“We can’t all be astronauts, but at least we can travel in different ways.” – An interview with God is an Astronaut
It’s said that a change is as good as a rest – and the life of a working musician leaves little time for a rest – so it’s all change for Wicklow post-rockers God is an Astronaut as they take their seventh studio album, Origins, on the road.
The Glen of the Downs natives have long been considered one of Irish music’s best-kept secrets – while they would struggle to turn heads in their own hometown, they’re considered heavyweights on the international post-rock scene and regularly sell out venues across Europe and the United States.
Nevertheless, ten years on from the release of their influential debut album, The End of the Beginning, chief songwriter Torsten Kinsella worried about the potential for things becoming stale, and the band as a collective sought to return to their roots and rediscover what it was that made them tick.
Speaking to Something for the Weekend, Kinsella explains that the ‘Origins’ in this case aren’t so much the musical influences that make up their sonic palette but the intangible influences that motivated them to create music in the first place.
Kinsella says: “Origins for us was to recapture why we did music in the first place. When we started way back in 2001, we were writing music for ourselves and there was no worry about what people expected – nobody expected anything because they hadn’t heard of us at that time.
“It felt like we could forget what anyone expected us to do and just do what we wanted to do. That was why Origins really rang home to me. It feels like starting over again – it feels fresh – and all the things that influenced me to write this record.”
Having operated as a trio for the guts of a decade, they beefed up their line-up to include touring keyboardist Jamie Dean and added guitarist Gazz Carr, while Pat O’Donnell – former singer with ‘80s rock band Fountainhead – was a temporary recruit to add cold, robotic vocals.
The expanded line-up allowed guitarist and chief composer Kinsella – who founded the band with his brother and bassist Niels and drummer Lloyd Hanney – to take a more experimental approach, creating punchier, more immediate songs to complement the slow build-up and epic crescendos that characterise the genre.
He says: “On record, I think it was important for us to do something a little more immediate this time, rather than the same six or seven-minute epics. Not that we overdid that in the past – we’ve always had shorter structures than our contemporaries – but this time we really wanted to have urgency.
“There are a few post-rock-style structured songs on the album, but it’s the first time we’ve really ventured structure-wise away from post-rock and into a more pop structure.
“Live it’s great because you have the old songs which are the ‘calm before the storm’ structure, and now you have the more immediate like Exit Dream or Calistoga where they come in straight away. It adds great contrast live.”
Like any rock band worth their skin, God is an Astronaut have based much of their reputation on their arresting live show, and Kinsella feels the newly-expanded line-up is a clear improvement on the old one and will allow them to take a lot more risks in the live setting.
He says: “When I was writing Origins, I knew we were going to need more members because it’s a very experimental guitar record – a lot of people think it’s keyboards, but it’s not. It’s primarily a lot of guitars so I knew I’d need another guitar player in the group, so we got Gaz Carr from Butterfly Explosion.
“Jamie was on keyboards – he’d already been playing with us for two or three years – and he’d also played guitar, so that was great.
“I could really perform every part of this album live, which is what I wanted to do rather than use too much background technology. The five-piece has added a level of improvisation live that we can re-interpret the tracks and feed off the audience, speed them up or whatever we need to do. It’s the best line-up we’ve ever had.”
All this talk of pop structures and lead vocals could give the impression God is an Astronaut have changed, changed utterly, however Kinsella is quick to stress they’re merely freshening things up rather than tearing down the house.
He says: “I think we still play to our strengths and while we come up with some good vocal hooks and melodies, it’s still important to have an instrumental feel to what we do because I feel that’s really what we’re good at.
“I didn’t want the vocals to be more important than the other musical hooks we had. We treated it more as an instrument. We did add lyrics to it, but I think we pushed things forward. At the end of the day, there’s no Bob Dylan in our band.”
The band and Kinsella himself have always been heavily influenced by and enamoured with science fiction, and the theme of space travel crops up time and again throughout their catalogue. Origins keeps things on trend, with a number of tracks that explicitly and implicitly reference space.
He says: “The name God is an Astronaut is taken from Clive Barker’s Nightbreed movie. There was a quote – ‘God is an astronaut and Oz is over the rainbow’ – and we took the first part for our name.
“[The song] Weightless reminds me of something epic. I’d written it before I watched that film Prometheus, but I thought it would have suited the scene where they landed on the planet and there was some kind of intelligent civilisation on the planet.
“It has a bit of a 2001: Space Odyssey effect to it in its own weird way. It’s escapism. Take yourself away from this place and imagine you were a million light years away, and my music takes us to those places. We can’t all be astronauts, but at least we can travel in different ways.”