Published on August 5th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron0
It’s also unusual in a city where new (or recycled) musical movements are thrown up almost every other week to find a band so intently focused on exploring the ideas that emerge out of their own sonic cosmos.
There’s no doubting the authenticity of Weird Owl’s approach: “psychedelic” means more than paisley shirts and reverb pedals to these guys; it’s a way of life. It’s really who they are.
Following an appearance at the 2011 Austin Psych Rock Festival and the release of Build Your Beast a Fire—a record that attracted universal critical acclaim—the band shifted lineup and again hit the studio. The demos from that session, posted up on Soundcloud, caught the ear of The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe. An EP Healing was released on Newcombe’s A Recordings, which further demonstrated the band’s ability to punctuate mesmerising atmosphere with memorable riffs and rhythms.
Interstellar Skeletal (released last May) is Weird Owl’s first full-length for A Recordings, and sees the band’s two synths, guitar, drums, and bass steering through glittering auroras of spacious psych.
Wider and deeper in scope, the record takes the promise of Build Your Beast’s tight songwriting and sets it spinning into the silent tides of outer space.
Weird Owl vocalist and guitarist Trevor Tyrrell explains more about how Interstellar Skeletal was created.
BNU: Do you think modern psychedelic music has a political or social viewpoint? I mean, it’s still associated with the socially progressive peace movement in the late 1960s. So much has changed and maybe even gotten worse since then, more ugly and evil and sinister, but the kind of music Weird Owl and many other bands play still references this early period.
I’ve spoken to a few musicians about this, and some claim music does have a role to play in advancing a political and social agenda, others say music should be completely divorced from that. So beyond personal expression, musically, psych rock hasn’t changed a huge amount, but society has. Is psych music just nostalgia? Does it have anything relevant to say about today, or is it purely an inward-focused genre?
I think the first thing that needs to be said is that the term “psych” is used to encompass such a wide variety of musical expressions that to whittle it down into any singular absolute statements of intent would be impossible and intellectually dishonest.
Waking up from that dream can be quite harmful, and in some cases, fatal.
However, having said that, I will say in general that I think all art is political to some extent, for whether the artist cares to admit it or not, their art is being created in a particular locus in time and space that has a political component as one of its defining coordinates.
The artist may choose to engage directly with politics, which for me is somewhat of a turnoff, as it tends to be overly didactic or forcing a certain viewpoint upon its audience.
On the other extreme, the artist can completely ignore the political, but when done improperly this can lead to a form of hyper-infantilism. Perpetual childhood, oblivious to the world outside the playroom. Peter Pan Syndrome to the max. This certainly has an appeal on the ignorance-is-bliss continuum, but it can only falsely delay the inevitable consequences and responsibilities of an organism’s necessary growth and maturity. Waking up from that dream can be quite harmful, and in some cases, fatal.
I think the current state of the world demands an artistic reaction, and it’s one that can be considered political by its rejection of the mass-produced values of the heavily marketed soullessness of the straight world.
The faceless corporate entities that will stop at nothing to achieve a perpetual cancerous growth are at the same time poisoning the planet and all of its inhabitants, and they are in charge of the exoteric political circumstances on Earth, but also perhaps more nefariously, the inner life of individuals through methods as varied as the “food” they promote to the “entertainment” they beam worldwide at a non-stop pace.
While packaged up nicely in colorful and easily digestible nuggets, these ideals initiate a destructive digestive sequence upon consumption, and are potentially harmful to the evolution of the species as a whole.
This is where true psych rock can be the most powerful, as it has always been a voice of anti-authoritarianism, a refusal to let one’s spiritual and neurological freedom be corrupted or compromised by the stale and unimaginative status quo of the mainstream sitcom reality tunnel.
Don’t dress up a corpse and expect me to take time to feed it
As far as nostalgia, I hate bands that are all “paisley and tambourines and rainbow love and 9/11 never happened”. What a joke. That is a hollow paint-by-numbers schtick that belongs in a cartoon or a museum of gifted monkeys.
But obviously everyone is free to do as they choose, please just don’t dress up a corpse and expect me to take time to feed it.
You’ve been playing together for about 11 years. During this time, a lot of musical fashions have come and gone, but you’ve been pretty consistent with your style. I’m wondering if you’ve had any guiding lights you follow when creating your music?
Yes, it’s hard to believe we’ve been a band since 2004, but it’s true. I actually think that we have changed quite a bit over the years in terms of our sound and our approach, not to mention our personnel, but at the same time, in somewhat more nebulous terms, our “style” has remained consistent.
This is largely due to the fact that I see music as a very personal mission on some level in that it needs to remain true to the ideas and imagination that I find to be as uniquely mine and ours as possible. Clearly there will have to be some stylistic overlap with other individual hominids out there and other small groupings of advanced mammals, for as it is said, “no man is an island”.
I have always looked to the great spiritual artist/warrior caste of humanity for inspiration
But I really do feel that through the musical and lyrical vocabulary that we have chosen for ourselves and continuously toiled on for more than a decade, we’ve carved out a specific niche in the caverns of collective consciousness.
