Yellowbirds’ Sam Cohen
My recent piece on classic psych rock and its influence on a new era of NYC bands. Originally appears in the fall issue of The Deli.
Music and drugs have always gone hand-in-hand. Take marijuana, a substance that helped inspire everything from the reefer songs of 1930s and 1940s jazz, to the blunts ‘n’ beats of modern day hip hop. Cocaine birthed David Bowie’s mid-seventies Thin White Duke alter ego, and was a cornerstone of disco culture, while heroin gripped the lives, careers and creative output of artists right across the board, from Miles Davis and Jim Morrison to Kurt Cobain and Julian Casablancas.
But few musical genres have been so interlinked with drug use than the vivid explosion of psychedelic rock that occurred in the late sixties and early seventies. As the use of peyote, mescaline and LSD became increasingly widespread across the UK and US, countercultures, inspired by the freaky hallucinogenics, drew in thousands of kids. Many of the era’s most talented musicians became spellbound by both the substances and youth movements. Exploring alternate states of consciousness and hungry to test the limits of pop music songwriting, they smashed through their creative ceilings, taking rock ‘n’ roll to outlandish new places.
When the subcultures that spawned the music flickered out, an era of inventiveness evaporated with it. Still, trailblazing bands like The Beatles, Cream, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Love, The Doors and dozens of others cut a massive body of work in just a few short years, pioneering new sounds and an experimental spirit that forever moved the borders of what a guitarbased composition could achieve. Today, groups like The Flaming Lips, Tame Impala, Foxygen and Animal Collective have achieved huge success by incorporating big chunks of the genre’s sound into their own style. Meanwhile, dozens of bands loiter the dives of New York City, dedicated to keeping the spirit of ‘67 alive.
Psych, like many genres, is slippery to define, and a starting point isn’t easy to pinpoint. As early as 1964, The Beatles were experimenting with guitar feedback on ‘I Feel Fine,’ incorporating a sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’ just a year later. Atypical instrumentation became a cornerstone of psych, while artists experimented with more complex song structures and allowed more time and space for guitar solos. Production techniques focused on distortion and feedback, while lyrically, songwriters began embracing surrealism.
But psych rock was more than just its nuts and bolts. According to Sam Cohen, frontman of the Brooklyn-based band Yellowbirds, replicating an established formula is not enough to offer a true psychedelic experience. “There’s a lot of generic, boring, lo-fi, reverb-soaked garage rock with horrible lyrics that are meant to be mind-expanding and that would all be best described as ‘psychedelic rock,’ so I try to reserve the term ‘psychedelic’ for when something is truly weird and interesting,” says Cohen. “It has to actually set itself apart to deserve the term, in my view.”
Yellowbirds describe their sound as “psychedelic fun times,” having explored the style over two albums and the soundtrack to silent super 8 film “Across The Whipplewash.” Cohen previously enjoyed a successful stint as part of Boston-based trio Apollo Sunshine, who at their best created rich kaleidoscopes of spaced-out sixties nostalgia. Like many a gifted guitarist before him, he cites Jimi Hendrix as inspiring his sound from a young age. “I was learning to play guitar, and his playing was obviously the thing that drew me in. The production ideas seeped in from listening so much. I started to prefer a kind of warped sound.”
While psychedelica does indeed tend to be warped, with layers of complex instrumentation stacked on top of more complex instrumentation, according to Kristina “Teeny” Lieberson of the band Teen, a consistent bedrock is important to build upon. “There has to be a single thread that kind of carries you throughout, but within the single thread, it twists and turns a lot,” says Lieberson. “[It’s] typically a drone or a rhythm that keeps you hooked and keeps you in this kind of circular motion. Then there are all these twists and turns happening, but that thread is keeping you hanging on. And then you’re attracted to all the colors that are happening around that one thread.”
A Boys’ Club
A former member of ambient indie-pop group Here We Go Magic, Lieberson formed TEEN in 2011. Her sisters Katherine and Lizzie and friend Jane Herships complete the line-up, and the group explores Teeny’s musical interests, which has veered from the quirky indie pop of her previous band to riff-heavy rock ‘n’ roll with multihued flourishes.
“I’ve always been into pretty spacey, out [there] music, so initially it was really just me making these little recordings. So I think just because of the music I like, it naturally kind of was that - it wasn’t intentionally psychedelic at all,” explains Lieberson. “They, we, started working with [Yo La Tengo producer] Pete Kember. He had some hand in helping us move in that direction for sure because he kind of was a psychedelic guy in general. Then we just gravitated more towards that. I like colorful music, and psychedelic music tends to be incredibly colorful.”
