Offscreen violence: An interview with Charlie Looker of Psalm Zero
Psalm Zero guitarist and vocalist Charlie Looker talks about his songwriting, metal, violence, Jewish identity, and the band’s future.
Psalm Zero, the New York City-based art metal band led by Charlie Looker (known for his work in the experimental rock/folk band Extra Life, the avant-garde group Zs, and, yes, a short time in Dirty Projectors) released its sophomore album, Stranger to Violence, through Profound Lore Records in mid-July. Like its 2014 predecessor, The Drain, the album brings together elements of metal, industrial, and post-punk. Where this release differs is in its greater emphasis on melodic hooks and a more pronounced lyrical engagement in social and political issues (Our own Richter offered his analysis and praise for the record here).
There is also a certain amount of awkwardness attending this album cycle. After all, Psalm Zero began as a collaboration between Looker, who initially played bass, and guitarist Andrew Hock, formerly of Castevet. The record features Hock’s contributions though he was ejected from the group in February – after tracking was complete – due to allegations of sexual harassment. Since then, Looker has soldiered on by taking over guitar duties and recruiting Ron Varod of Kayo Dot to handle bass duties – a logical choice considering Kayo Dot drummer Keith Abrams was already sitting behind the kit for live dates.
I spoke with Charlie the day he departed for a tour covering parts of the East Coast and Midwest.
Jason Kolkey: I wanted to start off by talking little bit about the new record, your creative process, and that sort of standard band interview stuff. How long has it been since you actually wrapped up work on that album?
Charlie Looker: We recorded that in January. I mean, that’s when we tracked it. Writing took a year or so.
I asked because there was this sort of staggered release of a few of the tracks over time in the video format, which is a really interesting way to approach it. What did you think you were getting across by putting those tracks out in that particular form?
Well, not to over explain, but those three tracks had certain lyrical themes that ran through them even more than the other tracks on the record. We didn’t plan it ahead of time, but those first three tracks ended up having a certain consistency lyrically, so they seemed to form a trilogy of sorts. We ended up not putting the second of those three tracks, “Hunchback,” on the record, as you noticed. That was a later decision because it’s just such a long, epic piece of music. It just stood on its own so much it would have been a little crazy to have that in the context of the full album.
Since you already mentioned lyrics, I’ll just jump to that for a moment. It seems like there are a few recurring themes throughout the record that I found interesting. One is in the title: a culpability for violence without being personally engaged in a violent act. Can you talk a little bit about what you were trying to say there?
Well, see with a lot of this I don’t wanna over explain stuff because then I get out of my depth talking about political and social shit that I’m not really, really schooled enough to back up on some kind of deep level. But, in general, there’s a lot on the record about just avoiding consequences for your actions or deferring consequences for your actions. And violence could be self-destructive violence or violence that ends up being directed elsewhere.
Some of these songs are about addiction – specifically with drugs or with other forms of compulsive behavior. From that angle, it’s like you’re avoiding the violent consequences of your actions till tomorrow, till the next week, till the next month. But the violence comes and gets you in the end. There’s also the violent consequences of the drug trade on other parts of the world: America’s role as a consumer in the international cocaine trade. People get their heads cut off in Mexico while we tube up lines over here. There’s violence that happens that’s offscreen and is not part of our daily lives here.
That’s not a super deep idea. Everyone’s talking about that type of stuff. It’s just global politics, but on this record I kind of come at it from a bunch of different personal points of view.
You’re sort of downplaying some of the thoughtfulness that goes into a lot of those lyrics, but I actually think it’s pretty impressive in this metal/rock context to hear those sorts of issues addressed in a way that’s not strident but more reflective.
That’s the thing, man. I just get political on the level of seeing problems, but I don’t pretend to have answers. And I’m not really into telling people what to do and getting preachy with shit. I mean, it’s easy to do that when you see things that you clearly think are fucked up, but I’d rather look at myself and my friends – or ex-friends – for examples.
Connected to that, you deal a lot with gentrification and problems that are endemic to cities like New York and my own city, Chicago, especially on the track “Real Rain,” where you’ve got the Taxi Driver reference up front and then you go from there. How do you see those urban issues connected with the kinds of things you were just talking about?