In this manner, I have always looked to the great spiritual artist/warrior caste of humanity for inspiration, be it directly applicable, or, most likely, as an imprint from a higher inner pantheon.
These are all people who have kept aflame a guiding light for the rest of humanity, who was content to slumber in darkness. These blessed revolutionaries oftentimes made their contributions to mankind well before any of their peers were anywhere near to understanding their terrestrial mission.
Our band has changed and evolved on too many levels to even try enumerating, but just let it be said that we are light years past our first sea slug-like twitchings. We are now lithe hominids with eyes fixed well beyond our own star system at this point.
When you formed the band, and when others have joined over the years, does friendship come before the music? I mean, common music interests are often the basis for a friendship, but I’m wondering if you were friends first (and so the sound you make together is a result of friends jamming) or whether you sought people to play in order to create a specific sound?
Friendship was the primary seed from which this gloriously mutated plant did grow. What was first just a grouping of dudes with similar musical tastes and convenient overlapping free time schedules became an attempt to musically translate what we found to be interesting about the world and each other.
At this point, six humans have been in the band in various combinations, but each time someone came into the fold it was out of friendship. No hired guns here.
Have you ever suffered any setbacks since you guys started, and how did you deal with them?
I doubt there is a band on Earth or beyond that would tell you that they’ve never suffered any setbacks. If they do, please pull out their memory data chip and examine it closely under a microscope before smashing it with a hammer, because they are corporate music business androids.
Being in a band is more or less an ongoing string of setbacks punctuated by some really cool shit
I think one of the basic tenets of being in a band is that it is more or less an ongoing string of setbacks punctuated by some really cool shit every now and again. But all of these perceived “setbacks” are actually external to the act of making music, so it has to be kept in perspective.
Yes, there have been shows that should’ve gone better and records that went strangely unpublicized and many other things that are far beyond our control, but there has never been a time where I couldn’t come up with a cool chord or sing something that had never been sung by man, and that’s just about the coolest part about being in a band.
The other stuff comes and goes and fades into memory and is great when it’s there, but it can’t all be peaks and high-altitude vistas.
Interstellar Skeletal is an evolution from Build Your Beast a Fire; it has a fuller, more cosmic, almost Hawkwindish vibe, whereas Build Your Beast is leaner and rawer and more melodic. I keep hearing Television in BYBAF for some reason: maybe your voice has something of Tom Verlaine in it? How would you describe the difference between the two? Which was easier or more fun to make?
I have a technique of creating specific mental environments in which songs and albums can dwell and develop an existence outside the typical boundaries of song structure and recorded sound. It is somewhat abstract and wholly magickal, but it is indeed encoded into everything we’ve ever made.
In this manner, BYBAF was definitely set in a more organic terrestrial locale: decaying leaves, forest murk and swampy rhythms, all being forced through the concise grids of man-made origin. Definitely a document of our band at a precise moment in our collective timeline and reflective of our personnel at that stage.
Interstellar Skeletal, quite simply, eschews most of that terrestrial two-step and takes aim straight for the stars. It is a flying saucer onboard that we are lucky to have touched some of the controls and maybe even tried on some of the crew’s strange clothing (overalls). But lest you confuse this for a nuts-and-bolts craft, let me just say that the most effective mode of space travel is not a three-dimensional feat of engineering.
I cannot say that either/or was more fun or easier to make, as those are not adjectives I would want to describe a recording process. I want things to be physically painful and psychologically debilitating, like any real birth should be.
I think it goes without saying that Anton is a living legend
As far as the Television you hear, I chalk that up to New York City, baby.
Since being picked up by Anton Newcombe’s A. Records, what’s changed? It must have been a huge thrill to be asked by him to put a record out for you. Have you found it easier to get opportunities generally or to play larger festivals, and what is the difference as performers playing clubs or playing events, and which do you prefer?
Well, I think it goes without saying that Anton is a living legend. I personally believe that this entire “psych revival” that we see happening now would not be going down without his influence and the music of The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
And on a personal level, his music has been a highly exalted sacred tablet for me over the years. Finding a used copy of Their Satanic Majesty’s Second Request back in the pre-internet days was akin to stumbling onto the Holy Grail itself, and trust me–I spent many a magical night as a young man quaffing that potent elixir.
We tend not to be as gear-obsessed as a lot of other bands.
I saw stars bloom in space and fall down to earth as bodhisattvas under that album’s arcane and mysterious enchantment.
So needless to say, it was (and still is) a tremendous honor to have put out two albums on A Recordings, Ltd.
Who would’ve guessed all those years ago, as I stood transfixed at the bottom of the Eternal Well of All Souls with Anton’s chimes constructing my sonic temple mound that my life would come full circle in such a manner?
I am sure being one of Anton’s bands has helped us in terms of worldwide recognition, as there is an international dimension to the label with Anton being in Germany, our band being in the US, and the label itself headquartered in the UK.
