The Asteroid No.4 interview with Scott Vitt
The Asteroid No.4 is an American psychedelic band based in San Francisco, CA. Originating from Philadelphia in the late 1990s, the A4 remain an active studio and live act who are considered stalwarts of the modern “psych” genre.
Let’s either start a rumor or put one to bed. Was the band named after Vesta, the brightest asteroid in our solar system? Or is some information best left to the imagination?
Ok…full disclosure. Naturally, Spacemen3 was, and still is, a huge influence on us, but we thought simply calling ourselves Asteroid4 would be a little too derivative. So we thought by adding a “The” and a “#” sign days before printing up our first 7″, would completely camouflage that. We really succeeded at covering that up, no? It was a game time decision and one which I have, ever since, personally regretted. Unfortunately, we’ve disliked the name immediately after coming up with it. It’s such a mouthful. We’ve tried breaking up a few times, changing names, starting side projects and even recording a country-rock album, which we thought would surely destroy us! However its become like being in the mob; where no matter how many times we’ve tried to escape this band name of ours…it just keeps drawing us back. At this point, its kind of morphed into this thing in of itself and it is what it is. We feel our music speaks for us, not our name.
On a side note – Once we had the first 7″ pressed, I was at a family party where I saw an uncle of mine who happens to be an aficionado of all things astronomical. When I proudly showed him the record he informed me that NASA had recently named 7 celestial bodies after the 7 astronauts killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy of the 1980’s. The fourth of these space objects was an asteroid named after Lieutenant Colonel Ellison Shoji Onizuka (June 24, 1946 – January 28, 1986). I was blown away by that because, being the age we were when it happened, witnessed that explosion footage over and over. As young kids its must’ve had some impact on us subconsciously. We winded up naming the first track on our first album ‘Onizuka”, which also became the subject matter of the second song, “The Admiral’s Address”; a song written from an astronaut’s perspective prior to an incident during flight, not all that different to that of “Major Tom’s”.
The whole reference to Vesta is more of an after-the-fact subplot, if you will. We more recently discovered that there actually was an “Asteroid 4” designation given to the second largest asteroid in the universe. I guess all of these little tidbits is good fodder for a band that considers itself to be “space-rock” above and beyond all other genres we’ve been categorized as.
I was delighted to catch you at the North Star Bar where you opened for Spectrum, I’ve seen your guest list, you have a killer following, tonight at Kung Fu Necktie you’re the headliners … does headlining effect your presentation?
Headlining really has no affect on our presentation. We actually prefer to not be the headliner when we play locally. We’ve been together for so long at this point, that playing Philly has become more of a “dress rehearsal”, if that makes sense, than anything else. Like the recent Kung Fu Necktie show, if we do headline, we’d prefer to play low-key shows.
As far as opening up for other acts…we’d prefer it. The Spectrum shows in April were a perfect example of the type of shows we’d prefer to do locally and abroad…
You ride with a 12 sting, would you mind discussing how you use the unique sound it creates?
Hmmm…I never thought about it like that. The 12-string doesn’t seem so unique anymore. I guess we’re just purists that like to have as many strings vibrating at once as possible.
You once sited Love as an influence to me, I actually knew the late Mr. Lee, what aspects of Love’s sound have you taken to heart, or expanded on? Perhaps “Be Yourself By Yourself”??
Yes, Arthur Lee..now he was a musician’s musician! I feel what we’ve taken from Love is how they approached their recordings sonically. For example, it sounds as though they had recorded the drums and bass as if it was a full band, at full volume, really pounding it out, but then pulled back the electric guitars and turned up the acoustic. Its ‘folk-rock” in its most simplistic form. Arthur Lee also sang more rhythmically than most and what I mean by that is that his words and melodies stepped along with the beat as if they were percussive in of themselves. There was a beat to everything he sang and I believe that’s how we tried approaching, hopefully with success, “Be Yourself, By Yourself”.
Your 1998 release “Introducing” was much more esoteric, outwardly expanding, yet filled with inner dimensions. Would you agree with that?
Yes…..How’s that for esotericism?
“Hail To The Clear Figurines” seems to have taken a dynamic step forward with “Wicked Wire,” a song that at any other time would have been a radio hit single. Did you approach this album with accessibility in mind, or did things just develop that way?
