Monday, September 5, 2011

Interview With God is an Astronaut

After three years, God is an Astronaut is finally back. On their second North American tour, Niels and Torsten Kinsella, along with their drummer, Michael Fenton, kindly took a few minutes (that turned into a half hour) out of their busy schedule in order to answer some questions about the 2010 album, Age of the Fifth Sun, the show, and the band in general. They took some time going in-depth about which direction the band was going, some information on future releases, and how they really felt about different criticisms and comments being made about GIAA.

T: Torston
N: Niels
M: Michael

So where does God is an Astronaut draw its inspiration?
I suppose, we'll have to go way back, well, God is an Astronaut was formed in 2002. We just wanted to make music we loved.
T: I think a lot of the inspiration comes from our personal experiences, and obviously we kind of have to talk about our background, because you have to divide it into two places: you got the the content, and you got the style.

Well, about the style, we've obviously played in rock bands, we've played in electronic groups, stuff like that, so a lot of our influences, stylistically, would come from our past. At one point we had a project that was close to Orbital meets Chemical Brothers, so you know, we had the whole recording setup, the whole studio setup, and we had a fair knowledge of how to make electronic music. I think God is an Astronaut was the first time we had the opportunity to branch the two ideas together, both the electronic and the rock. So that was, stylistically, where it came from.

I think content-wise, obviously whatever affects us from...well, you know, it's like a photograph of emotion, our music, so I operate that way with it. But that, to me, is the most important thing about music, is that we write from our hearts, something that we guys miss, that we only re-discovered with God is an Astronaut. First of all, write something that means something to you, and something that you would buy yourselves.

So how would you say things have changed from, say, The End is the Beginning?
For the first album, it was basically just us two, me and Torston, and we were just a two-piece, it was still very much a studio-based project, everything, a lot of sounds were done with sequencers, there were no live drums, no real live instrumentation, it was all mostly programmed and sampled and looped.
T: It was like small five-second performances looped, because we didn't have the recording facility. When we were live, we got a live drummer in. It changed a little bit over time - I found myself playing more of the guitar, rather than the keys, it just seemed to work better live, for whatever reason. Thing is that I was kind of born with that kind of concept. And we had Lloyd join the group at that point, and Lloyd was more of a jazz drummer than not, and he added kind of a prog-rock tinge to what we were doing. We'd made all our albums with Lloyd. But you know, things have kind of changed again, with the addition of Michael and Jamie, it's a new page, and I think it's gonna reflect on the new album, it's just a more youthful energy that we've kind of got going, so it's something that we're embracing. And it's exciting, I felt that with the five albums we'd made, we had like a complete chapter, and I'd even said that before we knew Lloyd was going to leave, it was like five albums that stood together, and now we were thinking we have to do something, so it's kind of organically happening now, which is pretty cool.

So how was the process of writing and promoting Age of the Fifth Sun?
T: Well, myself and Zach did a lot of the writing. Lloyd was stuck in Thailand, there was just this whole volcanic cloud thing. And I needed someone to help me, and Zach was just kind enough to help me, so Zach kind of played a lot of parts for me. I think Lloyd just came back, and he was able to play a lot of the parts he'd never played before for the first time on tour, which is kinda cool. So the album was primarily made with Niels, myself, and Zach. I like the record, I think it's one of my favorite records, production-wise I'm extremely happy with it, content-wise all the songs mean something to me. Stylistically, people were asking, 'How come you haven't changed or shifted the whole plot of what you're doing, you've been doing this kind of stuff'. Emotionally, I felt the same way, you know, I didn't feel any different. I hadn't had anything dramatically change in my life, so musically it was reflecting my status quo in life. Stylistically, the change made no sense, but now, with a few happening in my personal life, and also in the band, the next album will definitely reflect that slight stylistic shift, which I think will help the other albums out as well.

