Chris Holmes is a mad scientist of bustling beats, a necessary rock star in an age of diluted dilettantes, and one of the most brilliant and down-to-earth people I have ever met.
I met Chris at the University of Chicago, back when he was fronting a psychedelic grunge Chicago band called Sabalon Glitz, but I didn’t get to know him until 2001, when he started dating one of my best high school friends. I think we bonded over each other’s distaste of fakers. For me, this applied mostly to literary wannabes and pseudo intellectuals, whereas Chris’s vitriol was directed toward rock poseurs. There was also the fact that Chris had also hosted one of my favorite radio shows at the University of Chicago, “In Advance of a Landing,” in which he interviewed UFO experts about impending extraterrestrial occupation, a kind of “academic Art Bell meets Ira Glass’ This American Life” type of thing, making Chris the Studs Terkel for the paranoid set. (Check some of the interview out here.)
At the time, Chris had also bought the film rights to The Illuminatus! Trilogy, just because he was such a huge fan. I mean who does that, right? A fucking genius, that’s who. But, mostly, I was drawn to Chris’s encyclopedic mind, fascinated as it was at the time with remote viewing, a paranormal psychic ability employed by various intelligence agencies. I was doubtful, but saw Chris use the telepathic mojo on numerous occasions in Reykjavik, where we hooked up for the Iceland Airwaves Festival. The mad science panned out, after all.
Now, Chris has released his first album with Ashtar Command, his ever-changing collective formed with the former Filter founder Brian Liesegang. It’s called American Sunshine and it’s one of the best albums of 2011–if not, in fact, of our fucked-up new millennium. Part Pet Sounds for Generation Whatever, part sonic Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s an infectious, genre-busting reservoir of mind-warping, sing-a-longy songs featuring indie stalwarts like Elizabeth (“Z.”) Berg (of The Like), Alex Ebert (of Ima Robot and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes), Joshua Radin, and Rachel Yamagata–“white-boy Human League stuff,” as Diddy calls it, though that doesn’t come close to capturing the sprawling sonic palette at work, which I’d argue is as expansive as any developed by a post-grunge musician.
Like the composers John Adams and John Cage, Ashtar Command grasps at the eccentricities and eclecticism of the American sonic palette and in the process delivers an approximation of the pandemonium inherent in being “American.” At the same time, there’s an innocence that seeps through at the heart of the album, evident on songs like “China” and “Requiem for Love.” “Love,” in fact–that labyrinthine, convoluted concept–might be the album’s leitmotif, but it’s not the corny, canned emoticon found in watered-down pop songs from Barry Manilow to Maroon fucking 5. On the contrary, Ashtar Command is unafraid to embrace complicated, antithetical matter, the all and nothingness. “Love will can satisfy your needs” and “love can cure your broken heart” and “love can break your heart” and “love will waste your time and make you lose your mind,” all at once. What other catchy, emotionally satisfying rock song will have you thinking of Hegel?
The more I listen to American Sunshine—and, to be entirely honest, I’m listening to it on repeat–the more I realize I can’t pick a favorite song on the album. Every song is my favorite, which is what makes an album a classic, right? Nevermind, OK Computer, Fear of a Black Planet, The White Album—this is the company American Sunshine aspires to keep, and it does a pretty damn good job of stating its case. There is, at least, something to please every musical fanboy yearning of mine. “Hello” strikes a buoyant, boyish Daniel Johnston chord. “Save Me,” featuring Alex Ebert, ventures off into the arena-rock ether of Queen and Radiohead, while keeping its musical feet firmly on the ground. And “Gravity,” bolstered by Z. Berg’s spookily cavernous vocals and Holmes’ hard-charging, plangent guitar riffs, gives off a rock-till-you-drop, almost metal vibe. No wonder disparate A-list musicians including Paul McCartney, Thom Yorke, and Diddy have all clamored to work with Chris Holmes. The dude apparently can strike just about any musical pose. But that’s the thing, man: there ain’t no posing going on here. This is real, heartfelt, gutsy post-rock that harkens back to New Wave as much as Neil Young, with a bit of Kerouac and Whitman thrown in for extra tang. But that’s what makes Chris Holmes–who was once the subject of Thomas Frank Harper’s article (“Pop Music In the Shadow of Irony“) some of us passed around with intellectual fervor usually reserved only for Michel Foucault–a necessary American Rock star.