TEEN are a rarity. Janis Joplin may have been one of the true greats, but throughout its history, psych rock has tended to be a boys’ club, with limited input from female artists. Considering her own strong affinity for the style, the lack of women throughout its history puzzles Lieberson.
“I’ve been trying to figure that out myself,” she says when asked why psych has been historically light in female representation. “I don’t really know. I even noticed it with our audience. It feels like a lot of people who come to our shows and a lot of people who are into us are boys and men. I don’t have an answer. I’m not sure why women don’t gravitate towards it as much. All my friends listen to it; all my friends enjoy it. I just wonder if maybe at the moment, it’s something women aren’t naturally gravitating towards.”
Purple Haze all in My Brain
While psych rock has maintained a relevancy way past its most prominent era, the drugs that helped birth it have become less entangled within. Tougher government sanctions on LSD made it harder to come by in the late 1970s, and it would go on to be less associated with rock ‘n’ roll as it would gothic subcultures and the nineties rave scene. But does that mean mind-bending drugs are no longer necessary to create mind-bending music? Do psychedelic songwriters actually still need to get high?
“Yes, but that can be through drugs or in other ways,” asserts Cohen. “Psychedelic music creates a high feeling, and that all comes from within. Drugs play with chemicals that already exist inside of you, and of course, drugs are a quick way to tap in for sure, but music itself is a way to get there. So I don’t think drugs and trippy music are mutually exclusive. They are a good pairing, obviously.”
As an example of a musician that does not need to pop pills to write a trippy jam, Lieberson concurs: “It’s funny, somebody asked me that the other day. ‘Do you do a lot of drugs,’ basically is what they were asking me. For me, that’s never really been a part of it. I understand why it’s a part of it, and I think that the two make a lot of sense with each other and the whole visual aspect, drawing that in. But I feel like, if your music is really psychedelic, you’ll be able to get there anyway - without drugs. That’s the whole point - that its colorful and that it’s taking you somewhere else. If it’s really good and you’re really good and doing it, you don’t have to take acid in order to feel that.”
“It’s funny to me mainly because I don’t do a lot of psychedelic drugs so I guess the music just speaks of that. It’s cool if people feel that’s how you feel when you listen to the music, then that’s great - that’s awesome. I don’t know how much it reflects upon me, but if they have that experience, that’s amazing.”
However, less convinced that psychedelic music can truly exist without drugs is Brian McNamara of Himalaya, a band whose Facebook page cites “drugs and alcohol” as influences. Their 2011 album “The Reason We Start Fires” was a rough gem, boasting hard as nails guitar riffs, accessible melodies and spaced-out jam sessions that sometimes stretched over the 8-minute mark.
“Creative people need to do what they need to do,” says McNamara. “You don’t need drugs to sit in a chair and be an accountant all day. But to play a song for 10 minutes that comes from your soul to a crowd of four, well, everyone needs their device.”
A Psychedelic Sky
Himalaya, Teen and Yellowbirds represent just a sample of psychedelic ingenuity currently taking place in New York - the five boroughs offering a creative hub for bands inspired by the style. While the UK and San Francisco will forever be psych’s spiritual home, New York also birthed a slew of prominent bands who cut their own path within the field. The Fugs, The Godz, The Blues Magoos, The Blues Project and Vanilla Fudge, among others, lit up the city’s psych scene during its heyday, while some of the city’s most celebrated artists gave the genre its own unique NYC spin.
“I rate The Velvet Underground as one of the best and most psychedelic bands ever. They’re in their own category,” says Cohen. “Their way of being psychedelic is distinctly New York. Same with The Fugs. They’re psychedelic in their own unique way.”
While they may not be traditionally associated with the genre, McNamara considers no wavers Sonic Youth to be the quintessential New York psychedelic group: “I remember buying Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’ in ‘89 and that was NY to me. That was psychedelic to me. I just thought, ‘NY is where you can make a record as noisy as you want and have 7-minute songs, and people will put it in their walkman and smoke a joint of shitty weed and just get lost. Just forget about life.’”
McNamara’s affirmations echo Cohen’s view that psychedelica is more of a spirit and attitude than rigid formulation of sounds. Indeed, the music has never been about adherence but more revolution - the sound of social experimenting, alternative lifestyles and free love. But while the hippie dream quickly faded, its soundtrack has never ceased to inspire, and in modern day NYC, bands continue to add color to psych’s ever-expanding pallet.
The fall issue of The Deli is available to pick up free in NYC or can be viewed on this link.