California's psych-rock acts are getting heads buzzed around the globe. The music roughs up '60s San Francisco/Dead influences in filters ranging from heavy metal to punk and ambient electronic, and the attention being paid to our bands has been increasingly enviable. To wit: Music mogul Rick Rubin released boogie rockers Howlin Rain's most recent record. Wooden Shjips, our reigning dudes of the prickly drone, have been tethered to the international festival circuit this year, most recently performing at All Tomorrow's Parties in New York. (((FolkYeah)))'s Big Sur weekenders sell out with bills featuring progressive regional riffage that mushrooms in every sense of the word. And the 2008 heavy music doc Such Hawks, Such Hounds chronicled the rich sounds of the underground by focusing mostly on Northern California acts like Mammatus and Comets on Fire. Since psychedelic is one of my favorite strains of the rock genus, I'm thrilled to see our local feedback tweakers getting such prominent boosts in profile.
With all this attention, can San Francisco return as one of the country's big music capitals? Not so fast, say Ripley Johnson and Richard B. Simon, organizers of the first annual “psychedelic dance party” Frisco Freakout on Oct. 11. Our state may be flush with wild guitar tamers, but the factors cementing a true sonic landmark — connections among bands, clubs, and labels defining a specific sound — are lacking in the Bay Area.
Johnson, frontman for Wooden Shjips, says he's constantly asked by interviewers to detail California's psychedelic rock community. “People have this idea that there's this burgeoning scene in San Francisco,” he says. “They're like, 'You must have late-night jam sessions with Comets on Fire all the time,' and it's like, 'No, we've never done that.' There's a lot of music going on, but there isn't a central thing.”
Historically, musical zeitgeists cluster around a specific hangout, studio, or record label that corrals the like-minded. Punk germinated in San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens and New York's CBGB. The Motown sound was, of course, birthed by the Detroit label of the same name, and the Seattle grunge frenzy wouldn't have been as easy to pinpoint were it not for Sub Pop. But in our era of the decentralized music industry, locating the psych-rock ground zero for 2008 is a difficult task, no matter the fan enthusiasm for it. “It's the paradox of the information age,” Johnson says. “You could have 20,000 fans and six of them could actually be where you live. That's happened in the past, but [the Internet] amplifies it.”
Simon, a musician and editor at music mag Relix, adds that the way bands and venues do business has shifted drastically over the years. “The Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service got together and took over [S.F. nightclub] the Carousel Ballroom,” he says. “That's hard for a couple of young rock bands to do in the '00s. It's just so expensive.” He adds that it's also much harder for a bar to cater to a specific crowd and build a singular aesthetic. With so many clubs competing for audiences in this city, variety in booking bolsters business, even though it may dilute somewhat the curatorial cache of running a venue.
All this isn't to say that our psych landscape lacks an edge. With venues like the Hemlock, labels like Birdman, and radio DJs like KUSF's Stereo Steve, we have some great local outlets supporting this kind of music. And to back up a bit, the upcoming Frisco Freakout is a mini-festival that's all about making a scene, if only for a day.
The Freakout, which takes over Thee Parkside and benefits nonprofit art gallery Creativity Explored, runs the gamut of California's finest, from Wooden Shjips through the harder stoner boogie bands (Earthless, the Bad Trips, Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound) to the softer side of psych (Sleepy Sun, Greg Ashley) to melodic freakouts (Crystal Antlers) and art-damaged ensembles (Ascended Master), a dozen acts in all. “Part of the inspiration was to try and create something that was local,” Johnson says, “because there are a lot of bands doing cool things that people aren't necessarily exposed to.”
More than just an excuse to get your noggin rattled while noshing on organic eats, it's a step forward in crystallizing a sound that's been brewing here for a while now. Simon's theory on psych's rise in popularity is tied to music fans looking for a release from the economic and political turbulence we've been exposed to in recent years. “I think it's a response to the crazy times we're in, to war,” he says. “You look at the last time psychedelic music came about — it was very much a response. This music, especially the heavier stuff that makes your brain vibrate, [there's the sense that] it sounds like what I've been feeling.”
In the end, Frisco Freakout should make for a really fun party — as well as a good anecdote the next time Wooden Shjips give an out-of-stater an interview. When music critics ask Johnson what it's like hanging out playing music all day with Assemble Head or Greg Ashley, he could finally have a good answer about the “San Francisco scene.”