Published on May 28th, 2016 | by The Beige Baron0
Psych fans with their ears to the ground had them blown clean off when Lumerians’ 7-inch Burning Mirrors exploded on the scene about six years ago. Five minutes of transcendent freakout boogie released through Chicago label Rococo Records, it was only the band’s second single yet came dangerously close to garage-fuzz perfection.
If there was anything of the rock-music industry left to break through to, that would have been the song to have done it. But fortunately, considering the pace at which the business chews up and spits out its talent, their music instead came to the attention of eclectic indie label Knitting Factory Records, who issued their first LP Transmalinnia in 2011.
Had a corporate deal been sealed back then, who knows if Lumerians would be jamming right now in their New Telos Studio, a converted church in Oakland, completing songs for their anticipated fourth LP and preparing for an appearance at the Psycho Las Vegas festival in August. Or at least, if they had, the band might not be currently enjoying the freedom to make the music they want at their own pace, with no helpful suggestions or outside influence.
Excitement surrounding the as-yet-unnamed album is generated by those who’ve bought, borrowed, and bootlegged Lumerians’ records, who’ve tuned into college radio stations or submitted to a primal desire to dance to their music, maybe at a warehouse party, maybe at home while doing the dishes. It comes from people who have stood transfixed as the band’s eye-popping multi-media live experience burned their third eye at a festival.
The band’s profile and reputation as musical innovators is deserved: Transmalinnia [2011, Knitting Factory Records], Transmissions from Telos Vol. IV [2012, Permanent (US) / Hands in the Dark (EU)], and The High Frontier [2013, Partisan Records] have seen the band push further into unexplored waters without ever losing wide appeal: the music walks deftly between avant garde weirdness and the irresistibility of pop, always a step ahead of the zeitgeist, always striving to achieve what the band describes as “musical synesthesia”.
In that respect, comparisons to established acts such as The Flaming Lips, Swans, Animal Collective, or The Butthole Surfers are warranted — they won a fiercely loyal Freak Vote, yet constantly evolving sound keeps bringing in new listeners of every musical persuasion.
It’s maybe unsurprising that flavors reminiscent of pioneers such as Amon Düül II, CAN, The Seeds, Suicide, Terry Riley, William Onyeabor, Fela Kuti, or WITCH will float to the surface even as you’re seduced by a tide of throbbing tone and tribal rhythm. Yet no single influence dominates.
We asked Marc Melzer [bass, synth, vocals] and Jason Miller [organ, synth, guitar, vocals] what musical era best serves as a frame of reference for their music.
MM+JM: Long answer: Now. Though we often draw from the past, it is because of all these disparate influences that our music couldn’t exist in any other time. We love all the genres and artists you listed. Since our songs all originate from jams and improvisations, each song is a recombining of our collective musical DNA. Children of four parent unions, often genetically unviable, hideously deformed and not long for this world, but every now and then there’s a crocodile, shark or capybara.
Short answer: The ’70s.
So there’s no one element in the band that is responsible for writing and arrangement?
We try to not think about it too much. We listen to a lot of different types of music and those influences just naturally find their way into our output. It’s more interesting when the songs emerge from something unspoken than having any premeditated intentions.
“There’s only so much mining into the past you can do and still find gold nuggets instead of fossilized turds…”
When did you first open up to exotic sounds from around the world? Was it from listening to relatives’ vinyl collections, or did it come with the internet?
Both. I definitely remember being shocked and thrilled to discover things like OS Mutantes, Serge Gainsbourg, and Can in thrift stores or old record bins before the music blog and reissue-every-weird-record-in-existence-thing blew up.
We’d spin records with friends and freak out since we’d never heard anything like that before and didn’t even know what we were searching for. Later, crate-digging blogs and re-issue labels brought so much amazing music to audiences that never would have heard it otherwise. Bless the freewheeling, globetrotting crate-diggers of the world, amassing libraries of records, tapes, CDs, wax cylinders, etc. from their travels.
