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A Gathering of Promises: An interview with Ben Graham

26/04/2015 By James McLarnon

cover-page-001Locally based author, music critic and poet Ben Graham has spent the last two years compiling the defininitve history of Texan acid rock and psychedelic music. Recognised as pioneers, the Texan scene was way ahead of San Francisco or London, with The 13th Floor Elevators – more on them later – being the first band to describe their sound as psychedelic. Remaining strong, the Texan scene evolved until the present day through bands such as Butthole Surfers, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, The Polyphonic Spree and The Black Angels. In a fantastic case of synchronicity, the 13th Floor Elevators reform on the eve of their 50th anniversary to play a show over 40 years since they disbanded. Read on to find out more about the book and help Ben get to Austin to promote A Gathering of Promises at the festival.

Please help Ben promote his labour of love here

How do you come to write about Texan psychedelic music from 5,000 miles away in Brighton? How much harder did it make the process?

The subject matter actually came from the publisher, Zero Books. Tariq Goddard, who founded Zero, was looking for someone to write a book on Texan acid rock. Dan Spicer, a friend who was already writing a couple of music books for Zero, figured that was up my street and put us together. Since then both Tariq and Dan have left Zero and gone over to Tariq’s new imprint, Repeater, though I’d already submitted my manuscript to Zero when I found this out. Anyway, I was already a fan of this genre, and Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators in particular, and had already interviewed the notoriously difficult to speak to Roky, so that helped establish my credentials. Actually though, I was discovering a lot of the more obscure music for the first time as I was writing about it, and hopefully this steep but fascinating learning curve resulted in a certain freshness and enthusiasm in my writing.

I’m somewhat embarrassed that I didn’t actually go to Texas during the process of writing the book; I feel a bit like some Victorian travel writer penning a book on the Galapagos Islands entirely from the safety of his study in rural England. But I conducted a lot of first-hand interviews via email, Skype and late night transatlantic phone calls, and I don’t know that I would necessarily have produced a better book if I had gone to Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi etc. during the process. A more expensive one maybe; Zero is a small indie publisher and neither they nor I had a budget for that kind of travel.

1RokyWere any of the interviewees particularly difficult?

Well, I mentioned Roky Erickson before, who I actually interviewed before I started the book. He’s not difficult in the sense of being deliberately uncooperative, he just communicates on a different level. It’s not a particularly controversial thing to say that there’s some degree of mental illness there; that’s pretty much an accepted fact. How much is the question, and also how much was caused by the barbaric treatment he received in a secure hospital, which is detailed in my book. Also how much is his own defences kicking in? He seemed happy when I spoke to him, and pretty sharp, in his way; the problem actually was another party present heading any controversial questions off at the pass, so to speak. So it was a difficult interview, but it wasn’t necessarily because Roky was being difficult himself.

Arguably psychedelic music has never been in better health, worldwide. Why do you think this is?

In some ways I think it’s a fashion bubble that’s about to burst; in another sense it never really went away. The definition of psychedelic has been stretched so much and can now arguably encompass any experimental form of music – as well as lot of music that’s very conservative and retrogressive and is just aping 1960s styles and tropes. Psychedelia – especially in 1960s Texas – was also the original DIY music before punk, and now that the mainstream music industry has virtually collapsed and the technology and infrastructure is there for artists to record and release their own music, they have the freedom to explore that side of their music again without having to pander to record company pressures to be commercial. They may not make any money out of it, but that’s kind of always been the way.

Does the watering down of the genre concern you? How do you see it affecting the genre in the future?

The bubble will burst, people will turn against the tag, maybe we’ll have another punk revival. That will probably be healthy, as if the music is any good it will survive, lose the obvious signifiers and mutate into something new. Too many bands are mining the same perilously depleted seams right now. Spacemen 3 is not a genre.

rsz_zofffAny local psych bands to look out for?

ZOFF are the best band in Brighton for being purely and unashamedly psychedelic. The Sumerian Kyngs are a great psychedelic underground festival band, a people’s band. And there are loads of good bands who aren’t primarily psychedelic but who I’d be happy to have on the bill were I asked to curate a Brighton Psych Fest- Jungfrau, Kellar, Plurals, Reds, The Soft Walls etc.

What is ‘Levitation 2015’?

Levitation 2015 is the new name for the Austin Psych Fest, and is also the title of a classic song by Austin’s greatest psychedelic band the 13th Floor Elevators. Perhaps the festival organisers are tweaking the name to stay one step ahead of the imminent anti-psych backlash, I’m not sure. But it’s a three-day music festival on a ranch outside Austin, Texas that is the granddaddy and inspiration of all the psych fests that have since sprung up all over the world. It’s organised by the Reverberation Appreciation Society, who are basically the band the Black Angels and friends, and it’s a celebration of a broad range of psychedelic music from around the world, as well as of Austin’s own psychedelic heritage.

LevitationHow did you receive the invite to promote the book there?

I’d been thinking for a while that it would be a great fit to go out there to promote my book on Texan psychedelic music at the Texan psychedelic music festival, but it didn’t seem like a realistic proposition to get out there. Then earlier this year in my general capacity as a freelance music journalist I was contacted by a press agent who had a band he wanted me to review; he also mentioned he did press for the Austin Psych Fest, AKA Levitation. I said “really? Let me tell you about this book I’ve written…” He put me in touch with the guys from the Reverberation Appreciation Society, and they were up for me going out there and having a display and talking to people about it. I think it’s going to be pretty informal; we talked about me doing a reading but they don’t really have a spoken word stage or anything and it was really short notice. In any case it’s like my entire target audience, right there in one field.

Clearly most of your time will be spent promoting the book, but which acts are you determined not to miss?

There’s only one act that’s completely unmissable and that’s the 13th Floor Elevators, who are reforming for a one-off 50th anniversary show on the final night. They’ve got all the surviving original members; Roky, Tommy Hall, John Ike Walton and Ronnie Leatherman. No one ever thought this would happen, for reasons made clear in my book. I’ve spent two years immersed in the music of this band and writing their story, so to wrap it up by finally seeing them play live will be amazing, and also just the kind of weird synchronicity that happens when you go down the Texan psych rabbit hole. Spiritualized, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, the Black Angels etc. should all be good too.

Tell us some more about the crowdfunding.

I couldn’t let the opportunity to promote my book at the festival slip through my fingers, but there was no budget from the publishers to fund my flying out to Austin and all the associated expenses, and as I’m now a full-time writer I don’t really have what anyone could consider disposable income. So I know people do this crowdfunding thing and despite my mixed feelings about it I thought I’d give it a go. There’s still time to support me at http://igg.me/at/texaspsychbook/x/7294764 There are perks but they’re nominal; essentially I’m just relying on the pure generosity of friends and strangers.

Have you any advice for any aspiring writers out there?

Don’t aspire, just do it. It has to be its own reward. Just write because you love it and make the sacrifices you need to make to be able to keep doing it because you love doing it more than you love job security and a nice house and holidays and food and all that stuff. If you can be funny that helps too.

@brightonjames2

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