They’ve been around going on 12 years and they’re one of underground heavy rock’s most innovative bands the world over, and yet Dutch outfit Astrosoniq are just now releasing their first full-length in the U.S. Their fourth overall, Quadrant is a rich and varied listening experience that plays with genres the way kittens play with string, batting at them and tossing them in the air, only to pounce when they hit the ground. Songs like “Play It Straight,” the techno-infused “As Soon As They Got Airborne” and “Zero”—which actually features the entire band Zeus in the left channel while Astrosoniq plays in the right—display an adventurous spirit utterly absent from mainstream, formulaic rock, be it American or otherwise.
I was thrilled to be able to exchange these questions via email with founding Astrosoniq drummer and effects specialist Marcel Van De Vondervoort, who also engineered and mixed Quadrant in his Torture Garden studio in the band’s hometown of Oss. Below, he discusses writing and producing the album, his feelings on the growth of the band, and much more.
How did the U.S. release come about for Quadrant?
That has happened thanks to Andreas [Kohl], the owner of our label Exile On Mainstream. It is the first of our albums that is actually distributed in the U.S. This record has been a long wait. We normally try to do a release every two years, but there was a lot going on in our personal lives, which made this impossible.
I’ve been working my way through the Astrosoniq catalog, and the one thing I’ve noticed across all the releases I’ve heard is that there’s a real drive not to be limited by one specific genre or another. Where does that come from, and how important has that been to the band?
Ron [Van Herpen; guitar] and me started this band to play whatever we deemed necessary. We did not want to get pigeonholed in one genre; we both have very eclectic tastes when it comes to music. Ron, being a former metalhead, introduced me to heavy music, and I come from an avant-garde/indie background so you could blame me for most of the weirdness in Astro. We have a big overlap in classic rock and we still consider ourselves scholars in music always learning from the past and discovering hidden gems.
Describe the growth of Astrosoniq in terms of style. How much do you think the sound has changed over the course of the four albums?
I guess we still adhere to the template the first record provided, everything we have been doing ever since is already there, all we try to do is better ourselves. Looking back, there seem to be some ground rules we follow, but those aren’t really formal. I think we can go in any direction we would like to, a straight rock album but also an over the top trippy album. It is all there with this band.
What is your writing process like? How are the songs developed and fleshed out? Do you go into writing a song with an idea of what you want to try, or does that come later, after jamming it out?
The only time we jam is on stage or recording. Ron and I have been playing together in different bands for 20 years, so we don’t really need to jam to get the creative juices flowing. Mostly Ron comes up with the idea for a new song, it could be a riff, but since the last two albums he mostly brings a finished guitar part and a schematic vocal line, that is enough to start recording.
We get together in the studio, listen to the idea, I come up with a drum part, maybe we tweak the form a little, do a few run-throughs and if satisfied we roll the tape and smack it down. Mostly doesn’t take more than three attempts. Then we add dubs and because of the modern day possibilities, we can always change the arrangement if needed. We write texts after the initial groundwork of the song has been laid down. Sometimes we use another process, but above is pretty much standard.
How did the song “As Soon As They Got Airborne” come about and develop into what it is on Quadrant?
Ron had it all finished in his head, and he wanted the intro to be jammy. His goal was to give the impression the song develops out of that jam. We made sure we rehearsed the structure of the song, which is not all that complex. It is basically an extended pop song.
Some lengths are free and the sections got cued in by Ron, laid down the guitar/bass/drums in one go (no click). It took a few passes and when we were satisfied we built the song from there: guitar dubs, vocals and lots of effects and keyboards both by me and Teun [Van De Velden].
Does working in your own studio allow you more time and space to work on and experiment with material, or does that not really matter to the band? How is it for you working as both the drummer and the recording engineer?
It is a luxury, but it can be a risk too. You have to know when to stop. You can kill a good song by overproducing and adding too many layers. The studio is my domain—I almost live there. I started engineering to get the drum sounds in my head that did not seem possible with other engineers, so for me it is almost the same thing as drumming. It is just another skill to express myself as a musician.
How much of a nightmare is it to mix a track with two separate bands playing at the same time?
The mixing process itself was not that difficult, basically it is two mono tracks panned hard left and right. The tracking was somewhat of a nightmare, to get everything lined up, the Zeus side is shuffling and the Astro side is straight, some editing was needed to get both bands in the grid, but totally worth it. It shows you another way to do a psychedelic song.
We did this one live at the album presentation, both bands on stage, each a side of the PA, you saw people moving from side to side seeking their sweet spot, you could mix the song by moving from left to right, same you can do at home with you balance knob. Mind-blowing experiment.
Were you concerned at all in sequencing Quadrant that the songs wouldn’t fit together? You guys work in so many different styles, but the album still has a flow between the tracks.
First three albums I was very concerned about the sequence, we always tried many options before getting the final sequence. I sort of lost interest in the sequence of the album with Speeder People, now Ron is mostly responsible for the order of the songs. I don’t think sequencing has any meaning with CD and MP3s. Everybody is capable of deciding the order in which to play the songs.
I can see the importance of the order on vinyl both technically (frequencies) and practically (hard to play individual songs), but we have not been able to release our albums on vinyl yet.
How was the Gods Of Groove fest? With Sungrazer, Tank86 and Orange Sunshine on the bill, it looked like a really great lineup.
This was the third edition. It is organized by our own [manager] Bidi. Former editions had Gomer Pyle, Toner Low and us to name a few. It is a Dutch gathering of psychedelic, groove and hard rock bands, both young and older bands. We also have Walter [Hoeijmakers, of] Roadburn as DJ, this can only mean the quality is up to par.
Are there any plans for other touring now that the album has wider distribution?
Well. to be honest, this is a hard time to tour for me personally. I have been wheelchair bound for a year and walking badly for three. This is one of the reasons this record took a while. I have a neurological condition, but there is no final diagnosis yet. I have developed a drumming method just using my arms. At the moment I can play everything I want to, but traveling is another story, especially flying.
We still do gigs, but we carefully pick them. We did the Gods Of Groove fests, we have been to Hole In The Sky (Norway) and to South Of Mainstream (Germany). At the moment we are working on the new record and we will see what happens when that’s finished. I set out to create a catalog of at least 10 records with this band so I still have some work to do!
Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?
I would like to thank everybody who helped me out personally to get out there so we could play our music on stage despite my handicap.
Quadrant is available now on Exile On Mainstream. For more info, check out astrosoniq.com.
JJ Koczan wishes he could take credit for the “Wizards Of Oss” line, but that’s been around the band for a while. firstname.lastname@example.org.