Well, it’s not all connected into one single point, but I guess when you look at something like gentrification it has that kind of cancerous quality that ties to the theme of addiction and compulsion and expansion that runs through the album. Does that make sense?
That does. As an American secular Jew, I particularly related to the bits on the song “Not Guilty” where you’re talking about, I think, the sort of ambivalence that you can’t really avoid having about Israel and Jewishness if you’re a person who cares about violence and imperialism and these sorts of issues.
Yeah, I mean, the Jewish element in the record is so confused and ambivalent that it’s another thing I don’t wanna overly talk about, but it’s completely in there. I can say that the cultural moment that a lot of people are having right now, everyone’s really into identity politics at the moment. And I don’t mean that in a bad or a good way. It could be good or bad, but Jewishness is a weird one in the contemporary discussion right now. Because it’s like Jews are white, but also only very recently [considered to be white].
So, it’s like everyone’s talking about race, race, race, whiteness – white versus black mostly in America is the discussion. And it’s just interesting to me because I’m looking at the racial politics of the moment from a white point-of-view. But then there’s this whole wing of the alt-right, sort of white supremacist tide that’s rising, and they don’t think that Jews are white, and it’s some Neo-Nazi shit that I’ve never actually seen in my lifetime. That’s new to me, so I’m listening to all this stuff about police violence and about the racial politics of the moment from a white point-of-view, but then there’s this thing of – I don’t really know what could happen with Trump or what’s really possible. Maybe I’m just tripping, but it’s like that white card could get snatched back. You know what I mean? It’s like, how far could that right wing shit go, where Jews are dialed back to not-white anymore. I don’t know.
There’s a little bit of that ambivalence on the record where some of the stuff frames Jewishness as this very self-hating, kind of scared, historically oppressed minority position, and then some of it presents Jewishness as this arrogant, imperialist, dominant, white, powerful vibe. It kind of plays both sides. Again, if I talk about it too much, it might come off as fucked up. You know what I mean?
Like I was saying, I really related.
There are anti-Semitic tropes in the lyrics where it’s stuff about controlling the media and controlling the law and controlling finance. Stereotypes that are hurled at Jews, but it’s like they’re maybe a little bit true. And you’re just like [pained moan]. So there’s some of that shit there.
I think that ambivalence is very inherent to that sort of weird ethnic-cultural-religious situation. So I think it’s cool and interesting that you addressed it in a way where you can sense that conflict happening.
Yeah, I think about this shit a lot, but I don’t work out these very staunch positions before I start writing. I just write the lyrics. Lines come up, and things that feel connected come up and I kind of implode shit together and connect it and feel solid that I’m addressing what I want to address. But it’s not a finished point.
You’re not writing “Refused Party Program.” So, back to the music side. You’re an eclectic composer. You work with a lot of different kinds of instrumentation. How much time do you have to spend thinking about genre when you’re working on a project like this, which is defined by this collision of new wave/‘80s post-punk elements and metal? Do you think about that constantly when you’re writing the music, or is it just something that flows naturally?
I don’t think about genre at all, man. That “combining genres” shit. If things can be described that way, as “x meets y in a blender” [gagging sound], in a press release or a review and it makes it legible for people, that’s fine. But to me that’s a real consumerist way to write music if you’re really just mixing and matching stuff. I mean, I’ll think about genre as far as very specific elements, like, “This is four bars of a death metal-ish drum thing with a ride bell and a double bass.” Or, “This one synth sound is very OMD or Depeche Mode.” I’ll cherry pick elements, but as far as writing stuff it’s really just melodies, riffs, rhythms. It’s like raw materials.
What is your background with metal like? Because I don’t think people necessarily think of you as a metal guy though you’re on a metal label.
Nor should they necessarily now. But for me, extreme metal has been a huge part of my musical identity from the beginning. Some of the first music I got into really seriously was Metallica, but more than that Megadeth when I was 10 or 11. And soon after that more death metal like Morbid Angel and that kind of Earache shit. But I don’t really have a deep history with black metal and kvlt shit. Godflesh are a big, important band to me, Ministry, industrial metal and stuff. So that’s always been a big part of what intense guitar music is to me.
