Psychedelic Perth: Music in Australia's Isolated City

Perth’s love affair with psychedelic music took off in the 1970s
Perth’s love affair with psychedelic music took off in the 1970s | © James Jeffrey Taylor / Alamy Stock Photo
The psychedelic music scene had its origins in the 1960s, but over the last decade a subset of Australian bands, hailing specifically from Western Australia, have emerged as some of the world’s leading contemporary psychedelic music makers. Culture Trip takes a look at how and why one of the world’s most isolated cities has influenced this trend.
You’ll find abundant street art in Australia’s psychedelic city Courtesy of Streets of Perth

A brief listen to The Beatles’ mind-bending classic Tomorrow Never Knows will provide a clear reference point for what a typical psychedelic song sounds like: repetitive drum beats, profound lyrics, backwards loops, heavy on the reverb and synthesisers and a fixation on unconventional instruments such as sitars, harpsichords, organs and mellotrons. But two things really characterise the genre: first, the process that goes into making the sound – with bands and musicians creating a sound that force audiences to focus on the music and not the live performance; and second, the feelings evoked while listening to it. It’s a journey into sonic exploration and one that is (some would say) best accompanied by mind-expanding drugs.

Psychedelia is believed to have had its origins in the 1960s, during the escalation of the Vietnam War. Leaping off its foundation of folk and rock music, psychedelia was spurred on by the arrival of narcotics and psychotropics such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. Authors Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary are often quoted as being the fathers of psychedelia, with their numerous publications calling for the study of the field and the expansion of human consciousness.

The psychedelic scene

Like California in the 1960s, Perth, Australia’s fourth-largest city, offers sun, sea and (although illegal in the state) an established weed and acid culture. It’s renowned for its remoteness, blending urban style with undisturbed natural beauty. A mining town by trade, Perth has long since attracted commuting employees – those who work in the city during the week and fly home to other cities for the weekend. It’s a big city with the feel of a small beach town, and its music reflects this. Quiet compared to that of other major Australian cities, Perth’s nightlife is largely restricted to friendly neighbourhood bars and pubs serving locally crafted beers and wines, and its underground music scene.

The city’s isolation means that touring and promotion costs are high, which is problematic for its musicians and artists. Dave Couri, founder of Sydney Psych Fest, explains, “The reality of living on an island means that our groups do suffer the tyranny of distance.”

Fortunately, Australia is a country that proudly supports its local talent, allowing creative culture to flourish at home. The country has a national radio station entirely devoted to promoting independent music, and Perth plays host to Australia’s longest-running annual cultural festival, The Perth Festival.

The Perth Festival features a grand firework display © Amarnath Tade / Unsplash

Psychedelic Perth

Perth’s love affair with psychedelic music took off in the 1970s with the help of local bands Tamam Shud, Tully and Coloured Balls. However, Perth’s most world-renowned export is undoubtedly Tame Impala, widely regarded as modern-day leaders in the genre. In a 2015 interview with The Guardian, frontman and lead visionary Kevin Parker shared some thoughts on the Australian psych scene: “I don’t think there is [one]. We’ve got our friends in Perth, like all the guys from Pond. We’ve all lived together at some point, a circle of friends of maybe 10 or 15 people. And, you know what, Jay [Watson, of Tame Impala, Pond and GUM] lived with the guys from King Gizzard [and the Lizard Wizard] when he was in Melbourne and they’ve got their own thing as well. I think our clans merged for a little there.”

Nonetheless, Perth’s remoteness encouraged a close creative community, with Tame Impala, Pond, GUM and Mink Mussel Creek starting out as an ever-changing roster of musical friends playing together. That being said, the number of bands and musicians that easily fall within the psych rock category has grown far larger than Parker’s original circle of friends. Today, Perth’s other notable bands include the Psychedelic Porn Crumpets and Methyl Ethel.

There are arguably two defining links between the city and the music: the sounds evoking a sense of empty space and time, of afternoons after work spent lazing on the beach or in a friend’s garage on the weekend playing around with guitars; and the drug culture. The connection between mind-expanding drugs and psychedelic music is undeniable.

Tame Impala are Perth’s greatest psychedelic export © Nick Kane / Unsplash

Parker sums up the connection perfectly in a story he told The Guardian: “I was in LA a few years ago and for some reason we’d taken mushrooms, it must have been the end of our tour… a friend was driving us around LA in this old sedan. He was playing the Bee Gees and it had the most profound emotional effect. I’m getting butterflies just thinking about it. I was listening to Staying Alive, a song I’ve heard all my life. At that moment it had this really emotive, melancholy feel to it. The beat felt overwhelmingly strong and, at that moment, it sounded pretty psychedelic. It moved me, and that’s what I always want out of psych music. I want it to transport me.”