In Orbit with Ashtar Command

A long time ago in a city not too far from me, and in another city somewhere in the Midwest, two men began their journey together, but separately. With extensive resumes in rock, Chris Holmes and Brian Leisegang have put together one of the most galactic albums released this fall – American Sunshine.

Undoubtedly, the record gravitates listeners far beyond itself into a world, or rather, worlds unknown yet beautiful. However, Chris and Brian are not the only celestial bodies listed on the record, as a few other talented individuals (Z Berg and Priscilla Ahn, to name a few) have contributed, creating an organic and warm atmosphere promoting the effects of, you guessed it, “sunshine.”

Yet, despite all this serious talk, I was happy to discover that the geniuses in Ashtar Command have a love for BBC’s series, Doctor Who, are incredibly witty, and perfectly modest. While I still think their musical vision could save our race from an alien attack, they have put together an arsenal that does not include a note of their creativity.

ASHLEY JEAN: Your album, American Sunshine, is, without a doubt, uncategorizable. However, if your music was a UFO encounter, what creatures might we see? What would the ship look like and, most importantly, would there be any probing?

CHRIS HOLMES: I think we’d see something that feels like home, like a piece of our soul, something we’d recognize and know that we are already a part of.  Like sparks flying off of a Sun, we would find we all and have always been the aliens. We’d find that all life is interconnected, and that consciousness or a sense of awareness is the ship or vehicle which we use to explore ourselves. It would be everything, everywhere, every-when. The ship would be the focus point of our consciousness as travel light ages instantaneously being everything and nothing.  Hopefully all probing would be consensual.

BRIAN LEISEGANG: As Hegel always spoke of rising and ascending to a different level of consciousness and subsuming the old broken one in a greater enriched nature. The ship would not look like anything per se, but we would have the perception of the inter-connectivity of everything in the multi-verse. An overwhelming calm like the womb, coupled with vision and thought that disregards the vast distances in time and space. But all pretentiousness aside, probably we would hope it would just look like the TARDIS.

ASHLEY JEAN:  The album begins with an incredibly mesmerizing track, “Let the Sunshine In.” Because sunshine seems to be a predominant theme for the record (the word also makes an appearance in the track “Gravity”), could you give us any hints to what exactly this “sunshine” is? I have a feeling it’s not just that big ball of burning gas in the sky.

CHRIS HOLMES: There has always been an interesting alchemy between Ashtar Command and sunshine. Brian had a solo project called American Sunshine that we integrated into Ashtar Command.  It obviously has Apocalypse Now overtones, but I also think there is something beautiful in the concept of American Sunshine. As a “novo ordo seclorum,” America is a golden ideal of something that we can still believe in.

“Let the Sunshine In” was one of the first Ashtar Command tracks we ever recorded, and it’s always been a guide for us of the overall sound of the project. I want the music to be like a golden glow of bliss that surrounds you. It should feel like sunlight on your face.

BRIAN LEISEGANG: “Sunshine” has always been a metaphor for us. An easy one, as it was probably one of the first words. Not to be leading, but I think our concept of sunshine will be explained as our following records are released…But also “American” for us may have different meanings than normally assumed. The ancient/Hebrew meaning of American translates to roughly, “the people of the lion with the spirit force.”  I guess you could say we think it goes a little further down the rabbit hole then being named after Amerigo Verspucci.

ASHLEY JEAN: You both have pretty extensive resumes. How has opening for Sir Paul McCartney and touring with Ozzy Osbourne influenced your musicianship? Neither of you have tried geeking (biting off the heads of chickens or bats) on stage like Ozzy, have you?

CHRIS HOLMES: Opening for Sir Paul (for me DJing) and Ozzy (and Brian playing live with Filter) has been an amazing experience for us. Mostly it has taught us to never underestimate the power of music, and the joy it can bring. Both Brian and I are massive music nerds. It is inspiring to see the passion that drives Paul and the life force that surrounds him. It’s kind of magical. He has more energy than anyone that I know. He doesn’t have to do anything, but he does it for the love of the music, and to share his legacy. That’s an amazing thing to be a part of and to witness. I don’t think either of us plan to the bite the heads off of anything; I think Ozzy kind of owns that.

