Sit in a room with the members of Astrophagus and you will hear the most amazing mix of sound thinking and absurd fancy, of profound wisdom and ridiculous nonsense, that most humans will ever experience. Informed discussion of the recent presidential caucus is punctuated by random jokes about sweaters and Keith Sweat and recurrent mentions of the possibly imaginary genre of porn metal. In that environment, bass player Chris White's explanation of his day job sounds just plausible enough to be true.
"I own a ferret farm in Highlands Ranch," says White with an absolutely straight face. "We feed most of the boa constrictors here in Colorado, from the weak ones." Until his bandmates crack up and start ridiculing him, it's hard to know what to think.
White is the latest addition to the band, joining David Kurtz and brothers Jason and Josh Cain. The members are all longtime friends who share an obvious rapport that Jason calls "that brotherly dynamic." Coming from notably disparate musical backgrounds, they rely on their friendship as the axis around which the group revolves. "We're like the superfriends," Jason declares. "We're kinda like a superhero team. I think I'm like the oblivious and scatterbrained leader."
Couldn't be too scatterbrained. The band's second album, For Boating, has been in the works for two years and required a good amount of focus. The disc has been a long time coming — a couple of songs were written before Casualite, the band's 2006 debut for Helmet Room, was released — and the process of making it took its toll.
"Life is like that, you know?" Jason muses. "Everybody is going through difficult times, so I guess it doesn't really make this album any more special than anything else. It's just kind of a synopsis, or kind of like a narrative of the last couple years we've been together. It reflects that period of time.
"Changes have happened for people, in our personal lives," he goes on. "If you're still doing what you're doing, I think that all changes are good. I don't think that things happen for a reason, but things that occur to you shape who you are. Regretting things, or wishing that things hadn't happened a certain way, is a waste of time."
There's nothing to regret when it comes to For Boating, which is a big step forward from Casualite. Recorded primarily in the studio with minimal cut-and-paste overdubs and engineered by Brian Gerhard at Helmet Room, Boating is both tighter and better directed than its predecessor. The raw electronic experimentation of old has been retired in favor of more organically integrated synthesizer work that adds subtle, powerful ambience and motion without ever drowning out other elements. And the material as a whole is stronger and more mature.
"I think, just as time goes on and you get older, you're well equipped to write things in a more subtle fashion — which I think for the listener is enjoyable as well," says Jason. "But it feels nice to make something that's well crafted, well thought-out, versus just vitriolic anger-spew."
Such ideas and critical thinking generally spring forth from Jason. As leader, he plays guitar and piano and sings, bringing some pretty solid pop sensibilities and songwriting chops. Once he has something to play for the band, each member writes his own part based on the initial song sketches. Josh, for instance, approaches the synthesizer as more of a sound sculptor than a traditional keyboard player. "He plays the knobs of it more than anything," says Jason, "and that's what makes it unique, I think."
"There's too many knobs to not play them," Josh points out.
Chris White's aggressive, overt bass playing keeps things dynamic and opens up new songwriting possibilities, while drummer Kurtz's jazz background and inventive playing serve as the anchor for everything. Since White joined the band, in fact, some of his bass lines have been used as a starting point for new songs, a method of writing that Jason says he enjoys for the novelty of the approach. It also helps take some of the pressure off him. A number of guest players helped carry some of the weight on the new record, too: The pedal-steel playing of Matt Fox, the strings of Carrie Beeder and Josh Trinidad's trumpet add another dimension to the group's sound. In many ways, this album marks the transition of Astrophagus from an intriguing act with largely unrealized potential to a polished act well on its way to realizing that full potential.
For Boating showcases a sound that's as well developed as it is original. The spooky, at times atonal instrumental intro is reminiscent of a horror-movie score. It sets a heavy, foreboding mood for the rest of the recording. "Ruiner" is possibly the best track: A slow-burning, subdued seether of a tune, it explodes into an intense, guitar-driven section like a burst of anger before resolving into a swirling, trippy slice of space rock for a few precious bars and then ending abruptly. The final third of the disc is home to the best material, making for an incredible finish. "Do You Have Three Settings?" warps elements of down-home Americana until they fit into a zero-gravity shoegaze realm. The beautiful "Losing Kind" starts with strummed acoustic guitar and the gentle, fragile rasp of Jason's voice. Warm synthesizer tones, pedal steel, various strings and piano come and go through the mix to great effect. And the title track's hopeful intent, energetic, propulsive drumming and nice mix of cheery fuzz guitar and a rich synth lead make it an ideal choice to close the album.
"Everything that I write generally means a lot to me," says Jason. "It's always stuff I want to try to do the best I can with. I think I just write to remember certain feelings and situations."
With For Boating finally completed, the members of Astrophagus have turned their focus to other projects in an effort to keep from getting bored. Most of the band is involved in the operations of Bocumast, a record label and design firm founded by Kurtz to help promote local talent such as the intriguing electronic act Iuengliss, one of the label's first signed acts. Then there are the side projects, solo work and guest appearances in friends' bands. For his part, though, Jason says he already misses the studio and is eager to start recording something again, perhaps "a cliche solo album with lots of guests." Given Denver's fertile scene, he should have no trouble finding potential collaborators.
"I think our scene is better than L.A., better than San Francisco," he declares. "I just got back from Portland. It's definitely better here than there. They have some great bands, but the public isn't as into it."