersing of dialogue between songs is thought by many to diminish the flow of a record, and to make it something other than a standard “album” that can be listened to while driving, working out, whatever.

And when artists have attempted to go that music-and-dialogue route, the commercial and critical response has been divided at best. Jeff Wayne‘s War of the Worlds employed an all-star cast including Richard Burton, and the resulting 2LP set has its fans (me among them). But it didn’t sell in droves. Pete Townshend gave it a serious go with his 1993 Psychoderelict, the (fancifully autobiographical?) story of a washed-up rocker’s attempt at a comeback. Most critics went on record characterizing Psychoderelict as dreadful; me, I loved it and thought it quite entertaining.

Townshend himself thought enough of the work to mount a stage presentation of Psychoderelict, complete with actors reprising their spoken bits onstage. But he (or his record company) also thought little enough of it to release an additional “music only” version of the album, stripped of all the narrative. (I found that version to be stripped of its power and impact as well.)

But the most notable – and for me, successful – of all attempts to fuse story and dialogue with rock music came from a somewhat unlikely source: Captain Sensible, then best known as bassist for seminal UK punk group The Damned.

The Universe of Geoffrey Brown (like Psychoderelict, released in 1993) wasn’t a massive commercial success, and perhaps it didn’t even do well enough in the marketplace to be labeled a cult favorite. But it remains one of my favorite albums. A few years ago, I got the chance to speak with Martin Newell about his role in the creation of the album. And now, I’ve gotten the opportunity to speak directly with the man behind the project – Captain Sensible, aka Ray Burns – about The Universe of Geoffrey Brown. We also chatted a bit about his latest project, and a new limited-edition bobblehead that immortalizes the good Captain in plastic resin.

Bill Kopp: There’s really nothing – at least nothing of which I’m aware – in your music prior to The Universe of Geoffrey Brown that tips your hand as having interest in the sort of concept-album that Universe is. How did the original idea for the album come about?

Captain Sensible: I consider myself incredibly lucky as a music fan to have grown up in the 60s / 70s at a time when rock n roll had just grown up – via Dylan and The Beatles, mainly – and some incredible records were being made. Bands pretty much did whatever they wanted in the studio, which cannot be said of today. Even The Damned had visits from label A&R people occasionally, but we usually sent them off with a flea in their ears.

The first time I heard The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow, I was transfixed. The concept nature of the album took me on a musical journey…a mind trip, even. It was hugely engrossing, and I started seeking out other records of this kind – like The Moody BluesDays Of Future Passed and Tommy. “One day I will make an album like this,” I promised myself. And that’s how Geoffrey Brown came about.

I took my inspiration from the Cold War rhetoric of Reagan and Thatcher. The question the album asks is, “How did we go from the beautiful love and peace dream of the summer of ’67 to public acceptance of the Dr. Strangelove world of mutually assured nuclear annihilation?” My main character Geoffrey works at the Ministry of Defence, plotting targets for destruction in a nuclear attack. He considers his job normal until his head is turned by a hippie chick one day on a bicycle ride; he decides to do something more creative with his department’s missile tracking technology.

My poet chum Martin Newell – being of the wordy persuasion – brought the characters to life with some excellent scripts, and we got proper actors to perform the between-song dialogue. It all works splendidly if you ask me, although the whole project took two years or so to complete!

BK: When I asked Martin Newell about the album, he told me that you did the one song and then decided to flesh it out to album-length work. Did you find it difficult to put songs together that – along with the spoken bits between – moved the story along?

CS: No, once we had the story mapped out the song ideas flowed easily. In fact, I recommend the concept album idea to all musicians, as it’s a massively creative and fun way to make a record, and connect with your audience by telling a story.

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Album Review: Various – A Psych Tribute to The Doors

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Tribute albums can go any number of ways: they can showcase new takes on old music, they can provide a way for young or relatively unknown bands to use classic tunes to jump-start their own careers, or they can be pretty much a waste of everyone’s time. Cleopatra Records specializes in tribute albums, and while some of their releases headed straight into the ditch of that third category (see Who Are You and a pointless Supertramp tribute collection), this one is pretty strong.