This has in turn helped us with our two European tours, as the label’s audience tends to be more decentralized than a lot of other similarly sized outfits.
I think the current climate in the city is very difficult for bands
Although it is clearly great to play to massive audiences on these tours, I think I am most comfortable in smaller, intimate gigs, where personal electromagnetic fields are given far more of a chance to overlap, intertwine and grow together as collective energetic beings.
What’s your most cherished bit of gear? Are you a pure analog band or are you happy to mix digital and analog to get the sound you want? Are you guys gearheads or minimalists?
For me there is no question: my 1966 black face Fender Tremolux amplifier. It is an old battle-hardened bud who has been by my side for the past 15 years or so and who intones frequencies on an angelic plane. Not Hallmark card chubby cherub angelic, mind you; warrior/archangel Michael is more his style.
We tend not to be as gear-obsessed as a lot of other bands. Sure, we get off on sweet machinery, but I think we see these things as means to an end, so we are not overly snobby or distracted by such talk.
Obviously there is a certain sound we wish to achieve, and sometimes that is better left to the true gearheads, such as our producer (and Psychic TV guitarist) Jeff Berner. He’s the man with the sonic know-how, as well as the gadgetry to make it happen.
In the studio, I typically sit on the couch and describe what I want to hear as ambiguously poetically as possible, just to balance it all out.
We get the impression that the city is not hospitable to men with long hair who play instruments in dark rooms late at night.
New York has such an incredibly rich and diverse musical heritage and culture. Are you inspired by any of the music to have come out of the state (or city)? Is it harder or easier to attract listeners, coming from New York?
Yes, New York City has over the years been such an odd cultural radio.
Many people attribute this to the geological composition of the area, having been built over a large amount of quartz, which acts as a natural amplifier of sorts.
Anyhow, among the NY acts that have meant most to me at various times over the years are The Velvet Underground, Harry Nilsson, The Ramones, Silver Apples, Afrikaa Bambaataa, Run DMC, The Beastie Boys, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Wu-Tang Clan, White Hills, and so on.
Sadly, I think the current climate in the city is very difficult for bands, simply because there are so many bands in the city and the infrastructure that exists for them (repair shops, rehearsal spaces, clubs) by and large does not seem supportive, but exploitative. This is a trend in the city in general following three terms of Bloomberg: NYC is by the wealthy and for the wealthy in many ways. Being in a band purely for purposes of artistic expression must be heavily subsidized personally.
Obviously there are exceptions to every rule, but oftentimes we get the impression that the city is not hospitable to men with long hair who play instruments in dark rooms late at night. Most of the cool clubs we have called home over the years have fallen victim to the insane bloodlust of mass gentrification and the luxury condos it breeds. Such a shame, really.
I like to eat vegan Indian food and listen to live sitar and tabla, which you can still do here on Sixth Street
Who have you been listening to lately that’s really gotten you excited? Is there a particular kind of music from a world culture that you enjoy?
I like the new record Moonlust by The Holydrug Couple on Sacred Bones, which tends to be a pretty solid label, from what I have heard.
Also, for a spell I could not stop listening to They Worshipped Cats by Les Big Byrd, our labelmates on A.
A friend of mine kind of got me a master mix of all sorts of late ’60s/early ’70s Southeast Asian psych, and it is some of the coolest stuff I have heard in a long time. I think most of it is Cambodian and it is wild!
I like to eat vegan Indian food and listen to live sitar and tabla, which you can still do here on Sixth Street, which is amazing in its own way.
What’s it like to be able to watch from the wings and see your favorite bands perform up close? You’ve shared stages with bands like Spectrum, BJM, White Hills, Spindrift, Wooden Shjips, Assemble Head… the list goes on. Do you think there is there some secret ingredient that makes a good band great? What’s the common denominator?
I could not stop listening to They Worshipped Cats by Les Big Byrd
It’s pretty surreal to tell you the truth. All of the bands you mentioned are legendary in my mind, and to be contemporaries with them in some small way is truly humbling and unfathomable. I will always think of such bands to be leaps and bounds beyond us on most levels, but there’s some comfort in knowing that we at least exist in some common continuum of expression.
We are just four dudes who get together in predictable frequency to pull some tunes out the ether now and again, and I can’t believe we’ve been holding onto the magic carpet without letting go for this long.
I don’t know that there is some pinpointable common denominator among these bands, as I am not on the inside.
I can certainly tell you what I appreciate and revere about each one, but there’s no saying whether or not these observations will be accurate or not.
I don’t like making categorical statements in this way, as I think it can shave some inexpressible subtleties off of the face of what we must consider full and open experience.
What’s coming up for Weird Owl this year? Where can people find your music?
Our record Interstellar Skeletal came out in May of this year, and we will be in Europe for a few weeks starting in September, including dates at the Incubate Festival in Tilburg and The Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia.
We have also just done a limited cassette-only re-release of our debut album, Nuclear Psychology, on Wiener Records. Our albums are available in the States through Forced Exposure and in Europe via Cargo. Or just Google us and see what is out there, my friend!