By Rob Callahan
Ten years ago they became the band that made pop music cool again, layering Christian Erickson's ethereal, ambient arrangements, synth stylings and rhythmic rollercoasterings solidly together with the brooding, breathy harmonies of singers Angela Orluck, Amy Turany and Janey Winterbauer. Rounded off on stage by Tim Ritter on bass and Peter Anderson on drums, they were Astronaut Wife. An unlikely and unplanned troupe of players, the band became a near overnight staple in the Twin Cities music scene as they notched their belts with Minnesota Music Awards, garnered local radio attention and drew capacity crowds to some of the city's most notorious venues. Fast tracked to fill the void left by the departure of the local legends of the eighties and nineties, they were the band all the cool kids had earmarked as the next big thing and they lived up to that expectation until, with a gradualness that stood in sharp contrast to the rapidity of their rise, the band virtually dematerialized.
For years, the absence of Astronaut Wife on the stages of the Twin Cities was lamented and the lack of new material left the city's scenesters wondering when, or even if, they would have their beloved band back again. Now, as the group's founding members gather for drinks and discussion on the patio of an undisclosed downtown night club, those questions are being answered. Astronaut Wife are coming together to let the city in on the secret of where they've been and, more importantly, that they're back.
“You have to make choices.”
Erickson, the lyricist and band leader, leans casually in his chair and surveys the setting. His aura of calm confidence is augmented by his two companions' similar airs. Orluck and Winterbauer bring their own formidable presences to the table and, together, the three emit coolness like quasars emit X-rays. They exchange knowing glances, unspoken inside jokes and emotive shared remembrances as they perch on the event horizon of a social singularity, letting the gravity draw them in and, as the topic of their long absence from the studio and stage comes up, they open up about about what's kept them so busy over the last five years.
The three quickly agree that it just became increasingly hard to juggle the band with their other obligations. Janey and Christian married each other. She was getting work as a session vocalist, performing at Hootenannies and making up half of the Americana duo Janey Winterbauer and Mark Perlman ,and all while raising her two children. Christian divided his time between family, side projects and starting his own business. Angela started her own business as well while she concentrated on raising her baby, now twenty months old. Tim, also a parent, found himself taking the stage with other notable musicians like violinist Jessy Greene and bands Bella Koshka and Blue Sky Blackout. With everything else going on in their lives, time for Astronaut Wife had become limited.
“It was more like real life stuff that got in the way,” says Christian, “not necessarily a lack of desire to do it. There was just tons of other stuff going on and when you're not necessarily doing it as your primary career, you have to make choices.” He recalls having done the math in his head once and discovering that, between the four of them they had had a child, on average, once every seven months since 2001. Discovering the many joys and pitfalls of parenthood became a full time job for each of them in turn and, as family and life became more prominent parts of their lives, rehearsals and live shows were harder to plan. Planning, in fact, was something to which the band hadn't often had to give a lot of thought. Success had often seemed to come to them as extemporaneously as had their casual beginnings.
“It was an Accidental Band.”
It happened on a night in late 1998, when Christian attended a show at the Fine Line where Angela was performing. After her set, he approached her with an idea. With a wistful tone, she recalls, “That was the night that he came up and said he had this project on the side, and he asked if I wanted to be involved.”
Janey adds, “That was the first time that anybody actually asked me to do something.” Angela nods, remembering that she, too, had never before been courted for her singing talents. “I just thought, 'Wow, you actually want me. You've seen me before and you recognize what I could do with you.'”
“The original idea was not that it was going to be a band. That formed totally by accident,” says Christian, whose original plan was one of recruiting whichever guest vocalist worked best for each of his new songs. “What I wanted to do was more of a Massive Attack thing, where I was just going to write a bunch of tracks and then get anyone I wanted to sing on them.” Having recruited Janey and Angela, he pursued singer Amy Turany as well. “She was in February, which made her the only one of us who was in a band that was at all popular at the time.”
“Then,” he recalls, “by total accident, we actually got together once to practice as a group. The three of them started doing three-part harmonies and really cool kind of girl group stuff and I just thought, 'Okay I guess this is a real band now. Fuck this guest vocalist thing. We should do this for real.” Amy left the project early on, but not before contributing vocals to the group's seminal tracks. The band made a home recording of their first single, "Cape Canaveral," and began to consider the feasibility of distribution as they were beginning to play their first shows. Then they prepared to surmount the many potential obstacles in their way.
At the time, the local music scene was waning and new bands were hard-pressed to find success. “We literally came into it at the very end,” says Christian. “One of our friends was the last guy in town to get a serious label deal as an indie rock guy. That kind of opportunity sort of dried up after that. So we literally started right on the cusp of the decline of the music business.” Without the means for widespread physical distribution, the band focused on the then-emerging technology of mp3s and made use of the expanding prevalence of broadband internet access to get their work out. “At that time people who were really serious about their rock careers were scared because they didn't know how they were ever going to make any money, and because we didn't care about that, we adopted [digital distribution] immediately. It was more about getting people to care and getting people to be interested in what we were doing. If we'd have had the means to give away cassettes back in the day we would have, but the problem was that the money had to come out of our pockets.”
