Originally published in Arthur No. 34 (April, 2013)
Orange County, California psych rockers FEEDING PEOPLE left the church and entered the void. Now they’ve returned to sing their tales in glorious reverb. Chris Ziegler investigates.
Photography by Ward Robinson
Feeding People come from the Adolescents’ “Kids of the Black Hole” country, the un-Disneyfied side of Orange County, California. They met in a church band and then spiraled off into the cosmos, putting out a record in 2010 on heroic hometown emporium Burger Records that out-freaked almost all the other extremely accomplished freaks already on that label. It sounded like the battle of all battles—trying to go psychedelic in a place where it would have been so much easier to go plastic.
Don’t get me wrong. They weren’t obviously frothing at the mouth. If you didn’t know your contemporary Orange County bandspotting minutiae, you’d probably have a hard time in the wilds of Fullerton figuring out who exactly is a Feeding Person and who is in Audacity or Cosmonauts or who works buying used vinyl at Burger, indisputable ground zero of Southern California’s teenage weirdo renaissance. They’re all on the thrift store/swap meet vibe, kids who spend weekends prying out the last surviving cool shit from the tar pits of suburbia. Maybe that’s Goodwilled punk and psych records or leather boots, maybe just a decent jean jacket. (Plus band shirts bought from the band, at the show, of course.) You wouldn’t be able to tell if Feeding People were there to play or just there to watch if you saw them hanging out by a stage.
Today, founder and singer Jessie Jones and guitarist Louis Filliger are the last ones left from the first line-up of Feeding People. And even though they’re 72 hours away from the release of their new album, Island Universe, they haven’t quite left that earlier era behind. It’s like they’ve still got ash and dust on them. They’ve … experienced things. They’ve got extra energy so they can muster extra quickness, extra brightness so they can see a little farther into the dark. When they start to talk, it’s like a door is thrown open—you’ll feel the air rush past, hear the slam.
Jessie is dark-haired, slim but not slight because of some not-quite-nameable quality of presence. Even two tables away, it seems like she’s right next to you. She talks less than Louis, but when she does, everybody else shuts up. Louis has the answers, the theories, the explanations. During the French Revolution, he says, they’d start their speeches with certain words that would really HIT. (He pushes some extra power into the word—THUD.) He’s been waiting to get these stories out, he says.
Everybody with sense who writes about Feeding People talks about how something else is coming THROUGH this band. They channel, they incarnate, they let something strange and cosmic come scorching through. It’s like Philip K. Dick—in 1974, he got zapped by some power cosmic just five driving minutes from where the Burger Records stand is now, and it led him to write two million words searching for ultimate truth. (“A: The enigma remains. Q: We have learned nothing,” Dick decided.)
Point being, this has happened before out here in Orange County. People get zapped. Maybe Feeding People got zapped. Philip K. Dick liked all the same records Feeding People probably dig—Germs, Screamers, Bach’s “Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns Die Stimme,” which in English means, “Sleepers awake!” (“The secrets of music are in classical music,” says Louis. “People will tell me about some band like, ‘Check this out!’ Fuck that—I’m like ‘Check this NOCTURNE!’”)
And Feeding People liked records Philip K. Dick should have dug, including just about everything the 13th Floor Elevators ever did: “The 13th Floor Elevators wanted to make a blueprint for someone to trip off of, and I’ve done that,” says Louis. What happens? He hesitates for a second. “You’re … there. What happens is always happening.” (“‘Everything is nothing, nothing is everything,’” adds new bassist Jeremy Katz. “Louis said that to me, and I can’t let it go.”)
Anyway, Feeding People first met in church—didn’t Roky Erickson first learn about music in church? But this was a big modern church in Anaheim barely a mile from the Richard M. Nixon freeway: “[Our] services,” says the church website, “feature lively contemporary music which paves the way for practical and relevant Bible based message.” Jessie made up the name in a high school English class, thinking about starting a band that would “affect people,” says Louis. (“What were you reading in that class when you thought of that?” he asks her. “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas?”) They wrote and played acoustic songs til they met their first drummer, who’d push them to their first-ever amplified show.
