Uploaded to Aural Innovations: April 2004
Jet Jaguar - "Billion Year Spree"
(Aktivator Records 2004, AKTIVATOR 7)
The Space Rock assault squad is back with their second full length CD. Between the recording of Jet Jaguar's Billion Year Spree and it's release in April 2004 the band went through a lineup change. Performing on the album is the trio from the previous recordings: Charles Van de Kree, Rob Nezzer and Roland Thoms. But today the band is a quartet. Nezzer has left and keyboardists Dave Scott and Ron Grissom have signed up. What's interesting is that I didn't read the credits right away and because of the much fuller keyboard sound assumed the new quartet recorded the album. So given that this is the earlier trio it's clear that Billion Year Spree is a billion year leap forward for the band.
"Nonstop" is an instrumental that opens the set and features the trademark molten space rocking Jet Jaguar sound, with blazing guitars, meteor shower synths and pounding rhythm section. Songs like "Bombers Open Fire", "The Last Kings Of Space", "Silver Engines" and "Phasor Burn" are highlight tracks that rock hard well beyond the Earth's atmosphere and are classic examples of Jet Jaguar's punky, brain shattering, but party-hearty fun brand of space rock n roll. I love the cosmic sympho keyboard melodies against continually phased guitar waves on "Future Martyr On Supersonic Waves". This is the star point at which Hawkwind and Chrome collide. The band do a killer cover of Robert Calvert's "The Aerospace Age Inferno". And speaking of Calvert, "Wastelands Of Canaveral" is a spoken word piece backed by freaky alien Space Ritual styled electronics, along with haunting ocean wave efx. "Turbulent Mirrors" is another standout track that rocks hard but includes more of the prog and rock n roll mixture that Jet Jaguar are so adept at. And of course the songs are full of Jet Jaguar's Robert Calvert meets Roger Corman futuristic lyrics.
But Jet Jaguar also travel to new realms on Billion Year Spree. "Altostratus" really took me by surprise, being a keyboard and electronics journey into a world that had me wondering whether I was floating in space or trapped in some cavern deep below the Earth's surface. But after a few minutes the band transition into a mellow, spacey prog rock jam. Very cool and a bit different for this high energy band. "Marooned", "Ghost Planet" and "Outskirts" explore similar territory, being more keyboard dominated pieces that are like crosses between Klaus Schulze and Hawkwind with Harvey Bainbridge's keys in full space swing. It's great hearing diversity from the band and they do an excellent job with it, making this easily their most accomplished and adventurous effort to date. Having enjoyed their music for a while now and wondering what's up in the Space Rocking world of New Mexico, we conducted the following interview via cyberspace.
AI: If I were asked to give a one line description of Jet Jaguar, I'd say you were the ultimate marriage of Hawkwind and Chrome. That said, tell me a little about the band's formation, original goals and ultimate course.
Charles Van de Kree (CV): I suppose the earliest version of Jet Jaguar goes back to the summer of 2001 when I met Rob Nezzer through a mutual friend. Rob played guitar and bass, was heavily into King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and similar outfits, and wanted to start a band that had roots in the prog/psychedelic scene. I was-and still am-more into space rock, electronic music, and punk. So we eventually decided it would be interesting to merge these influences and see what might come out of it. We spent the next few months writing songs, recording them, and generally hashing out the "concept" of the band. Then in November, I think, I met Roland while I was at a local music equipment shop here in Albuquerque. He was working there part-time and I had stopped in to pick up some power cords or something like that. I was wearing a flight jacket that had a Hawkwind button on it, which he noticed. So he asked me if I was a Hawkwind fan, and of course I told him I was. He mentioned he was also a Hawkwind fan, which naturally jolted me. So one thing led to another, and I told him a friend and I were in the process of starting a band. Well, it turned out that Roland played drums and...
Roland Thoms (RT): Actually, I should point out that I prefer the term "rhythmatist", since in addition to playing a kit I also interface with an arsenal of drum machines, triggers, and modules.
