Synesthesia and the Growth of Psych Rock in Denver

Snake Rattle Rattle Snake at Denver Psych Fest last year.
Snake Rattle Rattle Snake at Denver Psych Fest last year.
Tom Murphy

When Synesthesia debuted in Denver’s RiNo district a couple years ago, it was a Spartan affair at the Meadowlark and Larimer Lounge, attracting just 200 people. Now, the Larimer’s Bart Dahl says he’s happy to see what was formerly called Denver Psych Fest “flourish in our neighborhood” — this year’s synesthesia will feature 36 bands on five stages, including those inside the Larimer, Meadowlark and Dateline, along with outdoor stages courtesy of the Savoy and the Big Wonderful.

Festival founder Ray Koren, who enlisted organizational help from local psych-rock stalwart Jordan Hubner last year, started Denver Psych Fest for selfish reasons that proved auspicious.

“I had wanted to throw a festival [and] was excited to book my band [Thee Dang Dangs] alongside bigger acts but we broke up before last year’s festival. It was at that point I realized for me it’s more about bringing in bands we love that don’t play here much, getting them in front of a good crowd in Denver.”

Koren says the name change is aimed at shedding stereotypes.

“It's all just rock 'n' roll to me,” he says. “I do enjoy the particular sounds and sonic styling of a lot of the psych bands, but I like to book a broader spectrum of artists. I by no means am only interested in psych-rock, which is why we are moving forward as Synesthesia.”

Hubner, who has also begun to work with the Black Angels-founded Levitation [which puts on Austin Psych Fest and similar festivals internationally], is on board with the effort to avoid turning Synesthesia into twelve hours of Warlocks clones.

“We just have to like their music,” Hubner said when asked what qualifies a band to get booked for Synesthesia. “It doesn’t have to be tripped-out, reverbed-out psych music. There are so many people who ask ‘What is psychedelic rock music?’ and maybe for some older folks they think of the Dead and that whole scene, but I think of all the bands that transpired from Brian Jonestown Massacre and everything like that, modern psychedelic music.”

There is a punk element at this year’s Synesthesia, with Denver favorites Colfax Speed Queen and Dirty Few playing the Meadowlark’s patio. Euforquestra, a Ft. Collins staple that could be called a world-beat act will play an afternoon set outside at the Big Wonderful.

“We really like to break bands that are up and coming locally,” says Hubner. “There is so much good local music, especially in the psych realm. We’re looking to support that and provide a really good time, and expose people to national acts that they maybe haven’t heard of. We could spend all our money on two bands that everybody knows and go home with a fistful of cash, but that’s not where we’re at. It’s always about breaking new artists.”

In years past, Denver Psych Fest exposed bands like Vacant Lots and the Cosmonauts to wider audiences, and this year Moon Duo – a Wooden Shjips spinoff – headlines the Savoy with a highly anticipated midnight set.

“I learned a ton last year,” says Hubner, “what works and doesn’t work. But mostly we’re trying to keep our own thing; that’s why we chose a venue like the Savoy, which doesn’t do a lot of events like this. We’re able to take that space and make it our own, off the beaten path. And the Curtis Park/RiNo District is my favorite in Denver. I love being over there. Josh [Sampson] from the Big Wonderful has been really helpful, too, so we have this outdoor element and if you want to bring your kids and check it out you’re not just in a stuffy rock club. We’re trying to make it appealing to all audiences.”

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Interestingly, the festival formerly known as Denver Psych Fest will not include jam bands, perhaps the artists most closely associated with psychedelic music if you ask the general public.

“I think the jam [and] psych crowds do not mix for a couple reasons,” Koren muses. “Bands like Widespread Panic and Phish all have roots in the Dead’s extended jams [but] I just stop caring about 20 minutes in as meandering, noodling solos become annoying. In my opinion, newer psych-rock bands have more in common with the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Hendrix and the Doors, who had a bit more focused song structures and get into darker territory, which I like. That, I believe, is the disconnect between the scenes music-wise. There is also a decent gap culturally, hippie vs. hipster.”

It’s hard to argue with Koren’s assessment that it’s more likely to see Phish fan getting turned on to the Black Angels and checking out Synesthesia than a Fresh and Onlys devotee hoola hooping at a String Cheese Incident show. Hubner, for his part, flatly responded “no” when asked if he’d ever book a jam band.

“I guess a lot of psych bands do play three chords and do play for longer than a pop song, and kind of go off on that and make it big, make it a wall of sound, like My Bloody Valentine. I just feel like it’s two different things, jam band music and modern psych music. If I was gonna go see Phish I’d say, ‘I’m going to see a jam band tonight,’ which would probably never happen.”

Not that Synesthesia needs to recruit the jam band audience. The festival’s growth has been remarkable.

“The majority of [concertgoers] are from Denver,” Hubner says, “but we’re really bringing people from all over the world, which is exciting. This year we’re expecting three thousand people, and we have this projection art team behind us and so many people who have come forth who want to be a part of it. We’ve got 20 volunteers and all these people who want to help out, because it’s still a small festival, so it’s a lot of work. We have so many people willing to help, which has been a real blessing.”

Austin Psych Fest is no doubt the model, or at least the inspiration, for Synesthesia, but with the rise of modern psych-rock it was a matter of time before Denver played host to such an exciting lineup of psych bands.

“If you look at other cities – Seattle, L.A. – everyone’s got their own Psych Fest, which is really cool,” Hubner says. “You can see the infiltration of psych music more so now, even in pop music. I think it’s a growing scene and more and more people want to be a part of it.”


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