Astroturf Noise is an exciting band from New York City that presents a wildly fresh blend of free improvisation and bluegrass/Americana via a mix of traditional instruments and modern effects. They released their self-titled debut on March 13 via 577. The LP features founders Sam Day Harmet (mandolin/fx) and Sana Nagano (violin/fx) alongside bassist Zach Swanson, plus special guest appearances from Medeski Martin & Wood’s Billy Martin and violinist Sarah Bernstein.
We asked Harmet to take us through each of the tracks on Astroturf Noise, to find out more about the inspiration behind each song and some of the work that went into the making of the LP.
“Orange Blossom Bullet Train”
This is our deconstruction of the canonical bluegrass standard, “Orange Blossom Special.” We were drawn in by the unabashedly unconventional nature of this tune. Indeed, much of the original version is made up of a driving one-chord vamp while soloists take turns evoking train sounds.
Our “Orange Blossom Bullet Train” is an attempt to push that concept as far as it will go with the bullet train tearing into effect-laden noise territory and strange new dissonant turns. Furthering the propulsion of this train is a guest appearance from Billy Martin (of Medeski Martin & Wood) playing every manner of scrap metal from his extensive collection of scrapyard percussion.
Sana and I got to know Billy through the Creative Music Studio, a center for improvised music founded by Karl Berger in the 1970s and still going strong. Billy is now leading CMS and doing a great job of fostering a new generation of improvising musicians.
This song poses the question, “What would twin fiddle music sound like stripped of all that flowery tonality?” Inspired by the traditional fiddle tune “Blackberry Blossom,” “Black Berry” reimagines that tune as a chromatic jousting match between Sana and guest violinist/New York experimental music mainstay Sarah Bernstein.
Sana and Sarah play off each other wonderfully, partly thanks to their history of working together in Sarah’s excellent VEER Quartet, the wildest, weirdest string quartet I’ve ever seen. As the brief song snowballs towards its climax, increasing effects processing blurs the distinction between the violins and mandolin as melody is subsumed by jagged effected texture.
“Morning Zephyr Waltz”
With “Morning Zephyr Waltz,” my intention was to take a rather sweet melody and stretch it as close to its breaking point as possible with electronic processing while still retaining a bit of its sweetness. I wrote this melody specifically with a couple of our more extreme pedals in mind — my Ottobit Jr. (a glitch/bitcrusher/sequencer pedal) and Sana’s Rainbow Machine (a pitch-shifting modulation pedal).
As with many other songs on this album (“Orange Blossom Bullet Train,” “Metropolitan Special,” “Blue Comet Bankruptcy”), “Morning Zephyr Waltz” is named for a defunct passenger train line. I was drawn to these names because they represent a more optimistic American moment displaced by the more socially separated and environmentally destructive interstate highway system. I hope to see a proper national train system in our country again sometime in my lifetime! The Morning Zephyr once connected Chicago to the Twin Cities, and to me, the name brings to mind the floating space between sleep and wakefulness.
This song began with the impulse to construct a bluegrass melody entirely from the whole tone scale. I’ve always been drawn to the bizarre symmetry and unsettled feeling of this mode, and it was satisfying contorting it into the form of an uptempo bluegrass workout.
It’s also worth mentioning the spaciousness of the sound here — we recorded this album with Martin Bisi at his cavernous basement studio, BC Studios in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Martin’s been there since the early ’80s and his recording resume is a history of no wave, post-punk, and noise music in New York.
One thing that I appreciated about his approach is that he barely uses any artificial reverb, instead opting for room mics to capture the sound of this expansive space. I think it especially comes through in the sparser moments of this tune, and I love that this unusual, unique room becomes such a part of the composition.
“Blue Comet Bankruptcy”
It’s often said that Bill Monroe’s big innovation was fusing country blues and Appalachian folk music traditions — this one celebrates the bluesy side of that equation. I took inspiration from the unusual tuning used by Bill Monroe on his tune “My Last Days on Earth,” which puts the top two courses of mandolin strings in minor thirds. Rather than the typical AA EE, the top four strings are tuned AC DF. This idiosyncratic tuning along with my brass slide were the starting point for this composition.
The song is named for the Blue Comet, the passenger train that once connected New York City and Atlantic City, a train line that no doubt saw its fair share of the blues. We’re also joined again by Billy Martin on this one. His subtle playing on a West African talking drum evokes a warped tom tom solo for me.
Another song inspired by an old-time melody, this song takes the melodic shape of the fiddle song “Liberty” and injects it with a hearty dose of chromaticism and a touch of klezmer modalities. I also took its title as something of a challenge for the improvisation section in this tune. Liberties were taken!
Cluck is our very loose interpretation of the old-time classic, “Cluck Ol’ Hen.” Its bare-bone pentatonic melody has been one we’ve enjoyed improvising around almost since the beginning of our group, but the album version was particularly inspired by a memorable weekend in upstate New York last summer. After a trad jazz gig on a restored passenger train, a few musician friends and I spent a whole weekend in a comped Airbnb, listening to almost nothing but doom and stoner metal (e.g.: Sleep, Sunn O))), Bongzilla).
I left feeling really inspired by the spaciousness, compositional patience, and attention to textural details of these bands. And of course, the dissonant head-banging mischief! All of this was at the forefront of my thoughts a few weeks later when Astroturf Noise went to BC Studios to record our version of “Cluck Ol’ Hen.”
To find out more about Astroturf Noise and their new release, visit them online.
Featured photo by Adele Fournet.
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