Let’s Talk About Space

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I can’t imagine starting the conversation without leading off with Ballboy’s “A Day In Space”. How influential was it?

“I’d actually never heard of it until now, so the answer is sadly not at all. I just had a listen though. Great song!

I do have the ‘Let’s Talk About Trees’ record. Based on some the lyrics, it would seem this was not an educational venture (although that spirit is obviously there). Was there a clear trajectory from that creative endeavor to ‘Let’s talk about Space’?

“Let’s Talk About Trees started as a joke between Chris and I that ended up getting really out of hand. We made a conscious decision to stop playing the Trees stuff as we didn’t want to get into the habit of doing the same shows at the same old venues, as eventually the whole thing would just become routine. The project had been founded on the idea of challenging ourselves, doing things that are outside our collective comfort zone, and above all else… having fun, but to do that we had to keep things fresh. We knew we wanted to make more music, but had to find a format that would allow us to expand on the original Trees idea. We agreed that there appears to be nothing bigger than the Universe and no subject more fascinating than Astronomy, and so Space was decided upon without any other considerations. We didn’t just want to put out an album and play a few shows though, so we started looking at ways to make the performances more theatrical and more informative. As before things got out of hand pretty quickly… We ended up with a 5000 word script, lesson plans, a week of shows booked in Glasgow Science Centre’s Planetarium, and we’d made promises of visiting schools to teach children about the wonders of the Universe.”

What are your respective academic backgrounds? Is this a clever ploy to insert your musician alter egos into the day job?

“I studied music at college, and Chris and I have both spent several years working as music tutors. Space and Astronomy just really really fascinate us. Currently the plan is to choose a new subject every year or so… Biology, The Ocean, Dinosaurs, Eastern European politics circa 1989… the possibilities are endless! Coming from a musical background seems to have given us an advantage as it’s enabled us to use teaching methods that young children find engaging and exciting. We’ve learned that there is no better way to prolong a child’s attention span during a lesson than to spontaneously burst into live synth-pop.”

How exactly are you incorporating your songs into the presentations?

“The school presentations primarily focus on the educational content. I think the music segments fool kids into thinking we’re “cool”, and so they instantly conclude that Space must be cool too. If they realized that we’re actually just a couple of geeks they’d be far less likely to pay attention. The music is relevant to the show too though… There’s a poem at the start that describes the journey from the Big Bang through to modern day life on Earth, backed by music that sounds almost entirely like (but not identical to) the opening Vangelis synth from Bladerunner. During a lesson on Space travel we sing a song about Laika, the first dog sent into Space. Laika’s journey actually did relatively little to further man’s understanding of how our bodies would respond to the conditions imposed by Space travel, but due to the fact that Laika had been involuntarily shot into Space without the technology yet designed to bring her back to Earth, it raised global awareness of issues concerning ethical research methods and animal testing, which is surely worth commemorating in song.”

What has the reaction been from the students so far? 

“So far all the feedback has been great! We’ve performed several different versions of the show depending on the age group, which has varied from 0-12 years, always with a positive response. My favorite has to be after a Planetarium show a really young kid came up to us to say thanks, he looked genuinely in shock, and the only words he could muster were “… BLOODY… EPIC!…” before walking away. We’ve also been getting asked some really astute questions, like…

“Who built the Universe?”

“Is there oil on other planets?”

“What are the odds of intelligent life arising on other worlds?”.

They’re great questions to be asking, and they’re being asked by children as young as 5! Can you imagine what it’s like trying to answer them at 9am on a Monday morning in front of a hall filled with inquisitive kids? Terrifying!

Looking at the website picture page I recognized Jessica Ashman before I Iearned that she directed the video for ‘Sailing to the Moon’. (I have one of the lovely moths from her State Broadcasters video) Are you drawing other denizens of the Glasgow creative community into your venture? 

“Yes! And as often as possible! We’ve actually never played a concert with the same lineup and just last week we played our first “conventional” Space show supporting Sebastien Tellier, with a live band consisting of members from Endor, The State Broadcasters and the wildly talented Siobhan Wilson. We’re really keen to work with anyone who has a passion for trying out new ideas… You know those really silly ideas people have, often in the pub, they joke about with friends, and usually the idea goes no further? Well we almost always follow through with those ideas, for better or worse, and we’re keen to work with anyone willing to do the same. Early next year we’ll be working on another music video with a project called Creation Station, that will actually be written, directed and filmed by children. There’s also been serious talk of organizing a gig atop the Cairngorm mountains in collaboration with Gordon Reilly, booker for the amazing Insider Festival.”

 “I’ll use my imagination for astronavigation … your imagination can take you anywhere you want to go”. How exactly are you attempting to increase a student’s interest in science by sparking their imagination?

“We definitely see creativity and imagination as essential to scientific endeavor. Of course logical and rational thought, and empirical evidence are fundamental, but with that song I wanted to show that Space exploration and research is a fascinating journey, which often yields findings just as wonderful as anything we can dream up using our imaginations. We’re both huge fans of Science Fiction, and it’s worth noting that many of the ideas conceived in the imaginations of Carl Sagan, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams have often served as precursors to real scientific and technological advancements. Creative thought has undoubtedly helped pave the way for science.”