But the connection with Profound Lore originally came through Andrew, the former guitar player that I split with. It’s such an amazing label to be on, but it does probably frame the band as more of a quote-unquote “metal band” than it necessarily needs to be. If you have screaming, harsh vocals and a certain guitar tone, to most people that makes something metal automatically. But to me, the concept of the band was not “I wanna do metal.”
You mentioned your interest in industrial. The drum and synth sounds on the album are very consciously artificial-sounding. There’s no attempt to use EZ Drummer to make it sound like you have a live drummer or anything like that. What appeals to you about that sort of aesthetic?
There’s just a coldness to it, you know? I like the cold vibe of completely consistent-sounding drum hits. There’s something brutal about it, man. The brutal, synthetic vibe of it, to me, is a really cool thing for heavy music, at least of a certain sort.
How does moving that into a live setting and bringing in the live drummer change the songs for you?
Most of them, not a ton. I mean, the song “White Psyche,” Keith came up with a pretty different drum part to make it more of a live vibe. So, there’s some tweaks. But a lot of it Keith just goes off the record. It’s really important, though, to have a live drummer for [performing] this live. For the first year or two of existence, we didn’t have a live drummer, so working with Keith just takes it to a whole other level. Cuz even when he’s playing the parts exactly, just that human feel is great live. For me, the record and live are different. So yeah, usually the parts aren’t changed, but that human push and pull of the time is awesome live.
Do you think that, moving forward with this project, you’ll continue to work with the live band that you have? Or do you think you’ll bring in different people as you need to?
I hope it’s consistent. I hope that Keith and Ron, that just is the lineup indefinitely. Nothing’s forever. They’re super busy with Kayo Dot, so we’ll see if there are excessive schedule conflicts or whatever.
Yeah, they just put out a new album as well.
But those dudes are do-or-die musicians. That’s what they do, so it’s been killer working with them. I’m psyched for this tour. We’re going to do some more touring later in the year, I think. At the end of the year, we’ll do a little more probably in the States again.
I could see adding maybe a fourth person. Maybe someone to do keyboard stuff live or backing vocals or something.
You’re clearly someone who is comfortable with leaving a project [like Extra Life] behind when you feel like you’ve said what you need to say with it and you’re ready to move on. Is [Psalm Zero] something you feel will be your main outlet for some time to come?
Yeah, [but] I have no idea. I don’t plan to leave shit, man, you know what I mean? I do stuff based on the idea that I’m just doing it forever. And then, maybe it turns out to not be that way. [laughs]
What other projects are you working on?
The only thing I’m planning is I’m writing this record. I don’t know who’s going to put it out or when. There’s no release plans, but a record’s worth of music for orchestra, with strings, winds, and brass and electronics. So it’s more on the composer vibe, less on the band vibe. But yeah, something that would be released under my own name at some point. But that’s just stuff I’m writing, and it’s not in the recording or performing phase.
But as far as really being in a band, Psalm Zero is the thing. That’s my band. That’s the thing that’s coming to people’s towns.
You can check out Psalm Zero’s new release, Stranger to Violence on Bandcamp and pick it up from Profound Lore Records. And if the tour is hitting a town near you, be sure to catch them live. Here are the upcoming dates:
8/4 Dusk – Providence, RI w/ Tovarish, Hadean, Snowbeasts
8/5 Koto – Salem, MA w/ Sun Drifter, Phantom Glue
8/6 SPACE Gallery – Portland, ME w/ Purse, An Anderson, Clan of Dyad
8/8 Array Space – Toronto, ON w/ Ayahuasca, Gates, Manticore
8/9 UFO Factory – Detroit, MI w/ Casuistry, Olms
8/10 Subterranean – Chicago, IL w/ Cool Memories, No Ritual, SZS Trio
8/11 Now That’s Class – Cleveland, OH w/ Nyodene D, Requiem
8/12 Good Weekend – Allentown, PA w/ GSGA