Let’s take a little time trip, kiddos! Whilst gearing up to today’s release of ‘Thank You’, we got up with the four members of Junior Astronomers to discuss their records that led to their new EP. This is (some of) the story of Junior Astronomers as told by Junior Astronomers…
I Had Plans For Us (2009)
Philip Wheeler: You know how they say you have ten years of your life to write your first album, and then you have a year to write your follow-up. It was one of those things.
Terrence Richard: I think the title of the record is still relevant. It still resonates with me at least, because it’s all about when we were younger we all had plans to do something bigger.
Colin Watts: I had just gotten out of college and I hadn’t really talked to anybody in like two years, like since we were in high school. And I saw Eli’s brother one day at the place that I was working at the time, and he said that Phil’s new band was playing a show. So I stopped by Lunchbox on a whim, and it was the first JA show.
T: It’s really hard to think back. I know where I was, I had just moved out of my parents’ house and moved in with Phil, because he had just moved back here from Asheville. I was 20. I remember that because I definitely wasn’t 21 when we lived at that house, Fantasy Island, which is where the two of us demoed the first couple songs on GarageBand. Colin had just started hanging out again, Eli got caught in the fold after we got rid of our first drummer who was crazy as shit. We recorded with Bo White at Yauhaus, R.I.P. It was the first time that I had recorded something seriously. But it went by pretty quickly.
P: It was three days. We live tracked all the instruments, came back and mixed, and then Terrence did his vocals on top of that. And we watched a lot of Planet Earth and Venture Brothers.
T: And I remember Bo had an awesome Barbarella poster. That was fucking sick.
C: And then there were the Groovy Ghosties.
T: Oh yeah, the font on the inside of the jacket of the CD that are made of ghost letters that is fucking impossible to read. Do you want to explain why you even did that, Phil?
Eli Pittman: You were just stoned in your girlfriend’s attic right?
P: Yeah, I just don’t know how to use Photoshop and I was high in an attic. And the font was funny. I like when you’re in a band, and you can have bad ideas, but still be like, “I think this is funny”, and it still flies.
T: It is the most unreadable font ever.
C: And that hot-air balloon on the front cover was just a straight up Google search. Totally not legit.
T: I’ve always wanted to talk about ‘Flavorless Candy’. The song sounds like it’s a love story between a girl and a guy, but it’s actually about people’s love affair with life and how when you’re younger, life is this sweet candy that you suck on, and it always tastes amazing and the older you get the flavor seems to go away and it doesn’t really give you what it used to. I’ve always wanted to tell people that that’s what the song is actually about, but you can’t really do that if people are translating the song a certain other way and learning through it. Those songs are actually all really sad songs.
P: That juxtaposition is nice though. Creating something that people can hum, but if you want deeper meaning, it’s there.
T: You have to package things in a way to get the message to reach as many people as possible. The reason I started playing music is because I wrote poetry for forever, and eventually I realized that I had something to say and doing it that way wasn’t going to reach enough people.
I Just Want To Make A Statement (2010)
E: The biggest difference between that record and ‘Plans’ was really learning how to play my instrument. And we recorded in a real studio. Or at the time Legit Biz was still a venue.
T: It was hot as fuck in there. I was studying French at the time. Or at least one sentence. (See video below).
P: For the first record, Terry and I had written a lot of the songs before we moved into Fantasy Island, but for ‘I Just Want To Make A Statement’, those songs all came from that house. And that writing process was way more democratic. Like Terry would have a melody, I would have some guitar parts, but things like Eli’s drum part in the beginning of ‘Settle Down’ ended up shaping that song, and Colin had the end of ‘Bad Bones’ and a good part of that song came from that. Everybody shaped that record. It wasn’t just Terrence and I recording on a laptop.
C: At the end of ‘Settle Down’, when Phil and I start riffing, when we wrote that I was trying to learn Dream Theater song at the time, just from memory, like a “this is what I think it is” kind of thing. It totally wasn’t right, but it ended up being what I put at the end of that song.
