Beyond the Maze: An Interview with Astronauts of Antiquity

Listening to Astronauts of Antiquity is like stepping into a potential not-too-distant future right out of Black Mirror or a darker episode of Doctor Who.

Take their hip-hop flavored 2016 single “Paradise” featuring rapper Deploi, for example. Strong beats and catchy hooks give way to a vision of a dystopian paradise where profits take precedence over everything else—a conceit made all the more sinister by a creepy robotic voice intoning “We know what’s best for you” as the song reaches its climax.

Screen Shot 2017-04-30 at 6.05.04 PMOr take a look at their video for “Future Back.” Propelled by a percolating disco beat, the track is reminiscent of the most recent Stars album, No One Is Lost, with a lead vocal that calls to mind Amy Winehouse at her best. And, of course, it’s impossible to watch the video without thinking of “Robots” by Flight of the Conchords, though AOA (as the hip kids call them) certainly up the ante with much slicker production value than the Conchords’ manager Murry Hewitt ever managed with his flip phone.

Despite the band’s hectic schedule of popping back and forth between various futures and our tenuous present, I had a chance to catch up with Astronauts of Antiquity’s guitarist B. Rhyan to find out what they’ve been up to lately and where they think the world is heading…

The first thing visitors see when they arrive on your webpage is a message that reads BEYOND THE MAZE. What do you see as the “maze,” and how does your music take your fans beyond it?

Great question! The maze represents the predicament we currently find ourselves bound to in this material realm. There’s an overload of information and distraction of a seemingly infinite degree. We try to make sense of it all often times becoming implicated in the depths of the complexities, be it social, political, financial, relationships etc. The sense of peace, clarity and freedom sometimes seems hopelessly conspicuous by its absence.

The maze is a labyrinth of endless choices but the way out is obscured or seemingly hidden. We go down this path and it feels like we’re getting somewhere only to feel baffled by disappointment or confusion. We listen to leaders in this or that field hoping it will lead us to freedom. We see this playing out acutely in the political arena.

We are inherently free spirits within the encasing of a temporal mind/body system. We seek the full experience of ceaseless pleasure with a vehicle that is limited. So beyond the maze is a directive to look beyond the mundane and go deeper to mysteries of the unlimited — our spiritual nature, which is a completely different energy than that of mind/body which are composed of matter, gross and subtle. That’s where the juice is. That’s where clarity and freedom live. That’s where the potential to experience the deepest love resides. It’s where the wisdom teachings of all ages direct us.

Along similar lines, you’ve also described Astronauts of Antiquity as “great music with a cause.” Is there a single cause you’re dedicated to or, given the state of the world today, is it more complicated than that?

Not necessarily a single cause. We are each individuals in the group and come at it from different perspectives. India [the band’s vocalist] views material problems as the flip side of spiritual wisdom. You cannot have a balanced life unless you are cultivating a strong inner presence. Ivica [the band’s resident sonic wizard and programmer] is a strong believer in social justice and systems to support that. I realize there can never be that type of consistent compassionate decision making from individuals or leaders when the worldview is based on matter.

If we are mere chemicals and there is nothing beyond this life then there is fundamental justification to exploit the resources of nature as well as exploit each other and other life forms such as innocent animals. Violence breeds violence. If we talk about social equality yet callously sit back while billions of animals are tortured yearly so we can have a juicy steak or fried chicken, then there is something fundamentally wrong with that equation. How we do one thing is how we do everything. Everything is interconnected energetically – quantum physics reveals that. So within the real of human action the after effects.

So, though we speak of the poisonous effects of GMO’s, chemtrails, mind control, animal slaughter or the looming threat of a nuclear holocaust at the hands of the hubris of modern leaders, there is a deeper root cause. In our robot video for “Future Back,” there is a schematic that Frank leaves Rosie to build their time machine to go back before the nuclear devastation. In that schematic there is the compassion component and enlightened consciousness elemental key. When the consciousness of humankind is elevated to a the perspective of seeing the indwelling spiritual essence of all life forms (including the earth) and honoring that with profound respect, only then do we have a chance to make it as a race.

It seems that politics are, to some extent, at the core of the band’s identity.Was this a conscious decision from the beginning? Or, to put it another way, which came first, the cause or the band?

