Drawing from garage rock, experimental and punk music, the Intelligence Service deal out heavy psychedelic vibe that is entirely their own. With ground-shaking organ, pounding drums, hypnotic bass, roaring guitar and a critical artist approach, the Intelligence Service mash dark neo-psycehdelic tones befitting of the Black Angels with the raw punk rock energy of Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees. Speaking with singer/songwriter Alex Penn, A Love That’s Sound talk about the Intelligence Service’s approach to experimental punk rock, recording straight to tape with famed punk rock recording engineer Chris Woodhouse, critical art and the purpose of leaving a creative wake.
DL: What are the origins of the Intelligence Service? Why did you create this particular project?
Alex Penn: I used to do art, that was most of my life. I got tired of it. I pursued art as a philosophical pursuit as a way to understand my own life, what am I doing here, how do I interact with others, ethics and all that kind of stuff. I got to the point with these questions, “why produce art”? Why keep making things? Maybe our society produces too much and we keep producing and producing and a lot of the time it’s crap. I started to think we produce things because we are afraid of death to keep busy to distract us from that notion and to leave behind something that outlives us, a memento of us being here on this planet, a permanence.
For two years I wasn’t making visual art because I thought we shouldn’t be making stuff. I’ve always loved music as a collector and show goer. I was with my girlfriend Heather and we saw Moon Duo. And I thought “why don’t we start a band, these guys are old.” It was a great show at the Electric Owl with a wicked digital light show. Knowing the history of punk rock, all you really have to do is learn three chords. I picked up a guitar and started to learn how to play and it was great to be creating again. Most people spend a lot of money on a burial, I made Transgressors. It’s my tombstone. The only reason to produce things is to leave them behind so I thought I’ll just make a vinyl record that will encapsulate what I’ve spent my life doing; visual art, writing and music. As I was learning to play, I was writing songs and that became Transgressors. After about two years, that album was out. It was great. I’ve only been playing music for 3 or 4 years now.
DL: The Intelligence Service has a heavy synth element. How did you come to include that instrument in your overall sound?
Alex Penn: It was Heather and I. Heather played Keys and Synths. She could play guitar too, she had some pretty wicked guitar sounds. I would push her, she would push me, we had a good working relationship that way. A lot of the time I would experiment with weird sounds on her Moog and ask “can you try and do this thing?” I really love 60’s garage rock with a lot of organ in it. The Intelligence Service has more organ now, earlier on it was synths and things like that. We didn’t used to have a bass player so Heather and I used to write bass parts that would be played on synth, which would sound better. My love of music and my influences go to weird shit like early Devo and earlier punk bands that used synth in their sound. I also used to listen to Industrial music which has heavy synth.
DL: The Intelligence Service has a very punk-rock edge along side the keys. Why aren’t there more synths in punk rock music?
Alex Penn: There’s so many different punk bands and they all do different things. Kleenex had a saxophone, cause that’s what they had. Synths are expensive. When punk was developing, I imagine most people learning to play punk music were not expert musicians when they started, that was part of the deal, they were a DIY culture. Synths were expensive and complicated and not as easy to carry around or punk rock looking as a bass or guitar. But there are some really wicked punk bands with synths.
DL: You recorded with Chris Woodhouse down in Sacramento for Transgressors. How did you come into contact with Chris? What was that recording experience like?
Alex Penn: He was awesome to work with. I have found out since that not everybody feels that way but I got along with him great and he’s super intense and awesome. We actually recored twice with him. Recording is an art form. When I set out to make my “tombstone,” I thought about who I wanted to record with, so I started to go through all of my favourite records and bands and the one thing that I noticed was that there was a tendency of certain bands to have the early albums, the energy was there but the recording quality was terrible and there was no reason for it to be on vinyl.
What I noticed was that one of my favourite bands, the Oh Sees, their sound always had this live energy and the albums started sounding better and better. His name kept coming up “Chris Woodhouse, Chris Woodhouse…” I thought, okay, he’s the guy. I love this sound and the energy is always there on all of his records, from A-Frames to Sick Alps and his band Mayyors. Ty Segall with Manipulator and Slaughterhouse, Fuzz, Meatbodies… all of these insane, awesome bands. It was really hard to track him down. I found his manager but Chris Woodhouse only records bands that he likes so we had to go through all of these screenings. We recorded a demo specifically to put by Chris. It turned out that he really liked us, we talked on the phone and then we headed down to Sacramento to record with him. The Intelligence Service was the first Canadian band to record with him, which is kind of cool.
DL: I understand that studio was next to a fruit ripening warehouse.
Alex Penn: Yeah, it used to be a banana ripening room. He records live off the floor onto two-inch tape. Chris kept saying, “you know we only record onto tape, right?” and I was like ‘yeah that’s what I want, that warm, crazy sound and all of the cool thing you can do with tape.
DL: How would you gauge the 80s wave of psychedelia (Spacemen 3, the Jesus and Mary Chain) compared to the ‘60s psychedelic music?
Alex Penn: I love those bands. I never used to listen to Spacemen 3 but Heather liked them a lot and I gave them a closer listen. There’s also bands like Marshmallow Overcoat, that was the Paisley underground scene. There was some cool shit going on but the ‘60s stuff…. I like the Kinks overtop of the Beatles or Rolling Stones. Or Iggy Pop over David Bowie. Not that you have to choose these things but that’s my preference. That stuff is a little bit heavier, a little bit weirder, a little bit edgier and pushes the social norms a little bit more. David Bowie pushed enormously in a big way later on, they were friends and song collaborators… but with the 60s it was the underground stuff. Compilations like Back From the Grave or Pebbles. Stuff that is crazy and unhinged and there’s lots of mistakes and raw energy.
DL: The song “Distraction” takes up an entire side of Transgressors. How did you come to record such a long song?
Alex Penn: Our first drummer was in town on a work visa from Ireland. He had a wicked and diverse taste in music. He wasn’t officially in the band at that point, I asked him to make a drum piece up as practice. He played it to me and it was fantastic and had all of these influences that I liked. I had something I was working on and we put them together, the whole song is basically four chords. I’m a huge fan of really long songs like “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground or Wooden Shjips, who have some songs that are 14 or 20 minutes long. Or Spaceman 3’s three hour concert that was one chord. That stuff is based on John Cage and La Monte Young. Those long, drawn out songs that you can get lost in… you just get lost in sound.
DL: Lyrically, what’s happenning on that song? What inspired the spoken word vocals on that track?
Alex Penn: It’s a prose poem that I wrote. It draws from the Iliad and also contemporary society in a stream of consciousness moving in and out of time periods, in the earth and sky, moving around space and time. Lyrically, there’s a lot going on, it’s a poem so I leave people the freedom to gather what is happening there.
DL: What direction will the next Intelligence Service be taking for the next record?
Alex Penn: The second record is already done, we recored with Chris Woodhouse a second time. We are still digesting it. There’s a song that is 18 minutes long and takes up the entire side of a vinyl record, one chord the whole song. There’s a lot of movement, there’s some crazy noise stuff that happens kind of as a tribute to “European Son” by the Velvet Underground. The overall tone of the album is kind of dark, it’s a conception album that follows a protagonist through a story parallel to Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Dante wakes up in Hell and the poet Virgil moves him into purgatory and then heaven and earth. There’s a lot of hardcore heavy punk sounds, really energetic and there’s also some dark, psych groovy bass lines. It’s hard to explain.
Interview/Photos: David Lacroix
Artwork: Marie Ingouf