When they’d started Feeding People, they really were teenagers, with Louis the oldest and half the band waiting outside the bars before they could play. (Now, however, Louis is 26 and even youngest member Jessie is almost of age—“I’m turning 21 now!” she says. “Alert the world!”) But even that young—and unique among this new wave of Orange County bands—Feeding People connected with not just the rock ‘n’ roll scholars-slash-maniacs at Burger, but also Free The Robots’ Chris Alfaro and the Gaslamp Killer, two personages fundamental to Low End Theory and L.A’s world-famous instrumental beatmusic scene. At Low End, Feeding People would join Entrance and Crystal Antlers (oh, and Thom Yorke, too) as one of the few live bands to play alongside the city’s most forward-thinking beatmakers and producers. The connection? Reverb, echo, rhythm and what I’ll just call reality, with appropriate awe attached.
And something did come through when Jessie sang—something real and raw and a little unearthly. With other bands, even excellent ones, you could still think of them as regular people, rehearsing in their ratty practice space and working their daytime jack-jobs and doing the stuff you do too. With Feeding People, they suddenly weren’t regular people. They were a band that came out of nowhere, and that knew they’d soon be going back to nowhere, and that knew they had just that 20 or 30 minutes on stage … to be free, I guess. And yes, it was a little scary. They had a fugitive’s urgency. Jessie, a receptionist by day, would sing in a haunted not-always-there voice that would spiral out and around her, a voice with the power of someone like Mariska Veres or Grace Slick but without their control … or their need for control. She sang like she was lighting a fire. Once it caught, it could go anywhere. And then she’d be in the middle of a chorus, staring back over the top of the crowd into a horizon line no one else cared was there: “I’m not the saaaaaaaame …”
That first album Peace, Victory and the Devil (with contributions by Alfaro) was a zig-zag of a record, acoustic Syd Barrett kinda songs bouncing into Michael Yonkers void-psych and bent and heavy Sir Lord Baltimore stomp-rockers. To give them a nerd-dude compliment, it sounded like a rare out-of-print record the day it was released. And sure enough, that vinyl’s mostly gone now.
That band is gone, too—it disintegrated messily as Feeding People tried to write Island Universe, an anxious, immediate, intensely unpredictable new album. That disintegration, says Louis, is a “good story—drugs, ego.” (Which came first? He pauses, completely matter of fact: “You’re born with an ego. It comes at the age of one-and-a-half.”) By the time he finishes explaining why he and Jessie are the only people still going from the original Feeding People, he’s had to add that it’s not just a good story but a true story, mostly because of the part about the three-mile car chase. That was the spectacular culmination of one of many arguments about what kind of band Feeding People was supposed to be, he says, what their “sound” would be like and why didn’t they have a “sound” and come on, dude, you know the Red Hot Chili Peppers have a “sound.” (“It’s so weird how society infects you and your environment,” adds Jessie. “You don’t give yourself respect.”)
This was, it seemed, the struggle of a band who’d made a much-loved first record figuring out how to deliver a much-anticipated second. After months of this, the Feeding People sound ended up being Louis just making guitar feedback for an hour at practice and since-departed members shouting, “What the fuck, dude? I’m spending my golden years in this band!”
“They were embarrassed to represent chaos,” says Jessie now. “Nothing that had disorder. They were embarrassed and they made us embarrassed and gave us a complex and we have it permanently.”
So this is the Island Universe—a concept from Huxley that they used for an album title and a song. To Louis and Jessie, they were pushed to this island, had to retreat to it, had to find a remote and peaceful place where they could connect with their chaos. (Funny how that works—the more order Feeding People had, the more distressed Louis and Jessie seemed to feel.) That makes their latest album one of those rare and curious experiences where you can hear a band gnawing at itself. It’s like those Before the Dream Faded sessions by the Misunderstood, the ones that sound gigantic and ominous even though the band is about to be pulled apart. Or it’s like the 13th Floor Elevators’ Bull of the Woods, recorded in a lonesome studio late at night with the band (legendarily) never all together at once.
