Friday, January 30, 2004
The band Ad Astra Per Aspera shares more than just its name with the Kansas state motto. "To the stars through difficulties" has become something of a personal credo for the Lawrence five-piece.
"In the beginning we chose the name mostly because we like the way it sounded -- and us all being from Kansas was important as a Kansas pride thing," says Julie Noyce, keyboardist/vocalist for Ad Astra Per Aspera.
"But now that we're well into being a band together, we've discovered there are some difficulties involved. Now it's indicative of a struggle -- or maybe a process -- of doing what you want to do and making music the way you want to make it."
So far the group has succeeded in crafting a sound far removed from that of other acts that fall under the umbrella of Lawrence's indie rock scene. By blending male/female harmonies with eccentric grooves, experimental textures and arrangements complicated enough to rival the progressive rock acts of the '70s, the evolving ensemble can't help but stick out.
"We have the luxury of not being easily compared to other bands," she says. "It's not like we read that we sound like MxPx, and it's, 'Aaagh!' We've had very few comparisons that way. I don't think we've ever had a comparison that made us cringe."
Of these cringe-repellent comparisons, one does seem to head to the front of the pack: Sonic Youth. Although Ad Astra Per Aspera's music is much more listener-friendly than that veteran unit, the local band's fondness for prolonged bursts of discordant noise does invite the association.
"I wouldn't consider that inappropriate," says drummer Kurt Lane. "Because the bands that we've been compared to in reviews and things, they're good bands. I like Sonic Youth quite a bit. And I obviously like Black Sabbath a lot," says Lane, pointing to the Black Sabbath logo on his jersey.
For this year's Halloween, the drummer even dressed as the helmeted pink warrior depicted on the cover of Sabbath's "Paranoid" album.
Lawrence audiences may feel a little paranoid this weekend, because it seems Ad Astra is everywhere. The "artsy" band makes a fitting match for tonight's one-year anniversary celebration at Grimshaw Gallery. Then Saturday night the quintet will head next door to join Ghosty and Minus Story at The Bottleneck.
"I like playing a big mix of shows like that because it's probably going to be two totally different audiences," Lane says. "People who go see Ghosty play regularly versus people who are stopping by the Grimshaw Gallery for a party, it's going to be different people. I enjoy playing at art spaces or houses or weird places because it doesn't feel like a club show where there's this ritualized thing that happens."
Thrown into the fire
Formed in the summer of 2001, Ad Astra has undergone a number of lineup revisions but seems to have solidified itself as of late. Lane and Noyce partner with vocalist-guitarist Mike Tuley, bassist Scott Edwards and newest addition Brooke Hunt, who was recruited to provide live samples but has since learned to play guitar also. ("It's a lot more fun onstage for Brooke now than just pushing buttons at certain times," Lane remarks.)
Interestingly, this is Noyce's first band experience. She and Lane had been dating each other for more than two years when the drummer suggested the group could use another member.
"We knew we wanted someone to play keyboards," he recalls. "Julie had taken piano lessons when she was little but hadn't played in a long time."
Noyce was actually doing study abroad in Paris and Florence, Italy. But upon returning to the United States she immediately started working on the right way to musically integrate into the lineup.
"I don't think I'd recommend it for most people's relationships," Lane asserts. "But it's been fine for us."
Noyce adds, "I much prefer NOT being the 'girlfriend who goes to all the shows.'"
So what was it like when she first took the stage for a live gig?
"Honestly -- and I don't mean this in a cocky way -- but I felt like I knew what I was doing," she says. "That surprised me."
Tours and tapes
Noyce has gained a lot more tangible experience along the way. Ad Astra Per Aspera has taken its show on the road, hitting such states as Colorado (motto: "Nothing Without the Deity"), Nebraska ("Equality before the law") and Wisconsin ("Forward").
"We did what I like to call a 'tour' in quotes," she says. "It was the type of thing where we try to set it up and nothing worked out. It ended up being a lot of Midwest shows but not in one long stretch."
Lane clarifies, "It was more of a commute."
The "tour" coincided with the release of Ad Astra's first demo, a three-song disc titled "An Introduction To." Now the band is sitting on a recording made with Robert Rebeck at Black Lodge in Eudora.
"I got to play on a real piano," Noyce says. "Kurt rented timpani. It was a definite 'studio' experience."
The as-of-yet-untitled project is being sent off for mastering this week. The members hope that it will be on shelves by May ... if all the financial stars align correctly.
"Those other songs (on 'Introduction') were the first three songs we ever wrote," Lane explains. "That was the beginning stages. Now we're settling into what we're going to sound like."