CV: Right... which was perfect because the last thing we wanted was some dunderheaded metal freak who only wanted to play Metallica. The big plus was that you were really into kraut rock.
RT: Oh, yeah. I pretty much cut my teeth on groups like Kraftwerk, Neu! and Can, not to mention Cabaret Voltaire and a lot of the "artier" punk of the 70s like Tuxedomoon and Chrome.
CV: So things just fell together in a very fortuitous way. I was into Calvert, Hawkwind and Chrome and played guitar and synth and was the only one who had any inclination to sing. Rob was the psych head and bass fell to him, though he also occasionally played guitar. And Roland was the ideal cyborg drummer. So toward the end of 2001 we got really serious about the project. Some of our earliest songs ("The Mutated", "Dogfight") were composed around this time. So it all started to gel. We're all into sci-fi, and all of us are avid readers of science-fiction literature, watchers of science-fiction movies, and acolytes of technology. So we knew we were going to be a space rock group. The next thing was to find a name that would reflect what we're all about.
RT: That was a tough one, too. We must have argued for at least a month about what we were going to call ourselves! Some of the suggestions, as I recall, were funny, silly, stupid, and even surreal. Most of them I've forgotten, thankfully, but I think we eventually narrowed it down to three or four, including Jet Jaguar, which was the only one all three of us liked.
CV: I think the short list was Jet Jaguar, Dreamlab, Feersum Engine and Archangel Thunderbird. But Jet Jaguar seemed to sum it up: a robot from a sci-fi movie. It's also vaguely Hawkwind-ish since the name combines two opposing ideas: technology and the natural world-the jet and the jaguar. Voila! Once we'd decided on the name and had a short set list of songs, we decided it was time to do something commercially and make ourselves known to the world at large, so we released Retrofit! as a limited edition CDEP of 100 copies in April, 2002.
RT: And we played our first gig a few months before that. It was in February at Coal Street Theatre.
AI: Are Dave Scott and Ron Grissom new members? The band were a trio with Charles, Roland, and Rob as recently as last year's Future Tense EP.
CV: Toward the end of 2003, Rob decided he wanted to do other things musically that really wouldn't have fit into the whole Jet Jaguar ethos. I suppose it was another instance of the old clich about "musical differences". It came at a somewhat inopportune time because we had just finished all the tracks for Billion Year Spree and were about to do the final mix and mastering on the project. So even though Billion Year Spree has just come out, Rob is on it (playing bass, also playing guitar on two cuts), though he's no longer a member of the group.
RT: It's worked out wonderfully, though. Ron is a close friend of mine, so I asked him if he'd be interested in joining the group, and he was psyched about it. He came aboard this past January and learned our entire set list really quickly so that we were able to set up tour dates for March to help promote the new CD.
Ron Grissom (RG): It was a win-win situation for me. I really dig the sound and the idea of the group. And like Roland and Charles, I'm also a huge fan of Chrome. Naturally, I listen to other stuff too, like Helios Creed, Butthole Surfers, Monster Magnet.
Dave Scott (DS): I joined the group shortly before Rob left...
CV: That was Halloween weekend of 2003. Since I was the guitarist and keyboardist in the band, we knew that if we really wanted to recreate our sound live we simply had to have another keyboardist/synthesist in the group. That was right around the time we were putting the finishing touches on Billion Year Spree, so Dave doesn't appear on it.
DS: I met Charles through my girlfriend who's a friend of his. I'm pretty much a total Pink Floyd fan and have been since I first heard them back in the mid 80s when I bought Animals and Wish You Were Here. This was the kind of band I'd always wanted to be in-totally spaced-out! So the first time I got together with Charles, Roland, and Rob, I knew this was the band for me.
RT: I think we're all psyched to do a CD as a quartet, especially considering that our recent live shows were pretty successful. I thought we really played as a unit and probably played as well as we possibly could've.
AI: Tell me about each of your musical backgrounds and what kinds of music inspired you to become musicians. Any previous band experiences worth mentioning?
