Entering the Void at L.A. Psych Fest 2015
‘The unspeakable is the true domain of being.’ –Terence McKenna
For lineup snobs, the 4th annual Los Angeles Festival of Psychedelic Music and Art may not have compared to the recent bills of Levitation Austin or Toronto earlier this year, or even Levitation France for that matter, which synchronistically went off on the same weekend. Nevertheless, for a homegrown spectacle, L.A. Psych Fest was a wildly intimate affair. It also served as yet another euphoric instance in today’s mushrooming psychedelic revolution happening everywhere from L.A. to Denver to Boston and beyond. If you weren’t in the crowd this weekend decked to the nines in glitter mascara and your old tie-dye, you definitely missed out.
L.A. Psych Fest definitely started off on the right foot, with sick performances that first night at the Regent Theater by Jennifer Castle, Green Gerry, Mr. Elevator & the Brain Hotel, Night Beats, and epic crowd-pleasers The Budos Band on the main stage.
The Echo proved to be the more fitting venue, as the fest really caught its momentum during a manic second day, headlined by instrumental giants Earthless. I personally couldn’t wait to finally see JJUUJJUU and Moon Duo live for the first time (and as boss as they were, they weren’t even my highlights!) Sure, there were moments of visual and stylistic clichés, but there were also moments of sincere convergence and ecstatic trips through the electric lo-fi bardos.
It makes me schizophrenic thinking about how to cover all the awesome talent I was exposed to in a 48-hour period which, by the end, had sent me into psychophysical fits of flanging-induced psychosis:
The autumnal equinox was four days away, but all I could see was the endless summer. In the Regent Theater’s Love Song Bar, I drank craft beer and watched singer-songwriter Jennifer Castle tune her guitar and set her amp in the parlor, preparing her warm, folk serenades as the line slowly grew in the oppressive heat outside.
Logistics-wise, it was a seamless ride through the entrance, the security was competent and friendly, and the schedule was tight and every act was on time. The Regent is a regally small rectangular space with a U-shaped balcony, with the black light splattered merch booth on one side, and the small bar on the other. The tall ceilings and deep pit gives off an empty Olympic-sized pool vibe. It was frigid cold though. The A/C was raging harder than any band in the joint. I appreciated the extra mile, but I had to keep my arms crossed while met with eerily smooth ambient music from revolving DJs Ras G and Rachel Fannan, which eventually morphed into spacey, bubbly dark tunes flowing over the geometric shapes projected onto the enormous dark of the stage. I know I’m a skinny little bastard, but I had to keep going outside to smoke just to keep warm. If there weren’t holes burned into the pockets of my acid-wash jeans, I would’ve opted for a warm whiskey buzz over cold beer. And unfortunately, the floor was never quite packed enough throughout the night to get everyone good and sweaty.
That’s not to say Green Gerry didn’t do an awesome job getting the blood flowing. “Let’s make a fucking human connection tonight,” the lead singer declared. “I want to fucking feel you.” I had to do a few double-takes to make sure he wasn’t Emile Hirsch. He was a Brando-like crooner in a sports coat and tie, fronting a 6-piece band that gave us some reverb-heavy, old dance pop. (Can I just get it out of the way now that every band over the weekend was dripping in reverb?) Most of the band members were in ties and sports coats. I got the impression that they were late for a performance at some high school homecoming dance in 1966, and had the bright idea of getting fucked up at their Psych Fest set first. The singer was rolling on the floor, dirtying up his white collar, screaming into the mic by the end of the set. Pretty boy soul. Good tunes.
Mr. Elevator & the Brain Hotel pushed the sound system to the max with Tomas Dolas’ organ-heavy/wah-wah keys M.O. and great drums by (beacon of true entrepreneurship) Wyatt Blair. Via great instrumental stretches, they gave off a Doors-meets-Zombies ambiance, minus the whole Dionysian singer bit. Lots of these garage psych bands give off a more communal vibe, with no hammy frontman, or even a lead guitarist (or in this case, any guitarist—rare in these parts). Dolas, Blair, and new addition midi/tambourine man Julian Ducatenzeiler all sang either vox or backup, with the exception of solid bassist Iggy Gonzales. There was even a sweet moment when Dolas gave a quick anecdote about meeting the love of his life on the backstage steps behind them.
