My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Tres Warren of Psychic Ills on sonic exploration, making music in New York, and Gibby Haynes’s culinary choices.
Psychic Ills’ fourth LP, One Track Mind, fulfills the promise of their record prior: eschewing the improvised jams of their early catalog, Tres Warren and Elizabeth Hart instead craft each dark, blasted track with full intent. It’s only fitting to find contributions from the likes Gibby Haynes, Peter Kember, and Powell St. John throughout their body of work, situating them firmly in the American psych-rock tradition.
I called Warren as he geared up for their North American tour, now underway, and chatted about the record, living in Austin, and the density of New York.
Tyler Curtis How did you and Liz Hart first link up?
Tres Warren I met her in school, at the University of Texas at Austin. We were in the same Art History class. Psychic Ills happened a few years later.
TC Your earlier work, the Mental Violence EPs and stuff on The Social Registry, was based around drum machine and a lot of jamming. What facilitated the shift to live percussion and more song-based material?
TW When the band first started, I had just gotten this Roland TR-707 drum machine, and I was getting into programming drums and kind of writing songs along to drum machine stuff. And that’s kind of how that happened. There wasn’t really a course planned ahead, and it just evolved into a live band, you know? And at certain points there was still some stuff with drum machines, and there might be again. But it definitely turned into more of a rock band.
A lot of times it would be kind of jamming. And more recently, it’s definitely been more writing songs, almost like demoing them, and then recording them. There were definitely times where it was more of like improvised jamming, and seeing if you could write a song that way. And then sometimes improvising but not necessarily trying to write a song, just jamming. More recently, it’s just become writing out the songs and then recording them.
TC You can see that in the difference between Mirror Eye and One Track Mind. It feels a lot more grounded, with a lot of its structure honed from your earlier experimentation. Did you keep any of that improvisational, off-the-cusp approach to songwriting on the new record?
TW Some of it, like that song “Western Metaphor,” and some of the solo stuff happened pretty spontaneously, because I’ve had to go back and re-learn it for the live show. It’s definitely not like what you’re talking about, and yeah, very different from the Mirror Eyeperiod. And instrumentation-wise, too, I think that period was representative of wanting to try something different from the time period before that, get into less song-based, rock-based kind of stuff, and deal more with just exploring sounds.
TC It would have been wild if you continued down that path of experimentation, but I think that one of One Track Mind’s most endearing qualities is its attention to songwriting.
TW Yeah, and I like it. You know, I like improvised music, and I still like that kind of stuff. I feel like with that kind of thing, sometimes it feels like you’re crawling on the floor in the dark, looking for your car keys, hoping you might find something. Sometimes you and sometimes you don’t, you know? When you do, it’s kind of magical. And when you don’t, it’s like, fuck this, I’d rather just write a song.
TC You guys started playing in Texas, but moved to New York some years back. Texas has such a rich history of psychedelic music, from the 13th Floor Elevators and Powell St. John, who did your album art, and now with you guys and bands like the Black Angels. Austin Psych Fest, too. What brought you to New York then?
TW I wanted to get out of Texas after growing up there. I like Texas, but at that point in time, I was ready to see some other things, so I kind of bounced around and wound up here. And I always wanted to come to New York, just to check it out. And I think that whole thing [Austin’s psych scene] is kind of recent, anyway. I still like Texas a lot, and love going to Austin. But at the time, I wanted to check out somewhere else. I don’t know how long you’ve been in New York, but it’s almost like you get to New York, and then you can’t get out of New York. And now I’ve been here for ten years, and it’s cool. Maybe I’ll be in New York for a long time, or maybe I’ll go back to Texas, I don’t know. At the time, it was just about doing something different.
TC 2009 was a big year for you guys. Mirror Eye came out, and you toured with the Butthole Surfers. Since then, you’ve had a bit of history with Gibby Haynes. How did that relationship come together?
TW They’d asked us to go on tour with them. We played a show in New York that Gibby DJ’d, and like a month later, they asked us to go on tour with them. And it was cool. They’re a cool band, they’re awesome. I grew up listening to them. They’re crazy, it was a good time.
TC Did Gibby Haynes eat trash?
TW He didn’t eat any trash. Not that I can remember.
TC I feel like that would have been more relevant about 20 years ago. It seems you’ve had a lasting relationship with Haynes. He remixed some Psychic Ills for FRKWYS VOL. 4. And at least as far as the books and videos indicate, Haynes, historically, is an … interesting personality. It must have been a trip collaborating with the guy.
TW Yeah, it was cool. Actually, we recorded a whole night’s worth of music—it’s on this album that hasn’t come out, hopefully it’ll see the light of day sometime—but he was cool, he does his thing. He remixed a song, but we also recording hours and hours of jamming together, which was … some of it’s … cool. (laughter) There was no trash-eating then, either.
TC New York has such a climate conducive to music like yours, but also for a multitude of voices to navigate such a limited amount of space. I think Sacred Bones is really representative of that. But in terms of a “psych-rock scene,” Brian Constantino from that San Francisco band Sleepy Sun said that the idea of a “psych-rock scene” is a “romantic notion.” And of course, he was talking about San Francisco, and it may not apply to every city with an affinity for the genre, or even San Francisco, for that matter, but I’d like to hear what you have to say on that.
