This article is taken from the first issue of the Fuzz Club Magazine which you can pick up HERE.

From humble beginnings to a crucial catalyst in the psych community: Lindsay Krause talks to Christian Bland, Al Lover and Bob Mustachio about the history of Levitation…

Texas has long been a hotbed of rock’n’roll experimentation, noted for the rise of oddball psychedelia through the likes of the 13th Floor Elevators during the Sixties and the crazed antics of deranged punks Butthole Surfers through the Eighties. Austin has often provided a central space for sonic incubation in the state, with venues such as the original Vulcan Gas Company and the Armadillo World Headquarters cementing the city’s magnetic pull for like-minded soul travellers during the Elevators reign.

Levitation (formerly Austin Psych Fest) began as an alternative to South By Southwest in 2008 founded by Alex Maas and Christian Bland of The Black Angels, along with booker/producer Rob Fitzpatrick and video director James Oswald. It has now blossomed into an international phenomenon, birthing many similarly-inspired celebrations across the globe. This year, Levitation celebrates a decade of carrying the lysergic torch of the Lone Star State so we sat down with Christian Bland, Al Lover and Bob Mustchio to reflect on the history of the festival. 

While out on tour, the idea dawned on The Black Angels to start hosting some of the many bands they’d been playing with in other cities, in their hometown of Austin. Talking of the festival’s origins, Bland explains: “For the first 2 years, Psych Fest was the weekend before SXSW. Mainly because we were trying to catch bands that were going to be coming for South By anyway, and also because we wanted to have them come a week early and pay them properly,” unlike SXSW where most performers are lucky to get paid properly, if at all. “It was always important for us to pay the bands fairly.”

Al Lover Cristian Bland levitation Austin Psych Fest
Photo by Nico Alexa

“The Black Angels headlined the first year. We knew we could bring in a crowd of 700-800 people so we felt if we anchored the festival people would come.” The first edition commenced at The Red Barn on Burnet and, as well as the Angels, it boasted the likes of Spindrift and Ringo Deathstarr among a handful of others, however, due to noise complaints it would be the first and final year at that location.

Psych Fest quickly established a reputation for booking monumental talent. They secured the late garage legend Sky ‘Sunlight’ Saxon of The Seeds for the festival’s second year, held at 6th Street venue The Radio Room. “I think when we got The Seeds, that was one of the first moments that felt very surreal and ‘full-circle’. We always wanted to pepper the older 60s bands into the festival,” Bland recalls. Sky played with a backing band in the shape of local outfit The Shapes Have Fangs and was inspired to move to Austin after playing the festival, where he would live out the rest of his life. “I played a show with him the day before he went into the hospital. I got to witness the last time he played ‘Pushin’ Too Hard’ at the old Antone’s on 5th Street”, Christian remembers fondly.

Photo by Mark Reitz

New York electronic pioneers Silver Apples performed at Mohawk for Psych Fest 3 and the momentum continued. By 2011 the team were able to secure the decommissioned Seaholm Power Plant, an immense Art-Deco space downtown. Nearly 2000 fans gathered to experience Peter Kember of Spacemen 3’s Spectrum and Austin’s iconic rock’n’roll visionary Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators.

As Austin Psych Fest evolved so did the definition of what could fit under the stylistic ‘psychedelic rock’ umbrella. Throughout the course of the gathering’s 10-year history sounds ranging from geopolitical desert blues and exploratory space pop to the fringes of freak-folk and the gallows of stoner metal have found community in the nexus which Levitation created.

In 2012 Bob Mustachio joined the team as visual director after providing his explosive light show for The Black Angels on tour the previous year. A past performer at the festival in 2009 drumming for The Warlocks, Mustachio dived headfirst into his new post. “I had never worked with any other bands, it was a definite ‘baptism by fire’ as they say. I got to work with The Meat Puppets that year, a band I had been a fan of for many years!” Mustachio continues: “I learned so much from doing visuals for 3 days in a row for some pretty epic bands in front of tons of people. It built my confidence in my ability to create visuals more than any other event had managed to do.” 

Photo by Mark Reitz

Al Lover also performed for the first time in 2012 and would eventually become Levitation’s in-house DJ, providing official mixes and the Elevated Transmissions podcast dedicated to fuelling the conversation around psychedelia’s elasticity. The next three years of the festival were celebrated at Carson Creek Ranch, vast grounds on the outskirts of the city with a gorgeous stage overlooking the Colorado River. Levitation France joined the festival’s outreach in 2013, followed by events in Chicago and Vancouver. An official name change to Levitation during 2015, the same year that the 13th Floor Elevators reunited for their 50th-anniversary performance, signalled an appreciation for the deep roots the team recognised from day one. It was the highest turnout for the festival to date, with no less than 10,000 fans from all over the world gathering in the heart of Texas to share the adventure.

“We were shocked to see the growth over 7 years,” Christian says. “We were so excited for 2016 because we thought there were going to be 15,000 people but because of the weather, we had to cancel it. It kind of took the wind out of our sails that year.” Carson Creek was prone to flooding and the event was cancelled on short notice, leaving many to wonder if Levitation would continue – especially when they announced that they’d be taking a year off in 2017. That year Levitation’s absence was felt across Texas and far beyond, so previous performers Night Beats and Golden Dawn Arkestra curated several shows downtown at the beginning of May to commemorate the festival.

2018 saw Levitation Austin return in full-force, teaming up with several venues in Austin’s downtown Red River Cultural District and bringing together without a doubt one of it’s most impressive line-ups to date, with performances from the likes of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Slowdive and Ministry to name just a few. Over in Europe this year’s Levitation France – taking place in September – comes with a line-up that’s equally as impressive, boasting the likes of Spiritualized, The Soft Moon, Holy Wave and La Luz.

Through all the trials and tribulations, the trans-Atlantic community and culture surrounding the events continue to fuel Levitation’s future and this year’s editions see them return on top form – once again creating a mecca for lovers of rock’n’roll and the experimental fringes of alternative music.

Words: Lindsay Krause // Header Photo: Roger Ho