The old chicken or the egg, eh? Well, it seems they are intricately intertwined. We live our lives as we know best, trying to find meaning. We bring that to the music. So in one sense who we are and what we feel strongly about – the causes, so to speak, define the music. We write about who we are and what we’ve learned within the context our life experience. But I wouldn’t say that we started out by saying, “Yeah, let’s be a political band.” Those things just come organically.

Without a strong sense of inner presence with our leaders politics ends up being the blind leading the blind. It’s imperative that humanity as a whole cultivates our inner life to balance the outer. So we are not per se a political band. But it’s kind of hard not to notice what’s going on in our world right now. Yikes!

Yikes, indeed. Moving on to your music, your songs offer a rich blend of musical influences. There’s the hip-hop of “Paradise” and the disco of “Future Back,” and there’s also a distinctly jazzy, psychedelic sound to tracks like “God Is A Musician.” Yet it all sounds of a piece. Do you see yourselves as fitting into a particular genre?

We draw from a plethora of influences over the course of our individual careers. Our vision is writing compelling songs with distinctive productions (we produce the tracks) that effortlessly merge genres into a modern pop-ish format. If we had to label it, we’d say electro-urban-pop with conscious element.

I like that! Who are some of your influences?

Let’s see… Daft Punk, Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, Little Dragon, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Eminem, Nile Rodgers, Digable Planets. Skrillex and Diplo, the Beatles, Amy Winehouse….

I thought I heard her influence in the mix! What is your writing and recording process like?

India and I usually have the body of the song written, then Ivica brings his magic to the table and we shape it in the studio. Sometimes we’ll write in the studio with a guitar or keyboard pattern. We identify the vibe we’re going for and lay down an appropriate groove. Sometimes we’ll bring in others to embellish our drum track ideas and take them beyond what we may have done. That’s always a fun collaboration.

We’ll experiment with the arrangement in many ways til it feels right. We let the song or track dictate to us. We simply try to pay attention. If something doesn’t feel catchy enough or get the point across we’ll change it up with the musically or lyrically. We’re kind of anal-retentive perfectionists in this regard. Even if we’ve spent months on something, there often comes a point where we all go, “you know what, we can do better.”

You guys also have a big sound, by which I mean there’s a lot going on. How do you translate that to playing live?

We’re just finishing up the last couple tracks of our full-length record. As soon as that’s done, we jump into live show mode. We have a group of musicians here in LA, many from an awesome collective called House of Vibe – superlative sensitive players that really know how to groove with a lot of soul. We’ll also trigger some samples, both Ivica (keys) and myself (guitars) if it’s appropriate.

Do you have any plans to tour in the near future?

We’ll be going out in the mid summer.

There’s a really cool bar in Brooklyn called The Way Station that would be the perfect venue for Astronauts of Antiquity. The décor is very steampunk, and there’s a distinct Doctor Who vibe to the place that’s enhanced by the fact that the restroom looks like a police box. Do you have any favorite venues along these lines? Places you love playing? Bars that might be a little small but that attract the perfect audience for your message and your music?

We are down for anyplace that’s open to the music and vibe. We’re talking to some festival people now, but we’ll see what happens. It’s taken us quite a bit of time to finish this record because India and I live in New York and Ivica is in LA. But we’re going full force once the album is done so watch out!

And, just for selfish reasons, I need to ask if you ever think you’ll swing through Philadelphia. That’s more or less where I live.

Dude, we love Philly! Great funky vegan pizza place there — Broadbeard Pizza I think. Plus we dig the Trocadero. Def we’ll be there sometime upcoming.

One more thing: If God is, indeed, a musician, what instrument does he play?

Haha — cool. Well, according the ancient Vedic texts, the oldest written body of knowledge, God appears in multifarious incarnations according to the time, place and mentality of the people on this and other planetary systems. He appears as Buddha, Christ etc. (an empowered incarnation). The cream of Vedic literature is the Shrimad Bhagavatam, the summary study of all the Vedas. It itself has over 18,000 verses. These authorities state that the original source of all being is known as Krishna, the embodiment of divine love – and this supreme dude plays a magical flute, plus he has a divine girlfriend whose name is Radha who is equally or more powerful than him. Can you dig that?

