It’s only May, but I can guarantee that one of the top entries in my year-end favorite music list for 2015 will be Deluxer by Astrobrite. I’ve been an Astrobrite fan since way back in the early days when I ordered Astrobrite CD-Rs through the band’s Geocities website by writing a check and dropping it in the mail. So it was a real pleasure for me to have a chance to interview Scott Cortez and Sophie Nagelberg about the band, the new album, and their upcoming live shows in Japan.
Deluxer is a beautiful album, and I was very happy to be able to review it for Step On. And I’ve read other positive reviews as well. How do you feel about the reception the album has gotten so far?
Scott: It seems to be the one that people are responding to the most. I sent it out to tons of my friends and was pleased by their response. I’m surprised that it’s doing really well, before it has even come out officially. I think I worked the hardest on this one to get it right. It underwent the most editing—deleting songs, scraping parts, arranging tracks, sequencing the perfect flow.
Scott, You’ve worked with a number of female vocalists over the years. How did you get connected with Sophie?
Scott: I met Sophie a while ago when I opened for Videotape. Almost two years went by and I met her again when she was doing backup vocals for a friend at a show. I was in the greenroom and I asked her if she wouldn’t mind playing on a few songs initially. Sophie brought Sarah Sterling into the mix as the drummer and a new Astrobrite live unit was born. Astrobrite is sort of like the Avengers then I guess. Everyone brings their powers to the group.
Sophie, I listened to your Videotape recordings, and I could hear hints of what you would bring to Astrobrite. I also listened to the track you have up on Soundcloud, and that sounded like it was a progression toward something more like Deluxer. Were you with a fan of Astrobrite’s music before you signed up to work on Deluxer? What do you enjoy about playing Astrobrite’s blend of beauty and noise? What’s challenging about it?
Sophie: I’m still trying to figure out my own style. I didn’t really know of Astrobrite before joining Scott in October. Videotape was calling it quits and Scott wanted someone to play some simple guitar parts for a show. Sarah and Scott are both talented and very much experienced. I enjoy learning from both of them. It’s been challenging to nail down so many songs for the Japan set list (it has to be ninety minutes) but what a rewarding goal!
Scott: I mixed the song that Sophie did for her solo thing, that might be the reason it resembles Deluxer. Aside from that, Sophie’s songs have their own signature style.
Sophie: And Scott played bass and drums on the track.
Scott: Fundamentally all my work has a common thread that is textural at its core, so regardless of it being soft or super noisy, the approach to sound is the same. It isn’t based on harmony, riffs or chords, but on harmonic envelopes. Before I was doing guitar music I was playing around with records, pianos, synths, tapes, delays and reverbs, making ambient pieces. I’m interested in the science behind sound, not so much in the rock aspect.The last Astrobrite album, All the Stars Will Fall, was totally ambient and even the one before that and pushed my sound to an extreme places. So I’m an ambient musician that works in several idioms.
What is your writing and recording process like when you work together? How do you build the various layers and assemble them? Are you aiming to match a sound you hear in your head, or is it more about experimenting and letting “happy accidents” guide you?
Scott: My process is all over the place. I’ll start with hearing an idea in my head usually and I will have to get that down in some way. I play a part to tape or I record a sketch into my iPhone and attack it in a painterly way, building up layers of texture, motifs and color. Then I start to subtract until the core of the song presents itself.
Some songs come out ready-made and all I have to do is press record and then mix it down. There are even some songs I don’t even remember recording, I just found them sitting in my music files, “Twins” was one such song. I’ll consider that a happy accident. But I do allow for a lot of free-form to happen in the creation of my songs and also the happy accidents that occur during the recording process.
I use different methods depending on what I’m working on, so if I’m just taking a piece of music I’ve done before, transforming it into something else, or just coming up with melodies and chord structures on the guitar, there’s no set way. But most of the time I’m trying to re-create the sound that I hear in my head.
