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Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Herman Astro Catches Grooves

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Sometimes a picture extends so far beyond the moment it captures that it stands as an enduring metaphor. For the Milwaukee blues-soul-rock band Herman Astro, that's the case with the cover of their debut album, Chico, a photograph of a grinning, triumphant young man holding a giant fish in front of a boat.

That young man, in fact, is drummer Cody Calderon's father Chico, circa 1977. Besides being a striking image in its own right, the image clues in the listener to the vibrant and adventurous nature of the band.

"He's got this little glimmer to his eyes, and that reflects what we're thinking about— hopefully our eventual rise," Calderon says. "We're looking forward and are excited."

The band began playing together in 2009, but their ties go back much further. Calderon is joined by stepbrother Zachary Pluer (vocals/acoustic guitar) and childhood friends Eric LeMieux (electric guitar) and Adam Dosemagen (bass).

The band's gritty, blues- and soul-based sound is shaped by the different backgrounds of each member. Calderon brings a lot of Latin and funk rhythms to the table on drums, while Dosemagen keeps busy with monster bass lines. LeMieux lays down gritty guitar work. Topping it off is Pluer's soulful vocals.

"Cody and Dos are more from the jam background. They're heavily influenced by funk and jazz drum and bass. I think that's what harnesses us," Pluer says. "The rhythm section has allowed Eric and I to go over it to create something more unique, so it's not just a throwback funk band. We're adding those different styles because the rhythm section is so tight and unique."

Andrew Nelson, the band's manager, adds that while the band shares influences with Fitz and the Tantrums and Kings Go Forth (both of which the group has opened for), Herman Astro's diverse range of influences also includes Latin rhythms and shoegaze, creating a different and unique dynamic.

That dynamic is especially evident during live shows.

"You see them joking on stage," Nelson says. "These guys are always so free, and know what each other is doing. Their shows are always lively and vibrant and have this great energy to them. I think that comes from a deep place that they have in all of them, this deep connection and friendship."

Nelson describes their music and live show as a roller coaster, with really exciting, danceable highs—"a lot of ladies dancing in the front to their songs"—broken up by powerful, heartbreaking songs.

The band recorded Chico mostly live at Howl Street studio to capture the spirit of those shows.

"We wanted to record as live as possible to duplicate our live shows instead of tracking instruments individually, because sometimes you lose a little bit of that feeling when you're not all in one room and all recording at the same time," Calderon says.

In addition to their close bond, the band's shared experiences as 20-somethings give the music a special immediacy and strength. Like Calderon's father's youthful and vigorous attempt to catch that fish on the cover, the band pursues its dreams with great determination.

"I think in our live show you can see the desperation that comes along with being that age. We're constantly pushing, pushing, pushing. I think you can see that in all the songs," Pluer says.

Herman Astro plays an album release show at Mad Planet on Saturday, Dec. 17, at 9 p.m. with The Right Now and DJ Marcus Doucette. Tickets ($5 advance, $8 door) include a copy of the album.
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