Chris Schlarb: Psychic Temples
“ I think in the past I thought that if I approached another musician's music it would diminish my own creativity, so I never did it. But over the years I've grown out of that type of thinking. ”
The New York Observer described Schlarb's solo debut, Twilight and Ghost Stories (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2007), as "forty minutes of avant-garde bliss," and praise was uniform and widespread for his second solo release, the sublime, minimalist meditation Psychic Temple (Asthmatic Kitty, 2011). Both works are symphonies for the soul, folkltronic experiments in sound layering, mosaics of intricate construction yet of simple beauty too. Schlarb, however, is a restless soul, and it wasn't long before he donned his cape once more, sounding the clarion call to his outsized group of faithful musical collaborators. There was still work to be done. The architecture of Psychic Temple needed refining. A year of intense work in the studio has resulted in Psychic Temple II. The threads that link the two works together are more or less audible, but there are fundamental and quite striking differences too. By his own admission, Psychic Temple II is the most accessible work that Schlarb has ever produced.
All About Jazz: The title Psychic Temple II obviously suggests that there was unfinished business from Psychic Temple I, and yet it's fundamentally different on some levels; what's the link between the two albums?
Chris Schlarb: The main link is the musicians. There are a lot of the same people who played on Psychic Temple. The approach is similar too. I actually set about recording it the same way. I had the same microphone set-up and placement. I think both albums share a certain sonic quality. Compositionally, there are a lot of through lines between both albums, but Psychic Temple II was a concerted effort to create something that was in the same spirit but that was not a repetition of something I had done before.
After Psychic Temple came out I put together bands to play that music live, but it was extremely difficult to pull off, as you can imagine, because that music was extremely patient, but for a musician in a live setting the tendency is to not permit too much silence because there's a sort of fulcrum with the audience and the musicians and you don't want it to tip too far towards the audience because then they feel like they're the ones who are in control of the show.
On Police State it was exactly how I wanted it but when we played it live there was just too little structure. With a lot of my music it feels loose and it should be loose, but there's a maniacal amount of control [laughs] that I'm exerting over the entire process. It was really tricky live. A few times it worked and a few times it didn't and I'm perfectly fine with failure when I'm trying something new. What I wanted to do with this album was to write more structured pieces, based on my experiences performing the music from the first album.
AAJ: Was any of the music on PT II left over from the PT sessions, or is this all newly composed material?
CS: It's all completely new. I'm not one of those guys who has a bunch of music hanging around. I wring every last bit of music out of myself for each record. I'm a fan of making music being made in a certain time after which you're an empty vessel again. Even though some of the projects I've done are decidedly not jazz, I think this idea is something I've brought from the free jazz that I started playing so long ago, where you would think, 'I don't want to have anything clouding my mind, I want to be completely empty, and open to whatever is coming.' I think I approached the record- making process in a very similar way.
The first songs we recorded for Psychic Temple II were "'Til I Die" and "All I Want is Time." There are more chords on "All I Want is Time" than there were on the first album [laughs]. That first recording session came about because the vocalists for "Til I Die" happened to be in town from all over the country and I had about two days to record the rhythm section tracks because it was a surprise that they were in town.
AAJ: The writing and recording process for Psychic Temple I was quite unorthodox and certainly drawn out over a long period of time; was Psychic Temple II the result of a similar process, or were there fundamental differences?
CS: I think there were fundamental differences, the main one being was that I had a better idea of what I was doing compositionally from day one. On Psychic Temple everything I recorded with the drummers on the very first recording session was completely erased and replaced. Nothing that I recorded with them in that first recording session made it [on] that album. I spent a lot of my time carving out the compositions. I'd liken it to a sculptor with a solid, monolithic object and you're carving the shape out of it. It just takes so much time.
I'm sure you noticed that Psychic Temple II is more rhythmic and more propulsive. Part of that came from the live performances. I thought, I have these two great drummers; I should really give them some interesting stuff and explore the space. On the first album I felt that the drums were more textural, but on this album I decided to use them as drummers this time [laughs]. But if I'm honest, the main difference on this album is that I was just more confident this time. I refined the Psychic Temple sound.
AAJ: One obvious difference is that on Psychic Temple II there are three covers, Frank Zappa's "Sofa No.2," Brian Wilson's "Til I Die," and Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out"; what attracted you to these songs?
