“We tried something different with Origins and it was obvious after a while that the band had built up a certain reputation for a certain type of music,” says God is an Astronaut frontman Torsten Kinsella. “Making something more mainstream needed mainstream backing, to put it that way, and we weren’t able to get it to the right audience that that record was aimed at. I think we took what we felt worked from that record and put a bit of it onto this record.”
The Wicklow band’s 2013 album Origins was a gutsy left-turn for a band who had built a reputation on vast, expansive post-rock, and ultimately the album’s shorter, more immediate song-structures and quicker pay-offs didn’t quite settle with the group’s existing fan-base. And, like a cowboy who’s fallen off his horse, Kinsella & co. took the decision to get straight back in the saddle, and the result, less than two years later, is Helios/Erebus, which isn’t exactly a return to the previously successful formula but certainly more familiar. It’s an album that Kinsella regards as rawer than anything they’ve done before, and comes closer to capturing the band’s live sound than any previous record, with the loops and multi-tracks of Origins discarded for a more-or-less straight-to-tape recording.
The album’s out about a week now – are you happy as can be with the final product? I’m very happy with it. We road-tasted it, did everything we needed to do to it, and the reaction on the whole has been really positive. We’re really happy with it.
You seem to have gone with a Greek theme in terms of Helius/Erebus being the gods of light and darkness – is that something you set out to do? No. It was a darker record and we had the apocalyptic culture idea, and Nils had the cover done up, and it just looked a bit Aztec-y, and we wanted to keep that kind of mythical, ancient vibe to it. That was pretty much the idea – there’s nothing more to it than that.
The album art is incredible – was that a specially-done piece? It was probably based on Aztec designs, but it was something Nils designed specifically himself. He did it all on his computer.
The last time we spoke was about 18 months ago when Origins came out and you talked about how you’d made an effort to move away a bit from the post-rock and try to make songs that are a bit more immediate. Is that something you continued on this record? No, of course not. We tried something different with Origins and it was obvious after a while that the band had built up a certain reputation for a certain type of music, and making something more mainstream needed mainstream backing, to put it that way, and we weren’t able to get it to the right audience that that record was aimed at.
I think we took what we felt worked from that record and put a bit of it onto this record. As far as the structures of the songs are concerned, I think we kind of felt more comfortable with just keeping it the way it was previous to that album. We kind of did try a few different things on this album – it’s definitely a heavier album and there’s slightly longer structures than we’d normally have done.
It is a heavier album, with a more metallic and, I’d say, abrasive sound – is that something you tried to bring in I’d have different descriptions of it. For me, it’s probably more a raw kind of sound. We wanted to capture the live sound of the band on certain tracks. I think it’s a more organic sound – it wasn’t produced as long and is literally more performance-based. I think it’s slightly more vintage-sounding to – I don’t know about metallic or not – but I think it’s a slightly warmer sound. It’s obviously less clean – a little bit more raw around the edges.
You brought in an extra guitarist for the last album and made the band a five-piece – is that still the case? No, not anymore. We brought Gav in from Butterfly Explosion at the time and he’s gone back to work on his own stuff. It’s just the four of us – Jamie on keyboards and guitar, and he wrote some tracks for it as well. This is definitely a record where there’s guitars and there’s keyboards, rather than experimental guitar work, which we decided to leave with the last album rather than repeat it.
My impression is still that there’s more of an emphasis on the guitars than there would have been a couple of albums ago? I think the self-titled album had a strong emphasis on it as well, but this is maybe even more so. We wanted to capture the live sound of the band and guitar is a large part of that, but there is piano and there is keyboard, whereas the last album was all made with guitars even though people thought it was made with keyboards. This time we kept synths and keyboards and keyboards, and guitars as guitars.
And that feeds into what you were saying about it being a more organic record. It definitely does. The last album was a lot more machine loops and performances were cut, whereas this was literally get into position in terms of the track and capture the best one we could. Apart from the ambient tracks – they’re always a little bit more difficult because they’re more textured and obviously electronic in nature.
