Alone on the MoonPhoto by Zain Shauk, courtesy of AOTM
There’s a theme to Alone on the Moon’s debut album, Spectra, which gets the celebratory release treatment this Friday night at The Secret Group. The 11 songs on the band’s first full-length concern epic journeys. Members of the instrumental post-rock act say the motif is natural for a group of explorers who’ve made Houston a final destination from all points on the globe.
“I think Houston is a city of epic journeys. I mean, it feels like an epic journey just to get to the gas station and back,” said the band’s drummer (and longtime Houston Press writer) Nathan Smith. “Epic journeys kind of brought us together, too. Seth grew up in Africa, Ahmad grew up in Greece; Joe is a Kansas boy. I was born in Houston and grew up in East Texas. The city brought us together. You wouldn't think we had much in common, culturally, but we all share this kind of MTV sense of rock and roll and hanging out.”
“The songs themselves are ‘epic journeys,’” noted guitarist Joe Lovchik. “These songs start in one place and lead you through a grand story where you often end up in a distant place from where you began.”
The band launched its odyssey in 2012. Back then, Lovchik, Smith and bassist Seth Johnson were at the helm. They settled on a course of alluring instrumental music backed by evocative visuals.
“Seth and I were already fans of some instrumental post-rock bands and would share those bands with each other. Then I went to a Red Sparowes concert and was immediately certain I wanted to do that. I even made videos to Red Sparowes songs back then as a vision of what I wanted to do. I think I probably forced everyone to sit and watch too, whether they wanted to or not,” Lovchik admits. “When we first started jamming though, we didn't have any grand plans other than just making some cool noise and having a good time. It was our version of poker night. As the songs began to emerge, it got more exciting.”
“The instrumental thing and our style grew organically out of just jamming together,” Smith confirmed. “None of us had much desire to sing, and we all enjoyed instrumental rock. I grew up listening to mega-popular bands like Rush, Pink Floyd and Metallica, all of whom had long, instrumental songs and passages woven into their album cuts. The way our music came together from our jams, we knew we weren't going to be a verse-chorus type of band, so sticking with an instrumental sound made sense to us.”
The band’s name suggests an isolation of sorts, but they all chime in for this article. They’re a team, one that became complete when guitarist Ahmad Saad joined in 2015. He says the lights and video the band employs – primarily managed by Lovchik, who is a graphic artist – give audiences a focal point, since there’s no designated frontman wailing away on vocals.
“Over many iterations our live set has become a seamless audiovisual experience, with transitions that keep the audience immersed in the music. Vocals can take you out of that immersive experience sometimes or overshadow what the music itself has to say,” Saad noted. “Jamming as an instrumental band, we are able to find this common place and really explore it. After lots of experimentation you end up with all these ideas, but the process itself would probably be a lot less fun for a vocalist and it would be harder for the rest of us to find each other in that place.”
We’ve caught the band live on some occasions, specifically at Rudyard’s, which lends itself well to AOTM’s marriage of sound and sight. How does this all translate on record, we wondered?
Saad explained, “we knew we wanted to make a self-produced album that captured that vibe and kept some of the live oomph while also having a little more headroom and ambient space. We recorded the drums at Murder on Tape Audio over a weekend in November 2016 with engineer and co-owner Kenny Gardner. I knew that Kenny had an ear for the kind of music we play, having known Kenny's involvement in the local scene over many years, and that he had the chops to do an album like this without breaking a sweat.
“I engineered all the bass and guitar recordings and used the re-amping method on the guitars to give us the flexibility to dial in the parts as much as we wanted to, which was a lot because we had some pretty specific textures and dynamics in mind,” Saad continued. “Our first pick for mixing was Tymon Kruidenier in the Netherlands, because of his amazing engineering work on the recordings of his bands Our Oceans and Exivious. Luckily, he was excited to work with a band with our sound, and he did an amazing job, giving us something that achieved our vision but went beyond it in color and three-dimensional quality.”
The band released a self-titled EP in early 2015.
“The differences are night and day,” Lovchik said. “We recorded the demo EP as a three-piece and we did it all in two days. Everything was just live recorded at Big Door Studios with Mike BBQ. He was great to work with and made that process so easy for us. This new album was a monster to produce. We really wanted it done right, so we followed the most professional path we could. It took almost a year, but it was worth it.”
The band’s attention to visuals has traveled from the live setting to a more traditional habitat on the Internet. AOTM recently released a video for “Suicitation,” the lead single from Spectra. The clip was directed and shot by Mike Cotaya. It stars Devin Will and has this viewer pondering nature, gods on celestial high and the things we believe from observation but can never really know. Like the vivid music it’s set to, the video allows room for individual perceptions.
“’Suicitation’ was written with a broad brush and I really feel that the narrative for the video fulfills that totally. It definitely has a meaning behind it, but it’s left open to your interpretation. That way it can become personalized to each individual that listens (or) watches," says Johnson, the band’s bassist. "I’ve already had a ton of people tell me what they think it’s about, including two friends who had a bet over it. I love that we were able to collectively create something that piques people’s interests like that.”
“Our music is interpreted by everyone differently, so I'm glad we made the video that way, too,” Lovchik said. “That, to me, is pretty exciting, when you have people tell you they felt something from your art.”
The band handpicked their bill mates for the release show. Saad calls Dead Leslies “a really great-sounding post-rock band that put on a very memorable set during one of our past shows.” Lovchik said, “Nate and I played with Pyreship awhile back in another band we had, Insolvent, and really loved their sound. We knew after the first song of their set that Alone on the Moon needed to play with them.”
Beyond Friday’s show, there’s an August 22 date at Scout Bar for fans who can’t make this week’s event. The band plans to upgrade its video and lighting production before touring outside Houston.
“We want to expand our audience as far as we can, and perform in exotic places - like Dallas,” Lovchik joked.
As a band with an eye on the journey and not necessarily the destination, Spectra is a highlight in Alone on the Moon’s captain’s log. For now, they’re content to appreciate the trip that’s brought them here.
“All of us really wanted to live out the dream of making a record that sounds as good, production-wise, as the albums that blew our minds growing up,” Smith said. “I think only in the last 10 years or so has that even become a possibility for a band like us, with no prospects whatsoever for getting signed to even a tiny label. I know I was inspired by people like K-Rino who do everything themselves, from the album art to the writing and production to the actual sales. Good Lord, is it a grind.
“We also felt like putting out a real, professional-sounding album was necessary for us to do anything beyond what we've already been doing, which is playing local shows at local venues and harassing our friends to show up,” he added. “In order to get booked in bigger rooms, get some airplay, stream our music and get it heard out of town, we believed we needed to have a professional product to put in front of people. On record, there are no lights and video to help prop us up, after all. Basically, we see the next step as getting our music heard beyond the Beltway. Hopefully this record helps.”
Alone on the Moon celebrates the release of its debut album Spectra, 8 p.m. Friday, August 10 at The Secret Group, 2102 Polk. With Pyreship and Dead Leslies. 21 and over, $10.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.