On a Wednesday night in an Allston, Massachusetts nightclub, four fellows—mostly hirsute, the drummer oddly clean-cut—are setting up onstage for a gig. I practically used to live in clubs like this, and the only thing missing from the familiar smell of sweat and alcohol is the waft of tobacco, now that Boston law prohibits smoking in bars. I used to do it all, bathing in the odor of a rock club. But tonight, the sickly-sweet smell of marijuana I caught outside irritated me; pot no longer makes my heart race in anticipation. And honestly, I just don’t go to shows anymore. It’s 10 PM, midweek, and normally I would be in bed. I always feel a little guilty leaving my wife home alone with our son.
Once everything is plugged in and tuned, the four band members sit on stools arranged in a kind of semi-circle, evoking the communal sensibility of a prayer group. The set begins with what sounds vaguely Americana, acoustic guitar under a kind of gospel-laden vocal—a knowing mix of Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley. Then, as the drummer slowly comes alive and the other musicians begin to add their own elements, you suddenly realize that while the music is urging you near, drawing you in, the band members themselves appear to be transforming. They close their eyes and rock back and forth. They hoot and yell out. And while they each play one of the key quartet instruments, they also contribute in a variety of other ways: glockenspiel, banjo, melodica. Their technique seems largely improvisational, but at its core the music is crafted. They recognize each other’s signatures and this gives them freedom, and courage. In a moment, I sense that their performance offers the promise that music can somehow change you, knock out the cotton in your brain, and give you a new kind of hope.
A dozen musical references begin to take hold—Syd Barrett, The Band, Tyrannosaurus Rex, The Incredible String Band, the progenitors of the music we call psychedelic. Then their contemporary counterparts—Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective, and a host of others that have been dubbed psych-folk.
Yet, as much as they depend on what came before, or on what their friends are doing, this band is building something new. After the first song climaxes and then reaches its denouement, the next song takes hold in a different way. No longer a movement towards some new musical syncretism, this song seems more about the band trying to groove in what they had just created. They begin a long jam. There is a palpable tension, as if they are trying to work it all out as they go along, not sure where the song (or the evening, for that matter) will take them, but more than willing to go for the ride. The band is Brooklyn’s Akron/Family, and they are heading towards the middle of their first set, on their first tour to promote their first album.
Standing there at my first late-night show in a year, with a child sleeping at home, work in the morning, well, it becomes a little bit personal. I begin to experience an old ache, a desire for a mystical communion with a transcendent reality. The music on the stage sounds like it is trying to invoke a spirit and it seems possible that the musicians—their eyes rolled back and feet pounding the stage—are merely the vessels through which whatever is coming will make itself known. I know there is transcendence here, or rather, I hope there is. But my sense of the transcendental and transformative potential of this kind of music has shifted from where it once sat. No longer assisted by hashish and blotter acid, I find that much of this music sounds worldly. God, it appears, is immanent.
I have begun collecting psychedelic music again, almost twenty years after I traded my entire original collection for bag of pot, mostly seeds and stems. I have been scouring Web sites and magazines, trolling greater Boston’s underground record stores and talking to people about this resurgence of psychedelic music and asking around to learn which is the essential Incredible String Band LP (The 5000 Spirits of the Layers of the Onion, obviously). What am I looking for in this music? It’s something quite different today than when I was eighteen. Since then, I’ve learned that psychedelia is not about the actual reality of other worlds, but the desire to experience them. And contained in this desire is necessarily a world-weariness. Call it melancholia, the disease under the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction. What is this desire for another kind of reality? It’s not a longing for another world beyond death, but for a journey that skirts death’s edges. And I’ve found that efforts to fulfill this desire often involve a lot of effort with very little reward, fasting that only leads to more hunger, prayer that reveals the emptiness, meditation that quiets everything but the longing. Because in the end, there is this great paradox of mystical experiences:
If you are capable of having a mystical experience you don’t need it;
If you want it, you first have to transform yourself;
Once you’re transformed and are capable of having a mystical experience, again, you don’t need it.
Akron/Family are Dana Janssen, Seth Olinsky, Ryan Vanerhoof, and Miles Seaton. The morning before the show, I sat down in the lobby of their hotel to talk with them about their new self-titled album and their first big tour. Their album is a pastiche of sound and style. No two songs sound alike, although there is a particular kind of vocal and harmonic arrangement that works as a continuous thread. There is also an overall atmosphere, a kind of hope couched in uncertainty. Admittedly, some of the songs do sound quite a bit like other bands—Radiohead, The Band, even Sparklehorse. But Akron/Family turns each of these influences into an original song, layering their own sensibility over the top to create a musical palimpsest, each layer a different idea, forming a living archive of sound that stretches back to the sixties and moves us—it seems—beyond today.
