As long as reality remains a reliable manufacturer of horribleness, psychedelic music will be necessary. Sensitive souls require periodic escape hatches from the prevailing political/social/environmental madness. Because hallucinogens are elusive and (stupidly) illegal, bands like Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound provide a crucial service.
The San Francisco group—featuring core trio Charlie Saufley, Jefferson Marshall, and Michael Lardas, as well as Anderson Lanbridge on theremin and Moog, vibraphonist Tim Green, and Saufley's sister Camilla on bass, electric piano, and organ—draw from fecund sources of hirsute, high-times motivators such as Amon Düül II, Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, and the colorful triumvirate of Deep Purple, Blue Cheer, and Black Sabbath. Assemble Head's latest full-length from the stoned stable of Tee Pee Records, 2007's Ekranoplan, toggles between cavernous chaos and meditative meandering, like many of the finest psych-rock albums have done, from the '60s onward.
According to multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Charlie Saufley, making music for AHISS satisfies both soul and body. "I think there's something spiritual in what we do. If only just a desire to transcend time and earthbound normalcy and the hassles of modern life in the space of a song, so you can see some alternate, maybe mystical, way of being and looking at life.
"The music is hedonistic in the same way—or escapist—but to the same ends," Saufley elaborates. "All the songs should be a picture you can look at with the aim of screwing with your perspective. That kind of hedonism and escapism are all really vital now, given how crazed the world is—finding someplace where you see life is richer than what the people in power would have you believe it is. But it's really no different than what raga or Anatolian music have attempted to do for thousands of years, which is get you in a more mystic place. Pharoah Sanders and [John] Coltrane were after the same thing, really."
Saufley acknowledges that today's dire climate calls for drastic action, even if only within the confines of a record or concert. "There may be a bit more urgency given the times and the sense that everything feels really bland and homogenized on [an] enormous, global scale," he notes. "I think that might further energize those instincts to rip things down and blow them up and make something that takes you somewhere else."
Contrary to what many may surmise, AHISS don't need to rely on drugs to harness this exalted energy. "We all have very surreal thoughts and aesthetic leanings outside the drug experience," Saufley says.
Most of the artists AHISS cite as inspirations flourished in the '60s and '70s. It can be argued that these heads aren't breaking new ground with their alternately fuzzy and ethereal psychedelia, but they are exemplary recontextualizers of a style many music fans will continue to champion till they're drawing pensions.
"The sounds and textures of that age are definitely appealing," Saufley admits. "There's something fundamentally attractive to us about the sound of a fuzz guitar or an old wheezy organ. The enthusiasm in much of the music from that period is also infectious."
Still, Saufley is tired of self-congratulatory baby boomers, although he acknowledges, "They did get to experience that explosion of Technicolor that came from not having fuzz pedals and big amps and all these wack noise-making weapons, then suddenly having them at their fingertips. That must have been a thrill.
"[But] we have no retro agenda or any interest in glorifying some bygone age that's overmythologized anyway. What we're after is taking those same sonic elements we love and torturing and twisting them into something new."
Many critics and fans will inevitably label AHISS "psychedelic." And that's fine with Saufley. "I love psychedelic music. It's part of our vocabulary. But I never thought psychedelic music was just wah-wah pedals and backward solos and lyrics about purple fishes and flying on dragonflies. We're into anything transcendental that delivers you from the tedium of commuting and working and mini-mall errand-running to a more elevated place where you're thinking more—or less—and feeling better and floating above it all.
"Sometimes that happens in a visceral, explosive way. Sometimes it's more contemplative or mystical. But either way, it's a kind of transport and that's the aim."
Sometimes traveling heavy is the best way to go.