Since it came out last year, staying on the note of Age of the Fifth Sun, there's been time to reflect on it. Is there anything you would have done differently?
T: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I am 100% happy with it. We've just recently mixed and remastered some of our old material, we've remastered Far From Refuge, and The End is the Beginning, by Tim Young, who did Massive Attack. It sounds wickedly better, it's insane. The End is the Beginning, to me, sounds like a record, where I couldn't listen to it for a long time, it was just amateurish. I kind of compare it, maybe it's a bad comparison, but to Star Wars, the original Star Wars, where you kind of kids today go, 'That's shit! You can it's just fuckin' Luke having a funny stare with the sound man.' So I thought The End is the Beginning was a bit crude, so I thought it needed a bit of an update, and I kind of did a bit of work in the studio with it, and I think, to me, now it sounds like a record that you could put in today.
N: We'll release the entire thing next year, as part of our ten year anniversary, so it's all gonna be either remixed or remastered.
T: I just think that this category of post-rock, which we don't like, the production value is just disgraceful. Overall, I don't think there's anything that sounds like a proper record compared to Massive Attack or Nine Inch Nails, it's just right down the toilet to me. We're just sick of that and we're going to move away from that side of it with this next record. What we're dealing with all of it is why, and we're not changing the mix, we're just remastering that, leave it be, but it just sounds a lot more professional, a lot more presentable for today's generation, and that's what we're really doing. I remixed the self-titled album, I wasn't happy with it. It's probably the one album that we play live, more than any of the other tracks, so I think it definitely needed to reflect that. I think it's 70% better than what was, people that didn't even like it before I think will like it now, it's got some serious power in the record. So I remixed that and it's been remastered, and the results are probably going to be the best record out of the collection, it's really representative of what we play live. So I'm really happy with it.

Getting back to Age of the Fifth Sun, every song, it's kind of slightly ambient, reminds me a little bit of A Moment of Stillness meets Far From Refuge, that sort of thing, and it's what I wanted to make, it's where my mind was at, and I think every song on it, I like. So, that's it. But I'm saying that the next album won't be like that, at all. That's what I'm saying, it'll be very, very different, Michael's got some cool ideas that we're gonna be embracing, and Jamie's got some cool keyboard lines, organ is something we're looking at, and I'm just gonna try to change the pattern of sound on the guitar, so no one will recognize it. A lot of it will be slightly more experimental, but it just suits me, where I'm at, because I don't know where the fuck I'm at right now. This is so weird, it's almost like I'm enjoying music for the first time. I never enjoyed music; live, for example, was like trial by fire. It's like judgment day, every gig had to be 100%, and we were working with less of a crew, and it was very difficult. This time, with the whole crew, it's coming across the way we wanted, and I think New York was one show where everything was right, and we're making much more of an impact. I think people were quite surprised, which is what we came here to do.

You mentioned the self-titled. When I listened through it, it sounded a lot more aggressive than the newer album. Any comments?
T: It was an aggresive record. Production-wise, it was know, the whole record, it was just crushing pieces.
N: We did a lot of touring at the time, it was supposed to be the live sound, so it was pretty difficult to do that.
T: I didn't really have the system to capture it correctly, either. I remixed the whole drums, everything, it's just's still really aggressive, but it's got much more warmth and more balls, you want to turn it up, it's like going back to Nirvana, you want to turn the record up. Versus the self-titled album that you have now, I find myself turning that down, it just rips my ears apart, I don't like it. I think the mastering was amateurish, we did it ourselves, and Age of the Fifth Sun was the first album we got a professional to do it, we got Tim Young, who did Massive Attack. To me, it's correct, and the way it sounds now, it sounds correct.

