- Photo via band Facebook
For much of its nearly twenty-year existence, the rhythmically dexterous band the Pat Sajak Assassins has had a hard time staying in one lane — certain albums pushed toward math-rock, others dabbled in horn-led fusion, and nearly all recordings were instrumental. But for a band built around some level of well-controlled chaos, PSA finds itself in a rare groove of consistency, as the same lineup recorded both 2014's Motherboard and the brand-new Long Time Listener First Time Caller. Alongside longtime members Harold Covey (drums) and Brian Fleschute (bass), the quartet is rounded out by keyboardist Chris Eilers and vocalist/synthesist Syrhea Conaway.
Eilers joined the band a few years back and began using more buzzy, retro-heavy tones to fill in the space where guitar and saxophone used to sit. Conaway, who has played in a host of local bands and who performs her own solo work as Syna So Pro, fills a more elusive role, that of lead vocalist and lyricist for a band that has routinely been words-free.
Over coffee at MoKeBe's, Covey and Conaway talked about the band's evolution, writing process and current sci-fi obsessions that pepper the new album.
"We had dabbled with other vocalists and it never really worked out," says Covey. "We were always trying to get into that arena with a vocal element — it wasn't really a need we found ourselves, but I think that we thought that it was something that would make it more accessible to an audience. If there's nobody singing, they're kind of just like, 'What the hell is going on?'"
Conaway's solo work often employs looping and layering, so she is well-versed in using her voice as an instrument as opposed to a megaphone. That skill fit in well with the sonically curious band.
"Syrhea was the first one who could compete with the volume levels that we're all producing," Covey continues. "Every other singer we've had, we would do shows and the sound guy would inevitably be like, 'That sounded cool but I couldn't really hear the vocals at all.'" Turning to Conaway, Covey comments, "You're doing so many other things with the vocals that it really projects and it meshes well with all the other stuff that's happening."
That "other stuff" often involves enough tempo shifts and time-signature changes to give a music theory student conniptions. "1.7 Billion Mile High Club" finds Conaway singing around a stuttered rhythm and fizzing synth triplets; she navigates through the pulsing instrumentation with ease. For Conaway, that comfort amid these busy structures stems from the band's democratic practices, which are dictated less from someone's fleshed-out demos and more by the members' intuitive jamming.
"There's never been a point in a PSA practice where one of us is telling somebody else, 'You can't do that,'" says Conaway. "We all listen to each other and just find it. It's very organic; we just play something and then record it."
Covey concurs with Conaway. "I've said this before, but I think that all four of us are chameleons when it comes to adapting to whatever is happening around us," he explains. "Brian and I have been playing together for so long that we don't really have to think about it. We can sync up no matter what, and I think that allows us to listen to what is going on with Syrhea and Chris and respond to it. All of us are into different genres of music, and I think some of that comes through."
One synergistic moment came on the track "86'd," when Eilers suggested that Covey channel Norwegian black metal on some of the breaks. "That's something I would never do — I've never been into speed metal or death metal — but it worked great," recalls Covey. "That breadth of exposure among the four of us plays a big part."
On her second album with the band, Conaway imparts her influence in a few ways, most notably through the album's loose thread. "The theme for me, most definitely, is anything unexplained that's related to space," says Conaway. "There for a while I was watching a whole lot of alien-related stuff." That includes "Mothman," a five-minute track inspired by the titular urban legend; it plays out like trailer for a sci-fi rock-opera.
The album's artwork, designed by Covey, includes an actual piece of foil and instructions for making a tinfoil hat — better to keep away mind-reading devices with, of course. It's a playful poke at paranoia in an age overrun with it, compliments of a band that can turn conspiracies into kinetic little symphonies.
Stream a track from the new album below: