EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Ashtar Command
Chris Holmes and Brian Liesegang of Ashtar Command should be considered their own species of musicians. DJs they are, but art enthusiasts, sci-fi geeks, and old school MTV lovers they will always be. Their sound is a beautiful reflection of all the places they’ve been and the people they’ve met as well as their insane insights into the music industry. Chris and Brian talked with The Owl Mag’s Hillary Smith about their all encompassing journey including being a part of Nine Inch Nails and touring with Paul McCartney.
The Owl Mag: Who have been your favorite people to work with musically?
Holmes: For me personally, it’s been a joy to work with everyone. This record is really a celebration of our lives and friendships. So many people played such massive roles in helping us with the project. There are people like Matt Walker, Solomon Synder, Oliver Kraus, and Joey Waronker who have played a role from start. The true list is hundreds of people. That’s the concept of the project. My favorite person to work with above everyone else is Cory Nitta. He’s an unparalleled musical genius. I expect him to become a very vital and important person in Ashtar Command moving forward. I can’t wait to work with him again. His record Goodnite Life with his band The Philippians is one of the most beautiful records ever made.
Liesegang: On our record we were blessed to have contributions from so many of our talented friends. Ollie Kraus, the cellist, defies belief in what he can do with what could be a very pedestrian string ideas Chris and I will throw at him. Cory Nitta, who has worked with everyone and is about to become completely famous in his own right, has been our latest and favorite discovery to work with. Matt Walker is our drummer, he was my drummer in Filter, went on to replace Jimmy Chamberlin in the Smashing Pumpkins, and is currently Morrissey‘s drummer. He brings magic to what Chris and I do. We have always referred to him as our secret weapon and I don’t think I will ever play with another drummer. In the past, I have had the tremendous fortune to work with such artists as Trent Reznor, Flood, and Billy Corgan. They (Trent and Billy) have a preternatural ability to create songs and ideas and soundscapes in such unique ways and so quickly it boggles the mind. He never stops working. He has probably written more songs this morning before I woke up then I will in a month. Ultimate respect. And obviously, what can I say about Trent? Give him two notes, and he will make a song of symphonic beautiful destruction. I was very young when I had the opportunity to contribute what I could to Nine Inch Nails and all of that stays with me to this day. I was a 19 year old kid and he gave me a chance. Amazing, amazing talent and vision.
The Owl Mag: From your website and your band name it seems like you guys are into spirituality and possibly extraterrestrial beings, how did these interests come about?
Holmes: I co-hosted a radio show at University of Chicago on WHPK, called “In Advance of the Landing.” On the show we interviewed everyone from Jacques Vallee (famously played by Francois Truffet in Close Encounters), Whitley Strieber, Budd Hopkins, Stanton Friedman, Zecharia Sitchin, Robert Anton Wilson, Robert Shea, and even Heaven’s gate prior to their mass suicide. I’ve always described it as a cross between Art Bell and Ira Glass’ “This American Life.” Several of our guests on our show referenced “ashtar command,” they described it as “an intergalactic united nations that oversees all the good aliens battling the evil aliens (the greys and reptoids for those paying attention) for the soul of humanity.” I always thought it was an amazing metaphor for what we were trying to do musically. Both Brian and I are massive science fiction fans. We met over our love of Dr. Who and modular synthesizers in college.
Liesegang: Absolutely we believe in sentient beings outside of our own experience. There is so much we don’t know and are not told, and so much yet to be revealed. Yes, Chris and I are sci-fi geeks and love Doctor Who. Always have, always will. Our belief system and agenda will become clearer over time as we release more albums and material. And we are mad that we are constricted to releasing things in smaller parcels of material, as we have so many songs that paint the tapestry of our concept, and our challenge is finding the most eloquent method of release.
The Owl Mag: It seems like you both have done a lot performance wise, Brian you were in the Nine Inch Nails, how would you describe that experience?
