The city that defined the original 1960s psychedelic explosion is
throwing up a new wave of bands who like to mess with reality. Sylvie
Simmons meets the latterday Frisco Freaks
3 September 2009
The open-top tourist buses still cruise down Haight Street, their
drivers pointing out the house where the Grateful Dead lived and the
park where they held the Human Be-In. San Francisco is still
indelibly linked with psychedelic music, the city Paul Kantner the
acid-loving, anarchist founder of Jefferson Airplane, one of the
original psych bands called "16 square miles surrounded by reality".
Of course, the tourist buses on Haight Street give a clue as to what
happened to it all: psychedelia became big business, and the scene
fell apart. But there are signs that now, more than 40 years on, a
new wave of psychedelia might be gathering force in the Bay Area.
Since there are no particular clubs, bars or record labels that the
new psych scene revolves around, and most of the artists considered
part of the scene deny any knowledge of such a scene existing, it's
really a scene without a scene, which probably makes it all the more
Its key artists, judging by an informal poll of musicians and
hipsters, are Wooden Shjips (whose frontman has a second group, Moon
Duo); Greg Ashley, who works alone and in two bands, Gris Gris and
Sir Lord Von Raven; plus the likes of Citay, Sleepy Sun, Papercuts, 3
Leafs, Girls, Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound and Howlin' Rain, whose
frontman is also in Santa Cruz psych flag-bearers Comets On Fire,
which means some count him as an out-of-towner.
"Whatever you want to call it," says Citay's Ezra Feinberg, "there's
always music happening that's weirder and more experimental. Maybe
it's improvised, or a bunch of noise, or has to do with crazy
costumes and performance. But there's wildly disparate elements."
Northern California has looked back to the late 60s in the recent
past, with the "freak folk" scene of Devendra Banhart and his ilk,
but the new lot don't share collections of the same small, sanctioned
canon of 60s albums with the freak folkers. Their music tends to be
darker (though sometimes it's sunny), with loud, fuzzy guitar jams
(though sometimes it's delicate), and brooding, droning and hazy
for all of which, "psychedelic" has become the shorthand of choice.
"The thing with psych music is it can be anything," says Bret
Constantino. He's one of Sleepy Sun's two lead singers, alongside
Rachael Williams. His band started off playing Kinks covers and
garage rock in Santa Cruz, a seaside town a couple of hours south.
Nowadays they're more often compared to the Jefferson Airplane and
Black Mountain, what with the male-female vocals, the long jams and
the light shows.
When they moved to San Francisco a year ago, it wasn't because they
heard there was a psychedelic scene there. Anyway, Constantino thinks
the whole idea of a psych scene is probably "a romantic notion".
Williams adds: "I think if there was a scene that San Francisco is
about, it's hip-hop." But they admit they've not lived in the city
long and tend to keep to themselves. Not wanting "to be distracted by
the bar-scene cliques", they rented a house in the Sunset district,
away from the action, and spend most of their time working there on
music or going off on tour.
On the other side of the city, in the Outer Mission, Jason Quever
muses about the "psychedelic" tag given to his dark, droning pop band
Papercuts. "I think," he says, "that we're in a time now when people
are so aware of everything and don't really separate it that much
they mention modern hip-hop in the same sentence as old psych stuff
or the Monkees or whatever. They maybe just want a less pristine
sound, which psychedelic's often associated with, I guess." Psych
bands definitely favour analogue over digital, and Quever operates an
admirable analogue studio from his rented house.
Quever says he moved to San Francisco from Palo Alto, 35 miles to the
south, because "it's beautiful and cold and has a great history as a
creative place, and there are a lot of weird little spaces to play,
like the art galleries where I started out playing alone." If there
were a psych scene, Quever would appear to have been born to it; he
was raised on a commune by hippy parents. But he says he's not aware
that there is a scene, adding as a proviso: "I'm not a very social
person, I feel completely outside any idyllic, communal thing. If I
have any tie with psychedelia, it's that I like transforming my pop
songs into something that will take you off into another place."
Greg Ashley's home and studio is in Oakland, in the cheaper East Bay,
in a warehouse/venue known as Ghost Town. He moved there from
Houston, Texas, where he had a band called the Mirrors. San Francisco
indie label Birdman Records describes him as a "psychedelic shaman"
and releases albums by his fine band Gris Gris as well as his solo
albums, like the abrasive but trippily beautiful Medicine Fuck Head.
He's currently working on an experimental instrumental LP.
"I think when people say music's psychedelic, they're saying that
it's something strange and the production has a surreal quality,"
says Ashley, "But I don't think there's any deep philosophical
meaning behind the term." Which makes it very different from 60s
psychedelia, which was part of a programme designed to change the
world in San Francisco it often took the form of an experimental
collaboration between audience and performers, all of whom were part
of the same counter-culture and on the same drugs.
Ashley, like the others I spoke to, says that drugs aren't a big deal
in his music. "People say it's music to take drugs to, but I think
the last music that was psychedelic in that way, where you could see
a direct correlation between the drugs and the music, was the chopped
and screwed music rappers were doing, where they slow down a record
and rap over it, and they're all sedated on cough syrup.
"I think people my age who are doing music like that now are just
borrowing an aesthetic that's already there a sound more than
anything else." As to whether there's a new psychedelic scene, he
says, "I don't know. But I don't really think so."
Back in San Francisco, the band called Wooden Shjips seem to be
working on trying to change that. Like much of San Francisco's
population, Wooden Shjips' four members weren't born there
singer-guitarist Ripley Johnson comes from Connecticut. But since
Johnson got into town he's been experimenting with bands. His first
was all non-musicians, "so when they played an instrument they
weren't trapped in certain ways about thinking about sound and scales
and things. The idea was to have a primitive psych-rock band
influenced by some of the free-form jazz bands like Amon Düül,
Hasphash & The Coloured Coat, Electronic Hole, a certain number of
bands from the 60s. I had a manifesto which said: no songs with more
than two chords, or maybe it was one chord, to get back to … I
wouldn't say the blues, because we didn't even play chord
progressions it was more primitive than blues."
When that broke up, he put together a more structured rock lineup,
still influenced by the drone of Krautrock bands, but also by the
dark, dramatic interpretation of 60s US psych by Japanese bands of
the 80s and 90s. Initially, Wooden Shjips operated way under the
radar. "We never played out so people didn't really know about us.
And when we put our first record out we gave it away for free."
Last year, however, Johnson had a bash at turning San Francisco from
a city of atomised bands with common interests into one with a scene.
He and a friend organised the Frisco Freakout, a one-day psych
festival, with all the proceeds, in the best SF tradition, going to
an art collective run for adults with mental disabilities. Johnson
had read about the 1967 Human Be-In, and how they organisers had
expected a few hundred people but tens of thousands showed up, "All
these freaks crawling out from under the rocks, where they were doing
their freaky stuff in private, and suddenly they were all in one spot
in this one wonderful moment." His Freakout "wasn't like that", he
says, laughing, "but it was a great success. We had lights and
projections and tried to make it as immersive as possible."
He's planning to organise a follow-up when he gets back to San
Francisco. And if, a few years from now, tourist bus drivers are
pointing out the Frisco Freakout's venue, a barroom called Thee
Parkside, you'll know he made a success of it.
Sleepy Sun's album Embrace is out now on ATP. Papercuts' album You
Can Have What You Want is out now on Memphis Industries. Wooden
Shjips' album Dos is out now on Holy Mountain.