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21st Century Freak Out
Heaven's Gateway Drugs serve up a psychedelicatessen of sounds
By EA Poorman
Fort Wayne Reader
Past the sunny dispositions and indie rock flair, the synth-laden tones of dream pop, the folksy, rustic Americana that whisps past our ears, and even the angular, jagged riffs of post punk, there lies an alley not brightly lit. A short cut to a disorienting, dizzying kaleidoscope of sound, sights and sensation. At times, alluringly catchy like Olivia Tremor Control sucking on whippets. Then, in the same instant, a satanic freakout more akin to The Black Angels, Brian Jonestown Massacre and Robert Smith on an amyl nitrate bender.
These are the dark blues and psycheldelic life and times of Fort Wayne's own Heaven's Gateway Drugs. Born from the ashes of the Wooden Satellites, Sacred Broncos and the petrified fetus of a Shaman Priestess, Heaven's Gateway Drugs have been making ritualistic, drone-y psychedelic blues rock for the better part of 2012. Having recently played the Cincy Psych Fest and released the CPF Cassette, a 5-song e.p. that exemplifies what these lost souls do so well, which is rock a technicolor freak out like no other, I had a chance to pick the brain of one Alister Crowley about the band.
Here's a little background on HGD, as told by Alister Crowly himself. "The band originally started as an excuse for Derek, Eric, and C. Ray to play music together. It wasn't expected to be serious. Derek had not been playing with a band since Sacred Broncos broke up. C. Ray and Eric were still playing regularly in Wooden Satellites. They wrote two songs and recorded them in late 2011 and didn't plan to really go much further than that. We were asked to open for Night Beats in March 2012, so we started writing more songs and added Josh to the band. He was in Firefly Massacre previously (and Saints Never Surrender further back) and frequently DJs in and out of town. After the first show, we determined that a dedicated percussion player should be included, so we asked Ben Carr to join."
Okay, so we know the term psychedelic rock. A lot of bands, gone and current, fall under that moniker. Some live up to it, some don't. It takes more than a genre to make it. It takes songwriting chops, and HGD has 'em in spades. Where are they pulling influence and inspiration from? "As far as current influences, a shared love of Black Angels was the focal point. Tame Impala is also well regarded by all members. Primarily, though, C. Ray and Derek keep a very extensive Spotify playlist of songs by bands new and old they wish they'd written. It runs the gamut from Love to Clinic or Nirvana to sitar-only covers of Rolling Stones songs. As an overall goal, the idea is to wrap the hooks of great pop-rock in the textures of psychedelia and early-stoner rock."
Back in October the guys in Heaven's Gateway Drugs took a road trip east to Cincinnati to play the first ever Cincy Psych Fest. Turns out they blew minds. "It's definitely a goal of this band to be part of the Austin Psych Fest, which is curated, attended by, and features some of the biggest names in modern psychedelic music. When we found out about Cincy Psych Fest, and saw that their aim was to bring a taste of that scene to the Midwest, we reached out to them. In the end, we negotiated to play and have Doctor Robert's Ocular Odyssey, the liquid projectionist that accompanies our live show, provide visuals for the entire day. It was very successful for all the bands there and great to share the stage with bands like Outer Minds, Mondo Drag, and The People's Temple."
The band wanted to have a 45 available to sell at the show, but it wouldn't have been ready by the time the show rolled around, so they decided to go with another retro chic flashback, hence the CPF Cassette was born. But talking to the band, the decision to go with a cassette e.p. was more for practical purposes than to be retro. "We recorded the songs in Fall 2011 and Summer 2012 with Jason Davis at Off the Cuff Sound. Chainsmoking Records is releasing two of the tracks on a vinyl 7". Leading up to Cincy Psych Fest, we really wanted to have recordings to pass around, but knew that the 7" wouldn't be ready in time. The cassette was more of a last ditch effort than an attempt to do something obscure or unusual, but those qualities are not lost on us. We're just excited to have something people can leave with, even if they end up listening online." Surely, there has to be a 12" full-length in the works, right? "No current plans for release, but we will continue to record over the next couple of months. We have enough live material to more than fill a full-length now and anticipate having putting that out on physical media in early 2013. We add a new song to our live set on an almost monthly basis, so there's a good chance that fresh music will be available in digital medium before that." So keep your ears open, kiddos.
So where do the songs come from in a collective like Heaven's Gateway Drugs? Is there incense burning? Are mood rings worn? Black lights? Oriental rugs? Are spirits summoned and incantations performed? Or am I over thinking this? "Most of the songs start as a guitar riff that Derek writes and he and C. Ray work on it until a melody and other parts start to fit. Some are full songs that C.Ray or Derek bring to the table. The rest gets worked out in practice. Singing parts are usually determined by whoever comes up with a melody and steps up to the microphone and starts making sound first." I'll assume at least a couple scented candles are lit at least.
A big part of the psychedelic scene is the live show, and Heaven's Gateway Drugs feel the live show is an extension of the songs themselves. It's an avenue to experience something that is all encompassing. Something that affects all the senses. "If we weren't going all out in the live shows, we might as well just spend all of our time writing and recording. We don't feel that a live experience should try to capture the sound of the recording — it should be a totally different experience. With that in mind, we feel the experience should be both multi-sensory and interactive. It should inspire people to engage with us then and there, but also follow up to try and recapture what they can after the fact."
Speaking of the live show experience, I wondered how the 'look' of the band evolved. From Dr. Robert's Ocular Odyssey, to the stage appearance, to the often spoken mantra of "You are Heaven's Gateway Drugs", the vibe of the band overall is that they're wanting to give us something more than just some songs to enjoy. "Actually, a lot of the 'look' has happened pretty organically. We put a lot into the sound, and that basically inspires the rest. Derek and C. Ray have a shared fascination with cults and devil worship that juxtaposes the pure, almost childlike wonder that often accompanies psychedelic music. It would be great if enjoying the band meant more than just respecting a song structure or getting a melody stuck in your head. We want people to feel like they are Heaven's Gateway Drugs."
Another big part of this band, and really the face you see literally in posters and band art is percussionist Ben Carr. His Shaman-esqe appearance solidifies the visual/aural connection with the band. "Ben is the ultimate front man - he is probably the most humble member of the group, and actually affects the structure of the song the least, but he draws the most attention and serves as a focal point for the band. His consistency in appearance, action, and resolution is a firm anchor. He doesn't speak up as often as anyone else, but when he does, it's taken very seriously. The fact that he is only the one allowed to speak during our performance, and that he gives simple statements like ‘We are Heaven's Gateway Drugs’ or ‘You are Heaven's Gateway Drugs’ is part of the mission to not distract from the experience with any band member's ego. Ben handles that role very well."
What's in the future for Heaven's Gateway Drugs? "One of the band goals is to play Austin Psych Fest, but the full lineup hasn't yet been announced. In the near future, people can check out upcoming shows at heavensgatewaydrugs.com - we're pretty excited about a December 8 show at the Brass Rail with Ivory Wave (Bloomington) and CRYS (Indianapolis)."
I give you Heaven's Gateway Drugs. They're a band. They're a cult. They're a religious experience if you open your mind and heart to them. When all else fails, repeat after me, "You are Heaven's Gateway Drugs."