Village Voice Q&A: The Psychic Paramount's Jeff Conaway On Smoke Machines And Bright Lights, Not Digging Daytime Gigs And Being Really Loud

"It's kind of a blast that comes out of nowhere," is how Jeff Conaway, drums- pulverizing overlord for New York City's brutally loud instro-mental skuzz beasts the Psychic Paramount describes the chaotic scene when the trio erupts into ear-bleeding crusher "Intro/Sp" live in concert. But being rip-face loud is only one piece of the PPs' M.O.

Guitarist Drew St. Ivany, bassist Ben Armstrong and Conaway converge to form a Branca-esque symphonic wall of cutthroat noise chime with a bludgeoning, coiled heaviosity of ear-bleeding magnitude as plumes of smoke billow from within and beaming lights pierce the eyeballs making it a hellish task to see the fuckin' hand in front of your face.

The threesome—who notoriously work at a snail's pace (these dudes managed not to release an album for six friggin' years)—is ready to inflict more damage to your eardrums, working on a follow-up to 2011's epic riff-fest II.

Sound of the City met with Conaway at his Astoria local to talk loudness, smoke machines and his love for The Dustdevils.

I saw you guys open for Trans Am. Was that the most recent show Psychic Paramount has played?
I think that was the last New York show.

Yeah, you don't play around that much.
Nah, no. [Laughing]

All three of you live here in New York, though, right?
We tend to go take breaks then we get active again and then we take more breaks. It always seems like we're busy doing something, though.

But you have a short tour coming up starting with the gig at (le) Poisson Rouge?
Yeah, a tiny, little U.S. tour—east coast tour—and then we're gonna go over to Paris to play Villette Sonique. We'll just go over there and come back. We got about five weeks here and then right now a U.S. tour is being set up. We should be making it out all the way to the west coast in July and August.

I saw you are playing the Pitchfork Music Festival also. How'd that come about?
I think they approached Mike Quinn, the guy who runs [label] No Quarter.

Playing that fest seems like a good publicity getter...

... I don't write for Pitchfork, but...
Yeah [Laughing]. That'll be cool [to play]. That was kind of the reason we thought we could do this tour around that. So yeah, we got a lot of stuff going on. We got that coming up, and then some studio dates for new material...

Are you doing this short tour to test out new tunes?
Yeeeeeah... we're gonna have some new stuff for the tour. I wouldn't say it's to totally to test it all out but with the Pitchfork thing it just seemed like going out to Chicago and keep going...

... and base a bunch of gigs around that.

This is a lot of activity for the Psychic Paramount considering the span in between your 2011 record II and Gamelan Into The Mink Supernatural, which came out way back in 2006.
Yeah, like six years [Laughing].

Did you break up or were you an active band during those years?
Yeah, yeah. We were [active]. We did tours, we'd be going to Europe, we did several U.S. tours. We just didn't record. We had one rough tour in Europe and we kinda took a big break after that but never disbanded and that was back in 2005. Basically, the story with that was we recorded basic track for a full record and ended up scrapping all of it. For a while, we were working on the tracks ourselves, doing overdubs and mixing it ourselves and then we just ended up scrapping the while thing and going an re-recording at the studio called Machine with Magnets up in Providence and that's what turned into II.

What happened in Europe that you said was a rough period for the band?
[Laughing] It was just one of those tours where a lot of the shows didn't seem to make sense. Tours could go that way sometimes. The subsequent ones—we have a different booking agent over there now—have been much better.

Are you delegated the official spokesman for the band?
No, I wouldn't say so. We all do interviews. It just ended up being me this time.

Psychic Paramount has a rehearsal after our interview. Do those pracs stretch out since most of your songs are pretty long?
On the weekends, they're pretty epic. They can stretch out six, eight hours, something like that. It's not all playing. There's a lot of talking and hanging out. [Laughing].

Are PP songs born out of jamming?

Yeah, a lot of them are and especially now, all the stuff that we've been working on for this new... the new material is all out of improvs. Then we'll do this thing where we go back and find certain sections that really have something happening and kinda cobble together a few different ideas for different jams, maybe even (some) that are two months apart but somehow they're going to work together. We build songs that way.

Live in concert, you guys seem to stick to the recorded versions and don't extend into long jams.

