Dave Donnelly talks to God Is An Astronaut‘s Torsten Kinsella ahead of their Dublin & Belfast gigs this weekend.
2012 saw God is an Astronaut close out their first decade with a showcase performance at Vicar Street – one of the biggest headlining gigs they’ve played in Ireland, where they are strangely under-appreciated in comparison to the reverence with which their name is spoken abroad.
By then, the Glen of the Downs outfit were well into the process of writing and recording album number six, Origins, which saw light earlier this month. They inflated their number from three to five, with the addition of long-time touring member Jamie Dean and Butterfly Explosion guitarist Gazz Carr, a decision band leader Torsten Kinsella says was necessary to realise the punchier and more immediate sound he envisioned.
Origins is nothing if not immediate – disarmingly so for accustomed to the tightly-structured slow-build-to-intense-crescendo style they’d so successfully exploited with albums since 2001’s End of the Beginning. Tracks like ‘Exit Dream’ turn that often-criticised formula on its head, coming in loud and early but crucially retaining the strong volume dynamic that makes their music so powerful and so moving. Others, like the album highlight ‘Weightless,’ are more serene and controlled.
However the most notable new input is the voice of Pat O’Donnell – formerly of bookish ‘80s rockers Fountainhead – whose barely intelligible vocals are a near-constant on the album’s ten tracks. Nowhere is his influence more keenly felt than on ‘Signal Rays,’ a bass-heavy track that would more easily sit on a club set alongside New Order than a playlist of the group’s post-rock contemporaries.
God is an Astronaut play The Academy in Dublin on Saturday, October 26th and Belfast’s The Limelight on Sunday, October 27th. Origins is out now.
What has the reaction to the album been like so far?
Overall, it’s been very positive. Obviously you’ll have some people who would have preferred it if we’d kept the exact same way as we were before, but change I think was necessary after 11 years. We had to do something a little bit different. We just did a tour in Europe and the reaction to the new record was very positive – we’re doing half new stuff and half the old stuff – and we’re very encouraged by the reaction.
The biggest change from a listener’s point of view this time around is you’ve brought Pat O’Donnell in to do the vocals – how did that come about?
I’ve known Pat for years – I met him back in 1999, or maybe even earlier. He was working with a couple of bands at the time and I did some remixes for EMI Records, and ever since then we’ve kept in touch. Pat has been involved off and on with our music –he did the Moment of Stillness EP with us and helped out with our third album Far From Refuge, but this is the first time he was more of a collaborator than just coming in at the end to give us an ear. We worked together on the whole album, and Pat was an idea just to push the boat out a little bit – rather than just leaving it as background vocals, we could push it a notch forward on this record. It was an exciting thing to do and I’m glad we did it.
There seems to be a distinct effort to obscure the vocals, in order to keep it as another instrument rather than the focus.
That’s what we always did. I think at the end of the day, there’s no Bob Dylan in our band, so we didn’t want to push ourselves into a different genre of music, so to speak. 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.
You’ve always bumped up from a trio to a five-piece.
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. I knew I needed that so we got him in next year to be prepared to be able to play this album.
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.
There’s an interesting dynamic between the spacious, post-rock sound and the electro-rock sensibility – it seems you’ve taken a slight step away from the ambient and embraced pop a little more.
I think 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.
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. Pat brought in some influences – early 80s bands like Can and New Order – and we took a few ideas from them. Ultimately, it’s an experimental guitar album with pop sensibilities thrown in, but not to be confused with pop. It’s not a pop album by any means – it’s still very alternative.
Do you think the effect will be to draw a new type of listener to the band?
I think it will broaden it more than anything. We were trying to widen the net a little bit more rather than existing purely in the post-rock world. Post-rock is a tough world to last too long in, and if we kept doing the same thing people would tire of us anyway, so I thought it was important to try and widen it a little bit and eventually build it into something bigger than post-rock itself. Hopefully that is something we can achieve over the coming years – building on what we’ve done and taking the live energy of the band and incorporating it into the next thing we do.
