Over the past two decades, San Diego has unexpectedly become fertile ground for a particularly fertile brand of heavy psychedelic rock. Bands such as Earthless and Astra helped spark a small but prolific movement that saw the county turn into a lava-laden haunt of guitar freakouts and organ solos reminiscent of vintage bands from the 60s and 70s. like Blue Cheer and Ash Ra Tempel. At least that’s what it might have looked like on the outside, especially in Europe where many of the city’s up-and-coming psy artists toured frequently.
Conor Riley—guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist in Birthand former member of Astra – does not dispute the characterization of the creative fertility of the scene, but notes that it was ultimately a small group of musicians, who all play in each other’s bands, who ultimately drove this movement underground music.
“You go to Europe and say you’re from San Diego, and people think it’s Mecca, like there’s hundreds of people playing heavy psych. But it’s really the same 20 people who are in different groups,” he says. “Burns [Festival] had a takeover of San Diego, and they only had to bring in 10 people who were in 10 different incarnations of bands. When it started, Earthless and Astra were both touring pretty well in Europe. So I think we kind of made our presence there known – kind of primed the pump.
For example, Riley Birth’s new band, which at first glance looks a bit like a San Diego psych supergroup. The band includes Riley’s Astra bandmate Brian Ellis, bassist Trevor Mast of Joy and Psicomagia (which also included Ellis), and drummer Thomas DiBenedetto of Sacri Monti. And, indeed, the swirling vocals and effects strips on the band’s just-released debut album. Born presents the kind of cosmic journey that four seasoned veterans can conjure up when they walk into the same room together. Although the magic of travel wasn’t necessarily their first priority, Riley clarifies that her goal was to create a pop record.
“After playing in Astra for a long time, we were going on tour and I was just listening to pop music because I was so sick of prog and heavy psych, just living and breathing for so long,” he says. “So I kind of wanted to start a project that was a little more pop. Like a singer/songwriter that was a little more palatable, not ultra-technical prog. That’s how it started in the beginning, but as and as it evolved, it was coming back in the heavy psych direction. Most of my record collection is just a bunch of that stuff. I don’t think it was ever really intended that way, just kinda how it goes.
Riley and company may be creating the kind of pop record that existed in the age of gatefold vinyl and hi-fi as the focal point of your living room. After The dark side of the moon than Dua Lipa. Which is a bit curious considering it’s a sound that flourished long before any of the Birth members were born (no pun intended). Although he achieved it a few years later, for Riley, at least, it’s a sound that never really goes out of style.
“My parents were more hippies and played 70s stuff,” he says. “I really like the warm sound of analog recording. I think the 70s were a special time in music. It’s still one of the most prevalent forms of music you hear in music today. We’re not the only ones trying to recreate the sounds of the 70s or 80s. It’s all over the place. And there’s a good reason for that: it’s timeless.
Birth Show at Booze Brothers Brewing on Friday, July 22