For those of us who aren’t Mark Gergis or Alan Bishop, stuck at home, school, or work behind laptops, it was easy to discover, read about, and download records that were either nearly impossible to find or sometimes impossible to afford if you did actually find a copy.
There was a golden age of record blogs between 2006 and 2012 (RIP Holy Warbles, Mutant Sounds, Ghostcapital). Of course, record blogs like that still exist, and there are still hidden veins, but there’s only so much mining into the past you can do and still find gold nuggets instead of fossilized turds. The gold rush of knowledge dissemination peaked in that window.
And 2012 is also when Megaupload and Rapidshare got hit really hard, so a lot of incredibly curated online collections ceased to exist. The lasting impact of course is that a lot of that stuff has since been reissued and attention was drawn to many regions of the world that Western audiences might not have cared about otherwise.
Exploring, traveling, and discovering with your mind from the comfort of your home. That’s pretty psychedelic by definition. Isn’t it?
It’s a great definition. So, when you come up with an idea, how easy is it for you to assess the initial results objectively? Do you edit, and do you enjoy or hate that process? I guess I’m asking, is it difficult to abandon an idea you’re married to if the rest of the band isn’t enthused?
Some songs come out mostly fully formed, only need little work to finish, and the basic framework can come together in a day, but most songs come from us improvising, recording our improvisations, listening back and selecting which parts are intriguing, identifying what works about it and what needs to change, learning how to play that, recording it again, listening to it sometimes days later so we can listen more objectively, figuring out what needs to change, learning how to play that, recording it again, listening back and so on.
“It is simultaneously both deeply satisfying and loathsome. When the song finally comes together, it can be ecstatic.”
This can go on for hours, days, or months. It is simultaneously both deeply satisfying and loathsome. When the song finally comes together, it can be ecstatic. There are some song ideas that we’ll kick around for a while that some of us are very enthusiastic about that others don’t like. It’s difficult because most of the time you know exactly why they don’t like it, but it’s still frustrating because you see the potential of what the song could be, but they’re not buying it.
Eventually you get tired of promoting a sick horse or are decisively overruled. It can be dejecting. It’s also frustrating to be on the other side and really not be feeling an idea that someone else is enthusiastic about.
Thankfully we’ve never suffered from a shortage of ideas, so we’re quickly distracted from frustration by something else. Sometimes we’ll come upon an idea we rejected or forgot about a long time ago and resurrect it. The Transmissions from Telos records are mostly one-off improvisations with minimal editing and overdubs. Albums like Transmalinnia, High Frontier, and the one we’re working on now are very carefully and deliberately composed and put together.
You’re all multi-instrumentalists, and you obviously love experimenting with different gear. Has anyone ever bought something to the studio — like an amp that’s too loud or something — that got vetoed?
Not really. Sometimes it’s fun to make a shitty instrument sound cool by running it through effects pedals or playing it in a way that wasn’t intended.
We have a lot of vintage as well as new gear. We probably have about 20 vintage organs in the studio right now. Each one has some unique character about it that could possibly come in handy, or perhaps we’ll someday end up being discovered mummified underneath pyramids of broken electronics.
So gear plays a big role? Has a single piece of equipment ever fundamentally changed the course of your sound?
We started as a guitar band. Incorporating organs and synths early on set us on an entirely different trajectory. We all collect pedals, effects units, synths, and exotic percussion instruments fairly compulsively.
A new writing cycle is often influenced by updating and overhauling our respective rigs. We like to explore and aren’t very interested and retreading ground we’ve already covered — at least not in the same way. Most of the instruments we’re currently playing probably weren’t on the last album.
“The moment you finish a well played set in a room full of screaming, dancing people is incomparable to anything else.”
What gives you the most stress as a band, and what brings most gratification?