There are two reasons for this: one, the Doors’ music is often an ideal canvas upon which to project one’s own musical identity. Two, several of the bands involved in this collection rank among the most interesting psych-revival acts at work today. Elephant Stone‘s “L.A. Woman” happily takes the tune in the same direction you might expect Brian Jonestown Massacre to go. The Black Angels make “Soul Kitchen” their own, with some wonderfully fuzzed-out guitar and trademark detached Nico-esque vocals. Psychic Ills gamely tackle “Love Me Two Times,” and while they don’t offer much of a new angle on the song (what, honestly, could one do?), they serve up a tasty head-nodding version. Worthwhile.

Note: Due to an unusually full schedule this week and next – you wouldn’t believe me if I told you – my posts will be a bit shorter than typical. Once the dust settles, my normal wordy posting will recommence.

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The Moody Blues’ Mike Pinder: Promise Renewed (Part Two)

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Continued from Part One

BK: Eighteen years passed between release of The Promise and Among the Stars. Certainly you were busy with other things in the intervening years, but why so long a gap? And again – did you build up a backlog of songs over that period, or did you approach the album as a new project, and set about writing for it anew?

MP: I was very happy and busy with family life! During the years I was active with my band I did not have much of a private life. We were always recording or touring. First the release of Magnificent Moodies and Go Now in 1965. Then the formation of Moodies II. We were busy then from 1967 to 1978 recording eight albums. It was a rewarding but grueling work schedule.

I wanted to spend as much time enjoying and nurturing my family as I had done nurturing a band. When my sons were almost grown I thought it would be fun to get back into the studio recording. I have always had a small recording studio at home so even though I did not formally release any songs during those years, I was always tinkering around with the music and listening to the muse.

BK: Among the Stars seems to feature a sound that is closer in some ways to what you had done with the Moody Blues, specifically in its greater use of keyboards. Was the fact that so much time had passed a factor in your thinking, “it’s okay to sound like this now and then” or was that not part of your thinking at all?

MP: Keyboard is my main instrument so it is always an easy choice for me in an arrangement. I don’t think it was a conscious decision to use more Mellotron or keyboards. Having the sounds of the Mellotron available to me helped me to arrange and paint the backdrop for the song. I think you will always hear Moody Blues in my songs and arrangements because the music of the Moodies always reflected a certain part of who I am, my message and my creative vision.

BK: Part of the stated reason for your leaving your old band had to do with not wishing to tour. Did you do any live dates to promote either The Promise or Among the Stars, and to what degree have you engaged in public performance since that time?

MP: I did a tour in the US when I released The Promise. But I did not do any live shows when I finished Among the Stars. Instead I did a tour in the USA of Borders Books & Music stores. That was really fun. I got to meet and greet the fans. It was a beautiful experience to hear first hand the impact the music has had on listeners of our music. I have always said that that is my Hall of Fame. Who needs a bogus political entity telling me that I am worthy of recognition in Rock’s Hall of Fame. When you have changed or touched a life in some magical and wonderful way with music or art then the artist has hit the jackpot.

BK: The Mellotron was long notorious for its – many said – unsuitability as a live performance instrument. You, of course, used it extensively. Today, very few musicians do that; beyond Damon Fox of Bigelf, I don’t know of any other touring musicians who use a Mellotron. And when albums note the use of a ‘Tron, often it’s (ironically) a sample of a Mellotron! Of course there’s something called the Memotron, an attempt at a modern digital answer to this decidedly analog instrument. Are you familiar with the Memotron, and if so, how do you think it compares to my favorite musical instrument, the Mellotron?

MP: I think it was fate that brought me together with the Mellotron. Besides being a player, I have always had an interest in mechanics and engineering. The Mellotron was manufactured by Streetly Electronics in Birmingham and I applied for a job working in the factory. A perfect match. I loaded the tapes and made sure they were timed correctly. The fact that I could assemble a Mellotron from top to bottom enabled me to troubleshoot the instrument. I knew it inside and out.

