Yellow Green Red - interview with Drew St. Ivany

The Psychic Paramount
Yellow Green Red
Sunday, May 15th, 2011 | Interviews | YGR

Blowing minds with one’s guitar/bass/drums rock band is nearly impossible in 2011, but if there’s any band doing it, it’s The Psychic Paramount. Formed out of the ashes of (the under-appreciated until after their demise) Laddio Bolocko, The Psychic Paramount take the simple concept of instrumental rock music and set the whole thing ablaze, using their superior musical ability not to dazzle or confuse but to translate the musical experience into a physical one. Their sound hits with force, charisma and vigor, as if the natural limitations of drums and amplified guitars don’t apply to this band, acting not as three separate players but a single indestructible unit. This is why their great new album, II, packs more emotion and provokes more thought than any other rock band I’ve recently headbanged to. I chatted with guitarist Drew St. Ivany about The Psychic Paramount, and while I wouldn’t have blamed him if he spoke only in the form of an obtuse metaphorical haiku (when your music sounds like this, you get full rights to be as pretentious as you want), he’s actually a pretty down-to-earth, awesome guy.

How did you guys know each other before starting The Psychic Paramount? I understand that some if not all of you played together in Laddio Bolocko…
Both Ben (Armstrong, bassist) and I played in Laddio Bolocko, which formed in 1997 in New York. Laddio split up in 2001 and soon afterward I moved to France. In 2002, Ben and I decided to form a new band and booked a tour of France and Italy. Ben suggested getting Tatsuya Nakatani to play drums, basically at the last minute. Those guys flew out to practice for a few days and do the tour. That formation split up after two and a half weeks. Jeff Conaway, who was playing in Sabers, joined as drummer in 2004 when Ben and I started playing again in New York. Since then, it’s been the same line-up.

Do you feel like the band has progressed since Gamelan Into The Mink Supernatural?
Gamelan summed up the essence of what we were doing at that time. Enough so, we thought, that it seemed redundant to go on pushing those extremes onto new ideas. I’m not sure how to assess where we’ve arrived in terms of progress. On a good day, I do feel like we’re a better band now than at any time in the past. I feel like II is definitely a logical continuation from Gamelan… the power and force is still there, but it also seems to stretch out a bit, in certain ways.

Has your song-writing process changed at all, or has it always been a certain way?
Gamelan was composed entirely on the guitar, which is probably the way most rock songs start out. A lot of material on II originated from drum beats we would use as a rhythmic foundation to experiment upon and build ideas. Sometimes radically different variations of tracks emerged. For instance, “N5” and “N5 Coda” are two different compositional approaches to the same drum figure.

The song titles on the new album all seem to be based in practicality, versus any sort of artistic purpose. Was this an intentional move, or do you just not put a lot of weight into the name of a song?
It just worked out that way. Song titles are usually expected but seemed irrelevant for this record. The abbreviations are convenient, but they also help to reinforce our decidedly non-verbal atmosphere.

Is the “non-verbal atmosphere” an intentional one, then? I can see how a band like The Psychic Paramount has no need for a singer or lyrics or evocative imagery… you guys seem to be about the music and only the music, in a way.
An escape from words can be liberating. On a recording, we are dealing only with sound and leaving any implication or storytelling up to the imagination. It may be interesting to find out what kind of mental imagery our music evokes in the listener, if any. I’ve had people describe it to me as being very dark and menacing. I feel it full of light and uplifting. In that way, I don’t see the absence of lyrics in our case as reductive. It challenges us musically to come up with something interesting enough to compensate for the lack of vocals which, for most people, are an integral part of rock music.

Do you feel like today’s fast-moving culture has less of a place for a group like The Psychic Paramount than say, two or three decades ago? It seems like unless a band is releasing a consistent flow of new music, they are nearly forgotten about. Is this something you ever consider? Do you care?
We care about that, but it’s further down the list of life concerns. Letting five or more years go by between records doesn’t help public awareness very much, but releasing two or three more Gamelans in the meantime is obviously not going to land us in the Billboard 100 either. Our audience is small and probably, like us, has high standards. We can relate to that. As such, we’d rather take more time to do it right than to release something we aren’t totally happy with.

How long will it be until you start writing new material? Do you specifically take breaks after a new record, or have you already started working on new ideas?
We’re planning on going back into the studio this summer. We’d like to have something new come out this year, but with us who knows? We’ve learned not to predict when that might be until a project is completely done.

Is there room for instrumentation besides bass / drums / guitar in The Psychic Paramount?
Jeff sometimes plays a contact mic running through effects and an amplifier. You can hear it on Gamelan, track four. It sounds like an android. Sometimes he plays this live. On the new record, Ben plays air organ on a couple tracks.

From listening to your records, it’s pretty evident that you are all incredibly talented players, but often the songs themselves aren’t necessarily difficult to follow. Do you purposefully dial yourselves down when it comes to songwriting, to not go off and try to be “crazier” or whatever?
We want our music to be inviting. We’re not trying to throw people off the train. People sometimes describe us as math rock, but it feels more like alchemy than mathematics. You could say that compositionally it’s very basic, but there is a lot going on. Our songs are still very challenging for us to play well.

That’s one thing I really appreciate about your music, that on paper the notes and riffs are probably pretty easy for anyone to play, but I don’t think any other group of people could play them and sound like The Psychic Paramount.
Thanks! That’s also true for most good bands. Classical music needs virtuosos, but rock prefers identity and confidence. You might only need two notes, but you definitely need a sound.

Confirm or deny: The Psychic Paramount have “stage clothes” that you wear at all/most of your performances.
Absolutely, all my clothes look the same.

How do you describe your band to strangers? Is it rock music?
I usually just say loud rock. It’s hard to gauge common reference points with strangers. A while back, this kid who looked at least 18 or 20 years old asked me what we sounded like. I described it as kind of like Jimi Hendrix doing guitar feedback for 40 minutes. He said, “Jimi Hendrix, am I supposed to know who that is?”

How does that make you feel? I can understand someone born in the ‘90s not having a deep knowledge of ‘60s rock, but does that sort of thing make you wonder if the youth is just less interested in rock music?
I don’t know. The genre is so broad. Even though most of the current rock scene may not be very good, I’m sure there’s still a young audience there. The best stuff is underground, and that’s probably more true now than ever before.