Astra interview: "We just want to keep that feeling alive of when we first heard "In The Court Of The Crimson King" or "Nursery Cryme""

22/02/2013 @ 12:39
For many fans, American band Astra is one of the 'hot' names in terms of modern psychedelic / progressive rock and their recent "The Black Chord" album, indeed carried out the expectations and ambitions left to be read after their stunning debut ("The Weirding"). Since then, and with the two albums covered with the above requirements, we spoke with Richard Vaughn (vocals, guitar) about Astra, their labelmates Diagonal, their influences, the prog and all these issues that revolve around their wonderful musical direction.

Well, guys since we hadn’t the opportunity to speak after "The Weirding", first all all congratulations for that and of course your new album and for making such a beautiful music!
Thanks so much, we're glad to hear that you like our music.

It seems there was really something special around "The Weirding" and its reception as a truly fantastic contemporary progressive rock album, did you realized that when you were recording it?
On The Weirding, we were really proud of all of the songs and the album was definitely something special to all of us but we really had no idea how the overall reception would be. Especially since we recorded and produced it ourselves and with it being a double LP at 78 minutes in length. After it's release we were very pleasantly surprised with the reviews as most of them were overwhelmingly positive.

AstraHow was the recording process? Was it similar to "The Weirding"?
For The Weirding we did everything ourselves in my converted garage studio on a fairly low budget. The good thing about that was that we didn't have any studio time constraints and we were able to take our time and experiment a bit. Of course the bad side of that was that we had very limited studio gear and we didn't have a dedicated engineer or producer to help us out which was evident in the actual sound quality of the recording. In the end we were very happy with the performances and how the songs actually turned out but the fidelity left a lot to be desired. Of course for our next album, The Black Chord, we wanted better sound production. We were contacted by Ian Lehrfeld, who had been Bigelf's long time sound engineer, and he offered to record us. He tracked down 2 great analog studios for us to record in and he helped us get a much better sound this time around. Having someone there to do the engineering, editing and production was a huge help and let us focus more on our performances.  

As a band do you prefer improvising the old school way composing new music and how do you manage to have such a beautiful, vintage sound?
We do come up with a lot of riffs and sections of songs by improvising and collaborative jamming but we also do a lot of individual songwriting on our own. Some of our finished songs also have room for improvising at our live shows which is something we like to do whenever possible. Our vintage sound comes from the gear we use which is mostly vintage or, if not vintage, good modern gear that emulates vintage instruments and sounds.

AstraHow important is for the band to have an analog sound reminding the classic 70s stuff? Do you feel this kind of process returned full time for the prog bands in general?
We all love that vintage, analog sound. So many of our favorite records from the late 60s and the 70s have a very warm, unique and organic sound to them and we wanted to capture those same tones and sounds in our recordings. While we do have a lot of vintage, analog gear we're not afraid to use some of the modern stuff as long as it sounds right. For instance, I use a Memotron for live gigs. The Memotron is a digital version of the the Mellotron keyboard but it doesn't try to emulate the Mellotron, the sound of each key is actually recorded from each key of real, vintage Mellotrons. So it's basically playing back the actual sounds from vintage Trons, not digitally recreating them. The up side to this is that we don't need to lug around a big, heavy and very fragile and temperamental machine that would most likely need to be tuned up or repaired several times each tour. Practicality is important, especially on tours.

"The Black Chord", as well as your debut album is getting great and favorable reviews. Are you satisfied with how it turned out?
For the most part we're happy with the way the album turned out but there are still things we would have liked to have done differently, especially in the mixing process. It seems we always learn a new lesson after completing each record.

