Celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Mystery Hotel” and way beyond 35 years as an artist, Darrin Huss of Canadian “poppy” darkwavers Psyche summarizes a long-lasting career and promises a new Psyche album in due time.
We have written about these Canadian-German veterans several times before and won’t bore you with the basics. We met a cheerful Darrin before his show at Hafenklang Goldener Salon in Hamburg to talk about everything from being a cult band to the progression of the Psyche sound over the years.
Welcome back to Hamburg and the first show here in years! Last year was kind of productive I would say, with a new single/EP and a new remix album.
- Some people would consider it unproductive when there was nothing new, only a compilation, but you have to have a period when you are doing your legacy work, reminding the people who already know who you are but also let in the new audience to discover your old stuff. Some of it is 30 years old and needs to be presented to new listeners.
Two years ago you had a 30th anniversary celebration of the pioneering album “Unveiling the Secret”. Tell me about your feelings when you look back on a very long career – longer than 35 years – and where Psyche is today?
- And this year it’s the thirty year anniversary of “Mystery Hotel”, and I actually like the feeling. When I was younger and we only had three albums, of course I didn’t care much for the first album. And I remember when we toured, my brother and I actually refused to play anything from the “Insomnia Theatre” album. You had different opinions of what you had done because you wanted to move forward. We turned more to pop music and maybe was slightly embarrassed by the older things but now it’s different. I remastered them and for me it’s also about rediscovering what made them really good and I don’t have too many songs I feel that I’m really ashamed of. There is a few.
I love our first album “Insomnia Theatre” and now we play some songs that we didn’t do in the eighties. Some artists don’t like that but I look at it as the music never sounded old. The whole point with Psyche when we first started was to come up with something in electronic music that we liked but was different enough to be futuristic. Even the song titles like “The Brain Collapses” are relevant themes today, and that sound I really don’t think have been reproduced. When I hear it now, especially now with all the new coldwave bands and the dance music that basically use the same sounds that we used, obviously there must have been something pretty fresh about that because it’s getting recycled. So, for me it’s like a new release, a reminder and a rebirth at the same time.
But still, after more than 35 years of music production you still create new EP:s and albums. What is driving you to create new music after more than 30 years? I guess that you have had a full-time job next to your music career most of those years – like most musicians have?
- No I don’t have a full-time job! People ask “What keep you going?”, and “The fear of McDonalds” is my favorite answer. I don’t have any other skills! The only skill I have is singing and making Psyche, and doing art in some way. This is all I can do, it’s one reason. Since I was 17 I thought I was going to be a singer.
Maybe when you’re younger you think you are going to get a freaking Grammy but to be honest, not really with our music. In the beginning there was early punk, and Gary Numan had a top ten hit in North America with “Cars”, and we thought everything was possible. We actually thought that a song like “The Brain Collapses” could be a top ten hit, I’m not kidding you! I was like “Why can’t the weird ‘The Brain Collapses’ song be a hit? It’s danceable, it’s catchy”.
At the time we didn’t think about all that stuff like “Are we independent?, “Are we too goth?” and I still think it could have happened without going too far. The song “Eternal” is the radio song of Psyche and that got us the farthest that we were going to get into the pop area. But we never had a chart hit, and at some point you start to realize that you’re going to be a cult band instead. All my heroes like Fad Gadget and even Marc Almond went from number one on top ten lists worldwide to be very multiversed artists. I mean Marc and the Mambas and even Soft Cell were less commercial, so if these are my heroes, that’s where you end up.
Becoming a cult band must be a comfort for not entering the charts?
- Yes and it’s consistent! And the other thing I learned is that you can always be discovered. If you were really big – let’s say that “Unveiling the Secret” was a massive hit – then the whole world wants that damn song again. Then if you fail at the next two albums you are basically screwed. For me it’s more that we make other albums, and some people will like the newer stuff, some people don’t because they think you have changed too much, but after a while they hear it all together and can figure out what we were doing. When I was seventeen I thought about the idea that “Okay, if you’re 60 would you sing ‘The Brain Collapses’, would that be your thing”?
But did you even think that Psyche would still exist when you would be 60?
- Well, I didn’t know if that was possible but I put some thought into like “How would I feel about that?”. At that time I was more into the pop side so I felt embarrassed by the idea, and even at 24, I said I was too old for “The Brain Collapses” or my cover of “Sex Dwarf”. I think even Marc Almond said “At some point you’re too old for ‘Sex Dwarf’“, so I recently also stopped playing it. Claus Larsen in Leæther Strip made it if after me and he still plays it so he’s not too old yet. I looked at people like Iggy Pop and I thought “Well you know, when he is 60 he’s probably still going to do ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’“, and he still does. Then you grow into that and say that “As long as I’m still physically fit why the fuck not”. Let’s say that I watch a video of myself and think “You look like an old man crawling on the floor”, that would be something else. But why not, I’m still ready for it.