The Mellotron was delicate. Improper handling would cause the tapes to get tangled. Also it was a heavy instrument at 350 pounds. All the weight was in the housing.

I have only seen the Memotron online but it is a concept that I did for myself years ago when I digitized my favorite Mellotron sounds to use on a Roland sampler. In the early 90’s I digitized and looped my favorite Mellotron sounds, and I now play them on a Roland S-760 Sampler (weighing 3 pounds) I also digitized the best sounds of the Chamberlain. So now I can play both in stereo. I still love the Mellotron but it is nice to have it available to me in a more compact version.

The sound and tone of the Mellotron is uniquely recognizable and I think I achieve my signature sound by the interface of how I use the pitch control and volume pedal.

BK: Two of the three bonus tracks included with Among the Stars feature involvement by Ray Thomas and Tony Clarke. When were those recorded?

MP: A few years before we lost Tony, he came over to the States and worked with my sons, Michael Lee and Matt Pinder (also known as The Pinder Brothers) on their CD Ordinary Man. “Waves Crash” and “Empty Streets” were songs Tony produced. We sent the tracks to Ray in the UK for his flute parts. It was a real treat to have them working with my sons.

BK: The new package is very nicely put together, with the box, booklet and DVD. How did this project come to be?

MP: I met the people at Esoteric on a visit to the UK. They had released a box set for my dear buddy Ray Thomas, and Ray introduced me. They are passionate about music, and this is rare in the record business of today.

Mike Pinder’s The Promise / Among the Stars box set is available from Cherry Red as well as the usual online places. Mike’s website is www.mikepinder.com

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The Moody Blues’ Mike Pinder: Promise Renewed (Part One)

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Keyboardist Mike Pinder was a founding member of the Moody Blues. He was with them back in the really early days, when their lead singer was Denny Laine (later of Wings) and they scored a hit with “Go Now.” He was one of three members(along with flautist Ray Thomas and bassist John Lodge) who remained with the group as they became the quintet that most remember, the one with lead vocalist Justin Hayward and drummer Graeme Edge. That group released what are known among fans as the “Core Seven,” a series of albums that prominently featured Pinder’s arrangements and keyboard work, most notably on the Mellotron.

Pinder left the Moodies after their 1978 LP Octave, but had already began a solo career with 1976′s The Promise. A second solo release, Among the Stars followed, but not until 1994. Both albums have long been out of print. But now in 2014, the pair of albums – plus a DVD with interviews, and a few bonus tracks – have been released in a handsome box set. I spoke with Mike Pinder about the new reissue and some topics that have long been on my mind. Here’s our conversation. – bk


Bill Kopp: I bought The Promise on vinyl many years ago. When I first heard it, it came as a bit of a surprise to me, as it wasn’t what I had expected: a Mellotron album. Only the title track sounds much like what we’d heard from you before. Was it a conscious decision for you to create an album that overtly moved away from keyboard-focused songs, and from the heavily orchestrated sound of the Moody Blues?

Mike Pinder: I don’t think it was a conscious decision. I just gave choose the arrangement that I think fit the song. Recording on my own for the first time in many years just gave me the flexibility and freedom to use other musicians and friends and experiment a little more.

BK: A few years ago, I interviewed Graeme Edge, and asked him about the possibility of the Moody Blues doing what a number of groups have done: performing complete albums live onstage, start to finish. He said no, and his reason had to do with your songs: “We have considered it, but there’s a problem: we wouldn’t have somebody else sing a Mike Pinder song. It wouldn’t be right; there’s a phoniness to that.” What are your feelings on the subject?

MP: I don’t know about that. I considered them all my songs in some way as I am sure the entire band did. I would hear a song of Ray [Thomas]’s or John [Lodge]’s and I would add any creativity I could to making the song stronger. We all did that for each other. When you hear any Moody Blues song you hear my input or influence. For instance the counter melodies of “Nights in White Satin” are my creation. I think I am known for creating many of the memorable counter melodies, unexpected chord changes and most of the arrangements that you hear in any Moody Blues songs from the eight albums we did. Certainly from what fans call the “Core” or “Classic 7.”

