The slow death of guitar-based music is a narrative that keeps coming up. Guitar sales are in decline. Rock music—in the general sense—is nowhere near as popular as it once was. And mainstream pop? Forget about it. The only things you'll find on the charts that employ guitars are Ed Sheeran and a handful of country-lite artists.
That's not to say the alternatives are all bad. But guitars sure are cool. So are saccharine-laced hooks. And silky vocal harmonies. Portland's Leading Psychics deliver all of this unabashedly on their forthcoming debut What About Lonely? (via This-A-Way Records). The record is seemingly at odds with the members’ punk roots.
“When we started the Psychics, it was based on the notion of indulgence—layers galore, harmonies—things that aren't always so punk, but felt so good,” explains guitarist/vocalist (and co-founder) David Frederickson, who also formed one of Portland's longest running bands, the Prids, with Mistina La Fave back in the mid-'90s.
We're sitting in a booth at My Father's Place alongside guitarist/vocalist, and fellow Psychics co-founder, Christian Hurd, a longtime fixture who also played in Portland's Lookbook. Much like the drinking establishment itself, Hurd and Frederickson go way back. Over time, they've developed a deep trust of each other's musical proclivities.
“We wanted to not have any rules. Not tell each other no,” Hurd says. “We both had pop fantasies happening in our heads—writing songs that would have a broader appeal, things that we were excited about. But we'd never really been in bands that did that kind of music.”
Frederickson and Hurd admit there's an element of nostalgia drawing them toward this lawless pop utopia—the songs they listened to on the radio in their formative years that continue to get played today (both are cab drivers). And although you can hear their influences on What About Lonely?—the Everly Brothers, ELO, Nick Lowe—they blend them brilliantly.
Take the title track, a song Frederickson actually wrote for the last Prids' record, but was ultimately rejected for, perhaps, being too catchy. “What About Lonely?” is almost cavity-inducing, with doo-wop backing vocals punching through layers of new wave guitars. It’s an instant earworm, and the song that assured Hurd and Frederickson that they were on to something. From the surf-y “I Once Was in Love” to the power pop of “Dum Dum,” the entire record is a love letter to mid-to-late 20th century radio, back when pop music was ubiquitous but mysterious. The songs may sound sweet, but they’re ultimately about despair.
“We're definitely embracing the schmaltz,” says Hurd. “But the lyrical content from the both of us—without even having any rules attached to what kind of songs we were going to do—ended up going straight to the melancholy, and a lot of dark places.”
Opener “Last Wave” immediately sets the tone: “I'm on a suicide drive off the high dive/I know the fastest way, but I like the ride.” The rest of What About Lonely? follows suit: death, deteriorating love, insecurity—you know, all the things that make great art.
Frederickson and Hurd worked on these songs together for years, but it's only recently that Leading Psychics started to gain momentum. Now they're an airtight five-piece that includes bassist Adam Jones, keyboardist Luke Matter, and drummer Jody Redifer. All contribute to the Psychics' lush vocal harmonies.
While the songs themselves imbue a certain sheen, Hurd and Frederickson didn't stop there, bringing in Portland engineer/musician Ian Mackintosh to mix What About Lonely? It’s something that initially gave them a bit of trepidation (“a third person that wants to indulge,” Frederickson scoffs). The result is a record with nary a hair out of place, but that still welcomes an occasional gust of wind.
Frederickson and Hurd are thrilled with the results, although they say some of their peers are still a little wary of the meticulousness of the new record. Hurd jokes, “It's either going to be the swingin'est thing we've ever done, or a massive failure.”
Whether or not What About Lonely? connects with listeners, Frederickson and Hurd agree it’s a true creative victory for them. “There was a time when I probably considered Leading Psychics more of a side project,” says Frederickson. “But when we started having a band, and you’re rehearsing every week, and you’re making a record, it’s not a side project—it is a part of your life. I’m very proud of this record. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”