We were soon hit with Night Beats’ psych soul simplicity in ponchos and big-brimmed hats. The vocals and instrumental rambles were killer. Like the acts that came before and after, they were effectively stoking the eccentric flames of bleed-off-the-page psychedelia.
The crowd drew young, old, weird, and sane, with the occasional dame dressed like Milla Jovovich in Dazed and Confused; lots of woven belts and light wash denim. Right before the last performance, and in a rare L.A. moment, the men’s room was chockfull of loud British accents and talk of how modern philosophy is in the shitter.
The Budos Band rarely makes west coast appearances, and fed the serpent well. The audience was howling mad, there were lots of diehard fans. They took the stage one-by-one to eerie organ music and a steady drum beat, until all 8 of them occupied the bongos, horns, keys, bass, guitar, and drums that packed the stage. No need for a singer here either. If the first night did anything, it set the tone for deemphasized vocals, and a focus on distorted, anarchic motifs. Everyone jived sleazy-dirty to the psychedelic jazz that would even make Tarantino bite his lower lip and white guy dance the night away. I couldn’t get enough of the cartoonishly large sax. They gave lots of L.A. love, and helped usher in the pipedream of a California autumn with “Black Venom.” It took a while, but the smell of weed finally penetrated the NO SMOKING signs posted everywhere. They featured some new music, and songs off the recent Burnt Offering LP. They had the crowd chanting “Budos! Budos! Budos!” as they left the stage, giving us a quick and much needed encore.
If day 1 was on Mars, then day 2 phased full on into the 5th dimension.
I got to Echo Park’s jeweled venue in a sweaty mess. L.A. heat has been relentless, while the rest of the state’s on fire. Outside temp read triple digits hot. In our little west coast corner of climate change, it’s either stay home, go to a show with A/C, or risk becoming Meursault from The Stranger (spoiler: the heat drives him to apathetically kill a man). And without really thinking about the fact that I’d be within those walls for the next 8 hours, I only had a quick slice of pizza at Two Boots next door. I ducked though the festival entrance and out of the late afternoon sun. Litronix mastermind Kevin Litrow was already doing a futuristic synth pop boogey on the sparse dancefloor upstairs.
Sugar Candy Mountain started their set downstairs in the Echoplex. It was cooler and damp down there like a massive basement, and became more and more populated with bodies dressed in dark florals and washed-out, printed tees. We walked around the two small art installations, both phallic in nature; one covered in stark, repeating geometric patterns, and the other an Egyptian obelisk with hieroglyphics and an illuminated capstone. Black light splashed the back bar and its adjacent makeout/burnout lounge.
This wasn’t Echo Park Rising, the general populace wasn’t flooding the halls, knocking down the doors, and busting the place at the seams. This was a gathering among L.A.’s easygoing weirdos and music rat psychonauts.
The touring guitarist for Sugar Candy was donned in a legit witch hat, and female lead singer Ash Reiter bounced in a sharp pencil skirt. I had never heard of the Oakland-based twosome, but they had a great saccharine melody, and dreamy pop beach ballads that had girls swaying back and forth like Audrey Horn.
Back upstairs, JJUUJJUU played a mesmeric set as the sun went down. It was a great 3-piece combo of talent. Solid bass, tight drumming, and Phil Pirrone’s minimal vocals echoed like noospheric transmissions, secondary to the rocking, tellurian incantations that blew our minds in stellar kraut fashion.
The liquid light projections were going strong: old school projectors set up with big, concave glass lenses filled with rubbing alcohol, oils, and dyes, making for hypnotic liquid wallpaper and a tripped out background to the stage.
Guy Blakeslee (The Entrance Band) ditched the usual heavy guitar busting and drowned out vocals that we’re used to, and gave us a rawer, stripped down, vulnerable performance, playing songs from his solo endeavor Ophelia Slowly.
