A collaborative project between two UK musicians and a producer initially put in touch by an acclaimed singer-songwriter has led to a sparkling new LP recorded with a California-based singer, one spending plenty of time on my sound system at present.
I knew nothing about Simon and the Astronauts until a passing mention from former frontman of The Bible turned acclaimed solo artist and master songwriter Boo Hewerdine in a WriteWyattUK interview last April.
After that was published online, Simon Wells got in touch, and he recently tracked me down afresh to enthuse – quite rightly – about his band’s latest record, the neatly-crafted Simon and the Astronauts, featuring Rachel Haden.
It was Boo who originally put Simon in touch with his son, fellow songwriter Ben Hewerdine, and producer/musician Chris Pepper, the resultant trio initially more of a songwriting/recording collective than a proper band. But maybe that’s changed with the arrival of Los Angeles-based Rachel Haden.
The original threepiece had already involved various guest collaborators, their 2019 debut EP The Entertainment Suite quickly followed by a first self-titled album that year, a record also spawning viral TikTok hit ‘I’m Just A Cat’.
But as they set about recording their second full-length album, they felt they were missing something crucial, and after some soul-searching contacted Rachel with what they thought was a shot-in-the-dark request to a musician and singer they all hugely admired.
A founding member of That Dog and The Haden Triplets, and a respected solo artist – the daughter of jazz legend Charlie Haden – who’d also worked with Jimmy Eat World, Weezer, Anais Mitchell and Todd Rundgren, among others, reacted positively to their pitch, the lads subsequently setting about writing new songs with Rachel in mind.
Working remotely between Chris’ studio in Cambridge and Rachel in LA, they started out on what became a winning collection of 12 new songs, ambitious and sonically-varied, the resultant LP effortlessly shifting from the classic alt-rock of opening track ‘I Have A Name’ via the pop charm of tracks like ‘The Kiss That Landed’ and the crushing guitars and cinematic atmospherics of ‘10 League Boots’, towards under-stated, pensive closing number, ‘Lost In London’, a Simon Wells co-write with Boo Hewerdine.
The new record also involves Swedish multi-instrumentalist Gustaf Ljunggren, input from LA’s Sea Grass Studios and Spirit Kid Sound, and the blessing of Rivers Cuomo for an interpolation of Weezer’s ‘Surf Wax America’.
And as the grounded but ambitious Astronauts put it, ‘The album is a tribute to the possibilities of the global sharing of ideas, each track bouncing between countries and continents, heading to its next destination richer and more developed. Simon and The Astronauts is an unlikely cast of characters hailing from a wide variety of musical backgrounds and traditions – and all the better for it.’
There’s also the possibility of an imminent tour, but for now the emphasis is on the finished vinyl product that recently arrived at their Airlock imprint label office, much to Simon’s pride when we spoke.
As he put it on the accompanying press release, ‘The album has always been a pleasure for me. They can be a mystery that can start with the name of the band, a track on the radio or just the artwork. Dark Side of the Moon is an obvious example for me. Or Kid A, or Universal Human by Weezer. For this recording I wanted to capture the album mystery and for everyone involved to be part of the ride.
“It had to be about playing side A and turning the vinyl to hear the rest of the album and finish the journey / story. This all begins with the songwriting process, through to the mixing and mastering. People always make the difference and the joy of hearing Rachel sing with such emotion made the songs complete.”
While the Astronauts see their spiritual home – at least the grounded version – as Cambridge, it’s clear from talking to Simon, that there’s a London accent there. So where are his roots?
“Ah mate, it’d take me 20 odd years to tell you that! I was born in Somerset, ended up in London, I’ve been here 20-odd years, but I lived in Tokyo for three years, I’ve lived all over the Midlands, and my family originally are from Matlock and Yorkshire.”
So there you hasve it. And whereabouts in London are you now?
“Enfield, North London.”
How did Ben (who also goes out under the name The Entertainment) and dad, Boo, reach your orbit (so to speak)?
“I met Boo in a pub, and we just talked about music and songwriting. He said, ‘I’ve got a weekend of songwriting, come along’.
“For me, he’s one of the best singer-songwriters in the country. And over the years, I’ve got to know him, being on residential weeks with him and people like Darden Smith. And through all that, I met Ben one weekend. Boo said, ‘Let’s try and do one song together, see if it works out’. We met Chris Pepper, this recording engineer in Cambridge, Boo suggesting we just do one song at a time, as live as possible. We’d literally write something in the morning, then record it in the afternoon.
“We didn’t really know if it would work out as a project. And Boo can do that, drive that along. Originally, that project was going to be called Jason and the Argonauts, but I thought I could put a spin on that. When they said, ‘Your name’s got to be on it,’ we became Simon and the Astronauts, because of my love for sci-fi and cartoons and comic books, taking that imagery. And the first album has a booklet where everyone’s got a job title, and what they do on the spaceship.”
