Ahead of their set at ArcTanGent 2017, I sat down with God Is An Astronaut to chat to them about their 15 years strong career as one of the core bands in the post rock scene. It made for a fascinating and incredibly insightful conversation.
E&D: My first question for all of you – you started in 2002, you’ve been going on for about 15 years now. When you started the band did you think “we want to be professional musicians for the rest of our lives”?
Torsten: We formed God Is An Astronaut in 2002. It was more of a farewell to the music industry because we had been playing since ’95, so yeah we wanted to make something that we could kind of bow out on, effectively. We didn’t put any restrictions on what we wanted to make, we wanted to play something we actually liked, so we wrote that album [The End Of The Beginning] and put it out DIY. But then it actually started to take off on the underground a little bit, which encouraged us to do one more album, which was All Is Violent, All Is Bright, which kind of blew up a little bit, so we went from a nothing band to a band with a small reputation. Ever since then we kept going – it’s been unexpected, I would say.
E&D: What do you feel has stayed the same, what have you valued in the band, and what do you feel has changed over the course of those 15 years?
Torsten: We still feel as enthusiastic as the day we started, we feel lucky and privileged to be able to make music, so that much has definitely stayed the same. We still want to go down and write music and do shows and feel the energy that wants to get up and do that. What changed I think is the whole marketplace. When we were starting, the Internet was beginning to come alive, maybe a few years into our career. It was a brand new platform that we started out on and there was no pressure about what kind of music you were putting out. It was all quite by – I wouldn’t say accident – but whatever came out, came out. As the years came on, the whole Internet became a critic, so you really had to think twice about what you were going to put out there. We noticed there are kinds of waves – one year you’re popular, and the next year post rock – or whatever you want to call it, you know, instrumental rock – is suddenly very unpopular again. You’ve just got to ride these storms and keep your head down. So that’s one thing that definitely has changed. You have to stay humble and work as hard as you possibly can. Music styles go in circles. The most important thing is to keep on top of what we do, and always work extremely hard to make sure that we stay current and that sonically we move with the times. We’ve definitely changed our technology over the years, and Rob, who has just come into the group, has brought a whole new synthesis to the band that we didn’t have before. Life changes, different events have happened in our lives. Late last year my cousin’s son was murdered and that was something that really affected us, and inspired an album that we are working on at the moment, which is called “In Memory Of”. Music – I am glad to have it – is an outlet where we can pour our emotions into. For us it’s a companion. We are very lucky to be where we are and we are happy to be here.
E&D: I am incredibly sorry to hear that. I know that GIAA is a family like endeavour – one of your wives I think is the sound engineer…?
Torsten: No, the lighting engineer.
E&D: You are one of those bands who I think, it’s fair to say, are kind of core to the scene. There’s only a hand full of bands that I can think of that are bigger post rock bands than GIAA, how do you feel the scene itself has changed over the last 15 years?
Torsten: It comes in different waves, as I said. When we started out we didn’t even know what post rock was. We had this whole label attached to us that we could not get rid of, which was dance music. Before GIAA, we had this other project which was called Super A.D., of which a lot of stuff from the latter album actually made it to the first [GIAA] album. But we had this whole dance tag and people were saying “it’s dance music”, so we said “let’s change our name” and GIAA came in. People started saying God is a DJ. It’s not God is DJ, it’s a quote from a Clive Barker movie “Nightbreed” and you’re thinking “fuck, these guys don’t get it”. I remember when the first reviews came out. Massive Attack and Moby were being thrown at us. Massive Attack – not bad, but Moby – not so much, I don’t know where they got that from. I remember Lloyd [Hanney] joining the group and we ended up just putting live drums out of trip-hop beats over our stuff and suddenly by making an album with Lloyd, for the first time we heard “post rock”. I remember playing in Cork in 2003 or 2004 at Cyprus Avenue and this American guy comes up, and we had visuals running with all these explosions, and he said “explosions in the sky”, and I was thinking, “yeah we’ve got a lot of explosions”. It was only a year later, embarrassingly, when we realised the guy was referring to the band Explosions In The Sky! That’s how we got introduced [to the genre]. Mogwai were the first ones that came to our attention. After that we started to learn of all the other groups on the scene and we met Phil from Caspian – really nice people – and we did a tour with them in Poland. They said, “you guys are obviously really popular”. We said that this was our first tour in Poland. We were playing there and girls were throwing knickers at us. I was thinking “what the fuck is this?”. We were shocked. The dudes were all behind Caspian and the girls were all behind us. We thought, this is all wrong. We played an exceptionally heavy set then and I think people started getting the idea of what GIAA is about, it’s much more of a darker entity. But after that the next wave of groups came in – you had your And So I Watch You From Afars, your Maybeshewills, Russian Circles started to emerge just a bit before that. We looked at the scene and on forums people were talking about groups we wouldn’t normally hear about. And then it took a kind of a swan dive in 2012, when post rock was considered a really stupid genre and math rock started to make its way, perhaps not to massive popularity, but there was an underground surge for that kind of music – Battles and those kinds of groups started to emerge. Post rock was considered basic music that didn’t have time signatures, even though our music does, it’s just that we don’t flaunt it, it’s within the composition. So we kind of weathered that storm and I don’t know what kind of groups are coming out today. We just played Dunk! festival and there were a lot of post rock groups coming around and one of the bands we’ve seen, Pray for Sound, I thought were really good. I am working with Rob Murphy from Xenon Field. It’s more of an electronic – I wouldn’t call it post rock but it’s definitely sonically interesting stuff. I don’t know where it’s all leading at the moment, but I think people are keeping an open mind about post rock or post metal and it seems to be sitting in a comfortable place.
