Psych Pop

VIDEO PREMIERE

Toebow - Key Song

By Gerard Marcus

New York indie pop wizards Toebow’s entire persona seems to exist in the surreal. They describe themselves as a “cartoon psych pop party,” and their recent debut album ‘Themes’ and accompanying video for “Mr. Tony” have done a great job of creatively honing the power of the outlandish. Their new video for the track “Key Song,” directed by Bernard Feinsod, is no different, stylishly showcasing a day at the beach with the group–a perfect visual accompaniment to the fun loving, playful tune. But their surreality manages to shine through, the peppy tone and sunny vibes in stark contrast to the song’s story of the end of a toxic relationship. It shows the beach as place to process and meditate, spending some time in the sun with friends to try and cope with stresses that seem ever present and extremely distant all at once. It’s a perfect summer track for an imperfect life, and it has me looking forward to many days at the beach. 

PREMIERE

Sun Kin // Miserable chillers - Adoration Room

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Will Shenton

When Kabir Kumar (Sun Kin) and Miguel Gallego (Miserable chillers) first met, they found that they had a lot in common: both were pop musicians, both were first-generation children of immigrants, and both had "fears about making art in a time where a tidal wave of history seems poised to crash down on us." But perhaps the most striking similarity between the artists is the playful sincerity they bring to their songwriting, allowing them to paint optimistic counterpoints to those anxieties. It wasn't long before they became long-distance collaborators, and Adoration Room is a sprawling, occasionally tongue-in-cheek debut for the pair.

Awash in everything from danceable synths to psychedelic guitars, Kumar and Gallego's voices and lyrical styles are naturally complementary. "I keep inviting you to things by accident / I swear this app was made to make me feel bad," Kumar sings on the wonderfully theatrical "Ringing," not long after Gallego gives us the vignette of "I thought of you at the bitcoin exchange / When we split a cab across town to the AMNH" on "Natural History." These little parodies of modern, digital life walk a tragicomic line, simultaneously seeming to mock their ridiculousness and empathize with the narrator. Maybe social media is a dumb thing to stress about, but it doesn't make the anxiety any less real.

Part of the appeal of Adoration Room is its tendency towards nostalgic reference, anchoring its contemporary woes in the comforting styles of the past. Miserable chillers' "Jamie" drips with Bowie-esque melodrama, while Sun Kin channels countless sultry, soulful crooners on opener "Veena." The list of homages and influences is too long to count, and the result is a sort of semi-satirical collage—some of the delivery is definitely goofy, but it's executed with the loving care of musicians who grew up steeped in the sounds they're channeling.

Replete with sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit nods to revolutionary politics ("Adoration, if all the work goes away and we're still / Paying for the leisure of the vain / Be patient, hope the guillotines have not been rent / Help me sharpen blades," Kumar sings on "Teri Ankhen"), the album regularly hints at a more hopeful vision of the future. But no matter how the tension between the socialist clarion call of "Teri Ankhen" and the dystopian, techno-libertarian tableau of "UBI" shakes out, Sun Kin and Miserable chillers are dedicated to at least one immediate material gain: irresistible pop.

Pre-order Adoration Room on Bandcamp, out 7/27

INTERVIEW: Elbows

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Phillipe Roberts

From the second I slip through the foam-white door into Cafe Cotton Bean and reach to shake Max Schieble’s hand, it’s clear that I’m interrupting something. Draped in a purple corduroy shirt adorned with a golden trumpet pin, he slides the cap over his pen and guides it back into his pocket. There’s the slight but familiar full-body sigh of an artist yanked out of the moment. “I actually haven’t gotten much time to just sit and draw lately,” he says, gingerly placing his notebook onto the table in front him, “I was really getting into it.”

But an innocent, almost bashful smile spreads over his face—no harm, no foul. We grab a pair of cappuccinos, sit down, and lean in. He guides me through his last few pages, filled with tessellated grids of anthropomorphic everyday objects—clouds, cars, hills, leaves—floating through negative space. Under his pen, they balloon into being with a goofy, animated warmth. It’s almost as if they’ve sprung to life unexpectedly, gate-crashing our reality from a Mickey Mouse dimension in the far reaches of his memory.

