Seated around a cluttered coffee table in a Congress Park home, the four members of Denver's New Ancient Astronauts are engaged in a lively but tangent-prone bull session. Among the evening's many unexpected digressions: Were rocks the planet's first musical instruments? Was Journey the first emo band? Is Michael Jackson an extraterrestrial -- or merely a convenient distraction from the ongoing mess in the Middle East? When the debate turns to crowning the greatest astronaut who ever donned a space helmet and moon boots, each bandmember chimes in without hesitation.
"Chuck fuckin' Yeager-meister," declares guitarist Kasey Elkington. "He had three broken ribs when he broke the speed of sound. The dude couldn't even inhale. That's bad-ass! Chuck Yeager: test pilot, party animal."
"I like Alexei Leonov," counters drummer Tony Bell, giving props to Russia's beloved cosmonaut who took the first walk in space back in the '60s. "During [Leonov's] first moon walk, they didn't really make the hatch big enough for an inflated suit. So he had to deflate his suit to get back in. It was almost a near space fatality."
"Sam," sax player Aaron Schilling says. "The first chimp in space."
"Doesn't Jacko want to go to space like that Lance Bass guy?" bassist Don White asks. "Lance Bass was actually replaced by a case of Tang!
"Buzz Aldrin," White adds as an afterthought. "Buzz Aldrin knocked some reporter out for saying that the moon landing was fake."
Well-versed in space trivia and conspiracy theories (though they were all in grade school when the Challenger's infamous O-ring malfunctioned in 1986), New Ancient Astronauts specialize in free association -- especially when it comes to music. As an experimental hardcore band that revels in spastic blasts of saxophone, chaotic guitar, frenzied rhythms and disorienting tape manipulations, the quartet remains stylistically proficient on several sonic fronts. And though Bell describes the act's overall sound as "ballsy, glass-humping rock and roll," the band's Web site proudly proclaims, "We don't give a rat's ass about being genre-specific."
"As much as we love metal and punk, we're huge jazz fans," Elkington notes. "We're huge funk fans. But we don't go a hundred percent in one direction. Especially when we free-form downstairs during practice. It's pure, pure -- never to be heard again, never to be duplicated. So to go back and try to re-create it wouldn't be natural for us. We don't play the same song twice."
"Songs create themselves a lot of times," White adds.
A perpetual work in progress, the New Ancient crew formed in the spring of 2002, but its members have played integral roles in scads of Front Range bands; an incomplete list would include Superbuick, Agents of Chaos, Ben Hogan, Zen Gilligans, Furious George and the Monster Groove, and Sheriff Shithead and the Mustache Band. On last year's self-titled EP, a loud and raucous affair engineered and produced by Black Lamb's Ben Ryan, the group split the difference between intergalactic travel and earthbound aggression. Paying tribute to Henry Mancini and the Mermen's Jimmy Thomas (on the surf-flavored "Peter Sellers"), the Astronauts reserve their heavier tendencies for an ode to the blinding power of Vitamin E ("Sundiver") and a dark meditation on life's final roundup ("Absence"). They even go to the trouble of memorializing the idiot box during a crash-happy interlude called "Broadcasting the Dead."
"I got on top of a ladder and chucked the TV down on a carpet of bottles and cymbals," Bell explains. "It's the closest thing we've ever done to performance art. We'd like to keep topping it every single album -- you know, involve semi trucks backing into dumpsters, that kind of thing."
Will the Astros shatter their previous efforts on Children of the Vortex, their forthcoming full-length slated for release next spring? Stay tuned. In its current, unfinished stage, the long-player -- something Elkington offhandedly describes as "32 tracks of evil" and "coldly optimistic" -- already sounds more concise than its predecessor. Morphing from a full-throttle rhino stampede into drifting ambient soundscapes, the effort draws inspiration from several unlikely sources, including Hawaiian surf legend Duke Kahanamoku and a deceased German shepherd named Garrison.
"I think the music we make is a little slice of the culture that we've created just being friends," Bell says. "It's our inside joke that we're making public."
"We try to poke people in the eyes and make them think," White adds, "as opposed to reaching down their pants and giving them a hand job."
