Catching a contact high with Brooklyn’s best psych band.
BY RON HART
Collecting rock art, winding up in jail while touring with the Butthole Surfers, road tripping across China and appreciating New York City avant-drone forefathers The Godz are just some of the talking points covered in conversation with Tres Warren, frontman for the Brooklyn-based nouveau head rockers Psychic Ills. Yet in spite of such out-there interests and experiences the band, rounded out by members Elizabeth Hart (bass), Chris Millstein (drums), Scott Ryan Davis (Guitar) and Scott Davis (keyboard), has shed some of the harsh experimentalisms of their earlier works to give way for their most ear-friendly album to date in One Track Mind. Working alongside underground rock icon Neil Michael Hagerty (Pussy Galore, Royal Trux, The Howling Hex) in the producer’s chair, the Ills peel away the raga-drenched dissonance enough to reveal their chops as rock songwriters of the highest order as their Spaceman 3 fixations manifest themselves into something closer to an unholy union of The Dream Syndicate at their most out-there and Munki-era Jesus & Mary Chain. One Track Mind is currently available at an indie record shop near you. (Below” “One More Time.”)
BLURT: How did you acquire 13th Floor Elevators songwriter Powell St. John for the cover art of One Track Mind?
TRES WARREN: I bought a print of that piece from Powell a while back. If I ever have any money, which isn’t often, I like to buy art from musicians. I have a painting from Bobby Beausoleil and some other odds and ends. Anyway, I always liked the piece. It’s called “True Happiness” and when I asked if we could use it for our record, Powell and his wife Toby were nice enough to give us their blessing.
What is the Beausoleil piece you bought like and how did you acquire it?
The piece is called “Odin’s Eye”—he painted it for me. I have spoken to him off and on in recent years after buying a couple prints from him through his wife Barbara, who sadly has recently passed away. I’m a big fan of his music and am glad to have seen the re-issues happening.
Have you ever attempted to purchase one of Captain Beefheart’s paintings?
No way man, but if you’re buying, I’m in. I’m really too broke to have bought the ones that I did, but I don’t regret it. I love Beefheart, though.
Going back to the cover for One Track Mind, did you give Powell free reign on the concept or were the skulls something you specifically had in mind?
It already existed as a work of art. I like the skulls, some people read it as a dark thing, but I like how they seem like their laughing or smiling at each other.
Is there a particular favorite lyric or song St. John wrote for the 13th Floor Elevators you can recall?
All those songs are great. I’ve always liked “Monkey Island” the best, however:
Living on Monkey Island baby
Right in the middle of a zoo
Living on Monkey Island
Pretending to be a monkey, too
How do you interpret those lyrics in your own mind?
I don’t know, maybe living in the zoo of life—aping the other apes?
What inspired you to seek out Neil Hagerty to work with you on this new album?
I like his music and I wanted someone else to help me break some habits. The timing was just sort of a coincidence. I had talked to him about it before, but the timing wasn’t right then.
What is your favorite era of Hagerty’s career?
I like a lot of Royal Trux records, but lately I’ve been listening to his first solo record, Neil Michael Hagerty again. To me it has a solo artist/songwriter kind of vibe, but it’s got a lot of dimension that stretches it beyond just that. I don’t try to figure out his systems, I just like the loose framework of his songs. I like the playing too.
What is it about the first Neil solo album that most appeals to you?
I just like the songs. They’re rooted in a lot of stuff that I’m into, but have their own thing going on that doesn’t adhere to anything. They can get pretty far out while still having a pop sensibility. That’s a combination that a lot of things don’t have, and if you try for it, you probably won’t get it. Whiplash in The Park and I Found A Stranger are my jams on that record.
How do you feel his input enhanced the outcome of One Track Mind?
I like his back up vocals on “Might Take A While”. I recorded those back ups and asked him to re-sing them, and I like him doing them more than me. I also like the weird guitar stuff he put on “I Get By”. I like his mixes of the songs, too.
What was the trickery involved in his guitar work on “I Get By”?
I don’t really know. I play some rhythm and lead and there’s a break and an outro that he played on. I don’t really know what he did, but I like it.
What other outside producers would you be interested in working with in the future and why?
I’m on a Terry Manning kick lately, so I’ll say him. I like a lot of records he’s worked on and I like his solo record Home Sweet Home.
