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Chris Schlarb: Psychic Temples

Ian Patterson By

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I think in the past I thought that if I approached another musician's music it would diminish my own creativity, so I never did it. But over the years I've grown out of that type of thinking.
Truck driver, husband, father, and law-abiding citizen by day, Chris Schlarb presumably dons a cape at other moments that transforms him, if not quite into the savior of creative music, at the very least into the creator of other-worldly sounds of singular vision and exceptional beauty. Guitarist, composer, and founder of independent record label Sounds Are Active, Schlarb has been at the forefront of the underground/alternative music scene in Los Angeles for the last 15 years. Through his association with the wonderfully vibrant collective Create(!), via his collaboration with drummer Tom Steck in the uniquely powerful and graceful duo I Heart Lung and through his own utterly distinctive solo work, the Californian purveys music that claws at the gut and massasges the brain simultaneously. Combining acoustic and electric guitar, free-jazz, drone and chamber sensibilities, Schlarb's intricately layered music embraces minimalism and ambient vibes but burns with the passion of the driven.

The New York Observer described Schlarb's solo debut, Twilight and Ghost Stories (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2007), as "forty minutes of avant-garde bliss," and praise was uniform and widespread for his second solo release, the sublime, minimalist meditation Psychic Temple (Asthmatic Kitty, 2011). Both works are symphonies for the soul, folkltronic experiments in sound layering, mosaics of intricate construction yet of simple beauty too. Schlarb, however, is a restless soul, and it wasn't long before he donned his cape once more, sounding the clarion call to his outsized group of faithful musical collaborators. There was still work to be done. The architecture of Psychic Temple needed refining. A year of intense work in the studio has resulted in Psychic Temple II. The threads that link the two works together are more or less audible, but there are fundamental and quite striking differences too. By his own admission, Psychic Temple II is the most accessible work that Schlarb has ever produced.

All About Jazz: The title Psychic Temple II obviously suggests that there was unfinished business from Psychic Temple I, and yet it's fundamentally different on some levels; what's the link between the two albums?

Chris Schlarb: The main link is the musicians. There are a lot of the same people who played on Psychic Temple. The approach is similar too. I actually set about recording it the same way. I had the same microphone set-up and placement. I think both albums share a certain sonic quality. Compositionally, there are a lot of through lines between both albums, but Psychic Temple II was a concerted effort to create something that was in the same spirit but that was not a repetition of something I had done before.

After Psychic Temple came out I put together bands to play that music live, but it was extremely difficult to pull off, as you can imagine, because that music was extremely patient, but for a musician in a live setting the tendency is to not permit too much silence because there's a sort of fulcrum with the audience and the musicians and you don't want it to tip too far towards the audience because then they feel like they're the ones who are in control of the show.

On Police State it was exactly how I wanted it but when we played it live there was just too little structure. With a lot of my music it feels loose and it should be loose, but there's a maniacal amount of control [laughs] that I'm exerting over the entire process. It was really tricky live. A few times it worked and a few times it didn't and I'm perfectly fine with failure when I'm trying something new. What I wanted to do with this album was to write more structured pieces, based on my experiences performing the music from the first album.

AAJ: Was any of the music on PT II left over from the PT sessions, or is this all newly composed material?

CS: It's all completely new. I'm not one of those guys who has a bunch of music hanging around. I wring every last bit of music out of myself for each record. I'm a fan of making music being made in a certain time after which you're an empty vessel again. Even though some of the projects I've done are decidedly not jazz, I think this idea is something I've brought from the free jazz that I started playing so long ago, where you would think, 'I don't want to have anything clouding my mind, I want to be completely empty, and open to whatever is coming.' I think I approached the record- making process in a very similar way.

The first songs we recorded for Psychic Temple II were "'Til I Die" and "All I Want is Time." There are more chords on "All I Want is Time" than there were on the first album [laughs]. That first recording session came about because the vocalists for "Til I Die" happened to be in town from all over the country and I had about two days to record the rhythm section tracks because it was a surprise that they were in town.

AAJ: The writing and recording process for Psychic Temple I was quite unorthodox and certainly drawn out over a long period of time; was Psychic Temple II the result of a similar process, or were there fundamental differences?

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