Psychedelic soul: Let the phrase sink in. It's a postulated genre, a pipe dream of '70s record collectors, implying the bringing together of the heaviest elements of white and black music -- the ultimate marriage of both head and body music. It's perhaps the holy grail of the outer fringes of pop; a secret knowledge or spiritual practice rather than a particular way of playing or writing songs. Psychedelic soul suggests something that changes you at the root of who you are. It's not surprising, then, that those who have attempted to master it have had their careers sufficiently derailed in the process.
Stevie Wonder probably had the longest go at it, but he's remembered more for "I Just Called to Say I Love You" than Innervisions, and today he's basically an artistic nonfactor. Hendrix got there on Electric Ladyland -- and was dead two years later. Shuggie Otis released maybe the most realized psychedelic soul album -- Inspiration Information (finally unearthed on reissue this year) before falling into 25 years of obscurity and "personal problems." Gram Parsons, known for establishing the similar but whiter California soul thing, overdosed at 27; Prince is now a Jehovah's Witness performing warmed-over greatest-hits medleys; and did anyone notice that Al Green had a record that came out this year?
Despite all this, Etienne de Rocher wants a piece of this discouraging tradition. Not the losing-his-shit part, of course -- de Rocher wants to put out a great psychedelic soul album, one that will change people and make them wish there were more records like it. But it's coming none too easy for him either. He's been saying the album will be ready "in three months" for a few years now, and he's beginning to understand what's so hard about accurately capturing this elusive sound.
"Bands have become more and more niche," he says from his apartment near the lake in Oakland. "What I'm trying to do is more ambitious than that, so arranging the different qualities I want takes a lot of time. I end up having to look toward people like David Bowie or the Stones -- folks who were really into soul music, but had to do their trippy white thing on top of that -- because for me to make an honest record, it's going to have to be both of those things. I could probably be more successful if I were to try to be the funky whiteboy, or the folk indie guy, but I don't really want either of those. I want to do the thing in the middle, which is some wacky but meaningful pop thing."
For his part, de Rocher resembles neither the blue-eyed soul brother nor the spaced-out Telegraph tripper. In his snug jeans, faded denim button-down opened to reveal a T-shirt advertising a tool company ("Do It with Skil") and mid-length black hair, he looks more like Schneider from One Day at a Time (and he's his apartment building's "super" to boot). But he's just as comfortable discussing the appeal of the Luniz, Master P, and TLC as that of Nick Drake and Radiohead. His form of cultural duality began in his high school years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he listened to the Police, Pink Floyd, and the Clash by day and tuned in to a black radio station at night that played R&B and some early Eric B. & Rakim.
"Liking black music when you were white wasn't that cool where I grew up," he says. "So when I came out to go to college at Berkeley, hearing people playing NWA and Public Enemy in the dorm gave me the excuse I needed. After that, all I listened to for years was hip-hop, especially all the golden era Native Tongues stuff."
He put some beats together on a sampler but couldn't find any rappers to compliment them, so he semi-reluctantly began singing over them himself. His tastes broadened around this time to include an English songwriting tradition "that was forced upon me by all my friends who were record collectors and hipsters." The Lazy Bones 7-inch EP that followed was an unlikely mash-up of middle-years Beatles vocal styles, fuzzed-out guitars, weirdo bleeps, and swirling beats.
As it turned out, Lazy Bones brought on the humongous major-label offer that de Rocher is now infamous for turning down. By rejecting it, though, he says he wasn't exactly planting the "no sell out" flag. "I wasn't being defiant, necessarily," he says, "I was being sensible with my artistry. My manager said it was not the best business deal you could get, but that by itself would not have decided it for me, because I really wanted to make records professionally. It was really that I felt they were going to put me into this machine, and I didn't know what kind of weird sausage was going to come out."
Instead, he dug in for the longer haul: He put together a band, mothballed the sampler, and generally got more singer/songwriter-y. Etienne de Rocher and band recorded the self-pressed Sipsey Cane LP and gigged weekly at Café du Nord (which he pronounces with a hard "ord," in case you were wondering how French he is -- he calls himself "Franco-American," but his name is his only noticeably Continental attribute). Live drums and clean guitar sounds dominated this period, and his shows earned a reputation as some of the Bay's premier "sit and listen" experiences.
Of this time, de Rocher says he was "getting folk-rocked out. I went on this tangent, which was good at the time since I was playing at the du Nord a lot, but my good old homeboy stuff was put to the side. I got away from the DJ origins of what I was doing."
He then crossed paths with Dan Prothero, another former beatsmith who had gone in more organic directions after hitting a creative wall with his early hip-hop production work. Prothero had founded his live funk and jam-band label Fog City after he began feeling hemmed in by the strict requirements demanded of the breakbeat records he was making for Ubiquity. He too had distanced himself from the sampler in search of the more fluid grooves provided by human drummers.
"He got kind of burnt on making funk-band records and wanted to work with a songwriter and make a Beatles record," de Rocher explains. Together they seem to be two peas in a pod -- white dudes living meagerly in order to make uncompromising music with African-American roots. Prothero became de Rocher's first producer, and the two have been recording new tunes for the past few months. Their work so far combines a bit of the sequenced feeling from Lazy Bones (they're using the same archaic Rhythm Ace drum machine that Shuggie Otis used on his classic record) with the acoustic guitars and whimsical lyrics from Sipsey Cane, but updates both with more ambitious, multi-part songwriting.
"I tend to lean on the drum machine more, and he wants to get me with musicians more," says de Rocher. "In the end, we get the best of both worlds, I think. Most of the stuff we've been doing is just me and him and occasionally a guest musician, which gives it a sort of Prince-y artificiality."
The centerpiece of this recent phase is "Ghetto Zen Master," a rather odd epic inspired by overheard homeless-person wisdom, complete with string section, thumping handclap and footstomp percussion, and backwards guitar. It's definitely psychedelic and soulful in an unorthodox way, but it's not psychedelic soul in the '70s throwback sense. Another song has de Rocher full of early morning wonder, à la Donovan in his best years, all built around a shuffling breakbeat loop popularized by Biz Markie's "Make the Music with Your Mouth." Do these new songs qualify as full-blown pop? Hard to say--the material does touch on an extremely long list of cultural references, but it doesn't pull out all the stops like crossover soul acts Beck or Lenny Kravitz either.
"I think the sound we've found is something that's real weird and subversive in some ways, yet totally down-home and traditional in other ways," says Prothero. "We both want to make some recordings that make people pull over their cars and say, 'Who the hell is that?'"
De Rocher says he's still seeking a proper record deal, but not at the expense of becoming that "weird sausage" the big boys seem intent on grinding him into. When asked what he imagines his career might look like if he had signed one of the contracts put before him, he looks genuinely stumped. "Man, I really can't picture it. I might have moved down to LA and fallen in with the cool singer-songwriter scene there, but whatever it may have been, it doesn't sound nearly as cool as staying up here and making 'Ghetto Zen Master' with Dan. That kind of shit wouldn't have happened."
For now, de Rocher states that he's grateful he found a side gig to keep him in food and shelter -- namely, the handyman job -- so he could lay low while waiting out the Great White Hope billing he's received. "That's been hanging around me so long," he remarks. "I'm flattered by the attention, but I've set a task for myself, and it's different than that -- ultimately if I succeed at it, I will be able to provide the music that's missing in a lot of people's lives, including my own. I guess I'm trying to make the music that's not really there."
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