What is it about Home Sweet Home that most appeals to you? What are some of your favorite Stax and Ardent albums he worked on?
I’m just a sucker for this country-rock/blues-rock stuff and I like it even more when it’s a little weird, and that’s what’s going on, on that record. I got to him through all the early ZZ Top records. I’ve been trying to find the Furry Lewis record that he recorded. I need to further investigate the Stax correlation, but speaking of Stax, I’ve been listening to this Don Nix record that came out on Stax/Enterprise called ‘Hobos, Heroes and Street Corner Clowns.’ It’s worth a listen, and if you don’t know him, he wrote ‘Goin Down’ made popular by a lot of other people like Freddie King, Leon Russell and J.J. Cale. I think that song was an inspiration for ‘One Track Mind.’
Really dig the increased role of guitars on One Track Mind. Was that a conscious decision on the band’s part for these songs to be more riff-oriented than your previous work? What guitarists do you feel have real estate in your DNA?
I’ve played guitar for a long time. I spent a while trying to convince myself I wasn’t a guitar player, then I gave up and decided to just do what I know how to do. I like a lot of guitar players, some recent favorites have been: James Burton, Ralph Mooney, Brij Bhushan Kabra, Mance Lipscomb, Ron Asheton & Bo Anders Persson.
What led to the Moon Duo split 7-inch? Are there plans for any future collaborations with your sonic peers?
I think that was suggested by Caleb or Taylor at Sacred Bones, but we were all into the idea. We knew each other from playing shows together and we remixed a song of theirs for their Mazes Remixed record.
How do you approach a remix from the Psychic Ills POV? Have you had any more offers to remix other material?
I just listen to the song and try to give something new to it. I just did a remix for this cool band from Chile called Föllakzoid. I don’t have anything else planned, but I’m open to it.
We don’t have any collaborations planned. We’re just going to tour a lot and then work on some songs I have in my back pocket during the down time.
Regarding that killer cover of The Godz’ “Radar Eyes”–how did you first get into that band and what album of theirs would you recommend to first time listeners?
I can’t even remember the first time I heard The Godz, but I’ve loved that song in particular for a while. I hope we did it justice. They’re an interesting band, if I was recommending them, I guess I’d say go with the first one, Contact High With The Godz. Jim McCarthy also has a cool solo record called Alien. It’s more of songwriter type album, I like that one a lot too.
What do you believe is most interesting about them?
I’m not an authority on them, but I guess they cover a lot of different territory. Y’know you’ve got a song like ‘Down By The River’, that is this amazingly simple hypnotic folk song and then there’s also songs like ‘Riffin’ where they’re doing Lyndon B. Johnson impersonations—there’s a lot in between too.
Do you have any good road stories from touring with the Butthole Surfers?
Well the road ended in jail outside of El Paso, how’s that? I don’t really want to elaborate, but since you asked. But the Butthole Surfers were great to watch and to hang with every night.
Would love to hear all about your trip to China. What did you have a chance to check out while you were there?
China was pretty amazing. It was a real interesting place. We did some walking around Beijing because we were there for a few days. We saw the Forbidden City and the Lama Temple, but the rest of the time we were just traveling in and out of cities before and after shows.
How was your music received?
It’s hard to say. I don’t really know how it’s received when we’re not in a foreign country. But every place we played was really cool and all the people that came out or that we played with were really cool, regardless of how much they knew going into it.
Did you discover any cool new bands on a local level over there?
There’s a lot of music going on over there right now particularly in Beijing.
There a cool bar there called XP that has a variety of cool rock and experimental music happening every night. From what I could gather, it seemed to be the meeting ground in some ways. We saw a lot of cool music there.
How is music such as the kind you make accepted in that country on a cultural level?
It seems like a lot of people are just excited about music happening, so on that level, it seemed like people were into it. They have a pretty young music history in some ways. You don’t go to a flea market and find stacks of vinyl, because they weren’t pressing it and they weren’t allowing it in from other places. People weren’t doing bands until the last 10 or 15 years, so in some ways anything is fair game, which makes it sort of cool to be young and forming a band. They don’t have history to be concerned with.
[Photo Credit: Samantha Casolari]
The band is currently on tour in Europe. Check tour dates at the Sacred Bones label website.