Max’s music as Elbows hits you in a similar way. From samples snipped out of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on the Corduroy EP to the wavy psychedelia of his latest effort, Sycamore, rose-tinted nostalgia cuts through his work like a knife. “The Rain,” the opening track on Sycamore, spins into frame like a time-warp, reversing violently until a thunderclap brings Max in, beckoning you into his memories: “Through the cobblestones / Fish are swimming / Up, down, smothered in their coats / Bound homeward.” This kind of visual storytelling is a trick nicked from Philly rockers Dr. Dog, a band whose soft psychedelic touch is definitely part of his musical lineage. “You can definitely hear it in the harmonies I use,” he says, “But I love the way that their stories are so hard to piece together, despite the strong imagery.”

"The album is this journey back home,

and seeing all the changes that have taken place."

Born in San Francisco, but moving to New York for undergraduate studies at NYU, those opening lines from “The Rain” mirror his own musical journey over the past few years. It’s a journey that forms the central narrative of the album he’s been building towards, and that’s still coming together as we sip our coffee.

“The concept of the album is this journey back home, and seeing all the changes that have taken place,” he explains. “So Corduroy and those singles are kind of like short stories leading up to it. Sycamore was this street in the town that I went to school in, but I always lived far away and it was a huge pain to get there, so it became this kind of mythically significant place for me. This record is about trying to get back to that place.”

It’s been a long road indeed: Max has been working on some of these tracks, in some form or another, since 2010. “With ‘Windowpane,’ the main keys section is the oldest thing on this record. I had the chorus since 2010, but the verses I wrote last year,” he tells me. “I knew the lyrics would take more time, because those are the most revealing part of the music for me. The chords for ‘The Rain’ were done in early 2011.” But even as he started to collect band members and perform live, he felt that he needed more time before they were ready to put it down to tape. “It’s a story I’ve been trying to tell for a while, but it’s been a process of becoming a better musician—particularly with vocals. It took awhile for me to feel like my abilities were there to do these songs justice.”

“I wanted it to have a sound

like a blimp walking through the forest”

The grind pays off on Sycamore, whose songs are his strongest yet vocally, particularly due to Max embracing the odd, half-rapped vocal cadence that he began developing on Corduroy. Inspiration-wise, he’s eager to praise Frank Ocean, whose string of singles last year featuring a more prominent sing-rap swing struck a chord that goes back to his earliest musical memories. “The first song I remember writing was a rap about my Aunt Joyce and how she loves to shop. I showed it to my Mom and she said ‘I’m not too sure about that one,’” he laughs, “At the time I didn’t even realize it was a rap. I was just spitting out these monotonous, heavily rhythmic melodies. Basically scatting.” The technique’s stayed with him ever since. “I always have more lyrics than I know what to do with, and it’s easier getting around that with rap” Max says, grinning.

When I ask if there’s potential synesthesia linking his music and bubbly visual style, Max tells me that the connection isn’t so concrete for him. You wouldn’t get far, as a friend of his learned, “putting on a Mötley Crüe song and asking me what color it is.” Though he’s fine with the term, he thinks that a few too many artists have turned it into a played-out concept. Still, a rare instance of it occured for him on the song “Blimp,” and sent him searching for an impossible tone to match the image in his head. “I had this idea that I wanted it to have a sound like a blimp walking through the forest,” he explains. “I didn’t know what that sound was going to be for a really long time. It didn’t sound right for months, until I found these 808s that hit the spot.”

Those electronic touches are part of what makes Elbows’ music so wonderfully disorienting, even when they’re cloaked in catchy, immediate arrangements. “Psychedelic” is a bit of a loaded term, generally pushing listeners to expect something in the vein of ‘60s and ‘70s progressive pop like The Beatles or Pink Floyd. Oozing with slippery textures and teeming with effects, Max’s music aims to confuse and disorient in a similar way, but by looking at the spirit of those recordings rather than the tones themselves. “The sounds we consider ‘psychedelic’ came initially from electronic effects and experimenting,” he explains. It’s a lineage best carried on by electronic producers, he believes, naming Flying Lotus, Knxwledge, and Thundercat as artists he considers instrumental in forging a path ahead. To further break from the past, most of his processing ends up in the vocals or synthesizers, rather than guitars—a choice he credits to Bon Iver’s 22, A Million.

