Astra – Richard Vaughan (Vocals/Guitar)

In 2009, Astra released The Weirding, an excellent progressive rock debut with four songs over ten minutes and plenty of jam-heavy instrumental sections. It felt improvised, like five musicians in a small space, with a tape recorder set on record. The band decided with their second album to hold back and focus on precision and making the whole more important than the individual parts. Restraining their lust for minutes of guitar and keyboard solos did Astra good on The Black Chord. It?s much easier to digest, while keeping the band?s spacey jam style and ability to make an eight-minute instrumental song fly by. I had a chat with vocalist/guitarist Richard Vaughan about The Black Chord and trying to build a younger audience.

Dan Marsicano: It?s been about three years since the band?s first album, The Weirding, came out. What did the band take away from the writing and recording of that album that helped in formulating the songs that appear on The Black Chord?

Richard Vaughan: The Weirding was written before Brian (Ellis), our lead guitarist, was in the band. Conor (Riley, keyboardist) and myself wrote most of the vocal songs. I would write my songs and he would write his songs, and then we would bring them to the practice space. We would show them to everybody, they would put their input in, and we would finish them up. For The Black Chord, we did more of a collaborative writing process in the studio. The Weirding was a little bit more loose, as far as the writing went. There was more improv parts in-between the vocal part, with the more spacey guitar solos and exploring that way. For The Black Chord, we focused more and didn?t do as much veering off into outer space and exploring these sort of solo experiments. We did more of a focused songwriting to the point on this album.

Dan Marsicano: Do you think there was more of a focus to the songwriting because the writing process was more collaborative than it was on The Weirding?

Richard Vaughan: Yeah. Brian really helped a lot with the writing process this time, because he always comes up with all kinds of different riffs and ideas. We had so many of those lying around and we were trying to piece them all into a song, especially on the title track of The Black Chord. That was the most collaborative song on the album, because there were so many different parts that we had already been playing in different formations at live shows. We finally pieced them all together to form ?The Black Chord? after I came up with the lyrics and the vocal melody.

Dan Marsicano: Did you find that during the writing process for this album, some of the improv that was on The Weirding seeped into this? Was keeping things focused an easy task for the band?

Richard Vaughan: I think Brian misses some of that stuff, because he really enjoyed doing that on The Weirding. They?re still sort of there, but I guess they?re a little bit more written out, all the different solo bits. On The Weirding, I think we came up with a lot of that stuff on the spot during the recording process. The difference is for this one, most of it was pre-written before we went into the recording studio.

Dan Marsicano: Do you think these songs will work better live than the ones on The Weirding, because there is more room to experiment and veer off?

Richard Vaughan: It?s hard to say. We?ve only played them out a few times. It?s just different. We still enjoy the improv bits, but it?s hard to say on that one. They?ve been working well so far. I?m not sure if they are going to work any better or worse than the songs that were on The Weirding in a live setting.

Dan Marsicano: Do you see these songs as having the potential to be stretched out in a live setting?

Richard Vaughan: Oh yeah, definitely. That?s what we?re trying to work on now. We?re trying to make them slightly different than the versions on the record. We want to extend different parts and have something a little bit more fresh for the people that might listen to the record a lot and then come to see us live. They can expect to hear something that they may not have heard on the recorded version.

Dan Marsicano: What?s the one thing that you think people who enjoyed the first album will be surprised about with The Black Chord?

Richard Vaughan: The title track has many different parts to it. The Weirding, all that stuff, there wasn?t a lot of different parts put together…it was to an extent, but we really sort of pushed the envelope with the title track on many different bits moving into each other, and how the beginning of the song is the ending of the song slowed down. That?s where the lyrics are and the vocal melody for the verse. There?s little bits like that where you may not notice at first, but after repeated listens, you?ll hear those connections where the song is connected from beginning to end. You always hear something new, hopefully, when you listen to the album.

Dan Marsicano: When you were putting the parts together for the title track, did you find that each part came together simultaneously or did you have to fit the parts together to make it one coherent piece of music?

Richard Vaughan: A lot of the stuff was already lying around that we didn?t know what to do with. We just know we liked that certain part a lot and said we wanted to keep that and work that into something. It got to a point where we had most of them pieced together, but it was still an instrumental song. We were playing that version out live. After deciding we wanted to make that into an epic piece with vocals and a chorus, I sat down and I tried to figure out the verse melody and the chorus and write the lyrics. Like I said earlier, I took the ending that Brian had came up with, this great riff, and I made that into the verse and slowed it down and slightly changed it and came up with a vocal melody. From there, the other parts came. I came up with the chorus and we found a spot and pieced it together. It came together right at the very end, where we had most of it together and at the end, I put the vocal parts in there. It worked.

