Psychic Milk Interview
I sat down to interview youthful neo-psychedelic rockers Psychic Milk after after they opened for Kill the Reflection at Oklahoma City’s HiLo Club. Guitar players Leon Manson and Justin Hogan, bassist Brandon Wilson, and drummer Charlie Marsel drove down to my house in Norman after classes — all the band members attend OCU’s Academy of Contemporary Music — to answer a few questions.
Also in this interview we feature an exclusive 1st listen to Orion’s Destruction Buckle.
Mercury Photo BureauWho started the band?
Leon MansonWell, me and Charlie [Marsel] were living together […] and then we met Justin at ACM, and we were just kinda sittin’ around, and I’d just quit the band I was in, Moon, and I was kinda startin’ to write with Sonic Violence […] and we kinda just all gathered ’round 1 day and asked,
Why the f*ck aren’t we all in a band together?
MPBWere you all in bands?
Justin HoganI’d just gotten out of 1. I was in a band called Unmarked Cars, and we’d just broken up. You meet people at ACM and you see who’s good and who’s got some brilliance in them, and you want to work with those people. Mutual admiration and them being cool people [brought us together].
Brandon WilsonI don’t think we could be in a band together, if we didn’t like each other.
MPBSounds like the stars lined up for you. Brandon, you have something to add?
BrandonI don’t think it’s a coincidence that we started as David Goad‘s backing band. I was fresh out of high school, and that’s how I met all of these guys, and eventually ended up playing with David.
MPBWere all of you in band or orchestra in high school?
JustinI was in band for maybe, 6th through half of 8th grade. [I played] alto saxophone, but I got a cheesy little keyboard for Christmas when I was 13, and I was like,
F*ck saxophone, man; this thing is cool!
Charlie MarselI was in percussion ensemble […]. I played vibraphone in jazz band, and drums, later. There was an age-based hierarchy. I was in jazz band for 2 years, and also in pep band. That was lame. [laughs] And also guitar ensemble, which is weird, ’cause I’m not very good on guitar.
BrandonI had my fingers in all the pies. Choir, band from the middle of 6th grade through the end of high school.
MPBEverbody in the band sings, right?
MPBWere you the kind of kid who went around the house singing all the time?
CharlieEvery little kid sings. Every one of us was a singer before, but none of us was singing in a band — most of us played instruments. Psychic Milk meant learning how to sing again.
MPBWho writes the lyrics?
AllAll of us.
JustinDepends on the song.
LeonThere are some songs with a verse by 1 person and a chorus by another person. Justin […] has written a lot of the lyrics.
JustinAnd it’s cool. I’ve been in situations where you’re in a group, and 1 person does that, and that’s their department. This is fun; it’s kind of ‘Beatle-ey’ to me, just because everybody contributes […]
MPBDo you find yourselves having a song idea outside the group, maybe sketching it out a bit, before bringing it to the others?
LeonYeah. Somebody will be like,
Here’s this chord progression I have, [and] we’ll kind of sit around together, jam it out […] until we have something we like.
Justin It’s fun, because there’re times when everybody’ll bring something, and it just transforms into something completely different than what I thought of, or what you guys might have thought of […]. You give off something, and it echoes around everybody, and it comes back and it’s this better thing [that] I wouldn’t have thought to do in a million years […].
MPBDo you guys have songwriting sessions, where you’ll say, we’re going to write 3 songs in a certain time span?
LeonWe’ve done that a few times. It’s based on how we’re feeling; there’s not a whole lot that can be done chasing the muse; instead, I’ll call someone and say,
Hey, man, I’m in a writing mood. You want to get together and make some music? Everybody has different schedules; there’ve been a few times when we got together and said,
Okay, everybody, we need a new song, and we’ll write a new song, but it’s usually not in any thought out way; it’s usually happens spontaneously.
JustinIt depends on the circumstances.
We’ve got this show, we’d better have some new material. That’s how Orion’s Destruction Buckle came about.
MPBTell me about Orion’s Destruction Buckle.
BrandonIt was a [chord] progression I’d been mulling over for a while. I think it came from a school project I was working on; it was more-or-less sound design, rather than composition, but I kind of built it all up just to break all it down, electronically, just for the root idea. It was just 3 or 4 keyboard parts all sequenced and then [arranged for guitars and bass], and Charlie plays keyboard on that, as well […]. We all have other projects going on, where we think,
This could go with Psychic Milk, or it could go with [another project].
JustinOn another note, I’d like to mention that Brandon is our Chief Science Officer. He is wearing blue right now; he’s got his pin. This guy’s a genius.
[Brief discussion between Brandon and myself about sound designer and film editor Walter Murch — Ed.]
CharlieWhat’s cool about the way Orion came about is that Brandon brought in the embryo, the keyboard parts and the sequences, and I was inspired to extrapolate from that onto the drums. It’s actually fun to play, too.
MPBIf you guys had to market yourselves, if an A&R man were sitting in the room with you, and said,
We need to put you in a genre, so we can sell your music, how would you describe the band?
CharlieDidn’t we decide “comic book-core”?
Leon I really hate the term “psychedelic rock,” because it’s so played out, and it’s such a thing for bands from Oklahoma to be categorized with the Flaming Lips. When we talked to A&R guys [in the past], it’s like,
Oh, psychedelic rock, Oklahoma, Flaming Lips, that jump happens so quickly, I hate to even throw that out there, but it’s kind of the only thing that works. I like to think of it as just rock & roll music […]. It’s like if Brian Eno and David Bowie had some weird, f*cked up space-child, and then that kid grew up listening to nothing but the Who and Dinosaur Jr. And Black Sabbath.