Astra - The Black ChordIs there any specific concept behind "The Black Chord"?
The actual album is not a concept album but the story behind the title track does have a strange story. The title 'The Black Chord' is actually meant as a kind of metaphor. The lyrics to The Black Chord deal with a weird encounter I had with this old hermit that lived out in the desert near my home. I went out there one afternoon with a friend who had been working at a thrift store picking up donations. He told me he had seen some instruments at this old man's place when he'd been there earlier for a pick up. When I arrived I saw a dusty lot full of old junk, several rusty, metal sheds, and an old trailer. Just then, a hunched over, tattooed man with long white hair and beard slowly emerged from of his trailer and over to me. He proceeded to tell me a long tale of how, not too long ago, he suffered a heart attack and died. Shortly after he was resuscitated, he realized he suddenly had the gift of music. He was able to play the piano, write music and sing and had never done any of these things before. Then he walked over to one of the old sheds, sat down at this dirty old keyboard and microphone setup and he just started playing the keyboard and singing for me for 10 minutes straight without stopping. All the while I'm just standing behind him in complete awe. After the song he continued telling the best part of his story. He went into a detailed description of what he went through while he was actually dead. He described all of the things he saw, how he was pulled down beneath the Earth and all of the different demons he faced. I was fascinated by his tall tale and I thought to myself "I need to get home and write this all down, this needs to be a song!"  The lyrics to The Black Chord ended up being a sort of metaphor for the ability of music this old man received from the darkness of the underworld. Unfortunately I never saw him again.

AstraAs far as the lyrics are concerned, what are your influences, and what points are you trying to get across?
Some of my favorite lyrics are the ones written by Peter Sinfield on the early King Crimson albums. His lyrics are quite abstract and full of imagery and metaphor which is the same way that I approach my lyric writing. I don't like to be too literal and I like to keep my lyrics open to interpretation. Science fiction has also been a big inspiration on my writing as I've been huge into sci-fi since I was a kid.

Your album covers, especially "The Weirding" one has a 'Roger Dean touche' and I guess this  adds something to your music mystery and artistry.
Our album covers were illustrated by the brilliant Arik 'Moonhawk' Roper. There are some similarities between Arik's work and Roger Dean but Arik definitely has a distinct, unique style all his own. He does an amazing job at interpreting our music and ideas into visual works of art . In my opinion he creates the perfect atmosphere for our music within our album covers. He also created our symmetrical Astra logo that is on all of our album covers.

There's a dreamy feel around the music on both albums. Does the landscape around you is an influence? For example "The Weirding" promo pictures reminds something bit of Canterbury or something.
I live in the desert hills in San Diego, California - about 30 to 40 minutes inland from the Pacific Ocean. The rolling, rocky hills and mountains around my house can be breathtaking and the view from the tops of some of these hills is quite vast. This vastness does seem to come out in a lot of the more epic type of songs that we write. I also wanted to capture some of that vastness within our promo photos and I think our photographer Noa Azoulay-Sclater did that rather well.

AstraDo you feel part of the new risen Progressive Rock scene around the globe? Is it possible for this kind of music to be exposed to bigger audiences?
It was great to have our first album come out right around when the PROG mag first started. It was just good timing and that magazine really embraced us and gave us some wonderful and much needed exposure. I do feel somewhat part of the new growing prog rock scene but sometimes I feel like the 'retro' prog bands, that so many people like to label us as, tend to get dismissed a bit as not being as modern or serious as some of the other mainstream groups. I don't consider Astra as retro. Just because we use vintage equipment and recording techniques and effects doesn't make us retro. The way we write is to evoke an emotion, to feel something from the music and all of that vintage gear we use has a rawness and a warmth to it that helps to achieve that. If an album is slick and overproduced and perfect it just ends up sounding sterile to me. We just want to keep that feeling alive of when we first heard "In The Court Of The Crimson King" or "Nursery Cryme" or "Storia Di Un Minuto" or the countless other albums that we love and I don't think that should be dismissed as just "retro". Im not really sure if it's possible for progressive music to go mainstream again, especially with the short attention spans that so many kids have nowadays. There may be a secret formula that could work - a song would need to be full of hooks and be two to three minutes in length tops ...but then, I don't know if that would be considered prog. Then again why not, especially considering how many bands are actually now being labeled prog these days, it's a bit silly. Maybe we'll work on that for our next album.