Money is probably the most stressful. We don’t really make any as a band, and basically every step of being a band is expensive. Getting gear, maintaining gear, replacing broken gear, touring is expensive, videos are expensive, promotion is expensive, and putting out a record is expensive. Hell, even Kanye West is in debt. We don’t have our own clothing line though, yet.
Holding your new record for the first time is pretty satisfying, but the moment you finish a well played set in a room full of screaming, dancing people is incomparable to anything else.
Do you guys smoke a lot of weed? Are you of the opinion that drugs enhance creativity, or do they make you write stuff you don’t “get” when you’re sober?
We have smoked a lot. Sometimes smoking and other things are part of the creative process, sometimes not as much. It’s not a good idea to rely on drugs for creativity, but they can be useful as part of a ritual to enter a creative space. Balance is essential. Smoking a bit or having a drink or three can help you loosen up, change your headspace, or help you quiet the noise of the outside world, but there is a fine line between loose and receptive and too fucked up to be productive.
Sometimes we will be super-excited about a song we’re working on while we’re loaded only to find out that it sounds like garbage the next day when we’re sober. We’ve lost entire sessions to inebriation and that can make you feel pretty dumb. On the other hand, sometimes we’ll listen to a track that we have no memory of recording and think, “Holy shit! This is amazing!” Then we have to take it apart and figure out how we did it in the first place.
You’re now well-enough known to be able to perform major festivals. Has your perspective changed in terms of all the other stuff that goes with getting your music out there? Does becoming more successful isolate you from your original intentions, or does it bring you closer to achieving what you want to do?
We’re in a weird in-between state where we get really cool show and festival offers, but don’t have the leverage to demand the guarantees we need to play all the shows we want to. We’re not rich. We all work day jobs when we’re not on tour. We’re not shooting to be like ’70s rockstar rich or anything like that, we’d just like to make enough where we can cover basics like travel, lodging, and food and maybe have a bit extra when we get home.
However there’s a lot of freedom in the music not being very lucrative. Since it’s not any of our primary sources of income, we can continue to make exactly what we want to without worrying about derailing our careers. We’re not afraid of getting kicked off the gravy train, because no one gave us tickets for it in the first place. We primarily make records for us. If other people like them, that’s fantastic.
What are your lyrics about generally? Some songs seem like narratives to science fiction stories or movies, are they an influence?
Science fiction is an influence. Science fact is an influence. Manifesting thought and imagination into reality is an aspiration.
The lyrics are evocations that serve the music. The intention is to focus enough raw psychic energy through repeated patterns of sound and light that we can open an extra-dimensional tear in the fabric of telluric perception. Or sometimes they’re just nonsense that sound good, which have a certain power in them in their own right.
Some mystics believe the universe was spoken into existence and that each vocalized sound has an innate power. What’s sung is less important than the sound it makes when uttered.
Is this connected in any way with your album art? Do you have a regular person who does it for you?
We look for and collect images that we find evocative for inspiration. The image on The High Frontier is by Sao Paulo artist Bruno 9li. The image on Transmalinnia is by US outsider artist Eugene Von Breuchenhein. The Transmission covers were put together by our friend Adam Keller. The Burning Mirrors 7” cover was designed by our friend Luis Vasquez of Soft Moon.
There’s this Japanese band called Downy, and one of its members doesn’t play music, but creates visuals for projection as it’s being written. Is that an approach you also take?
Marc [bass] and Chris [drums] make most of the visuals. Visuals can come before or after a piece of music is written and often paired with the song we think they go best with after the fact.
We always tour with a projector. Finding a place to set it up can be challenging sometimes. We’ve come up with some interesting structures made of bar stools, milk crates, duct tape, and beer bottles.
It’s been said that Record Store Day is being fucked by major labels flooding pressing plants with pointless reissues. Smaller acts can’t get their records pressed. Do you think that, with the rise in popularity of psych music, the corporate world will try to ruin its community vibe too? Do you think music festivals are becoming too corporate?