BK: Moody Blues albums from 1967 to 1972 always featured one, two or more of your songs, since the band had several songwriters. I’m reminded of George Harrison once he left the Beatles and released All Things Must Pass. Was yours a similar situation, in that you had a huge backlog of songs you hadn’t had the opportunity to record and release, or did you write most of the tunes for The Promise specifically for the album?

MP: It was about 50/50. But it is interesting you make that analogy. Yes, like George I had songs in the wings. Musical ideas, like other art forms, are unique only in their expression. I don’t think ideas are individual by any means. But the transformation of the idea by the individual into art gives it uniqueness.

Here is a little fishing metaphor for the creative muse. I like to visualize creative ideas as being poured out of an urn, almost like Aquarius pouring out water. And then the wind would blow them, ideas, musical notes, lyrics, color etc and they would flow like a river. Alongside the river would be people sitting, with pencil in hand, an empty notebook or a guitar on their knee (which is metaphorically like fishing tackle) As these ideas come by, you try and grab one for you. Quite often that is what happens and you would hook something, and you would struggle with it, but you could never quite get it in the boat. So you have to cut your line.

I remember buying a George Harrison album, and hearing a song, and thinking “that’s the one that got away.” I didn’t get it, but further downstream (and George used to live about three miles away) George was up that night and hooked the bugger. Late at night when everyone is asleep has always been my favorite time to fish. I think when the world is quite it is easier to listen to the muse.

BK: I have read that “One Step Into the Light” was one of yours from the time of The Promise. It’s such a strong song; assuming that account is accurate, what led you to not including a version of it on your own album to begin with?

MP: “One Step Into the Light” was originally on Octave, which was the last album I recorded with the Moodies. We were not getting along very well in the recording studio, and I did not think any of the songs on that album got the attention they deserved. It was lovely to reflect on the song over time and re-record it with my sons.

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Bonus Weekend Feature: The Black Angels’ Alex Maas Talks About Roky Erickson

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

Austin-based band Black Angels have a finely tuned sense of history. While their music – often described by the band members themselves as “tribal psychedelic” – doesn’t aim to slavishly re-create the sounds of some long-lost musical era, the group readily acknowledges a clear debt to their psychedelic forebears.

And chief among those influences for the Black Angels (and many other acts who fall loosely into the modern-psych bag) is The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, one of the earliest psychedelic bands. Led by Roky Erickson, The Elevators – also Austin-based – released a legendary 1966 album (The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators), followed up with another fine effort (Easter Everywhere) a year later, and then petered out quickly with an ersatz-live album and a final effort on which its main musician was all but absent.

But The Elevators’ stature among succeeding generations of rock musicians grew, helped in no small part by Erickson’s bizarre life path. It’s difficult to summarize the story in a few words, but here’s an attempt: to avoid jail time for a drug bust (a single joint, by the way), Erickson entered an insanity plea and was confined to the (Rusk) Texas State Mental Hospital. There he received electroshock treatments, which many believe exacerbated the not-quite-qualifying-as-insane psychological problems Erickson was having.

He eventually got out, but went on to live an existence characterized by untreated schizophrenia. And during that period, he went on to make a series of albums that chronicled his obsession with the strange and macabre. The song titles tell part of the story: “The Evil One,” “Two Headed Dog,” “Bloody Hammer,” “I Walked With a Zombie.” He eventually got the help he needed, and his journey back toward something approaching normalcy is chronicled in the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me, named after the Elevators’ most famous song.

Growing up in Austin and eventually forming a psychedelic band all but guarantees that you’d know about Roky. And the Black Angels’ multi-instrumentalist Alex Maas cites him as an early, high-school-years influence. “People had told me about [the 13th Floor Elevators], and I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ll need to check that out sometime.’ I think I was in a record store, and I heard ‘Roller Coaster’ or ‘Reverberation.’ I asked the guy there, ‘Who is this?’ He told me, and it rang a bell.” He wondered why he didn’t already know about this locally-based band. “I mean, I knew about Buddy Holly,” he laughs.