Uhh….no. I don’t believe “accessibility” has ever been an objective with this band. I do like to hear that you feel a song like “Wicked Wire” would have been a radio hit single in another time, because the music that influences us is from another time. If something winds up sounding as though we were striving towards accessibility, then we’ll just simply take that as complimentary and that maybe we’ve written a pretty catchy song.
“The Unknown” is a flawless classic, right up there with “In My Room” by Brian Wilson, were there smiles ’round the studio when you heard the playback?
Yes. I remember us being pretty happy with that song. It seems to sum up where we are after all of these years…melding a rootsy, almost Crazy Horse grinder, but on acid! Our “Bull of the Woods”, if you will.
Is the recording process labored for you, or have you worked out songs by injecting them into your live shows before hand?
Our songs typically come in threes and they are all conceived differently. Some songs morph by us playing them live first over and over. Others grow during the recording process and may never be a part of our live set. We have so many records and as a result, songs, that at this point, if we make a record of songs that can never be played live, I think we would be cool with it. I think we may be headed that way on the new stuff we’re working on at the moment with more instrumentation, orchestration and arrangements.
Has anyone been classically trained, or brought up with musical parents?
We are all the children of the 60’s generation, so we were all exposed to the greatest music ever made while sitting in the backseat of our parent’s car throughout the 70’s and 80’s, but I don’t believe, and I can’t speak for everyone, that any of us were taught by our parents. Ryan, our guitarist’s father and grand-father were very predominant session and live musicians in the rock and jazz genres, respectively. His uncle was also the original bassist of AC/DC in Australia too! So it makes sense, with that blood line, that he’s the most naturally proficient. I can’t say I have that type of lineage myself, but my father did see the Velvet Underground in 1966, among many other mind-blowing acts, which is pretty cool! Its cool to know he was in the thick of it. He spoon fed me all of the stuff I still listen to today and once in a while throws a band name out at me that I can’t believe he even knows. A short time ago, he said to me, “hey did you ever listen to Lothar and the Hand People?”….my answer, of course, was yes.
And considering the ages of the band members, where your parents Hippies or travelers of internal dimensions?
I think it’s safe to say that most of our parents, were at the right place at the right time…unless they were drafted! Again, Ryan’s folks live north of San Francisco and moved there in ’68 I believe. So needless to say, they were most likely witnessing more of the Hippie movement than the rest of our parents who were living in Philly at that time.
I should have probably asked this earlier, but would you mind introducing the band?
Well there’s me…I play rhythm guitar and sing lead vocals, Eric- lead guitar, Ryan- lead guitar, vocals, keys and Adam- drums and vocals. We have had a revolving door at the bass for the past two years or so, but while recording, Eric mainly plays the bass, with sometimes Ryan or even myself. Our close friend, Damien Taylor, was in the band and recorded through both “These Flowers” and “Hail to the Clear Figurines”, but he fronts his own great band, “(th’ sounds) of Kaleidoscope”, so he’s moved on to focus on that and rightfully so. As far as live, we’ve had other close friends filling in on bass since Damien’s departure and we are currently playing with someone new that has been great! The core of the group, through thick and thin, has been, and will hopefully remain, Eric, Adam, Ryan and myself.
Somehow speaking of past bands is like asking you to discuss failed marriages … where did you all come from, and how did you get together?
Well, Eric and I have been playing music together on and off through most of our early teenage years finally starting this band together in our 20’s. Adam was introduced to us by mutual friends in 2001, but at this point and ten years on, he is practically a founding-member. Ryan, who, as mentioned, is from the Bay Area, put us up while we were on tour out west in 2006 and he winded up moving to Philly within in a month immediately joining the band. He literally learned our songs in the car while heading east and played in New York with us the day after arriving in Philly. That will be five years ago next month. The magic of this band’s ability to stay together for as long as we have as that its always been comprised of friends first and foremost. Even past members that have long since left, remain close and have rarely left on bad terms….maybe one or two, but that’s not bad considering we’ve probably had up to 25 or so people come through since 1998!
Aspects of your music are almost tribal at times, and live, the band often rallies ’round the drummer as if lost to a primal spirit.
We definitely like to tap into a tribal vibe and the drummer is naturally at the center of that. When playing live, Adam is the pilot of the ship.