Scott: My brain. Then probably my recorders, loopers, delays and reverb.
Sophie: If Scott’s going to count his brain as gear, then I’ll say voice. I’m a vocalist playing guitar. Not the other way around.
Sophie, what are the best things about working with Scott?
Sophie: Scott is extremely knowledgeable, but laid back. We devised this scheme the other day to prank Sarah. We started singing the song “Radiofriendly” way out of key and waited to see her reaction. At least that was the plan, but all I did was laugh. It only took Sarah a couple of seconds to say, “Um. Something doesn’t sound right.” I love how she said that instead of, “Wow, what’s wrong with you?”
Scott: What are the best things about working with Sophie?
Scott: Sophie is crazy, road-rager, practical joker, the person you would want in a bar fight cause she would throw down. Her sense of humor, she tries to scare us with low spooky possessed sounding voices, and the last time she did that she got shocked by the mic. She laughed super hard. Also, Sophie has a really pretty voice.
Sophie: I had to drape a shirt over that mic. I kept getting shocked! I have serious road rage.
What do you consider your most important musical influences?
Sophie: It’s really inspiring for me to watch some of my friends and peers play around Chicago. I tend to feel like I’m not good enough or I don’t understand enough about music to be playing in front of anyone, but then I think, well, if so and so is doing it, then I can at least try. And you know what, it’s not something I do for other people. A lot of women vocalists and performers have inspired me. Also, John Frusciante. Shadows Collide With People. To Record Only Water for Ten Days. DC EP. OMG.
Scott: I guess my most important musical influence was just being aware of sound in different environments as a child. Discovering the world of effects to manipulate sounds was extremely influential to me as a teen. In 1987, I was introduced to the Midiverb 2 and that opened up a whole new world. I bought a guitar just to play with the Midiverb 2. My friend owned it, and he would let me use it to record. It had reverse reverbs on it that were groundbreaking at the time. Then later I found out about looping pedals like the PDS 8000 and that was it. I found the sense of space I was looking for and the ability to shape sound all in one.
The Internet has forever changed the way people look at and interact with music and musicians… fans can find you on Twitter, Facebook, or whatever, and contact you directly. Do you enjoy that sort of direct social interaction with the people who enjoy your music?
Sophie: Yes, but there is so much responsibility for the artist to maintain this stuff. It’s kind of overwhelming and easy to obsess about. The goal isn’t to have “followers,” but to make the music we need to make and then to connect with people over it.
Scott: I like the democratization that the Internet has provided musicians in the dismantling of the corporate rock major-label stranglehold they lorded over forever. I like that vinyl is cool again because of the DIY scene, and the majors that just abandoned it, now they’re jumping on the vinyl bandwagon and hogging up all the pressing plants with their garbage. They missed the point, pop garbage is a throwaway music that deserves a throwaway medium. Real music deserves a lasting medium like vinyl. They are only interested in making a buck, they don’t care about art, music or the artist in any form. Thankfully, the Internet has sort of emancipated us from these sort of shenanigans, and you can cut those people out of the loop.
I like being able to interact with fans instantly and directly when I want to. I still miss receiving fan letters from people, there was something precious about them. I still have them, how many people save emails?
Sophie: I save emails.
It seems like Astrobrite has always had a Japanese connection, with some of your CDs getting their physical releases on the Japanese label Vinyl Junkie. How did that connection get started? Does your music have a big following in Japan?
Scott: Apparently the Japanese never got the Shoegaze memo where you dump it and deride it in the press. What the Japanese did was take the Shoegaze formula and kick ass with it utilizing perfect musical skills. I think I got well known over there because of lovesliescrushing. I was asked to play the festival and 2001 and when I went over there I met Narasaki of Coaltar of the Deepers and through him was able to get on the label Vinyl Junkie. We leave for our Japan tour on May 22. My kid will be playing too.