E&D: Has there ever been a point that you considered to be the low point of GIAA? Any point that you thought “why are we doing this, where are we going with this?” How did you get through that?
Torsten: I remember when we released The End Of The Beginning, all the feedback we got seemed to be really positive, everyone seemed to be really happy to hear about something new. Then all the 5’s came in, 5 out of 5, 9 out of 10, and we started thinking “we can’t do anything wrong, this is easy business!” Then Far From Refuge came out in and I thought “oh, oh, some people don’t like what we are doing all of a sudden”. We had an EP A Moment of Stillness, which also got high reviews, everybody loved it, everybody thought it was great. One or two people didn’t like it but everybody else thought it was great. Far From Refuge was the first time people started throwing around things like “generic” at us. We thought “what does that even mean?”, so we’re looking up these words and trying to figure out what people are saying, but that was the first time I started noticing a little bit of something frosty. But we didn’t let it really bother us much. We just put our heads down again and said l’et’s keep making what we want to make’. Then Self-Titled came out and at the time it was heavily criticised, but now people get really upset if you don’t play the songs off that record. It’s kind of weird. The audience really liked it but some of the critics were saying we were rehashing old ideas. One critic said GIAA had run out of energy. I remember thinking “how is that possible?” We had just written a track called “Zodiac” with 180 beats per minute. I thought – what are they talking about, maybe they’re talking about something else. Then after that, with The Age Of The Fifth Sun, that was kind of a weird time for me. I was preoccupied with life and Lloyd was pretty busy and I think I was essentially left on my own with that record, with Zac, who is Lloyd’s brother. It was more of a prog rock record. That seemed to be a darker time for us and people were saying we’re recycling old ideas and it got me self conscious. Then we did the Origins album, which was trying to do something completely different, which we learned wasn’t a very good idea either. You’ve got to work within your own frame, that you’ve built up yourself essentially. And then it dawned on me what was happening – we were looking at everything stylistically and not emotively. In Helios/Erebus we looked at style somewhat, but emotion had to be the main core of what we did. Again, just head down, put it out and see what happens. It’s definitely difficult putting out records today, because first of all people – maybe they don’t think we should be where we are today and they question that. Then when you put out a record and if they don’t like it, it’s very easy to say something’s crap. I know with us there’s a lot of expectation that we have to live up to and that’s where we are at the moment. So far this album has gone down particularly well, we are still touring it after two and half years. All our shows on this tour have been really well attended, which didn’t happen with Origins. I remember playing in Germany on the Origins tour and there were 50, maybe 60 people…? Now we’re seeing 400 – 500 people in Germany, and we’re seeing 2000 in Russia, 1500 in Italy. We changed booking agents and suddenly we’re getting festivals we hadn’t gotten before. We’re getting Brutal Assault and ArcTanGent again, which is awesome to get, and Dunk! Festival again. It’s a really good time for us at the moment. Who knows, with the next album we may go the other way again, you can’t tell. All I want to do is be honest, write music that matters to me emotively and try to do what we can to keep things sonically interesting and different.
E&D: On the subject of the festivals you play, I’ve seen you guys a bunch of times and noticed that you play quite differently. I’ve seen you play at ArcTanGent before and I’ve noticed that you emphasise the time signatures a little more. A friend of mine saw you at Beyond The Redshift and said you sounded incredibly heavy. Do you consciously cater how you play the music to the kind of atmosphere that you are playing at?
