It was on the 16th October 1965 when the first self-billed psychedelic rock show took place at the Longshoreman’s Hall, San Francisco, dubbed by its comic-book-loving promoters ‘A Tribute to Doctor Strange’. Attended by 1,000 devotees, the gig featured the Marbles and Jefferson Airplane, who invited their followers on stage to sip acid-spiked punch from a gigantic chalice. Almost 50 years later LIVERPOOL INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF PSYCHEDELIA hosts its second outing on the 27th and 28th September 2013; is psychedelia having a renaissance moment and enjoying its third if not fourth summer of love?
Bido Lito! asked me, Jason Stoll of Mugstar, to interview Erik ‘Ripley’ Johnson about the renaissance of psychedelic rock. He is one of the most important figures in today’s burgeoning scene, in not just one, but two of the current scene’s leading bands: MOON DUO and Wooden Shjips. I had the pleasure of meeting Ripley a few years ago when MUGSTAR played with Moon Duo in Brighton and we have regularly crossed paths since; the last time being in Belgium in 2012 with San Francisco’s Carlton Melton in tow. He is now in a blazing hot Berlin, having a well-deserved break halfway through the tour, though Berlin is “maybe not the best city for resting [in]”.
Ripley started Moon Duo with his other half Sanae Yamada, also Wooden Shjips projectionist, in San Francisco in 2009 “as an attempt to compress the rock band format down to just two people”. It is a format influenced by the likes of Suicide, Cluster, Silver Apples and Royal Trux, taking a very minimalist approach to recording and performance and also allows for an easy set-up to tour. They have, however, added a touring drummer in the last few weeks. The group prefer to be described as a rock ‘n’ roll band, rather than psychedelic, as Ripley explains, “I don’t think you can use that tag generally, it’s more of a personal thing, depending on the listener. I find a lot of hip hop and jazz to be psychedelic, and most so-called psychedelic rock very straight. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
At the beginning of this year Mojo magazine featured a cover-mount CD entitled “Echoes: A Compendium of Modern Psychedelia”, which suggested that “away from the glare of the mainstream, the last decade has seen the dawning of a new era of psychedelic music.” However, with the influx of neu ‘psych’ bands and the success of the likes of Tame Impala does this mean psychedelia is having a global renaissance moment? Ripley responds: “Everyone’s been telling me that on this tour. I’m not sure I buy it”, so I follow up the question with another: when Clinic toured America earlier this year they said it’s all gone psych rock in America right now – is that the case in other countries he’s played? “I haven’t noticed that in the US, or anywhere really, but it’s been the topic du jour in interviews in Europe this summer.”
For White Hill’s Dave W “Psychedelic is music that is disorientating, visceral, and visual. The key to this definition is disorientating, like what a psychedelic trip is.” So I ask Ripley, can drugs make the difference? “Certainly for some people. Yes. I guess you can’t ignore that but I think there’s ultimately a place beyond the drug experience. ‘Other planes of there’, as Sun Ra put it.”
Psychedelic music today seems to encompass a diverse area from the experimental electronic music of Black Dice to the indie rock of Toy and all in-between. Can this be a healthy approach to labelling music? “I just think it’s not helpful.” Ripley explains. “’Psychedelic’ is more of an experience, not a genre, and you may have a psychedelic experience listening to Bach or Shabbazz Palaces or Miles Davis. I understand why it’s done, of course. But the danger is that it becomes codified, like ‘Stoner Rock’, and then it becomes boring with all the bands sounding the same. That would be unfortunate.”
In this resurgence of all things ‘psychedelic’ will the bands involved have a lasting impact? Is it copying or are they offering something new? Or is it just articulated differently? Ripley ventures that “Nothing is ever really new, but that’s OK. Everything’s interconnected. I don’t know about leading figures but I have my favourites. Lots of them actually: Sun Araw, Cave, Psychic Ills, Herbcraft, Blues Control, Peaking Lights, Umberto, and on and on.” There seem to be places far and wide springing up with their own psych-rock scenes, but with a unique takes on what constitutes ‘psychedelic rock’. Just like Argentina in the late 1960s with Os Mutantes or Zambia in the 1970s with ‘badass rock” bands like Witch. Ripley says “I absolutely love the Zamrock.” Check Follakzoid from Santiago, Chile, signed to the über-hip Scared Bones imprint and incorporate kraut/psych/space/drone rock.
There are Psych festivals popping up all over the world: Austin, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, London, Aarhus, Bolton, Glasgow, and of course Liverpool’s very own. Is this a part of the global psychedelic renaissance? “My best guess is that the success of the Austin Psych Fest has inspired other people to give it a go. And why not?” Ripley started his own ‘psych fest’ Frisco Freak-out in 2009 where people would be encouraged to bring food to give to the homeless community, which seemed to have a conscience more in line with ethical ideals than the typical rock festival. “Our goal was to not end up with any money, so we gave it away up front. But if you’re putting on a fun, peaceful event, it’s got be a good thing for the bands, the fans, the community – profit or not.”
Even metal behemoths Metallica seem to being getting in on the psychedelic trip, recording with early exponent Lou Reed on the ill-advised ‘Lulu’ album and more importantly asking Wooden Shjips to play a festival they curated. As Ripley explains “The Metallica fest was interesting. It was in a field outside of Atlantic City, so not the most charming locale. But it had the swankiest backstage area I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to meet any of the band, though I did see James Hetfield drive by on a golf cart.” Maybe not the most shining example of a global psychedelic renaissance but indicative of the fact that even rock’s most dysfunctional band see its significance.
So, are we witnessing a global psychedelic renaissance right now? I’m not so sure. What we are seeing are more bands coming into the spotlight tagged as ‘psych’ but, as Mojo Magazine suggested, this has been bubbling away for a long time. Maybe the scene is being unified somewhat at the moment but think of bands like Clinic, Dead Meadow and Psychic Ills who have been plying their trade for years – as Ripley states “It’s possible that the media just needs something new to focus on.” However, with tons of remarkable music coming out, more people getting involved and some amazing festivals happening, it’s an exciting time. And with Wooden Shjips having a new album coming out in November 2013 and Moon Duo with their eyes on touring South America next year, at least for Ripley and Sanae this trip is going to last a whole while longer.