So, new stuff? Is the re-release of the self-titled coming soon?
N: It should be next year, sometime, autumn or maybe Christmas. A Moment of Stillness is going to come out, and it should all be in a boxed set as well.
T: It'll be six albums. Moment of Stillness has a lot of stuff that we never used, and we can't really use it for the next album, it doesn't make sense. It's time to turn the page and get something different going. We want the next one to be something different, and I think it makes sense, it's just a new chapter in God is an Astronaut, and we should embrace that.
N: New album's gonna be early 2013, so it's gonna be a while off. Next year it's gonna be just the re-releases, tenth anniversary tour, that kinda stuff. That'll keep us busy for the next couple months, yeah.
T: What we'd do is write the songs, write no more than ten, and just master and put those on there. What I want to do is write all this year, and next year, just recording, demoing things, and then decide maybe after next summer, maybe we have fifteen, sixteen, nineteen, is which are the nine, maximum ten we'll be using. Unless it goes really well, and we do a double album, that's another pretty prog-rock thing to do. But it's an event, this is exciting for me. I don't even know what's gonna happen. Maybe only two tracks we've made so far will make it, I dunno. All I know is that I've been trying extremely hard to avoid the arpeggio guitars, to me that's probably the most recognizable thing we did. People say why we use arpeggio guitars - because it has more notation and it's similar to a piano in the way it's structured, so it's been quite difficult to try and write using different techniques. But I've been trying, and I bought a new pedal today, it's a "Death By Audio", thing, what does it do?
M: No idea, but it's pretty cool.
N: It's got kind of like a tone generator.
T: Yeah, just experimenting with the kind of sounds that people haven't heard before. Just want to get out of the box, stylistically. But the most important thing when you do that is that you don't write something content-wise that doesn't mean something to you. That's why it's taking the extra time. 'Cause you could write something that sounds really fucking cool this year, but two years, three years, everybody's coming out with new sounds, and the listener just gets kinda jaded at that point. So to me, music and melody's the important thing, and we want to make sure that we get melodies that are anything as good as anything we've written in the past.

So, have you guys have been enjoying the tour so far?
M: Yes, immensely so. The tour's been absolutely amazing. It's been ridiculous, it's been a fair eye-opener anyway. It's been roasting, we were dying in Nevada, it's not like we don't have air conditioning in the van, but every single place we've gone to, the reception's been over and above what we were expecting. It's been shocking in some places, like in New York, for instance, we had crowd surfing, stage diving, mosh pits - I've never seen a mosh pit at any of our gigs ever. Pretty much all of the shows had been like that, the reaction's completely bowled us over. It's been absolutely fantastic, everyone we've met so far has been super nice, we're just having a great time, we love 'em.
N: There was a big difference when we toured back here in 2008, it was March and we turned up here in December, the crowds were roughly small. This time around, a lot more kids have come out, the reaction's been amazing.
T: Couldn't have asked for anything better, we did a reasonable job the first time we came over; it's nothing compared to what it is now. It really is now, to me, the way I would have wanted it back then. The band with Jamie and Michael, it's much better, it just works better live, there's just an energy that we didn't have before. I'd been tied to the keyboard, trying to play the guitar, I had no time to actually make interactions with the audience. I think before, me and Niels were going fucking nuts trying to keep the whole thing going. And we have Michael now, it's just funny, we didn't have that before. Lloyd was just a quiet kinda guy, doing his technical stuff, but now it's just...a live force, you know? It's really the reason people are jumping around, 'cause we're jumping around.
Apart from that, we got to see Niagra Falls, some big redwood trees, we're just having more fun. With the crew, we've got Zach and Lee, it frees up some time, makes it easier for me, anyway.

