Collaboration albums get a bad rap because most are so contrived ‚Äď marketing-driven gimmicks propped up by an array of the day‚Äôs trendiest artists. American Sunshine, Ashtar Command‚Äôs debut album, breaks the mold. Yes, it‚Äôs a joint effort. And it does feature a remarkable group of guest artists. But that‚Äôs where the similarities end. American Sunshine evolved organically, a labor of love from Chris Holmes and Brian Liesegang, who never lost sight of the fact that a collaboration album must equal more than the sum of its parts in order to be artistically compelling. Mission accomplished.
The two met while attending the University of Chicago, where Chris hosted a UFO-themed radio show that he describes as an ‚Äúacademic Art Bell meets Ira Glass‚Äô ‚ÄėThis American Life.‚Äô‚ÄĚ Which is to say that it was an objective platform for an exchange of ideas focused on interesting people‚ÄĒwith a story to tell. Guests ranged from Bigfoot hunters to members of Heaven‚Äôs Gate to Communion author Whitley Strieber. Like the radio show that inspired it, Ashtar Command doesn‚Äôt simplify, justify or explain, preferring to revel in the process of open-minded exploration. There is no conspiracy.
Degrees in hand, Holmes and Liesegang took separate paths. Chris released Dan Loves Patti under his Yum Yum moniker, an album that Rolling Stone said ‚Äúmore than holds it own in comparison with influences as the Beatles, and Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds.‚ÄĚ He has since toured and recorded with The Smashing Pumpkins and Felix da Housecat, co-produced tracks for P. Diddy, worked on Billy Corgan‚Äôs solo album and written with Rachael Yamagata and Mandy Moore. Also a celebrated DJ, Holmes appeared on URB‚Äôs ‚ÄúNext 100‚ÄĚ list and was handpicked by Sir Paul McCartney to open for him at the 2009 Coachella Music & Arts Festival.
Brian joined Nine Inch Nails, working on the multi-Platinum, GRAMMY¬ģ-winning albums Broken and The Downward Spiral. He subsequently co-founded the two-man band Filter with Richard Patrick. With hit singles like ‚ÄúHey Man, Nice Shot‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúJurrassitol,‚ÄĚ Filter sold millions of albums, toured with The Smashing Pumpkins, Ozzie Osbourne, Korn and others and contributed to Platinum soundtracks for ‚ÄúThe X-Files,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúSpawn‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúThe Cable Guy.‚ÄĚ Brian went on to produce, write and perform on Veruca Salt’s Resolver and was recruited by Billy Corgan for his Future Embrace album and world tour.
Having met with success in their individual careers, Holmes and Liesegang resumed their collaboration. Several Ashtar Command songs were tapped for television (‚ÄúThe OC,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúUgly Betty‚ÄĚ), film (including tracks featuring Sinead O‚ÄôConnor and Louse Post for ‚ÄúThe Avengers‚ÄĚ soundtrack) and ad campaigns for Nissan and Microsoft. Proceeds from licensing gave the pair the freedom to make American Sunshine on their own terms. A B-side from the sessions, ‚ÄúHolding Out For Love,‚ÄĚ has already been used by ‚ÄúGrey‚Äôs Anatomy.‚ÄĚ
American Sunshine was co-produced by Chris and Brian, who also did the programming, played many of the instruments and sang on the record. Along the way, they enlisted musicians that seemed to suit the individual songs ‚Äď people they had worked with or been friends with for years.
They were joined by guest vocalists Joshua Radin (whose debut album was produced by Holmes) on ‚ÄúMark IV,‚ÄĚ Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros (‚ÄúSave Me‚ÄĚ), Har Mar Superstar (‚ÄúThat‚Äôs How It Is‚ÄĚ) and Rachel Yamagata (‚ÄúBlister of the Spotlight‚ÄĚ). The dreamy ‚ÄúRosa,‚ÄĚ already in heavy rotation at Los Angeles‚Äô KCRW, is one of two tracks featuring Priscilla Ahn, while Z Berg‚Äôs crystal clear vocals provide a stunning counterpoint to the throbbing groove on ‚ÄúGravity.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúIt is a great time to be an independent artist,‚ÄĚ says Holmes. ‚ÄúTen years ago, we couldn‚Äôt have released this record because every single one of these artists would have been signed to a major label and they would have had clauses in the contract that would have made it impossible.‚ÄĚ
Other guest artists include: Matt Walker (Filter, The Smashing Pumpkins) on drums, Solomon Walker (Morrissey) on bass, Mike Garson (David Bowie) playing piano, drummer Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.), Oliver Kraus (Beth Orton) on cello, Stewart Cole (Edward Sharpe) on horns and guitarists Stephen Fitzpatrick (Veruca Salt) and Johnny Radtke (Kill Hannah).
Working in identical studios in Los Angeles and Chicago respectively, Chris and Brian sent songs back and forth, tweaking them until fleeting ideas developed into full-fledged songs.
‚ÄúBetween the two of us, there‚Äôs this balance of sunshine and darkness,‚ÄĚ observes Holmes. That balance plays out perfectly in the infectious, anthemic ‚Äú(Walking On) Landmines,‚ÄĚ where the refrain of the title is countered by the notion that ‚Äúit‚Äôs the moments in between.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWe both have very similar taste in our aesthetics for how things should sound and we‚Äôre able to bring out these elements in our process,‚ÄĚ he continues. Adds Brian: ‚ÄĚI think we are both writing about transcendence, although we sometimes follow different paths to get there.‚ÄĚ
American Sunshine is an expansive and remarkably coherent album that refuses to be reduced to a single genre. Sure, there are some reference points. Nick Drake comes to mind, as do the Chemical Brothers. Which is to say there are songs of exquisite beauty and ones that really rock.
Sci-fi fans may recall the concept of ‚ÄúAshtar Command‚ÄĚ that emerged in the 1950‚Äôs ‚Äď an intergalactic U.N. with the mission of assisting the human race in a time of crisis. Think evolution by enlightenment, which makes the name a fitting metaphor for the band and what they‚Äôre trying to accomplish. No, they‚Äôre not at war against the Greys or Reptoids ‚Äď but they are on a mission to battle the rampant artifice of the music industry. Consider American Sunshine a declaration of Ashtar Command‚Äôs arrival.