Some bands rely on the “less is more” approach, but Asteroid seems to endorse the philosophy of “more, but control it.”
I’d say that that may be on a record-to-record basis. Where “These Flowers of Ours” was all about the “more, but control it”, “An Amazing Dream” and “…Clear Figurines” are far more minimal. I can tell you honestly, that we never really have these preconceived ideas of where a particular song or album will go. Usually a track is pretty close to complete when one of us we’ll say this needs this or that. If that does happen, we’ll try and limit what the guitars are doing. Only when we play live are there three guitars working and even then, we like to pick proper moments when not to play, which in our opinion is the difference between bands that know what their doing and those who don’t. Learning when not to play, is far more of a sign of musical maturity than learning how to be technically proficient. Especially in a band where vocal melodies and multiple harmonies take precedence.
How much of a perfectionist are you, and the band as a whole?
Me personally? I’d say I’m a perfectionist, but there is a certain amount of natural looseness that’s needed in order to still be organic….and that’s the case for both live and on record. With that said, there are some things that can be a little more loose than others. For instance if the drummer sucks, then you’ve got problems. Thankfully, Adam is a perfectionist on the drums, and as long as he’s on, the rest of us have a little more liberty to be loose. As for the band as a whole? I’d say collectively, we are perfectionists, some of us individually more than others, but it works.
I have to go here, and though I have some inside info, you’re free to wave me off if you wish. Have drugs effected your music in a positive way? Was there a point at which they kept you from focusing on the task at hand?
Listen, I’m not going to tell you that we haven’t done this or that, because it simply would be lying. Any/Every band, that’s good anyway, has tapped into using something to stimulate creativity here or there. Some more successfully than others as some went too far and winded up blowing it. Obviously, we all know that story. For us however, accept for a couple of dips in the road, it has gone pretty good for us. I guess there were times when something may have caused some internal issues, but we got through it unscathed and maybe even better because of it. Let’s face it, it comes with the territory, especially with the kind of music we enjoy making and listen to. I can say honestly though, that we never rely on it, simply benefit from it.
Are there any songs by others that you’d like to cover? I ask this because of your work on the Spacemen 3 tribute where you cover “Losing Touch With My Mind.”
We have a long and growing list of songs that we’d like to cover. Everyone of us is constantly coming to the table with, we gotta cover this or that, and we usually try and include a cover song on every release. “Losing Touch With My Mind” was not only the first cover, but one of the first songs we ever recorded and it was for a Spacemen3 tribute. It was an opportunity for us to pay homage to easily one of our top five influences and our cover selections have since always been exactly that.
How about visual artists, anyone inspire, or captivate your imagination?
The list is endless…Not just visual artists, but writers, painters, architects and so on. Lebbeus Woods, Kurt Vonnegut, Jan Svankmajer…we all have different influences.
You’ve developed a fine line between your music and lyrics … does the poetry follow the music or vise versa?
I can’t speak for the others, but me personally…I don’t think I’ve ever written lyrics before the music. I may have had some tag-line or a phrase that spawned a more complete idea, but for the most part, the music comes first and that usually sets the tone for what will follow.
So where will you be headed by the end of the summer and fall? Any events you’re eagerly awaiting?
We have a lot going on at the moment. We’re midway through recording the music for an album worth of songs for a collaboration project with Peter Daltrey of the great 60’s UK psych band, Kaleidoscope. We’ve written the music for 10 or so songs and Peter is writing the lyrics and singing. We’re recording his vocals in L.A. in early September. While we’re out there, will be playing a week’s worth of California shows. Once we return, we’ll begin working on our next record through the fall and winter. The big thing hanging out there is touring northern Europe in early spring of ’12 following the release of “Clear Figurines” overseas. So we’re pretty much booked until then…things are good!
[Laughing] I worked your Merchandise Table, is this how you break in all perspective members? I only sold one disc, so I guess I won’t be on stage anytime soon.
Hey…you offered! Another reason why we don’t play Philly too much…no one buys our merch here!
If you would, please tell the folks where they can find you on the net. Is there anything I’ve missed, or that you’d like to mention?
We can be found everywhere you’d expect…all of the same names and places. Our direct site is www.asteroid4.com , so come by and check us out. Thanks Jenell for you support and doing what you do. It’s people like you that keeps us wanting to keep on…Cheers!
– Jenell Kesler