By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
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There are a lot of things you want to ask the members of a band called Thank God for Astronauts. What they think of the Space Shuttle blowing up. How they feel about the recent disturbing trend in full sentences as band names. Whether or not they even believe in God. Sit around the table with the four of them, though, and all you'll really care about is who's getting up to grab the next round of Sam Adams out of the fridge. See them live and all you'll care about is where that next glorious pop song is coming from. Liverpool 1963? London 1979? Chapel Hill 1992? Um...heaven?
"I grew up in Oklahoma in the '70s and '80s," says Kent Phillips, Thank God for Astronauts' singer/guitarist and primary songwriter. "I was the middle-class white boy who got turned on to rap. My dad was like, 'Huh -- that kind of reminds me of Funkadelic,' so he gave me one of his old Funkadelic records. After that, I just started picking his brain about music."
"I grew up in Kansas," counters bassist Steve Jones, "and the only bands that came through in the '80s were the metal bands. All I ever saw was arena rock. I had a guitar, but all I could play was a Scorpions tune and a Mötley Crüe tune."
In a parallel dimension, Thank God for Astronauts could have been Linkin Park. Sadly, though, Jones's heavy-metal chocolate and Phillips's hip-hop peanut butter were never meant to collide. They both moved to Denver around the turn of the '90s, but by the time the two met in 1998 on the runs of Berthoud Pass, their aesthetic sensibilities had already been corrupted.
"I met Steve snowboarding. He was blasting Polvo out of his car," Phillips remembers, speaking of North Carolina's semi-legendary art-core combo. "You usually hear people jamming Phish or the Grateful Dead up there, you know? So we rode together, and we found out we had similar tastes in music: the Buzzcocks, the Who, the Beatles, the Only Ones, Nick Lowe, the Soft Boys. All this old-school Brit pop and punk. We just kind of got into it from there."
"Getting into it" entailed the formation of Kudzu Towers, a short-lived group that served as a low-flying prototype for Thank God for Astronauts. The upgrade was made in 2001 with the recruitment of drummer Bryan Feuchtinger and guitarist Alisdair Rich; ever since then, the foursome has helped fill the gap left by the defection of the Apples in Stereo to the blue hills of Kentucky last year. While not quite as accomplished or blatantly retro as the Apples, TGFA's static-laced indie rock is transmitted on much the same bandwidth.
"Ken and I would go see the Apples and Dressy Bessy all the time," says Steve. "We thought, 'Shit, these are such fun songs. Why can't we do this?'"
Phillips had begun writing music in high school, but it took him nearly ten years to work up the nerve to actually front an honest-to-God rock group. "Before Kudzu Towers, I had never been in a bandwhere there was real rehearsal and stuff. I just kind of learned on my own, and I was really conscious about not wanting to put something together until I thought it was decent and worth people's time," he says. "I always felt a little weird about writing songs and bringing them to people and saying, 'Here are the songs. This is how you play them.'"
But bring the songs Phillips did, and he and Jones began the long countdown to the blastoff of Thank God For Astronauts. Using the Kinks and Guided by Voices as rocket fuel, the two began writing and practicing songs, honing their sound while slowly acclimating to a group environment. Or, as Jones puts it, "We'd go down in the basement and get liquored up and play for hours."
"Ken was jamming one day, and he told me he needed a bass player," says Jones. "I didn't really know how to play bass, but I went out and bought a cheap bass and a cheap amp anyway. I was terrible, but I stuck with it. I mean, I'm still terrible, but I enjoy it. I still don't know the notes on the bass, though, and sometimes Ken has to be like, 'Put your finger there, dude.'"
Rich respectfully disagrees. "He's a better bass player than that," he says. "Steve's all over that thing!"
A native of Scotland, Rich enlisted in Thank God for Astronauts after nearly a decade away from the guitar. "I first came to the States in 1980, when I was eighteen," he says. "In those days, it was really hip to be from the U.K., so people would immediately hand me guitars. I was playing shows before I ever really knew how to play." After crisscrossing the Atlantic a few more times, Rich wound up in Denver, where he began working with Phillips at a video production company putting Czech subtitles on bad Canadian films from the '70s. When Kudzu Towers dissolved in 2001, he volunteered for the TGFA mission. "I hadn't played guitar in about ten years when I joined the band," he explains. "I had been messing around with synths and samplers and that kind of stuff, so it was really good to actually play in a band again."
"I play chords with Ken I've never played before, like C sharp minor and things like that," says Rich.
"That chord is an ongoing joke," explains Jones with a laugh.
"It's fucking Elvis Costello! C sharp minor, man!" Phillips shoots back.
With the installation of Feuchtinger on drums, Thank God for Astronauts finally had its propulsion system. A veteran of numerous Denver bands over the last few years, most notably the balls-rocking Snatchers, he had started focusing more on his home studio right around the time he joined TGFA. "I was really getting into recording, using an old eight-track recorder and running it straight into the computer," he says. Dubbing it Uneven Studio, Feuchtinger has used his homemade setup to record fellow Denver indie groups like Breezy Porticos and the Maybellines over the past couple of years. "I can get pretty hi-fi if I want to," he says with a grin. "Or pretty lo-fi."
The new TGFA seven-inch record, Take It Tough, was produced at Uneven as well, and it sounds even better than the band's first, eponymous four-song EP recorded last year by Chris McDuffie of the Apples. The single's title track is a short, sharp pulse of classic pop undulating with reverb and sweet, shaky vocals. The guitars scratch and snarl under fuzzy puffs of melody, recalling everything from the Modern Lovers to the Undertones to Crooked Rain-era Pavement. Jones's bass line tickles the ear like a wayward echo of some long-lost Go-Go's song, propelling the whole thing from stratospheric to interstellar.
"Bass lines are the coolest things about songs," affirms Phillips. "For good bass, go back to Motown. That's kind of what Steve is doing with that walking line on 'Take It Tough.' It's really punchy."
A third Thank God for Astronauts seven-inch and a singles-collection CD are already in the blueprint stage. Like both TGFA records so far, they will be released on the local pop imprint Best Friends Records, a cadre of self-confessed "wimp rock" bands overseen by Alice Gilbert of the Maybellines. "Al is the best," says Phillips. "When I first gave him those early tracks that we recorded with Chris, he wanted to put out a record right away. He's been really good about getting our records out there, and we've gotten some good reviews from it. He keeps us going. He really pushes us."
"Each show we play now gets a little better. Maybe two people are dancing instead of none," kids Jones. "Maybe I'm too easily satisfied, but I love just playing at the bar and rocking out and having a good time."
Phillips agrees. "While we plan on sending some stuff out to bigger labels and maybe trying to do some tours, it seems like if you get to a certain level, then it's all about what you have to do. That would kill it for me. The music in itself is the great thing."