Torsten: I think that live, we are generally more intense, more heavy. I think it’s more of a comfort thing to play things more intensely than on the records. On record we’re a bit more reserved, which I think is a better idea. If you had a record done in a live mode, it would be quite unsettling to listen to, but in the live environment we definitely like increasing the tempos, making it heavier I suppose. It’s almost a release of aggression at times for some of the songs. But for us, it’s definitely two diverging lines. You have the record side of GIAA and the live side, and both are equally as important. But the live side is definitely more intense, because we feel more comfortable on stage that way. Live, there’s a little more anticipation, people are not relaxed, there’s a little more adrenalin in the air and you know you want to live up to those things. It’s funny, you know, because Robert was saying to me, even though some of the songs are exactly the same as we’ve been playing, they are sounding heavier and heavier. It depends what mind set you are in as well. When we were playing at Brutal Assault, we came in pretty chilled and the next one was some hippy festival, so we decided to make it extra heavy [lots of background laughter], maybe not trying to fit in at all. In a longer set we would definitely have more chilled out parts, trying to show the diversity of the band. At a festival, if we have 50 minutes, we can’t put people to sleep, we’ve got to get to the point much quicker, to make people content with what we did. I do think that at ArcTanGent you’ve got math rock fans, metal fans, obviously post rock fans, so we’ve got to be able to cater to everybody so that they don’t feel short changed.
E&D: I want to ask you about the bands that have been continuous influences for all of you, but also about new bands and new records that you think are exciting in the post rock scene. What do you look at that and say “that’s the future of this scene”?
Torsten: It’s probably harder for me to answer the first part of the question. The second part, in the scene, specifically in the post rock scene, it’s interesting how a few of the bands are straying away from the typical formula of post rock. They’re taking some mentalities from that genre, but you don’t just have people getting the long drawn out song structures and the melodies, but they’re applying it to different types of music. There seems to be more of an emergence of noise rock, which seems more interesting, and more people are implementing electronic elements as well. It is interesting to see how genres evolve in general and how the ideologies of different genres can be brought forward to make a new fusion. I think it’s pretty interesting. Again, obviously we’re speaking exclusively on style when we mention other groups, because emotively what drives me to write music is what we experience in our lives and what I want to document, because music to me is an emotional outlet, and that’s most important to me. I don’t want to write something because some hot new band has come on the scene and I need to jump on that bandwagon, that wouldn’t make any sense. Guys that I’ve looked up to, like Trent Reznor and what he’s still doing with his music – he’s an inspiring character, to see how much thirst he still has for his music. So I find him one of the few people that I look up to – he’s at the forefront of technology, even in his elder years, which is very interesting. I’ve got different groups, I’ve just downloaded this band Loviatar from Prosthetic Records. We came across them before in the States. I think the group is pretty good, I like the melodies they’re doing. Apart from that, I download many different kinds of music. I don’t know if it’s post rock, things like the Thee Oh Sees, I downloaded them to see what it was about. I even download old stuff like Creedence Clearwater, Massive Attack’s Ritual Spirit EP… I like listening to that kind of electronic music as well. Ben Frost – what he’s doing is interesting – Nils Frahm… Those are the kind of guys we listen to. Nothing that I’ve heard would make me want to do what Nirvana did to me when I was a teenager, wanting to be be like Kurt Cobain, jumping around MTV. It’s quite different when you get older. It’s our time to say something. Obviously when Chris Cornell had taken his life, we went back to listen to some of the Soundgarden stuff. That is what we’re rooted in.
E&D: On the subject of saying something, I feel that a lot of people look at instrumental rock and go – this isn’t about anything concrete, it’s about more nebulous feelings. Do you think GIAA has something more concrete to say than just “here are the kind of feelings we’re going for”?
