The Los Angeles rockers spin social justice and surrealism into a psychedelic stew on their latest LP.
“You know, it wasn’t supposed to go this long,” says Bobby Hecksher of the Los Angeles psych-rock group The Warlocks. “Everything was a total disaster for the first three or four years. But 20 years later it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re still making albums.’” Surprised as Hecksher may be, perhaps The Warlocks’ extended tenure was in the cards all along, as their latest LP, The Chain (Cleopatra), is their tenth and is by far their best album to date—as well as their most topical.
Compared to the Warlocks off-the-cuff, acid-soaked earlier albums, The Chain doesn’t so much represent a departure in sound as it does reflect the maturation of Hecksher as an artist and songwriter. “I was very happy this album came out a lot better than expected, and the band was so eager and so ready and had such a good attitude,” he says. “There wasn’t any weirdness. It was like, ‘Bobby has some ideas. Let’s go try this and let’s have a good attitude and keep an open mind.’ And every time I came in with a new song, they were totally focused and ready to do it, so it was cool. It was a great experience for me.”
Partially rooted in a screenplay Hecksher had written about a bank robbery gone wrong—and the conflicting consequences which the main protagonists, Rocky and Diamond, face in the wake of the heist—The Chain is a meditation on the criminal justice system, particularly how the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is blatantly displayed within an institution where the equity of penalty is pushed aside for those who can buy their way to freedom. “The Chain really represents a link that’s going around and around,” says Hecksher of the album’s theme. “You listen to stories of these kids with low level drug crimes, and they’re getting huge sentences, just massive chunks out of their life. Then [another] person who has a good lawyer, he fucking gets off with just parole. The guy that gets a public defender gets locked in and he’s down the drain for a few years, which can have a huge impact on your life…. That’s sort of the stuff that really affected me. Like, ‘What is justice?’ Does it really just come down to how much money do you have, or who the fuck you know?”
While there is a palpable connection from song to song, Hecksher is a bit reluctant to call The Chain a concept album in the truest of senses. “I mean, to be able to do any kind of concept album that’s thoroughly thought out would be really difficult these days. We only had about two weeks to make this thing with zero rehearsal. So I just had the themes and the songs I’d been working on for two years thinking, ‘Okay, this connects to that. This is an older song—let’s throw that in there, too. It could connect.’ Sort of piecing together an album like that. Taking all those songs and ideas, and be like, ‘You ready? Let’s do it.’ It’s totally punk rock. It’s not The Wall.”
The absence of a solid narrative notwithstanding, The Chain resonates with vivid imagery, evoking the sense of a cinematic societal critique, set amid a soundtrack of oozing, shoegaze-infused neo-psychedelia. Blessed still are the trip-takers, for sure. Only now, The Warlocks are vibrating from the new-found theoretical value of Hecksher’s songwriting. “I was just trying to get a different kind of inspiration,” he says. “The days are gone of The Warlocks dropping acid, tripping out, and making the album. That was the early days, you know? The first handful of records that we made [we were] in our twenties, and I just can’t do that anymore. And so I had to find something to cut for inspiration, even though the music is still so psychedelic sounding that I can’t possibly tie it back into a total stream of consciousness.”
Hecksher isn’t putting on airs when he reflects on the Warlocks turbulent early days. He remains the only constant member of the group, which has featured more than twenty different musicians since the band’s inception—including a brief period that featured Anton Newcombe, the eclectic and unpredictable leader of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Hecksher credits Newcombe, to a degree, with having helped pave the way for the Warlocks as they were just getting out of the gate, but the two musicians have since had a falling out and haven’t spoken to each other in quite some time. The Warlocks also have released their albums on a multitude of labels, including the renown Los Angeles-based Bomp! Records, the San Francisco upstart label Birdman Records, and a brief stint with the seminal Mute Records, which was at the time part of the EMI Group. The Chain was released by Cleopatra Records, a move that Hecksher has found the most comfortable after two decades of label hopping. “As far as labels go, they are the sweetest, kindest, most transparent and functioning labels that I’ve ever been on. Now, that’s not to say that being on Mute or EMI and stuff like that wasn’t cool. It was great, but it was very much ‘You’re the artist, we’re the label, and we’re telling you what the fuck is going on.’ Kind of like that, you know? And then other labels just disappeared… you know, it’s just like a phantom ghost. You’re in a relationship with a ghost for basically everything.”
In August, Hecksher and his wife will be welcoming their first child, and for now, his focus lies there, and not necessarily with the future of the Warlocks. “I honestly didn’t think I would have another record,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Hey, man. Let’s leave it at Songs From the Pale Eclipse (2016). Those are the last bits of ideas and songs and let’s wrap this stand up.’ But I have a lot of good work here and I don’t want it to just turn to junk. So, I was planning on doing a few tours. Hopefully that can happen, but we’ll see how everything goes.” And if The Chain ends up being The Warlocks’ swan song? That’s a notion which Hecksher seems perfectly at peace with. “You never want to say that anything is the end…. I’m all about being productive,” he says. “If there’s really something good to say, you know, I’ll say it. But I’m not going to [write songs] just for the sake of being productive.”
Ever since he was 27-years-old, Bobby Hecksher has placed rock and roll ahead of everything else. Now at 46, he’s beginning to see through the haze. “It’s a weird thing, because it’s a lot of responsibility to be a responsible person,” he says. But even if his days as the headmaster of The Warlocks could potentially be coming to a close, one gets the sense that Hecksher will ultimately rekindle his artistic self in some other fashion somewhere down the line. But for now, listeners can revel in the slow burn of The Chain.