CS: First of all, I'm just a huge fan of each one of those composers. I can't say how much Frank Zappa's music means to me. I put Zappa in the same category as [guitarist] Allan Holdsworth in terms of the effect he's had on me. Even though I don't aspire to write that sort of music I find it a constant source of inspiration. One Size Fits All (DiscReet, 1975) is one of my favorite albums and I don't think he ever struck a better balance than on a song like "Inca Roads." That song has everything I want in music [laughs].
AAJ: And one of Zappa's greatest guitar solos, no?
CS: Oh my God! [laughs]. I was studying this stuff. I got the sheet music for One Size Fits All and I studied it every day. In a way it became less intimidating and more inspiring.
As for Joe Jackson, I look upon him as an unheralded genius of modern music. I don't know too many people who can write a Top 10 pop hit and then put out an album on Sony Classical. It's the same with Brian Wilson. I look upon all three as iconic figures but they are people I listen to every day. I draw a certain amount of energy and inspiration from where they're coming from. I started honing in on "Sofa No.2" because the melody was so succinct.
Zappa had a tendency to make everything ugly. He was very unsentimental in that regard. But I think he was also poisoning the water a little. He was self-conscious about that. How many songs did he write intentionally about love? Not very many. And when he did they were extremely antagonistic [laughs]. So, I wanted to approach "Sofa No. 2" sincerely but without the slavish devotion that a lot of people pay to Zappa when they cover his music. His melodies translate so nicely to string instruments, particularly violin. I had Philip Glen play the violin and then I worked forever on that horn arrangement.
I think in the past I thought that if I approached another musician's music it would diminish my own creativity, so I never did it. But over the years I've grown out of that type of thinking. Part of what Psychic Temple II is to me is this exploration of the auteur; the heavy-handed, controlling director or artist [laughs] and I think that all three of those guys, Zappa, Jackson and Wilson all fit into that categorythe teetotaler and controller of everything [laughs]. Any artist or producer who has that singular vision is participating in that realm. You're the one placing every idea where you want it.
Maybe one difference is that I truly love the collaborative process and it's not just an excuse for me to tell people what to do [laughs].
AAJ: As on Psychic Temple you use something like 28 or 29 musicians; how much input did these musicians have? How collaborative was the process of creating the music on Psychic Temple II?
CS: To contradict what I've just said there's probably not a whole lot [laughs]. It would be completely dishonest to say that [drummers] Andrew Pompey and Tabor Allen didn't have a fundamental effect on the album. There are things as drummers that are inherent to them that they understand the best; things that I couldn't tell them or instruct them on. However, even the bass part on "Solo in Place," for example, which is probably one of the more intricate and difficult parts on the album and as phenomenal a musician as Steuart Liebig is I wrote out a lot of very specific things that I wanted him to do. Even though the feel of it is his, there are all these scenic elements that I put on the roadmap that had to be passed [laughs]. That's the clumsiest metaphor I can come up with at the moment. I've micro-managed him to such a degree that he's playing certain melodies that I've asked him to and avoiding certain tropes as I've pointed them out to himthings of that nature.
AAJ: Zappa's "Sofa No. 2" is a lovely interpretation, particularly the violin part of Philip Glenn, but to my ears "Hyacinth Thrash Quarter" sounds more Zappa-influenced.
CS: Yeah, it's funny how that worked out. I don't necessarily like overt complexity in music just for the sake of it. On this album even though a lot of the music might be complex or intricate I don't want the listener to think about that. I just want them to hear music and that song is a good example of that. The name of the song and the structure of the song are sort of references to one another. The song is actually in 25, three bars of seven and a bar of four. We did the rhythm track first and the idea was like a [composer] Steve Reich eight-note pulse with these guitars going backwards and forwards playing this very simple pattern. Once I had that rhythm track, which I really loved, it gave me a lot of energy and then I sat down to write the melody. That was probably the most difficult melody for me to write on the album.
The funny thing is I wrote it in Lydian, which Zappa wrote a lot of his melodies and solos insomething that I didn't realize until after the fact. It was actually pointed out to me by Paul Masvidal, who plays on the album. He said: "Oh that was one of Zappa's favorite modes" [laughs]. It was totally subliminal. I loved the groove of that song. It's the only song on the album, and one of the only songs I've ever written, that doesn't have any chords. There's no harmonic bed to that piece at all and I think that's another reason why it was so difficult for me to write a melody for it. I labored over it for weeks, actually [laughs]. The rhythm track came together in five or ten minutes, but the melody that completed the song and all the horn solos were done over the course of the next two months. It's two extremes of the intricate and the completely free.
AAJ:The album opens with the quite striking piece of art pop "Seventh House"; can you talk a little about this track?
