God is an Astronaut: “Everything Felt as Natural as It Could”

With ninth album ‘Epitaph’, Glen of the Downs post-rockers God is an Astronaut have prepared their most sonically and thematically heavy record yet. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks to co-founder Niels Kinsella ahead of their gig at Cyprus Avenue on February 8th.

Traversing the world, and creating a vast palate of sounds in and around the post-rock genre’s outer limits, Co. Wicklow five-piece God is an Astronaut have seen and done possibly everything there is for them to see and do, enduring nearly everything a band could have thrown at them at a turbulent time for independent music. And yet, for all of their accomplishments and a rich body of work, when it came time to face down a profound personal tragedy, the band took shelter, pride and comfort in creating a transformative, wildly cathartic and heartbroken piece of music. In doing so, they’ve arguably emerged with an album that’s redefined them as a creative entity, and bears the hallmark of the kind of soul-searching only that grief can inspire in someone.

New album ‘Epitaph’ released in April of last year via Napalm Records, a new label for the band after years of alternating between UK indies and self-releases. Niels Kinsella, one half of the brother duo at the heart of the band, is careful to discuss the inspiration behind a crushing yet vital musical proposition.We are very happy with the album, even though it was a very difficult for us to write. It was written in memory of our seven-year-old cousin, whose life was tragically taken just over two years ago. Working with Napalm Records has been positive, they’ve been very supportive and respectful of our identity.”

Tapping into the groundswell of emotion and experience that bereavement evokes, the band took a turn for the sonically and thematically heavy, wrenching out of themselves a heavy, at times guttural take on the band’s traditional play with sounds. Oddly enough, then, the record is rooted in the most bare-bones idea preparation one imagines a band like God is an Astronaut engaging in. The songs themselves were written all in the immediate aftermath and were essential for us to try and come to terms with this extremely traumatic event, words could not express our feelings but the music could. All of the songs are about the different aspects of the tragedy so naturally this is by far the darkest and most personal record we have ever written. The songs were mainly written on a Piano, it offers a larger combination of notes than a guitar and helped capture the exact emotions.”

For the first time in the band’s long and storied run, they were joined in studio by a creative ‘third-person’ in a non-production role, with Rob Murphy and Conor Drinane of Dublin electronic duo Xenon Field taking part in songwriting and improvisation, to provide another perspective. “They helped us a lot in post-production, and really understood what we were making. They wanted the style to further reflect the subject matter by making the sounds more broken/imperfect. For example, they put the sounds through various tape devices with bad tracking, the notes warbling in and out tune helped it feel more haunted. Using lots of tape saturation made it feel more stressed. We used lots of experimental plugins like Unfiltered Audio SpecOps, and lots of analogue outboard like the Niio Iotine Core, Mutronics Mutator and Snazzy FX Tracer City.”

Working as a unit between four of them, and including the contributions of former members and guest musicians, Xenon Field ensured the Brothers Kinsella’s trademark sonic interplay would be evident. The group set out to ensure that everything felt as natural as it could throughout production. “We also introduced a doom-laden guitar sound in sections, tuned to drop A, but with a twist. I put an Earthquaker Rainbow pedal on my guitar which warbles the tuning in and out of tune, that combination really captured the dread and ugliness that some of music was conveying. We also used live amps on this record, as amp simulation equipment didn’t quite fit the style. It had to have a raw flavour. Jimmy Scanlon, who owns Jimi’s Music Store, helped me out by supplying lots of vintage amps, and also played on our record. We used ribbon mics to keep the sound warm. The drums were mic’d with a pair of Ribbon Coles 4038, which is something we never used before. It gives the drums a dark sound that the music craved for. It was also the first time we did analog mastering, we wanted something more vintage and authentic.”

There are a wide variety of topics & themes at play in the record, coming under the main theme of grief and catharsis; including imagery of mythology and natural beauty. Arrangement and ideas aside – how was it to focus on dealing with such an overwhelming, universally relatable sadness into a body of work?In one way it was therapeutic for us, but in another it was overwhelming having to relive those feelings over and over again as we worked on the record throughout, at times it even became oppressive. It was important to have some positivity and hope on the album to balance it out.”

The band has recently pressed its entire back catalogue back onto vinyl, on sale now at various tour stops. Kinsella outlines the process of getting the band’s catalogue together after an extended mastering process, and how it was to view an extended body of work in the rear-view mirror, at least in terms of a set of physical pieces.We had remastered our entire discography back in 2012, with Tim Young at Metropolis Mastering Studios in London, so it made it quite manageable to revisit the masters, as they were all on file, and cut them to vinyl. It was very gratifying, and even nostalgic, looking at our entire body of work at the same time. When we laid out all the vinyl on the table so many memories came back to us.”

The vinyl revival is an ideal opportunity to supplement live and merchandise income, but has yet to make up ground for loss of artist revenues as streaming overtakes both CD and now download as the prime digital format. While catalogue reissues and streaming revenues have gone a way to addressing the shortfall from the possible death of ‘owned’ formats, as is the case for many artists, the solution hasn’t quite arrived yet for the band, who also find themselves facing the challenge of changing habits that streaming has caused among casual consumers. “Ultimately streaming hasn’t really helped, if anything it’s lessened our revenue. Fans who have bought our records in the past are now content to just sign up to a streaming service, and the artist revenue from that is significantly less. You can also see trends of listeners just listening to specific playlists, for example ‘ambient music’, where the artist identity isn’t even that important, the listeners are only interested in one specific style to suit their mood, and do not want be subjected to a mixed variety. So that, in my opinion, kills the concept of an album where there is a journey. For us, it’s fifty percent live shows and merchandising, and the other fifty percent is releasing new music, which is a big change in the last ten years, where the revenue was seventy percent releasing new music and thirty percent live shows and merchandising.”