When the Black Angels formed ten years ago, they drew upon Roky’s work – both from the Elevators years and beyond – for some of their inspiration. And then years later (2007) The Black Angels played at an event called the Roky Erickson Ice Cream Social at the SXSW Festival. That show brought the band to the attention of Roky’s management.

So it’s fitting that on the Black Angels’ current tour – which brought them to Asheville’s Grey Eagle on Thursday, February 20 – they finally share the stage with their hero. “If you told me years ago that this would happen,” Maas chuckles,” I would have said, ‘bullshit!’” Though they did a few dates backing Roky in 2008, this will have been the first time that they performed a double-bill with Roky and his band. “There might be a little tango onstage” with Roky and the Black Angels, Maas teases. Clearly everyone concerned is pleased at the pairing: in the time his band has spent close to Erickson, Maas says that they’ve learned “just how therapeutic playing music is for someone like Roky.”

Back in 2008, there had been plans afoot for a recorded collaboration between Roky and the Black Angels, but – despite an investment of time and resources by the band – that abortive project never fully materialized. Instead, Erickson released an album backed by Okkervil River, 2010′s True Love Cast Out All Evil. Luckily, reworked tapes from the Black Angels sessions have yielded a new single featuring the band covering a pair of Roky’s tunes. The seven-inch vinyl “(Thank God for) Civilization” b/w “Bo Diddley is a Headhunter” will be available at shows. Describing the songs as “not quite 13th Floor Elevators, and not quite Black Angels,” Maas explains that part of the band’s motivation for pushing to get the single out was “to put some money in Roky’s pocket.” Beyond that, Maas hopes that interested generated by the single will eventually lead to the release of more tracks from those 2008 sessions.

Maas urges anyone interested in Roky Erickson to attend the shows on this tour. “Roky doesn’t need to tour,” he says. “And he might not tour much after this.”

Hundred Word Reviews: February 2014, Part Three

Friday, February 7th, 2014

I’m making progress in bringing my the contents of my in-box down to a manageable size, but there are still so many albums deserving of coverage that I’ll be doing a few more of these capsule reviews. This time ’round I’ll take quick looks at artists who have either self-released, or put their music out on an indie label. All deserve wider notice, and like the government, I’m here to help.

Ezra Furman – Day of the Dog
I have difficulty getting past a vocalist I don’t care for; even if the songs are strong, if you sing like Geddy Lee or that guy in Cake, I’ll have a tough time with your music. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try. This is just such an example. With a sound that combines a stripped-down Phil Spector vibe with punk, Ezra Furman’s album is bitter, angry and restless. And filled with some pretty cool music. Greasy r&b saxophone battles it out with noisy guitars, except when Furman goes in an acoustic direction (see “My Zero,” an album highlight).

Rovo and System 7 – Phoenix Rising
When I first heard Ozric Tentacles, my first thought was that they had successfully updated the sound and aesthetic of Steve Hillage for the 21st century. But of course Hillage is still at it as well, and his latest project is this, a collaboration that includes him and partner Miquette Giraudy (as System 7) with Rovo, a five -piece from Japan featuring a former member of notorious band The Boredoms. Hints of 90s-period Porcupine Tree can be found. If you understand and appreciate the distinction between “trance” and “jam” and prefer the former, this one is highly recommended.

The Fire Tapes – Phantoms
This one makes me sad. I discovered this Charlottesville VA band in 2012, and found their moody onstage musical presentation even more affecting than their (excellent) debut LP Dream Travel. With a sound that builds upon the fuzzed-out sonic drone of the Dream Syndicate, the band offered a twin guitar attack that reminded me of Television. They followed up with a single later that year, and in late 2013 released the full-length Phantoms. But right on the heels of that release, they broke up. What they left behind is an album that betters the debut. Find it if you can.

Michael Des Barres – Hot N Sticky Live
On this live album, Des Barres avoids the crushingly obvious temptation to self-cover his Power Station-era material, and instead lends his raspy pipes to material from his latest studio album (2012′s Carnaby Street) and knowing covers .The highlight among the latter is a reading of Humble Pie‘s version of “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” as part of a medley. Des Barres was born to sing that kind of material, and he and band (featuring Bigelf‘s Damon Fox on keys) crank out rock, soul and r&b as if their lives depended on it. It’s as fiery as prime-era Graham Parker.

