Thursday, Jan 11, 2007
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LOCAL MUSIC | Epic, unpredictable, experimental

To the stars: Ad Astra Per Aspera will make you want to dance despite difficulties

The Kansas City Star

On its Web site, the band Ad Astra Per Aspera has posted a video of a live performance taped at the Granada in Lawrence in February 2006.

The song is “VooDoo Economics,” and as well as any other song in its repertoire, it depicts the band’s inimitable way of organizing sonic and visual disorder into conflagrations of music that make a crowd want to bob and dance.

On stage, the band is flanked by lamps topped with long, green fronds. Behind the band, a large screen projects faded black-and-white footage that includes several episodes of men and machines in various relations with Mother Earth (plumbing her for oil, trodding livestock over her ranges, harvesting her crops).

The song is done in less than 3 minutes and 40 seconds, but it feels bigger — more epic — than that. Anyone who has matriculated in Kansas knows the Latin phrase “ad astra per aspera” is the Kansas state motto. It means “to the stars through difficulties.” Anyone who has studied basic astronomy knows that the pretty twinkle he or she sees in the clear night sky is light from a source that has endured eons of interstellar commotion and infernal chaos, which seems also to apply to the music of Ad Astra.

On its latest album, “Catapult Calypso,” the Kansas City/Lawrence band has produced a series of arranged derangements (or deranged arrangements), including “VooDoo Economics,” which inspired this endorsement from a reviewer at Pitchfork Media: “The end result is vaguely danceable and sufficiently nasty, and it sounds good between pretty much anything. I declare a new mixtape killer.”

Music like that has many and varied roots. Ad Astra’s are punk. Kurt Lane, the band’s drummer, Mike Tuley (guitar, vocals) and Scott Edwards (bass) are alums of local hardcore punk bands. Several years ago they all started exploring other (and older) flavors of music.

At a recent get-together at a bar in the Crossroads district, Lane says he developed a relatively delayed appreciation for “normal but incredible music” — as in it came from incredible bands like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin but had been around for decades. From that was born enlightenment and the inspiration to break out of punk’s limited trappings.

Told that they blend experimental/art-school punk with dance rhythms in a way that evokes early Talking Heads, Tuley confirms an abiding appreciation for that band, too. In fact, one of the band’s few covers is the Heads’ “Love Goes to Building on Fire” (another is the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”).

Later, Fela Kuti’s name comes up; so does a reference to free-form jazz. On its MySpace bio, the band also tips its hat to Black Sabbath, Otis Redding, Can, Pink Floyd and Godspeed! You Black Emperor. Read reviews of its music and live shows and you’ll bump into the name Sonic Youth a few times, too.

In other words, the music is epic, unpredictable, experimental and, you would think, not so easy to compose, rehearse and commit to memory. Initially, that’s the way it was. Thus it took the band about a year to nail down enough material for a live performance — a controlled, invitation-only show in front of family and friends.

Five years later, things are different. Though it can sound like a 10-piece noise-rock orchestra, the band is a quintet: Tuley, Edwards, Lane, his wife, Julie (keyboards, vocals), and Brooke Hunt, initially a friend/fan who joined the band to run its sampler and add some percussion but has since learned to play rhythm guitar.

Time and experience, they all say, have benefited the entire creative process.

“Everyone has a better ear for what we’re trying to do,” Hunt said. “We’re all a lot more comfortable with the whole process of writing songs.”

“At first it was hard to write together,” Tuley said. “We all had different ideas of what we wanted to sound like. … Now, we all have a much better idea of when something is going in the right direction and if it’s going to work.”

“Or if it’s not going to work,” Lane said. “We can tell if a certain part is lacking or if a certain idea just isn’t going to work.”

The music that does work and makes it onto a recording and/or a live show requires something extra from the listener. See the band live (or watch one of its live videos) and it seems that those who show up for an Ad Aspera show are prepared for at least two things: moments of surprise and waves of energy. Tuley, the large and wild-haired vocalist, regularly shifts from a straight-up indie-rock voice to a molten hardcore scream. Behind him, everyone is in some state of motion, rendering the band’s ornate five-part arrangements while creating and sustaining a groove that gets danced to, despite the long, arduous creative process.

For “Calypso,” Tuley said, the band spent about two years writing, arranging, building, deconstructing, editing and completing the album’s 10 songs.

“We don’t just sit down, bash out a song and say, ‘It’s done,’ ” he said. “The process is lengthy.”

And in the end, for everyone involved, the journey — no matter how difficult — is worth the rewards.


Ad Astra Per Aspera performs Friday night at the Bottleneck, 737 New Hampshire in Lawrence, opening for the Kirk Rundstrom Band.