TW Yeah, I think I’d probably agree with him. There are a lot of bands around here that might play a similar type of music, and then some that don’t, and I don’t think there’s any … there’s not really a particular scene that seems based around the music as it’s based on a lot of bands living in the same area, and so much stuff happening all the time. But I think that’s also the New York situation.
TC So it’s more based around proximity than aesthetic?
TW Yeah. I mean, New York is so dense with different variations of the same. You can be into this kind of thing or that kind of thing, you can be as specific or as broad as you want and you can find what you’re into in New York. There’s something going on every night, there’s numerous things going on every night. That’s probably a part of it, too. It’s kind of unique in the way that it’s so dense.
TC Just trying to map it out is so exhausting, but it’s rewarding, too. I think that label you’re on now does a great job of curating some of the best of that density. They have such a powerful and insanely varied catalogue of bands. From you guys, to Zola Jesus, the Men, and Cult of Youth …
TW Sacred Bones is a great label. They’re cool people, too.
TC So do you think that’s what’s keeping you here in New York?
TW Maybe. There hasn’t been something that’s driven me out yet, so that’s probably part of it, too. It’s nice to be spoiled for choice, you know? Some places you’re not so much.
TC That wasn’t the case in Austin?
TW Definitely not. Austin’s a cool place, but it’s a different thing, in the sense that there’s not that density of choice, not most of the time, at least.
TC My understanding of Austin’s always been that it’s this part-time focal point for a lot of that density, given the amount of festival presence every year. The new record seems like an all-star effort. Powell St. John did the album artwork, Neil Hagerty recorded with you guys and produced some tracks, too. If you look at St. John and Hagerty, and even yourselves, as contributors to the entity that is One Track Mind, what did either of them provide that might not exist in the record if they were absent?
TW Well both of those things were kind of coincidental, in a weird way. In terms of the cover, the Powell St. John thing, I had bought a print of that drawing from him a while back. When it came time to think about the cover for that record, that just kind of crossed my mind, like, What about this? And then I asked him, and he and his wife allowed us to use it, kind of like in a coincidental way. The Hagerty thing was almost the same thing. I had gotten in touch with him almost a while back about doing something, and it wasn’t the right time, because he didn’t have access to a studio. And then we were recording and were about the mix these new songs, and I heard from him that he was going to be in the studio. So he worked on a couple songs, and that was kind of a coincidence, too, the timing of it. I like what he did, for sure.
TC It’s like involving people like Hagerty and St. John, and even Haynes and Peter Kember, provides an historical context for the music you make.
TW It definitely does. And then on just another level it was cool, Neil mixed a couple songs, and that can go either way, just giving somebody the music to mix. And it went a way that I liked. It’s cool to have somebody just take it out of your hands and not have your hands on the faders or be working with the same people you usually work with, even though they’re great, too, but it’s kind of cool to do something different and see how someone else interprets a mix, for example, what they choose, and how they choose to mix the song. So I was into that. I’d like to do more of that.
TC What kind of gear do you use?
TW I just play through a Fender Twin Reverb. I have various pedals. I don’t know how much I think any of them are the best thing in the world. But I have a Tape Echo that sometimes I use in the studio. I don’t usually play live with that. Just some delay, and distortion, stuff like that. Pretty simple stuff, nothing really crazy.
TC Given that a lot of your work, for a long time, relied heavily on improvisation, has it been difficult translating some of that material to a live show? Or returning to that material?
TW No, I mean, I’m still looking for the right blend of that in the music, you know? I like songs, a lot. I like the immediacy of songs, and the stuff that gets stuck in your head, because it’s got a riff or something hooky or catchy about it. But I also like more of a jazz-informed type of playing, too, where it’s just going off a feeling or the other musicians who you’re playing with. That’s just an ongoing thing, trying to find what balance between that works the best.
TC Was it challenging to maintain a certain dynamic of playing and songwriting since … I mean, other than Liz, you’ve had a revolving door of bandmates.
TW It’s actually been cool. Kind of like the Red Crayola, it’s more about the entity than the personnel. It’s more like what happens when this thing is happening. Not that I’m comparing us to them at all. (laughter) But do you know what I’m saying?
TC Yeah, when you make music, and once you’re immortalized on wax or the cloud, it becomes its own kind of character.
TW Yeah, well, it is kind of a character. (laughter)
I’ve been listening to this record pretty hard for the last year. It’s got it’s claws in me good. I love the whole feel of it. He wrote “Susie Q”, but this isn’t that. It’s more down-home, but pretty burned.
I’ve been listening to this record regularly for the last couple years, even around the time of Hazed Dream—the digital version that is. I think the original record costs about as much my rent.
Got tipped off to Don Nix after I found out that he did “Going Down,” that Freddie King and JJ Cale made popular versions of. His music has been an inspiration to me lately—I don’t know how evident that is.
I guess I have to mention Royal Trux. They’re always there when you need to go back to them. I like “Junkie Nurse” again lately.
When I need to be reminded about rock and roll, I do it with them. I’m a guitar player, so I like listening to Ron Asheton.
I won’t attempt description, but god bless ’em. I love this Donovan cover.
I can’t say enough about the Red Crayola. Their first record has been on pretty constant rotation for the last ten years. It’s sort of the Magic 8 Ball for me. If I’ve got a question, I go to that record.