The popularity of psych music and culture comes in waves and peaks. When they are at their highest, it can feel pretty two-dimensional, bland, and repetitious. Revival over innovation.
At the same time, an influx of new blood can also make things weird and interesting again. Popular interest isn’t a wholly bad or good thing. I don’t think psych fans have much to worry about when it comes to being assimilated by the corporate world. That already happened 40-plus years ago. As long as there is a catch-all term for weirdos and deviants who like catchy beats, fuzz, delay, and tremolo played through obscene amounts of reverb, there will always be new kids in $10 Ray-ban knockoffs, buttoning up a paisley shirt for the first time.
“It’s a drag that small bands can’t get their records out on time because someone would rather pay $30 for a repressing of Dark Side of the Moon…”
It’s a drag that small bands can’t get their records out on time because someone would rather pay $30 for a repressing of Dark Side of the Moon instead of buying it at a thrift store, or huge acts like Taylor Swift or Adele clogging up the few remaining vinyl pressing plants with future dollar-bin fodder that people probably bought in fucking Urban Outfitters instead of a local brick and mortar record store, but maybe the demand will result in new vinyl pressing plants opening.
Maybe with renewed interest in physical mediums, selling records can become at least moderately viable again.
On the same topic of popular interest being a double-edged sword, it takes a lot of people and resources to make even a small music festival happen. When you start dealing with booking larger acts and finding the space and amenities to accommodate everybody while making it interesting and fun, even a lot of friends laboring for love aren’t always enough.
Bigger music festivals are basically only possible because of corporate sponsorship. Sometimes the only thing that lets a band afford to tour is playing these festivals and sometimes that means the keyboard player is hidden behind a giant glowing Red Bull sign.
Sometimes during the best-paying shows you find yourself playing for a handful of hungover rich kids who’d rather be listening to a celebrity play a top 40 EDM playlist off their laptop. Sometimes you play a show in a decrepit warehouse commune and don’t make any money at all, but the crowd is diverse and full of people who absolutely love the music, dance, and freak out. We’d rather play the latter, but without the former, we probably couldn’t have afforded to get there. Win some, lose some.
Would you rather go back and wow the hippies in ’60s Sweden, or fast-forward in time to get a heads-up on cool new music that hasn’t been invented yet?
Walk backwards towards the future. That way they’ll think you were already there and won’t check your ID.
Is it hard to translate what you do in rehearsal or the studio to the stage? Is that a challenge you enjoy, or do you find it frustrating?
It can be tricky trying to figure out how you’re going to pull off something you put together in the recording studio in a live context, and there’s always a hill toward the beginning that can be confounding and frustrating, but eventually it always clicks and you have an a-ha moment. That is always very satisfying.
There are always certain songs that we identify from the beginning as being live songs or studios songs. Some songs are better experienced through headphones or alone in your room and some songs are better experienced in a live setting.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on now in a bit of detail?
We’ve been working on this one for a while and have played some of the material live. We really like it and thankfully so have most of the audiences we’ve played it to. A lot more synth-heavy than previous albums. It’s definitely some different territory for us, but our collective character is still intact. Same spaceship, different galaxy.
Who in the whole world would you most like to spend a week in some chilled place making an album with? Do you guys collaborate often?
We want to make an album with Serge Gainsbourg, Alice Coltrane, Trish Keenan, and Prince on a tropical island with a great studio, like AIR in Montserrat, but without all the horrendous ’80s MOR vibes.
We don’t do much collaboration with people outside the band since it’s difficult enough working with each other. The Lumerians church of New Telos Sound is a sacred place. A few people have visited or recorded in our studio, but we’re careful about who we let into the inner sanctum.
Lumerians’ next major show is at Psycho Las Vegas festival. Albums and merchandise is available for the band’s virtual merch table, via bandcamp, or at good record stores. Follow on Facebook for tour dates and album release information. With thanks to Lumerians for New Telos Studio photographs.