Is there specific reason you went towards using Greek words and imagery? No, it was really just coming up with names that suited the tracks. We were looking at what became the title track, and it had moments of darkness in it and moments of brightness in it, and we were trying to come up with something that captured the vibe of the track and we came up with it. At the end of it, we went with that as the name of the album as well.
Are you a band comfortable working with themes? It didn’t really start like that. These songs really just came up organically, and we had a collection of songs We just had to live with them a while to put together something that had a clear picture. It’s a darker record and we really just wanted to make sure what we had captured that in the name and the cover and all the rest of it.
Is the physical product – the way the record is packaged and presented – really important to you? I think it is, yeah. I have to say on this record we’ve embraced the name God is an Astronaut in terms of what we were targeting, and we went for the spacey thing, whereas with Origins, even though there were some spacey names, overall we were trying to keep it more neutral. This kind of embraced what the band was and is today, but the packaging is obviously important. I know a lot of people say the album is dead, but it isn’t – it still exists. People want a collection of songs and the vibe that goes with it. It was a conscious decision to have it packaged that way and we’re very happy with it.
Apart from the light and shade theme, are there any other significant themes that evolved as the album went on?On the top of my head, no. I think everything was very organically done. The tracks were written over a period of time – we had ‘Centralia’ written about a month after Origins, and we put it straight away into the live set. The apocalyptic culture is the only thing we embraced, which is what we did at the start of our careers. It’s something that’s always fascinated us. There’s kind of a sci-fi vibe to the whole thing, I guess.
When I last talked to you, you seemed very excited about it opening new audiences up and maybe broadening your base – is that something that quickly became apparent wasn’t going to happen? It’s so hard to say. The last album is interesting because critically it done well but the fanbase didn’t really embrace it as much as we’d hoped. I guess it was just too different from [what we’d done before] – we’d pushed it too far for a lot of people. I still am really happy with that record, at the same time. I guess that was our experimental record, and on this one we fine-tuned what we know definitely worked from that record and the previous records. I don’t think it would have been good to repeat what we did again, with vocoders and that type of stuff, but I’m glad we copy it because it would just cheapen that record if we did.
When you approached this album was it a feeling of going back to basics or was it developing in a different direction again? I think it’s developing in a different direction. We wanted to introduce something that was slightly more street, tougher. We’d never really captured the sound of the band on record before, so that was a conscious decision to do that. We did take what we think was the best stuff from previous records and melt it in with a slightly different direction, with more complex structures and arrangements, a slightly heavier part the sound, a more raw sound overall and a more live-performance-based record with very little machine drums and stuff like that. I wouldn’t say it’s completely different from what we did before, but it is a step in a slightly different direction.
One of the points you really made a point of stating back then was that Origins was a more live-sounding record and it drove on your live sound – did the lessons you learned from that feed back into this record? There are certain songs on the last record that do that, but not as much as this one. There was much more production on the last record – this one is pretty much just how the band sounds in a room, with a few extra synthesiser noises put in, whereas the last one was a more detailed idea. I think the music speaks for itself. It’s up to people to decide themselves whether it’s more live or a machine, but I think this one is definitely more live again than the last record.
In terms of being an Irish band in Ireland, it seemed a year or so ago the tide was turning in terms of being successful everywhere but at home – has that developed at all? Not really. It doesn’t really matter, and I don’t mind. I guess we can come back here and we played Whelan’s for the 20-year anniversary and we sold that out, so we can play shows here. I’m not interested in any of it anymore, as far as success is concerned. I just want to play music and see what happens. I hate to say that, but I really don’t give a shit, at all. Not even the slightest, I don’t care. I don’t think about it anymore. There’s no point.
What are your tour plans now? There is a tour coming up in September, October and November, and more dates to be announced next year, in eastern Europe and Scandinavia.