CV: My biggest influences are definitely Chrome and Hawkwind. As a guitarist, Helios Creed is probably my primary model; as a vocalist and lyricist, Robert Calvert has had a tremendous influence on me; and as a synthesist I'd have to say Klaus Schulze really opened my ears to the infinite possibilities of the synthesizer. I started playing guitar when I was 13, but then when I was 18 I bought my first synthesizer, a mini-moog, and that totally changed the course of my musical development. I started listening to stuff like Ultravox, XTC, Heldon, Bill Nelson and Be-Bop Deluxe, Ash Ra Tempel, the Dead Kennedys, Nektar, Steve Hillage, and on and on. On the other hand, I'm really influenced by sci-fi writers like J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, William Gibson, Stanislaw Lem and a host of others. As far as previous bands go, my first one was called All Systems Glow. That was back in the 80s. We were essentially a punk band infused with the spirit of Kraftwerk. We did a cassette EP called New Age Frankenstein that was released in 1989. Then in the early 90s, J.B. Westfall (guitarist for All Systems Glow) and I formed a band called Zeiss Ikon that was in many ways similar to Jet Jaguar, though not quite as relentlessly rocking. We released two cassettes on the Graviton label, Cybernetic Anarchy and Metrovision. Zeiss Ikon was together from 1991 to 1995. Then I decided I wanted to step back from music and rethink my priorities, directions, etc. It was in 2001 when I really decided I wanted to go on a space odyssey.
DS: I've been a fan of Pink Floyd since I first started listening to music seriously back in the mid 80s. They're definitely my main group, though I also listen to groups like the Orb, Gong, Porcupine Tree and Ozric Tentacles. I played in a psychedelic prog band called Trio Noir, similar to early Pink Floyd in a lot of ways, but it just didn't last that long and we never really got to a point where we were very serious about the music.
RT: I've been in too many bands to list-and almost all of them were forgettable. Some were heavy metal with progressive pretensions (Dream Theatre-type groups, for instance) and there were the obligatory Soundgarden-ish groups I played in-nothing special or unique, that's for sure. My musical background is squarely centered around kraut rock. I'm into almost anything that has that distinctive Teutonic feel to it, but especially groups like Kraftwerk, Faust, Amon Duul II, Can, Tangerine Dream, Mythos, Kraan, Popol Vuh, Neu! and lots of others. I'm also attracted to the more progressive-oriented punk/new wave/cold wave groups of the 80s like Chrome, The Residents, Pere Ubu, Gary Numan, Clock DVA, and A Split Second. I also listen to Henry Cow, and even some jazz fusion like Herbie Hancock and Weather Report.
RG: For me, Jet Jaguar is really my first legitimate group. I played briefly in a totally bizarre group that's best described as The Allman Brothers meet King Crimson, but since I'm really into extreme forms of music I just never felt that I fit in. I'm a major Helios Creed fan. Ditto for Monster Magnet; I also like Hawkwind and Motorhead. I've just recently gotten into Bill Laswell and Charles turned me onto Farflung shortly after I joined the band.
AI: Is Albuquerque a hotbed of Hawkwind, Chrome and Space Rock fans, making it easy to find like-minded musicians to form a band. Or did one of you act as guru, turning the others on to this music?
RT: If there's a guru here, it's definitely Charles. His musical tastes are wildly eclectic and he has an incredible collection of experimental music, kraut rock, space rock, punk and such stuff. I think you also have just about every sci-fi movie ever made, don't you?
CV: I have a few...
RT: I think you've got everything from Metropolis to The Matrix! Plus he reads voraciously, so he's a natural as a lyricist. He's definitely the best - by far - songwriter I've ever personally worked with. His lyrics are witty, ironic and have an almost epic grandeur, at times like Robert Calvert or Bill Nelson.
CV: The bottom line though is that Jet Jaguar is a GROUP. I suppose I do provide the framework for most of the songs and, yes, I do write the lyrics, but I'm not a drummer, I suck as a bass player, and I'm a lousy singer.
RG: Still, I think the rest of us - and I'm arrogantly speaking for us all - would have to acknowledge that the vision is yours. For instance, can you imagine Motorhead without Lemmy?