"But that concept, imagining that one person was literally

singing all of those things, stuck with me."

Even as the sonics for the record were starting to come together, it took a literal journey home to get a real spark going—an album about growing up just didn’t feel right without being surrounded by the places into which Max was trying to pull his listeners. And it meant bringing the band, some of whom also play in Space Captain and Alto Palo, along for the ride. “We went out to San Francisco in January of 2015,” he says, squinting into his memories for clarity, “and the first thing I did was take the band on a tour of all the spots on the album: ‘You know how in this song I mention the 2AM Club? This is that. Sycamore street? Here it is.”’

And when it came time to press record, it even involved discovering that a few places had been hiding secrets all along. “We were looking for a spot to record and it dawned on me that my next-door neighbor had a full studio in his basement. As a kid learning to play, he’d always let me borrow an amp, or some cables, but it was crazy to go down there and find this entire setup just waiting for us.” Stepping into the past often dredges up secrets, but few of us are lucky enough to find them intact and ready to be put to good use.

Before we part ways, Max returns to the question of psychedelia as you’d expect someone so perpetually steeped in nostalgia to: by spinning more childhood tales. “I have one memory of playing The College Dropout for my Dad, and he thought that Kanye was singing all of the samples,” he laughs. “He didn’t understand sampling at all, so he was going off about how this guy was insane. On the one hand it’s like, ‘Dad, that’s clearly Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire.”’ But that concept, imagining that one person was literally singing all of those things, stuck with me. For me, that’s truly psychedelic.” With an album on the way, and an accompanying visual EP that’ll serve as a trailer, we can’t wait to see the ways that Elbows throws his expanding vision at the wall.

PREMIERE: John Moods - Leap Of Love

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Will Shenton

John Mood's "Leap Of Love" opens like the dawning of a dream. Replete with somnolent warmth, it wraps the listener in its melodies and falsetto vocals before whisking them off to a hazily affectionate realm. "A love song which remains a mystery even to its creator," it evokes the universality of romance while simultaneously acknowledging that, on some level, it will always be unknowable.

Like the rest of his forthcoming LP, The Essential John Moods, "Leap Of Love" was written by artist Jonathan Jarzyna (of Fenster) during a solo hike of the Iberian coast. Originally recorded on his cell phone with no instruments but a backpacking guitar, the lush texture of the track is all the more staggering.

The Essential John Moods will be out April 20 on Berlin label Mansions and Millions. In the meantime, let the balmy yearning of "Leap Of Love" wash over you.

TRACK REVIEW: Sun Kin - Under Standing Waves

Laura Kerry

At its start, Oakland-based band Sun Kin’s “Under Standing Waves” is all new-age reflection. Beginning softly, the song emerges with ethereal synths reverberating quietly as echoing vocals sing with restraint, “She has gone to bed just in case you come to mind / Her will to fight’s at rest until she wakes up after the night.” As new instrumental voices join in the first 30 seconds, the song becomes increasingly spacey and abstract.

The pure abstraction doesn’t last long; soon, earthy bass and drums enter, grounding the track in a funkier, psych-rock feeling. As new sounds emerge, they progress further in this direction until singer Kabir Kumar—now sounding clearer than he did in his opening croon—escalates into a poppy yowl that asks, “Can you FaceTime?” Set against strange, otherworldly synths, even this intrusion of a contemporary and concrete image doesn’t fully escape the reflective haze. The line comes across as a play on words, as likely to be interpreted as “can you face time?” Even when talking about an app, it remains in the realm of abstraction.

The song’s sounds also remain, for the most part, mystical. Despite the grounding elements and the clear vocals, the overall effect in “Under Standing Waves” is a floating, unearthly feeling; its momentum comes from alternating buildups and releases, and not pop structures. In the span of five minutes, Sun Kin takes you on an intriguing and transcendental journey.