Downstairs, Lolipoppers Psychomagic put on the most fun set of the night (Lolipop’s omnipresence was felt throughout the fest). The band name sums it up perfectly. They’re both scary and sweet in a Monkees meets Velvet Underground blend of catchy beach goth surf tunes that got everyone dancing. There was a lot of dancing that weekend. So much so that I started wishing they would’ve assigned sexless, mod go-go dancers all over the venue with nothing on but neon body paint. “This one’s for the true freaks in the crowd!” screamed the affable and mischievous lead singer/guitarist, who sung with big grins, “Our heads were hazy but our tongues were sharp.” I really dug the keyboardist, and so did everyone else; a silver face-painted, wild-haired, androgynous figure who grooved to the beats and totally stole the show. They featured a new song called “Safe Sex” and had me laughing with “Your EBT Can’t Buy My Love”.
The cycle of the lineup found its natural stride. A band would emerge from the primordial soup, set their gear up, play their hearts out, and as soon as the set was done, they broke the stage down and blended back into the beer-soaked scenery.
But eventually, the upstairs stage began falling behind schedule while downstairs remained steady, throwing off the whole equilibrium.
It was at this point I started feeling the drag of fatigue, deciding it was time to up the ante on the beer, pot, and amphetamine I had been consuming up to that point. The outside patio was at least a great space to chill out, have a smoke, and talk shop with some people I met at the Fuzz show a few months ago. The only thing I was actually disappointed in was the amount of psychedelic substances that weren’t being passed around. Like, c’mon kids, let’s pump the gas on this revolution a smidge. Even some run-of-the-mill molly would’ve given me a third or fourth wind, or at least heightened my acuity, which began breaking down once I considered the no ins-or-outs house rule, and realized how hungry I was with a solid 4 hours left to go.
I just had to keep moving like a shark, or a rat in a flatland maze, while higher dimensional researchers scrutinized my every move for reasons or theories unknown.
Jenny O and Mondo Drag went off almost at the same time. I missed most of Mondo’s prog set unfortunately, but caught Jenny O just in time to see her stop the band in the middle of a tuned-down, sentimental song. She literally yelled, “Psych!” and ditched her acoustic guitar for an electric one, which ended up rounding the rhythm out nicely. Great moment.
We were all struck when Drab Majesty came on in a Ziggy meets Genesis P. Orridge meets A Clockwork Orange kind of visage. Gender-bender musician Deb Demure joined the few acts not backed by a band, and had her interfaces/playback equipment hidden Pulp Fiction-style in a brown leather briefcase that played looped, heavy synth beats as she strummed a red Fender (left-handed, upside-down). The 666 sticker on the guitar’s body darkly dispelled the ghosts of ‘60s pop past, and recalled the specter of dark wave. Like imagine if Kavinsky went full post-punk. I realize these are all hack allusions, and I’m a dick for using them, but I don’t care what it is—it was fucking rad, especially live. I recommend catching a show. The hooks were great, and even though Deb brought a gothic taste to our collective palette, it didn’t kill the dance vibes. The air was electrified. The one (wo)man show killed it.
Unfortunately my photographer completely missed Drab Majesty’s set! She got caught up out on the patio in a heady conversation about transcendental meditation by the crystalline Future Eyes display table. She’s also a friend of mine from the Kerouac School who’s generally based in New York. I didn’t know whether to slap or hug her. She’s not exactly hip to the psych scene, and never had an immersive experience. Needless to say, she didn’t know who any of these bands were. She felt bad though, and made up for it by getting some close-ups of Deb in the green room (which later proved too dark, wah-wah).
Back out on the patio, Jeffertitti Moon started a Dream Ride solo set of his own, blasting ‘electromagnetic dream-disco’ that was funky weird and energetic. It also eliminated any escape from the blitz of psychedelic force fields that were in high gear throughout the venue. No ins. No outs. My hunger began taking on a metaphysical fasting effect. I was getting the Fear. I suddenly found myself on the wrong end of some awful, organic high. The Immaculate Trip! My body was shriveling to a husk. Ego death in a blink. Be careful what you wish for…
Holy Wave missed! I missed that holy wave…which may have very well sealed my fate. Jeffertitti’s swaggering hips proved too entrancing. Dammit.
