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Interview with Combat Astronomy

Beginning in 1998 as a solo project by Minnesota-based bassist-guitarist James Huggett (also programming the drum-machine), in 2005 Combat Astronomy became a transatlantic collaboration between Huggett and the veteran of British free-Jazz, saxophonist Martin Archer. They realized the all-instrumental The Dematerialized Passenger with the help of basson player Mike Beck and flutist Charlie Collins, straddling the border between industrial, heavy-metal and jazz music. Caveman Shoestore's vocalist Elaine DiFalco joined the band in 2008 for the album Dreams No Longer Hesitate.
Difficult to define, the music of Combat Astronomy reflects mostly James' influences, thus ranging from space/krautrock (Hawkwind, Can and Amon Duul), classic rock through to French zheul (Magma, Dun, Zao/Seffer), avant metal/doom rock (Sonic Youth, Gorguts, Meshuggah), space jazz (Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra).
Eighteen months after the impressive Kundalini Apocalipse, now they issues, always on the James’ label Zond, the double album Time Distort Nine, an epic and monumental (nearly 2 hours) journey that for the first time present a human drummer, Peter Fairclough, together with Huggett and Archer.
Here we have the opportunity to have a talk with James Huggett, deus ex machina of the combo.

Hi James, I’m very happy to have the opportunity to talk with you, since your last album, 'Kundalini Apocalypse', was one of my favorites of last year. I described your music as a sort of a meeting between Godflesh and John Zorn playing Mingus music. When I heard that you where rehearsing with a “real” percussionist I was very excited, and I must say that all my expectations have not been disappointed. Would you spend some words on the personnel playing on the album, your long-time companion Martin Archer, Peter Fairclough and also vocalists Julie Archer and Kelli Denoyer?

James: Julie is Martin's wife (also a member of Martins Juxtavoices choir). Kelli is my step daughter, I've done some recording sessions with her where she reads poetry fragments, then I go over the materials and pick out certain bits to use as a sort of 'instrumental voice'.

Pete Fairclough has been involved with several of Martins other bands. He asked a couple of times if he could become involved in Combat Astronomy. Martin has a good sense of what personnel would work well together, so I said yes. Pete is a excellent drummer and a professional musician/music teacher as well so I'm lucky to have him on board, I'm very happy with results so far. In fact, Combat Astronomy is more and more resembling a traditional band nowadays. Martin and Pete have more of an improv/jazz background/focus, whereas I'm a sort of industrial noise/metal nut case at heart so it's an interesting combination.

I approached Martin on a hunch in maybe circa 2003 as I wanted to expand the project from just being me. We've developed a very effective, perhaps unusual, working relationship (we don't sit down and 'work on songs' together for instance). He acts as band leader in Sheffield and pulls in and organizes other musicians for each album as needed. He's a very talented composer, multi-instrumentalist and has many projects on the go. I'm a sort of disembodied Central Brain "deux et machina" as you nicely put it that lives in exile in its bunker in the arctic wastelands of the upper midwest that he does seem to enjoy working with. I think we've both affected each other over the years... maybe I've injected a bit more rawk into Martins world, while he has definitely injected a good deal of slightly mischievous creative energy into my compositional/recording approach which can be a bit dour and obsessive.

Can you tell us something about the creative process and the recording sessions? Did you all write and recorded separately your parts by your own?

The 'normal' approach for previous albums has been for me to come with demo tracks for Martin: typically with drums and bass, maybe keyboards/guitars and some textures. Then Martin composes/records his parts at his studio, enlisting the help of any of his wide circle of musicians he works with in Sheffield. Once I get all the sections back, I edit and mix into complete tracks. As I do this, some sort of album flow hopefully emerges, and we may do further swapping of audio files to develop the songs.

'Time Distort Nine' is a departure from this, as with Pete on board we wanted a good drum sound so we did a couple of weekends recording at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield over the course of a year. As well as tracking drum parts for existing compositions, we captured a lot of improvisation pieces. An early big challenge was that for some of the 'Time Distort Nine' songs, not all of Pete's parts worked very well compared to some of the demo's. We didn't have the budget or time to go and re-record and so I was quite stressed for a while wondering what to do! There were some magical moments, but also sections that were limping a bit - in part because perhaps I had become so used to my programmed drums. Eventually I just said to myself "why don't you mix the sampled drums with Pete's drums?". I turned the problem into a technical one and then I could solve it.

After this everything started slowly falling into place. I had to learn to mix live acoustic drums but after a few months I had that in my grasp as well. So, some of the tracks if you listen carefully you'll notice the different feel and tone in the drums. Prior to our first recording sessions I had written some simple 'one riff' trance rock songs and some of these appear on the second CD. This is the first album that Martin wrote a track for - 'Tenser Quadrant'. Normally the bass parts are written first, but for this song I wrote and recorded them after they had done their parts. This is was enjoyable for me as it was quite a challenge - Martin used some sort of mutation algorithm on the organ part which meant no single bar was the same. That's just the sort of slightly evil thing he does. Rather than writing the bass parts in a sequencer (which I often do), I invented them while playing along with their final demo. Quite a standard approach for many bass players, unusual for me!

The next album that is in the works features material entirely from our second recording session, and will be one hundred per cent acoustic drums.

Is there any concept behind the record? You define the record as “alchemic scorched rock jazz sludge for those cozy JG Ballard evenings”. Did Ballard in any way influence the music?

