The word Psychopompos is from ancient Greece and means “soul guide” – the leader of souls into the afterlife. Hank Sullivant says his new album, Psychopomp, is a combination of his band Kuroma’s two previous projects. After the ’60s psych-inspired Paris and a pop-exploiting singles project, “Get The Gunz” and “In New York, Everything Is Tropical,” (the latter was released on Mountain Dew’s Green Label Sound), Psychopomp is a more soulful statement. It’s an album of intensity, with beautiful pop songs that don’t reveal themselves easily.
Sullivant’s story has been told often enough. He played bass in Athens’ rockers The Whigs, then left to play guitar with MGMT, then left to pursue his own project, Kuroma. But even with such a colorful resume, Psychopomp has seemed to fly mostly under the radar. It was released quietly on iTunes, with no traditional label backing, before the band set out on a winter 2010 tour supporting MGMT. And it just may end up a lost nugget of our era.
The album doesn’t fit neatly anywhere. Whereas Paris was a pastoral slice of classic rock goodness, Psychopomp picks up elements of pop music but also contains Sullivant’s personal thoughts and depicts images from dreams. “I’m just hanging out being myself, And I’m running around in alabaster boots, Telling people I’m sticking with my roots but I know, It’s not working,” he sings on “Running People.”
Sullivant’s ideas about music and art are complex. He admits there are many opportunities to contradict oneself when trying to talk about music. “The truth is, it’s all those things at once,” he says candidly after we survey a range of artistic ideas together.
Last October at Asheville, North Carolina’s MoogFest, we sat down with Sullivant and talked about his past projects, current influences, and how Psychopomp fits into the Kuroma matrix.
What specifically inspired Paris?
It comes from a few certain compilations. Love, Peace & Poetry is a series that features psychedelic music from the late ’60s from different parts of the world. So it will be like Asian psychedelic, or South African psychedelic, or Russian psychedelic. Just the fact that that music was even happening then, in these places at the same time, blew me away. And from that you have this immediate outsider take on Western music – with a tiny twist. It’s really far out when you hear a lot of familiarities of this same era of music that you’ve always loved, but now it’s more dream-state. Like in dreams when you’re like, “I was in Memphis, but it wasn’t Memphis. I was walking around with my friends, but it was my parents.” It’s like when things start messing with you like that.
“In New York, Everything Is Tropical” was sort of a reaction to commercial music?
I got the idea to do violent commercial music. I got the notion that what if you made this kind of commercial music but you made it with a psychotic twitch, you delivered it in a way that was familiar, but that hurt like a knife. “You asked me to vomit on you, didn’t you?” I wanted to make an album that was really aggressive like that. The recording of that was as robotically Pro Tools [as I could make it]. Choppy edits. Paris came out in a faceless way and then putting “New York” out [on Green Label Sound] was the perfect avenue. Once it came out, it was immediately confusing for people. “We don’t understand what this guy’s about. We thought that they were a classic rock band.” But it’s all the better because it’s like, “No you don’t understand what Kuroma is about.” We aren’t just going to make hazy psychedelic albums. It’s this embracing this twisting and obscuring.
And so how did you decide what Psychopomp would be like after Paris and the singles?
It’s hard to decide what you want it to end up sounding like. I’ve never written a song from that angle. It’s never written with these sounds in mind. At one point, people started giving me feedback like, “We miss the Paris sound.” At one point I wanted to [record] in Memphis and do a real natural sounding album. But there’s too many things I’ve been listening to over the last couple years. Like Psychic TV is a big one. The album Godstar. It’s Genesis P-Orridge’s band in the ‘80s, who founded Throbbing Gristle. Then he went off and did Psychic TV which is insane music and changes from album to album. This album no one knows about really. It came out in ‘85. There’s one hit from it, “Godstar.” There’s six or seven “Godstar”s on the album. It’s a conceptual album about Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones. It’s got this deep ‘80s sound. You hear it and it’s like the best parts of the ‘80s just wash over you, but in the most crazy, psychedelic, demented way. It could almost be labeled experimental music because of how high the frequency is on the total mix. Like in some machine music where they do that high frequency, that kind of white noise stream. It’s like the whole mix has that. Lucid, way too bright.
Where does Psychopomp fit in with the other projects?
The only real conceptual music I’ve done were “Gunz” and “New York” and those are soulless ideas. The idea of it was to collect so much trash and put it together and leave people feeling empty. But I really like those songs and people really like those songs, so I’m not dismissing them. But I think Psychopomp is definitely the most soulful thing that we’ve done. There’s a lot of accumulation of ideas and influences. But the arranging of the music and the way it was written and the way the vocals are performed all seems much more felt and also something that is meant for people. I wanted to make something very musical for people to embrace. I think that’s a good way to make music. Once you feel confident enough in your own style that now you want to bring people into it. I like how some of the biggest songwriters and artists of all time made the best music for people.