Totally.

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Astronauts of Antiquity

Donald Trump and Kurt Vonnegut’s Man in the Hole Narrative

If you’re at all like me, you spent a good hour or so yesterday trying to follow Donald Trump’s rambling press conference. While we can certainly debate the merits or lack thereof of his arguments against the media and his own assessment of his first month in office, one thing that struck me as I was listening to him was that for all of the tangents he took, President Trump essentially stuck to one of the classic narratives or story-shapes that Kurt Vonnegut describes in his essay collection A Man Without a Country. That story-shape is the “Man in the Hole” narrative, and Vonnegut charted it on a graph like this:

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Kurt Vonnegut’s “Man in The Hole” narrative from A Man Without a Country.

This diagram illustrates what Vonnegut saw as one of the essential shapes a story can take. In this instance, the X-axis is time, and the Y-axis represents fortune. The way the story works is that things are going along okay for someone, but then bad fortune strikes (e.g., falling into a hole), but through trials and tribulations, the man gets out of the hole, and everything not only returns to normal but is actually better than it was before.

We see this story-shape all the time — especially in movie trailers. For example, how many movie trailers have you seen that begin with something like “It was just another day for Steve Jenkins…” and then go on to describe the rug being pulled out from under the hero only for the hero to fight his way to victory? The reason so many stories share this shape is that it’s one we understand. We’ve heard it so many times that we don’t have to think about it. And because we’re so used to it, it’s a story that’s very easy for us to digest.

The genius of Trump’s press conference is that whenever he returned to his notes, he came back to this very story-shape. Everything was going fine for him–great, in fact! He’d just had an amazing inauguration in which, according to him, the clouds parted and the rain stopped while he was being sworn in. But then he fell into a hole–in this case, the mess he claims to have inherited upon taking over as President of the United States. As if that weren’t bad enough, he then embarked on a series of trials and tribulations: according to Trump, the press was creating fake news, leakers were leaking classified information, and the confluence of the two forced him to let his National Security Advisor go…

But then there was the payoff. Starting next week, he promised, things are going to be great (again). He’s going to roll out some new plans that will change everyone’s lives. Sure, the press will still continue to hound him and give him a hard time, but the American people will see through their lies and very quickly begin to reap the benefits of Trump’s new plan.

It’s a good story, one whose basic mechanics have been tested time and again in books and movies and deftly illustrated in Vonnegut’s chart. What’s more, whether one believes the story is almost beside the point. What matters for Trump is that he’s fitting into a narrative that we understand–the narrative of the everyday man who falls upon bad fortune but emerges a hero.

What could be more American than that?

“Lead” Poisoning: An Open Letter to Pat Meehan

Dear Pat,

I generally don’t discuss politics on my blog, and I’m not about to start now. At the same time, however, I have to take issue with a recent mailer in which the Republican Federal Committee of Pennsylvania asks me to vote for you based on your record of fighting to strengthen campus safety throughout the United States through your support of the Clery Act. My problem isn’t with your record; as a faculty member at Montgomery County Community College, I appreciate the value of a safe campus. As a member of the English Department, however, I must point out a glaring typographical error on the part of whoever composed the mailer in question.

Touting your record in relation to such an important facet of higher education as campus safety, the mailer reads, “Pat Meehan lead the fight to strengthen campus safety and protect students.” As you may know, the past tense of “lead” is “led.” As you may also know, the word “lead” can also refer to the chemical element listed as Pb on the periodic table. “Lead,” however, is not used as the past tense of “lead.” That the flyer in question draws the reader’s attention to the misspelled word by both underlining and highlighting it in red makes the mistake difficult to ignore. What’s more, the fact that this mailer ostensibly focuses on higher education renders the error especially egregious.

Although I’m rarely one to offer advice to those in the political realm, my recommendation to your friends in the Republican Federal Committee of Pennsylvania is identical to the recommendation I make to all of my students before they submit their work: proofread. More to the point, if you’re going to pander to educators — especially those who teach writing — you might want to make sure that you don’t go out of your way to draw attention to your spelling errors.

Warmest Regards,

Marc Schuster

PS: I think you’ll like my latest novel, The Grievers. You may even find a typo or two in it.

Exhibit A