BRIAN LEISEGANG: Watching Paul McCartney play “Magical Mystery Tour” live, (a song that is 44 years old!) with the vivacity of a 25 year old is, quite frankly, unbelievable. It brings a true realization of why, in my opinion, he is the greatest living songwriter. I think for Chris and I to have had the fortune to be around and perform with such high quality artists with sustained careers has given us a certain perspective and approach that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.  The understanding of how these guys work so, so hard, and have such an expectation of excellence from others as well as themselves, really makes you want to work harder, and as much as you can.

ASHLEY JEAN: I stumbled upon some yoga mixes. They’re really quite beautiful! Have there been any testimonies from yoga fans stating that the songs have actually helped improved the tranquility in their life?

CHRIS HOLMES: Thanks, we haven’t really released those yet (they are up on our blog to check out for free), I’ve just given them to some of my friends that do yoga. I wanted to make something that was organic and beautiful, and not new age-y. Bad new age music drives me nuts, and does anything but relax me. I think with all of our music we try to make something that transcends the mind and body and speaks directly to the soul.

BRIAN LEISEGANG: Brian Eno once said how disappointed he was that how his ambient work was misunderstood, and felt like he had unleashed a whole bunch bad art on the world with the advent of “new age.” Chris and I sometimes write such long pieces of music, 30 minutes at times,  because it takes awhile for the ideas and seeds to develop. There is a certain bliss we find that comes with apparent repetition that actually contains all sorts of modulating melodies like eddies in a stream…It’s hard to put them on conventional records, because they would take up half a cd or a side of a record, but we plan to release this stuff as time goes along because it really plays into the whole Ashtar Command scheme. Some of that material was the first stuff Chris and I did ages ago.

ASHLEY JEAN: Yoga aside, where else do you see your music fitting into someone’s workout routine? Zumba, perhaps?

CHRIS HOLMES: I’d love to see Ashtar Command being played in stadiums with lasers, like Alan Parsons project or maybe have people exercise their fingers by playing some of our songs on guitar hero or rocksmith.

ASHLEY JEAN: There are a ton of brilliant musicians on your record. Why do you think it’s so important for artists to collaborate with one another as opposed to working independently?

CHRIS HOLMES: I think the idea of the collective is vitally important. Every important movement in history has been started by small groups of passionate people who get together with a collective sense of purpose. From the founding fathers, to the Manhattan Project, Apple computers, to the early 70s New York punk scene…it’s always small groups of people that together share a vision, and lead by example. The name Ashtar Command comes from UFO lore. Ashtar Command is like an intergalactic United Nations that oversees all the good aliens that are battling the evil aliens for the soul of humanity. The name was a great metaphor for what Brian and I were trying to do musically.We tried to get together a lot of the great musicians we know and create something to battle the forces of evil for the soul of humanity.

BRIAN LEISEGANG: Chris and I are also blessed to have so many friends that have tremendous talent. We can throw ideas of strings at a brilliant cellist like Ollie Kraus and he will completely turn them upside down and organically add so much to a track. Priscilla Ahn has the voice of an angel, which really offsets the sometimes gruff nature of Chris and my voices; it makes the music just soar. And I don’t even want to get started on Matt Walker – I have been playing with him now for 17 years, and we don’t even have to talk in the studio we read each others’ thoughts so well. He’s like our secret weapon. Chris and I may lead this intergalactic united nations-hootenanny band, but the sum ends up being way more than the total of its parts with what our friends contribute.

ASHLEY JEAN: Is it hard to record in different studios across the country? Or does the use of technology like Skype make the exchange of ideas flawless?

CHRIS HOLMES: Brian and I have identical studio setups. Digital recording and softsynths, iDisk filesharing and now Gobbler allows us to share our ideas in realtime. Brian can make tweaks to songs in Chicago and I can download them immediately and collaborate. I almost like it better than being in the same room as someone sometimes because it gives you space to really develop your ideas rather than just fill in the space between sentences. I think Claude Debussy said that, “music was the space between the notes,” working in parallel setups gives us a chance to appreciate that and develop those spaces without stepping all over each other.