Dog Society – Emerge
Is there a place in the 21st century’s second decade for straightahead rock? Apparently, NYC based Dog Society think so. With a sound that builds on the best of 70s album-oriented rock, the five-piece is all about the vibe. The songs are catchy and memorable. Soaring, sustained guitar lines will transport you back to rock’s classic era. Bonus points for great vocal harmonies and stellar arrangement. Fans of Howlin’ Rain are sure to dig this, though Dog Society have a wider musical palette (see the clever melding of bossa nova and arena rock on “A Good Friend” for proof).

Weird Owl – Healing
This year’s winner in the Cleverest Band Name sweepstakes (say it out loud if you haven’t already gotten it), this Brooklyn outfit is of a musical piece with like-minded associates such as Black Angels and Brian Jonestown Massacre. Much of the album sounds if it was recorded in an empty gymnasium, but that deep-echo vibe is what the fuzzy, head-nodding-inducing songs require. Points to you if you can decipher the lyrics amidst the sonic haze, but that perhaps misses the whole point. Memorable Revolver-styled guitar leads and some tasty analog-sounding synth work are among the highlights of this excellent record.

Murray Hockridge & Dave Kilminster – Closer to Earth
I reviewed Kilminster‘s solo album Scarlet: The Director’s Cut about a year ago, and generally I don’t cover indie artists twice with in a year unless they do something especially remarkable. And that’s just what he’s done on this new record, in collaboration with fellow guitarist/vocalist Murray Hockridge. There are no original songs on this album; instead it’s filled with fascinating, soulful acoustic covers – reinventions is a better word – of well-known songs. REM, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Steely Dan and Radiohead are just a few of the acts whose work is recast here, and it works amazingly well.

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Nik Turner: Mystical Interdimensional Space Gypsy (Part Three)

Friday, January 24th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: You’ve come a long way from the beginning when it wasn’t about technical proficiency…

Nik Turner: But I’ve become technical just through practicing. I go busking on the street sometimes. I just play anything, you know. I’ll play Charlie Parker tunes, or whatever people want to hear. In Cardiff [Wales] I’ll go busking in the downtown district from eight o’clock at night until two in the morning. All the glamorous girls are out clubbing, and I get them all dancing. I’ll play bossa novas; I’ve got a whole raft of material.

I’ll play these clever arpeggios and then end up on the right beat, so it all comes out okay. And it’s great; I’ll earn ₤200 in an evening. To me, it’s an end toward practicing. I see music as a language; you have to learn the vocabulary. That vocabulary is the ability to connect the notes, and then express yourself.

I practice every day. I feel music is a healing thing; I like to feel I can heal people. I went to Egypt when I left Hawkwind. I was supposed to stay with a friend, but he got deported the day I went there. When I landed, I got a taxi to the Great Pyramid. I climbed to the top of it and played my flute.

BK: I read about that.

NT: It started raining! It was quite bizarre in a desert. So I recorded this music, spending time inside the Great Pyramid, recording and meditating and chanting. I got use of the place just by trying, really. I had this old Bedouin man who said he was arranging it for me; I didn’t believe him. He introduced me to the Director of Antiquities on the site, who I then asked if I could play my flute in the pyramid and record it. And he said, “Yes, just buy a ticket. And then I’ll close the pyramids to the public so you can spend four hours in there.”

So I did that, and I devised a story as I went along. Rather than just doodling along on my flute, I felt I should make something constructive of it. I visualized this entity going into a pyramid, and meeting the crew of that pyramid, which was an interdimensional traveling machine. And the crew were actually Egyptian gods. So you had to know all these passwords and spells and so on to get through. So [the main character] meets all these gods, and comes to in Egypt in 1977. And so I tried to illustrate this all musically.

BK: You didn’t think that all up right there and then…?