Simon tells me this second album is actually the third set of recordings they’ve put together. But, I asked (trying to gauge how old he is, for one thing), was he too young to go back to The Bible (the band, that is, not the Good Book … that would make him really old)?
“I came to the Bible quite late. But I’ve been listening to music for a ridiculous amount of time.”
Turns out he’s 58, but they’re not the sort of band who put that information out there. In fact, even before I realised that I kind of expected it, seeing their promo videos so far. They’re quite happy to have Rachel out front, but I get the feeling the rest are more comfortable hiding behind fictional aliases, more Gorillaz-like – cartoon-led, if you like.
Maybe that’s not a bad comparison, with this a group very much about song-craft, first and foremost, capable of more commercial moments but with plenty of elements of leftfield pop. And while talking cartoon alter-egos, I also mentioned garage-rock outfit Michael & the Angelos, the Liverpool band with a link to Echo and the Bunnymen guitar hero Will Sergeant, who put their own Hanna Barbera style stories online.
“I like that sort of stuff. And there was that element of, ‘Do we remain anonymous?’. People have bugged us for press photos, and yet we’re more interested in the music and writing than anything else. That’s where the focus of everything we’ve done is, and we take a lot more time over that than anything else. I did look into doing some animation, looking at the videos for the last Gorillaz album. But God knows how much money they spend on those.”
One thing that’s changed in recent years is how bands have realised – with improving computer technology, and so on – they don’t all have to be in the same room to write and record, with several winning examples of acts with musicians in more than one country or region, getting together just for tours or studio time. And that remote working world took a huge step forward during the pandemic, with lockdowns and so on.
“It did, but the weird thing is that Rachel was actually meant to be coming over for the Cambridge Folk Festival, so we booked two weeks with her in the summer, to fit in with her European tour, to do all the vocals. We had it all lined up, all the tracks written by that stage. Then of course, no one could travel.
“I like being in the same room with people, but the balance of it all changed. Chris drove it in terms of producing the tracks, sending us mixes or ideas to build on. We then sent those tracks over to Los Angeles for Rachel to do the vocals, soon as she could get into a recording studio. There was a spell when Los Angeles was shut down, of course.”
I’m guessing you’ve properly met since, face to face.
“No! But we’ve talked about doing some dates this year. We’re trying to make it happen. The wild card is that Gustaf (Ljunggren) lives in Sweden, and I’ve been working with him now for two years, yet I’ve never met him! But if we toured, he would do the tour. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, and could fill in the gaps we need.”
There are a lot of layers on these records, the songwriting and musicianship never in doubt. And we cross a fair few genres. For instance, opening track ‘I Have a Name’ carries a heavy metal/ grunge feel as well as something more radio-friendly. Dare I say, even a bit of Bryan Adams’ ‘Run to You’ or Blue Oyster Cult.
Then we’re into ‘The Kiss That Landed’, with its winning ‘70s radio vibe, somewhere between Boo Hewerdine’s Swimming in Mercury period and something more likely to feature in the higher reaches of the mainstream charts, The Feeling springing to mind. Also, maybe someone can tell me why that repeated ‘my friend’ line reminds me of wondrous Irish outfit The Thrills. That’s a sure-fire pop hit for me … at least in the days when that meant something.
“Yeah, it’s so hard. We spoke to people about what should be the singles, and it’s really quite weird. We recorded about 20-odd tracks until Chris and me said, ‘We’ve got to put an end to this!’. Originally, we agreed to do 10 or 11 tracks. I came up with a list of 11, Chris came up with his own list of 11, and 10 of them were the same. We had one difference. That’s how we got the 12 tracks. Then we spent a lot of time sequencing.
“There are also these NASA recordings on there, a few mixed in there, such as on ‘The Kiss That Landed’ and at the end. As for that first track, for us it was like Nirvana, whereas ‘The Kiss That Landed’ is more like me doing a ‘50s or ‘60s Hollywood song for a film.”
Strangely enough, there was another influence I was trying to place, then I looked down the tracklist and saw song three – perhaps my LP highlight after repeated listens – was called ‘Squeeze’, as if you were reading my thoughts. And of course, there’s another link, Boo having worked closely with Chris Difford. In fact, I see some of his lyrical bite and song-craft in a few songs.
“Well, he’s the man in a lot of ways. A very clever writer. I think if someone asked me, I’d have to say Elvis Costello. The way he writes … But Chris Difford is fantastic, so thank you for the compliment! I don’t know if he’s a hero as such, but I really admire the way he writes.”
On ‘Squeeze’, there’s even a ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ Mellotron-like moment on the keys (be that down to Ben or Chris), albeit maybe more Dukes of Stratosphear psychedelia than Beatles.