Ballard's writing like that of a lot of new-wave writers often deals with a kind of internal or psychological space. There is no particular concept to TD9, but a notion of movement and shifting through different states of consciousness, dimensions or psychological landscapes is very much present for me at leas: that's what I try create, a journey for the listener, ideally an ecstatic one. Perpetual transcendence but with no end point. The dense mixes, over-amped bass, droning textures and so forth have all been a conscious ways to get at this goal. TD9 offers a wider palette perhaps. For me actually I'd probably pick Philip J Dick as an influence over Ballard - in fact I think some of the CA album titles sound like Dick novels!

'Time Distort Nine' is very different form 'Kundalini Apocalipse'. This one is much more daring and demanding in terms of attention to the listener; it is less straight but much more faceted and deep. Any fear that people who loved 'Kundalini Apocalipse' could be in some way “scared” by 'Time Distort Nine'?
Every time I release an album I brace myself for people who won't like it compared to the last one. I've tried to stop reading reviews or looking for forum comments because if they are good - that's fine, but if not, it's not much help and can affect my morale. I do my very best then move on.

Each album is different, there is continual evolution and involution. The worst failure would be to become a tired cliche.

However, you specifically ask if people might be scared of TD9: this has not occurred to me before. I'd say: if it scares you, it is yourself scaring you. I think resistance can make people uncomfortable. If you accept something it can be easier to experience, at least with art. The question would be - what are you resisting?
I think for some people TD9 maybe *more* accessible than a lot of the other CA albums.

The cover picture reminded me to the first album of Hatfield and the North. I think that, in some ways and in some moments, your music could be defined a sort of free-sludge evolution of the Canterbury sound. I always thought that the voice of Robert Wyatt would be perfect for some of your compositions. What do you think about that?

Robert Wyatt - that's a very interesting idea! I'd be open to it if he is! :-)
A friend who heard TD9 recently also said it reminded him of very early 70s British jazz-prog. Although I've lived in the States for 17 years, the cultural and musical programming of the first 25 years of my life doesn't really fade much, so if CA have a particularly 'British' sound as a sort of mutant exploratory jazz/rock ensemble that would make sense. Different geographical areas do seem develop particular sounds/approaches.

The late sixties/early seventies were, judging by the recording artifacts at least, a very creative period for culture as a whole. Also fraught, with protests, violence in many countries. To me, 'progressive' music has a 'dangerous' exploratory aspect it and I would hope that Combat Astronomy can somehow keep evolving and keep leaning into its 'edge'.

Combat Astronomy is essentially a studio project. Don’t you miss the live performance? Have you ever exhibited live with Martin? Any plans of a live version of the Combat Astronomy project?

I have an ambiguous perspective on live performances: on the one hand, I have no innate desire to be a 'performer' or 'entertainer'. To put it bluntly, if I never stepped on a stage ever again in my life, I don't think it would bother me. I trained as a visual artist at college in London, and I think I approach music like a sculptor or painter: quite isolated and process oriented.

On the other hand, there are types of trans-personal experiences and energy which can emerge in ensembles and groups of people which are impossible while alone, and unusual compared to mundane daily life. Live music can be very powerful and potentially enter a sort of 'liminal' zone which is very interesting to me - this is part of the goal of the music in the first place.

At the moment geographical distances make rehearsal impractical. I was running a live version of the group in the Twin Cities area in about 2006-2008 but this sort of fizzled out due to attrition.

Transferring Combat Astronomy to a live performance experience that am I happy with is difficult and hard work. It would be easier to form a new band from scratch and write material specifically for performance. The first and last time I played with Martin was at the Rock In Opposition festival in 2009. The gig was a mixture of success/failure and I was basically burnt out on the whole thing afterwards. The most enjoyable shows I've played have been in basement parties... people are intoxicated, having fun and start dancing and responding naturally to the music while they stand right in front of me. CA can be very groovy and kind of sexy I think... which is why it seems incongruous when an audience is standing still or sat in their chairs. It should be very physical, intimate. Peak moments for me are when the cold shiver shoots down the spine - but all the rehearsal, travel, waiting, hauling equipment round and associated costs - to have that shiver - it's lot of work for something that basically doesn't pay. So...more live studio recordings? Yes. Live shows? Maybe :-). It's worth remembering the Beatles most acclaimed albums were made when they were a studio only band.

What are you listening to at the moment? Is there any underground band/musician you would like to recommend to the Pit of the Damned readers?

I cannot recommend Zebulon Pike highly enough. They are local to the Twin Cities, Minnesota and are world class instrumental avant garde metal. Really brilliant top class stuff. Excellent live. They have a new album out called "Nostalgia for The Unreal".

Also, Noxagt, Scandinavia bass drive trance/noise rock have a new album called 'Brutage' out which I am enjoying a lot. They were on hiatus for a quite a few years I think. The bassist plays in Ultralyd.

And now, in the end, a simple (it is never simple, I know) “desert Island list”: three books, three records and three movies you can’t live without.

Desert island discs:

Well, I'm going to take some things I would like to read/watch but haven't had the time to complete yet.

- The Red Book, Carl Jung
- Mille Plateau, Deleuze & Guattari
- Bubbles trilogy (when its finished), Sloterdijk

- Solaris, Tarkovsky
- The Directors Cut of David Lynchs Dune which has never been released but somehow David gives me his 5 hour version.
- Heimat, Reitz. Well, it's 15 hours long, perfect for a desert island :-)

Can - Future Days
Coil - Time Machines
Eliane Radigue - Adnos 1-3
The latter 2 I would use for meditation.

Thanks for asking me to be interviewed its been fun and I've learnt a thing or two while doing this!

(Mauro Catena for The Pit of the Damned)