Liesegang: Well my performances have mostly been with Filter and touring with Billy Corgan, etc. I love playing onstage. Richard Patrick and I (who is one of the best singers I know and is going to be singing on the next Ashtar record for a song), drove ourselves insane. Back then it was making a record, having Warner Brothers behind you, doing a great video for MTV, and losing money on tour in an effort to sell a record. Now it’s almost flipped. But we have and will survive that. I remember always talking to Richie onstage, and we had a motto, of “if you can see yourself from the outside, you suck.” And by that I mean we had to be a vessel for the music. If you were perceiving yourself from the outside it was fraudulent. Trent taught us, or would talk about, that every show had to mean something in the fact that no one could say, “well, I saw Nine Inch Nails, and they were…whatever.” We learned that they either had to hate you or love you. My personal favorite experience was opening up for the Smashing Pumpkins on the Mellon Collie tour and playing a bullring in Portugal where there had been a bull fight the evening before and there was still blood in the sand. That night, as usual, I was watching from the side of the stage and James Iha (Pumpkins’ guitarist) came up and just handed me his guitar and said, “you finish the set.” So, I just walked out there, Jimmy Chamberlin gave me a thumbs up, Billy heard a hiccup in the sound, but was ok with it…and I just tried to do my best to noodle my way through it. And after that it became a tradition. And simply put, well, I was not worthy.
The Owl Mag: Chris, you were just on tour with the Paul McCartney, what was that like?
Holmes: Being on tour with Paul is the best thing I’ve ever experienced. Every day is a joy. He is singularly the most inspiring human I’ve ever been around. He surrounds himself with amazing and brilliant people who I’ve had the pleasure of traveling around the world with. If I had 3 wishes, doing what I’m doing with Sir Paul right now would be one of them. Every night after I DJ I get to see him play and I get to see the faces of the audience as they get to experience the songs that shaped their lives. He is amazing. The band is amazing, the crew is amazing. It’s really been an education; it’s what is possible if people at the heights of their talents all get together and pull their resources. We just got back from Abu Dhabi, playing the Formula One race there. It’s really beyond words. I’m a massive fan and I count my blessings every day I get to be around him. I wish everybody could see Paul from my perspective; it’s so amazing that someone whom you idolized your entire life is cooler and more talented than you ever could imagine.
The Owl Mag: Your website is quite impressive, what was your process on creating it as far as design and content?
Holmes: The art for our website is based on the work of my favorite artist, Joanna Skumanich. She is truly so next level, I really hope that our collaboration will turn people on to her body of work. I worked with my friend web designer Kyle Conkright (from The Planetary Group), and we broke down her painting into 500 distinct sections so Brian and I could continuously change and adapt the site. We wanted to create a million rabbit holes that people could follow, to turn them on to the stuff that inspires and motivates us.
The Owl Mag: You guys have a lot going on that it’s hard to focus on a couple of things. What made you want to switch from playing guitar to DJing?
Holmes: I was producing a lot of dance music with Felix Da Housecat, I’m from Chicago and spent all of my nights going to watch Derrick Carter and Mark Farina spin. It was like watching Myles Davis in his prime. Tommie Sunshine was a huge inspiration for me as a DJ. Tommie co-wrote “Blister of the Spotlight” with me and I want to thank him for everything he has done to shape the music landscape we all live in. It was the Soulwax, 2manydjs guys that first told me that DJ skills were easy to come by and that the only thing that matters ever is taste. That is always on the forefront of my mind every time I DJ. I’m more of a musical curator than a DJ, guys like Tommie Sunshine, Felix Da Housecat, Derrick Carter, Z Trip, and DJ Mehdi are DJs to me. I’m just a guy who likes to play good music for people.
