Terrible Spaceship is a group of musicians who get inspired simply by looking up. Its sci-fi sound features an incredibly funky combination of head-nodding drum breaks, gravity-defying melodies and choppy guitars, which are all weaved together by cleverly placed snippets of film dialogue. Thanks to polished musicianship (five of the members are also in longtime Chicago funk collective Bumpus) and elaborately crafted stage shows, the group seems destined for intergalactic fame. Still, bass player/composer Travis Chandler took some time out to give Centerstage the whole story on Terrible Spaceship's mysterious origins and futuristic plans.
Who makes up Terrible Spaceship and what are your respective talents?
There's a small army of us. I'm [Travis Chandler] the bass player and composer of the music, Zack Marks is on drums, James Johnston plays guitar, Andy Rosenstein is on keys and glockenspiel, Brent Pulse and Adam Kaltenhauser play a wide variety of bells, whistles and samples we collectively refer to as the "science," and Whit Nelson runs our video show, which Tim Frick helped to create.
How did you guys form?
I'd been saving up break-beat instrumentals for years while playing with the band Bumpus, but hadn't really done anything with them. One day I was in a thrift store with my girlfriend and found a record of the 1938 Orson Welles "Invaders from Mars" performance on sale for 99 cents. I brought it home and threw it on, and was totally mesmerized. It's such a great story, and Orson Welles is an incredible narrator. On my second listen, I started realizing how fun it would be to wrap my instrumentals around the narrative told on that 1938 record. I never thought it'd be a live act, but when a couple of my bandmates pushed for the idea, we decided to give it a shot as a performing band. We took clips from old science and social education films from the era and developed an accompanying video that tells the story as well. So far we've played three shows, and it's going really well, I think. We're not like anything else I've seen, and I'm proud of that.
The science-fiction theme seems like a fully realized concept for you.
I've always been drawn to cinematic music and big beats, and with this project I've really been able to do both, which is exciting for me. It's also incredibly fun for me to work this material into a narrative, and that's really become the hallmark of this band. The first record was completely driven by that 1938 Orson Welles record. The second album, which we're performing the first five songs of live, is based on an old sci-fi movie. It's the story of Zontar, an alien determined to rule the planet. Come see the live show, and more of the story will unfold.
With so many heads involved, what goes into making a song for you guys?
I write all the songs at home on my couch. Sometimes other places, but I'd say 99 percent of the tunes I write are put together on my laptop while sitting in my living room. How exciting is that?
The songs are composed exclusively in Garageband, the free software that comes with Macs, and I bring it to Chris Harden at IV Labs for mastering. Then the band and I work the song over like crazy for live performance. Usually we memorize and play everything exactly as it is, and then begin to branch out slowly from the original tracks. I am very, very lucky to work with such talented and patient bandmates on this stuff. It's a really difficult act to pull off live — when you are syncing the music to video, there is no room for mistakes. The guys put everything they've got into it.
What's a typical day like for Terrible Spaceship?
Run the set, run the set with video, have a beer, run the set with video again...
How did you link up with Stephanie Izard (of "Top Chef") for her new show?
We all like Stephanie. She's great, and one of James' old friends. They go back long before her victory on "Top Chef." James asked me if I'd be up for scoring her podcast, and I love that kind of work, so I agreed. Stephanie is incredibly fun and easygoing, which makes her a delight to work with. Her new restaurant, The Drunken Goat, is opening up soon, and I plan to eat there as often as I can.
How does Chicago inspire Terrible Spaceship?
This is the city of my birth, and I love it. I feel like Chicago artists are always trying a little harder than everyone else, struggling to be heard above our noisy coastal competition. I'm proud to be a Chicago artist.
Where can we grab an album?
The first record is currently available on iTunes. The follow-up record, Terrible Spaceship presents: Zontar, The Thing from Venus! will be available by the end of the year. You can check us out at http://www.myspace.com/terriblespaceship.
What other projects do you have coming up for this year?
Raising my four-month old daughter. That ought to keep me busy enough.
Extraterrestrial life in Chicago, your thoughts?