Dan Marsicano: For a band that relies on instrumental sections that are very lengthy at times, are vocals still an important of the song?s structures?

Richard Vaughan: Yeah, I think so. I don?t think we?d want to be a fully instrumental band, because I think we would get bored with it. The vocal melodies are just as important as any of the instrumental melodies. I think that helps add something for the listener, something within the lyrics can help them come up with a meaning to a song. When I write my lyrics, I try to write them more abstract, so they can have multiple meanings to different people. They can find their own meaning with it. I think that definitely adds to the music, the harmonies and the melodies.

Dan Marsicano: Is there anything as a musician that you think you?ve improved upon in the time since The Weirding?

Richard Vaughan: Maybe in the lyrics department. I?m having more fun writing lyrics. I always dreaded it…I still kind of dread writing lyrics, but once I finally come up with a subject, I start having more fun with it. I?m proud of the lyrics I wrote. I don?t know about the musicianship department. My keyboard skills are slightly improving, even though Conor is the lead keyboard player. He actually has improved tremendously since The Weirding. Right before The Weirding, he didn?t really play much keyboards. He was more of a guitarist, and in the few years that we have been Astra, he?s become a pretty amazing keyboard player.

Dan Marsicano: Speaking of lyrics, since you said you still sometimes dread doing them, do you have a process that you go through in order to write the lyrics? Do you have to be in a certain mindset?

Richard Vaughan: Yeah, I need to be alone. I need to be able to focus. I can?t have any distractions. Once I?m in that zone, whatever lyrics I write, they need to have the right syllables and rhythm to the music that doesn?t sound awkward. It?s a little bit more difficult to write that way for me. You can?t just use any word, even if the word you?re trying to say is what you should probably use. For me, if it doesn?t sound right in that situation, I don?t want to use it. I find it more difficult to write lyrics that way, but in the end, I?m more happy with the way they turn out.

Dan Marsicano: People have compared the band to those that came out during the progressive rock movement in the ?70s, the Pink Floyd?s, etc. Do you think Astra has the ability to also appeal to a modern audience that may not know about those bands?

Richard Vaughan: Yeah, I would like to think so. We write the music that sounds good in our heads and we don?t necessarily write to sound vintage or ?70s. That?s the music we love and that?s what we?re influenced by. Luckily, in the reviews I?ve read of The Weirding, we do get tagged with sounding retro or vintage, but most of the reviewers also say its not passe or too derivative; it still has a modern feel to it, with a vintage sound. I would think that people that necessarily aren?t that familiar with the older music would still like it.

Dan Marsicano: When you guys play live, especially in the last few years supporting The Weirding, did you find that the audience was geared towards younger, older, or a split between the two?

Richard Vaughan: I don?t know if it?s necessarily 50/50, but there?s a lot of older people that like us, the ones who grew up in that era listening to progressive rock in the early ?70s. There?s also a lot of younger people. At the Roadburn Festival in Holland, there was pretty much all younger people. The venue we played at was packed, so we were happy to see that. We also played the NEARfest (North East Art Rock Festival), which is a progressive rock festival, and that place had a lot of older people in the audience. It sort of runs the gamete at both ends. We?re lucky that way. We can appeal to a wide variety of ages.

Dan Marsicano: What?s your favorite part about being in a live setting?

Richard Vaughan: When it happens, the energy from the audience…when I look out and I see people with their eyes closed, nodding their heads, getting into it, and I see people mouthing the lyrics along with me, that makes me feel good. Sometimes we get people yelling and screaming during the louder parts of the song…you just feed off the energy.

Dan Marsicano: What has been your favorite live show to date with the band?

Richard Vaughan: Roadburn Festival was great. Like I said, it was a packed house and everyone seemed really into it. The one that might stand out more is the Burg Herzberg Festival in Germany. It was an outdoor festival. It looked like Woodstock over there. I actually did an interview with a German guy earlier and he told me that the Burg Hurzburg Festival is an older festival than Woodstock and has been going on before that. It was like a sea of people. We were the last band of the night, and we played right after Hawkwind. As far as you could see, there were people. It was probably two in the morning, and no one had gone away. It was amazing. There was a great lights show and smoke on stage; it was great. That would probably have to be my favorite show. The reaction afterwards when we were done was amazing.

Dan Marsicano: If you could tour with one band, past or present, who would it be and why?

Richard Vaughan: Maybe Yes or King Crimson. It?s hard to tell. Both of those bands look like a lot of fun, with all the footage I saw of their performances in the early ?70s. It looked amazing. King Crimson seems like they would be a little bit more fun to hang out with.

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