Among the first to receive their digital single was Radio K, which Janey remembers as, “literally the only place that bands who weren't signed could get heard, and you didn't even have to have an in. You just had to have something that people liked.”
Angela adds, “It was supposed to be just a recording project, and then Christian sent it to Mark Wheat and it became a big thing.” Having gained the young Mark Wheat's attention, Astronaut Wife found themselves in alt radio heavy rotation and, catching the wind of their momentum, soared. Their single was released to mp3.com and to Napster, the latter of whom made them a featured artist. At the height of Astronaut Wife's online success, the band's website tracked a new hit every two seconds and their popularity later lead to inclusion on a Napster compilation disc. Not only were they an online success, but their name became more and more household on the home front, prompting Minnesota Music Awards and City Pages accolades to follow.
“It was weird,” says Christian. “None of us had ever been in a band that anyone cared about at all, and within those first two years we won the City Pages poll, we put out this thing that got [attention from] Radio K and we had major label record people flying in and coming to our shows. It was just crazy stuff that you didn't really expect to happen. It was really fun but it was also kind of weird because we were in cool bands before, but it wasn't anything that people cared about. There's just such a fine line between what people care about and what they don't.”
“We resonated with each other.”
- Angela Orluck
Within the first year, Tim and Peter joined the lineup and Astronaut Wife were a five-piece troupe. Their fan base grew quickly as the band wowed their live audiences and worked quietly on the new tracks. “We'd be trying to figure out harmonies in Christian's studio and he'd be standing outside the door,” says Janey, prompting a laugh from Angela as she sees where the anecdote is going, “Whenever we'd come up with something great he'd be outside shouting 'Yeah, that's awesome!'”
“They used to kick me out of the room,” recalls Christian, remembering the early days that Angela and Janey spent developing their trademark harmonies. He would stay just outside the door and listen secretly, ”then I'd open the door and be like, 'Yeah, do that.'”
“That used to scare the crap out of us,” Angela jokes, remembering those times fondly, “but we also resonated with what Christian was writing and the lyrics and melodies, and we resonated with each other as well.”
“You can never figure that stuff at all,” adds Christian, admitting he still doesn't fully understand how they became as big as they did. “There are a lot of people doing really, really good stuff that stay obscure.” Having expected but avoided obscurity themselves, the band soon found that their lives were changing. In the short time that they'd gone from unknowns to aspiring local legends, notoriety encroached upon their personal lives. Angela, who had to change her number due to fan harassment, remembers the difficulties they faced at the time but, despite them, is still overwhelmingly positive about her experience.
“It was an honor,” she says. “Coming from other bands in Minneapolis where you had to fight to get a show, to Astronaut Wife where people just wanted you.”
On the would-be local legend status, Janey muses, “I'd like to think that, but we don't have a star on the side of First Avenue.” Legends or not, their music never ceased to find radio airplay. “Last week,” she says, “I heard Bill De Ville play one of our songs and then he got on the mic and called it 'an oldie, but a goodie.'” She can't help but chuckle a little as she shares the story. Christian and Angela join in on the shared moment of lighthearted self-deprecation.
“We do this tag team thing.”
Over the years, they worked hard to find a balance between family and art. Janey and Christian in particular, being part of the same family, found it an incredible adjustment at first. Says Christian, “The one thing that's really hard if you have kids is being in the same band together, because every time you practice and every time you play, you have to get a babysitter. One of the reasons it's taken us five years to get back together is it's easier for us to pursue projects on our own because there's always someone to hang out and do family stuff while someone else goes off.”
Janey agrees, “We do this tag team thing when one person goes out earlier, the other person goes out later, and everyone has their time out of the house. You make sure your rehearsals don't overlap.”
Christian adds, “Everybody's got weird schedules and it's harder to get people together. It used be like well, I could stay home and get drunk tonight or we could go work on music. That was an easy choice to make and it's much harder now. But I think you've got to keep doing it.”
The others nod in agreement as Christian continues, “I feel like kids are always a priority, but you can't encourage your kids to pursue their dream and the things they do for artistic reasons if you don't do that yourself. It's a part of being human, that you do stuff like that. If you're going to raise them to respect art, you have to be participating in it yourself in some way.” The sentiment resounds as each parent, in turn, recalls having taken the children along to sound checks and studio sessions.
Angela notes that she sometimes rehearses with the baby in the room. “We'll go down in the studio and we've got this little couch that she hangs out on. She's twenty months old and she's already singing along.”
“Both of our kids know some of our songs by heart because they're sitting there listening while I'm writing them,” says Christian, citing this payoff to support the assertion that it isn't always easy but it is necessary for everyone in the band to be role models, to show their children that being a parent doesn't mean giving up on your creative passions. It means staying true to them and being both persistent and patient with the process.
“From a mom's perspective,” says Angela, “you just have to be willing to give it time and, in not much time at all, you'll figure it out.”
“We never broke up.”
