The Asteroid #4

by Keith Henderson

From Aural Innovations #5 (January 1999)

As luck would have it, the day after I had already planned to head north to Michigan to meet up with the Walk on Water guys, Philadelphia's Asteroid #4 was scheduled to arrive in Detroit for a day/night doubleheader. I couldn't resist the opportunity to check out these up 'n' coming space merchants, though because it was a Sunday, I was only able to hang around for the afternoon in-store performance at Neptune Records in suburban Royal Oak. Later that evening, they were to perform at a brand new downtown club, the brainchild of the Fxa guys I hear.

The Neptune event was a low-key affair, a few dozen folks strolling in and out of the store on a lazy Sunday afternoon in October - the sliding, gliding colorful tones emanating from A#4's amps drifting out through the open door into the unusually balmy autumn air. After the eventful and *very* late night I'd spent in East Lansing, this was the sort of ease-down I was primed for. The band set up their gear in the cramped surroundings, and noodled around a bit before gradually working into more structured tunes around 3 pm. The source of the tunes was their fine full-length debut, Introducing...the Asteroid #4 released this past year (1998) on their own Lounge Records label (lounge #011). You can take one look at the 'oil blot' design on the album cover, or the mop-top haircuts, sideburns, and paisley shirts they sported on that Sunday afternoon, and think, "Oh man, I bet these guys hear no end to the 'retro' label." Though, as we will see in the interview below, that doesn't seem to be the case. I hope that's because music critics on the eastern seaboard recognize the modern qualities to the band's music. My suspicion is, though, that the Neanderthal mainstream writers that would relentlessly tag A#4 as "stuck in the 60's," simply haven't been bothered to take notice of a spacerock band who's just released their debut. With luck, these Philly gents might just soar on past the local scene and find international success.

After only a single spin of Introducing... I was immediately impressed with the variety of styles offered - old, new, borrowed, and blue. Following an ambient Cluster-style opening, we're treated to a number of pleasant laid-back ditties, at various times sounding shimmery, droney, and/or dreamy. One might be urged to compare "No More Vitamins" and "Underbelly of a Mushroom" to various Pink Floyd tracks (in particular, "On the Run" and "Set the Controls"), though the guitar sounds are distinctly modern, not really Gilmour-style at all. "What a Sorry Way to Go" finishes off Side A (how quaint!), a hippy-dippy type of tune (read Donovan) with an Eastern flavor, complete with what sounds like a hurdy-gurdy. Despite how that might seem, it sounds entirely fresh - inexplicable really.

The second half of the album (Side B) is where things really get exciting - A#4 ups the energy level, and also the space! While some bands may be content to wallow away in their subtle textural experimentation at the expense of any excitement, here we have a modern dream-drone band that isn't afraid to drop the gloves and turn the amps up once in a while. On "Egyptians & Druids," the layers of blanga bass, cosmic gliss guitar, and atmospherics build gradually towards a cosmic finale. Then, the calm before the storm arrives in the form of "Visitation Rights," which begins with a laid-back and groovy bass line, and then is topped off with quiescent gliss-guitar - wonderfully cosmic, man! Finally, we reach the climax of the album with "Kate and the King," which starts out as a simple vocal tune, but then goes through a complete metamorphosis into an extended, heavy space-jam, complete with flute soloing by guest Hugh Luck - brilliant! The album wraps up with a taste of true nostalgia in the form of the Beatle-esque "Honey Bee," with the obligatory sitar - just a bit of fun.

I see Asteroid #4 as a manifestation of the entire 'space-time continuum,' with characteristics of the 70's (Pink Floyd), the 80's (Ozric Tentacles), and the 90's (early Verve) all represented. In a way, I think most modern music in any era can be related back to what has come before, so it follows that we truly are receiving something truly novel and progressive here. And as this is only their debut, we should expect to see more innovations arriving in the future from the chunk of cosmic debris known as the Asteroid #4.

The members of Asteroid #4 (Scott Vitorelli (guitars, vocals), Eric Harmes (guitars, sitar, keys), Gregg Weiss (bass), and Bill Reim (drums)) are obviously deeply committed to their musical endeavors, having taken the time out of their personal lives to hand-build their own home studio. This do-it-yourself effort has continued in that they simultaneously began their own indie label (Lounge Records) for releasing both their own work, as well as other similar artists in the Philly area. Along with other regional labels like Matador/Siltbreeze (offering Bardo Pond, Ashtabula, etc.), psychedelic music in the City of Brotherly Love looks to be catching on. So let's now hear from the Lounge Records main man himself, Gregg Weiss. He was kind enough to take the time to answer my questions, exercising the convenience of electronic mail.

AI: Tell me a little history about the band...I know you had a couple singles out before the full-length debut 'Introducing...' When did the band first get rolling, so to speak?

Gregg Weiss (GW): January of '95 was the first single, "CIA took my dog away" b/w "Mellow Beach." This was the first single for A#4, and laid the foundation for the label. At the time, the label was just created to release the first single and distribute it ourselves on our own terms. We've since sold out of the first pressing, and pressed up another run.

AI: What was the main impetus for starting up the Lounge Records label...was it mainly for creating a way to release your own music without having to pander to established labels, or were you looking more towards giving other artists an outlet?

