Story by Michael McGregor
Photography by John Francis Peters
It all began at Santos Party House, a tricked out Honda Civic of a venue owned by Andrew W.K. and located in the heart of the downtown bottle service scene. Though nine-dollar drinks are common, mescaline ballads are not. Mostly glitz, bass and neon, Santos isn’t Ganglians’ home in any sense of the word. But apparently no one told Ryan Grubbs that. “We’re back… from the beyond,” the leader/frontman of the Ganglians race proclaimed before launching into a relentless set of Kesey-infused MC5 jams.
With allusions to shamans, vision quests and ancient civilizations, Ganglians are hopelessly psychedelic. Bound by neither time, place, nor state-of-mind, this band of ruffians came together by chance. Grubbs, a Montana native who headed to Sacramento after a trip with his grandfather, would often hear local natives Adrian Comenzind and Alex Sowles jamming from the attic of an old house on late night strolls through the city. Once Grubbs—who by happenstance had previously met Comenzind—found out who was sound-tracking his late night jaunts, the three began to jam together. The seeds that would become the band’s scattershot debut 12-inch were sown.
While much of their debut was engulfed in bong hits, propeller-head rhythms and damaged tape hiss, songs like “Stuck Under Town,” “Radically Inept Candy Girl” and “The Void” provided a glimpse of the band’s more melodic side, foreshadowing the majestic nature of Monster Head Room, on which both re-imagined versions of “Candy Girl” and “The Void” appear. Recorded in what must have been a deep, dark cavern, Monster Head Room, in many ways, finds Ganglians seeing the light for the first time. Moving away from the breakneck freak-outs of their debut, the album is metaphysically linked to Mesa Verde, and, depending on what you’ve ingested, it can often sound like waking up in those ancient cliff dwellings would feel. Harmonic cooing, layered found sounds, hypnotic axe wielding, patchouli mists— all the trappings of classic Californian drug folk are locked within. If limited to copious drug references and digital soundscapes, Monster Head Room would succumb to its own cliché. It doesn’t.
And such is the conundrum of a mystic psych act from Northern California arriving in the media capital of the world for a weekends worth of shows with So Cal punk brat Wavves. On stage, the ruffians stepped away from the crystalline jangle of Monster Head Room, choosing to rival Wavves ADHD output with equally turbulent if not more muscular fare like new single “Blood on the Sand,” as well as “My House,” a new tune written just before tour. Teenage Wavves fans didn’t seem to know how to react— moshing and flailing as though Ganglians’ was just another Wavves set. One sarcastic young’n even yelled “Hey Dave Pirner, play ‘Runaway Train.’” Instead, Ganglians conjured fits with “OMG, this shit is coming on strong” songs like “Rats Man.”
Twenty-four hours later, Ganglians are elsewhere again: the Market Hotel, Bushwick’s finest sweat box. Jeremy Earl, singer for Woods and founder of label Woodsist, brings Ryan Grubbs pre-show tacos from the Taco Truck. Amidst massive bites of chicken and guacamole, conversation inevitably veers toward drugs and production ramblings. “The 12” we just really wanted to get out there,” Grubbs says. “It’s raw, and we like it like that. I don’t want to say the songs were hurried, but we let them take hold naturally. We just wrote them, recorded them and that was that. But with Monster Head Room, we really wanted to take our time, let things breathe, play with some different production techniques and really hone the record. We wanted to make an old school, stoner headphone album.”
From first listen, it’s clear Ganglians took the time to nurture Monster Head Room, laying enough lysergic energy to tape to fuel a thousand trips into the nether-world. The production, while exquisite, is not overbearing, giving the record a subtle psychedelic quality that resonates as much with kids experimenting with robo-trippin’, as it does with their parents remembering fond days smoking grass in an imagined Golden Gate Park. Rarely does it overpower the listener, and when it does, it’s serene, as in outro of “The Void” that guides the listener into “To June.”
“The Void,” a droning ballad featured on both the band’s Woodsist 12” and Monster Head Room, best exemplifies that ambiance: a bedroom trip, the heat of a lava lamp left on for days, the fluorescent sheen of a black light making rose bud wallpaper bleed more like geometric fractals than the watercolors they are. “We really wanted to flesh ‘The Void’ out for Monster Head Room,” Grubbs explains. “The version on the 12″ is pretty fucking psychedelic, but we knew we could experiment with it, really take it out there, so we worked long and hard at fleshing it out the way we knew it could sound because, well, it’s an acid song.” No question “The Void,” a hallucinatory ballad with allusions to worlds inside worlds, goes out there. But it also refers to tripping on DMT, or Dimethyltryptamine, a natural drug produced by the human body, and incidentally, what some consider the most potent known psychedelic.
“I’ve never done DMT before, but I want to,” says Grubbs, whose affinity for psychedelics is way beyond that of an experimenting philosophy major. In fact, it’s almost scholarly, as he talks pressed pills and blotter tabs like an appraiser on Antique Road Show, noting the similarities and subtleties of trips, the voices, figures and motives associated with the other dimension as if they were a master carpenter’s etchings on a red oak chest from the Victorian era. “When I wrote “The Void” I was literally seeing furry trolls in the bushes,” he remembers. “I would look out, and I could see their eyes peering out from in between the brush. I was roaming around and I could sense and see these tiny worlds secretly dwelling in front of me, behind rocks, in bushes. I felt like I was always being followed by the unknown, while peeking into the unknown, a world that I didn’t know existed, or doesn’t exist. The whole experience literally took me some other world, some sort of void. I really wanted to try and recreate that world.”
Clocked at four and a half minutes, “The Void” is not just the centerpiece of Monster Head Room but a treasure map to the unknown. Explorers, Ganglians exude an openness often associated with freewheeling religious zealots and missionaries. They are preachers, but their doctrine is more the distilled essence of the Acid Tests than that of divide-and-conquer. Simply to exist and express, the band acknowledge both darkness and light, while leaving both to the wayside, giving credence only to the molecules that form our existence. It’s a bit heady, yes, but so is their mantra, a manifesto scrawled on the scroll that is their MySpace: “The whole of the Ganglian race. The squirrels in the walls that bounce acorns across the ceiling in the dead of night. NONE OF THIS SHOULD WORK BUT IT DOES!!!”