CS: That might have been the last song I wrote for the album and it came together very quickly. I had that bass line bouncing around in my head for a while. The vocalist Sarah Negahdari was getting ready to leave on a tour, for months, so I knew I had to hurry up and write the lyrics. I had the coda and the main bass line that runs throughout the tune and the morning of the recording session I wrote the whole thing and the lyrics in about an hour. I did it right before [drummers] Andrew [Pompey] and Tabor [Allen] showed up for the recording session. Then maybe two hours after that Sarah came and she recorded her vocals. I was so consumed with putting all my energy into writing that song and finishing it for all these deadlines.
AAJ: It was interesting to read on the album liner notes that "Seventh House" draws inspiration from Neil Young, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Sheena Easton; could you expand a little on these links?
CS: Neil Young, Prince, Sheena Easton, Wayne Shorterthese are all people that I'm listening to every week and to me there's no difference. It's not like there's highbrow music and lowbrow music. It's just music. There are all these references in the lyrics to "It's a Long Way Down" that [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter wrote for the Jazz Messengers on the record called Pisces (Blue Note, 1979). Then Sarah has this solo project called Pisces so there are all these cyclical references back upon themselves.
This was actually one of the first opportunities I've had to write lyrics at all and I think I'm approaching it with a similar playfulness that I bring to writing a melody. It's a new challenge for me. A lot of this record was, I've never done this so let's see what this is all about [laughs].
Even on the more jazz-oriented songs like "The Starry King hears Laughter" I wanted the conciseness of pop music and I wanted it to do a thing that a normal jazz song would not do. So, there's a second section that comes in after the melody during the solos that never happens during the head. Then there are these acoustic guitars that come in and you'd never hear that in a jazz song. There are certain conventions that I'm not really beholden to because I didn't go to school for that stuff so I never went through that process, for better or for worse.
I'm not making any excuses for my ignorance in being able to play straight changes over "Giant Steps," which I'm sure I would fail spectacularly at. It's at my discretion, so I will take all of the things I love and try to create something new out of it. There's something about that song; I was exploring '80s pop music, a lot of which has dense chords and a lot of those songs are harmonically rich. They would play a D chord but they'd put a G in the bass. A lot of it was keyboard-based. I like [pop artist/producer] Thomas Dolby who would put a lot of interesting bass substitutions in, which changed the color of the chord entirely. "Everybody Wants to Rule the World' by Tears for Fearssame thing. So, I started doing a lot of that on this album. "Seventh House" has that in the main chorus. To me the chords have a kind of shimmer. They're throughout the album. I started to use some of those elements on other songsa similar chord with the same voicing, but it's in a different light so you might not recognize it. They're all tied together by my perverse internal logic [laughs].
AAJ: The ending of "Seventh House" is very abrupt. I thought there was a problem with my CD. What was the idea behind that?
CS: That might have been the most extreme manifestation of [Art of Noise/Buggles musician/producer] Trevor Horn's idea that a great song has to contain five good ideas. That was the strategy I implemented throughout this record. I thought, okay, I'm going to try and give each of these songs five good ideas. The melody references "Sugar Walls" by Sheena Easton and the abrupt ending was just another idea, another compositional tool. I don't think I make melodramatic music but that might have been the most dramatic thing I did on the entire record.
AAJ: Melody is obviously very important in your music and the song "Bird in the Garden," sung by DM Stith, is an extraordinarily beautiful tune but it's way too short. It deserves another three or four minutes. Why so short?
CS: I love that you say that because I never want to outstay my welcome with anything that I'm doing. I don't want the listener to think, 'This would have been great if it had finished two minutes ago.' I think it stems from me going to so many experimental, avant-garde live performances and hearing so many free jazz records where I've thought, man, that was great but they kept going and sort of robbed this piece of its power by diluting it with bad ideas or uninspired choices. I can't tell you how many shows I've gone to, maybe a challenging Noise set or something and if it had ended after five minutes there would have been a context to it in the grand scheme of the silence and noise in the world [laughs] but because they went on for twenty minutes I began to hate them. I felt like they were abusing me [laughs] and had no respect for my ears.
So I apply this in a rather judicious and harsh way where I would rather somebody listen to that song maybe ten times in a row and feel like it's perfect. That's my goal. I don't want it to go and to become too loose and shabby. There is a time and place for that and I'm sure at a different point I'll be exploring that [laughs].
