While psychedelic music may have become momentarily trendy, you can always tell the true freaks from the kids who just want to name-drop Spacemen 3. Minneapolis's Magic Castles are emphatically in the former camp. Fronted by free-spirited songwriter Jason Edmonds, the five-piece won a devoted local following thanks to their envelope-pushing shows that can swing from punishingly heavy drone trips to sunny Laurel Canyon harmonies in the blink of a dilated eye.
Their sound streches far beyond our cities' borders, however. Brian Jonestown Massacre mastermind Anton Newcombe, a friend and supporter, invited Magic Castles to tour with BJM and co-released their newest LP, Sky Sounds, on his 'A' Records imprint. They just wrapped up a strong year that involved some heavy touring, including a gig at the landmark Desert Stars psych fest, a split EP with BJM for Record Store Day, and the release of Sky Sounds. We caught up with Edmonds at Caffetto, and he's not ashamed to admit that he's gotten at least one great song from a '70s children's novel.[jump]
Gimme Noise: You guys have had a strong local following in the psych-rock community for a while now, but folks who are new to the scene might not know about you. Could you give a brief history of the band leading up to this point?
Jason Edmonds: Our first album was self-released in 2008, then we did another self-release in 2009, which was only on CD and really limited. Then we did a cassette for [local tape label] Moon Glyph in 2009 also, so there's two albums in 2009. Then I was working on another album in 2010, and our guitar player's [Jeremiah Doering] girlfriend died. So things kind of came to a halt with that for a long time.
Then Anton [Newcombe] contacted us, and right around that same time there was some lineup changes with the band. So it took a while for the label, what they wanted to do was do a compilation of the out-of-print stuff, the first three albums, so that's what came out in 2012. Then we toured with the Brian Jonestown Massacre in 2012, and then last year we recorded this new album at Old Blackberry Way.
What was the process like for your new record? The record is so lush that it seems like it must have been a pretty big undertaking.
Some of this stuff is from 2010, like "Sky Sounds," I recorded the majority of that in 2010. We did the rest with Neil Weir at Old Blackberry Way. So some of the songs are older, and some are brand new. There's probably six or eight songs that didn't make it onto this album. So there's eight songs on the album and we did maybe 16. I really tried to cut the fat down for this album. I felt like the 2012 album, it was a double album, and it was a little long. I wanted to do something that was a little more concise and a little more boiled down, something that was easier to listen to and didn't take so much effort. It's like 45 minutes of your time, it's not too self-indulgent. So I had to get kind of strict with the editing of it.
What was it like having Neil Weir involved? He seems like a really natural fit for your guys' music.
I feel like Neil did such a great job, he was a good fit. Everybody was very comfortable with Neil. He's a great engineer and he's got a really nice studio, which is a classic place where the Replacements recorded an album. Neil, he got his chops at Pachyderm Studio, so he knows a lot, and he's able to explain it. He's really good at manipulating you to do what he wants you to, and he's usually right. He'll get us to try things that we weren't doing.
One of the things that I think Neil is great at, he was able to hear what were maybe some problem areas and quickly identify them and change it, before we ever really recorded. So then by the time the song was actually recorded, there weren't any problems with it because he had kind of resolved it before it was recorded, rather than trying to fix it later. He has an amazing ear, and he hears things that I don't even hear. So I'm excited to work with him again, and I think he is on a level of quality that's solid on a national and international level. It's quite the luxury for bands here to have somebody like that in Minneapolis.
You've got some real wall of sound elements here, with stuff like horns and strings added in as inflection. What was that process like?
It was an interesting experience, it's not as easy to record strings as you would think it would be. It's not like, "Oh yeah, we'll just get a violin and a cello, throw 'em together, slap a couple mics on it, it'll be great!" Then three hours into it you're like "Is this gonna work?" But Jennifer and Melissa, who played the strings on it, were great. I think it really adds this element to "Rebecca's World" that nobody is really doing. I hear it, and then I want to make it happen. So then I ask around, and then we got together to work on it. I think the way that the strings blend with the Farfisa organ turned out great, I'm happy with how it turned out.
With "Silent," the other song that they play strings on, that song was written by Jeremiah, and it's about his girlfriend who died. So it's a super heavy kind of song, and it's a love song, but it's a sad song, especially if you know what it's about. He wrote a bunch of songs after she died that year. Just getting it out, therapeutic songwriting, and I think that song is probably his best work that he's ever done. There was another one that didn't make the album that's also really good, but we only had so much room. Maybe we can record that again some day.
