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Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014

Herman Astro Honor Tradition with ‘Mean Gene’

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Touring can be full of adventure, but for some bands after long stints on the road, touring can begin to feel more like a business obligation. It certainly began to seem that way for Milwaukee’s Herman Astro after several years of touring behind their debut album Chico. That’s not to say they didn’t enjoy their time on the road, or the opportunity to open for acts like Alabama Shakes, but they felt like they needed to get back to making music.

“We had to take a step back and be like, ‘Let’s get back to writing this music, recording this music and getting it out to Milwaukee and seeing what happens with that,’” says singer Zachary Pluer.

To record their new album, Mean Gene, the band set up shop once again at Howl Street Recordings for about five days. Overall, Pluer says it was a special period in time that perfectly captured the band’s current abilities.

“It was very much in the moment,” Pluer says. “I think we’ve definitely honed our sound a lot more. As we’ve all grown up, we’ve continued to figure out where we all are individually and draw on those strengths and sort of weed out the weaknesses. I think with Mean Gene you can tell that we’ve fully caught our stride and are putting things in the right place and taking things out when we don’t need them.”

Whereas Chico detailed the desperation that often comes with escaping youth, Mean Gene is a wiser and bolder affair that blends blues, funk, rock, pop and jam into a cohesive mix. The album has a distinctly ’70s-inspired sound and boasts strong horn contributions from Jaems Murphy, Kevin Klemme and Nick Berg.

“The sounds from that time are generally tighter, and the production quality was tighter, where everything felt a little closer to you,” Pluer says of the ’70s feel. “It fit with the theme of the album and theme of the songs.”

The title and cover art also continues the tradition that band started with Chico: honoring band members’ fathers. This time they chose bass player Adam Dosemagen’s father Gene Dosemagen. Pluer says that Gene is “just about at every show” and is “the loudest guy in the crowd.”

“His nickname in the ’70s was Mean Gene the Dancing Machine,” says Pluer. “He was quite the character. The cover is him and his wife from the ’70s.”

Mean Gene includes songs featuring a wide range of topics and sounds, from the Boston-ish fighting vibe of “We Picked the Fight” to the sparse ’70s Philadelphia soul/Marvin Gaye feel of “Dust Me Off,” the traveling relationship ode of “Off We Go” and the New Orleans-flavored kiss-off to student loans “Sallie.”

“We wanted to put a lot of energy to each and every one of them,” Pluer says of the songs. “We wanted to make them bigger so we put horns on every song and keyboards, backup vocals, and I think we accomplished that.”

Recording Mean Gene also offered the band opportunities to break from habit.

“With Chico we had everything streamlined before we went into the studio. We laid everything down before and everything was so polished,” Pluer says. “This one there were a couple loose ends and it felt good to do that in the spur of the moment and just make a quick decision and run with it.”

Herman Astro play an album release show Saturday, Sept. 6 at 9 p.m. at Mad Planet with Bryan Cherry and DJ Tarik Moody.