I started thinking this way on Psychic Temple. Why would anybody listen to this song twice? So much music is disposable. It's like the creator of the music hasn't even listened to it twice [laughs]. So much art out there feels like it's been dumped upon us without any consideration at all and I guess my reaction to that is to be extremely considerateof course obsessively considerate [laughs].
AAJ: Another great song on the album is "NO TSURAI," which has an almost orchestral feel to it that belies the small number of musicians playing on it. What's behind this composition?
CS: That song means a great deal to me. I feel like that song has maybe the biggest spiritual connection to the first Psychic Temple album because it's a drone. Maybe all of the harmonic activity on Psychic Temple II was partially a reaction to the lack of that activity on the first album. It's really based around a guitar duet improvisation between Paul Masvidal and I. I've been listening to Paul's music since probably 1994, when I was in high school. He founded this amazing band called Cynic, which took elements of jazz fusion and heavy metal and experimental music and put it all together in a completely unique way that I still don't think has been equaled. There was just something so pure about it. It doesn't mean that I want to make that music, it's just an inspiration to me.
I got in touch with Paul and sent him the Psychic Temple album and he was a big fan of it. He came over to my studio and I gave him the outline of the song because there are a few chordal motifs that we're sharing back and forth. We did two takes of it and the take we used on the album was the first take. After Paul and I recorded I brought in the horn players. There are some really interesting moments where Paul or I will quote a melody and then the horns will quote it back in a very natural way where it feels like everything is responding to everything else. I'm trying to cultivate that environment and let certain things happen on their own. There was some deep listening going on and it's the one tune on the album that makes me more emotional than any other tune. There's a certain evocative quality to it that is like the best fiction or the best lyricsit allows you to bring your own experiences to it and experience it how you wish.
Listening back I also had a feeling of overwhelming gratitude because here was Paul Masvidal, whose music I've been listening to for nearly twenty years, and here he is playing my melodies back to me.
AAJ: Where did the title "The Starry King Hears Laughter" come from?
CS: "The Starry King hears Laughter" and "She is the Golden World" both involve [poet] William Blake and his writings about Urizen and Ahania. Urizen was this tragic character that Blake created and "The Starry King..." refers to both Urizen and [pianist] Bill Evans. I look at both of them as these powerful but tragic figures. The ride pattern in that song is totally in homage to [drummer] Paul Motian and him playing on the upbeats.
Ahania came out of Urizen. She was a part of him and a representation of love and lust and knowledge. He killed her and I feel that Evans did a very similar thing where because of his drug use he killed a part of himself that allowed him to be emotionally open. It all came together in an interview with Paul Motian in the '90s I believe. He said that they were doing that classic trio, playing at the Village Vanguard. He said they were doing an amazing show and then at the snap of a finger Bill Evans was suddenely completely removed from the performance. Afterwards Motian asked him what was wrong and Evans said, 'I heard someone laughing. I thought they were laughing at me.' That's all it took. He was a giant, a God, but so vulnerable. He heard someone laughing and he immediately retreated from what he was doing. He had to cut that part of himself offthat vulnerability.
AAJ: Can you relate at all to that sense of vulnerability when someone is critical of your music?
CS: Not really. I can understand it and I've definitely had things like that happen to me. When I was taking guitar lessons I remember going to try and play for my Mum to show her what I'd learned and I always remember her just watching TV instead. 'Oh, yeah that's great.' You know, go practice somewhere. Get out of here [laughs]. So, very early on I had this feeling that I'm not here to impress you. I'm not going to put on a show to impress you. I'm going to do what feels good to me. Part of it is a defense mechanism, and part of it may come off as arrogance but I do feel like it's served me well because it's allowed me to follow my muse. I'm not worried about what anybody else is doing. I have a more critical ear to what I'm making than anybody else could possibly have. I'm going to be my harshest critic.
I'm doing it for myself. I'm trying to make new music for me to listen to. I can see if you're so concerned about fads or styles you can be thrown off your path. You can be led away by following money or fame or acceptance. At an early age I resolved to do it for myself and with whatever good or ill that entails it's allowed me to go out on my own and stand alone.
AAJ: When you finish a work like Psychic Temple or Psychic Temple II do you feel a sense of loss or a sense of elation? What emotions do you experience?
CS: Psychic Temple II was an album that I did not want to finish. I was enjoying the process so much that I did not want it to be over. I probably spent three months mixing the album [laughs]. I wanted to be listening to it. I wanted to be analyzing it. I just wanted to be experiencing it. Of course, the whole time I'm working towards completing it [laughs], which is the contradiction. I never sabotaged it or prevented myself from finishing it but I knew that a beautiful period of time for me was coming to an end. Each album is an epoch, an age, and I knew it would be but I didn't want it to be over. Part of it is a communal experience. Everybody who was involved with the recording would ask how it's going and do you need anything else, when's the next recording session and when you say the album's done then we have to come up with new things to talk about [laughs]. We have to come up with new reasons to get together.
