Recordings of experimental material originally conceived as studio creations have become a kind of subgenre within contemporary music. Examples like Zeitkratzer’s live versions of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music or Alarm Will Sound’s acoustic rendering of Aphex Twin’s sonic landscapes have highlighted unexpected aspects of the original recordings, while also reframing the original recording artists as modern composers whose works could be played in progressive concert halls like Los Angeles’ own REDCAT.
Chris Schlarb, the musician and composer behind Long Beach–based project Psychic Temple, has now added another piece to this growing genre. Psychic Temple’s Plays Music for Airports is an organic, improvised jazz record that dares to reinterpret (and put in a Southern California context) Brian Eno’s landmark 1978 ambient album and composition Music for Airports.
Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports came out in 1978, three years after his first, groundbreaking experiment in slowness and repetition, Discreet Music. The liner notes contained his manifesto for what he had begun to call ambient music. “Whereas the extant canned-music companies [like Muzak] proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncracies,” Eno wrote, “Ambient Music is intended to enhance these.”
Eno went on to produce many other works of environmental music, but something about the tone and the concept of the Airports piece has inspired a variety of musicians to try their hand at it. Since the late 1990s, New York group Bang on a Can has famously played it live numerous times to much fanfare in several prestigious contemporary-music venues, and also at actual airports (in Europe and San Diego). More recently, IDM experimentalists The Black Dog put an eerie, Lynchian spin on it with their Music for Real Airports (2010).
Schlarb’s own predisposition — honed by years as one of the Los Angeles area’s most organic jazz and avant-garde improvisers — turns Eno’s melancholy piece into another one of his exercises in collaboration. “Psychic Temple approaches Airports from a fresh angle,” the liner notes to the Joyful Noise Recordings edition proclaim, “rescuing it from its 'dark, boring fate' of becoming a museum piece to be analyzed by select musicians inside expensive concert halls. Where Eno's distant, static masterpiece doesn't seem to fit the real-life chaos of what goes on in an airport, Psychic Temple's version adds a human touch and a dose of reality,”
“To be an artist, you gotta throw yourself against risky situations,” a jovial, eloquent Schlarb says in an interview at Pann’s diner near LAX. “I’d become a partner at a studio in Inglewood. We had a big room and I said, ‘Let’s try to fill it up.’” Schlarb gathered 11 musicians in one afternoon — who served as the lineup of his Psychic Temple for this particular project — and they worked on two live pieces, one being a version of the first section of Music for Airports.
The improvisational all-stars included Mike Watt (Minutemen), Paul Masvidal (Cynic, Death), Sheridan Riley (Avi Buffalo) and jazz trumpeter Kris Tiner. “It’s like Robert Altman said,” Schlarb explains: “‘Get the casting right and your job will be much easier.’
“My sessions are a collective effort,” he continues, “and these days, that makes them stand out. Everyone can record by themselves now; the technology is there. But then everything becomes an individual pursuit. When we get together, that’s when we’re writing a record. You take Mike Watt on bass and Paul Masvidal on guitar. Paul is an amazing prog improviser from a famous Florida political family who also was one of the inventors of death metal. Watt is from San Pedro, and was in one of the greatest punk rock bands ever. I’m the one who’s making them play together. Outside of the Psychic Temple session, those guys are not even in the same universe!”
Schlarb passion for musical cross-pollination has been a signature of his 20-year-plus career. Born and raised in Long Beach, Schlarb attended David Starr Jordan High School there. “I played in gospel choir,” he says. “Played guitar. Was the only white guy in the group. My first session was at 16, with a gangsta rap group at school. This older guy showed up — some 30-year-old, their 'producer' — and drove us to Inglewood. A couple of weeks later I could hear my record on The Beat, 92.3!”
In the 1990s, Schlarb was part of a busy performing group called Create (!). “We were 100% improv. Instead of going to music school, that was my education,” he says. The group also served as a link between the improv jazz scene and the then-burgeoning Southern California underground hip-hop scene.
“We played a lot at the old Hollywood Knitting Factory. We performed at Project Blowed and were part of the scene around Freestyle Fellowship at Leimert Park Festival. Amazing underground hip-hop groups like Acid Reign, or the Shape Shifters collective. I was really involved in hip-hop culture at the time. There was a club called Off the Top in Hollywood. Create (!) was kind of the house band.”
Schlarb credits this experience with giving him a more open attitude about genres and musical partners. “Avant-garde can be seen as elitist, but hip-hop grounded me. I look at a lot of subcultures with a jaundiced eye. They can become cliques; they’re trying to exclude others,” he says. “That’s fine, but to limit yourself seems … limited. You take avant-garde jazz and free improvisation — I took my formative experience and when I formed Psychic Temple I said, ‘I’ll bring everyone into this space that I’m gonna create.' In that regard I have a very inclusive mentality.”
For Plays Music for Airports, Psychic Temple was a double quintet plus extra horn player, improvising under Schlarb’s direction. “I had a custom-made light box. When the light was on, they would play —and when it was off, they wouldn’t. That way I could be conducting the improvisation in real time, while I was playing guitar. The drums and the keyboards, however, were amazing and we kept them on all the way through.”
With one of the drummers, Tabor Allen, Schlarb co-wrote the second piece on the record, called “Music for Bus Stops.” “Airports are more like an upper-class concept,” Schlarb explains. “That’s how rich people get around. We said, ‘Who’s gonna write music for people who have to take the bus to work?’”
There’s an understated class-consciousness to Schlarb’s approach that seems peculiar to Long Beach and South Bay culture. This is a border area between Orange County and Los Angeles proper, with a rich past and culture of its own that combines the port, working-class pride, rockabilly styles, a no-nonsense punk attitude, a diverse sense of community, gangsta rap and Mexican-American tradition. Psychic Temple’s universe is very far from the almost academic, “contemporary composer” milieu of Brian Eno, Bang on a Can or much of the improv and avant-garde crowd.
“I didn’t go to college at all. I was 20 and I had a kid,” Schlarb says. “I wasn’t grandfathered into places like REDCAT. But I’d love to do this piece live, in the proper forum. This is DIY improv — I made that whole record and paid for it myself. I’m trying to create a broader conversation.”
Schlarb works nonstop. He performs, works as a producer and engineer, and composes soundtracks. He's particularly known for his videogame work; gamers should be very familiar with his surreal sound palette on cult game Dropsy, an assignment he took because he loved the protagonist, a Christ-like clown who wants to change the world with the power of hugs.
Parallel to the Airports record, Psychic Temple also just released a full album called III on Sufjan Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty label. It is yet another exercise in combining the right musical ingredients into an organic whole, but this time, Schlarb has done the wildest thing an avant-garde musician can do — he’s written and sung his first conventional songs, and recorded them with some really legendary country-soul session men.
“I went to the legendary FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I actually called them up and asked them what their day rate was. ‘$500,’ said the guy. ‘And that includes an engineer. Do you want any guys to play on it? From the area?’”
The “guys from the area” happened to be Spooner Oldham and Dave Hood of The Swampers — aka the keyboards and bass you know from almost every Muscle Shoals recording in your collection. These are men who backed Aretha in her prime; their sound an unquestionable part of American culture.
“At that point I had no music for them,” Schlarb explains. “I wrote the music because they were available. I started thinking about that Hammond B3, that electric bass. I wanted to play with Spooner, I wanted to play with Dave Hood. That’s part of the stream of music history. I wanted to dip my toes in it.
“That’s what I do. I like to put everyone in a room together,” he adds.
Psychic Temple's Plays Music for Airports is available now via Bandcamp.