Liesegang: DJing is something I put off for a long time, and something Chris really showed me the art in. I felt before that I was either being egotistical playing songs to a crowd that I wanted to hear, but once I learned the subtleties of taking a song that preexists, and turning it into something else contextually and how it can effect a room, it kind of opened up to me. I also am not quite sure about the whole performance element of it. I hate seeing DJs jumping around while playing a song like THEY wrote it. (Unless of course they did…) We are not meth-ed up party people. We are geeks who read too much and pontificate ridiculously, so it’s sometimes difficult to fit into the mold of what DJs are supposed to be, but hopefully we can contribute to the ongoing vernacular of what that craft is.
The Owl Mag: Do you aim to achieve any sort of signature in your work?
Holmes: We just want to bring joy to people through our music and help them feel a part of their soul.
Liesegang: I think the only staple we put on ourselves is referred to as “quality control.” I think Chris and I can find as much wonder in a Willie Nelson song, to Daft Punk, to Pink Floyd. It’s about speaking honestly from who you are, and as quaint as that may come off, I think everyone can delineate the difference in “quality” from a brilliant Radiohead song and Nickleback. Seriously. Some artists speak to your soul, others are just the soundtrack to a frat boy attempting to get their load on. The only pertinent, vital, and essential job as an artist is to communicate. What you want to communicate and how legitimately you do so is the difference.
The Owl Mag: When and where is your next show?
Holmes: I’m going on tour with Paul McCartney for the next month. Playing in Bologna, Milan, Paris, Cologne, London, Stockholm, Helsinki, Moscdow, Manchester, and Liverpool. After that tour is over Brian and I are going to get started on our long overdue live show, you can check out our live version of “Deadman’s Gun” from Red Dead Redemption on Youtube in the meantime…
Liesegang: God, I can’t wait for us to deliver this (album) live, which is quite a challenge in how we did the record. We will be doing so. Honestly, we are working on the second Ashtar Command record (we have it planned out right now as a set of 3 with our initial ideas and concepts), the Paul McCartney shows, and it looks like we may have a tremendous opportunity to work on a score of a film of amazing importance in-between… so all we do is work-work-work every day. Chris and I are really just trying to communicate our message in the best means we know how. And playing to our strengths. Ashtar Command has big plans (and at the sake and acknowledgement of sounding ridiculously arrogant, who doesn’t?), and a big picture, and we are doing our damnedest to fill that picture in. The world has changed. Music has changed. The way music is delivered and heard has changed. There is no reason to adhere to a dying model of how it used to be. Go forth and flourish, communicate, bear your soul, create a tapestry, and sonically create a world that sometimes, just sometimes, can be more interesting than the one we think we inhabit.
Holmes: I just want to give a shout out to the DJs that are out every night in clubs and backrooms of LA, rain or shine, sometimes DJing for drink tickets. DON’T TAKE THEM FOR GRANTED! THEY DO THIS SO THAT YOU CAN LIVE YOUR LIFE TO THE FULLEST, NONE OF THESE GUYS ARE IN IT FOR THE MONEY… They are creating the soundtrack to our lives. We have a strong camaraderie between us from Table Manners mgmt (Will Crimes, Chris Masterson, Adam 12 et al), to the DJ Embassy (Chris Holmes, Ana Calderon, Robyn, Clark Duke, Tim and Damian from OK GO, Simon White, Mickey Madden, Nigel Godrich — my compadre and favorite guest DJ, Thom Yorke, Joey Waronker, Elijah Wood, Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang, Edgar Wright, Myles Hendrick, Jeremy Scott, James Oliver, Shepard Fairey) to Matt Dance right, Daisy O’Dell, Anne Lee, Cosmic Kids, Sugu and his neet crew, Diplo and Switch, the disco kids, DJ Ruckus (mindblonwing skills), ZTrip, Dj Swamp, Sean Patrick, Zak Rosencrantz, DJ Momjeans, DJ Them Jeans Thee Mike B, Cosmic Kids, Acid Girls, and the new writers room, the list goes on and on. Morty Coyle keeping the dream alive!
Download Ashtar Command‘s Save Me feat. Alex Ebert MP3 by right clicking and saving that link.