RT: Absolutely. The fact is we somehow miraculously found each other. It's amazing that the four of us like almost exactly the same kind of music, like each other, and like working with each other in a group format. As far as I know, we're the only space rock band in Albuquerque or, for that matter, in New Mexico. Sure, there's a lot of new age stuff going on here and especially in Santa Fe, but there are small pockets of people everywhere who listen to Hawkwind, Gong, Helios Creed, Amon Duul II, Cluster, and space rock in general. The unfortunate thing is that there aren't a lot of venues anywhere that support this kind of music. Space rock holds a place in our culture today similar to that of science fiction, say, 40 or 50 years ago. It's a guttural art form that finds its adherents underground and diffused throughout the general populace. So the space rock scene here in Albuquerque is probably not that much different than it is in another city of comparable size, such as Oklahoma City or Minneapolis.
DS: Yeah, it's by no means a hotbed, that's for sure, but you do run into people here and there who listen to the sort of music we do.
AI: I love Jet Jaguar's song titles and lyrics. Totally sci-fi and great fun.
RT: I think we all do. Charles' lyrics are so totally geared toward sci-fi themes, everything from robots and alien civilizations to space and time travel.
RG: But what I like about the lyrics is that there's a lot humor in them-if, that is, you take the time to look for it.
DS: And for me at least, the song titles themselves are so cool and evocative. I mean even though I wasn't around during the recording of Billion Year Spree, I'm totally taken in by titles like "Future Martyr on Supersonic Waves" and "Turbulent Mirrors".
RT: I think the titles and lyrics in general just "feel" ultramodern or futuristic-they have the mark of our technofied culture stamped all over them.
CV: No doubt, that's true. I grew up as the son of a career Air Force officer and consequently I was always around military hardware-not just guns, but planes, airfields, parachutes, things like that. So when I went to college, it was natural that I wanted to study astrophysics and astronomy and eventually be either a pilot or an astronaut. But fate - that is, less than 20/20 vision - had its fling with me. So I guess I've sublimated my original goal through music. I get to be a pilot and astronaut when I write lyrics, play guitar and especially when I'm on a stage. I suppose that's why I identify so strongly and so closely with Calvert. He also wanted to be a pilot, but an inner ear defect prevented him from realizing his dream, too.
RG: And what's really strange about that is that there are those moments when you sound almost exactly like Calvert, especially on "Dogfight".
CV: Well, I pretty much tried to on that song, since it's my unabashedly fond ripoff/tribute to Action Man himself.
AI: Billion Year Spree has some of your most cosmically ethereal tracks to date. Songs like "Altostratus", "Marooned", "Ghost Planet", and "The Outskirts" took me by surprise, as well as various portions of other tracks. I'd say the additional keyboard/synth players have really added something to the Jet Jaguar sound on this album.
CV: Our first full-length CD Free Space was pretty much nonstop. I remember shortly after it came out Santtu Laakso from Dark Sun wrote me and said he thought it was the hardest-rocking space rock album he'd heard in years. Now I love to rock out but there's a part of me that longs to drift on the solar winds in the void of interstellar space. In some ways I'm probably as influenced by Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream as I am by Hawkwind and Chrome. And I've often thought that the ideal space rock group would be a perfect symbiotic fusion of Hawkwind and Tangerine Dream. I've never heard any group come anywhere close to approximating that kind of sound. I think Billion Year Spree is something of a transitional work for us, in that we're partially trying to arrive at a compromise between heavy space rock and Berlin school "kosmische" music. I think this is why we're all excited to begin the next phase of Jet Jaguar...
DS: For sure, because I can see us coming to precisely that kind of sound. I should point out, though, that Charles played all the synthesizers and keyboards on Billion Year Spree. It was a nearly finished product by the time I joined the group. Fortunately, I know all those parts now, so at this point I'm sort of trying to mimic his style of synth playing. Which is why I'm personally excited about the next project since I'll be bringing my own synth ideas into the studio.
