Psalm Zero returns a few years after the release of their debut album The Drain with the excellent Stranger to Violence. In this interview Charlie Looker, the main man behind the band, discusses the concepts behind Stranger to Violence, the evolution of the band's sound, collaborating with Zev Deans (who is responsible for the fantastic artwork of the album and the stunning video for "Not Guilty"), as well as giving an insight on his musical journey, influences and other projects.
Scene Point Blank: Hi Charlie! Thanks for finding the time to do this interview, it is much appreciated. So, can you tell us what is the current line-up of Psalm Zero?
Charlie Looker: Myself on guitar, Ron Varod on bass, and Keith Abrams on drums. Keith and Ron are mostly known for their work in Kayo Dot, though Ron plays guitar in Kayo Dot. Absolute killers those guys.
Scene Point Blank: I found Stranger to Violence to be a great follow-up to your debut album, The Drain, retaining most characteristics of your sound, but also appearing a bit more mellow and melodic. How would you describe the evolution of the band's sound? How would compare the two full-length albums?
Charlie Looker: I’m glad you like the new record. I don’t think it’s a radical stylistic departure from the first one. There are fewer harsh vocals, and the synths and drum machine sounds are way higher quality. On The Drain I was just playing some keyboard presets and using an old, cheap '90s Alesis drum box, putting everything through a bunch of reverb and distortion. It was a pretty rudimentary approach. Now I’m using Ableton, seeking out a wider variety of drum samples and synth sounds, crafting the sounds more myself, acting more as an actual electronic musician. The sounds are crisper, richer, and more varied.
Scene Point Blank: The sound of the new album is fantastic. Can you give us details on the recording process? Did you record it on your own? Was anyone else involved in the mixing and mastering stages?
Charlie Looker: We recorded it with Caley Monahon-Ward, who’s an amazing engineer and producer. I go way back with Caley. He played violin and guitar in my old band Extra Life and he recorded a bunch of those albums as well. He’s not only razor sharp at executing ideas, he also brings tons of creative ideas of his own to the process.
Scene Point Blank: I particularly liked the title of the album, since you actually hear the opposite expression “no stranger to violence.” What was the reasoning for choosing that title? What are the themes that you are exploring in the record? Is there a connection with the concept of The Drain, or are the two albums completely separate?
Charlie Looker: Neither The Drain nor Stranger to Violence is a strict concept album. But Stranger is loosely tied together by a set of themes. One of those themes is the idea of avoiding, or continually deferring, the violent consequences of one’s actions. These could be personal actions (drug use), or a larger social/political thing (economic exploitation). The violence could be self-destructive or destructive to others. But whether it’s compulsively ravaging the economy and the earth for profit, or whether it’s chemically ravaging one’s own nervous system to get the next high, maniacal behaviors eventually will come back to bite you in the ass.
Scene Point Blank: The artwork and design for the new album were done by Zev Deans, who worked with Behemoth, Portal (sick video), and Liturgy among more. Were you familiar with his work and contacted him? Did you give him free roam over the artwork, or was there a specific theme that he had to follow?
Charlie Looker: I’ve known Zev’s fantastic work for a little while and I became friends with him over the past year, through common friends. He directed the video for “Not Guilty,” as well as doing the album design. I talked extensively with him about the lyrical themes of the record. But I’m not a super visual person myself, so I didn’t even attempt to backseat drive with the actual visual content. Zev was deeply imaginative with how he responded to the music and words and where he took the whole thing.
Scene Point Blank: I though 2015 was a really interesting year for Psalm Zero with the release of The Birthright Trilogy. Was there a specific reason for this series of releases? What is the meaning of the title of the trilogy (birthright?) How did you choose to release these tracks, two of which found their way into Stranger to Violence?
Charlie Looker: The title is a reference to the Birthright organization, a Zionist group that gives young Jews free trips to Israel. I’m not even going to explain here how that fits into the album. It’s too messy, confusing, and confused. And could easily be taken the wrong way if I over-explain it. But I’ll say that it’s a critical, though ambivalent, perspective. If you want to get deeper into the Jewy side of the album, you can read this interview I did with Haaretz, but the English version of the interview hasn’t been published yet, only Hebrew.
Scene Point Blank: You have quite an active and intriguing musical background. You are a classical composer, who has received fellowships and commissions, as well as an acclaimed underground musician. Can you give us a bit of your story? How did you start with classical music and training? How did you get into experimental and underground music? You also have a number of distinctly different projects, including Extra Life, Period and you were also a member of Zs. Are there any more projects/bands you are part of?
Charlie Looker: As for classical music, I’m mostly self-taught. I went to college, but I didn’t study classical composition there. I got into it through listening to records and from studying scores on my own. A lot of people think you have to go to conservatory for years to learn how to notate music for classical instruments. But on a purely technical level, it’s really about as difficult as learning HTML. Anyway, I didn’t come up through the classical music world, and the commissions and opportunities I get from that world usually seem to come from my being a kind of “crossover artist.” And when I do those projects, I almost always have vocals involved (either my own, or another singer) plus guitars and synths, and it really isn’t deeply rooted in the true canon of European art music. It’s just my own thing, but using classical instruments.
My first love was metal, which is why I started guitar when I was 11. Punk and hardcore came a little later, and then that led to noise, free jazz, modern classical, medieval music, and experimental music. But first was Megadeth, then Morbid Angel soonafter. But Depeche Mode also first hit me at pretty much the same age. And that influence took a longer time for me to integrate. So in many ways, Psalm Zero has been like a return to my deepest roots. But at the same time, I didn’t consciously intend for PZ to neatly fit into metal as a genre or a scene. I just formed the band thinking that I wanted to do something more emotionally direct and less overtly “experimental” than anything else I had done. Really, the common thread through all of it is intensity. I like it intense.
One project of mine you didn’t mention is Seaven Teares, which is a mostly acoustic band. It gets into some folky, or neofolky, territory. We have some material that hasn’t been recorded yet, and we’re talking about another album, but that isn’t on the immediate horizon.
Scene Point Blank: In a past interview, you mentioned that Zs was going into a new phase, and even though you were no longer part of the band, some collaborations would possibly arise. Is there any news from that front?
Charlie Looker: No, nothing there. Just friends with those guys. I saw them play last night and they killed.
Scene Point Blank: Are there any upcoming releases from Psalm Zero, or any of your other projects that we should be looking forward to? Anything similar to The Birthright Trilogy, or any split albums and collaborations?
Charlie Looker: Not sure when the next Psalm Zero release will be. Stranger to Violence just came out five milliseconds ago! We’ll see. I have a couple songs worth of lyrics, and some new riffs I’m excited about, but I’m not rushing to bang out another album immediately.
Right now I’m writing a set of songs for myself plus a large chamber orchestra and electronics. It’s a massive project. I don’t want to get carried away talking about it too early, but it deals with fascism and stand-up comedy. The goal is that it will eventually be released as a record under my own name, but who will put that out, and when, are both up in the air.
Scene Point Blank: Do you have any upcoming gigs with Psalm Zero in support of your new album?
Charlie Looker: We’re doing a tour of the northeast and midwest U.S. in a couple weeks. Nine shows, playing with some really cool bands. By all means, list those dates along with this piece. We’re not immediately going wild with touring this summer, but the general plan for the next time period is to tour more and more. We’ll do some more touring at the end of the year and next year as well. We’ll be out there…