Veteran Richmond musician and photographer PJ Sykes releases his first solo album, Fuzz, on May 7. In the run-up to the album’s release, Jason Olsen caught up with PJ to talk gear, music, politics, and the old Shoney’s on Staples Mill Road, among other things.
It’s rare to find a voice that’s both smart and true, and rarer still to find one with real heart. Self-produced records are hard to pull off. I should know, I’ve been self-producing a non-existent record for 20 years or more. That PJ Sykes has written such a solid collection of songs, much less produced them himself, is a testament to his strength as an artist. The sheer cojones and will-power that it takes are all on the line in Sykes’ new solo album, Fuzz.
Where optimal riffage, tuneful optimism, and clever lyricism meet heartfelt delivery, Fuzz seems at once a banner wave to its possible influences — Dinosaur Jr., Built to Spill, Sugar — and also a hymn to the here and now. In “Holding On,” easily the catchiest bounce-across-the-walls paean to being stuck in a pandemic, “Our time is limited so let’s make the most of it” is a mantra. It’s one so many of us were repeating, trying to find joy in what felt like end-times. Not only do I get it, I live it. Every. Single. Day. It’s a bright spot where being hopeful, despondent, wistful, and suspicious all ride the line together. And that’s mostly the tactic of the first half of the record, after which we experience the hangover of the current world.
Thankfully, Sykes is capable of both the bludgeoned and melodic, interspersing a personal narrative that keeps the multiple riffs of “How to Germinate a Heart” from spinning off into space. The opening psychedelic sludge of “Real Life” sustains throughout but never meanders due to a pertinent question being held aloft. Most of the album rides the line between abject disdain for those that can’t wrap their heads around the current sad state, and the hope that maybe, just maybe, some of y’all could wake the fuck up.
And then I noticed his detailed, artful use of “gain-staging.” Scooping the frequencies on each take and comping them together. Stacking the sounds to make them stronger. Not division. Not subtraction. Cohesion. “Aerosol” blends overdubs tastefully, providing a wall of stacked action and more than a nod to the last real punk, one Kurdt Kobain [Jason’s views on punk do not represent RVA Mag editorial policy. Nirvana was cool though — ed.], at least from a lyrical and melodic perspective. “Another Frequency” squares up tones against each other and thematically lays out the curve of the record. The sad ambiguity of our America is exposed: why is there always an “other” when in fact we are all neighbors?
Whose finger is on the dial that is pumping fear into our homes, division into our interaction, and keeping citizens from looking each other in the eye and holding ourselves to account for our own sins? Sykes isn’t an interloper, he’s not out to take anything away from you. The questions that linger in his songs were as much for him as they might be for you. Are you ready to stop being afraid of everything and everyone you encounter? Are you ready to rock again?
I was lucky enough to get Sykes to agree to an interview prior to the album release Wednesday, May 7th.
Jason Olsen: So… Awkward first statement. I wasn’t aware of you as a musician. In fact, I’m having difficulty remembering how exactly I hit the follow button on your Twitter account. I’m fairly certain it was a result of seeing some of your live photography, but I won’t commit to that. Somehow, though, you became one of my go-to tastemakers when I clicked through on a “Best of 2020” playlist you made that really defied genre. It had a little bit of everything and seemed to bounce from the eclectic, to the enormously popular, to the singer-songwriter. I often say that I’m not a music snob, I don’t care for elitism, and I sensed that in you. I gleaned that you have a genuine appreciation for music and the spirit of artists.
Which brings us to Fuzz, your first solo LP. I was a little blind-sided. I’m thinking to myself, “Is this guy some kind of savant?” Like, already I was a little jealous. “What can’t he do?”
I guess that’s my first question. Is there anything you can’t do? Seriously, what gave you the legs to write and produce your own full-length in the past year, other than the obvious element of time?
PJ Sykes: There are no guilty pleasures and popularity doesn’t make something good nor bad. I really like artists that are looking to be free and are trying to be themselves as much as possible. Some of my favorites that are currently working are people like St. Vincent, R.A.P. Ferreira, Shamir, and Bob Mould.