E: I was so nervous to play ‘Dying Rhythms’ at shows because it was so different for us. One of our first shows out of town, it was near Folly Beach, Jeff’s shit kept breaking, like he broke a string, and then his amp failed, and then something happened to Colin’s gear. But while all that was happening, it was just Terrence, Phil and I on stage like, “what do we do? This is taking forever.” And, you know, when you’re on stage and something’s happening, and there are twelve people in the room, and it’s quiet, thirty seconds feels like half an hour. So the three of us played the beginning of ‘Dying Rhythms’, and got to the part where it picks up and stopped like, “…and that was a brief snippet of our new song because we don’t know how to play to rest of it yet.” But when that song finally came together, it became one of the first songs that really meant something to all of us.
T: That song was written around the time that my grandfather had passed away. I was really low at the time. I was going through a breakup, and I was gripping with the choices that I had made about what I wanted to do with my life. Figuring out that I wanted to play music. And I have a lot of family members who had dreams of doing certain things, but they quit or were told not to, and I mentioned that in the song, something about my grandfather controlling my mom. And that song is kind of my oath to never being told how to live my life. I love my family, but I just figured out that I didn’t want to live like that. It was a really weird time.
P: We toured on that record for so long. We experienced a good amount of success pretty quick from those four songs, so it was easy to kind of sit on.
T: If I started a band now, and only had ten songs for two years, I would realize that something is weird about that, but at the time that seemed normal to me, and it was irresponsible. But now it seems like a totally different world. At the time, I felt that we had these songs that were great and we wanted to show them to the world. I think that some bands force records, and I think that it’s hard as a guitar band to make multiple records good. Like in hip-hop or electronic music, you have multiple people contributing to the same product, but in a band like this it’s all the same people making the whole record sound relevant and good. That’s difficult. I don’t regret the amount of songs that we had out. But the world is moving so much faster now, and to judge what we had done up until that point would be a disservice.
Dead Nostalgia (2013)
C: I was excited going into the studio because the idea was a full-length. Not just, “we have four songs, let’s do something with them.” We went in, and we needed twelve or so bangers.
E: We needed to double the amount of songs we already had.
P: And I mostly only really had parts. I think that ‘Gi’ver’ only existed on a cell phone until we recorded it.
E: Yeah, at one point somebody said, “Eli, we’re going to break drums down, you need to write a part.”
C: We went back and forth from working in Charlotte to the studio in Greensboro over the course of the month. I remember I got so mad when we were recording ‘Blood In Her Brain’. I wrote a bass line for it, and then we left Greensboro, and when we got back I just could not remember it. And I thought the part was great, and I got really upset with myself, and got really mad at Phil on some “don’t tell me how to play my parts” kind of thing.
T: Since there were the most tracks on that record, mostly with lyrics and the whole idea behind it is probably the broadest. I wrote everything over two years coming out of a relationship that kind of ruined me, and we were on the road a lot, and kind of just living. Not really having anything to latch on to memory-wise. ‘Dead Nostalgia’ is just thinking about and holding on to things that happened in the past, but not doing anything to progress as a person because of that.
T: There are a lot of tracks on there that I never really got to explain, because it took so long to get put out, because we didn’t know how to put out a record the right way. ‘Blood In Her Brain’ is about my mother, and she had a brain disease called Moyamoya, and the blood didn’t flow properly in her brain, and it was a really crazy scary time. She had to get brain surgery. She’s a wild character, but when she bounced back, she would always make excuses about not being able to do certain things because of it, and the song is me thinking about how I maybe might not be doing more with my life and I might not do certain things because of being around that. Learning that I make a lot of excuses for things. ‘Vibrator’, we don’t play it enough. That song, I have to tread lightly explaining it because it’s not necessarily PC. But the first thing about that song is that I’ve always thought that the beat sounds like a pulse, and there’s the line “how do you confuse this for blood, electric buzz that fills you with drugs.” It starts out not understanding why a generation could love something that isn’t real, and at the time I was specifically referring to the electronic music scene. Which just isn’t what I love, I love guitar music. But then it comes full circle with, “vibrator, why would you take her? Where would you go when it’s wild?” Kind of understanding that the reason why people are leaving rock and roll is because it’s not wild anymore. It became cliquish and off-putting. Not boring, but rock and roll isn’t what it used to be. The party isn’t there anymore. But everyone has to get off someway, and I can’t judge how people choose to do that. All I can do is try to be good at what I’m doing and hopefully it does it for people. And Gi’ver. Gi’ver is strange. It’s the closing song. But if I were a filmmaker, I would think Gi’ver, the context and structure, would be a weird way to close my movie. It’s melancholy, and the whole record talks about being stuck in the past, and this last little part is supposedly going to get you out of that, like there’s going to be a triumph. But it’s almost like the song brings you back to where you were when you started. I love the song, but as an end of record, I think, “did I give closure to the idea of dead nostalgia?” Maybe dead nostalgia isn’t ever really over.