How would you describe the evolution of Psyche’s sound since the 80:s? Are there different “eras” of Psyche styles, according to you?
- That’s very interesting because some people always say that “You’re not like Depeche Mode, you didn’t gradually change”. Sometimes it was like a slap in the face and on the next album it was like “Oh my God, it’s pop” and suddenly it was like “That’s really, really slow”. I think that if you look at the themes and the overall atmosphere and feeling, you hear musical changes and you hear different ways of making these songs but the core of Psyche – what I’m writing about – hasn’t changed, that’s still there. My voice is still recognizable enough. It was not like that I one day was singing with distortion and the next day I was singing opera. I don’t see those extremes that many people do and what I’ve been told many times is that “If you haven’t made three albums that were like ‘Mystery Hotel’ you would have been more successful”. You can’t plan those kind of things, we just do what we do.
The 90:s were kind of rough though but I think we survived that well by just doing the kind of weird music that we wanted to do. The “Love Among the Ruined” album – I love it because it’s a mixture of five or six electronic styles. We had a little bit of drum‘n’bass and other styles that were influencing at the time but we made it through the Psyche machine. It comes out on the side sounding like Psyche’s version of drum‘n’bass, and in my opinion it still sounds like us.
Considering when you started Psyche in Canada back in the 80:s, at the same time as pioneer bands such as Skinny Puppy, how did Psyche turn into another musical direction?
- We probably existed briefly before Skinny Puppy was even on the market but it was almost at the same time. And do you know why I turned into synthpop? Because of them! Another thing I said to myself when I was younger was that “Do I want to spend the next 25 years just doing only this dark stuff”. I wouldn’t want to be the singer of Skinny Puppy because I can sing. I knew that from a very young age that I wasn’t going to do just super dark aggressive stuff, I’m not that kind of person.
You’re more a Marc Almond person?
- Definitely, and he was my major inspiration. He was like Uncle Marc, everybody thinks he is my dad or my brother or something. For me it was Marc Almond, Annie Lennox, Peter Murphy and Alison Moyet. They were my guides, and everything they achieved vocally as well as musically is where I wanted to go so I didn’t want anyone to say “You can only do this one thing”. I know I can sing – I think even much better now – and at the time I knew I wasn’t going to do this dark voice forever. Even “The Brain Collapses” has poppy elements actually, maybe not poppy lyrics but the singing is not like Skinny Puppy’s or Front Line Assembly’s more aggressive singing, it’s totally different.
The first 2, maybe 3 Psyche albums are much darker than the rest of your releases and they represent a unique sound of the 80:s. What is your reflection of those albums?
- Except for “Mystery Hotel” since that was actually the album that kind of broke us in Sweden because it was on Sonet. We found out later that it was licensed to Sonet and I was like “Oh my god”. “Uncivilized” and some of the poppy songs were big hits in Sweden. The dark stuff is the first two albums so it’s the whole spectrum. Actually, the whole feeling of Psyche is really in those first three albums.
But there was quite a change in sound between “Mystery Hotel” (with Stephen Huss) and “The Influence” (with David Kristian). It’s quite clear that you use many of the classic analogue synthesizers and drum machines, such as the Roland TR-series, on those albums.
- 707 is on there and we only used one FM keyboard at the “Mystery Hotel” but we used it in ways it wasn’t recognized at all. And the fourth album was entirely made on the Casio FZ-1 sampler so all the sounds are original. David Kristian made all the sounds himself on the sampler. So yeah, it was dependent on what kind of synths you used but we were always kind of picky like using sounds that don’t sound like obvious presets, like on “Unveiling the Secret”, the really famous one. There are two presets that we use from the Korg Poly-800 II but nobody else used them, just Psyche. I don’t think nobody else made a hit out of those keyboards.
You have also seen the huge changes in how music is distributed through changes in product formats – LP to CD to digital formats – and how fans are listening to and buying music. What are your impressions of these huge transitions of the music industry and how has it affected Psyche?
- I have learned all about that and survived all of that, and now we can come to the point why I have all these weird releases. In the beginning I was terrified like a lot of people, especially major label bands. I remember when Radiohead did that “pay-what-you-want” thing for one of their albums and some people were very angry, some people thought that’s smart because at least you will find out what people are willing to pay for your music. The “give-it-away” thing – I followed all the possibilities when trying to find out what is right for us – but I don’t really agree with this. I think it may be okay to give away one song on a compilation just to get people interested in you, but in the end it send a message that music really has no value. I’m with Taylor Swift on that one! She is like “You got to pay for the stuff I do, I’m an artist and won’t give it away for free”. I may not like her music but I agree with the philosophy.
