Blasting Off: With its Third Album, Two Inch Astronaut is Breaking Free of the City’s Musical Past

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[Originally appeared in the Washington City Paper on February 5, 2016]

Sure, Sam Rosenberg is nervous. Why wouldn’t he be?

He’s milling around the basement of the Kay Spiritual Life Center, the interfaith chapel tucked at the northeast end of the American University quad, and soon his band, Two Inch Astronaut, will hoist instruments and play its brand of well-honed post-punk in front of a few dozen college kids. It’s a few weeks before the band will drop its third and most anticipated record, Personal Life—an album that could, all cosmic winds blowing the the right way, propel the Colesville, Md. trio into a higher indie rock strata. So yeah, Rosenberg is nervous.

But amid the din of soundchecks and chattering teens—before a series of well-timed premieres would expose the new 10-song LP to the public—he explains why: He just wants to know what people will write about it.

At this moment in the life of Two Inch Astronaut, it feels like a legitimate question. Rock writers from a panoply of reputable publications have expended a considerable amount of words on the band, mostly after its last full-length, 2014’s Foulbrood. Most of those writers have trekked the same logical path: Two Inch Astronaut, a post-hardcore rock band from the D.C. area, is the chosen heir of the vibrant Dischord Records scene of the late 1990s and early 2000s that housed the band’s musical kinfolk: Jawbox, Q and Not U, Black Eyes, and the like.

Such comparisons never quite sat well with Rosenberg and the band’s longtime drummer and cellist, Matt Gatwood. They’re aware that band members bitching about the press they receive is never a good look, but the cookie-cutter descriptions of Two Inch as just another post-y band in a long line of similar D.C. groups? Rosenberg calls them “reductive.”

It’s hard to blame the band for whatever minor grudge it may harbor against the facile analogies of music pundits. For much of the band’s career, it has embraced a sonic chaos that so many bands eschew. Yes, one can heap Two Inch into the infinite abyss of post-hardcore bands, which at this point is like calling a band “a band.” But over two full-length albums and a handful of splits and EPs, Two Inch has blasted through the sometimes starchy conventions of its contemporaries—toying with odd beats, spastic interruptions, and, at times, alt-rock’s more radio-friendly tendencies. It dodges and feints any attempt to pin it down.

Now, Personal Life introduces new wrinkles to the band’s already complex profile. The record, guided by storied punk musician and producer J. Robbins, strikes notes found nowhere else in the Two Inch catalogue. It’s exceptional, mainly because the record is so damn listenable. Not that the band’s prior albums were somehow bad; they are almost universally praised, and rightfully so. They were, however, punk records on a spiritual level, and they sounded like it. But for long stretches of Personal Life, Rosenberg, Gatwood, and new bassistAndy Chervenak perform at a catchy, clear, mid-tempo clip that defies so many past associations with the city’s noisy post-punk history.

“When Foulbrood came out, I was really blown away. I thought it was one of the better records I would ever release through the label,” says Dan Goldin, co-owner of Exploding In Sound, the record label that Two Inch has called home for its past two albums. “Then, when I first heard Personal Life, it blew my mind. I thought: This was significantly better.”

The album stands in stark contrast to Foulbrood beyond any sonic differences.Foulbrood is a moody, at times dark album, and, to hear the band explain it, the album’s atmosphere was the product of turmoil and doubt, written during struggles with lineup changes and bleakness otherwise.

“What strikes me about that now is that it’s really miserable sounding,” Rosenberg says about Foulbrood. “It’s very depressing.”

As the band was preparing to record Foulbrood, its former bassist, Daniel Pouridas, was expecting his first child and was quickly growing away from the band and toward full-time fatherhood. His absence left the band in flux, and neither Rosenberg nor Gatwood could predict the group’s fate. That sense of impending doom permeates the album, on which only Rosenberg and Gatwood appear. “We weren’t sure what we were going to do,” Rosenberg says.

Plus, the songwriting on Foulbrood fell mainly to Rosenberg, and that solitary task left him tunneling deep into his own psyche, searching for material. As with most of us, if you dig too deep, the light will vanish above you. “It’s a little more of me than I’m comfortable with,” Rosenberg says of Foulbrood. “It’s a little claustrophobic.”

