Long known as a power pop town, Milwaukee has often forsaken its burgeoning psychedelic music scene in favor of more accessible sonic pursuits. Over the last five years, however, musician Andrew Shelp (of Moss Folk and Dancing Silks) sought to buck that trend, and it seems to be working. His annual Milwaukee Psych Fest has compiled the city’s psychedelic music scene and brought in national touring musicians like Loop, The Blind Shake and Retribution Gospel Choir. The festival has become one of the more reliable and unique yearly musical gatherings, hosting strange and forward-thinking bands that probably would never find their way to another city festival bill.
The fifth anniversary of the festival takes place this weekend, starting Thursday, May 11 at Boone & Crockett, continuing at Cactus Club on Friday, May 12 and finishing up with a full day of performances at Company Brewing on Saturday, May 13. In advance of this weekend’s festivities, Milwaukee Record caught up with Shelp to discuss the city’s psychedelic scene, common presumptions about the genre, and the future of Milwaukee Psych Fest.
Milwaukee Record: Congratulations on five years of Milwaukee Psych Fest. Have you seen the local psych community change since you’ve started the festival? If so, in what ways?
Andrew Shelp: Thank you! What a long, strange trip it’s been! I’ve definitely seen the local psych community grow but I can’t take credit for that. It’s a very popular and definitely overused genre term right now. Psych music is a very popular thing to be into these days, and that’s totally fine with me.
MR: As a musician, listener, and festival curator, what draws you to psychedelic music?
AS: Well, I don’t know if a lot of the music I listen to would be considered psychedelic by a lot of other folks. I listen to a lot of Eastern drone and international/world music. I find it meditative and ethereal and that space alone makes it psychedelic to me. If I let my mind wander, it goes to pretty far out places. I mean, a nice fuzz guitar riff or some trippy delayed arpeggiations will get you somewhere too but, yeah!
The two most ethereal and beautiful instruments to me are the pedal steel and the sitar. Psychedelic music often incorporates both of those instruments and sometimes simultaneously. Country, folk, blues, funk, hip hop, world, krautrock, punk, electronic, each one of those genres has the capability to dive into the rabbit hole of psychedelia. And they often do—just gotta know where to look!
MR: Are there any new releases you’re digging right now?
AS: Kikagaku Moyo is the best band on the planet. Anything they do is platinum. House In the Tall Grass is like an old Magical Power Mako record. It’s krautrock, Japanese folk and experimental. It’s amazing! Same with Psychic Ills; their album Inner Journey Out changed my life—not kidding. Holy Wave’s Freaks Of Nurture, the new Ryley Walker, Six Organs of Admittance and Mind Over Mirrors records are phenomenal. They are all taking it to another level right now but Mind Over Mirrors with the addition of Jon Mueller—wow!
MR: What’s a preconception that most people have towards the genre?
AS: Drug usage. For sure, it’s synonymous with it, but the reality is most of us playing the style of music don’t even use drugs—unless you consider marijuana a drug. Then yes, we use drugs…
MR: In years past, Cactus Club hosted each day of Psych Fest. This year there are shows at Boone & Crockett and Company Brewing in addition to Cactus Club. What brought about that change in venue?
AS: Working [at Cactus Club] just made it so easy, so I did it that way, but it was never meant to be solely at one venue the entire duration of the festival. It’s a community-based festival. It needs to be everywhere and it needs to be outside. I’m finally touching on some of my original conceptual ideas for it this year. Hopefully next year, if there is a next year, we’ll see more of those ideas come to fruition.
MR: As well as showcasing local musicians, you also bring in quite a few touring bands. Is it a struggle to coordinate dates with these out-of-town groups?
AS: Short answer: Yes.
MR: Is there a set you’re most looking forward to this year?
AS: Kikagaku Moyo, for sure. They are literally the best band in the world.
MR: What’s the future of the festival? Do you foresee five more years?
AS: As long as people continue to stay interested in what the festival has to offer and continue to come out for it, I’ll keep doing it. I don’t have money and I literally could not do this without the help of the sponsors, a bunch of friends and the attendees. I’m definitely not a promoter, and I am definitely not looking to make a quick buck with this.
It’s a labor of love—a lot of labor and a lot of love. I’m a musician and an artist trying to bring some of my amazingly talented friends that I’ve made out on the road while touring with my bands (Moss Folk and Dancing Silks) through the city that I live in and love. I’m trying to show you all the awesome things that I get to see every time we go out on the road. So, we will see. We will see…
Milwaukee Psych Fest runs from Thursday, May 11 to Saturday, May 13. A full schedule of events is available here. Tickets range from $10-$25 each day. Full weekend passes are available for $40.