Pic: Becky DiGiglio
I don’t know how many times in the last year I have recommended Psychic Graveyard here on Undertone. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before I set up an interview with Eric Paul, its singer. Eric is quite a legendary character – you can associate him with such bands as Arab On Radar, Chinese Stars or Doomsday Student. The Providence scene would not be the same without his participation, which should be appreciated by the fans of math and noise rock. He’s also an incredibly nice guy and a sensitive artist who has a lot of anecdotes about your favorite bands.
Your latest album, Bluebird Vacation is one of my favorite albums from 2020. I love everything about it — it’s fresh, it has amazing energy and lyrics, obviously. But you, as Psychic Graveyard are a pretty young band. How did you guys meet?
Well, this band has been fairly unique. This is my fourth band. And when I started this project with Nathan (Joyner), it was a project that we did mostly just for fun, because he lives in San Diego and I live in Providence. The challenges of starting a band with members in different cities seemed daunting at first, but, we ended up making it work.
That’s far away, literally on the other side of US!
Yeah. We’ve been friends for a long time. We met when he was in a band called All Leather and All Leather toured with some of my bands. He was also in Some Girls. During that time we became really close. He was not making music at the time, and he started sending me these songs that he was writing, and I thought they were fascinating.
At first, we started to just make songs for ourselves and not really think about what we were going to do with them. It was very gradual, where in a lot of my other bands we couldn’t wait to get to record and release a seven-inch and get on the road.
But at this point in my life… I didn’t care. What we were doing was mostly for fun. It was fun to not care and kind of have a project that was simply based on enjoyment. I feel as though, that is originally why you start making music, but then it seems to get quickly complicated by the realities of it, you know, financial, interpersonal relationships, burn out. There’s all this stuff that starts driving you crazy. So we literally just wrote the album for fun.
But then when we had a fairly good response to the album, we got excited that people were enjoying some songs from that first record. So then we said, well, maybe we should play this stuff live. Then Paul Vieira and Charles Ovett joined.
It was a really fun, genuine feeling, you know? I’m in my mid-forties and I felt like a kid again. I felt like I did when I was in my first band at like twenty-two, twenty-three. And then, when the four of us played the first album Loud As Laughter live in various cities, we then started working collaboratively on our second album, Bluebird Vacation. I think because of this collaborative effort Bluebird Vacation sounded more organic, more cohesive.
It was a pretty magical feeling when it came together. And for me, I have a son who is five, and he’s on the autism spectrum. I love him to death, but there are some challenges. So I found that writing a lot of the lyrics and really being able to put them to music has been a nice place to find safety and comfort. And I’m so relieved that people have connected with it.
Did you have a chance to play some shows after releasing Bluebird Vacation?
Actually our first show was supposed to be a festival in Italy. But due to Covid-19 the entire tour was called-off. Until that point, we’d only played maybe 10 shows. And then it all just kind of stopped.
So we’re waiting until we can go back into the world and play these songs live again. That’s one of the nicest things about playing the songs you wrote together live. You have an opportunity to express the more spiritual aspects of the songs are with the people that you collaborated with when writing them.
It’s like, you know, the first kiss after a long time you’ve admired someone. But I guess we got to wait a little longer.
So I did a little research about you before our talk. Turns out you are a very comprehensive artist. You were in a lot of bands, but also you are a poet!
Yeah. I have three books of poetry out. Two were released through Wes Eisold’s (Cold Cave/American Nightmare) Heartworm Press. The other was released through an independent press out of Flagstaff, AZ called, Tolsun Book. But, most of my written work and spoken word releases are with Heartworm Press. Wes and I met when Chinese Stars was on tour with Daughters we stayed at Wes’ house. That night Wes and I started talking about writing, and he shared his early books with me. And at that time, he had said, “Would you be interested in putting your work on this small publishing house that I have?” Eventually he released my book called ‘I Offered Myself to the Sea’.
Through working on ‘I Offered Myself to the Sea’ Wes and I grew closer and eventually I would release t a second on Heartworm Press called, ‘A Popular Place To Explode.’ Recently, we worked together an anthology that Heartworm Press put out last year, called ‘The Heartworm Reader Volume I’.
Can you tell me more about this publication?
I think it’s pretty exciting. Wes had a lot of unpublished work from Alan Vega (Suicide), Genesis P.Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV) and Mark Lanegan. So he had a lot of fascinating writers involved already. He then asked me, “Are there any writers you’d ever want to be in a book with?” And immediately I was like, “Oh my God, yes.”
So I approached some writers that I admired. One of them was Bibbe Hansen, an actress who starred in the Andy Warhol films and who is also an amazing essayist and poet. I also approached another friend of mine named Kaveh Akbar, who is this amazing Iranian poet. I also invited Sam Pink, Zach Lipez, and Sarah Jean Alexander.
The reader was for me, an opportunity able to work with writers I had always dreamed of working with. There are still plenty of writers that we admire and are hoping to work with in the future Wes has talked about maybe even doing one anthology per year. When the reader was released there was a lot of excitement about it. And before quarantine, we had plans to do some readings around the country where we were going to have all the writers in the anthology do the readings. But that has indefinitely put on hold.
But being part of this anthology was wonderful. I never thought in a million years I would be in a book with Alan Vega. I mean, he was this hero of mine growing up. And actually, Suicide is a huge influence on Psychic Graveyard, too.
Is there any difference between writing a poem and writing lyrics?
I’ve realized I can’t do both at the same time, which is a strange thing. I have to go into a sort of “poetry mode” where I don’t have to worry about the restrictions that lyrics have.