GW: See above answer, but yes you are correct. After we released the first single and started to get deeper into the Philly music scene, met other bands, played out alot, we started seeing that there was a need for someone to help out and get more music from Philly released. (Releases to follow were lounge 002...lenola/A#4 split 7" and lounge 003...Slumber 7", both of which are sold out and out of print now.) This all lead up to the first "Sounds from the Philadelphia Low Orbit Lounge" compilation CD.

AI: What other artists have you got currently signed up with Lounge? And are you currently looking to widen the scope of the label, or are you content with staying 'small'?

GW: I don't particularly "sign" an artist per say like a major would do, but if a band wants to do a record or whatever with me, they do it. I don't neccessarily hold them to any type of long term deal. Currently we've got 13 releases in about 3 years, and I also have a full-time 40 hr/wk job. Hopefully in the near future I'll be able to run Lounge full time. So far, other bands I've put stuff out for: Skiptracer (from Denton, TX), Slumber, Three 4 Tens, Philadelphia compilation vol.1 (vol.2 slated for early '99 release), Marvy Darling, Bent Leg Fatima, Fxa/A#4 split (out in 99), and Intro to India.

AI: I think most of our readers are probably familiar with Bardo Pond, but is there a larger underground scene in the space rock/psychedelia vein happening in Philadelphia that we should all know about?

GW: Most definitely. This will all be known to the rest of the world when the new "Sounds from Philadelphia vol.2 " comes out. All of the bands recorded tracks at our studio, Deep Space Recording Company. Presently only two bands are left to record, and we hope to have the CD comp out in early '99. Among the bands are, A#4, Aspera Ad Astra (see review this issue) ,

Azusa Plane, Three 4 Tens, Transient Waves, Lenola, and many more. Most people associate the Philly scene with Bardo, but honestly, they are just one of the bands here that happened to get snached up by a larger entity and benefitted by the exposure. There are lots of other bands in Philly, unfortunately no knows about them. However, that's what I'm trying to change with Lounge and the new compilation.

AI: You recently did a mini-tour of the northeast/midwest US to support 'Introducing...', including a performance at the CMJ Music Festival showcase in New York City. How did that go? And do you have any plans to head out to other parts of the country/world in the near future?

GW: It went very well. We did a handfull of shows opening for the Lilys. So well that Kurt Heasly is coming down to Deep Space over Thanksgiving to produce a few tracks for our new album that will be out next year on AudioInformationPhenomena/Lounge Records. After our next album is out, we will most likely do a bigger tour, head out west to California and hopefully over to Europe. This past tour, Chicago was the furthest we went west.

AI: I suppose you must hear some criticism from those who feel that A#4 and your label mates are simply too 'retro' to be worth getting all that excited about. How do you respond to those opinions?

GW: Not really, that's the first I've ever heard! I don't think we are retro anyway, we've got a very 90's feel to our music (i.e., effects with guitars and vocals, and samples), mixed in with a 60's vibe, i.e., sitar, flute, acoustic tracks, and of course the trippy cover art.

AI: To my ears, A#4 music has quite a lot of different sounds. I suppose the Pink Floyd comparison is inevitable, but then you've also got some obvious eastern influences, some truly ambient tracks, a fair amount of 'drone guitar,' and the flute on "Kate and the King" is a nice touch. Do all the band members each bring different sounds to the table, or does this amalgam just come naturally?

GW: Usually we all bring different things to the table. Most of the tracks on the CD were songs we have been playing out for almost 2 years (not by choice), reason being we had to take a year off and build the studio we all now call home. We built all the walls, dry wall, framing out studs, painting, putting in windows and doors. It was a huge undertaking, and looking back we really didn't know what we were getting ourselves into, and thought it would take no more than three months to complete. Little did we know it took about a year 'till we could finally move all the equipment in and actually start recording. Keep in mind the four (of us) knew nothing about construction, so it was a trial and error kind of procedure. We all worked full time jobs, so building was limited to nights and weekends.

AI: What sort of new music has gotten you excited lately?

GW: The Minders, Lilys new stuff (only heard it live so far), Nick Drake, the new Mojave3 is great. To be honest, I don't really "buy" alot of new music, but I hear alot of it from friends. The majority of the money I spend on music, goes to places like getting records and/or CDs pressed, paying engineers, and mailing out shit. Running a label is like a bad addiction. If you keep it going, it will eventually run you dry. It's worth it though.

AI: My feeling is that the 90's has brought a flood of new bands in psychedelic music, and many of the most innovative groups seem to be here in the States for the first time in 25 years. Would you agree with that, and do you think it could regain the popularity it once had?

GW: Yes, I agree with that statement. Hopefully some other people will start to notice, especially what's going on here in Philadelphia. It seems like now, we're back to the 80's in respect to all the one-hit wonders that are out there in commercial radio land. It's like we're pre-Nirvana grunge all over again, and the masses are looking for a new "thing" to market. I'd like to see some of these great psych bands get some bigger exposure and recognition, but that would probably ruin it for the rest of us.

AI: Anything else you'd like to chime in about? Here's your chance to speak your mind.

GW: Just that everyone should keep their eye on Philly, big things are a-happenin'.

You can visit Asteroid #4 at the Lounge Records home page.

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