I’m definitely no savant, but thank you! It’s true that I’m best known as a music photographer, but that came as a result of playing live music. Ultimately I’m a musician first, it’s what I’ve had the most formal training with. However, I think about art holistically. What can I make with this tool? Or sometimes if I have a song in my head, an image, or an idea, how do I use different mediums to bring it to life? I’m not a technical person and I really don’t care what the gear is if I can use it to make something. It could be a crappy camera or a broken guitar. I don’t own a lot of really nice gear. What I struggle with the most is singing and writing lyrics. So I put the most time and effort into that process. I built a DIY vocal booth and did a bunch of demo takes to find what sounded good to me and was comfortable for my voice range. I worked on finding phrases that were more comfortable to sing to and crafted around the ideas and themes I wanted to express.
Jason: From a thematic perspective, I can’t help but think that this collection of songs is a reflection of our current political American system, which seems to be in a real-time tug of war between “the good ole days” and actually achieving a leadership role in the world again, and righting some of the inequities. How much of that was bleeding through into your creative process, especially as it pertains to constructing the songs? Were you actively moving toward, or trying to pull back from that?
PJ: I’ve been politically active for a long time but it has certainly been more intense leading into the Presidential election year and the pandemic. I don’t know how someone could possibly ignore politics for the last few years. Even before that, things were not great. For me, everything is politics. If you drink water, breathe air, or eat food, you should be engaged. Fuzz certainly addresses life from the vantage point of the last year or so, with a mostly optimistic edge that things can get better if we work at it.
Jason: “Dunkin’ on the General,” if I’m hearing it correctly, is directly connected to the outrage that was happening in Richmond, VA last summer, with nightly BLM protests that led to a number of unfortunate clashes with city police, and exposed the city to the international spotlight. As a former resident, and somebody who is sympathetic to BLM, I was really disheartened by the police response, and the violence that was happening. I definitely felt that it was detrimental to the message to the movement. I think you were there, in a photojournalist role, kind of a fly on the wall. Can you expand on how that made its way into the song? Talk to me about the line “expand the circle.”
PJ: First off I stand with BLM and as a cis white male I want to use my privilege to lift people up. “Dunkin’ on the General” is about the beautiful future we’re working towards and the ugliness we’re having to face to get there. “Expand the circle” means taking the idea of the diverse and equal public space, in our case Marcus-David Peters Circle, and spreading it past not just the physical boundaries (which are currently limited by police fencing) but also mental boundaries. We’ve all got work to do, starting with difficult conversations with friends and family members.
What I saw this summer through all the tear gas and violence was a diverse community coming together day after day and literally growing food, playing basketball, dancing, playing music, and sharing positive experiences on a plot of land that was originally intended as a monolith of white supremacy. I actually did not participate as a photojournalist because of my location and the pandemic. However, I would visit the area often, helped clean up the arts district, and helped spread the word on Twitter during some of the most turbulent nights, among other things.
Jason: A lot of the recording techniques you seem to employ aren’t necessarily new, but I was continually impressed at how deft a hand you took in their usage. The guitars especially sound great, with the gain-staging and overdubbing really precise and sharp. I can think of a handful of players that use this to great effect, but here it sounds like you just cranked it out. Tell me that you struggled a little bit, just to make me feel better.
I also want to talk about your rig. Tell me about the gear you were using, specifically the fuzz pedals and how often you were switching things up or tweaking. You have a knack for production; how did you land there?
PJ: I’ve been experimenting with recording most of my life. I was always interested in sound and trying to capture and manipulate it starting with my Fisher-Price tape recorder as a kid. Over the years I’ve moved from cassette four-tracks to various digital recording software. The basics are all very similar, they just get higher quality sounding and more expansive. I’ve hired and worked closely with Allen Bergendahl for years and picked up a lot of tips from asking questions and watching him record my projects, and other people too. As a photographer I’ve had the privilege to be in the recording studio with lots of artists, and I would watch carefully and pick up ideas.
