Rewind: Alan D. Oldham on “Presents The Adventures Of The Astral Pirates”

Posted: October 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

In discussion with Alan D. Oldham on “Presents The Adventures Of The Astral Pirates” by Lenny White (1978).

When and how was your first encounter with “Astral Pirates”?

My late grandmother used to work at Wayne County Community College in the ’70s in Detroit and was friends with the music reviewer for the school newspaper. When she finished reviewing a record or didn’t want it anymore, she gave it to my grandmother and she gave it to me. I was in my early teens. I got a few albums that way. This was 1978.

Why did you choose this album of all his works? What makes it so
important for you?

I didn’t choose it, it chose me! It was one of the records that my grandmother gave me. There was a stack of them. Queen “Jazz,” A Jan Hammer album. Stuff that was on Elektra in those days. But this one stood out  for me because of the Mike Kaluta painted cover, the  comic-book element and sci-fi concept.

How would you describe the album’s concept and execution? It is quite varied stylistically, isn’t it?

It is, but also consistent with the progressive jazz fusion sound of the time. Weather Report, Stanley Clarke, etc.

Where do you think the occasional Eastern leanings in the music come from?

Who knows, maybe Lenny had toured the East with Return to Forever!

There is a disco funk tinge to a few of the album’s songs. Was disco as important for your musical upbringing as jazz was? How well do jazz and disco go together?

Disco was big at the time of “Astral Pirates.” Jazz guys like Wilton Felder and Joe Sample had disco hits back then. A little bit later, like 1980, Herbie Hancock and George Duke had funk/jazz hits as well.

Is there other music White contributed to that you find similarly accomplished?

Hell yeah. He did five albums for Elektra of which “Astral Pirates” was the fourth. These were his best albums to me. I got “Astral Pirates” and “Streamline” from my grandmother, then went out and bought the other three with my allowance money! Peaches Records in the Green-8 shopping center in Southfield! Caught the bus. Also Professional’s Records on 7 Mile.

What do you like about fusion in contrast to other jazz styles?

The progressive rock element. The casual racial integration of the band members.

Would you say that traces of the album’s concept can be found in Detroit Techno?

Absolutely! Mad Mike is a fan of this record too. When we first met, we bonded over it. I also got my radio gig at WDET because  of this record. When I told the music director I was a Lenny fan,  she hired me.

It is often said that Lenny White’s science fiction focus for the album was highly influenced by the success of “Star Wars” shortly before. Would you agree? What drew you to science fiction?

A lot of stuff was sci-fi back then because of “Star Wars.” I don’t know, I’ve always liked science fiction my whole life. That, and superheroes.

How do you view black music’s science fiction angle? Is there a direct line from Sun Ra, to Lenny White, George Clinton, Afrika Bambataa and then Detroit Techno?

Like I said, a lot of cats were space back then, with the one-piece silver jumpsuits and stuff. Although Parliament/Funkadelic took it furthest with an actual spaceship that blasted off! I think Black folks just wanted to blast off from racist Earth. Or it was a euphemism for upward mobility. Or just drug slang for getting high. Don’t know if it’s so much a direct historical line as much as a shared aesthetic of the times. It’s the total inverse now, completely low and ghetto-centric. No vision.

How would you characterize this cultural and aesthetic term of
afro-futurism? Does the concept matter for your work?

Not really. But since I’m Black and draw sci-fi/comic images and make “futuristic” techno music, I’ve been put under that umbrella. Abdul Haqq’s stuff is more traditionally “afro-futuristic” in my view. He’s got that ancient griot thing happening. My art style’s too clean and modern.

How has the concept changed musically and ideologically from Lenny White to the music of today than can be associated with its ideas?

Today’s Black music has nothing to do with Lenny’s ideas I’m afraid. I don’t really hear any expansion, reaching, or experimentation. It’s all dumbed-down. At least on the pop/R&B side. Even a lot of our electronic music is all about software capabilities and not musical concept, really.

It is often said that nothing dates quicker than views of the future.
Is science fiction still necessary? And how important is escapism anyway?

Both are very important! Somebody’s got to do the dreaming. Only low/middlebrow people (not you of course!!!) question whether it’s necessary. Yet the guys who came up with the cell phones we all use were Star Trek fans and wanted to make Kirk’s communicator a reality.

You are also a prolific visual artist. Did this album and its science
fiction context influence your work in this field?

Yeah!!!!! It was a HUGE influence. I used to just read the story in  the gatefold sleeve and listen to the music over and over. These were the days before videos and you let your imagination run wild. I did a lot of my little comics when I was a kid listening to this and his other classic album “Streamline.” Years later after I’d got into making electronic music, I did a little mini-cover of “Heavy Metal Monster” at the end of my old “Signals and Minimalism” EP on Pure Sonik (the clear vinyl one).

Sounds Like Me 10/09

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