It seems predestined now, but Chervenak’s move back to D.C. from Boston—literally at the same time Rosenberg and Gatwood were driving to Boston to record Foulbrood at Warrior Camp Studios—was happenstance. Chervenak grew up with Rosenberg and Gatwood in Maryland, then left for music school in Boston seven years ago. He sang and played guitar in Grass Is Green, which recorded a split single with Two Inch and toured with the band over the years. When he first returned to D.C., he played second guitar in Two Inch behind Rosenberg. But when Pouridas left the band, Chervenak took over bass full time. The bleak uncertainty that permeated Foulbrood faded into the distance.

Now freed to focus on the music, the songs that would become Personal Lifeflowed from the trio. “We started really clicking right away,” Rosenberg says. “We wrote a lot very quickly. I think that’s kind of evident in the sound.”

With Chervenak in the band, its writing process transformed. Often, Rosenberg wrote and arranged most of Two Inch’s songs, more by default than design. For the new record, Chervenak became far more involved in songwriting and arrangement; Gatwood, too. For the first time in the band’s history, its members jammed. Songs arose organically and collectively. They’ve all known each other for years, grew up together. They all claim a similar musical provenance, and as such, the writing became democratic.

Chervenak has a knack for arrangements, as well as the perspective and patience to consider the entirety of a song. The resulting songs were longer and sonically cleaner. Gone were the layers of guitars that often blanketed past Two Inch songs. For the most part, the songs on the new record include tracks for bass, drums, and a single guitar, with an extra layer of guitar reserved for the choruses. Chervenak’s presence helped the band write brighter songs. Even when mired in thematic darkness, even when quiet, Personal Life pops with energy.

“I think Andy being in the band played a big role in the way the whole feel of the album came out—not having those very subdued parts, or at least not for very long before we go back into something more energetic or fun,” Gatwood says.

Robbins, Personal Life’s producer, says he felt the trio’s energy almost immediately once they got into the studio. He likes Foulbrood—again, just about everyone does—but when he listens to it, he can hear the stacks of guitar tracks. It’s perhaps as polished as a spastic, chaotic album can be. For Personal Life, Robbins and the band wanted the record to capture the essence of the band’s arresting live shows.

“A lot of people feel that way: If one guitar is good, two guitars is twice as good,” Robbins says. “Sometimes that’s completely true. But those guys have actual performance dynamics and stuff that’s happening. Sometimes when there’s a lot of tracking, you obfuscate that.”

Indeed, the band’s on-stage performance has helped it carve a place for itself across a number of overlapping micro-scenes in the city. Live, they radiate a subtle intensity. Rosenberg and Chervenak remain relatively stationary during their sets—absent are wild gestations, kicks, and jumps. But the music compels. Ardent fans drum at the air, shout along with Rosenberg during the choruses. Concert-goers seeing Two Inch for the first time—and there were several at the American University show last month—turn and stare wide-eyed at one another between songs, as if to say: “Holy shit, did you see that?”

That easy intensity permeates the new record. It sounds just as it was intended—clear, uncluttered, present. The simplicity of the tracking has allowed Personal Life to breathe and, perhaps, to become accessible to a listening audience beyond the underground rock world.

If that is the case, and there’s a larger audience out there waiting for Two Inch Astronaut, the band is unconcerned. It may appear primed to have a “moment”—an anticipated new record, a European tour with post-punk heavyweights La Dispute under its belt, newfound energy and sounds—but the members themselves dismiss such suggestions out of hand.

“We’ve hit something, some sort of ceiling,” Gatwood says of the band’s ambitions. “Which is fine. It’s great. We’ll hopefully keep getting opportunities to play awesome shows and go on tours. It’s not like a turning point.”

Chervenak says he’s more or less given up on the dream of making a living playing music. Even bands that have experienced considerable successes are still just scraping by. “I think it’s better to just put out good work and not worry about where it’s going to take you or what opportunities you’re going to get from it,” he says.

With Personal Life, the band has indeed put out good work. Opportunities may manifest, or they may not. But if Rosenberg is nervous about what people will say about the new record, then fine. Let’s start here: Personal Life is an album uncluttered by complexities, a showcase for the band’s considerable talents, and an unblinking testament to maturity and the fleeting triumph of light over gloom. It’s the sound of a band becoming whole.

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