Birth

Birth band

Sometime in the past couple decades, San Diego unexpectedly became a breeding ground for a particularly fertile brand of heavy psychedelic rock. Bands such as Earthless and Astra helped to spark a small but prolific movement that saw the county turning into a lava-lamp-laden den of guitar freakouts and organ solos reminiscent of vintage ‘60s and ‘70s acts like Blue Cheer and Ash Ra Tempel. At least that’s how it might have looked on the outside, particularly in Europe where many of the city’s burgeoning psych artists toured frequently.

Conor Riley—guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist in Birth, and former member of Astra—doesn’t take issue with the characterization of the scene’s creative fertility, but notes that it’s ultimately a small group of musicians, all of whom play in each other’s bands, that have ultimately driven this underground musical movement.

“You go to Europe and say you’re from San Diego, and people think of it as this mecca—like there’s hundreds of people playing heavy psych. But it’s really just the same 20 people that are in different bands,” he says. “Roadburn [Festival] had a San Diego takeover, and they just had to fly out 10 people that were in 10 different incarnations of bands. When it started, Earthless and Astra were both touring in Europe quite a bit. So I think we kind of made our presence known a bit there—we kind of primed the pump.”

Case in point, Riley’s new band Birth, which at first glance feels a bit like a San Diego psych supergroup. The band features Riley’s Astra bandmate Brian Ellis, bassist Trevor Mast of Joy and Psicomagia (which also featured Ellis) and drummer Thomas DiBenedetto of Sacri Monti. And, indeed, the swirling dirges and swaths of effects on the group’s newly released debut album Born showcases the kind of cosmic journey four seasoned veterans can conjure up when they get into the same room together. Though head-trip wizardry wasn’t necessarily their first priority, as Riley clarifies that his goal was to create a pop record.

“After playing in Astra for a long time, we would go on tours and I’d just listen to pop music because I was so sick of prog and heavy psych, just living and breathing it for that long,” he says. “So I kind of wanted to start a project that was a little more pop. Like a little more singer/songwriter palatable, not ultra-technical prog. That was how it started at first, but as it kind of evolved it went back in the heavy psych direction. Most of my record collection is just a bunch of that stuff. I don’t think it was ever really intended that way, just kind of the way it goes.”

Riley and company are, perhaps, creating the kind of pop record that existed in the age of gatefold vinyl and the hi-fi as a focal point of your living room. More Dark Side of the Moon than Dua Lipa. Which is a little curious given that it’s a sound that thrived well before any of the members of Birth were born (no pun intended). Though he might have come to it a few years later, for Riley, at least, it’s a sound that never really goes out of style.

“My parents were kind of hippies and would play ‘70s stuff,” he says. “I just really like the warm sound of an analog recording. I think the ‘70s were kind of a special time in music. It’s still one of the most pervasive forms of music you hear today in music. We’re not the only ones trying to recreate’ 70s or ‘80s sounds. It’s kind of everywhere. And there’s a good reason for that: It’s timeless.”

Birth perform at Booze Brothers Brewing on Friday, July 22

Jeff Terich is the web editor of San Diego Magazine, and the music critic behind the blog The Setlist. His writing has been published in Stereogum, Bandcamp Daily, American Songwriter, Fodor's and Vinyl Me Please.

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