‘If you’ve never tuned-in, turned-on and dropped-out, then you’re not just missing out on the joys of one particular sub-genre of rock music, you’re missing out on pretty much the whole damn thing‘ – Hugh McCabe on this year’s Liverpool Psych FestPop, punk, prog and psych: these are what Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices refers to as the ‘four P’s’. For Pollard, they constitute the key ingredients of this thing we call rock. You can include one or two of these ingredients and still produce something really good, but if you want to be great, you have to master all four. As the driving force behind the greatest band of the modern era, this is a man who knows a thing or two about music, and we should therefore take note of what he says. What Pollard’s taxonomy suggests is that psychedelia is not some sort of temporary aberration in the trajectory; not just the folly of drugged-out hippies in Haight-Ashbury. Instead it’s a core element of the DNA of the music itself, and it’s therefore just as relevant right now as it was when the original wave of psychonauts set the controls for the heart of the sun way back in the late 1960s. If you’ve never tuned-in, turned-on and dropped-out, then you’re not just missing out on the joys of one particular sub-genre of rock music, you’re missing out on pretty much the whole damn thing. Your outlook is fundamentally flawed. You probably think ALT-J are a good band.
This explains why an event like the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia can accommodate so many different styles and approaches. This year’s edition took place over two days on three stages in a refurbished factory complex, and featured such diverse fare as masked Swedish cultists Goat, power-trio White Hills, gentle folk-rockers Woods, electro-party animals Zombie Zombie, and retro pop revivalists the Allah-Las. Far from being some sort of monolithic reimagining of one psychedelic past it was instead a wildly eclectic foray into contemporary manifestations of psychedelia. Some of the acts drew heavily on familiar signifiers of the psychedelic, both sonically and visually, whereas others eschewed such heavy-handed tactics and conducted their explorations of inner space is subtler, and usually more interesting, ways. For example, one of the highlights of Saturday evening was the duo of Daniel O’Sullivan and Alexander Tucker, otherwise known as Grumbling Fur. While they may tap into a particularly pastoral vein of English psychedelia, one that has its roots in Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, they deliver their simple but somewhat skewed pop songs in a way that brings to mind the chart music of that most un-psychedelic of eras – the 1980s. If Tears For Fears had dropped the bombast and dropped acid instead, they might have sounded something like this. Not long afterwards Woods give a similarly impressive demonstration of oblique strategies. Ostensibly operating from within a pretty standard Americana-folk-rock framework they quickly veer into extended guitar improvisations. Unlike the clumsy bolting-on of avant tendencies that we get with a band like Wilco, Woods make it seem natural and organic, reminding us that psych is really more about the in-here than it is about the out-there.
Two of the big draws on the Friday night are the Allah-Las and The Besnard Lakes, both hailing from across the Atlantic, and both offering their own takes on the 1960s West Coast pop psych sound. In both cases it’s well executed and well received by the crowd, but neither band seem to go far beyond meticulous and respectful appropriation. No heads are being melted here. Something more adventurous is attempted by Portoguese duo Jibóia. They are also in the business of appropriation, but this time it’s 60s psych sounds from well south of the Tijuana line, in the form of Brazilian tropicália. They are inventive, exuberant and lots of fun. Friday night ends on a high with French act Zombie Zombie creating pounding dancefloor-oriented krautrock with electronics and live percussion. Not entirely dissimilar territory is covered by Manchester’s Gnod the following night, but whereas Zombie Zombie strip it all back to minimalist grooves, Gnod pile on layers and layers of riotous noise, aiming for maximum sensual overload. The effect is extraordinary: Sabbath and Hawkwind channelled through the dystopian end of 1990s dance culture. If there had been a rave scene in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men, Gnod would have been the house band.
Gnod are joined for their set by Dave from White Hills, who are playing on the same stage right afterwards but unfortunately White Hills are scheduled to go on at the same time as Goat, who are headlining in the other room. Goat are undeniably the band of the festival but the 2000-limit capacity of the main venue leaves hundreds of disappointed punters unable to get in to see them. It’s a testament to how rapidly the Swedish band have established themselves, and while this is partly due to their excellent debut album World Music, perhaps of more significance is the word-of-mouth on their live show, with its attendant mystique of masks, anonymity and ritualism. Goat emerge sometime after 1AM and immediately launch into one of their trademark space-rock afro-funk riffs. All of them are costumed and all have their faces hidden. The outfits are outlandish and absurd. One is a simple black burqa but the others are elaborate, decorative and ornamental. The two female singers are dressed like Balinese dancers crossed with Incan sun-gods. There is a certain cod-ethnicity about this but Goat get away with it by means of the ridiculous eclecticism of their visual reference points. They come across more like participants in the orgy scene in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut than the products of some hamfisted northern European exercise in orientalism. Of course, none of this would matter much were it not for the fact that the band are so good. They reveal themselves to be masters of the locked-in groove and at one point I start wondering if it’s Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn and Matt “Guitar” Murphy hiding behind the masks. The real stars of the show however are the two singing and dancing Goat-ladies. Cavorting around the stage like demented harpies, they are the ringleaders of a giant communal occult ritual that we are all happy to be a part of.
There’s a lot more than just the headline acts to see at the Psych Fest, with Saturday night in particular offering an embarrassment of riches. I try to get to see Dublin’s own September Girls but the room they are playing in is too rammed to even get in the door. I did manage to catch superb sets from Mazes, Anthroprophh, Hills and Suuns, and there were other things to see and do such as cinema, a series of talks, and an art installation. With the larger festivals turning into little more than lifestyle weekends for the indie middle classes, it seems like smaller niche events like this, and Birmingham’s similarly excellent Supersonic festival, might just be the way forward. Now they just need to book Robert Pollard for next year.