My head was about to explode trying to keep everything straight. The music was the only thing keeping me together. Everything bled together in glaring, destructive interference and I couldn’t tell music from colors, or water from Tecate, or bands from each other, which is definitely a professional hazard. I knew I had lost it for sure once the ghost of Frank Zappa brushed passed me in the hallway for the third time.
As L’aura Moiré was finishing up their upbeat ye-ye French pop spiel, looking more psyched out than anyone in the joint, like they just stepped off the set of an Austin Powers film, I walked downstairs for everyone’s favorite repeat-o rockers Moon Duo. They gave a tight and composed set (mutually incompatible to my current state of mind). Ripley Johnson’s hallucinatory shredding droned into my pineal gland and had me slipping into a trance, where minor thoughts popped up in the blank space of my no-mind: Is time travel and remote viewing the same thing? Do organizers of music fests have more cultural influence and tastemaker status than major labels do? Did my car get towed?
Back away from the stage, there was an assortment of wallflowers along the cushy benches, young couples with drama, sweaty pints everywhere, and a different band’s merch table at every turn. Through the speakers, I caught samples of vaguely familiar philosophical sages like Ralph Metzner or Alan Watts in between the Duo’s remaining songs.
I hiked back upstairs for New Yorkers Dirty Fences, who was closing the stage out. Their sole howl of punk was an adrenaline shot to my heart. They laid into their steel strings harder than anyone, driving metal with hairband antics.
By the time the 3-piece San Diego powerhouse Earthless took the stage downstairs, my photographer and I were psych-overdosing in pure sensory overload, like shell-shocked troops making it through the last push. We were no longer in the realm of safe pop ditties. We surrendered to their vocal-void soundscapes, and took the ride of long and convoluted guitar solos and fuzzy bass mantras. Drummer (and former pro skater) Mario Rubalcaba pulsed true hard rock beats. The euphoric plateau of this psychosomatic trip of mine finally hit me, presenting me with what the culmination of this fest (and others like it) was all about: the healing immediacy of live shows—specifically live shows—and the power of direct experience to make shamans of us all, performer and audience member alike, effectively abolishing any sentiments of priesthood or hierarchical standard. This was, at once, a very new and very old kind of American music.
Grungy Burger boys Tomorrows Tulips finished off the night with some well-crafted, pithy, out-of-tune bummer pop for those who could take it.
For the first time this summer, I was actually glad to be outside. Eventually, I drank some water like a decent human being and dropped by a taco truck on the way home, thinking that I was probably being a tad melodramatic by the end there.
Anyway, like I was saying. What was I saying? Oh, right. There were certainly moments of transtemporal waywardness at L.A. Psych Fest, but it all too often stopped at the hazy air of trendy romantic nostalgia. That’s all fine and well. I love Lana Del Rey like anyone else. But consider all the stirring turbulence we’ve got. We’ve got Bernie in our corner (whose political platform alone puts him the crosshairs of psychopathic greedheads), we’ve got a wrathful mother nature on our asses, we’ve got smiley-faced banking interests who’ve ensured none of us are worth the thrift shop clothes on our backs, and we’ve got the medicinal applications for hallucinogenic drugs being investigated through legit channels for the first time since the late 60s.
I was quietly hoping for a more communal awareness, a macro lens, something more than just a fuzzed out music-merch factory. I was coming more from the subtle ethos of recent archaic revivalist like Erik Davis or Terence McKenna, those psychedelic California sons who showed us the doorways into the Gaian mind. With our new digitized awareness—the Library of Alexandria in our back pockets—who even knows what we’re capable of. There was definitely substance this weekend, and it was real, and felt, but I was craving more depth.
Even still, L.A. Psych Fest proved a recent west coast beacon for the next great American psychedelic revolution that’s chilling with gusto in our own backyards as we speak. The young and old, weird and sane communing in solace from the numbness of lab drugs, tract housing, caricature politicians, and a mainstream ‘music industry’ that no longer speaks for them. I foresee a vibrant, kaleidoscopic future for yet another local urban fest.
Words: Brent Smith
Photos: Mariana Luna
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