One listen to San Francisco’s self-described “Shapeshifting Orchestral Rock” band Battlehooch and it’s clear they like to mix things up and have fun. Their sound is psychedelic but pop, combining typical guitar rock instrumentation with synthesizers and woodwinds. The six main members swap instruments, and occasionally perform with as many as ten players. In a word they’re “colorful.” In other words: they cite Alejandro Jodorowsky, Little Richard and Paulie Shore as their influences (“eccentric characters who are oblivious to the opinions of others“).
Even their name is colorful and humorous. What is a battlehooch? Or is a verb? BATTLEHOOCH guitarist AJ McKinley explains to The Future Heart:
“Half of our band hails from a lovely beachside community in Northern California called Half Moon Bay. The young adults of Half Moon Bay utilize a fascinating array of slang terms unique to their region of the world. Terms like: “Huffing Jih,” “Piecechow,” “Fade-a-loinz” and so forth. “Battlehooch” is one such word and it means MANY things. It is capitalized because the music is also capitalized.”
For all the mixing of sounds and styles in their music, what comes across most is their wit and whimsy.
“Humor and fun are definitely important things to us as a band and as humans/ friends/ brothers,” McKinley says. “We’ve been a band for a long while now and I think we keep it going because we are still having the best time ever when we hang out, play shows or tour. Also I like to think of our music as being “joyous” or “jubilant.” I always want people to be smiling when they are listening to our music, even when it gets crazy or moody.”
That sense of fun is in high supply on the band’s latest release, Wink, a five track EP on Chuur Records released last week. Their interpersonal dynamic also comes across: you can hear their friendship.
“It depends on the song, but most of the songs on our new EP were written using our patented “Song in a Day” method,” McKinley explains. “This entails that band passing around our instruments, coming up with random ideas and then recording them all as individual loops. Then, once we have enough little musical fragments, we start combining them into different groups and forms and try to make a song.”
Wink, the band’s third EP, is available for purchase and free stream at battlehooch.bandcamp.com. That’s in addition to three LPs: 2009’s Piecechow, 2010’s Battlehooch and last year’s Hot Lungs. The band will tour the east and west coasts to support Wink in early 2015. With recent shows opening for of Montreal and Crystal Castles, expect to hear more about them in the new year. “It was great seeing the master in action,” AJ says of Kevin Barnes. “It was inspiring seeing someone twenty years deep into a career making wild rock music that is STILL KILLING IT and still bringing out the crowds. That’s the stuff that keeps ya going…”
BATTLEHOOCH gets grouped with the so-called “psych renaissance” of recent years and artists associated with the spike of great records of that sort leading the public’s revived interest in the style. “A lot of bands – Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Foxygen, Tame Impala, Ariel Pink, etc. – do seem to have in common both a dedication to Classic Psychedelic Rock and a very contemporary approach to songwriting and production,” AJ notes. “I definitely think Battlehooch fits rather nicely into that scene. We certainly want to trip you out.”
“I’d say it’s fair to call us psychedelic,” AJ elaborates. “To me, it is a wide ranging terms that doesn’t just mean ’60s acid rock. I think it represents music that places texture at the forefront of the sonic experience. It is music that is sumptuously vivid and expansive. It’s also music that isn’t afraid to be dense and at times overwhelming.”
The term the band most frequently uses to describe themselves isn’t “psychedelic” though, it’s “Shapeshifting Orchestral Rock.” When asked to clarify, McKinley breaks down the phrase word by word:
“Shapeshifting: Constantly mutating. In a perpetual state of development.
Orchestral: Creating a wide array of textures and dynamics through the orchestration of different instruments/sounds.
Rock: Songs/storytelling with a strong beat.
I like to think of songs as being “air sculptures” but I don’t think that my perception of them as a shape effects that way a piece develops.”
On paper – or screen – this may seem abstract. Listen to Wink however and it will make sense. There’s a tendency for instruments (often woodwinds) to appear unexpectedly. A flute takes the lead three-fourths into “Carry Me Upstream” for instance; or the sax in “Taking Kate for a Drive.” As it turns out, this is partly a result of how Wink was created:
“Most of the songs on Wink were assembled out of various recordings of musical fragments,” AJ explains. “As we recorded these ideas, we’d constantly be shuffling around who was playing what instrument. Although we were constantly swapping instruments, we never strayed from the basic instruments for our band: synth, bass, guitar, drums, horns, vocals. Therefore, no matter how weird the song gets, it can still be played by our band. Once the song is finally put together, we just distribute out the parts accordingly to whomever normally plays that instrument.”
This creative approach gels well with the curate climate of how music is distributed and discovered. In McKinley’s view “Music has been liberated! Music discovery is easier and more far reaching than ever.” Speaking specifically about streaming sites like Spotify he says “this is a beautiful and exciting thing. Sure it sucks that it isn’t as easy to make money, but I think that we are in the earliest stages of an entirely new paradigm for music in culture. Big changes and shifts are on the horizon….”
Which brings us back to Pee-wee and Conky’s word of the day: “shapeshifting.”