So I hear the live show is pretty intense. Care to fill us in beforehand?
M: Yeah, it is pretty intense. The last, European tour we did back in April, I'd end every show bowling over the drum kit, drink two litres of water per show, going through ridiculous amounts of water. We put a lot of effort into the show. Personally, I throw absolutely everything into every single show and nearly get sick many times a night. That's just the way we do it now, we put in as much energy as we can, and the audience just gives it all back. It's amazing to see people's reactions.
T: For us, it's an eye-opener, because the way we approached things before, we were looking for perfection as a tightness, you know? We weren't interacting or putting energy back. What I felt was to play the parts perfect, the vibe wasn't as good as it was. We were as if we were in the studio. Now, it's like "Holy shit, this is going way better, the fact that people are responding, like they're realizing there's something live onstage". There's that kind of a force, and it's kind of the new vision of the band, it's more interesting.
N: Some bands, if you go and see, nobody would be moving, they'd just be standing there, and if you close your eyes, it's perfect - you could be listening to the CD - but people don't want to listen to the CD. If they want to listen to the CD, they go home and listen to the CD. If they want to see a show, they want to see a show. They want to see a performance, they want to see something exciting, they want to have a good time. To me, people are not having a good time if they're just standing there and going, "Yeah, he played that part perfectly." So it's much more interesting if everyone's enjoying themselves.
T: What was kind of interesting was the show we played in Portland, everyone was sitting in chairs, and it didn't really suit the feeling the spirit of the band, and by the end, we had them all standing.
N: They didn't really know what to expect, they weren't expecting it. And then every single person was up by the end of the show.
T: So that is the thing, it will shock some people with the difference, but it'd be nice to get that energy on the next record, if it was possible. It won't be as mad, but it would be nice to get a little bit of that impact that's onstage.

