Just what is "psychedelic," anyway? As we steer ourselves rapidly away from the term's birthplace in the 1960s, it's an interesting thing to consider. Is The White Album still psychedelic? The vocals on Rihanna's "Work"? Homer's Guatemalan pepper odyssey on The Simpsons? Brexit? Trump? Your office Christmas party?
In the United States, the term "psychedelic" might be most associated with the touring legacy and frequently endless jams of Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, or the cult following of Phish. In England, the notion of psychedelia had become parodical when it last stuck its head above the parapet and into the zeitgeist at the end of the 90s, with the peak of Britpop––Liam Gallagher, Austin Powers, et al. Across dance music today, the term is having a bit of a moment, exemplified by The Soft Bounce, a debut EP ten years in the making from Beyond the Wizards Sleeve, the London-based electro-psych "sonic brotherhood" of Erol Alkan and Richard Norris.
"It's more of an attitude," says Norris, a lifelong expert on the wire-bound development of psychedelia, when asked how he defines the term. "It's any record that challenges your perception of what a good record was. If it opens your mind a bit more, then it's psychedelic. And that could be across any genre."
The world of electronic music is radically different since Alkan and Norris first crossed paths. Dance music is now the established sound of good times on both sides of the Atlantic, and yet, at least in the mainstream, "psychedelic" is not the term used when describing its mass appeal.
The video for "Diagram Girl", the first single from Beyond The Wizards Sleeve's debut album
Norris was best known throughout the 90s as the founder of cult electronic group The Grid. When he met Alkan, the London DJ, producer, and promoter of Turkish heritage was riding atop an electroclash wave spearheaded by Trash, the club night he threw every Monday at a central London basement called The End. The pair, already loosely familiar from the city's vibrant club scene, were double booked as guests on a local radio show, where Norris had made it to "L" on his regular feature, "The A-Z of Sixties Psych."
"Richard was playing all these fantastic records that I'd been looking for, in a sense," recalls Alkan. "It was definitely kind of like the pure DNA in the records of a lot of things that came after, but I just hadn't personally explored or been fully exposed to. So it was quite mind expanding. Richard turned me on to loads of things, the weirdest, strangest, most backwards... I wanted to hear records that literally sounded like they were about to fall apart."
Shortly after meeting, the pair formed the initially anonymous side project, a cosmic double entendre of a name for those in the know. The self-described "weird shit" they were making soon began to seep through the cracks, beginning with re-edits of The Monkees and obscure Turkish psych-rock group 3 Hurel. Gaining ground with their refreshingly trippy DJ sets in pubs and clubs, the pair went on to "reanimate" a sterling series of major artists––The Chemical Brothers, Goldfrapp, Franz Ferdinand––to much acclaim, creating several unusual dancefloor anthems in the process. Yet, despite Alkan regularly mentioning the collaboration during the Ed Bangin' peak of his popularity, original 'Sleeve material failed to materialize.
The Soft Bounce is likely to surprise established fans of the duo expecting another run of blissful, Balearic reimaginings. Proudly adorning the Wizards Sleeve in all of their influences writ large, this is a 45-minute record that complements every musical corner, from metal to angular indie rock and cosmic disco. As well as a solid few minutes of feedback-laden ambient noise, it contains, for all intents and purposes, a fan-fiction Bond theme. Suffice to say, there's no guest spot from any upcoming grime MC, but owing to pristine production, crucially and mercifully it sounds like a record from the future, not a reverential ode to some wistful past.
Chatting to Alkan and Norris on a late spring afternoon at Alexandra Palace, a heavy smog hanging over the London skyline looking bleakly psychedelic itself, I began to understand the lengthy, decade-long process of ushering what became The Soft Bounce into the world. The first single from the album, "Diagram Girl," is a catchy slice of synthpop that seems to recall College's acclaimed work on Nicolas Winding Refn's horse-powered psychedelic fever dream Drive. In fact, it was the first track Alkan wrote for the album, back in 2009, when Ryan Gosling was merely the sweetheart from The Notebook. Alkan's self-conscious approach is arguably psychedelic in itself; having faith that your ideas are tested in unpredictable ways when you let the world evolve around them.
The guest vocals on The Soft Bounce are provided by the vanguard of British psych, from Euros Childs of cult Welsh group Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, singer-songwriter Jane Weaver, and, memorably, revered pop-cultural historian Jon Savage. An "ally" of Alkan and Norris, Savage concludes the record with a spoken word piece, "Third Mynd," partially extracted from CIA reports of LSD experimentation on citizens. "It was ecstasy," announces Savage. "And it was horrible."
It's a striking finale, not to mention refreshing, given how many artists still soak in a contrived, tie-dye, "Summer of '69" image irrevocably tied to the sometimes challenging, often rewarding experience of psychedelics. Still, while he's always keen and comfortable to wear a variety of hats, it's difficult to imagine this is the same Alkan as the one who produced records for Mystery Jets or Late of the Pier, or was not so long ago found standing on the decks in a festival big top, attempting to scratch "Spastik" by Plastikman with his feet.
During the production of the record, it became clear to the pair that they were inadvertently spinning a narrative, and the finished product mirrors both the birth of the universe in tandem with the life of a sole, androgynous person. Alkan argues that the record is an exploration of "self," but I wonder what else has led the pair––now family men first, DJs second––into the muddy waters of pop-existentialism.
"A sense of mortality, really," replies Alkan. "It doesn't really matter how many people like or dislike it. And that's one of the things that only comes to you when you're a bit older, later in life. A bit of peace with what you're capable of. I've been quite terrible at finishing things, but once you have finished it and can step away from it and look at it with a different perspective, it actually inspires you to have the confidence to finish more."
"Beyond," adds Norris. "I think that's the key word."