The other day, I read that Voyager is close to finally leaving our solar system and heading into interstellar space; a topic worthy of a song? No need to credit me for the inspiration. If you could digitally update the music on the Voyager’s golden record with five Scottish acts, who would you chose as representatives?

“Yeah it’s pretty amazing! It’s currently travelling at 61,000km/h and has already travelled 18 billion miles making it the furthest man made object from Earth… definitely worthy of a song or two! Great question though… It’s kind of like Desert Island Discs… in Space!

I think the Phantom Band are probably the most exciting band in the country at the moment. I saw them at a few festivals last year and they blew me away every time.

Aidan Moffat’s recent output has been incredible and will no doubt become even more revered over time. Though if intelligent alien life were able to translate the lyrics to Glasgow Jubilee our species would probably get blacklisted from their “contact” list due to lewd conduct.

Chris’ other group, the John Knox Sex Club, are the best Scottish band that most people probably haven’t heard of… yet.

John Martyn’s Solid Air and The Beta Band’s Three EPs are a couple of classics that are surely still worthy of export.

 The song ‘Luna Oscillators’ was an educational experience for me. I might have heard the name, but never knew who the Silver Apples were. The bit of discovery I engaged in was fascinating and it was astonishing that this came from the late 60s. How did that collaboration come about and how was it executed?

“It was a real privilege to get to record with Simeon. We’ve both been massive Silver Apples fans for years and it’s still a bit of a shock having him on the album. I went to see him earlier this year when he played during The Glasgow Music And Film Festival. A friend had booked the show and recommended contacting him after I’d expressed interest in a possible collaboration. Months later, whilst walking home late one night, during a full moon, I remembered an awe-inspiring experience I’d had as a very young child when my Mum took me to see a Lunar Eclipse. By the time I reached home all the words were finished. The song was written and recorded in under an hour. The next morning I emailed the song to Simeon, along with a description of the project, and within two days he got back in touch with all his parts already recorded!”

You mentioned that the full length is actually close to being finished. Are there any details that you could share at this point? How many tracks? Release format? The name of one of the secret collaborators?

“I probably shouldn’t say too much at the moment as things are likely to change as we finalize the release over the next few months. As far as format goes, we feel really strongly about the aesthetic importance of physical releases. In the past with the Let’s Talk About Trees album we ended up going to ridiculous lengths to make a physical copy that we deemed worthy of selling. The track listing on each copy was typed out on an old typewriter, we cut, folded and glued all the sleeves by hand, then we ended up walking around Kelvingrove Park in the snow, trying to collect leaves to press, dry, and stick to the album cover… in retrospect it was totally mental!”

It is interesting that the Dec 9 Arches show advert has you listed as local band / educational music project. After listening to the few songs available numerous times, it becomes clear how well they stand on their own as songs. The subject matter doesn’t overwhelm the music and, as such, it is refreshingly interesting electro-pop. Was the song creation process different or more difficult than writing for a conventional record?

“I think it’s a lot easier. The subject matter doesn’t really feel like it restricts us, but actually helps us to keep focus. We don’t have any rules and constantly try to mix things up. A lot of the songs were written together, some separately, then brought to the other to flesh out, or just get completely recorded individually. As long as we’re having fun and trying new ideas then there are no problems. The main challenge was trying to write music that would appeal to both young children and adults alike. The end result was Sci-Fi electro-pop that kids find fun, and hopefully adults will see the sense of humour in it and appreciate the unusual instrumentation.”

To slip in a little about Washington Irving, I watched the video of ‘Holy Company’ for the first time. Rather excited on this end. Can we look forward to a ‘Washington Irving’ full length in the coming year? 

“Yes, definitely. We’ve finished the record and will have a new single out towards the end of January. We’re making plans to get the record out by September.”

So far, The Scottish contingent for the upcoming SXSW seems to be Paws, Washington Irving, Chvrches, Bwani Junction, Kassidy and Young Fathers. Excited? Any plans to venture beyond Austin? 

“We’re really excited! It’s the first time any of us will have played shows in the US. We’re not sure if we’ll be able to gig outside of Austin due to time/money/visa restrictions but we are currently looking into getting a US booking agent, which will hopefully have opened a few doors by the time SXSW is over.”

 Speaking of Science Fiction, I’ve recently discovered Ian M Banks myself. Are there any other talented Scottish SF writers I should be looking into?

“Ian M Banks is great! The State Of The Art is the only Sci-fi book of his that I’ve read. Chris is a fan too, and has in fact, just recently lent me Look To Windward.

It’s not exactly Science Fiction but Alasdair Gray’s Lanark is an absolute masterpiece! David Lyndsay’s Voyage To Arcturus is pretty wild too.”

Finally, how much would you pay to go into space?

“Virgin have recently launched the Virgin Galactic Space program that will take the first steps towards actual Space tourism. It’s available to the general public, though I think it currently costs around £200,000 and there’s already a waiting list several years long. There were similar circumstances surrounding the first commercial airplane flights in 1914 and now, less than 100 years later, it’s possible to board a Ryanair plane for less than a fiver. Perhaps we’ll also see affordable Space travel in the not too distant future.

Personally… “I’d pay a million pounds or more to go for an hour, or even half an hour, although a day would be better!”

Kieran x

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