Astra, The Escapees to Somewhere Vast and Unknown

Photo by: Noa Azoulay-Sclater

Dan: Hey, how are you guys doing! Would you mind introducing yourselves?

Richard: Sure, ASTRA is:

Richard Vaughan – vocals, guitars, Mellotron, Moog/ARP synthesizers, Echoplex

Conor Riley – vocals, Mellotron, synthesizers, organ

Brian Ellis – lead guitar, Moog synthesizer

Stuart Sclater – bass

David Hurley – drums, percussion, flute

Dan: So, how did you guys get together to create Astra? I’ve read that you were originally called Silver Sunshine, and you released an album under that name. Please, tell us more.

Brian: Richard, Conor, and Stuart were in Silver Sunshine, which was more 60s psychedelic pop influenced than Astra. Their drummer, Stuart’s brother Iain, left the band and was replaced by David Hurley. David, being a more jazz/fusion influenced drummer brought a whole new dimension to their sound, and the music took on a more progressive, early 70s sound. I was playing in another group and had invited David to come see us play at a local club. Having an instant mutual respect for each other’s musicianship, we began jamming and recording some music, shortly afterwhich he approached me with the idea of joining Astra. I checked out the demo and loved the sound, especially the quality of the vocals. I showed up to a few practices and felt a real connection with the band and felt that there was a lot of room for me to improve the current songs, as well as helping with the writing of new songs. The rest is history.

Dan: So Astra released its debut album last year, entitled The Weirding. It’s been getting you guys a lot well-deserved good press. Are you guys satisfied with how it turned out? Is there anything specific that you would have done differently now that it’s finished?

Brian: As with any record, there are of course things that we wish we could change now. However, at the point we were at as a band when the record was being made, it would have been impossible to make any other way than doing it ourselves. We used our budget to buy recording equipment, recorded everything in our practice space and spent months and months trying to perfect it. We’ve received not a lot, but some criticism about the recording quality (particularly the drums) sounding flat or dull. I can understand why someone would think that, but I don’t agree with that being a bad thing. We were really going for a certain sound with “The Weirding” and I think we did a great job at achieving that. I think a lot of the success of the album is because of the genuineness of the sound… a band that is playing music they love and putting their all into it.

Dan: On that note, what was it like recording the album in the first place? I would imagine you guys had a lot of fun jamming.

Brian: The recording was done in the middle of one of the hottest southern California summers with no air conditioning… It was hot, sweaty, tiring, grueling, but most of all, fun.

Nick: How much of Astra’s music is based around explorations of melodies, atmospheres, time traveling? I’ve got an impression that your music establishes that strange notion of “time travelling” whenever I listen to it. In your opinion, why is that? What is it that carries you during the creating / recording process?

Brian: I wouldn’t necessarily say we were going for a “time traveling” vibe specifically, but more so the overall feeling of leaving your own body/mind/soul and escaping to somewhere vast and unknown. I think I can speak for all of us in the band in saying that most of our favorite music embodies this sort of spirit. One of the things we spend the most time on when writing our music is transition and flow. We could easily write 100 parts that we would like, but putting them together is the hard part. We spend hours and hours trying to piece everything together in a way that all of us can agree on.

Richard: Exploring melody is a huge part of our writing process. In my opinion, without some sort of meaningful or memorable melody, you haven’t got much of a song. They key to staying creative is to keep searching for some new inspiration – be it in music, art, literature or even in meeting a new, peculiar person – that’s what carries me.

Photo by: Noa Azoulay-Sclater

Dan: I would imagine there is a vast field of music you guys pull your influence from, but one of the clearest, to me, is Ozzy-era Black Sabbath, especially in parts like the last few lines of the title track. Am I right? Either way, tell us about some of your influences.

Brian: We are all influenced by so much different music. There is a definitely Black Sabbath influence on parts of the song “The Weirding”, but that’s the only part where that really comes to mind with me. There’s the obvious influences like early Pink Floyd and King Crimson, but like I said before, we listen to tons of music. A big part of our sound is taken from the Italian prog scene with bands like PFM and Area, and a lot of European prog in general like Aphrodite’s Child, Magma, Weidorje, Genesis, Yes, SFF. We’re also very much into the early 70s jazz/rock/fusion movement like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams Lifetime, and Return to Forever.

