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Dark Shadows

Billy Miller on the return of Cold Sun at Austin Psych Fest

By Austin Powell, 8:53AM, Fri. Apr. 29, 2011

Dark Shadows

Cold Sun is an anomaly in Texas psych history. As significant as Bubble Puppy or Moving Sidewalks but in no way similar, the Austin quartet cut one cult classic in its brief existence, the spell-binding Dark Shadows, which Jello Biafra called “the best psychedelic album I know of.” Yet, Cold Sun's real impact came in its second life as the Aliens.

As Bill Bentley notes in his liner notes to I Have Always Been Here Before: The Roky Erickson Anthology, electric autoharpist and visionary Billy Miller was essential in resuscitating the 13th Floor Elevators frontman after his stint in Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

As Blieb Alien and then the Aliens – with Erickson basically replacing Cold Sun's Tom McGarrigle – the group carved Roky’s demented mantras into the essential post-punk canon. The titles alone still send chills: “Two-Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer),” “I Think Up Demons,” “I Walked with a Zombie,” “Don't Slander Me Lucifer,” “Night of the Vampire,” “White Faces,” “Cold Night For Alligators,” “Creature with the Atom Brain,” “Mine Mine Mind,” and “Stand for the Fire Demon.”

That legacy alone should warrant a closer look at Cold Sun. Recorded in 1970, shelved until a limited LP release in 1989, and properly reissued two decades later by Germany’s World in Sound (currently in-stock at End of an Ear), Dark Shadows is crude and cryptic, the type of record that makes you feel like you can crawl inside of it and hide for awhile.

Psych scholar Julian Cope championed it in typical Lester Bangs fashion as “an erotically Satanic sound something like early Una Baines-period The Fall attempting Savage Rose’s take on the Doors via Easter Everywhere-meets-Van Der Graaf’S proto-J. Rotten fist-shaking Zoroastrian defiance.”

For the first time in 39 years, Cold Sun – Miller, McGarrigle, and original bassist Mike Waugh, with Blood Drained Cows drummer Tom Trusnovic and musical director Jasper Leach – is reuniting at Austin Psych Fest on Sunday, performing just before Roky Erickson and headliners the Black Angels.

Cold Sun “Rama”

Off the Record: I’m familiar with the saga of Cold Sun, but I still don’t quite understand what took so long for Dark Shadows to be properly released.
Billy Miller: There is a very good reason. I began working with Roky Erickson in Blieb Alien. Then we migrated to California and called it Roky Erickson & the Aliens. The local company we were working with was trying to get a deal with Columbia Records, and it just never happened. I shelved that and didn’t even tell anybody about it. And in my opinion, Roky Erickson is a better singer and songwriter than I am, so I though why dig into the vaults for this thing from the past.

Somehow Rockadelic [Records] found out about it and wanted to put out a limited edition LP. I thought that can't hurt anything. It's only 300 copies, and if people want to pass cassettes around, that’s fine. This was before CD burners existed. But by allowing this vanity collector's edition, it began to spread around and became kind of legendary, even though at the time it was very underground. It didn't really have anything to do with the local scene.

People over the years convinced me that it was ahead of its time so in a way I don’t think of it as something from the past. Maybe it was just something from another world.

OTR: What is it about Dark Shadows that you think people connect with so strongly?
BM: There is an aspect of this that's hard to talk about. Disregard it if you don't believe me, but people pick up on the feeling of being in another world when they hear this. It takes them something far away. That was my intention at the time. I was 18 when I wrote these songs, and 20 when I recorded them. Over the years little by little these predictions that the songs were laced with, these things came true. I thought I had a strange gift that was maybe different from Roky - the ability to predict things. I thought it was a jinx and that I was going to destroy my life if I kept writing songs.

I’m no longer afraid. We’re working on a new album. The title track is called “Rites of Osiris.” These are even more otherworldly but maybe a little more snappy. I find myself just listening to the older stuff over and over until I even forget that it’s my voice. So I get some glimpse of the effect it has some people.

OTR: What else can you tell me about Rites of Osiris?
BM: It’s almost finished. We just need a few overdubs. It’s mostly stuff that I wrote right after Dark Shadows. There’s a song by Powell St. John (“Synthetic Love”) that's the darkest song that we do, so dark that I couldn’t even bring myself to sing the vocal on it. The guitarist [Thomas Mcgarrigle] does that one. I don’t listen to that one as much.

One of the other songs is steeped in tragic Austin history. It’s called “Mount Bonnell Road,” and it’s about the night they took Roky Erickson away. It was written by Gregg Turner, who I worked with in Blood Drained Cows. He was having a nightmare about hiding a doghouse in fear and woke up hearing “Starry Eyes.”

OTR: Speaking of Roky, from the 13th Floor Elevators and Bubble Puppy to Golden Dawn, Texas has such a rich history of psychedelic music. How does Cold Sun fit into that legacy?
BM: In a sense I wasn't at all trying to be psychedelic. If we were really busy chewing peyote, that’s just because we had more class than the people that were doing acid and coke. It is true that we were the peyote band, but that's just because it's a better drug. Psychedelic is just another word for punk. We were more like a pre-punk avant-garde.

It was a couple of years after the psychedelic phase. By the way, that suddenly became very not popular at the time. Austin really had no major claim to fame until Willie Nelson and the other cosmic cowboys put Austin on the map, but what they didn’t know is that that scene really sprang up for the 13th Floor Elevators and their opening acts.

Cold Sun “For Ever”

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