AstraDoes the press give you the chance to be exposed to new fans?
Sure, I would think that any press that we get would potentially expose us to people that have never heard us before. I still get turned on to new bands by reading about them in magazines or blogs so I can only hope that the same goes for other people in regards to Astra.

Do you have a strong fanbase in the US, or do you feel you're connected better with the European audience?
We do have a pretty good amount of fans throughout the country. Unfortunately we haven't yet been able to play over on the east coast or even anywhere outside of our neck of the woods on the west coast. We did however play a couple of shows out east from us, one being NEARfest in Bethlehem, PA and the other was the Planet Caravan festival in Asheville, NC where we shared the stage with Pentagram which was amazing. That being said, I think we may have a larger fan base in Europe. Our label Rise Above is based in London and I think we get a bit more exposure over there because of that. We've also toured quite a few times around Europe which has helped us to gain a good following.

AstraYou've been again in Europe touring, how was the reception? Is it possible to play sometime in Athens?
Yes, we recently did a European tour opening for Anathema. Of course Anathema have quite a huge following so it was amazing to be able to play to such a large audience every night. To be honest we really weren't sure how the Anathema crowd were going to react to us but the response seemed to be very positive. Judging from the amount of merch sales, I think we won over a lot of people on that tour. We would absolutely love to play Athens and I'm hoping that will be able to happen sometime soon. One of our all time favorite bands is from Greece - the one and only Aphrodite's Child!

Some days before we had a chat with the Diagonal guys and we spoke about the Diagonal/Astra connection ! Did you like their new album "The Second Mechanism"?
We absolutely love those guys. Diagonal's first album was brilliant and were were lucky enough to see them perform most of that album when we played with them at our first U.K. gig at the Scala. They're even better live. Their new album The Second Mechanism is just as good. Lee Dorrian at Rise Above sent us an advanced copy so we could listen to it in the tour van on our recent tour with Anathema. That really helped pass the time and it's such a great album and very inspirational. We're really looking forward to playing with them in London in April and seeing them perform some of their new album.

Are there already any plans for future releases, or/and a live DVD?
We will definitely be releasing a 3rd album at some point but we still have some writing to do for that although we do have a good start. I'm not sure about a DVD quite yet. I'd love to do one, maybe do a video for one of our tracks and maybe some behind the scenes footage as well as live performances. Yeah, that is something we'd like to do. Hopefully we can make that happen.

AstraFive records on your playlist nowadays?
It's funny, it's usually pretty rare for me to find any new music that I can really get into but as of right now I actually have 3 new bands that I've been listening to quite a lot lately. Of course Diagonal's The Second Mechanism is one of them. Another band that I recently discovered is my friend Andy Thompson's band called Zoltan. Andy runs the quintessential Mellotron website and he's also loaned us his M400 Mellotron for our first ever U.K. gig at the Scala. Zoltan's album First Stage Zoltan is instrumental, analog synth heaven. Think 70's and early 80's soundtracks - John Carpenter, Alain Goraguer’s Planete Sauvage, Phantasm and other 70's Italian horror soundtracks and you'll get an idea of what this album sounds like. Great stuff! Check out their Facebook page for some drool inducing photos of their keyboard setup. Another one that I wish I would have discovered earlier is Elephant9. Their new album Elephant9 with Reine Fiske: Atlantis is pretty mindblowing psych, prog, jazz fusion and has been compared to Tony Williams' Lifetime and early 70's Miles among many others. On this album, with the addition of Swedish guitarist Reine Fiske, who is from another one of my favorite bands Dungen, Atlantis is some of the best music I've heard in a while. I've also been going back and listening to a lot of the Italian band Area and there's still one band that never seems to leave my turntable - Aphrodite's Child. I love their entire output but 666 is my favorite. I've also been digging Vangels' Dragon album lately too. Oops, that's 6, sorry!

Thanks! Keep creating such a great music guys.
No, thank you and we will!