Dan: One of the reasons I like The Weirding so much is the long instrumental sections. This is more due to the fact that I’m a jazz man at heart than any dislike for your vocals or lyrics. So, just out of curiosity, why the long instrumentals like Ouroboros?

Brian: All of us love instrumental music. When we started writing Ouroboros, we had no real intention of it being instrumental, but all the parts of came together so well and naturally that we never felt the need for vocals on it.

Dan: Your lyrics really help to flesh out the psychedelic themes you promote, especially in the title track. There are lines about moonstruck rabbit zoos, screaming fireblood ravens and, of course, the world spinning out of tune. I would imagine these images are meant to show the craziness of the world you seek to portray, and it seems to work well. What are your thoughts?

Richard: Actually, that lyric is “moonstruck rabid zoo”. However, I do agree that the image of a zoo full of lunatic bunnies does paint a much more deranged picture but I cannot take credit for that kind of genius. For the lyrics of our title track, The Weirding, I was trying to describe different aspects of a deteriorating earth as well as looking for an escape. I think the lyrics do this well. I’m probably the most pleased with my lyrics for this song in particular.

Nick: The artwork for “The Weirding” was been designed by Arik Roper and he has done a great job with it. What does cover for The Weirding symbolize? Also, how important is the art to delivering that full psychedelic feeling?

Richard: Arik Roper is an amazing artist. When he was working on our album art, he asked that we send him some of our music for

Photo by: Noa Azoulay-Sclater

inspiration. We told him that we wanted a feeling of vastness in the artwork. We also explained to him the overall concept of the album. He came up with the post-apocalyptic landscape of the weirding world and the big twisted, knotted tree was the focal point. The inside gatefold showed the dark vastness of space with an image of the distant weirding world crumbling apart. He also came up with the symmetrical design of our ASTRA logo. For the kind of music that we make, the album artwork is very important. Seeing that The Weirding is essentially a concept album, we wanted the art to match the music. We wanted to get the same feeling when looking at the artwork as we did when listening to the music. I think Arik accomplished this perfectly.

Dan: A lot of Astra’s charm is in the “dated” production, which makes the album sound like it came right out of the seventies. Yet at the same time it somehow manages to sound like it was made last year. What’s your secret?

Richard: I would say a lot of it has to do with the vintage gear that we used during the recording process as well as recording the entire album ourselves, in our own, makeshift studio on a limited budget. We didn’t have the luxury of recording in a high end studio this time around. Of course we wanted our album to have that classic, warm sound but we also wanted it to sound fresh. We did our best to get a good mix of the two.

Dan: Aside from the production, one of the things that evokes the early 70’s are the mellotrons. There’s a hell of a lot of mellotrons on this album, and they really help out with the spacey atmosphere. This instrument tends to make prog fans swoon with joy instantly. Is there such a thing as too much mellotron? Not in The Weirding, definitely, but in general?

Richard: The Mellotron is, hands down, my favorite instrument. Everything about that beast is a work of art, from all of the unique sounds and the mechanics right down to the design and look of the console. I don’t think there is such a thing as too much Mellotron. One of my favorite albums is this live Schicke, Führs & Fröhling album from 1975 and it’s chock full of Mellotron all the way through. I love every minute of it. Alright, I guess if you’ve got a double LP full of honky-tonk versions of Elvis Presley songs performed by a 17 piece Mellotron orchestra, that might be a bit too much. I’d still like to hear it though.

Dan: Tell us about the instruments/gear you guys use. I would imagine there are a lot of keyboards, as there are quite a few listed in your “credits” sections.

Richard: I play a 1968 Gibson SG through a 1974 Fender Twin Reverb. One of my favorite effects is my vintage A/DA Flanger. I just leave that thing switched on all the time. It’s the best sounding flanger I’ve ever heard and I’ve sort of adopted it as my “sound”. For our delay and sound effects, especially in The Weirding, we use a Maestro Echoplex. We do have a few old keyboards and synths. Right now we’re using a Moog Rogue and an ARP Odyssey and Conor runs most of his keys through his old Leslie 900.

Dan: Do you use different gear live? I bet some of those keyboards must be tough to lug around.