It's all fairly composed. We will stretch it out on certain ideas: we're gonna start here and end here. A lot of the songs on II, we've been playing pretty much as they were recorded. It was a real interesting process with the songs because there was such a gap between the two records. Like I said, we recorded an initial version (of II) which was scrapped and then the songs just kept evolving through playing live. So by the time we got into the studio, they had been just honed from literally like years of playing the stuff live. This time, the emphasis is gonna be on not having so much time between releases. [Laughing]

When do you think a new record is going to come out?

I can't say when it will be done. We just have a few tentative dates to go in. We like to break it up—go in for a few days, do some stuff and then come back a month later as opposed to going in there and trying to track a record in one session.

How does the new material compare to the old?

It's kinda hard to pinpoint right now but there's definitely on emphasis on maybe a more melodic approach on some of. It's still very rhythmic and still kinda reaches out for the full tilt craziness that the old stuff has. It's very interesting to start working on new things because you kinda have to figure out as a band how it's gonna work and what the process is for this new batch of material. No one really knows—it's very much trial and error and getting in there and trying to hash stuff out. I don't know if I could say or define a very specific new direction but it sounds different from the other stuff.

Some all-instrumental bands have added vocals into the formula. Is that something Psychic Paramount would consider?

I don't think we would rule that out but it probably would be Ben who would do anything vocal-wise. As of now, it's still all-instrumental.

Were you guys into the instrumental music that was big in the '90s, like Don Caballero?

Yeah, we've listened to that, but we also listen to stuff with vocals. It just so happens that [all-instrumental] is the approach that works best for us.

Do the three of you all have different musical tastes?

There's definitely a lot of overlap between the three of our tastes. Personally, it came out a while ago but I've been really into that last Flaming Lips record [Embryonic]. I really like that band Tinariwen from Mali. I got my old favorites, like this one band that was in New York in probably the early '90s called the Dustdevils.

Did you grow up here in New York back then and into the downtown scum rock stuff?

No, I was living in Kansas when I heard [Dustdevils]. I've always been a Sonic Youth fan, but the Dustdevils kinda have that going with their own version of that. That last record they did, Struggling, Electric and Chemical, it's one of my favorites. I love that record; I still listen to it.

How did you, Drew and Ben all meet?
Well, Ben and Drew have been friends forever. They both grew up around St. Louis and they've been in bands together since they were 14. They were in this New York band, which coincidentally, was one of my all time favorites called Laddio Bolocko. So they were in that band, that band broke up, dissolved then they started the Psychic Paramount, I guess a couple years later. They just did this real quick two-week tour in Europe and they had a different drummer and that didn't work out. So, I had a mutual friend who introduced us and then I started playing with them in 2004.

So, it's been a while.

Yeah, it's been a while. [Laughing]

Do you guys bring the smoke machine to gigs?

Sometimes we do, yeah. [Laughing]

Psychic Paramount certainly sets the mood with the plumes of smoke billowing and how dark it is at the gigs, huh?

We have this thing that we love doing now where we have these three super bright lights and we put'em behind us and then have all this smoke going and it's like...

... Really trippy?

Yeah. [Laughing]

Have you guys always done the lights and smoke machine thing?

No, that's been a fairly recent thing. I guess maybe over the past year we started doing that. Sometimes, we can't always use it because some clubs have this sprinkler systems or whatever. [Laughing]

Is the smoke machine easy to haul around on tour?

Oh, it's pretty small. It's way smaller than a guitar so.... [Laughing]

I watched a clip online of you guys playing a show and it was during the day. Do you guys like playing shows in daylight?

No [Laughing]. It's not my favorite; I'd rather play at night. But, you know, it's fine and that festival [Primavera] was fun—right on the ocean, beautiful setting. It was kinda cool to see a bunch of people out there.

Will you have the smoke machine going at the (le) Poisson Rouge show?

I don't know. We're still looking into that. We'll see if that'll work out or not.

As a New York band, the Psychic Paramount seems kind of detached from "the scene," sort of anti-social.

Yeah, somehow we're existing out on our own little tangent here. [Laughing]

The song titles are pretty cryptic, too. On II, there's "DDB," "RW," "N5," N6... "

Very cryptic. We like to keep with the no vocals thing so the song titles, yeah, they all ended up being very cryptic on [II].

You guys are really fuckin' loud live.

Yeah, it's a trademark. [Laughing]

So Drew likes to get loud?

Yeah. We all do. [Laughing]

Psychic Paramount play (le) Poisson Rouge Saturday.