After witnessing Wooden Shjips' awesome concert at the Comet in April, local musician/author John Gillanders of the band Black Science e-mailed promoters Aubrey Nehring and Darlene Nordyke to gush: "I was actually practicing some magick rituals during their set and felt like I was kind of floating around the room and transforming my field of consciousness into predesigned sigils. Great experience."
That phenomenon has become more common in the last year thanks to Portable Shrines, a collective dedicated to fostering psychedelic multimedia events in Seattle. Started last year by Nehring and Nordyke, Portable Shrines is shifting the city's psych scene into a higher gear—subliminally.
Tired of being among the few supporters at local psych-oriented gigs, Nehring and Nordyke decided, while at a poorly attended Mythical Beast/Nudity show at MarsBar, to stop bitching and start doing. They had also recently started Backward Masks, their own garage-psych band with Steve Wippich and Mike Correa, so that further motivated them to generate more energy and draw more heads to mind-expanding music. By forming Portable Shrines, they proved they were serious about catalyzing a movement that they knew had potential but that lacked leaders to put it into a coherent context.
"It seemed like a natural thing," says Nehring about activating Shrines. "It wasn't going on in Seattle, but it could without that much effort. So we decided to give it a shove and see what happens."
Nordyke chimes in: "One thing I've noticed is that you get metal bands that crossed over into psych, experimental and garage bands that would cross over into psych, but there was no cohesive psych scene. None of the people knew each other, they wouldn't do shows together. They wouldn't go to each other's shows, because they didn't know they existed."
Obviously, Portable Shrines can't lift the scene by itself. The members acknowledge crucial contributions from the Comet's Mamma Casserole, the Funhouse's Brian Foss, Rendezvous's Adam Bass, Blue Moon's Jason Josephes, and Dissonant Plane's Eric Lanzillotta.
Nehring (who speaks in very calm, considered tones) and Nordyke (Shrines' more extroverted member) don't consider themselves promoters but rather "just folks" who want to turn people on to great music. They consider themselves "woefully uncapitalistic" about the whole enterprise.
"Our role is mostly curatorial," Nehring says. He and Nordyke basically book acts they like and spread the word via mouth, flyers at record shops, and the internet; so far, their gut instincts have proved to be impeccable. Besides Wooden Shjips, Shrines has brought superlative artists to town such as Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound and Eternal Tapestry, with plans to host shows with Psychic Ills, Indian Jewelry, Magik Markers, Sic Alps, and Blues Control. Most importantly, the curatorial team will be hosting Escalator, a two-day festival happening at Vera Project and Lo-Fi Performance Gallery on September 25 and 26.
"It seems strangely relevant to right now for some reason," Nehring observes. "The bands [we like] are psychedelic, but they're not on some retro-revival trip. It's not a corny 'let's pretend it's the '60s' kind of thing. What they're doing is very much happening right now. And it's happening everywhere. There are so many amazing bands in the past few years. It's been blowing my mind. So that's part of why we're doing this.
"A year ago, I didn't feel like there was anything going on [in Seattle]," he continues. "And now there are tons of amazing bands. It's a very young scene."
Nehring's right. Seattle's recent past has produced some excellent psych-rock purveyors (Jessamine, Love Battery, early Kinski), but grunge, garage punk, and indie pop perpetually seemed to overshadow the head-music scene here. After a slight lull earlier this decade, Seattle's psychedelicists are resurging and assuming myriad forms. From stoner rock to eclectic ethnodelia to drone to freak folk to avant-garde noise sculpture to analog-synth abstractions to the sort of rarefied sonic exploration that eludes classification, many of the city's most adventurous musicians are seeking and attaining altered states. Portable Shrines' presence offers a platform from which these kindred spirits can exchange ideas, share bills, and possibly collaborate.
Some of the artists Portable Shrines champions include Master Musicians of Bukkake, Idle Times, A F C G T, Treetarantula, Geist & the Sacred Ensemble, Forrest Friends, Night Beats, and Midday Veil. The last-named band's Emily Pothast and David Golightly are key Portable Shrines accomplices. In addition to singing and playing guitar for Midday Veil and Quietus III, Pothast is a visual artist who possesses deep knowledge about art, culture theory, psychology, and religion.
"Psychedelic isn't really a kind of music; it's a descriptor that can be applied to all kinds of music," Pothast postulates. "I'm interested in the effects of music that's mediated by technology. Feedback and distortion and delay, things that draw things out over time—you can manipulate sound in ways that are impossible to do acoustically. The '60s were fueled by a lot of counterculture activity, including drugs and a renewed interest in spirituality in the West. But the heart that drives that music is that sort of experimental edge to it. As Darlene and Aubrey were saying, that can apply to metal, to jazz, to experimental drone music. Psychedelic is more about the way the elements are used, the way that they're put together. The stylistic content of the music is more of a vehicle for the message."
Pothast notes that a lot of ancient music that involves communal drumming and chanting can possess "consciousness-elevating properties" to rival anything by Hendrix or Hovercraft. "Psychedelic music is... a unifying vibrational field that is being manipulated willfully. The musical experience occasions a mass transformation of consciousness."
To that end, Portable Shrines emphasizes light shows and video at its events (often created by Golightly), with Nehring and Nordyke also providing the soundtrack between bands. They strive to create an immersive environment that will surfeit your senses. "That's part of why I'm into this music—because it melds all of my interests in a more cohesive way than any of the other stuff around," Nehring states.
Just as experimental/noise had Wooden Octopus Skull, jazz has Earshot, post-rock has Cumulus, and electronic music has Decibel, our psych-rock scene could benefit from its own ambitious festival. Thankfully, Escalator looks poised to rise to the occasion.
Nordyke says they've confirmed Treetarantula, Lumerians, Wooden Shjips, Eternal Tapestry, Midday Veil, Le Sang Song, and Backward Masks. They're hoping to snag some Portland bands. (May I suggest Grails, White Rainbow, Valet, and Plants?) As Portable Shrines is trying to run this fest without corporate sponsorship, it's mostly relying on West Coast artists who don't demand large guarantees.
Conventional wisdom pertaining to psychedelic music says that it's all about getting out of your "normal" mind state; that's true, to a degree. But the doors of perception can be unhinged without ingesting heroic dosages of hallucinogens or acting like a fool or psycho. "Portable Shrines events aren't known as being terribly raucous," Pothast notes. "They could be and they're not. It's a good, healthy scene for a good time that isn't about personal drama. By not becoming a complete fuck-up, you become a better ambassador for your cause. That's how you convert people. 'Why are you so happy? What's your secret?' 'Psychedelic music,'" she says with a laugh.
"One of the guys in the Misunderstood, a great unknown '60s psych band [who were] way ahead of their time, said, when asked why they changed their sound from blues to psychedelic, 'The blues was a problem, but psychedelic is the answer.'"