Well, we won't keep you here too much longer then. Any final thoughts?
N: Final thoughts, Jerry Springer? I dunno, it's been super so far, it's been great. We'd like to come back, the only problem is that it's so expensive for us to come, we've spent about $40,000 to make this tour happen, out of our own money, so we don't really make any money back, as such. We want our fans to spread the word, so next time we come back, we can play some bigger places than this. It's a labor of love.
T: I think in New York, we were saying "We want to prove a point, that we're better than anybody at the genre", and at the end, he just stuck his hands up, said, "Yeah, we agree, you are". And that's what we're here to do, at every step of the gig. It's very difficult to do that when you're not in the venues you'd like to be in, but we're not gonna use that as an excuse, we're gonna get the job done right here, again, tonight. We want everybody out there to spread the word. So far, everybody seems to have converted to our God is an Astronaut, so that's it, you know. We are original, I don't think we are post-rock.
M: No, post-rock is a misnomer. We aren't post-rock. We are instrumental rock, we are prog-rock.
T: I think it's the last thing we are. Like, when you take Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Explosions in the Sky, there's nothing in common with those groups. I cannot think of one thing, apart from the fact that they use guitars and we use guitars and we're instrumental. It's totally different emotionally. To me, Explosions in the Sky is terrestrial and we're extraterrestrial. They're embracing the Earth as not a cold, dead place, and we're saying it is. We want to go to a different universe, and that's what we're here to do, transport people there from this world. That's the whole vibe we're trying to give when we play live. We don't get the post-rock title whatsoever.
M: It's holding us back.
T: It's totally holding us back. I know people who kind of...I'd rather be put into the category prog-rock.
M: Hopefully with the new record, it'll be kind of like the turning of the chapter.
T: It's funny, even with Age of the Fifth Sun, we had a few more prog-rock websites embracing that record, when they hadn't embraced any of the ones in the past. I'm not saying we're gonna follow in the footsteps of that record. I think we've got musicianship and skill, which I don't think...well, post-rock to me, it's kind of a more punk kind of musicianship. I don't think we have anything like that, we're a far more technical than anything in the genre, that I can see. I don't have a problem with post-rock, we've played with Caspian, things like that, and they're fucking good bands. But there's nothing in common, it's totally different. We've been criticized for years, "How can they overproduce their records?" We don't overproduce our records! We're just not a fucking post-rock band, who kind of underproduce things in the genre. It's like listening to Massive Attack versus any Mogwai records, it's laughable, the difference of quality and production. It's just chalk and cheese, one sounds like it's done in a garage and one sounds like it's done in a proper fucking recording studio. I like Mogwai, but it doesn't live up to the league of those bands. And that's my honest opinion; a lot of post-rock is downbeat, there's no tempo in it, it's all downtempo. We don't do anything like that live, we do a few downtempo tunes for diversity, but a lot of our tracks are upright in 185 BPM, it's on the edge, it's very fast, there's a lot of energy, and I'm not seeing any post-rock bands that does that. I think 65daysofstatic did that at one point, but it's still done in a sort of Aphex Twin style.
M: And even the quality of the melody as well. A lot of post-rock bands wouldn't have melodies, so to speak, there'd be a lot of...the word 'shoegaze' is often thrown around. The shoegaze, to me, doesn't apply to a lot of melody. It's disguised with lead and reverb, it's just a wash. Whereas we have genuine melodies, we have discernible notes.
T: Being a composer, that word gets lost in post-rock. It's more important to have the stylistic sound of turning the level of the amps up full, quiet and then quickly the old slam-the-door with the whole volume jump. The dynamics are important, that's the part of post-rock we might share, but it's not done like...quiet then just loud, with just noise, it's just a build up, melody-wise, structure-wise, it makes sense. With a lot of the bands, it's just quiet and then suddenly they slam on the pedals and then the audience is like, "Wow, wasn't that cool, I just lost my hearing there". We don't do that, you know? It builds up on it's own, in it's own way. People are saying, "Why aren't your songs 12 minutes long? Why are they five minutes? Four minutes? I don't get that". I remember saying, "What the fuck, 12 minutes?" Then we start hearing about these other bands that have 15 minute songs, but personally, my attention span goes after about six minutes. I can't listen to that stuff. We're also a band that doesn't want to be a post-rock band. You get bands that want to be a post-rock band, they start listening to post-rock bands, they try to copy what they have. Look at my gear, it got nothing to do with any other post-rock band. No other post-rock bands use Axe effects.
M: If you look at the people that use Axe effects, it's probably like metal bands, it's a lot more like Opeth, and all the seriously heavy stuff.
T: So I'd be more influenced by their sound than trying to sound like Mogwai, just grabbing all the old pedals and cranking the amps. And I mean no disrespect to Mogwai, they're a fucking brilliant band, but we don't want to be like them. Because I think there are a lot of bands on the way up that do want to be like them, that kind of saturates the whole genre and makes it unhealthy. And we were trapped in the whole dance scene, you know? The dance scene had all these rules, "After two and a half minutes, you had to have this breakdown, every track has to be 140BPM". Me and Niels looked at each other, we're just like, "Fuck, we're out of here, we don't want these rules!" Then the next thing, we're in post-rock, and suddenly all these rules get piled onto us: "You have to have a song at least 8 minutes long, you've got to have a much rawer sound, you're overproducing your records". And I'm saying, "Fuck that!" I think we're tagged as number three in the world in post-rock, which is the thing that's so ironic. I think Mogwai doesn't even say they're post-rock. It holds us back, because people seem to think that wouldn't have existed, if only for Mogwai. That really fucking pisses me off, because it's so not true!
N: We're actually older than most of the guys from Mogwai. We've actually been at it longer than most of the guys from Mogwai. They got lucky, they got it right the first time.
T: Yeah, they didn't make as many mistakes as we did. But to me, we're just doing what we want to do, and we don't want any rules attached to us. And I think the biggest problem with post-rock is the fans, the way they attach bands that have nothing to do with each other together, I hate that, it doesn't make any sense. "So, Godspeed You! Black Emperor's been a big influence, yeah?" Nope! I'm personally going to say, I hate Godspeed You! Black Emperor. They're just not my kind of thing.
M: I think I'd like it if there was no preconceptions of post-rock. If there was no terms being thrown around. If there was someone who'd never heard us before, heard us for the first time, I'd like to know what they'd classify us as, if they didn't know what post-rock was, even if they knew Mogwai, knew Godspeed, knew Explosions in the Sky, 65days, if they heard us for the first time, and hadn't heard of the term 'post-rock', what they would say we were.

I'd like to thank God is an Astronaut for taking my questions, as well as letting the interview go on as long as it did, we gleaned a lot of really neat information out of it. Like was listed in the interview, there will be a collection of their entire discography to date, remastered and perfected, set to be released late next year, so keep an eye out for it. There is a ton of information, and lots of good links, on the band's page, so you can keep yourself updated.

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