To bounce off my earlier answer, I’m not a nerdy gear or tech person. I know generally how to do things, I learn quickly, but I’m not as interested in getting “technically perfect” recordings. I just want it to feel right to me. I will study things I like and see if I can break them apart to make them my own. Fuzz started out by playing my standard live guitar, a modified Fender Jaguar HH, through my typical live rig, which is an MXR Modified OD into a fuzz pedal of some sort into a delay pedal of some sort and my Ampeg Reverberocket. Once I came up with some song ideas, I broke them out into their own sessions and used all real pedals but Logic Pro amps. I would say it’s cheating not to use real amplifiers and microphones, but if you like how it sounds, who really cares?
I was able to track any time of day. So for months I would just record parts and rearrange the songs, set up a new track and play it again. Try new pedal combinations for each song and each part. I dusted off my 90s Epiphone Les Paul and had James Seretis (The Hustle Season) fix it up; I used that for almost every guitar that you hear on the record now. I used a 90s Black Russian Big Muff Pi and the silver 00s Big Muff Pi, what I call a “Viking Muff,” which is a modified Big Muff clone that Allen Bergendahl made for me. But the Fuzz secret sauce is a Grand Orbiter from EarthQuaker Devices, which is a great new (or new to me) pedal company that makes beautiful sounding pedals (please sponsor me!), and this weird fuzz pedal that has reverse attack sound called ZUFF, by Chris Harmon of the band Droopies. I would just mix these up depending on the part or song. When I got frustrated or tired of something I would unplug everything and change all the dials up so I couldn’t repeat myself.
Jason: From my view, staring at a blank page or DAW screen can be the most daunting thing, and really quite lonely. Listening to the record actually got me really inspired to plug in and turn the amp up. I recently purchased the BigMuff Pi Op-Amp ‘71 reissue, which is the famous Pumpkins sound, and I hadn’t really turned it up, you know? For about five minutes after playing really loud for two hours, I was just elated. And then I thought how great it would have been with two or three other players in the room to work off of. I’m wondering how you’re feeling about promoting the record without putting it on a stage? These songs sound stage-ready. Is that a disappointment you are going to have to live with, or are you figuring out a way to share it in another arena?
PJ: Hell yeah! If Fuzz makes you plug in a guitar and crank it up, I’ve done my job. I really miss live music and I really really miss performing. I don’t have a band right now and I have no plans to play live until it’s safe to do so. I know we’re starting to see announcements for large festivals this fall; to me that seems a little soon to be around thousands of people. I hope we can safely start doing outdoor gigs for a reasonable size audience by the fall. For now you’ll just have to blast Fuzz and play along!
Jason: And finally, I meant to ask about the album cover, which is a portrait of you, I think, that you manipulated and gave a saturated primary-color makeover. It seemed reminiscent to me of a lot of the early indie album covers that I grew up with, because on the one hand you have an image of innocence and yet there’s a wild aspect to it, sometimes almost suspicious. I’m thinking of Dinosaur Jr. and Violent Femmes, even Talking Heads. I kinda got a Houses of the Holy vibe, too. What was the impetus behind that design? Because it pops, and then I’m trying to figure out what’s going on in that kid’s head. Did you play around with a variety of ideas, or did this one stick right away?
PJ: Yeah, it’s a photo of me as a child. I’ve always loved this photo and before the pandemic my mom happened to send me a scan of it. So it was on my mind as I developed the record, and I was using it as a placeholder for the demos. I liked exploring the idea of manipulating a photo of myself as a child with the filter of what I know now and have experienced in my life since, especially given the topics of Fuzz. Lately I’ve been really into this primary color motif, and liked the added level of surrealism mixed with nostalgia and innocence it gave to the final artwork. I made some similar artwork that will be part of the CD packaging and on the digital single for “Holding On” that features “Shoney’s Cactus,” a prickly pear clipping from the old Shoney’s on Staples Mill road that I saved and posted about on my Instagram.
PJ Sykes’ Fuzz will be available May 7 on Bandcamp at pjsykes.bandcamp.com. The first single, “Holding On,” is available to stream right now at Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, and others. PJ also has a number of prints of other artists playing live available through his website, pjsykes.com.