I first met Charlie Looker (Extra Life, Seaven Teares, Z’s) when Extra Life played Whelans in 2010. Always unpredictable and inhumanly charming, he obliterated the age old warning to ”never meet your heroes” by being a class A gent, gallantly humouring my ramblings about what “I” thought his band name meant. Charlie, poster boy for quitting while ahead, called time on Extra Life in 2012 and moved on to other projects like doom folk outfit Seaven Teares and now Psalm Zero with Andrew Hock of progressive black metal troupe Castevet. Effortlessly blending both metal and pop sensibilities to form some kind of weird and alluring mutant animal, their debut record ‘The Drain’ is a sound to be beheld (listen above). I sat down with Charlie in the cloud to ask him a few questions.
I’ve read you were a quasi-intern at The Knitting Factory(legendary New York experimental and jazz club) when you were a teenager. How did that happen? In what ways did that experience influence your musical trajectory?
I first heard about the Knitting Factory when I was 14. I was at a Faith No More show at Roseland, and word at the show was that Mike Patton was going downtown later to play a midnight show with some guy named John Zorn at a place called the Knitting Factory. I went to check it out and it fucked me up. I think that was my first exposure to “experimental” music. I was already into some extreme death metal, but I had never heard free jazz, noise music, modern composition, real industrial, etc. So that was it. I went down to the club and offered to intern there part time just to see shows for free. That’s how I started to explore all these worlds of insane fringe music. I didn’t put in a million hours working there. They’d just let me make a few Xeroxes, run an errand, and then see a show and hang out with the bands. It was definitely a formative experience. It wasn’t just about checking out highly experimental confrontational musical forms. It was also about realizing that there were a lot of musicians with really eclectic backgrounds who were taking really disparate traditional forms and genres and fusing them into new deep hybrids.
I believe both your parents are psychiatrists? Did you inherit an interest in analysing the human condition from them? Would I be wrong in saying this interest is prevalent in your lyrical content?
Yeah my dad is a psychiatrist and my mom is a psychologist. I’m pretty into psychoanalytic theory. It’s not something I’m a real scholar of, just something I dabble in reading. But I have a firm belief that the human psyche is still a relatively uncharted realm and we all should be more ready to admit the fact that a lot of the time we don’t know why we’re doing things, and we’re puppets to unseen forces which are a part of us, but are totally alien to our conscious minds. I guess that’s a recurring theme in a lot of my lyrics. Repressed forces erupting through you. Turning into a monster. Manic states, compulsions, depression, narcissism, primal aggression, that amoral zone. I’m particularly into the writings of Carl Jung, who believes that psychology is, or should be, the modern version of the realm of the occult, alchemy, exorcism, and mysticism. It seems like psychology has the potential to serve that spiritual function, but I also fully realize that a lot of the time psychotherapy can just amount to rich people complaining and not taking responsibility for their actions.
When and how did you first become interested in medieval compositions? How has it influenced your songwriting?
I know that the first time I heard any of that ancient music was around Christmas each year when I was a little kid. My dad would play this compilation LP of medieval Christmas music. Not that my family really cared about Christmas, my dad being Jewish/atheist anyway. It was just a non-religious holiday time thing. Anyway, that sound stuck with me, that beautiful yet cold medieval sound. It didn’t occur to me to actually investigate early music in general until I was about 20 and I was getting into modern composers. I got into Arvo Part, who of course I loved immediately. Through reading the liner notes to the Part records, I found out about Leonin, Okegham, Machaut, Landini, Josquin, Dufay and I took a lot of those records out of various libraries. My favorite stuff is still the late medieval and early renaissance music, like 12th through 15th centuries. I haven’t studied too much of that music in a thorough academic way, but I have definitely copped a lot from it by listening. The melodies unfold in ways that are asymmetrical, but have this elegant sense of balance. I’ve also been really influenced by the way that music can be beautiful and harmonically consonant, without following the conventions of chord progressions or tonality (because those conventions weren’t solidified yet). It’s devastatingly gorgeous, but the feeling is completely un-romantic, un-sentimental. I think I relate to the overall spirit of that time period because of the humble, almost wretched vibe of it. There’s this feeling like mankind is just a bunch of little maggots, cowering before God. I could do without the God part specifically, but you know what I mean. Like Europeans weren’t ego-tripping yet and colonizing everyone yet. They were just dying of plague, sifting through burnt books, and chanting. I mean I’m sure they were doing more than that, but that’s what I imagine in my half-informed, music-only understanding of history.
When did you first begin to employ melisma (medieval vocal technique) and how did you get to grips with it?
When I started doing Extra Life, that was when I really started singing seriously. I naturally just wrote a lot of really melismatic melodies, without thinking about it. I’m sure some of that comes from the influence of medieval and renaissance music, but mostly it probably comes from Morrissey. I’ve definitely spent more time listening and imitating Morrissey than I have singing ancient music. Melisma is so deep. A few years ago I actually wrote this whole essay analyzing the multiple layers of psychological/musical/poetic meaning of melisma in different contexts, not for school or anything, just completely independently for fun, but my computer was stolen from my apartment before I printed it out or backed it up, so it’s gone. Maybe one day I’ll re-write it.