At least lyrically, if not also in the landscapes of their music, they avoid the trap of a kind of pseudo-sixties naiveté about drugs and spirituality. Sentiments like the Electric Prunes‘ druggy and hyper-ethereal “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)” are replaced by Akron/Family with more down-to-earth ideas filled with a longing tempered by the past: “All my dreams are memories / that I can’t place to a time.” The songs sound sometimes like invocations or prayers, with the band both calling for assistance and calling out in praise. Some are like mantras that try to create openness and steadiness, and often uncover a tension between what is possible and impossible, what is real and not real. Miles suggests that if you are actively seeking to be transformed by some kind of spiritual experience—to be made aware of other levels of reality—it will happen. But then, even so, you may wonder why you asked for such transformation in the first place. “It’s a painful experience,” he says. The band conjures an ineffable that is not at all transcendent, but is right here, in the ground. And it is we who seem ungrounded, looking outwards, as in the songs “Running, Returning” and “Shoes:” “With your feet grounded/your thoughts turn toward the sky/and you start to float/you see your shoes are tied.”
When we begin talking about the genre, Akron/Family start by suggesting that there is a difference between music that gets classified as psychedelic, and something that actually is psychedelic. While anyone can write a song with just enough reverb and bells to sound psych, it’s another thing to attempt to create music that might actually cause a shift in consciousness in the listener. This experience of psych, though, is more than just a particular musical sensibility. Akron/Family sees the whole world of noise as comprised of elements that can reveal the elasticity of consciousness. Dana explains how he records outdoor sounds: “I sit at my window and listen to the kids that play across the street. The kids in recess appear on the album. There is this recess cycle, screaming, call and response, etc.” These bits of a background din create a real worldliness to their music, as if the quest for transcendence must begin here, in a playground, in the city.
We all agree that for the first psychedelic bands LSD was the common element, a tool to break down notions of what the boundaries of reality really are and what is possible sonically. But the band insists that you don’t need any drug. You must simply be open to the possibility of transcendence. In fact, the drug experience can be largely debilitating. Seth explains:
“You record when you’re on acid and when you go back and listen it doesn’t sound like anything, and it certainly won’t have a psychedelic effect on anyone. So you actually have to be pretty coherent and work on a more skillful level for it to be psychedelic for someone. The Beatles said they were never on drugs when the actually recorded. Drugs can point you in a direction, but if you follow it, you get lost. You have to have the coherence of craft to pull it all together.”
For the band, the greatest transformation happens playing live, which they agree is infinitely more psychedelic than drugs—it doesn’t wear off. Everyone else nods when Dana says, “The more you play and have the experience it leaves you with a residue. When you pick up the instrument again you are already that much closer to putting yourself in that place. Moving sound waves, you create an ecology in the space that’s there. It’s different from just entertaining people.”
Lyrically, the album is filled with sentiments that suggest a particular spiritual outlook. But whether or not they collectively agree on the meaning of any of these sentiments, there is still some explicit expression of a common spiritual worldview. The liner notes of the album have as the band’s first acknowledgement the following remarkable homage: “The ineffable, intangible, inconceivable and insubstantial source of all being and existence.” When asked if there is there some shared notion of what they all consider holy or “ineffable,” Akron/Family insist that they all have different viewpoints. “It’s a hard line between individual and group, but in a family there are some shared things,” Miles explains. “When we sit down together we create a space where there is something beyond ourselves to express itself. On that level, we are communicating and interacting beyond the level we can talk about. We can disagree about intention or what we believe, but musically it works.”
Nevertheless, what the audience experiences is a sense of some shared feeling of longing. That old feeling… my problem child. But what helps for me is that Akron/Family’s version of psychedelia is not merely the ramblings of a contemporary Syd Barrett, who tricked me as a kid to “trip, trip to a dream dragon.” One does not have the feeling of being tricked by Akron/Family, but there is certainly the sense of a hidden spiritual treasure to unpack. We might at least agree that any authentic spiritual experience requires your having to dig a little. Miles admits as much: “I am trying to crack it open as much as I can. Making music is vast and more mysterious that I give it credit for.”
Seth explains it this way: “Rabbi Nachman would talk to everyone, the highest and the average person. In a lot ways, like Hendrix and the Beatles, to be able to do things that work on every level is such an amazing and worthy goal. If you can speak to all different people, you have done something. But it’s not for everyone. It’s dangerous. We’re talking about the mystery of things.”
The next night at the show, halfway into the set, the crowd at the bar, talking almost all the way through to that point, slowly began to make their way towards the stage. Something was beckoning them. The music was probably not what they were expecting in a typical Boston rock club. I became acutely attentive to the audience, watching who stayed, who was drawn, and who ran away. Some huddled at the front of the stage from start to finish, not moving, taking it all in. Others moved in and out of the crowd, lost it seemed, not sure if they wanted to give over to this experience, sometimes uncomfortable, the way the band members yelped and swayed. And still others didn’t want to know about any of it – whatever this was it was not just a “show.” There is mystery here, and danger.
I stayed until the end. But once home I crept into my son’s room and kissed his forehead. The best kind of transcendence is the kind that can be seen sleeping its own dreams, and the best kind of psychedelic is the kind with its feet on the ground and its eyes towards heaven, feet firmly tapping the guitar pedal, fingers getting blistered from so much strumming.
Peter Bebergal is the co-author with Scott Korb of The Faith Between Us and writes regularly about religion, science fiction, and music. He blogs at mysterytheater.blogspot.com, and his next book is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press.