There are bandleaders, and there are cult leaders. In composer Chris Schlarb's eyes, they're practically the same thing.
In a recent interview with Aquarium Drunkard, the Psychic Temple frontman explained why he frequently refers to his music project as a cult. "When you go on tour you're essentially proselytizing, going from city to city, like any good Christian revival, trying to convert new fans to the flock, to convince them to follow, believe in you, buy into what you're selling. I don't see how that's any different from a cult or religion."
It's hard to imagine Psychic Temple as a hard sell for listeners.
Schlarb seamlessly blends mellow Laurel Canyon grooves with experimental bursts of folk, jazz, and soul to create a distinct, larger-than-life sound. If the Psychic Temple were an actual place, it would probably have a golden idol of Brian Wilson on its altar and Fairport Convention album covers painted on its stained-glass windows.
While Schlarb uses the idea of band as cult as a conceptual model to talk about the nature of the relationship between a composer and his collaborators, there have been many other bands in rock history who've taken that idea a bit more literally.
From bands who've lived together like cultists to groups who've developed a relationship with their listeners that verges on the messianic, here are eight bands that prove Schlarb right: "The way a cult operates and the way a band operates... they're essentially the same goddamn thing."
Insane Clown Posse
The FBI may have labeled Juggalos a gang organization, but cult seems like a better designation. They have their own rites of initiation, their own vernacular, their own symbols, and modes of dress. Like any good cult, the appeal of being in the cult is inexplicable to anyone who isn't a member. Nobody quite knows how ones becomes a Juggalo, and almost nobody knows someone who used to be a Juggalo. When you're down with the clown, you're down for life.
Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV
Some bands accidentally turned into cult-like operations. For many of the folks in TG/Psychic TV, the evolution into a quasi-religion was intentional. Noise legends Throbbing Gristle grew out of infamous performance art collective COUM Transmissions, who were already developing a cult following. Combining mail art with sexually explicit and violent performances, COUM figureheads Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti would take the fanbase and infamy they developed in England and the U.S. to create Throbbing Gristle, the Beatles of noise-rock.
By the time Throbbing Gristle fell apart, they had already helped usher the industrial genre and noise rock genres into existence. TG's interest in communal living, anarchist politics, sexual experimentation, and even body modification (which at that time was practically unheard of) continued as the band splintered off into three groups: Psychic TV (P-Orridge's group), Chris & Cosey, and Coil. Each group would continue to play with the esoteric themes and aesthetics that TG touched on, but Psychic TV went the extra mile by actually trying to start a bona fide cult movement. Working with a few close collaborators, Genesis P-Orrdige started Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth, an international organization devoted to the exploration of magick and artistic explorations. It was like a post-punk Masonic Lodge, using its own slang, occult iconography, and rituals to bring its members together.
Out of all the bands to emerge out of L.A.'s early punk scene, no group was as gloriously unhinged and sloppy as The Germs. They quickly developed a cult following in the scene, thanks in large to frontman Darby Crash's magnetic personality. Devotees of the band received “Germ burns” — lit cigarettes pressed into their wrists to form a circle (which was the band's logo). Oral histories We Got The Neutron Bomb and Lexicon Devil paint a vivid picture of Crash's cult of personality — a troubled young punk surrounded by hangers-on, groupies, and acolytes, a following that he allegedly cultivated through Scientology-inspired “mind control” techniques he had been practicing since high school.
The Polyphonic Spree
If there was an award for Band That Most Looks Like a Cult, the Texas-based Polyphonic Spree would be a shoo-in. While the band isn't known for indulging in culty shenanigans like living together or practicing occult rites, they have the cult aesthetic done cold. Led by Tim DeLaughter, The Spree are a large assembly of musicians dressed in flowing “Age of Aquarius” style robes. They sound like a joyous choral rock band and look like they're a few Dixie cups of Kool-Aid away from things turning bad.
It's probably all a bunch of malarkey, but few internet conspiracy rabbit holes are more fascinating than the “There is no Andrew W.K.” theory. Ever since the white-shirt-clad party monster broke into the mainstream, conspiracy theorists have been claiming that there is no single Andrew W.K. Instead, multiple sweaty, wet-haired men are pretending to be him. It's a theory that Phillip Crandall addresses and debunks in his excellent 33 1/3 book I Get Wet, but it's fun to imagine that there really is a cult of Andrew W.K.s out there, each member wearing the white garb of their leader and memorizing his many Party Tips tweets as sacred gospel.
The Butthole Surfers
Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life is an essential document of the American 1980s underground. Full of fascinating anecdotes, the book's most interesting section is the long chapter on Texan drug fiends and noise aficionados The Butthole Surfers. Azerrad paints a picture of them as an evil Grateful Dead, a wandering jam band who aided and abetted bad drug trips with their dissonant anthems, manic stage presence, live projections of surgical videos, and naked dance performances by Kathleen “Ta-Da The Shit Lady” Lynch.
The Surfers became notorious as a band whose larger-than-life drug-gobbling personas wasn't just for show – they were just as crazy offstage. They would go on to attract a circle of fans, followers, and fellow artists that were just as bent as they were.
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The Motor City's other proto-punk godfathers, these garage rock heroes garnered an outlaw reputation for their radical politics and lifestyle. From their communal lifestyle to their association with manager John Sinclair's White Panther Party, the band became infamous for their fiery revolutionary rhetoric. It would prove to be a double-edged sword. Interviews with members of The MC5 in the class oral history book Please Kill Me revealed a group who felt that their music was overshadowed by their manager's political grandstanding. Whereas fellow hometown heroes The Stooges were lauded for their music, The MC5 became legends for their love of guns, Weather Underground-aping soundbites, and singer Rob Tyner's outta control afro.
Acid Mothers Temple
A constantly shifting musical collective headed by guitarist Kawabata Makoto, the group has been living a lifestyle as radical as their music since 1995. Owning a network of houses, the group lives communally. The Japanese psych-noise rockers have such a cult-y vibe about them that they were briefly accused of being part of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that had launched multiple sarin gas attacks on Japan in the 1990s. The accusations were later revealed to be slanderous gossip from their neighbors, who were uneasy with all the strange-looking musicians bouncing from one house to another.
Psychic Temple is playing on Wednesday, July 26, at The Trunk Space.