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Pop and Circumstance 

How the process of leaving religion behind gives birth to intellectual dance music

click to enlarge proA s Psychick Rites, Afton Carlson (left) and Mike Siemens are getting the Palouse dancing. - ALICIA CARLSON
  • Alicia Carlson
  • proA s Psychick Rites, Afton Carlson (left) and Mike Siemens are getting the Palouse dancing.
They didn’t “lose” their faith. That would imply a careless mistake or fumble on the part of two otherwise thoughtful men like Mike Siemens and Afton Carlson. They didn’t misplace God under their beds or forget him on a bus. They say they killed him.

Carlson and Siemens met during a time when they were both “coming out” of their deeply religious backgrounds — Carlson the son of a bishop in the Mormon church, and Siemens from a strict Calvinist family. They were angry, both of them, at the blinders they felt they had grown up with, and the way they’d been isolated from other ideas. And so they started to write music about it, about growing away from religion and metaphorically killing God, the symbol of that whole experience.

“The music we’re making right now is angry against God, but it’s more a process of getting over [that anger], it’s like therapy for us,” says Siemens. “We can sing songs about killing God and feel better about it at the end of the day.”

Their Moscow-based band, formerly known as Romper and now called Psychic Rites, has gained a secure hold in the local scene since its inception last January. Their blend of electronic music stands out for its clever balance of darkness and light — the themes of anger and being “Christ haunted,” as Siemens calls it, are checked with parallel themes of optimism for the future.

It plays out in an electric orchestra of sound that is engaging, both for body and mind. Because while the element of darkness is present, it doesn’t take away from the other aim of Psychic Rites’ music — getting people to dance.

“We’ve got sugar-coated hearts,” says Siemens. “I am a child of pop.”

Their energetic blend of intellect and pop is what the band has become known for, and what makes them a huge draw locally.

“If [Psychick Rites] is on the bill, you can guarantee that there will be a good turnout,” says Kentaro Murai, a Moscow DJ, booker, and former program director at local radio station KUOI, in an email. “People love dancing to their brand of [electronic dance music].”

Their foray into electronic music was pretty much as simple as getting burned out on the guitar.

Siemens picked up electronic toys at thrift stores with a friend and “circuit-bending” them into musical instruments, a process that involves tinkering with the circuits in order to customize the sound.

“There are a lot more variables to electronic music,” says Carlson. “You have to become a programmer and a player if you’re music’s going to be good.”

Programming involves more work. Electronic music can be as simple as buying a synthesizer or drum machine and using the pre-packaged sounds and arrangements. But Carlson and Siemens didn’t want to go that route.

“All of our drums are pre-programmed, but I program them myself. I tapped [each sound] in myself.”

While it may make live performances trickier, they say they owe it to their audience.

“A lot of guys these days are programming beats onto computers and just hunching over a laptop for a live performance,” says Carlson. “We also want to connect with the audience in a way where we’re playing instruments. We kind of want to make it more of an organic experience for the audience.”

On a stretch of highway leading out of Moscow proper and into the Palouse’s rolling fields, a gray two-story house sits just off the busy road. People call it “the Bayou” because of its swampy disposition — the yard is wild, the water is undrinkable.

And once it gets dark, the belly of the house begins to gurgle with sound.

On this muggy Saturday night, the basement holds a mass of shifting silhouettes lit just barely by a single strand of white Christmas lights woven through the low rafters. In a darkened corner, Siemens and Carlson are only visible by the glow emanating off of their equipment.

“Hey girl. You know we have our whole lives. Why should we consider time?”

Siemens’ whispery vocals soaked in reverb form a melody over a low, driving beat.

“Counting years and counting seconds. We frame. What should. Be wild.”

The basement is consumed with sound, as layers and layers pile onto the demure song intro. As it erupts, the darkness is broken by the flash of a camera. Siemens is visible just for a moment, mid-jump, pouring his now-strong voice into the microphone, and wearing the vaguely pained expression of someone consumed by cathartic energy, dancing to the beats of their own sugar-coated hearts.

Psychic Rites performs with Uncanny Valley and Blvck Ceiling • Fri, Aug. 3 at 9 pm • Checkerboard Tavern • 1716 E. Sprague Ave • checkerboardtavern.com • 535-4007

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