NT: I just developed it as I went along. Then I went back to England, and I had a tape which I had recorded for my own amusement. I thought it would be nice to have a recording of this sound. And I had a recording contract to fulfill, so I managed to talk the record company into letting me go into the studio and record over it, and release it. I got all these musicians including Steve Hillage and his girlfriend Miquette [Giraudy]. And Mike Howlett, the bass player from Gong. Tim Blake, who now plays with Hawkwind. And other people. I wrote the lyrics, culled from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

And then I found that I had some healing power. I went to the Festival of Mind, Body and Spirit. And I had a photograph done of my hands; the people said, “Oh, you’ve got the healing power in your hands.” I thought, “That’s interesting.” Then a friend of mine said, “Oh, I’ve got this awful pain in my tummy. Can you help me? And I said, “I don’t know what you mean.” He said, “Can you put your hands on it? I think you can heal it.” So I put my hands on it, and thought about the Egyptian gods and the elements and [laughs] the cosmos. Stuff like that. And he said, “The pain’s gone.”

And I found I could do that with several people. I didn’t think, “Oh, I’ve got healing power; let me go round healing people.” But people, when they were in need, I thought perhaps I could help them. There was a lad who had migraine; I put my hands on his head, and he said my fingers felt like ice. So I did all this stuff, and thought about it, and breathed in all the good and positive energy from the sun. And I blew it into him. And he said, “Oh, the pain’s gone.”

So it’s quite interesting. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t know what governs it. I sort of think if you get big-headed about it, it stops working! You become arrogant and egotistical…

BK: And it goes away.

NT: Right.

There’s this video called This is Hawkwind. Do Not Panic. It’s a film that was made by the BBC. It’s a documentary. And I was invited to do a question-and-answer about the film at a place where they showed it in Brighton. And some people said, “Tell us about what you did in Egypt.” So I told them all that, and I said I had this healing power. Then this woman in the audience said, “I’ve got this terrible pain in my back. Can you put your hands on it?” So I did, calling upon the healing of the Egyptian gods and the powers that they had. The magical properties, the awesomeness of it all. And her pain was gone.

I think it’s fantastic. And I try to make these gigs healing experiences. I try to make people feel good, and to communicate with them. We’re doing this tour at the moment, and it’s going really well.

BK: Playing the South…that’s not typical for you.

NT: I don’t know what’s typical for me! I’ve played over here in the USA a couple of times before; I did a tour in the 90s.

BK: You were just in Raleigh and Charlotte before here…how did those go?

NT: you know, the gigs are great, but they’re not all that well-attended in some places. I don’t know if it’s the fact that people don’t know me, or aren’t aware of Hawkwind, or if [the ones who do know] have all died! Or that they’re old, and can’t go out any more!

I’m promoting the album, and doing material that people would like to see. Because it’s the Space Ritual material. And that’s an iconic thing.

BK: It’s become a big thing in the last ten, fifteen years to do complete album performances. Arthur Lee from Love, The Church, Brian Wilson

NT: Right. So…have you got any more questions?

BK: I think you’ve given me plenty of your time, and you have a show to do this evening, so I’ll just be happy with what I’ve got.

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Nik Turner: Mystical Interdimensional Space Gypsy (Part Two)

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Continued from Part One

Nik Turner: And the success of the Hawkwind “Silver Machine” single enabled us to mount the Space Ritual, which was quite an expensive project. Jonathan Smeadon was quite a high profile lighting technician; he was quite creative. He had been working with people like Steve Winwood and doing stuff for Island Records. So he worked on Barney Bubbles‘ concept, which was that the band was the spaceship. And the audience were were what powered it [laughs] to other dimensions. So it was a sort of total event for everybody, really.

And then with regard to the stage lighting, Barney took all the astrological signs of all of the band, and the corresponding colors that go with them, and used those pointedly for the lighting of those people. He also devised an entire stage plan using the Pythagorean music of the spheres. All the planets were suspended on a cord, and they all vibrated at different frequencies. And out of that, you get the Western scale.

