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Not to Be Ignored 

Zac Hryciak on Spooky Cool’s exacting and engaging debut LP, “Existential Pie.”

click to enlarge Richmond band Spooky Cool has a release show for its new album, "Existential Pie," at The Camel on Saturday, Oct. 29.

Andre Mags

Richmond band Spooky Cool has a release show for its new album, "Existential Pie," at The Camel on Saturday, Oct. 29.

The camera starts rolling. A bright pink mixture of cornstarch and water begins falling in a gooey stream over your head. Could you sing along to your latest single under those circumstances?

Zac Hryciak certainly could. The leader of Richmond-based rock band Spooky Cool endured a downpour of the grade school concoction many call oobleck — “a looser version of that, so that we could get it to actually flow,” he says — while shooting the video for “Net Ignored,” the last single preceding the arrival of his group’s debut LP, “Existential Pie.” The two takes they filmed were just as gross as you’d imagine. “We did it in my backyard so that I could run to the shower directly after,” he says, laughing. “I definitely both times was seeing pink. It got in every orifice.”

Alongside the song’s lyrics, the “Net Ignored” video forms a wry statement on the challenges of releasing music in the clickbait era. “Should I set myself on fire / Would you pay attention if I crashed my car,” Hryciak sings over footage that’s just as likely to stop your average social media scroll.

While “Net Ignored” was inspired by a stray negative Reddit post about Spooky Cool’s previously released music, the band has had to answer to even higher internal standards when working on new music. “We’re so picky,” Hryciak admits. “We’re just now starting to get to a point where we’re like, ‘You need to release material, and not just sit on stuff.’”

Spooky Cool began performing daring and detailed rock as a live act in 2015. Hryciak’s collaboration with drummer Lee Spratley and bassist Sean Williams dates back even further than that. They shared the “Every Thing Ever” EP in 2018 on Citrus City Records, but Hryciak describes the road toward a debut full-length “a long experience and a learning experience” — a shape-shifting “chimera” when it comes to establishing a way forward.

“Existential Pie” was its own long experience. Its songs were written over the better part of a decade and recorded at various apartments around Richmond, and the band commissioned three rounds of mixing en route to the final version. The first round, which enlisted Greg Saunier of Deerhoof, was halted amid concerns the material wasn’t yet ready. The next round suffered from pandemic headwinds, as sending notes back and forth with a second engineer proved painful. The group eventually turned to Collin Pastore, the Nashville-based producer and mixing engineer credited with standout work for Lucy Dacus and Illuminati Hotties.

“We were sending notes,” Hryciak says, “and able to talk on the phone, [but] the only way it actually was able to come together was that we worked over Zoom in real time with him to mix it, because otherwise it was never going to get there.”

The results reflect expansive imagination and collective ability, from immersive pop to nimble math rock bolstered by Zavi Harman’s precise guitar. On “I Lick the Sweat Off Your Back,” those styles meet seamlessly in the middle. Together, the nine tracks chart Hryciak’s journey through and away from an early resolution to challenge listeners.

“When Spooky Cool started,” Hryciak remembers, “we were doing these long, seven-minute, eight-minute tracks, and there are a couple on this record… It started out with good intentions: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if pop music was more like a classical composition [with] a lot of different phases that you would go through to get through one song?'”

Then came an epiphany. “I realized that I don’t want to make music that automatically turns people off,” he says.

He started at the source, challenging himself to adhere to a sense of structure when writing. “Don’t go over three minutes,” he told himself. “Try and get everything you want to get done within that time frame.” He also learned to write in Ableton, software whose scope ranges from triggering samples to full-on production. It helped him hone songs before bringing them to the rest of the band, and it also redirected Spooky Cool’s sound.

“I’ve been inspired by and pushing toward this more pop aesthetic — kind of electronic pop,” Hryciak says. “And that was honestly because I just started writing in Ableton… I can use whatever sound I want.”

Among the most compelling sounds on the album is Hryciak’s voice, which bends to trace circuitous melodies and gains otherworldly power when in harmony with backing vocalist Paula Lavalle. It can seem like Hryciak was born to front a band, given his dexterity, but realizing that potential was circuitous in its own way.

Hryciak hoped to pursue filmmaking but struggled with undiagnosed, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as a high schooler at Thomas Dale in Chester. Music offered an alternative creative outlet. “I was starting to learn guitar,” he recalls, “and before I realized that I could sing, I realized I could make up melodies. That was the first thing. I was like, ‘This is fun. This is like creating something visual, but it’s not visual.’”

More recently, Hryciak started experimenting with writing for voices other than his own. Lavalle deftly takes center stage on “End of Rage,” which lambasts an older generation that’s squandered the future of a younger one. It’s a timely statement given economic conditions that make touring more difficult and the recent frenzy of nine-figure investments in rock legends’ catalogs.

Meanwhile, Spooky Cool is working to build their own catalog. The “Existential Pie” release show is scheduled for Oct. 29 at the Camel, but Hryciak already has his eyes on his next recording project. A new EP is slated for release in the first half of next year, with tracking planned for January. “[We’re] going to put our heads down, push through and keep on releasing material. That’s our goal right now, to be releasing content at a steady pace.”

To hear “Existential Pie,” visit spookycool.bandcamp.com. The album’s release show will take place on Saturday, Oct. 29 at the Camel. Doors open at 7 p.m. Deli Kings, Opin and Colpa Mia will also perform. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased at thecamel.org.

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