As has been thoroughly documented, the past decade or so has not been easy for independent musicians, particularly for those with a taste for venturing outside typical bounds of rock and pop. Consider producer-musician Chris Schlarb, who at 36 years old has a wife, two kids and a full-time job as a short-haul truck driver that carries him around Southern California.
"I've been working there off and on for about 10 years and what I've found is it ... allows me to think about music all day," Schlarb said, speaking by phone while driving home in Long Beach. "Because I could -- and often do -- just turn the radio off and if a melody comes to me I can sing it into my phone. It allows me the freedom of thought, which is so important to me because my mind is always going."
In between job and family obligations, Schlarb also ran the indie label Sounds Are Active (which has released albums from local explorers Nels Cline and Anthony Shadduck), wrote the music for the Nintendo 3DS game "NightSky" and as well as recording on his own and as part of the experimental-jazz duo I Heart Lung.
His atmospheric, mostly instrumental 2009 album "Psychic Temple" upped the stakes with a cast of 29 musicians, but for the promised sequel Schlarb threw another curveball.
Instead of mining a similar vein of experimental rock and avant-jazz, "Psychic Temple II" features lushly twisted takes on pop and prog-filtered soul music that includes lush covers of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out" and the Beach Boys' " 'Til I Die." Released on the indie label Asthmatic Kitty, the album also features contributions from Sufjan Stevens, metal guitarist Paul Masvidal and Castanets' Ray Raposa. (Schlarb performs with his band at Pehrspace on Sunday and Fingerprints Records on 4th Street in Long Beach this coming Thursday.)
"On an artistic level, what's the point of doing the same record again?" Schlarb said. "And then on a financial level, 'Psychic Temple' didn't exactly tear up the charts," he adds with a laugh.
A self-taught musician apart from some time learning clarinet and gospel choir in high school (his group appeared on the BET Awards when he was a teenager), Schlarb was initially drawn to the in-the-moment creation of jazz and its tributaries, appearing in a large ensemble called Create(!) that was so dedicated to improvisation they never rehearsed.
"That was an incredible learning experience, but the inner contrarian in me was like, 'Okay, why don't you write something?' " he said.
Oddly, Schlarb's road toward exploring pop songcraft on "Psychic Temple II" began with Christmas music. His wife and two children (ages 15 and 12) began a tradition of recording holiday albums for friends and family each year, and what started with recording "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night" eventually evolved into interpretations of Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and the Beatles.
"I'd almost intentionally held pop music at arm's length my entire life. You know that Native American idea where photographs like stealing your soul? I had this idea if I did that with pop music it would do the same thing," he said. "It was like, if I learn these Led Zeppelin songs, I'm going to try and write a Led Zeppelin song. It would corrupt my creativity."
Instead, "Psychic Temple II" sounds practically bursting with ideas. In addition to songs with vocals, there's also the sinewy chamber jazz of "The Starry King Hears Laughter," which features gorgeous turns from bassist Devin Hoff and trumpeter Kris Tiner, the guitar-drone soundscape of "No Tsurai" and the percolating groove of "She Is the Golden World."
"To me there is this beautiful balance," Schlarb says of the album. "I want to bridge the spontaneous and the extraordinarily well-considered. The songs don't feel flat at all, they have a life of their own but I also spent something like hundreds of hours tweaking to make sure the floor-tom sounds great. That's the poetic through-line for that material."
Schlarb's obsessive nature is also reflective elsewhere in "Psychic Temple" with its meticulous vinyl packaging (which includes a laser-carved wooden box for storing both volumes of the album) and a band photo that is a detailed re-creation of a shot from the inner sleeve of Joe Jackson's "Night and Day," right down to a pack of Turkish cigarettes he found on eBay. Still, despite such efforts, he has no expectations for runaway success.
"I'm a dad, I work like 50 hours a week driving a truck and probably another 30 hours a week on music -- every week," Schlarb says. "All of my expectations are internal. I need to do a great job, I need to make music that will make me happy. That way, I'm a pretty happy person in general."
Chris Schlarb and Psychic Temple, Pehrspace, 325 Glendale Blvd., L.A. Sun., 8 p.m.$5. www.pehrspace.org. Also, Thurs., Fingerprints Records, 420 E. 4th Street, Long Beach 7 p.m. Free.