“Ah, The Dukes of Stratosphear! That first album of theirs, I think it’s just incredible. Andy Partridge is a genius. I saw an interview with Steve Wilson recently, and he thought XTC were The Beatles of their generation. In their later work, I think that’s what they achieved. Their last three albums are just fantastic.”
With Costello, Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, Partridge and Colin Moulding, I get the feeling they could have written even more hits if they wanted to. But perhaps that pop world didn’t entice them at times. As for the Astronauts, with this LP, I hear key elements of you tapping into that crossover market. For instance, side two opener ‘Oxygen’ has an ELO thing going on, another space-influenced outfit.
We again come back to Boo, particularly on a record like Swimming in Mercury, hardly surprising considering that its title track tribute to David Bowie was co-written with Ben, mind.
“Yes, and I think that’s one of the better things Boo’s done in the last five to 10 years. The record Boo did with his band as a four-piece is my favourite recording of his, most probably, in that period. I went to see them play live three times, and that, potentially, is the basis of what our band would be if we toured. Chris Pepper was the drummer on that album and on that tour.”
I hear a little Kirsty MacColl in Rachel’s delivery on ‘All My Days’, while ‘Pay It Back’ is another song that deserves daytime national radio airplay (crossover folk meets Lightning Seeds, perhaps, its lyric inspired by Charlie Haden), before the crowdsurfing grungetronic surge of the mighty ’10 League Boots’ brings side one to a climax, the mighty ‘Oxygen’ and ‘Parallel World’ carrying on where we left off as we flip over.
For all its new wave charm, ‘Chess’ also has the air of a 21st century take on Janis Joplin’s take on ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, while the rousing, ultimately soaring ‘Athena’ is another epic hit in the making – the orchestration suggesting Kate Rusby should tackle this with a full brass band (perhaps that’s Simon’s Yorkshire roots coming through). I could so hear that bursting out of the radio to brighten your day, the clouds parting. Could even be a Christmas smash.
Thre’s still vinyl space though for the heartfelt ‘I Do’, Rachel between Sinead O’Connor and Delores O’Riordan. She at least deserves the O’ prefix. And then we’re away on ‘Lost in London’, its subtle piano accompaniment suggesting Bacharach and David meets McCartney, the Abbey Road imagery poignant, as is also the killer verse,
‘Now I am at Marble Arch, I know that they’ve all been here.
The Thin Duke, The Pirates, the Pistols, The Damned, Strummer, and Ray and Dave.’
It’s a hymn to better days, perhaps, neatly told, never over-egged, and while it’s over before you know it, maybe this record marks just the start of this working relationship. And seeing as Karen Carpenter comes to mind here, perhaps ‘it’s only just begun’. In short, they sound like a proper band rather than a trio hitched up with a guest vocalist. Rachel’s proved a great match. Whose idea was it to approach her?
“It was Chris’ idea. He’s a big Weezer fan and liked her vocal on one of their tracks. The weird thing is that I knew That Dog before. There’s a track on their first album about an imaginary friend, ‘She Looks at Me’. That was a song I remembered, the first time I heard her sing, having been aware of her dad. I thought that was very much a Beatles-y sort of thing. And because of all that, it just felt like a good fit.
“She did one vocal for us, on ‘Chess’, and we absolutely loved it. Then she did backing vocals for ‘The Kiss That Landed’, and we said, ‘Would you sing the lead on it?’ She did, and added some improvisation. All that stuff she sort of does naturally, and that’s very much what she brings.”
Maybe that’s where I’m getting the ‘70s radio feel. Rachel has the potential commercial appeal of someone like Rumer, giving that extra pop edge. That Karen Carpenter feel.
Incidentally, the LP is available on vinyl through a deal with an American label, and can also be snapped up digitally, while limited-edition CDs could be up for sale when the band play live.
And seeing as I mentioned The Beatles, Simon added that there are further nods to the Fabs with the LP artwork, one I missed until closer inspection, regarding not only Abbey Road but also ‘our interpretation of the Help sleeve, and A Hard Day’s Night‘. I’ll leave you to check that out for yourself on purchasing the finished product though.
But what happens next time around? Will that involve Rachel again? Have you thought that far ahead?
“We have, yeah. And in an ideal world, we’d all be in the same country, and we’d do maybe a week or two recording, then a week of rehearsal, then some shows. The idea would be to play most of this album, although ‘Athena’ would be really hard to play live, because it’s got so much orchestration. But we’d try and do that and some older stuff, and we’d cover some of Rachel’s earlier material, and Ben’s earlier material. We’ve enough between us to play for a couple of hours.”
For more about Simon and the Astronauts and how to get hold of the album on vinyl or digitally, head to their social media hang-outs on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And for a link back to my interview with Boo Hewerdine – and my first mention of the band – from April 2021, head here.
All design copyright Simply Marvellous Music, with illustrations by Chris Baldie.