Before heading to Bucharest in May to support the Cure, and ahead of touring the US later in the year, the band returns to Cyprus Avenue on Friday February 8th as part of its coming run of Irish dates, for the first time since the venue completed its expansion late last year. Kinsella collects his thoughts on the old venue, a regular stop of theirs, and anticipates changes.I haven’t seen the changes in person yet, but I am pleased that Cyprus Avenue has finally been expanded. It was difficult in the past to fit on stage, and we had to leave some production out. I think from an audience perspective, it was hard to see a band clearly.”

God is an Astronaut play at The New Cyprus Avenue on Caroline Street, on Friday February 8th. Tickets onsale now from cyprusavenue.ie.

God is an Astronaut: Plotting a Course

Before setting off on tour and finishing their next record, God is an Astronaut play Cyprus Avenue on Saturday the 23rd. Guitarist Torsten Kinsella speaks with Mike McGrath-Bryan about the future, overarching themes and genre labels.

“We are still really pleased with it and it’s working out very well live too so we couldn’t have asked for much more.” Last year saw the release of God is an Astronaut’s fifth album. Helios/Erebus was positively received, and guitarist Torsten Kinsella is positive about its place in the Glen of the Downs post-rock outfit’s increasingly storied canon. “We began writing it in late 2013, we road-tested a lot of the material live first before releasing it. It helped us gauge the reaction way before the release. We wanted this record to capture the sound of the band live, which hadn’t really been our primary aim in the past. Centralia was the first track we wrote, which set the mood for the rest of the album. While there was a lot of heavier tracks, we also wrote some ambient tracks, which is a very important side of the band too. Most of the tracks began with an electric guitar, or piano, and some began with soundscapes, and from that we carved out melodies.”

The as-yet untitled next LP will be released through Austrian metal label Napalm Records following an announcement last year. Kinsella explains how that working relationship come about, and breaks down how the new deal stands to benefit the band. “They approached us, initially we weren’t really interested but after speaking to them off and on for a few months, they seem to really understand what we’re about. They were enthusiastic for us to retain artistic control which was important. They have a big marketing budget for our next album which we hope will increase our profile substantially. They have allowed us to work as long as we want on the next record so we will take our time to ensure we write the best record we can.”

The band has, by and large, been an independent entity for its whole run, avoiding most, if not all, of the usual Irish industry pitfalls. How has the band done so while maintaining sustainability, and how does it change with the Napalm deal? “We have been lucky, and we have worked very hard and written music that resonated well with many listeners. Keeping control has enabled us to strategise wisely throughout our career. We were in a good position when Napalm approached us so we were able to get an agreement that really made a lot of sense, for example we still retain our full rights to our back catalogue outside the Napalm agreement which was hugely important to us. The deal is a fair one, with above average percentage splits, so as long we write a good album and they do a good job marketing it, I do believe we can become more successful.”

Talk turns to the band’s upcoming live excursion on the 23rd. When asked for any stories or memories of playing Leeside, one story comes to Kinsella’s mind. “The time we played in Cyprus Avenue a few years back and there was a storm raging outside, the river had burst its banks, and the rain was hammering down through a hole in the ceiling on me while we were playing. I was lucky not to get electrocuted.”

Next year will be the band’s 15th anniversary. In 2002, the term “post-rock” was a lot different, as were perceptions of the genre. Kinsella explores his relationship with the term, and contrasts perception of the band against the band’s own aims. “When we began, we were labelled as dance/trip-hop, with the release of our second album we began to hear the term post-rock, we weren’t familiar with the genre, or the other groups at the time. There were obvious differences to what we were doing compared to the rest, our tracks were considerably shorter and we had much more electronics than the other groups. Today of course, it’s all become integrated as part of the post-rock sound. I’m not really sure what post-rock fans’ perception of us is today, I keep away from online forums etc., reading positive or negative opinions pollutes our vision, so we just keep our heads down and write the best music we can, that represents who we are and how we are feeling at that time.”

In that post-rock, as a largely instrumental enterprise, lends itself to capturing moments in time and allowing listeners to interpret that through their own filters and frames of reference, how has the process of deciding what theme, or what moment, or feeling, changed? “That really depends on what’s happening to us, and around us. Right now the world is going through a dark phase with a massive amount of innocent casualties in the Middle East and in turn the continuing rise of religions extremism. That really influenced Helios/Erebus. Our front cover was largely influenced by the Aztec calendar. I believe when you look at the history of the Aztecs, we have a lot in common. The Aztecs were keen astronomers. They designed whole structures around the sun, moon, and the stars and paid special tribute to them with their buildings.But they also had a dark side to them. The Aztec religion was full of gloom and doom, as it were. They lived with such fear that they offered blood sacrifices to the Sun God, in hopes that he would assure the rising of the sun each day. So all in all, not too much has changed when you look at the world we are living in today. The immolation of innocent captives, beheadings and the mass bombings of innocent civilians in the name of religion and politics are still celebrated by many. I think we could learn something from history.

Turning an eye from the past and the bigger picture to the band’s immediate future, God is an Astronaut are in the eye of a storm of activity at present. “We are currently on tour in Italy and we finish up in Romania before coming home to do a few shows in Ireland. We’re returning to the US in late August, for a headline tour. It’s been five years since we have been there last. We will also be returning to Greece, Barcelona and Germany in November. We are also writing new material for the next album.”

God is an Astronaut play Cyprus Avenue on Saturday the 23rd of this month. Tickets available from Eventbrite and the Old Oak.