Torsten: Yeah, 100%. I can pretty much open my library of music here, and tell you what it was that inspired me, what I was trying to do, what I was trying to say. Just take something from All is Violent for a second – “Fragile” was me essentially having a nervous breakdown. I’ve been trapped in my own self imprisonment, in my whole 20’s I’ve never socialised, ever. It was just literally continuous music and I was completely overweight and out of shape, I just felt very unconfident about myself. Music was a very important outlet and “Fragile” was a cry for help in a sense. A track like “Suicide by Star” was inspired by Ricardo Lopez [Björk’s stalker who committed suicide] – he spoke to me, my mind set wasn’t too far off his. It got to the point where he was obsessing about stupid things, he obviously wanted to meet Björk and whatever else he was trying to do. But it’s a real tragedy when you see a young child losing his fucking head. That is what “Suicide by Star” was about. The name itself was gotten from Phil Spector – I remember once I was talking about Phil Spector and how someone was murdered in his house and someone said, “that was suicide by star”. That’s why we called it that. I just really liked the sound of it. Moving on to a different album entirely – Far From Refuge, “Beyond The Dying Light” is about my grandmother who was a very holy woman, a very religious person. She would go to church every morning and every Sunday without fail and on her deathbed – to see her lose her faith was absolutely soul destroying for me. Now I don’t believe in god, but to see her lose her faith and look me in the eyes and say “it’s all bullshit, I can’t believe I’m here. It’s like my life is only 5 minutes long and suddenly I’m here. I feel like I’m cheated, I want to start again”. For her to die with a broken heart – that’s what “Beyond The Dying Light” was all about. And just moving onto Self-Titled – “Snowfall”. It’s interesting because we were talking about what the original title for the song was – “Bridge End” – which was inspired by the people killing themselves in Wales. We were just looking at that and thinking, Jesus… So we changed it to “Snowfall” because we didn’t want the attention of us profiting from the misfortune of others. The whole song is essentially about people and depression, how low people can go. We are playing it today, so I thought it’s one I would bring up. “First Day of Sun” – that was a fantasy of me going on a holiday, when I never went on one. I don’t mean with your parents, but one that you would go on yourself. The idea of waking up on a beach and seeing the sun is a completely imaginary thing, but that was what that song was about. A song like “Post Mortem” was a fuck you to the post rock scene. It was like post rock in reverse. It starts off heavy and ends up light. That was just to take a melody like Explosions in the Sky would do and then completely reverse the structure. It was just to try and find a melody that sounds emotive but didn’t actually mean an awful lot, but it was just post rock in reverse. The intent behind it was a real anger towards post rock. But then “Zodiac” was just kind of experimenting with rhythms, and having something that was kind of cynical and upbeat, but not really, a bit like “Fireflies” in that way. “The Last March” was again about a relationship that failed, that I thought was going to work out, and then I realised it was just bullshit and it pushed me right back to where I was with “Fragile”. Helios/Erebus – last one because I could go on forever with this stuff – but “Sea of Trees” again is about the Japanese forest where people kill themselves. “Pink Powder” is just about how humanity uses animals to further its technology and medicine. So it was kind of a protest of our total disgraceful behaviour towards animals in general.
E&D: Do you consider yourself – if not an activist, then are animal rights important to you?
Torsten: It’s certainly important. I wouldn’t call myself an activist.
E&D: Are you a vegan, or vegetarian, or anything?
Torsten: We went through those phases, but no. We had Jamie who was a vegan. The last one I would mention is “Feeling of Solace”, I remember watching this movie “Melancholia” where two planets, like a mirror planet collided. It was basically a different dimension of earth that ended up colliding with each other. The whole scene of the planets hitting each other inspired me to write this kind of soundtrack to the end of Earth. I could go on and on but yeah, there’s definitely meaning behind every song.
E&D: I guess one of the last questions I want to ask you guys – you know post rock is a small genre, but I feel that as far as this scene goes you guys have made it as much as it is possible to make it. Is there anything left that you really want to achieve, like somewhere you want to play? What do you see as your ideal future for the band?
Torsten: We’ve never been exposed to the same degree as Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky. That’s never happened because we’ve never been in the position to do so. Everything we’ve ever done has been self released and self funded. We’ve been talking about this – do we sign a record deal now or is it an utterly stupid thing to do? But we have been approached by Napalm Records. We decided to do a deal with them to see if that could get us a larger audience, because with certain bands like Sigur Rós and Explosions in the Sky, and even Mogwai, they transcend the scene, they’re bigger than the genre. So it would be nice if we could introduce our music to a larger audience, beyond post rock. That would be one of our objectives, something that we are not able to do without a label. We just don’t have the resources and the contacts to do that. We would like to play festivals where we’re not near the top of the bill, but the bottom of the bill and working our way up the next bill. Whether its Rock am Ring or Sonosphere. We would like to be able to play a few of those shows and just work ourselves up the ladder. I think we bring a lot of experience and knowledge. I think we could do well at that level, so that’s something we would like to do. But I would be happy if this could just stay where it is, and we could do this for a little bit longer. Keep challenging, keep pushing ourselves and try to write music that is as meaningful as possible – that’s what I’d like to achieve, because music to me is an expression, it’s an art form where I really like to express myself. I hope people will like what we’re going to put out next, but I do understand that when you have mass exposure, you can go backwards very quickly, just because you are getting a lot of attention. We noticed that when we do low publicity on the record, we do a lot better with the critics. But when you’re throwing it at the press, you’re throwing it everywhere, suddenly you’re going to get a lot more of everything, including bad stuff. So we’re really taking our time with this next record, to make sure that we put out the best thing that we can, that everything has meaning and hasn’t just been tossed out, so I don’t have any regrets that I didn’t work hard enough. That’s mostly what we want to do.
E&D: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me, have a great rest of the festival.