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Austin Psych Fest: One trip, many destinations

Peter Mongillo, Music Source

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Holy Wave (from left, Kyle Hager, Julian Ruiz, Dustin Zozaya and Joey Cook) incorporate sounds of classic bands such as Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones without sounding like revivalists. They're returning to the three-day Psych Fest at Emo's East and the Beauty Ballroom.

Of all the poorly defined terms used to describe music, "psychedelic" might be one of the biggest offenders. During last year's Psych Fest, Alex Maas of the Black Angels said that to him, "four 80-year-old women in yellow bikinis playing the banjo" was psychedelic.

Classic psych rock as played by the 13th Floor Elevators and others expressed and enhanced the altered states brought on by the use of psychedelic drugs. The world of music that sprung from that had specific sounds. Roky howls. Reverb bounces around. Tinny guitars wail.

Austin Psych Fest, happening this weekend at Emo's East and the Beauty Ballroom, has a broader definition that can include musicians trading in their guitars for laptops and synthesizers — some spitting out abrasive electronic music and the like.

More traditional bands coexist with the abstract. The Black Angels, who organize the fest, are more rooted in bands like the Elevators (Roky Erickson headlined last year). The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who have top billing this year, have a style that varies as much as their revolving-door lineup but tends to zero in on the Rolling Stones.

Another Austin band that falls into the latter category is Holy Wave, who return to the fest for their second year. On the band's debut full-length, "Knife Hits," multi-instrumentalists Kyle Hager, Julian Ruiz, Dustin Zozaya and Joey Cook throw classic psychedelic moments — "Piper at the Gates of Dawn"-era Pink Floyd, Stones, Beatles — into a pot along with their more contemporary musical sensibilities to create something that uses familiar elements of another era. They're one of the more exciting new bands in Austin at the moment, and they do it without coming across as revivalists. That's not an easy feat.

"I think our sound changes just as frequently as it should, as life is changing and we're growing, our sound is changing, too," Cook says. "I don't think we can be accused of staying in the same place for too long."

Though Holy Wave is only about two years old, they've known each other for much longer, forming from the remnants of two different bands that date back to their high school days in El Paso, where they consumed a diverse body of music that included both the Beatles and hometown heroes and recently reunited At the Drive-In.

"I think because we've been friends for so long, that we've gone through a very transformative period of our lives listening to music and playing music together, we've evolved together," Zozaya says.

They moved to Austin after Ruiz and Hager (along with a former band member) took a road trip to California to see another group that informs their music, British shoegaze pioneers My Bloody Valentine. That band's full-bore noise attack (they handed out earplugs at the door during their last reunion tour) was a heavier presence in Holy Wave's early sound then the pop elements than define it now.

"It was all focused into one feeling of trying to blow people's minds with reverb and being loud, leaving a lasting impression with pure volume," Cook says.

It would be hard to guess that was the case by listening to "Knife Hits," which was recorded with producer Eric Wofford, who has worked with the Black Angels, among others. The album combines well-defined, melodic vocals, a variety of different instruments and plenty of less-is-more moments. "We've gotten sharper about our songwriting skills," Ruiz says.

Finding the balance between noise and song has helped the band define themselves. In a live setting, the band has gotten increasingly good at switching between chaos and order, overloading rooms with force and fuzz before zeroing in on melodic moments.

"We finally got a sound that sounds like all four us together as a unit," Zozoya says. "It's brought down the noise level, but it was naturally where we were going,"

The band's evolution has also afforded them some flexibility as far as where and what bands they play with in town. They're just as likely to show up on a bill with garage and punk bands that hang around Beerland and the 29th Street Ballroom as one of the Black Angels' seemingly endless side projects. When the question of how to categorize their music comes up, they downplay the idea of "psych."

"I think psychedelic is more of a tinge, an aspect on different styles of music," Hager says. "Bands like White Fence, or old school bands like the Rolling Stones, they play rock 'n' roll music. There are some psychedelic aspects of some of their songs."

One way in which Holy Wave probably isn't going to avoid being labeled as a psych rock band is in their embrace of visual art. At most of their shows, they project classic "psych" images — colored oil and other patterns that harken back to old Jefferson Airplane videos.

"As long as we're playing music we want to be involved with the connection between music and art, really quit separating them," Cook says.

Contact Peter Mongillo at 445-3696

Five bands to watch at Austin Psych Fest

The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Antone Newcomb's San Francisco rock band was the subject of a 2004 film — "Dig!" — which told the story of his band's rivalry with the Dandy Warhols. The lineup has changed so many times that there is a Wikipedia page dedicated to "Brian Jonestown Massacre Members."

The Black Lips. Atlanta's Black Lips crank out hip-shakin' garage rock with nods toward weirdo '60s party bands in the form of surf-rock licks, growling, off-kilter vocals and the occasional horn section. And they're good at it.

Psychic Ills. New York-based Psychic Ills take a more low-key approach than some of the other bands on the lineup, with a more droning, high-noon-in-the-desert brand of psychedelia.

Bombino. Similar to Tinariwen, Niger-based Bombino merge Western blues rock with a sound inspired by their experience in the Western Sahara.

The Telescopes. English band the Telescopes made a name with a sound that weaved pop and soul together with the hazy psychedelic revival of the mid- to late '80s in Great Britain.

Austin Psych Fest