But unless the group changes its name to Nü Ancient Astronauts, the mullet rockers of Cowtown probably won't ever give 'em the chance to yank their hang-lows.
"The metal scene in this town definitely needs a sense of humor," White continues. "It doesn't make sense to me. And why is a place like Omaha more booming than Denver? Maybe it's the same reason Akron was so cool in the early '80s. There's nothing to do there."
At least attempting adventurous music in the Queen City merits an occasional reward.
"A guy who opened for us in this horrible nu-metal band actually broke up his band after hearing us play and started a jazz-metal ensemble," Elkington says. "We've gotten plenty of good compliments, but that one's pretty intense."
"They were about to make money," Schilling adds, laughing. "But they're really going nowhere now."
Citing Sacred Cattle, Core of the Earth and Maraca 5-O among a long list of local favorites, these Astronauts seem determined to tumble through a stratosphere of their own artistic choosing. An adventurous live act, the 'nauts recall the lumbering, bass-heavy sludge of the Melvins knocking boots with the warmer, snake-charmer tones of Critters Buggin'. Timekeeper Bell anchors a kit of mismatched traps and cymbals -- including a Yamaha timpani -- for a pulverizing audio experience. Just ask the soundman at Ft. Collins-based Woody's Pizza, where the space sailors blew the house P.A. while covering Queen's "Flash's Theme."
"We've never been heckled once," Elkington boasts. "Every angelic chord, every horrendous piece of feedback -- all of it -- is positive. We have our bad days, but we're not gonna write songs about them."
"Deep down, we're an emo band," Bell confesses, trying to keep a straight face. "No one will admit it, but we wear each other's sweaters and hug, and write in our journals under a tree. But we do tune our guitars."
In complete harmony with their own inner spacemen, New Ancient Astronauts seem a fitting musical addition to many of life's unsolved mysteries: the pyramids; Stonehenge; the giant, carved heads of Easter Island; ancient pottery depicting flying saucers; the Raelians; Sun Ra channeling the spheres in a pink wig and Grandma's housecoat.
Moreover, who can say with any certainty if Switzerland's best-selling author of Chariots of the Gods -- a book that claims that prehistoric humans were taught art, science and even bred as slaves by visitors from outer space -- was a prophet or a total charlatan?
"We're not necessarily spokesmen for Erich von Däniken," Elkington says. "But we are definitely the kind of personalities that would raise questions the same way as he would, and make people wonder: 'Why did they do this?'"
"[Däniken] raises some questions that can't be answered," Bell adds. "How the hell did they move 200 thousand-ton stones to build these things? There's all these enormous pictures on the ground in the plains in Peru, and the only way you can make out what they are is from way up in the sky. So there must've been someone up in the sky designing this stuff."
Back on terra firma, the New Ancients concentrate on things they can understand: the rabid fan in Espoo, Finland, who keeps inviting the band to tour Scandinavia; an upcoming Roman Ruins Records compilation called Undead in Denver Vol. III, which features an Astronauts cut; plans to record a soundtrack for a film that doesn't exist.
"It's a three-part Western called The Tenneseean," Schilling explains. "It takes place a little more than a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation, when a poor farmer marries a black woman and they have two sons, two Oreo kids. On one particular night, a mob comes and lynches his wife. So to save the rest of his family, he moves out West.
"The only people that Jacob, the older son, can relate to are these Mexican kids who have this gang of banditos," Schilling continues. "To make a long story short, Jacob's father ends up getting deputized, and the gang that Jacob is teamed up with ends up killing his dad. The whole thing is gonna be an Ennio Morricone-type spaghetti Western. That's like a throwback to the way that songs in the romantic period came about -- with stories told to music."
Conjuring some unholy union between John Zorn and Aaron Copland, the proposed project could certainly use a distinguished narrator -- say, the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
"Imagine if the voice for Hal 9000 was Gilbert Gottfried!" Elkington says before launching into a mean impersonation of the comedian himself: "ŒI can feel it! I can feel it! My mind is going! There is no question about it! I'm afraid!'"
In space, no one can hear you laugh.
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