The Space Ritual show was a total concept. We had dancers, a very good mime artist who had studied with Marcel Marceau, and a couple other people. There was the lovely Stacia, who was a young lady I had met at the Isle of Wight Festival, and who I coerced into playing with the band. She’d take off her clothes, and Barney would paint her body with different colors. It was very arty; it wasn’t sensationally pornographic or anything. It was presented as, “You’ve seen a naked woman before; here’s another one.” She was about six foot tall and had a forty-two inch bust, so she was quite larger than life. Every schoolboy’s dream!

There was also another dancer, a young lady from San Francisco. She was a contortionist as well. Fun and games, that.

When we got the show together, Jonathan was using ten projectors onstage; each one had a slightly different image to give the appearance of movement. We had a dragon that flew across the screen, and a city that built up as we went along. Then it decayed, and out of that grew a tree. These were all moving sequences, not movies. All very clever stuff. Nothing else like it was happening at the time.

Bill Kopp: Multimedia before there was a name for it…

I was always into theatre. My family were all in theatre and cinema. I should have been an actor, really; that’s how I fondly imagined it. So I used to come out onstage dressed as an archbishop; I’d bless the audience, and then I’d turn to my equipment and mime taking it apart. And then I’d put on this other costume what looked like a frog’s head. The archbishop’s mitre was actually a frog’s head, with the mouth pointing up. So I’d pull it down over my head and turn into this frog. And then I’d, er, interact with the dancers. [laughs]

BK: Of course you would.

NT: It was all really very spontaneous…it was all very exciting. And we’re going to perform a version of that tonight. [Note: Indeed they would, and keyboardist Kephera Moon provided the requisite suggestive writhing on the stage floor that is so essential to the piece. – BK]

BK: Hmm…well, you just answered about six of my questions. Let’s see…I mean this in the best possible way. Through the production choices and instrumentation, plus of course the lyrics and song structure, Space Gypsy sounds as if it could have been released in 1970. Was the texture of the music consciously guided by a goal of achieving that, or is that simply how it comes out when you do it?

NT: There are certain characteristics about it, yes.

I didn’t write any of the music. I wrote lyrics. I came into the situation quite late, really. They had written songs. And I’m quite happy to perform them; it’s a collective work where people who had written stuff got paid for it. So I wasn’t planning to have written it all, anyway. I think it’s all very nice and I like it. It’s got a flavor of Hawkwind about it, but on the other hand it’s quite fresh. It’s all original material; there’s no covers.

BK: So in addition to doing music from way back when, are you doing any of the new material?

NT: We’re doing a couple of songs. We’ll do “Galaxy Rise” and the single, called “Fallen Angel STS-51-L.”

BK: That’s the one about the NASA Challenger, right?

NT: Right. The drummer [Jason Willer] wrote that song; I didn’t write it. He told me, “We can change the lyrics if you don’t like them.” I could have rewritten all the songs, but I thought, well, it all gets a bit contrived. And I’d rather do something creative with these guys and see it as a stepping stone toward the next project.

BK: You’ve got a lot going on. After this tour, what’s next for you?

NT: The weekend after the tour, I’m going to Germany, where I’m playing a psych fest. They’ve employed me as the spirit of the festival. They’ve bought me an air ticket to go over there; I’ll probably play with all the bands.

Then in December, one of the bands I’ve got called Inner City Unit has a couple of gigs. Then I’ve got gigs with another band of mine called Space Ritual, which plays some Hawkwind material, but only stuff that I wrote, or that Robert Calvert wrote.

I’ve got all these bands that I put together myself. I’ve got another band called Outriders of Apocalypse, which is based upon Mayan mythology. The music is influenced by Spanish classical music and some other classical music; I’ve got the theme tune to “Scheherazade” as one of the bass lines. I’ve got a girl playing trumpet, another girl playing trombone, and myself playing saxophone and flute. A guitarist, two bass players, a drummer. A clarinet player, two girl singers, and dancers. It’s on YouTube. The delivery is like Miles DavisBitches Brew. Leaning that way.

I’ve got another band called Project Nine which plays all of my repertoire. I have another band called Nik Turner’s Fantastic Allstars, which plays Latin jazz, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis. And we play a lot of funk as well, Maceo Parker stuff.

continued

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