I'm sure that's part of the reason I'm always so busy. Music is a communal act for me and all of my best friends are musicians. It gives me an excuse to have lunch with them and talk with them and collaborate. I don't think sadness is right. I wasn't sad that it was over. Maybe melancholy is a better description.
AAJ: Do you think Psychic Temple II will be easier to recreate live than Psychic Temple?
CS: Definitely, without question [laughs]. I have a six-piece band that I'm taking on the road. It's pretty much all the main players on the record; Steuart Liebig, Kris Tyner, Aaron Roche on vocals and guitar and then Andrew [Pompey] and Tabor [Allen] on drums. We've been rehearsing for about two months and these songs are so much easier to distill and convey to an audience. They still contain all of the things I love about musicit's just that they're easier to convey to everyone else. I think this album is more accessible than anything else I've done.
AAJ: Was that somehow a conscious decision?
CS: I don't think about those things until after the album's done. An album like Interoceans (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2008), which I listened to for the first time in years the other day, I feel that the people who enjoy it the most have a certain vocabulary; they've maybe been exposed to the music of [trumpeter] Don Cherry, [Robert] Fripp and [Brian] Eno, maybe Steve Tibbettsthere's a certain language that you'll start conversing with when you listen to some of that music. With this new album I feel that the barrier to entry is a little lower. You don't need to speak quite as fluently and you can still enjoy it. Maybe I've become more subversive. The things that are twisted and intricate and maybe heavy are just buried. With this new music I was trying to speak on multiple levels at multiple times to different audiences. It's maybe the first time I've considered that and maybe the first time I've had the creative ability to do that.
Some people are very good at doing that; I think of [singer-songwriter] Joni Mitchell who are such a popular band but many people don't realize that they were singing about all these strange things like drug dealers and murderers, and people are singing along absent-mindedly. To me that's a subversive success. I think Psychic Temple was an attempt, a concerted effort to say okay, let's see if I can operate on these different levels. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn't but I really enjoyed the process.
AAJ: You are usually juggling more than a few balls at the same time; what else are you working on at the moment?
CS:At the moment I'm working on a record of a friend of mine, Paulie Pesh, who plays on Psychic Temple II. I've been producing and collaborating on his album for about a year and a half. We've been working on it little by little and I'm hoping to finish that up by the end of the year. That's a very different type of record but a lot of the same musicians are on it. They're Paulie's songs but sort of through my lens, maybe.
My plan, once I get back from this tour with the six-piece band, my wife and I are going to take a little retreat up to some remote cabin somewhere and I'm going to record a solo guitar album.
AAJ: You mean just you and one guitar? I find that hard to believe.
CS: Yeah, [laughs] just me and one guitar.
AAJ: We'll look forward to that, although I'm sure there'll be a few twists and turns in the plot before it's finished.
CS: [laughs] Of course, it's another extreme but it seems like a very natural thing after months working with this big ensemble. It seems the place where my heart wants to go.
Chris Schlarb, Psychic Temple II (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2013)
Chris Schlarb, Night Sky (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2011)
Chris Schlarb, Psychic Temple (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2011)
I Heart Lung, Interoceans (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2008)
Chris Schlarb, Twilight & Ghost Stories (Asthmatic Kitty, 2007)
I Heart Lung, Between Them a Forest Grew, Trackless and Quiet (Sounds Are Active, 2007)
Anthony Shadduck Quartet, Debut (Sounds Are Active, 2007)
Ellul, Ellul (Sounds Are Active, 2007)
Create(!), A Prospect of Freedom (Sounds Are Active, 2006)
Various Artists, 40 Bands/Eighty minutes (Sounds Are Active , 2006) (DVD)
Bizzart, Bloodshot Mama (Sounds Are Active, 2006)
I Heart Lung, The Kannenberg Sessions (Sounds Are Active, 2006)
I Heart Lung, I Heart Christmas (Sounds Are Active, 2006)
Liz Janes & Create(!), (Sounds Are Active, 2005)
I Heart Lung, Blood and Light (Sounds Are Active, 2004)
Create(!), Patterns (Sounds Are Active, 2001)
Create(!), Moth Nor Rust (SAA, 2000)
All Photos: Ian Souter