There’s so much more you can do with poetry. I mean, there is an obviously certain musicality to it, but there’s a lot of ways to achieve that musicality. There’s a lot of different roads you can take to get there, but you don’t have as many roads when writing lyrics. Certainly you can get experimental with lyric writing, and you can throw a lot of the traditions out the window I did that a lot with my first band where I didn’t have anything that repeated or anything that rhymed. So it’s not like it’s off the table, but you just kind of do what feels good instinctively for the song that’s been given to you by the other musicians.
So Nathan and the guys will send me the music. And I’m following, in essence, the rules of their creation, and sometimes I’m like “oh no, I’m going to ruin this song”.
I love their music. And that’s another thing. When you’re writing for yourself, you just have to be happy with what you’re creating. With lyrics, a lot of fear creeps in because I don’t want to disappoint them because — I’m always awe of the music they send me to sing over. I’m constantly sending them lines back like, “do you think these lyrics are okay for the song?” Because I want them to be proud of it.
I don’t have to that with poetry. I’m just kind of wandering in the woods by myself.
Had it ever happened to you that you started writing lyrics, and then you knew that these words would be better as a poem?
I have. Yeah. A lot of what I wrote is prose poetry. Prose poetry is short narrative pieces, sometimes referred to as it flash fiction. The poems begin conceptually and then I put add words. As opposed to lyrics where the words hit me first, and sometimes I discover the meaning after. But there have been some times when I’ll be writing a lyric, and I’ll discover a concept, but I’ll realize I can’t achieve this with a lyric, so it’ll turn into a poem. So that happens a lot.
I had one poem in particular, it was from my second book. It’s called ‘You Are a Terrible Home Surgeon’. That actually started as a lyric where I had this idea about this guy that was trying to fix all of his problems by doing home surgery, like he was trying to cure his depression by electrocuting himself with a fork in a socket and stuff like that.
But it was too ambitious for a song. I would have to say, “just give me thirty-two seconds here, don’t play half of these things there, so I can say the whole thing.” In the end it just became a poem.
Your previous band, Arab On Radar is pretty legendary. I’ll quote Wikipedia now: “Arab On Radar may be considered catalysts for the revival of no wave, a scene that began to gain popularity with bands like Lightning Bolt and The Locust in the early part of the 21st century.” Would you agree with this statement?
It was a very important time to me. We were largely influenced by Public Image Ltd., Birthday Party, Gang Of Four, bands like that. But we evolved into something a little more dissonant, a bit more angry. And at that time, we were all going through a lot of personal turmoil.
So the music itself became quite inflammatory or volatile. It had an energy to it that was quite rare. It was interesting! I think it was innovative, but I don’t think were the only band to tap into that.
At the time we started playing out and touring, the scene was dominated by the emergence of indie rock. So when we started, we would be on bills with bands like Modest Mouse and The Delta 72. I have nothing against those bands but they were just incredibly different from us. So when we stepped onstage there was an inherent tension — an us versus them. Looking back on it, we must of looked like a bunch of maniacs to somebody paying to see June Of 44, and then we walk out. Eventually, though, we connected with other bands that shared a similar philosophy. One of those connections was The Locust. Arab On Radar was touring with the band Drop Dead. The Locust ended up on the bill with us in Atlanta at Under The Couch. We really hit it off with those guys both musically and personally. Meeting The Locust created a lot of opportunities for us to reach a wider audience.
It was really cool to meet the guys from The Locust because, while they sounded very different, they were sort of intellectually trying to do a very similar thing that we were doing, trying to push the bounds of what music should be. We became instant friends with them.
Arab On Radar, Lightning Bolt and Drop Dead are all from Providence, right?
Yes. We all started our careers at a place called Fort Thunder, which was actually a loft space that was lived in by like 10 artists. They also had bands play there. Brian Chippendale, the drummer of Lightning Bolt, was one of the main tenants of Fort Thunder. So Arab On Radar would play with Lightning Bolt a lot of other notable PVD bands. We would eventually take all our bands out on the road. All the bands fed off each other too — we were all inspired by what every band was doing. A lot of PVD bands pushed a lot of boundaries. I wished more of them got the attention they deserved.
At one point, a tour was put together by the people who ran Skin Graft Records with Arab On Radar, The Locust and Lightning Bolt. We did like 30 shows around the country and that got a lot of different people interested in what we were doing. That tour incorporated a lot of unique voices in music at the time. It was a very special tour, it was called, Oops, The Tour.
Shortly after that tour, Arab On Radar broke up.
Well, that was unfortunate!
We stopped playing just when people were starting to realize who we were. I often wonder if ugly breakups draw more attention than the band’s music. HA. For us, people had just started hearing about us, and then we disappeared. I think it inspired some strange mystique about the band. More and more people began caring about us because they couldn’t see us or had only seen us once. It breaks my heart that we weren’t able to work out our personal differences.
I would say, if you dig a band, treasure every second of their existence. Thankfully Lightning Bolt, The Locust, and a lot of those other bands went on and kept playing. And it’s pretty cool because they are among the most genuine bands I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing and knowing as people.
As I mentioned, your album was one of my favorite albums last year. And what did you listen to in the memorable 2020?
Oh, I loved Atlas Vending by Metz! I LOVED the album “Final Strike” of the Pumpkin Witch. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it. And I love the USA Nails album. Yeah.
What else? I really like Clipping’s “Visions of Bodies Being Burned. There’s also a really great band from Portland, Oregon, called, Lithics. They released an amazing album called, “Tower Of Age.” I also really enjoyed White Boy Scream’s “Bakunawa.”