MPBThat works for me. When you started with Eno and Bowie, well, they actually did what you describe [when they collaborated on the Berlin trilogy], but when you throw those other elements in, it makes perfect sense.
JustinWell, what did you think?
MPBI was having a hard time pegging it, figuring out who your influences were. It was a lot easier, Justin, when you did your 2nd set with David Goad; the visuals are a pretty good clue there. He clearly takes his look from [Ziggy Stardust-era] Bowie and [Bauhaus’s] Peter Murphy. As far as your sound goes, I was having a hard time figuring out,
Who do these guys listen to?
JustinI’m proud of that. I like that.
CharlieWe all have such different influences, that also overlap in different ways for each person, that when it all comes together — I mean, we’re all proud of our influences, and we’re wearing them on our sleeves in a way, but at the same time, altogether —
JustinIt’s different than with [David] Goad, because then it’s his vision, it’s his direction, but with this, it’s every direction. It’s like a hadron collider.
MPBWith [David Goad’s] Kali Ra, it’s obvious that the front man is the driving force, that the music is the product of a singular imagination, with you guys providing support. I really got the feeling watching you guys that I was hearing a collaboration.
LeonI didn’t know we had a front man.
MPBYou don’t, really. You have a singer, who also plays guitar; a different thing altogether. Moving on, I’d like you to pick a song and redeem it. By that, I mean: choose a song that is usually not perceived as very good, even though it might be hugely popular or successful, but that you might not want to admit that you like, and tell me why it’s actually a good song.
LeonShe Bangs, Ricky Martin.
LeonI have this weird relationship with pop music, where I will listen to Top 40 radio, and like, listen to One Direction or something, and just be like,
Oh my god, these chord progressions; they’re so f*cking epic, because there’s like, some motherf*cker sitting in a studio trying to figure out [what the the best hook is]. I really, really, really love pop music for that.
JustinLike he says, you hear the chord progressions, and that’s just a particular reflection of those progressions through that medium; it’s like when José González did [his acoustic cover of Heartbeats]. [Sidenote: Heartbeats is a song by Swedish electronic musicians The Knife.]
Charlie I grew up listening to a lot of 60s pop-rock; I really dig the accessibility of it. I understand a lot of modern pop, but it’s hard for me to relate to it. I’ve been drawn to, mainly, Scandinavian bands, being straight pop, but I can’t understand it, so it’s just sounds I can relate to, like another instrument.
MPBI know I’m guilty of listening to a song, and, if there’s a really good hook, all I hear is the melody — I might not hear the lyrics till the 6th or 7th time through. As lyrics writers, does that frustrate you?
CharlieDifferent people listen their own way. I was talking to my mom yesterday, and she’s never been able to hear pitch; she can’t sing; which is why she really appreciates the words.
JustinI think lyrics are hugely important. Whether people listen to them or not, I have to be pleased with them.
MPBLyrics can be explicit, or they can be open to interpretation, provoking mood without a spelled-out narrative, like the difference between prose and poetry. Do you take a more prosaic or poetic approach to lyric-writing?
LeonIt’s generally stream of conscience when I write. As we’re playing a song, [I’ll improvise singing, and I’ll determine the meaning retrospectively]. I tend to mumble. It’s almost like with visual art, where you want people to have their own personal interpretation. I’ve always been the guy who messes up all the lyrics to every song; I’ll be singing, and people are like,
What are you singing? Those aren’t the words! I like that; I want people to almost write in their own lyrics to what they think I’m saying, and draw their own picture, as opposed to
This is my vision, and these are my words! Hear them in your head, and know that it is true!
Brandon I approach lyrics writing from a couplet-based, rhyming stanzas, formalist viewpoint. I’ve got, or I had, this weird obsession with symmetry and engineering.
MPBWhat’s a favorite song from your parents’ music collection?
JustinDogs, by Pink Floyd; it’s actually from my Aunt Deb’s collection. Ever since I was 13 years old, standing at the bus stop after Christmas break, and it’s like, really dark because it’s not daylight saving time yet, and I was freezing and I had this [Sony] Walkman, and I put this Animals tape in, and just the eerieness —
MPBThat’s a pretty dark album. I would have thought that would be pretty scary for a little kid?
JustinWell I was listening to KJ103 and Dr Demento, that was more my thing. Yeah, I discovered that, and that song in particular, especially David Gilmour‘s solo. It totally changed my attitude [toward music].
BrandonFor me, it’s either Won’t Get Fooled Again or Baba O’Reilly [from Who’s Next] by the Who. My dad’s a big Who fan. I love the epicness, of form, of it being a comedy and a tragedy, with so many colors in a single song. Even more so with Baba O’Reilly, because they pack so much into an even shorter song.
CharlieNowhere Man, by the Beatles. I was listening to the Beatles in the womb. Every day, I’d watch Yellow Submarine, and that was always my favorite scene, because of the character of Nowhere Man, [Sidenote: The character’s name is actually Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD] and also because of that song, especially George [Harrison]‘s solo: simple, but with a great presence. That got me into wanting to play music.
LeonWhen I was like, 13, I had a little record player, and my dad busted out his records, and the 1st one he gave to me, ’cause I had listened to a little Black Sabbath before, but he was just like, “F*ckin’ Masters of Reality, right here,” and I seriously sat there listening to Sweet Leaf, like, 20 times, picking it up and starting it over, and I was like, “Holy sh*t!” So yeah, f*ckin’ Sabbath.
MPBI’d like to thank you all for coming down.
All[various polite rejoinders]