Astrosoniq Interview with Marcel Van de Vondervoort: Airborne Through the Quadrant of Expanded Definition
The fourth album from Dutch rock masters Astrosoniq, Quadrant, hit me like a face-bound roundhouse. The Wizards of Oss treat common notions of genre like water treats a screen, passing through and back on different sides of different lines, showing individual personality in their music like few active bands the world over in either the heavy rock underground or any other style. They are — and I don’t use this word lightly — unique.
As it was my first experience with the band, listening to Quadrant inspired me to traipse my way through the Astrosoniq back catalog for a still-in-progress series of Buried Treasure posts (here and here). So far what I’ve learned in so doing is that the willingness to toy with stylistic conventionalism Astrosoniq display on their latest album is hardly new to the band; they’ve been doing it since their Son of A.P. Lady debut in 2000.
All the more reason, then, to want to talk to drummer and founding member Marcel Van de Vondervoort, who not only contributes electronics (and drums, obviously) to Quadrant, but also produced and mixed the album in his own Torture Garden Studio. In the email interview that follows, he sheds light on Astrosoniq‘s processes, his own in writing and in the studio, the neurological condition that’s forced him to relearn how to drum using just his hands, and just how he managed to get something coherent out of the track “Zero,” on which Astrosoniq is joined by the entire band Zeus, one act in the left channel, one in the right.
You’ll find the complete Q&A after the jump. Please enjoy.
How did the US 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 US. 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 which 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 option 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 am 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 travelling 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.
Lead photo by Rachelle Possen.
Tags: Astrosoniq, Exile on Mainstream, Oss, The Netherlands