If you were to picture ‘psychedelic music’, what would that image be? You might be tempted to jump for the classics – the impossible riffs and improbable outfits of Hendrix and co, the inspired insanity of Syd Barett-era Pink Floyd, or the airtight pop opulence of Revolver and Pet Sounds. Equally, your first thoughts might be of the wacked-out majesty of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, indie-revivalists like Temples and Tame Impala, or the genre-bending headfuckery of Goat; it might even be The Monkees. Historically, it’s a genre so rich that it takes a scholarly effort to pin down a common gene amongst all those blurred and shattered frontiers.
In today’s musical climate of hyper-accessibility, this most resurgent of scenes has seen new peaks of experimentation reached and boundaries deftly sidestepped, and that fertility is reflected in this year’s LIVERPOOL INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF PSYCHEDELIA. The line-up takes on a more than sizeable chunk of the genre’s now-mammoth musical kaleidoscope, but amid the myriad a few names stick out above the rest. Headliners GRUMBLING FUR are one such name. With new album Preternaturals affirming the plaudits of last year’s LP Glynnaestra, the duo (Alexander Tucker and Dan O’Sullivan) are now firmly in their stride and a prodigious reputation for pulling surprises in their live set precedes their upcoming performance at this year’s festival.
The funny thing about Grumbling Fur, however, is that they stick out for more than their talent – their new record has more in common with the dramatic vocals of 80s synth-pop or the glide of left-field 90s electronica than it does with the direct approach of many of their contemporaries, but equally the lifeblood of a psychedelic tinge is undeniable. “It’s not so much like pop but I think it’s more sort of ‘songs’ in a way, they have choruses and verses…” says Tucker when I ask about the release. “In our minds we were making this pop album and then a lot of the reviews for it and a lot of people are saying it’s still a pretty fucking intense, sonic experience, y’know?”
Preternaturals has feet in two camps, neither a bloated freak-out nor remotely predictable; more than a mere fence-sitter, the band’s sound hinges upon their wide berth: “Some days it just sounds like lots of particles are sort of just clashing and smashing together, and other days it sounds like quite straight songs in a way. I think that’s what psychedelic music is, something that hangs between two worlds, a structured world and a deconstructed one.”
“Another thing about psychedelic music is what a band like The 13th Floor Elevators taught me,” says the multi-instrumentalist on the subject of approaching that trickiest of genres, “about how in the nucleus of a song you can view it as one thing – as parts, as melodies – but also you can dive in and go to individual members. And when you do that it can seem like everybody is almost playing like a different song at the same time, that time-warping sort of thing that they do.”
While walking the tightrope of accessibility and acclaim, Grumbling Fur still take the time to ensnare and exhibit as much texture as possible, with guitars, strings, keys and Tim Burgess making their appearance in manifold forms. From the sparse futurebeat of White China Pencil to the lavish and subtly twisted strings of Feet Of Clay, and the looming and dissonant closer Pluriforms, it’s still an adventurous listen despite its accessible inclinations. In a suitable twist leftfield hip hop is cited as a key source of inspiration, one early idea being a beats album, though the additions to their sound remain rooted in strong songwriting. “I love songs and I’ve always loved songs but I still like the idea [that] a song can be played in an elastic band kind of way. You can go from just singing or making a sound with your voice or your throat then you can have this huge orchestral ensemble, and be putting together huge rich, lush songs. I like everything between.”
Everything between it is then, and the duo can be proud of a worthily flexible album, but with it comes the wetting of many live whistles, especially given the upcoming headline slot, and you’d be right to wonder just how their textural variety is going to translate on stage given their slender membership. “We’re both swapping between bass, guitar, cello, viola, and then sometimes it’s just the electronics and vocals,” we’re told, along with a promise of an autoharp and what are only referred to as “objects”. “I think we’ve transposed these songs onto different instruments and different ways of playing it. On some of them the basic structure is quite simple in a way.” A pair of string musicians also joined the duo at their album launch in mid-August – “a violin player and, er, I can’t remember the name of it… some kind of baroque instrument” – and such a bolster to their depth could perhaps appear up in Liverpool come the closing days of September.
Despite the twosome’s assorted leadings, should everything come together expect an unbridled experience: “It’s very much like a collective willpower to get the songs happening. If we’re not quite present or something it can sound a bit… not lacklustre, but it doesn’t gel; even though parts of it are on computer, those things have already been processed and reprocessed. A lot of the time we’re working off the grid, so we’re just having to keep the particles together.” It’s fair to say, however, that any fears of stray particles would be relatively unfounded. Though just a handful of albums into their career, the pair have more experience than their fresh sound might suggest. “I’m thirty-eight now and I started my first hardcore band when I was seventeen,” says Tucker, who then moved on to an experimental solo career. “Dan was producing my records, my solo stuff, and that’s how we started working together. From that point it was about coming up with separate things and coming together and building stuff up.”
A fear for the future would be similarly naïve as, though we’re not far into Preternaturals’ lifespan, it appears there’s plenty more in the pipeline, with what is described as “pretty much a whole other album” nearing completion. Recorded in-between Glynnaestra and their current outing, the record’s sound looks to settle similarly sonically as it does chronologically, and we can look forward to a preview appearing on their setlist: “There’s a couple of tracks we’ve been playing live, one called Milky Lights, one called Sunny, which is this really kind of stretched, tolling, whooshing sort of beat. Really stretched, elastic bass and strings.”
So the future looks bright for Grumbling Fur, but most importantly so does the present – to have earned such acclaim thus far already would be the envy of any musician; should everything come together live expect nothing but the best in exciting, left field pop from a band whose flame looks unlikely to burn out. Combine that with the dexterity of their new album and a slender but concrete back-catalogue, and it seems safe to expect an atom or two to be split.
Preternaturals is out now on The Quietus Phonographic Corporation label.