A whole half century has passed since the initial waves of what we know today as “psychedelia” rolled into the world, shrouded in thick smoke, smelling like patchouli, and decked out in such garish patterns that if your pupils weren’t already dilated, they soon would be. Back in the ’60s, this strange new amorphous movement brought about a subculture of art, design, music, performance, and lifestyle more widely; largely defined by its penchant for hanging around outside of the mainstream, kicking off against “the man” and being generally too cool, too louche and probably a little too stoned.
Like anything that appeals to young, hip, beautiful people, psychedelia quickly caught the eye of canny marketing types (yes, even back then); and was soon being used to sell back things that were very much within the system to those who so desperately wanted out of it. Yet true psych has never died: little facets of weirdness will always be there whether in music or in design, and that’s something few understand better than Paul Major.
Major’s bonkers career began in his birthplace of Louisville, Kentucky, where he discovered his formative love of record collecting at 12 years old, and played in bands before moving to New York in the 1970s. There, he found he could actually earn a living from his knack of finding utterly peculiar (and to many, utterly brilliant) records and selling them to a worldwide community using charming hand-drawn catalogs. For the past 20 years, he’s played with his band Endless Boogie (who often play with Stephen Malkmus, for any drooling Pavement fans like myself) and also does A&R for Matador Records. The geek, it seems, really does inherit the earth.
To celebrate this lifetime of devotion to the strange and the psych-leaning, a new book has just been published by Anthology Editions called Feel the Music: The Psychedelic Worlds of Paul Major, which brings together the wealth of incredible sleeve designs, catalogs, photographs, posters, flyers, and everything else that’s been found along the way in Major’s career. Thanks to creative director Johan Kugelberg, art director Bryan Cipolla, and designer Mark Iosifescu it looks as great as it sounds. The cover illustration is from “some obscure coffee house folk album from Connecticut,” Major explains. “It had a plain white sleeve with a sheet of paper glued onto it that was falling off, and the record had a ridiculously terrible version of that Van Morrison song, “Moondance”, on it. The record was not good but the cover was.”
We had a chat with him about the process of putting the book together, how he knows a record is weird enough for him, and understanding the visual signifiers of psychedelia.
Tell us a bit more about how you first got into record collecting.
Ever since I was a kid around 12 years old I was crazy about fuzz guitar and psychedelic rock. Rather than buying famous records I was looking for things that would fit that bill, or the failures rather than popular music, because they were cheaper. If I saw a record which had a song called “Mind Flowers” that’s ten minutes long, I’d know that would be the sort of thing for me.
I started a band called the Moldy Dogs in Louisville Kentucky, and we came to New York and I found out some of the people wanted the kind of records I’d been into. I sort of thought I was the only person who wanted those obscure records and it turned into a kid in a candy store situation: I could go to Manhattan and find things in the bargain bin that they thought were garbage and sell them on—I thought, “this would be better than having a job!”
Then the catalogs came out and there was this sort of secret society. I connected with other people and they got around the world.
Were there any particular records you came across that made a big impact on you early on?
When I moved to New York in 1977 a local guy called Kenneth Higney made this demo record called Attic Demonstration that was just mind expanding! Things on there that other people would see as going wrong just made it feel like it was communicating even better for me. It’s unfiltered and when I met the person behind it I realized that there’s lots of these sort of people who were just taking influences that turned them on and coming up with something magical. It made me feel like I’m inside these people’s brains.
When I heard that, everything else fell into place. It opened my mind to how people are out there making every style of music. I guess some people would link it to “outsider” art but to me it’s just “real person” music—it’s not watered down, it’s pure.
There’s something lovely in art that’s made from such an earnest and strange place.
It’s an honest expression from a human being, untainted and unpolluted by too much knowledge. I love if there’s an isolated guy who maybe managed to come across some musical instruments and really likes “I Am the Walrus” and his friends think he’s crazy. To hear good music and find this diamond that’s never been polished… I can’t grasp how much that must affect your mind.
How did you work on putting everything together for the final book?
Fortunately up until the mid ’90s I’d kept a scrapbook, even when I had times thinking I should trash everything, but anything might trigger a memory. The others rounded up all the catalogs, even the ones I didn’t have, and hit up a few other people to write other parts of the book.
Then with the record sleeves I sat down with a couple of people and they just flashed the images up on the screen to get my immediate comments, otherwise I would have thought about it way too much. That way, it was sort of unfiltered, and dovetails with the way I like to find strange pressings that are unfiltered by the music business, for better or worse.
I get so excited when someone has limited skill but a great personality, and no one like a record label around them saying ‘this is too crazy.’
That’s what’s so great about the catalog designs—they were obviously super successful in what they did but look amazingly DIY. Did you make them all yourself? How did you go about it?
Each time I was making one I would draw a bunch of stuff myself and look through the album covers I had, then make a bunch of xeroxes of them. So it’s a mix of my own stuff then things sort of pasted on them. People would often tell me it was like a fanzine as much as a catalog.
I love the reviews you write in there too, they’re so personal and poetic.
I suppose that all came from me sitting there with a record and thinking, “Okay, I’m the first person with the ears to pick this out.” I’d just let them take me off on a little magic carpet ride, and think about how it made me feel; maybe I’d make up little story about it. It was a very free situation—when I’d get excited I’d have some fun with it.
Something that I find so interesting is that “psychedelic” has become such a universal shorthand for a whole bunch of things that are actually quite hard to pin down. How would you describe what a psychedelic aesthetic is?
One of the things is when there are some images that shouldn’t really belong together, like a picture of a tree with a bunch of human heads in it. There’s also odd lettering, and there are certain fonts you see with a weird vibe.
It definitely started with that psychedelic mind expansion thing, when all the famous bands were using that psychedelic crazy art. Then record companies were beginning to put things out with nothing to do with psychedelia, the same way soda companies and ads on TV all went “psychedelic.”
So once psych was being appropriated by more corporate things, what sort of designs would make you interested in a record?
One of the things I look for is if the person who made the record also designed the sleeve: sometimes they would just have pictures of their children on the back of the cover, and if they didn’t have a typewriter they would do it by hand, complete with the words spelled wrong—“base” instead of “bass,” that kind of thing.
I noticed the designs were becoming more and more primitive looking, you’d see things like a plain white sleeve where someone just pasted their own cover on. I’d be looking for clues; the least fancy product possible, like someone had just made it in the basement. Sometimes those things would just be like “ugh, whatever” and sometimes there would be things where I’d have to pinch myself: “have I really lost my mind and gone to another dimension, or does this record really sound like that?”
Psych seems to be something that always comes back around, albeit in different guises; what do you think it is about that music and aesthetic that makes it so enduring?
I think it’s do with the fact it was sort of like a whole social type thing, and a counterculture. Back in the day it was young people creating communities and good music sort of happened because people were opening up and experimenting and expanding their minds. Then things like Garage came about through that sense of energy and fun and excitement. That goes into fashion and design and politics and everything really, because it’s a freeing sort of thing. When you first hear stuff like that it’s like a leap from a different dimension. When I first heard “Purple Haze” it was like flying saucers landing from another planet.