Richard: Believe it or not, not all of our equipment is vintage. We recently purchased some new equipment to help us out with playing live shows. A while back we picked up the Manikin Electronics Memotron which comes in very handy for live shows. It’s the closest you can get to an actual Mellotron M400 without the mechanical / pitch problems and it’s in a more compact form. It operates just like an M400. Each note is recorded from the tape banks of original vintage Mellotrons complete with key clicks, hiss, tape warble and the 8 second length. Mine is even white like an old M400. We also recently bought the new Dave Smith Instruments MoPho analog synth. It’s a new, completely analog, monophonic synth and it sounds great.

Dan: Speaking of playing live, you guys have been invited to play at a lot of major festivals, including NEARFest in Pennsylvania and the Burg Hurzberg Festival in Germany. You guys must have a hell of an agent! But seriously, I chalk it up to the amazing album you guys released. What do you think?

Richard: We’ve been lucky enough to have all of these amazing festivals approach us to play. A reason for this could be because we’re a fairly new band and we’ve recently released our debut album to some critical success. Also, I think being signed to Rise Above Records has helped us to receive a little bit of extra attention.

Dan: Are there any plans for more big shows in the future? Perhaps we can be the first to hear about them!

Richard: Yes! There has been talk about playing some bigger shows and festivals next year, on both sides of the pond, after we release our second album. Unfortunately, I can’t really disclose anything at the moment.

Dan: What has been your favorite place to play at so far?

Richard: That’s a tough one, we’ve played some great shows over the last year. One of the best shows we’ve played recently was in Germany at the Burg Herzberg festival. We went on last, right after Hawkwind, at around 2:00am. The crowd was huge and we played under a beautiful starry sky. It was great to meet so many of our fans after the show too.

Dan: What does Astra have in the works at the moment? You told me in your emails that you’re very busy right now, probably because of touring. Are you by any chance working on material for a new album? I’m sure there are a lot of people who would love to hear that.

Richard: That’s exactly what we’re doing. We’ve finally finished touring for the year and right now we’re focusing on writing the new album. We’ve got a lot of ideas that we’re trying to piece together and we’re hoping to start recording towards the end of the year.

Nick: There were rumors about releasing a 7” which would contain demo tracks. What happened with that?

Richard: Actually, that 7″ was released with the “die hard” version of our vinyl LP of The Weirding. The “die hard” LP’s came with a bonus poster designed by Arik Roper and a bonus 7″ containing two early demo tracks from 2006 and 2007 – Winter Witch and Cosmic Wind.

Nick: The latest recording activity the public is aware of that you’ve participated in MOJO magazine’s The Wall Re-Built! compilation, which is a tribute to Pink Floyd. You’ve covered Empty Spaces and did an excellent job, although honestly I’m not a huge fan of late-era Pink Floyd. Their early works were much more interesting to me. Would you tell us how this MOJO compilation went? And also, assuming you haven’t answered this already, what is your connection with Pink Floyd like?

Richard: MOJO Magazine contacted our label and in turn, Rise Above asked us if we’d be interested in recording a Floyd cover for the comp. Of course we were into it. We chose Empty Spaces because we thought it was a song that we could really make into our own. Our labelmates, Diagonal, also did an amazing reworking of the song Stop. I think they’re on disc 2. I don’t think we have a connection with Pink Floyd. We are fans of their music but they’re just one of many, many bands that we listen to or are influenced by. I think the press really ran with the whole Pink Floyd comparison because Floyd are very well known and yes, you can hear some of their influence in our music.

Photo by: Noa Azoulay-Sclater

Nick: I must ask where the promo photos for the album were taken, the landscapes look amazing!

Richard: Those photos were taken not too far from our practice studio. We just took a drive out east from San Diego a bit until we found this wonderful, hilly countryside. A fire must have been through there couple of years earlier because most of the trees were all burnt out. Our photographer Noa Azoulay-Sclater took some amazing photos out there.

Dan: Is Astra a fan of dogs? If so, I would love to hear about any dogs the band members might own!

Richard: I can only speak for myself but yes, I’m a fan of dogs. I’ve had two Beagles in my lifetime, bless their floppy little ears. I think the only one who currently has a dog is our drummer Dave but I’m pretty sure he acquired it through meeting his girlfriend.

Nikola Savić is a prog enthusiast, blogger and author, in addition to being the founder of Prog Sphere, Progify, ProgLyrics and the ongoing Progstravaganza compilation series.

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