Overall, this record seems to get into a little more of the lighter/poppier side of psych than some of your old stuff. Was that intentional?
I wanted to incorporate some of the pop stuff with more of the experimental sort of sounds. But I don't know, because some of the earlier stuff is way more folky than what we're doing now, and I feel like, especially when we play live, it's really all-out. This album is more true to how we sound live than our earlier stuff. I feel like when we play the old songs live now, we take what those songs were on the recording and it's on different level when we play it live. But for this album, it's closer to how we are live.
But I split it up between side A and side B. I think you can tell, it's obvious we did that on purpose. The more psych-pop songs are on side A and the more trippy, drony shit is on side B, so you could cut right to it if you wanted. Working on the playlist and trying to cut songs, I had to put it down for a couple of months, just to get away from it for a second because I couldn't listen to it with any kind of objectivity. It's "ear fatigue," and it's an actual thing. I read an article about it, and it's one of those things where once it had a name, I realized there was nothing wrong with me, and there was nothing wrong with the album.
Lyrically, there's some really interesting stuff on here. I hear a lot of mentions of otherworldly stuff like ghosts and spirits. Are you into the occult?
Lyrically, sometimes it's really deliberate and sometimes I'm just instantly inspired by somebody or some situation. "Rebecca's World" is based on a book by Terry Nation that has these really amazing psychedelic illustrations in it. It's a children's book that's probably out of print, and I found it at a used bookstore and was checking out the illustrations, and it was amazing. I read the first part of the book and the song just came from that. I had my guitar tuned to Joni Mitchell tuning, and I just came up with it right on the spot, with the book on my lap.
"White Stone" is about ancient alchemy. They were trying to boil things down to find the first spark of life that was hidden in stone. That song has a lot of that, it has Tarot, it has alchemy.
"Mole People" is also from a book, called The Mole People, so there's two song titles that are book titles on this album. That is a book about homeless people who live under the subways in New York. [Author Jennifer Toth] is really great, she went down and interviewed them and hung out with them, and wrote this book that was humanizing them. There was a part of that book where there's this part of the subways that none of the homeless people go down into because they're like, "The Devil lives down there." It goes down really deep, like five stories deep down into the dark. So when I wrote that song, that was the inspiration. As the song goes on, it's like you're going deeper into the underground.
It seems like part of your connection with those mystical themes and stories comes from your more spiritual approach to songwriting, would you talk about that?
Yeah totally. The way I approach music is in a really spiritual way. I don't feel like I write the songs, I feel like a transmitter. The melodies and the songs come into my head every day, and I can't stop it. Sometimes it doesn't happen, and I get a little worried like, "Is that it? Am I out of ideas?," but I've come to understand that being normal.
It's a spiritual thing because it's...magic, really. You're taking something from the esoteric realm, that doesn't exist, and you pull it into the physical realm and change reality with it. It's a craft though, as well. It's like sewing or whatever, you practice and learn how to do it. It has that not-always-art element to it. But I feel like that's what magic is to me, taking ideas, any idea, and creating something that didn't exist before.
You guys recently did the Desert Stars festival in Joshua Tree. That show is kind of a mecca for all different stripes of psych music, do you guys find that there's little pockets of freaks in most of the towns you play in on tour?
Yes, and it's great. Just this last tour, I've felt that it's amazing. It's like your brothers and sisters in other cities. We'll talk about what's on their mind, and what's going down in their city that they live in, and it's fascinating to hear about. Like Seattle's problems with the tech industry pushing artists out. Where we hung out in Seattle is like a small neighborhood, like Northeast would be here or whatever, so it's not like a got a good glimpse of the whole thing, but it's nice to be welcomed.
When we played in Austin, we were going to play at this record store, and they were having some difficulty with noise ordinances, so they had to cancel that show. But the guys quickly put together a house party, and unlike a Minneapolis house party where it's in some basement, they have this huge outdoor stage with christmas lights on all the trees, and a great soundsystem. When we got there, they were blasting Spacemen 3's Recurring through the PA, and we felt like we were at home. Last year when we played in Spokane, we sold a ton of records and played to a bunch of steely dads and they loved us [laughs].
Magic Castles. 21+, Free, 7 p.m., Saturday, November 8 at Hexagon Bar.
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