There is no “sound.” Louis was able to prevent that. Instead, the songs crack apart and disappear and bloom suddenly out of nowhere, like Joe Byrd’s United States of America or Field Hippies. You can hear the turmoil, says Louis, and he’s right. It’s an album where the sky is getting higher as the bottom is falling out.
“We kind of wrote a concept album about leaving our band,” says Louis.
“With the band?” says Tomas Dolas, organist, and along with bassist Jeremy Katz and drummer Wyatt Blair, one of the three new Feeding People. Louis and Jessie recruited this newest line-up from other bands named Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel, Froth and Blair’s own solo project, and each new Feeding Person is much more in line with representing chaos. (“When I first heard them,” says Tomas, “I could tell there was something underlying the music that was really … big.”)
“It’s very subconscious,” says Jessie.
“It’s all subconscious!” says Louis, instantly animated. “We don’t copy. If something sounds like something, I won’t use it. But after I go back and listen, I can tell where it came from. I can always tell what band ripped off what—everyone’s ripping off ‘Lucifer Sam,’ and I’m sick of that. Everyone’s ripping off ‘Reverberation.’ I think bands sit down and say, ‘I’m gonna rip this off.’ I understand why. It’s so easy. Change it around, it’ll sound just as rad. But that’s not what connects with people! I like honesty. I was writing notes to myself when I was writing Island Universe. I was pretty fucked up in the head from weird stuff, actually—I thought it was totally normal to find ultimate truth in a song. I actually wrote that down: ‘I think it’s easy to find ultimate truth in a song.’ I look back like … that’s fucking insane. Like all the answers to the universe are in a song? That’s insane.”
Well—then what’s there instead? What does a song do if it can’t give you an answer?
“It releases a memory,” says Jessie. “It gives you a dream.”
* * *
Ah, and what was that Misunderstood album called again? Because this is what Island Universe is for—the subconscious and not the conscious, the ultimate dream and not the ultimate truth.
“Every record is a story you don’t plan out,” says Louis.
“It reveals itself,” says Jessie. “It’s almost like a hidden part of my personality or my life. Not my story but … my past? And then it crosses over into the future. It’s kind of scary. You start to feel crazy. With music, the illusion of time sort of disappears. In a weird way, it’s an invisible language because you lose the conditioning of time and space. You can communicate almost … not as a human.”
So that’s why Island Universe starts so gently on “Silent Violet,” with Jessie talking about lullaby and memory. They’re helping you go to sleep, so you can communicate in the dream state. (Even Philip K. Dick said the zapper that zapped him got through to him the best just as he was falling asleep or waking up.) It’s not quiet for long, of course. A few seconds in—crash-crash-crash, echo and scream—but surely you’ve had dreams that don’t let you wake up til they’re done with you, so here we go: “Forever young and naïve, can we just make believe?” sings Jessie. “Die in our sleep?” Every song here is an island universe itself, with waves smashing rocks and birds calling out at night, and strange lights in the sky—“I can read your mind, like the stars appear perfectly aligned,” sings Jessie.
Don’t you even worry about the music. They love the albums you love, or what you will come to love, especially if you love reverb, rhythm and reality and rare reissues, too—not because Feeding People sound “old,” but because they sound wild and free in a way that’s getting squeezed out of the culture now. (With help from producers Hanni el Khatib and Crystal Antlers’ Jonny Bell, they also sound extremely ripping—congratulations on the ferocious fuzz.) It’s a record for the dreamer who dreams alone—each his own, says the second-to-last song. And, says the last song, “Let’s not forget what was / and is yet to come / evening falls too fast, daylight’s done with the past / moving on …”
That’s everything on Island Universe—the lullaby, the way the album shock starts, the turmoil and band trauma Louis and Jessie want to leave behind: “We did our crazy record with crazy thoughts,” says Louis. “Now we’re trying to pick up the pieces.”
But let me ask Philip K. Dick do one last thing here because he has the real album review for you, realer than one I could do until I get a good zap myself: “Crazy or not, whatever it is that has gone wrong with you, you are one of a kind. […] This is not an ordinary kind of insanity. This is not like anything I have ever seen or heard before. You talk about the whole universe—more than the universe, if that is possible. You impress me and in a way you frighten me.”