- Angela Orluck
In 2002 the band released Flying Saucer, a sharp, sonic safari into the wilds of their collective creativity that captured fans and critics alike in a state of aural pleasure, but the spans between live shows had already begun to stretch. Having never aggressively booked their own shows or planned for long-term success, they soon found themselves going for months between shows, then years. In time, an Astronaut Wife performance was solely a matter of the rare occasion when everyone was simply able to make the time and, finally, the shows stopped happening altogether. Casual observers began to speculate about the band's demise. The speculation, however, remained unfounded, as nothing had happened to herald an official disband. In every meaningful sense, Astronaut Wife were still together, quietly considering the ways in which to finish up songs they hadn't yet recorded and piecing new ideas together.
“There was never any reason other than practical reasons to stop,” says Christian.
“We never broke up,” Angela affirms.
“This isn't the Eagles, man,” Christian insists with conviction, echoed by Janey and Angela. “We never officially broke up in any bad way, we just sort of slowed down for like five years.” During those years, they all kept Astronaut Wife on their minds and in their conversations, silently planning for the next release while wondering if they'd ever actually find the time to pull it off, and so time passed until interest exploded online, sending a shockwave through the music scene with a Praxis Effect of buzz and anticipation, as accidentally as had been the band's original founding.
“I was working on this song,” Christian recalls, “and I thought it would be an awesome Astronaut Wife song. So, like an idiot, I just went up on Twitter and said, 'I'm working on a song. It'd be a great Astronaut Wife song. Let's get the band back together!' I was only half serious, and then a week later I was talking to Tim. He was booking a show and he's like, 'We don't have a band for this night, come on man, we should just get the Wife back together.'
“So three weeks ago it was a joke, and then a week later he had me thinking that it's a good idea, but I actually thought these guys wouldn't go for it,” he says of Janey and Angela, “so I made Tim pitch it. I said, 'I'll tell you what: You send the email and you explain it. Say why you think it'd be cool, and why you think we should do it,' and he did.”
Janey adds, “Then Club Jaeger tweeted about it and we had to back that up.” Within hours of the decision to reunite, word was spreading virally on the social media sites. There was no more wondering to be done, and no more considerations about when next to try. It was a matter of do or do not. There was no try.
“The tools are in the hands of everyone now.”
Their return to the stage will find Astronaut Wife in an entirely new music industry. Where once the band had found putting on shows a difficult undertaking, the city's music venues are now practically tailor-made for them. “When we started playing shows, it would literally take three hours to set up for a show,” Janey remarks, “because the clubs couldn't handle the idea of us playing tracks through the monitors, but now it takes ten minutes.”
In many ways, the band's struggles to bring their new sounds and techniques to the stage inadvertently helped to pioneer a new wave of live musicianship and left venues awash in the demand for electronic music. The sea change that followed hasn't escaped Christian's attention. “We recently saw Lookbook play at First Avenue and I thought about when we used to play there. They used to look at us like we were from outer space. Now there's a ton of bands that are primarily electronic. They sound great, they show up with their gear, the sound guys know exactly how to mix it and make it sound money. It's just time and technology.”
Noting other differences between the today's scene and the late-nineties lull during which the band first rose to prominence, he adds, “Now the industry has come back up but not so much as a business. It's not so much about doing this so that I can get a major label deal. I think a lot of people do it because they love it, and I think that's cool. I think that's the main difference. The tools are in the hands of everyone now. Everyone I know, everyone who's serious about it. You can do everything on your computer sitting at a desk with one microphone.”
“I love the music that Christian writes.”
The newer, friendlier industry bodes well for the band, who see more ease with which to balance their families and day careers against the tighter, more technologically efficient life one leads as a member of a modern pop band. When asked about plans beyond the reunion show, everyone responds with unrestrained optimism.
“I'm up for anything,” says Angela. “I love the music that Christian writes.”
Janey agrees, “It seems like we have a recording project in the future.”
Christian notes this as being the right time, adding “I would do it in a second. I think if we have fun doing this and it's not a total disaster, then we want to work on the new stuff. It was always great working with these guys. We've all thought at various times that we'd like to finish some of that old live material and there's some newer stuff that would be really, really cool, but that phone call just never got made. So the goal is to do at least one of those new songs before this show happens in the next three weeks, and put it up.” He delivers his last remark with a purposeful look across the table, where Angela sits.
She notices right away and shoots back, “You're looking at me like...”
“All you gotta do is come over and we'll do it,” he says, her sentence already finished in the unspoken language of great minds thinking alike.
“I'm here, I can do it,” she says with an enthusiastic smile.
“You're the secret weapon,” says Janey, mirroring the smile. “Go for it, girl.”
The Astronaut Wife reunion happens at Jagerfest 2009 Saturday, September 26th at Clubhouse Jaeger with opening bands Ultrachorus, The Red Pens and Blue Sky Blackout, and followed by a post-show Transmission Dance Party with DJ Jake Rudh.
Also, Christian and Janey will be onstage September 19th at the Hexagon, as part of the Susstones Showcase, also featuring Strangelights, To Reinvent, Two Harbors, and The Mood Swings.
Visit the Astronaut Wife myspace page HERE