P: I think that you always have to be a self-critic. It’s hard for me to listen to that record sometimes, but if I wait a couple months in between, I love it. But then I hear the things that I heard at that time, and there are always going to be things I wish I could tweak, but I think that’s what gives things like that record personality. We have to live with those songs and take them for what they are, and enjoy the record for what it is. But I think that as we get further into the Pro-Tools and AutoTune era of music, even though certain circles of artists are simultaneously moving toward analog techniques, it’s one of those things where certain personality types are leaving music and everything is all perfectly polished. So it’s kind of cool hearing the things I would have done differently. And in the live set some of my parts are different. Even those songs have evolved since 2013. It’s cool that the record is a time capsule, but things can still be changed in a way.
Thank You (2015)
C: With these new songs, I was less concerned with just playing what I want to play just to play it, just so there are fresh ideas coming to the table. Doing what’s right for the song. Sort of stripping down the music.
P: When you’re in a band, and you write your first four songs, you feel that you have to do everything you know how to do in those songs. But then you realize that eventually you’re going to have fifty songs, or whatever, at some point. So doing different things, even if that means doing less, is better sometimes.
E: ‘Death And Taxes’ is my favorite on this new one. And a couple people have asked me if I get bored playing it, but no, I really dig it. It’s interesting learning to expect less from myself. Like if you can’t play less with the same amount of feeling you would have playing crazy, technical parts, then you’re doing something wrong. I feel like we are finally comfortable. I’ve had side projects, and going into those from playing with such a solid group, on top of the fact that they might sound completely different, I still know now that nobody had ingested my input as a musician as much as the three of these guys here have. But furthering that idea, I’ll bring back things I’ll learn from playing with other people, and it’s incorporated into what we do as Junior Astronomers.
T: People have always tried to tell us who we sound like, and as of recent, people compare us to us. People try to put bands in boxes, but rock and roll is rock and roll. You are supposed to be able to do whatever you want.
P: Press can lead a band. Like reading, “JA sounds like Television, I hope their next record is just as good and has Television-y guitar parts.” It’s easy to think that that’s what I should go write. But I think about that less now.
E: I’ve gotten stuck before taking time trying to not sound like things people have said we sound like, and it’s pushed us further back.
C: I’ve definitely finally realized who I am as a player, and who we are as a group, and how I fit into that context. How we write music together is clearer now. It’s not about bringing what I know and just hoping it fits.
T: I think these songs are growers more than showers. I think that helps with longevity and ultimately timelessness. ‘Thank You’ could easily be interpreted as a thank you to people for supporting us over the years or something like that. And that’s fine. But the way I see it is as a reference to how I think that I am a watcher. I learn from watching people. That probably has to do with being the youngest in my family. I’ve watched myself, and people around me make mistakes, and carried on learning and growing from that. It’s a thank you to people for showing me certain things, even if they were mistakes. And as a band, we’ve had growing pains over the last year or so because we never really stopped to grow as artists and as people and as professionals. It took a little while to get back on track, but now we understand what we need to do. There is going to be more of a renaissance. We’ve grown from a band that just wants to get drunk and party all the time, practice a set like halfway, and grown to know that we need to take this seriously. And take it seriously on our own terms. The growing pains came from feeling like we needed to take this seriously in a way that we didn’t like. But now we know, so let’s do it. That’s what ‘Thank You’ is.
Purchase ‘Thank You’ by Junior Astronomers 7″ EP here from Self Aware Records.