BRIAN LEISEGANG: I find it interesting that sometimes our best collaborations are when we are thousands of miles apart. I think we both kind of exist in each others’ brains while we are working, so being geographically challenged has never presented a problem for us at all. In the middle of the night I can send Chris a germ of an idea and in the morning get a completed song and vice versa. Plus we are both alpha male control freaks (:)) so this way we are not fighting over playing the guitar or grabbing the same mouse. But also, oftentimes, I will be downstairs on the couch, and I will be so inspired by something Chris is doing upstairs that I am compelled to go to work immediately. It’s the best of both worlds really. We are both jack-of-all-trades-masters-of-none musicians, and we both use the same tools, sometimes differently, and it’s always exciting and educating to see how different the result will be from someone else with the same track, synthesizer, guitar pedal etc.. It also pushes us constantly. If someone else is busting their ass you feel guilt and have to raise your game. We fight like brothers sometimes, because in fact we are. But all that said, it’s ironic that we are actually answering this interview thousands of miles apart.

ASHLEY JEAN: Speaking of the internet: Do you think social networking sites cheapen the way music is promoted? Do you think it makes it too easy and accessible?

CHRIS HOLMES: It’s a dual edge sword. The fact that you can write a song, record it, mix it, master it, remix it and post it to share with millions of people in the same day is non-hyperbolically one of the most massive achievements in the history of mankind. The fact that a billion other people can do the exact same thing can sometimes cheapen it, because there is so much noise. Blogs act as filters to let people know which things are worth their time. It’s also tough because of the amount of content, people’s attention spans might be measured in milliseconds rather than hours with a record or a song. Someone might click on a link to a video and watch 5 seconds of it, and say “I like that,” recommend it on Facebook, and move on to the next thing to give a thumbs up to. It’s tough to get people to pay attention to really experience the depth of a piece of art; but I guess that is the artist’s dilemma not the viewers. As musicians we can reach more people in a single day than collectively heard Mozart over a hundred year period. It’s our job to make music that people can care about and speaks to their soul. We can’t beat Mozart, but we can try give people something better than “Chocolate Rain.”

BRIAN LEISEGANG:  I agree with everything Chris said. I find that music has become far more disposable, and unfortunately, it seems our society has the attention span of two minutes at most, so it’s really hard to filter out the signal from the noise. [Sadly], so many brilliant ideas and artists are not perceived in the deafening cacophony of social media. But it has its place and can be a tremendous tool. I think that as a society we haven’t quite figured out properly how to use it and communicate properly. Most technological advancements are ahead of the collective conscious. And I really don’t care how your plot of land is doing in Farmville […] I can’t wrap my head around why some people think others would care.

ASHLEY JEAN: Suppose War of the Worlds actually happens. Pick a track from the album that you think could save human civilization.

CHRIS HOLMES: I would never want that responsibilitywhen there such is amazing music by other artists out there; I love the Golden Record that NASA attached on Voyager.  (http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/goldenrecord-20070816.html)

If I made a voyager mixtape it would include Bach, Mozart, and Mahler along with “Apollo,” by Brian Eno, “Imagine,” (an easy answer but true) by John Lennon, “Surface of the Sun,” by John Murphy, “You Got a Hold On Me,” by Smokey Robinson, “Rock n’ Roll Music,” by Chuck Berry, and “Let it Be,” (also obvious, but it still affects the same way every time I hear it) , all of these songs remind me what it is to be human and touch my soul.

BRIAN LEISEGANG:  It’s funny because actually we have a song that is about just that.  It’s not on the first record, although it is finished. It’s called “(Don’t Destroy Us) Because We’ve Got Love,” which is a plea to offworlders trying to destroy the earth, and our sole plaintive plea. It’s got the Hanson brothers singing great harmonies on it, which ended up being perfect for us, as their apparent innocence in their performance offsets impending doom.  But I agree with Chris, in that we don’t have the arrogance to put forth any of our material. I would probably nominate Beethoven’s Allegretto in A from his seventh symphony.

ASHLEY JEAN: And finally, because this is Golden Mixtape, and because we’re such big fans of artists making us  mixtapes, pick the top 5 must listen to sci-fi tracks.

CHRIS HOLMES:

“Spirit of the Age,” by Hawkwind
“The Big Ship,” by Brian Eno
“Hallogallo,” by Neu
“Space is the Place,” by Sun Ra
“Also Sprach Zarathustra,” by Deodato

BRIAN LEISEGANG: …and to that I would have to add:

“An Ending(ascent),” from Brian Eno’s Apollo and Atmospheres album
“The Surface of the Sun,” by John Murphy on the Sunshine Soundtrack
Originally published on Nov 29, 2011

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