How did you meet Andrew Hock and what prompted you to start a new project with him?
I met Andrew around eight years ago, when he was in high school, or maybe even younger. He’s from New York too, and he would come out to see my old band Zs. Andrew was this really young kid in the front row, heckling and cheering, and then aggressively talking to us afterwards about Cecil Taylor and Stockhausen. He definitely made an impression, but it took me several years before I ended up really checking out his music. I heard Castevet’s first record “Mounds of Ash” and I immediately became a really big fan. That music is crushing. I actually hadn’t realized at first how deeply Andrew was rooted in metal, since my first interactions with him were all more in the context of experimental music.
When I was disbanding Extra Life, Andrew had just finished college and was back in New York so we were seeing each other around more than ever. I had the idea that I wanted my next main band to be simpler and heavier than Extra Life. Not necessarily metal exactly, but heavy. Something that was less confusing and alien, but still very carefully crafted and detailed. I also knew I wanted to do something pretty collaborative. I had a feeling the chemistry with Andrew would be deep, and it was.
Where did the name Psalm Zero come from?
It just came to me. If I think about it, I guess you could say it represents both spirituality and negativity. I don’t want to over-philosophize because that can get corny fast, but to me there’s a mystical quality to depression, to a negative worldview, to pessimism, to the feeling of meaninglessness. I’m not saying that’s what I feel and think all day. I’m not preaching that negativity, as though it’s the “truth”. It’s just that there’s a deep, absolute, irreducible power in that emotional and mental void. We draw from that.
What are the themes and concepts behind ‘The Drain’ and how do they differ to those of Extra Life and Seaven Teares?
I didn’t set out to have a set lyrical concept behind “The Drain”. I wrote all the lyrics pretty intuitively. But I ended up re-using certain lines a lot and in the end a lot of it does tie together. There’s a lot about self-destructive impulses, both on an individual personal level, and on the more general level of the human race. The pull towards death and chaos. The non-sustainable logic of hedonistic pleasure, drug use, and greed. The lyrics certainly aren’t a 180 degree shift from my lyrics for Extra Life and Seaven Teares. But there are some differences. There’s no humor in these lyrics, whereas in Extra Life there was some. They’re also way less sexual, with the exception of “Chaos Body”. Also now that I think about it, these PZ lyrics are less socially-oriented than EL and ST lyrics, and in a way they’re less moral. In EL and ST lyrics, there were issues of power relations between people, and a kind of moral questioning. Most of these PZ lyrics turned out colder, more absolute.
The programmed rhythm section gives Psalm Zero an interesting and enjoyable mechanical precision. Was that always the plan or did it just happen that way?
That was one of the few deliberate pre-conceptions we had for Psalm Zero. We wanted the drums to be artificial and mechanical. It’s possible that we’ll get a live drummer in the future, but he or she will have to play in that style.
I’ve noticed references to the chaotic, consuming and indifferent quality of nature in your lyrics. Do you have an interest in natural sciences? Are you a materialist?
I’m personally not really interested in natural sciences (no disrespect meant, as I know that’s a big interest of yours). The natural sciences are about figuring out how things work. I’m more interested in alchemy, because it “didn’t work”. But yes I’m definitely into the apparent cold indifference of nature, the primal, amoral power of it. I guess there’s something anti-Humanist, or at least non-Humanist about the lyrics I’ve written for Psalm Zero. Nature is a void. People project all kinds of different things onto it. New Age self-help people worship nature, but so do a lot of Nazi black metal people. It can go either way. I guess it’s not so much that I’m into nature itself, as in trees, birds, the ocean, etc, but more that nature in general is a compelling symbol of where Man ends.
With titles like Psalm Zero, Secular Works and Easter, I’m interested to know your feelings about organised religion. Do you believe there is a supernatural dimension?
I don’t have a lot of respect for organized religion, but then again I do and say all kinds of irrational and repetitive things just to make myself feel a certain way, so who am I to judge really? Yeah there’s a supernatural dimension, magick, etc. That’s what music is to me, wielding unseen primal forces. But of course, when your average New York neo-goth starts talking all that occult shit at the bar, 99% of the time you have to roll your eyes.
Would you ever be interested in scoring a film? What genre would it be?
Absolutely! And I have the studio set-up to do it now, with a bunch of serious synths, good recording gear, and a deep library of orchestral samples. I did some work on a score for a short experimental film by Austrian video artist Ursula Mayer a couple years ago. But that was very minimalist electronic stuff, almost like just sound design, which she blended with pre-existing material, so it wasn’t really a fully original score. Yeah I’d love to do some legitimate film work. I’d be open to any genre, provided the film is good and/or pays decently.
What was the first record you ever bought as a kid?
Depeche Mode “Violator” on cassette when I was 10. To this day, that still could be a candidate for my favorite album.
‘The Drain’ is out now on Profound Lore.