There’s a real fight in there where people say “You’re an artist, you’re privileged to be an artist and should be happy that someone would want to pay for the shit you do” – that’s one take on it. But I think that if what you’re doing is worthwhile somebody would pay for that. The proof of what you’re doing is worthwhile is that they pay for that. Any of us can go and make music and give it away for free but does that mean anything for the person who got it? I don’t think so. I decided a long time ago that I was going to try all those avenues – Bandcamp, the streaming thing and different ways of monetizing the videos on YouTube. I think I can start a school to learn other people how to do this. But I’m also privileged enough, I guess, to have a certain volume of music or songs that people are discovering, buying and downloading today. If you don’t have that, then you have the bargain bin. That’s what I meant about being really successful. Let’s say you sell your million records when you’re 19, and all of a sudden you’re 40 and those records are worth nothing because people won’t even pay 99 cents for them.
Which means that when you release a new album you have a strategy, like with the new remix album “Under the Radar”?
- “Under the Radar” is rather interesting because it’s caused by fans. I had a whole bunch of fans who would tell me “I have to download stuff from Bandcamp, why can’t you just put them out on a CD” and I thought it would be really expensive for me to make everyone of all those damn releases on a CD so I decided to put together what I thought was the coolest stuff from all the collections. There was one called “Rare Remixes & B-sides” and a lot of the tracks came from there, and then some of the cover versions and then things that were only on a single, like “Disorder” that was only on a 7″ – for the people who don’t want to buy 7″ singles or vinyl, because not everyone want that. You have to have all the things available and when I do something I want it to be special so I thought “Okay, I would make it in an order that it’s pleasant to listen to it and take entire series of things that you might have missed because they were only on compilations”.
But is it really necessary to release all music, including the remastered albums, in such a range of different formats?
- I don’t have to but I want to! But yes, with the new releases, the idea that you got to have the CD and the vinyl and everything else – I did that with the maxi. We decided that CD singles, they’re not happening, it’s not worth it. We did the maxi and said it’s going to be vinyl only and of course a digital download. At first I just wanted it to be vinyl only but that’s a little bit mean. You can do the 12 inches as vinyl and then you can’t buy the download but you can stream it on Spotify. I thought about that too but then I went back to my value-for-your-music thing and I thought “No, the people who buy the vinyl get the download and the people who just want the download can go for that”. And thanks to Taylor Swift I put a lot of thought of not doing as some German bands do and not put things on Spotify. Before, Radiohead also said they didn’t want to be on Spotify since it also devalues the music. I didn’t really do that. We gradually started to end up on all the streaming things because we were still selling CD:s. What I like is that any musician can be known worldwide through YouTube and Spotify. Then if someone buy your physical product you know they will value your music even more. It doesn’t hurt you to at least be available to those who may not pay for it, but they still pay for it. I mean, you get your 0,02 cents for every stream.
Speaking of being available, you don’t do full tours anymore?
- No, I don’t do tours. I decided that a while ago. Stefan, my partner, has a normal job and I don’t. I don’t like singing every single night in a row, I don’t like to do these ten days in a row. I did it when I twice supported Diary of Dreams which wasn’t thrilling for me at all. I wanted to know how it would be to be in a nightliner and do every night once, but I think it’s hideous. I want to do weekends or one-off events, festivals where you give everything on that night and then you go away for a month. I learned that from Grace Jones by the way because she used to disappear and then occasionally she turned up once or twice a year at midnight in Italy or something, and I thought “That’s cool, I like that idea” and I’m into that now.
An obvious question is of course if there will be a new Psyche album out soon?
- Yes, we’re working on it and actually it’s the reason why we released the new single. The single was supposed to be officially released this year so we could say “13 year since the last” but because it was ready we decided to release it in December – and the video was already done. I wanted to have the video ready for Halloween – Friday the 13th and Halloween is my thing – and I needed to have a release on that date. We did the video and the single came later. We started playing it [live] in the middle of December because we didn’t want to feature it before it was ready to go – the B-side as well. We have other songs but we’re not really ready.
That’s another thing I don’t really like, this schedule, when you have your material and you got three months of promotion blablabla. Once in my life I wanted to have the single, nobody is expecting it and just say “Here’s the video, here’s the song”. I wanted to experience that once. These days it’s really cool and I did my leaks – we’re not famous enough for leaks anyway – and just wanted to reach the point of surprise when someone says “Oh my God, they have a new single”. I just wanted to do that once, and when the album is ready it will be the same “Holy shit, Psyche released an album”.
And everybody has been waiting for it.
- And that puts a little pressure on me because I promised for sure that this year it will be finished but I can’t tell you that 100%. We got five or six songs and I don’t do like some artist who says “Oh I recorded 30 songs and I will choose my ten best and here’s my album”. I read in interviews that Moby says that, and I think even Blondie, but I don’t write songs just to fill out some space on a CD. I make ten songs and then I have ten songs. It took me ages to come up with the confidence for the single and we since learned that most people like the B-side better because it’s darker – people want Psyche to be dark! It’s interesting because we have stuff that’s poppy but not necessarily happy, but definitely danceable and poppy. We’re a dark synthpop band!
Photos for Release: Julia Schwendner