The Space Program
By Ken Lieck
JANUARY 20, 1998: As the days of 1997 drew to a chilly end, the scientists and engineers at NASA in Houston were finishing up work on a project to be realized early in 1998. Their goal was a feat that would appear to some as yet another great leap for mankind, and to others as the ultimate demonstration of America's obsession with "retro." Seems that for the first time in a quarter-century, NASA was cobbling together a rocket to launch to the moon. Unbeknownst to NASA, however, another crew -- one with a very different engineer -- was busily working less than a three-hour drive away, readying its own re-entry into the Space Age. Seems that ST-37 were cobbling together a new album in Austin, one scheduled to land in stores mere days away from the launching of the new moon rocket. In a sense, ST-37's third LP/CD (and fifth full-length studio effort) Spaceage was another giant step forward, and in a manner of speaking, a trip 25 years into the past.
"Space Rock," the general term for the type of music that ST-37 gets lumped in with, is difficult to define, and getting increasingly more so. For some, it refers mainly to the newly resurging field of ambient music originally pioneered by Brian Eno in the early Seventies. To others, "Space Rock" represents the type of music epitomized by Hawkwind (also in the early Seventies) wherein vast space operas were put to music that bears a distinctly futuristic sound -- no great stretch, considering that famed science fiction/fantasy writer Michael Moorcock was a member of that band for a time. It's this latter version of "Space Rock" to which ST-37 adheres.
"When hippie stuff was phasing out in the states," explains founding member and keyboardist Carlton Crutcher, "is when the Germans took it up, and carried the torch into the mid-Seventies."
"They just got a good three/four-year dose of LSD," adds Crutcher's brother Joel, also the band's guitarist. "Then they got enough cash to buy coke and started sucking."
Even as the Space Age deteriorated, fans of the genre never quite vanished, they just aged, although at a typical local ST-37 show, there's not a preponderance of balding Germans in the audience.
"Our basic fan is a 35-year-old unemployed acidhead male," says Carlton, who, in the decade since he started ST-37, has seen his share of space cases turn up at the local band's shows. Co-founder and vocalist/bass player Scott Telles remembers the time they played with founding space oddity, the immortal band, Hawkwind.
"We played with Nik Turner [of Hawkwind]," recounts Telles, "and a bunch of the old hippie Hawkheads came out, expressing appreciation that we were doing it these days, as a younger group. Then we went up to New York and both Hawkwind and Nik Turner's Hawkwind were playing."
In fact, that's the way most newer fans of an older generation of space rock have been introduced to the musical form; there seems to be at least one version of Hawkwind on the road at any given time, and the Nik Turner version has even been known to turn up at places like Emo's.
"That's how people know about ST-37 now," explains Telles. "It's that, 'Oh, you were on the Hawkwind tribute.'"
"The association is with Hawkwind," continues Carlton, "which is kinda odd because before we were kinda punk rock, kinda art rock shit."
In truth, ST-37 tends to surprise fans of space rock with bursts of comparatively aggressive rock that pop up frequently in their live shows and albums. In the case of the group's more ambient followers, perhaps "shock" is a more appropriate word. This writer and ST share a common confusion over the typical audiences at live ambient music shows, however. Rather than being laid back, they tend to be very protective of the bands, and don't like to be distracted from the long, droning notes coming from the stage.
"It's so funny, because to me, 'Ambient Music' means like, 'in the background,'" says ST-37 guitarist Mark Stone. "If I'm talking over it, it's like I'm adding to your art!"
"Experimental music people are fanatical that way," adds a somewhat less baffled Carlton. "They act like they're at a U.T. class or something."
"I call it 'sleep-core,'" says Joel. "I like it a lot, but it does make me fall asleep almost all the time when I hear it. All the new space rock bands sound like they all listen to the same album. It's amazing how they all sound the fuckin' same from band to band. I mean, we went on the road with some, and I like it, but... I think the difference is that they were all influenced by Spacemen 3, and we were all influenced by Hawkwind. Ours is more rockin' and like punk rock and theirs is more ambient."
Basically, then, the creed of ST-37 is that there's no reason you can't have some hormone in with your drone. The more popular modern space rock band, for instance, isn't likely to whip out a cover of the Haters "No Talk in the Eighties" in between Can-type retro-spacers and long meandering instrumentals. But along with the key Hawkwind connection, new drummer Dave Cameron, who has served time with Brave Combo, Glass Eye, Dizzy Luna, and many others, points out an influence that might explain the basic uniqueness of ST-37 in the space rock field.
"To me our core influence is the 13th Floor Elevators," states Cameron, who also played with Elevator Roky Erickson's Evil Hook Wild Life E.T. band. And he's not likely to hear too much disagreement from the others, as the band members' shared musical tastes are another important element of ST-37.
"I used to see ST-37," recalls Cameron, "and I used to say, 'Man, they're great. Maybe someday I'll play with them -- and it worked out that I did. Then I realized that they had listened to all the same bands that I had listened to in school: Can, Amon Duul, Elevators, Eno... When me and Scott got together, our record collections were almost identical."
One element shared by both types of space rock bands -- modern and old-school -- is a proclivity for flashy light shows and other hippie/rave trappings, but such bells and whistles are rarely seen at an ST-37 show. Instead, the band is positively frumpy. While not in the age range of their heroes, the members are well into that point in life when bellies become more prominent and hairlines less so. They don't wear garish clothing, preferring the working man's T-shirt and jeans look, and having singer Telles showing off his requisite bass player's slouch doesn't exactly add glamor to the proceedings, either. Why does the group eschew the more visual side associated with space rock?
"We used to use stuff like that," says Telles, "but everyone was doing it, so it got a bit too cliché."
"It seemed like, 'We can't play so well, so we've got this distraction for you,'" adds Joel. "It's nice just to do something musically that blows people's minds."
He pauses a moment, then reasons: "They'll be seeing that shit anyway, whether it's there or not!"
Telles is almost apologetic about the lack of lightning to go with the band's thunder, however: "Since I have three different instruments that I play, I'm busy preparing so I can get all the sounds I want. I wish I could get someone who's willing to mess with all the lights and stuff for us. We do seek to create a psychedelic experience."
When all is said and done, though, this is 1998, not 1972. Where space rock bands, like the space expeditions of that time, were big, sprawling arena affairs, reaching the world via major record labels, ST-37 must remain content for now to preach from the pulpit of clubs like the Hole in the Wall, often without even the benefit of a sound man to guide their endeavors.
They also have to rely on a myriad of small, eclectic record companies to put out their albums, and the numerous compilations on which they've had tracks appear (Spaceage, for example, comes via the Italian label Black Widow). Telles has no problems with the band's current situation; after all, ST-37's visibility has done nothing but grow, albeit slowly, over the decade since they began stepping in the shoes of Robert Calvert and the like.
"I would just like to be able to continue to release records," Telles confides. "That's really the main enjoyment that I get out of it. We've managed to release just a tremendous amount of stuff, and it's kinda like a snowball: The more we put out, the more we seem to be able to put out. I just wish that we could work it out to where I could get more copies of the damn records!"
Sorry, Scott, but in 1998, even NASA has a lot smaller budget than they'd like.
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