The most sprawling and epic track on Prism Tats’ sophomore album, “Mamba” has a double meaning to its title. “It’s the name of a venomous snake, and in my hometown it’s a slang term for the biggest or meanest of something,” says singer/songwriter Garett van der Spek, who grew up in Durban, South Africa. For the L.A.-based artist, who began making music as Prism Tats in 2014, the word mamba embodies the theme of fear that threads through the record. “The song is partly about letting go of that fear,” says van der Spek. “When I say ‘Give me the mamba,’ I mean ‘Give me the whole experience’: the good and the bad and everything else that might exist in between.”
Embedded in the album’s moody backdrop of melody-driven psych-rock/post-punk, that release of fear feels like a form of defiance. “Most of these songs came from taking in what’s going on in the world today and being afraid of the future we’re headed toward,” says van der Spek. But even as the album slips into some unsettling subject matter—self-inflicted isolation, working-class hopelessness, the emotional damage of technology addiction—each track gives off a reckless energy that brings instant catharsis.
The album’s vitality owes partly to its production, for which Prism Tats eschewed digital technology and recorded entirely to tape. For his first venture into analog recording, van der Spek worked with producer Chris Woodhouse (Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall), who also mixed Prism Tats’ 2016 self-titled debut. “There were times when it would be three in the morning and we’d have so many guitar pedals set up, trying to get some insane sound,” van der Spek says. “Chris would be on the floor, turning the dials while I was playing—creating all these textures live, in the moment. It was so crazy, but it really suited the vibe of the album to record in an old-school way.”
From track to track, that spontaneous ingenuity amplifies the power of the album’s kaleidoscopic sounds: the serpentine guitar melodies of “Sex Shop,” the waltzy rhythms of “Gloom Tomb,” the menacing groove and snarling riffs of “Daggers Across the Desert.” Throughout the record, Prism Tats matches its sonic complexity with an understated emotional depth. On “Brainwaves,” with its chugging guitar lines and howled vocals, van der Spek reflects on the detachment born from increasing dependence on technology (“Dreaming while in conversation/Pretending like I care”). Opening with an extravagantly delivered downer of a couplet (“I sense impending doom/Coming from the TV in my tomb”), “The Liar” fuses its prescient lyrics with a fuzzed-out groove. “I wrote that song a while back, but now it feels like a premonition of what was coming,” says van der Spek. “The liar isn’t necessarily a person, though,” he adds. “It’s more like a force that you can’t really trust, but it’s still got great power over you.” And with its title referencing the proletariat of George Orwell’s 1984, “Prole Pop” brings glistening guitar tones to some beautifully bleak storytelling, complete with details of TV dinners and painkillers.
Some of the album’s most hopeful moments come from pure escapism. On “Apples,” Prism Tats spins a sunny, harmony-drenched narrative of “someone floating off into space and disappearing into the expanse, getting away from the craziness of the world,” as van der Spek explains. The lush and hypnotic “Asleep on the Ocean Floor” chooses the bottom of the sea for an imagined escape, its eerie melody and ethereal vocals blending into hazy lullaby. On “11:11,” meanwhile, Prism Tats offers a wryer meditation on the promise of hope (“Now it’s 11:11, or 22 past 2/Now I think I’m psychic and everything’s a clue”). “I’m superstitious about 11:11,” says van der Spek. “The song’s referencing that, and how the idea that 11:11 means something good’s about to happen is complete garbage—but maybe it’s also not, if you believe in it.” And while van der Spek self-describes as cynical, the slow-building and glorious “Mamba” presents another perspective with its offhandedly confessional lyrics: “I want to fill this hole with heaven/Whatever that means.”
The album’s emotional scope mirrors the intimacy of van der Spek’s songwriting, which mostly took place alone in his apartment. “Most of these songs started with me plugging in my little ’80s drum machine and just recording whatever stream-of-consciousness guitar riffs came up, then building the song from there,” he says. A new approach for Prism Tats, that process closely informed the album’s urgent sound and kinetic feel. “Whenever I started to get a song together, I’d try to get the core structure down right away,” says van der Spek. “Songs can really lose their shine if you let them sit and try to come back to them later on.”
The drum-machine-based method also shaped the record’s rhythm-driven sensibilities, an element that van der Spek traces back to his love for proto-punk bands like the Stooges. “The Stooges in particular had that very drum-oriented and bass-oriented sound, with very simple guitar and a strong lead vocal, which is something I’ve had in mind since I started Prism Tats,” he says. Referring to himself as a late-bloomer, van der Spek notes that digging into punk rock for the first time about a half-decade ago helped him find his voice as a songwriter. “Through my wife I encountered a lot more punk and post-punk than I ever had in South Africa, which changed the way I wrote songs and really helped me boil each idea down to its essence,” he says.
Van der Spek met his wife upon moving to Seattle as part of a university exchange program, and soon immigrated to the US. Back home in Durban, he’d started playing guitar as a little kid and formed his first band at age 12, mining inspiration from his dad’s Beatles, Bowie, and Kinks records. After years of playing in local bands and working on solo projects, van der Spek relocated to Seattle, where he and his wife eventually founded a blues-punk trio. Soon after that band fizzled out, the two moved down to L.A., where van der Spek started Prism Tats and landed a deal with ANTI- Records after being discovered by the label at SXSW 2015.
When it came time to record Prism Tats’ second full-length, van der Spek headed to Woodhouse’s Sacramento studio with the demos he’d recorded at home. “We started from scratch but used the demos as a template, which was a cool experience for me,” he says. “I put a lot of work into making those demos, and it felt good to replicate them but make them sound much better.” In building off his demo work, van der Spek partly focused on preserving his original vocal approach. “Demoing this record was different from recording in my basement in Seattle, where I could scream as loud and obnoxious as I wanted without worrying about the neighbors,” he says. “This time I was singing much quieter, and I think it affected the way I was writing without me even realizing. There’s more color and range to the songs, because I wasn’t just going 100 percent the whole time.”
Through that nuanced vocal performance, Prism Tats intensifies the album’s heady contrast of bright and dark. “I can’t relate to songs when they’re too optimistic,” says van der Spek. “I’d rather there be a little bit of cynicism—not taking it to the depths of despair, but just being realistic. But at the same time, the songs should just feel really good to listen to.” Within that dynamic, Prism Tats ultimately delivers music that’s transformative for both listener and creator. “So much of writing and performing is like a kind of therapy for me,” says van der Spek. “The older I get and the more of life I experience, the more I rely on that as an outlet. Without making music I’d probably go crazy, and it feels good to know that I could never stop doing it.”