On Cocaine Cat, the standout single from I Declare Nothing, the drone of Anton Newcombe’s emblematic rolls of guitar and looming thuds of stalking percussion lay waste to its opening with a familiar loose swagger. For 28 seconds it’s latter-day Brian Jonestown Massacre brilliance all over – perhaps even business as usual. At least, that is, until a new voice rises from the snaking depth: a Patti Smith-esque growl with the grace of a Mazzy Star glide atop the flow; foreboding, uncompromising and hauntingly exquisite – that of his collaborator, TESS PARKS.
And though the collaborative record – released earlier this year on Newcombe’s own a Recordings label – bears the Jonestown polymath’s fingerprints throughout, it’s his new protégé, Tess Parks’, work to a more than equal extent. Her face, alone, adorns a cover taken by Anton’s wife Katy in an intentional throwback to a detached Francoise Hardy cool; her transfixing vocal is the dominant one to his occasional backing; and the pen behind the eddying drift of its disconsolate lyrics is, for the vast degree, Parks’ own.
“I would definitely call it a 50/50 collaboration, for sure,” says the singer of the process behind their partnership. “Some of the lyrics I wrote while we were in the studio, or I went back through my notebook and picked out certain lines and we worked from those or whatever; a lot of them were songs that had already been written on my own. Some of the time Anton would say ‘We’ll scratch that or repeat this line five times’ or whatever, but I wrote the bulk of the lyrics.”
There’s a staunch uniqueness to Parks’ hoarse, growling vocal, and it’s an individualist bent that’s long been fostered. In her teenage years in Toronto it was not the pop-punk bilge that domineered the tastes of her peers that sowed the seeds of her current snarl, but the more substantial sonics of Creation Records (incidentally, she can now count Alan McGee himself among her swelling fanbase) and, above all others, Oasis. “I remember listening to them when I was four,” she recounts. “My dad introduced me to them. I have my dad to thank for my taste in music and what inspired me. He was totally like ‘You can be whatever you want to be and I’ll support you’.”
All things considered it was the right introduction, but also an ostracising one at the time. “I got bullied for the music I listened to. Everyone was listening to, I don’t know, Sum 41 and Blink 182, and all these Canadian and American shit rock/pop bands or whatever. I was bullied at summer camp for bringing my guitar and my notebook there… but those are the kind of things that inspire you, a ‘Fuck this, I’ll show them’ kind of thing.”
“Some [of the lyrics on the new album] I wrote when I was quite young, like eight years ago, when I was depressed or didn’t have anything really going on” continues Parks, yet to revisit these former torments in more positive, more productive times in the studio. “It’s like all of those bad times make sense, and it kind of alleviates any kind of pain that might still have existed because I’m making something really positive out of it. When we were playing it live and stuff, singing those words, they still ring true to me. It’s not like they don’t mean anything to me – they mean a lot: every time I sing them or listen to them it makes me happier now.”
Though it’s a fact that’s surely to change, Parks is currently something of an unexplored prospect, yet for Newcombe reputation looms large. With his intense reputation, perpetuated and sensationalised by cult documentary Dig!, when the two met in person for the first time in Berlin, to an outside observer a few nerves might be forgiven from Parks, a self-professed long-term fan of the band. However, as she is quick to clarify, Newcombe’s maladjusted former days of concentrated neurosis and drug-fuelled paranoia are by now far in the past.
“To me that kind of personality I find really intriguing,” she clarifies. “[However] he’s in a much better place than then; that was a long time ago. He’s healthy and funny and happy. I was definitely nervous when I went to meet him, but more as a fan, y’know? It’s one of those things where you go to meet one of your heroes. He totally exceeded any of my expectations as a person… He’s made a label and a whole musical life for himself that really is working, and he puts out a lot of cool bands. He’s really into helping people; he believes in what he thinks is good and what he [doesn’t]. I feel really honoured to be part of that.” It wasn’t long until his mentorship had developed into friendship, as Parks adds: “The advice he’s given me about the music industry and just life in general, he’s smart and wise and super-talented. I mean, it’s just beyond cool to have someone like that teaching you things. He’s always like ‘Dream bigger, always dream bigger. OK this is cool, but what’s the next thing? What are you gonna do next? What are we doing next?’ It’s about always moving forward… It’s very positive, he’s not cynical at all really.”
On such a note new material from the duo, we’re told, is inevitable, though perhaps under a new name. The backing band the two take with them on tour – an international supergroup including members from Iceland, Australia, Sweden, and her British-born boyfriend Mike on bass (whom she met, of all places, at a Brian Jonestown Massacre gig in London) – have since become an integral part of the music’s fabric, and the band will likely pick a collective name on their return to record, seeing as “It’s not technically ‘Tess Parks and Anton Newcombe’ anymore.”
“See, a lot of the time it’s like a huge blanket of sound; it’s not necessarily psychedelic, just anything that can take you somewhere else, transport you anywhere,” Parks says when I press her about what it means to be an artist of the new psychedelic movement, which here presence on the line-up for September’s Liverpool Psych Fest confirms. “I’m really looking forward to this festival; it’s an amazing line-up… It’s just cool to me to feel part of this sort of collective. I never thought I’d be part of a group, let alone playing alongside so many other bands that I love.”
Modest she may be, but the rest of the bill are in the best of company.