I’ve not had the good fortune to see an Astrobrite show… what’s it like to try to recreate the fairly dense sonic textures and layering in a live setting? Or do the songs take on new lives when played on stage? Do you enjoy the live experience?
Scott: It’s fun to try to re-create the songs live but they take on a whole new life. It can also be a nightmare.
Sophie: The music certainly takes on a new energy. The live singing is pretty spontaneous and it can afford to be since it’s kept in the mix. The other night I was like, “Wait, Scott, what are you even singing?” And he doesn’t even know what he’s singing. On “Wandering Birds,” I’m singing something completely different than what’s on the old recording. I had to make that one my own. I do like how our voices blend together. This is something I want to keep working on.
What other current bands do you like?
Sophie: Widowspeak, Seapony, La Sera, Eleanor Friedberger, Wild Belle, Daughter, Cults, Amanda X, Dark Dark Dark.
Scott: I like the new crop of gazers and I’m listening to mainly experimental music by women mostly.
How do you feel about the Shoegaze label that gets applied to your music. If you had to label your music with a genre, what would you pick (or invent)?
Scott: For decades it was derogatory and a completely pointless moniker that had nothing to do with the music. If I met the journalist that coined that term, I’d spill coffee all over his Tandy computer. They really dropped the ball with it for a decade or so there, well some dropped the ball, I kept running with it.
For years it was such a slag, but despite that, I never stopped doing what I was doing, never went dancey or country. I worked at a record store for a short time and they sort of derided the music I did. Now I go in that store and tons of the new records on the wall are spacey gazey drone. It’s quite validating. Beautiful noise was what Brandon Capps called it back in ‘91, I think that fits.
In response to the Cocteau Twins reference in my Deluxer review, you said that the song was partly about meeting Robin Guthrie. How’d you meet him, and how was the experience?
Scott: That song is about listening to the Cocteau Twins and that being the soundtrack of my teen years and also about being in love with a girl that was a twin.
My friend Andrew Prinz set up a lovesliescrushing show in Peru and Robin was there. We got to hang out a bunch, go to dinner, drink wine, record in the studio, it was amazing. There’s nothing like having a person that was influential to your music watch you perform, and there’s also nothing like having your idol spontaneously get onstage to solo over one of your songs during sound check. So it was truly awesome.
On Twitter, Scott mentioned that Deluxer was trimmed down from an original 33 recordings. There are demo tracks up on Bandcamp for a new album release in autumn. Will we get to hear any of those other 33 tracks while we wait for Suprema?
Scott: I’ll post more songs as I finish them. Right now I’m concentrating on Deluxer. The albums have a thematic feel to them. The 33 songs are being split thematically and stylistically into two other albums.
What’s something interesting about you that people probably don’t know?
Sophie: I can get caught up with uncanny or horrible things in the news. I’ll read a headline and think, I shouldn’t click that, and then I do because I can’t help it and then I have to search everything about it and learn all of these morbid details only because I am trying to make sense out of whatever it is. Recently I couldn’t stop reading about Jose Melena, the man cooked alive with 12,000 pounds of tuna at Bumble Bee when he was trapped in an industrial oven. I could never just read that headline and not find out how it happened, right? Also I think I have Imposter Syndrome.
Scott: I’m self-taught. I can draw. I might have caught Sophie’s imposter syndrome.
Scott, one of my favorite of your albums is STAR’s Devastator. Any chance there’ll ever be another STAR album?
Scott: There is probably a double album worth of material that hasn’t been released so hopefully that will come out if I can get Shannon and Ted to agree to it.
What fills your life when you’re not making music?
Scott: Eating sushi, biking, and writing scripts for indie DIY horror films I intend to shoot.
Sophie: I’m getting my master’s in creative writing. I’m also an adjunct professor and I work in a restaurant.
Thank you, Scott and Sophie, for generously sharing your time and your thoughts with Step On!!!
Interview by phil locke