Were you taking any outside influences for this or was most of it from within the band?
I think most of it was from within the band. The only influence maybe, mix-wise, is My Bloody Valentine, the way they mix their vocals. Apart from that, Can was an influence – we took a few ideas from them. Primarily, it was those few influences, and Pat obviously had a lot of influences on the album too and I’m not sure where his influences come from. I was more into the heavier style of music and Pat was into more Radiohead and that kind of stuff, so maybe that was in there too.
The album title, Origins – is there anything in that, going back to something a little more basic.
I don’t know if basic would be the word. 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. My girlfriend, Derval Freeman, she’s an artist and she had a painting which is on the front cover and that influenced Weightless. We were just taking inspiration from anywhere – not necessarily other musicians, but art. That was interesting, working as freely as we could. Origins, at the end of the day, is going back to our roots of why we did music in the first place, which was for ourselves.
Something that always fascinates me about instrumental bands is how they go about picking titles. Weightless, Transmissions, Light Years From Home – there’s kind of a sci-fi, space travel theme there.
I’d say that was always an influence. Even the name God is an Astronaut is taken from the Clive Barker 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. Weightless just 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 really 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.
When you’ve written a song and then you go to title it, is there just a sense you get from it that certain words fit?
The music kind of tells you what the track is about, and you’ve got to find the name that suits the theme you felt it was telling you. In the case of Weightless, I got something mysterious, something spacious, something alien, and I thought Weightless suited it. It signifies just floating and escapism in general. The Last March was another one. That was written three years ago, and that felt like a dark time for me, and it just felt like the last cry for help. Transmission was named simply because the guitar sounds a little bit like morse code. Usually the music tells us roughly what the track is about.
You’ve always been very successful outside of Ireland but not so much here – is that something you’re seeing changing, that you’re getting more reception at home?
I think with this album, definitely. We’ve been taken aback with the reaction we’re getting on this record, the amount of exposure we’re getting. I think it is changing and long may it continue – it’s great to finally get some credibility back home. Apart from that, it never worried me too much. The most important thing was always that we could continue to play music and play in front of audiences no matter where it is. It is also great to have Ireland behind you. Let’s hope we can spread it over to the UK. Primarily we’re popular in Germany and France and Portugal, Spain, Russia, Scandinavia and the United States. It’s spreading on this record, maybe because it’s slightly more indie and less post-rock, so it’s a slightly different territory.
Is there a sense maybe you came along a few years too early? Seeing the success of Adebisi Shank and And So I Watch You From Afar, and Ireland’s always had a tradition of instrumental music, could you say you maybe slipped between generations?
It’s really hard to say. We started playing around 2001 and post-rock wasn’t really a known phrase. We done very well at the very start, and like anything audiences can tire of bands that continue to play around the country too often. For us it was a good thing because it forced us to look outside the country. New bands come up and people want to talk about the new bands, and I think we’re an old band at this point, but I think we have something new and exciting that’s getting people talking again.
I think all those bands will have those days ahead of them too where people will stop talking about them and they’ll have to come up with something to get people talking about them again. At the end of the day, success back home never really worried me because we were always successful outside of the country. We were never relying on Ireland, and we knew from the start that Ireland was too small, especially for the genre of music we were trying to play. It would never work financially.
What does the future hold now?
I don’t have any massive long-term aims except that I’d like to do this for another ten years, which would be my dream. I would like to do an EP next with a couple of live tracks – we want to do Red Moon Lagoon live and a couple of tracks we think will take an interesting, exciting turn of events when we play them live. I think they sound ever better live, so we want to put an EP together with three live bonus tracks which really captures the live energy of the band. Keep it youthful and energetic – that’s the plan that I have. Other than that, we’ll be touring in Scandinavia, and we’ll be into eastern Europe again and eventually we’ll be back into the US with this album.