With today’s new 10-song Astrachan release, songwriter Ben Astrachan lifts a corner and gives us a peek into his story. A founding member of and songwriter for the Boston-born Berta Bigtoe, he takes listeners on a journey, showcasing the cultures and people he’s been fortunate to explore during and since his upbringing in Connecticut and Boston.
Now a Chicagoan for going on two years, Ben has taken some time to release music of his own under his self-titled solo project. Working as a behavioral health counselor when he’s not making music, he helps others find and reclaim order in their lives. And musically, through his layered instrumentation which brings a big Cat Stevens/Okkervil River energy to his songs, he finds a structure in musical chaos and meaning to his explorations.
Ben answered a few questions for us about his new Astrachan release and his musical journey.
Q. You and roommate Austin Koenigstein have been playing together in Berta Bigtoe for a few years now. Why was this the right time to add some solo creation into your personal mix?
A. During covid, we realized how lucky we were to be living together. We were able to jam all the time, and we even released an album that we wrote in a day. Our studio was also completely in our living space. While it was hard navigating having a studio space in our home with 6 of us (and one bathroom), it allowed for a surge of music to blossom all over our house. Everyone living at our place (which we call Puccini’s Palace after our cat, Puccini) is super musical and theatrical, so it allowed us to do these in-depth arrangements on our tracks. All the songs I recorded were originally supposed to be for a Berta Bigtoe album, but it just fit a solo project better. I did all the writing and recording myself, and Austin and I realized that we really want Berta to be a home for healthy and fun collaboration. So the 10 tracks just didn’t fit into our Berta kismet. I had all the tracks ready and I hate sitting on tunes forever and ever, so really now was the right time because anytime is the right time!
Q. With both Berta Bigtoe and your new solo work, you artfully arrange layers of instrumentation for a unique quality, sometimes using sounds and instruments you don’t often hear in indie rock. What inspired you to build that sound?
A. Austin and I both love working with analog equipment — tape recorders to vintage electric pianos, we feel that the more human something is, the more artful and moving it becomes. That’s why we love having so many voices on our tracks because when we record with like 5 people in the room and everyone is singing their heart out, you can really feel that everyone involved is having a blast! And layers is something we think a lot about. We love working with analog because it really limits us. When we use Logic, we have all the power; we’re able to have like 1056 tracks. But with a tape machine, we are stuck with only 8-16 tracks most of the time. This in turn stretches our minds because we can’t have everything we want on a song. We need to arrange our tunes more carefully because of this.
Q. Your new Astrachan solo project does hearken back to later-era Beatles, but it also pulls on some more modern strings, too. What were some of the artists that influenced you the most in creating this new music?
A. I listen to a lot of Cat Stevens and George Harrison. I would say those two are my biggest influences for this album. When it comes to modern artists, I used Whitney, Drugdealer, and Dr. Dog as my muses — Whitney for their simple yet catchy arrangements that literally make anyone smile; Drugdealer for his spiritual and psychedelic tendencies towards music; and Dr. Dog for their gruff and analog approach to making music.
Q. You mentioned your travels are reflected in these solo recordings. How so?
A. Most of the songs on this record were written in random places across the globe. The idea that all the songs on the album have a life and a travel story makes them more potent to me. I was privileged enough to be able to spend a lot of time in Kathmandu and Ladakh on a study abroad program where I learned about the Tibetan diaspora as well as the Tibetan language. When I came back, I graduated pretty soon after and worked the summer, and took my car out to some pretty lovely places in the Catskills. I was able to see one of my favorite bands in concert on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, The Fugs. It was Ed Sander’s 80th birthday, and I couldn’t feel more lucky to be seeing them return to their younger selves onstage. I feel as though this record was written as a way to unpack my time from a junior in college to right before covid hit. During that time, I was lucky enough to meet so many old masters and see so many beautiful places which helped guide me in ways spiritually, musically, and mentally that I will never forget. I could really talk all day about this stuff!
Q. Please do! What sort of messages from those experiences are you hoping to convey to listeners through these songs?
A. The creation and experimentation of this album resulted in a meditation of love, adventure, and friendship! Each song takes on the story of a moment that latched onto my heart with the tenderest of holds. The songs themselves are how I was able to make visible the sense-experience of each flicker in space that I traversed.
Q. This pandemic has been challenging for bands, not only in limiting shows and exposure, but also in simply creating music with other artists. How did you manage to work around some of those pitfalls?
A. My studio was in my home so it was actually so easy to navigate. I had nothing else to do!!!
Q. You guys recently moved to Chicago from Boston, not long before the pandemic shut the city’s venues down. (Ugh! Timing!) Other than performing on stage again, what are you most looking forward to now that the city is forging ahead with opening?
A. Playing live music and doing more puppet shows and theater!!! (Note: Ben has also tapped his theatrical background and written and been musical director for a children’s puppet show called “At the Garden.” “I got involved in it because my partner is a puppeteer and clown and we performed this puppet show at the Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm (which is now gone) about rent strike and communism. It sounds weird, I know, but it was honestly such a blast.”)
What else is coming up for you and/or Berta Bigtoe?
I have some more tunes in my back pocket for Astrachan so I most likely will be releasing those shortly after the album’s release. And for Berta, we had a tour lined up during COVID, and that was obviously cancelled, so we’re now picking up the pieces and rescheduling something for November of 2021 with DirtBike, a lofi act out of Florida.