AI: The track listing for Billion Year Spree breaks the songs down into three sections: The Air Age, The Space Age, and The Hyperspace Age. Is this album based on a particular theme?
CV: More or less, it's a loose concept album, similar perhaps to what Hawkwind did on Warrior on the Edge of Time. The songs are related to one another in each section to the extent that the ones that are primarily about aerospace are in the section called The Air Age; the ones about outer space are in the section called The Space Age; and the ones that are about space exploration in the distant future are in the section called The Hyperspace Age. The title "Billion Year Spree" simply alludes to humanity's quest for the stars: sometimes heroic, sometimes tragic; sometimes comical, sometimes terrifying; but always exciting and adventurous.
AI: Tell me about the live Jet Jaguar experience. The brief description on your web site sounds like your shows would be lots of fun.
CV: It's always difficult to verbally describe a primarily visual happening, and our stage set-up always depends on how much room we have to spread out. If we have enough room and it's a pretty important gig (like a festival or something similar) we can get pretty theatrical. For instance, we'll set up the stage as if it's a runway at an airfield with flashing red sirens and pylons lining up the "tarmac". And we'll treat the whole performance as if we're the flight crew and the audience the passengers on a nonstop transgalactic voyage, each of us taking on the persona of a crew member, such as pilot or captain, bombardier, navigator, etc.
RT: We also - in a situation like this - will don appropriate uniforms (flight jackets or flight suits), flight goggles, insignia, helmets...
CV: Yeah, the whole aerospace acid trip, which we did a few times - three times I think - on the tour we just completed. But some venues are just too damn small to accommodate such extravagances, in which case we're forced to just rock out in our faded jeans and t-shirts.
AI: You did covers of "Lord of Light" and "The Aerospace Age Inferno" for two different Hawkwind tributes. Any details on their release?
CV: Last summer a guy from Sydney, Australia, contacted us about contributing to a proposed Robert Calvert tribute CD. The name of the label is Botany Bay. So we did "The Aerospace Age Inferno" and sent it off to him. But the last time I heard from the guy was about six months ago. He simply said he was still waiting on other possible contributors and at present didn't have enough songs for the CD. So, who knows? Hopefully, it'll happen. Calvert is certainly deserving of an encomium. "Lord of Light" is supposed to be on Black Widow's 3LP version of the Hawkwind tribute Daze of the Underground. That was one of the last songs the original Jet Jaguar (Roland, Rob and myself) recorded together. At this point, I'm not sure when the album will be released.
AI: Tell me about the Chrome tribute you're planning. Have you made any headway or just in the planning stages?
CV: We're all fans of Chrome to some degree, and we felt Helios and Damon deserved some sort of homage for the body of work they produced during the 70s and 80s. We actually covered "The Need" on our Future Tense EP last year, and we've also covered "Firebomb" live, though we've never recorded it in a studio setting. We're definitely excited about the project and right now it has our full attention. We've gotten a lot of positive response so far, and we've already received material from several groups. We've moved beyond the planning stage to a point where we're collating submissions. Hopefully, everything will go according to schedule and the project will be released sometime around the beginning of 2005. Right now, the working title for the project is You've Been Duplicated: Burning Chrome to Disc in the Cyberage.
AI: Any other upcoming events or news we should know about?
CV: Well, right now we're pretty much decelerating from orbit back to Earth after our "Solar Anthem" tour of the Southwest. We did eight gigs in less than three weeks, so it was exhausting...
RG: But exhilarating too...
CV: It was a tremendous experience. Right now, though, we're probably going to concentrate on promoting and selling Billion Year Spree, at least for the next few months. We'll probably also continue to work on our website. One thing we'd definitely like to do is release a live album sometime toward the end of this year. I've always had this ridiculous fantasy about doing a sort of "Space Ritual" for the 21st century. I guess now's our chance!
For more information you can visit the Jet Jaguar web site at: http://sks.com/jetjaguar
Contact via snail mail c/o Charles Van de Kree; 4800 San Mateo Ln NE; Apt 142; Albuquerque, NM 87109.