Australian band Asteroid Ekosystem are one of those unique fusions of musical influences that defy all connection to the term and seem to move somewhere beyond. A quartet of pianist Alister Spence, bassist Lloyd Swanton (The Necks), and drummer Toby Hall, who have all played together for years in the Alister Spence Trio, they’re joined by legendary guitarist and songwriter Ed Kuepper (The Saints/The Aints!/Laughing Clowns). So on paper it’s jazz meets rock, but even a cursory listen will quickly suggest so much more. I saw them play a couple of years ago at Womadelaide and found myself repeatedly wondering what I was hearing as the music just felt so elusive. Just when you thought you understood what was happening, it would shift gears and become something new entirely. It was exciting, confounding and forward thinking in equal measure. It was enough to give improvisation a good name.
They’ve just released a live album, recorded during a four week Sydney residency in late 2022, Live at The Great Club, and it’s an incredible suite of music, that put me right back slack jawed, witnessing them in full flight. It’s music that feels untethered by genre restrictions, or even improvisational niceties, as the quartet selflessly work together, listen and connect to each other, and are more than content to push the sound out as far as it wants to go. We took the opportunity to have a brief email chat with pianist Alister Spence ahead of their Sydney launch.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve been playing with your trio of Lloyd and Toby, for what 20 something years? Do you remember what attracted you to them musically initially and has this changed over time?
Alister Spence: Yes it’s now close to 30 years playing together now as a trio. With Lloyd and Toby from the outset there was a way to make creative collective music events happen. They were always engaged and putting forward terrific musical ideas when we played. And they were fun people to be with. It was energetic, full of potential, and fun!.
Cyclic Defrost: Why did you let a rock guy like Ed Kuepper crash your gang? Have you lost your mind? How did it come about? What were the initial discussions/ intentions?
Alister Spence: In 2008 I was invited to play piano and organ with Ed for the ‘Don’t Look Back’ Festival. I had known a bit about Ed’s music and always enjoyed what I heard (we both lived in Newtown in the mid 1980s. I still do), but now I had a chance to listen carefully. I grew to love the sense of sonic adventure in the way Ed plays and improvises, and his always varying tone colours.
Cyclic Defrost: How does Ed’s presence change the way the trio play?
Alister Spence: That’s a difficult question to answer! In a way nothing has changed except that it’s now a four-way interaction. Improvising or real-time music creation is about exploring options and being patient while coaxing something unified into development. Allowing space for all the players and their idiosyncratic ways of doing things.
Cyclic Defrost: It’s tempting to call the music you have created fusion, as you can hear the rock heritage in Ed’s playing, and your trio’s jazz leanings. But it’s very much not Weather Report et al. Do you feel its part of that tradition though? And was this ever discussed? Or is it something else entirely?
Alister Spence: I’m aware that we can be seen as being in this category and also keen that we don’t go down the ‘rocky-rhythm-drives-the-jazzy-solo’ path. None of us in the band think of music in this way. We are all interested in free (as in non-genre-specific) and sound-based improvisation. I really enjoy playing rock music as well, and Ed has listened to heaps of free and avant garde jazz. Lloyd brings the same sensibilities that he applies in the Necks, and Toby is forever on the look out for new sound and rhythm ideas.
Cyclic Defrost: When I saw you play at Womadelaide I kept wondering what I was hearing. It felt familiar at times, then it would deviate into something new and quit different. I understand that the pieces on your debut album were created out of improvised jams. Can you tell us about those initial jams and how they became your ‘songs?’
Alister Spence: The pieces as they are at the moment consist of a few musical cells or ‘go-to’ areas supported by group improvisation. These areas might reference a certain rhythmic basis, or a simple melody, or guitar riff, or bass line.
When the music was initially recorded I had written a page or so of ‘word scores’: one or two sentences to describe some approaches we could try—Lloyd, Toby, and I have used this approach in trio recording for over 15 years. In a couple of cases I had a simple chord structure or bass line, but otherwise we went with these word scores and recorded takes to see what we could make of these. After the recording I spent a long time sifting through and trying to identify which takes were strongest compositionally. In a few cases I re-introduced samples of various instruments. I do that now live when we play via Ableton Live and a midi trigger..
Cyclic Defrost: To what extent does improvisation continue to play a role?
Alister Spence: Improvisation is central to the music. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that if the music begins to feel too ‘formulaic’ it’s probably time to leave that piece alone and move on to something new.
Cyclic Defrost: What prompted the live album? Is it about demonstrating how far the tunes have continued to evolve? Do you think a song ever finished for the band?
Alister Spence: In 2022 we had the first opportunity to play shows as the debut album Asteroid Ekosystem was launched during Covid in 2020. Each show, whether Womadelaide, or Brunswick Ballroom, or Orange Winter Jazz Festival — was so brilliant, and enerigised, and inventive. Like we’d been let out of a bag (not a great metaphor)! So when the opportunity came at the end of the year to document this development as a band I jumped at it.
Cyclic Defrost: What has surprised you the most about this project?
I think I’m always hoping to be surprised in music: it’s what I draws me to do it. So many things: Ed’s ongoing enthusiasm for the project, just the fact we could actually make the recording happen in the first place, the particular and distinctive (I think) sound that we have together.
Cyclic Defrost: I’ve been thinking about group dynamics, when a long settled group has a new member join, that it can throw things out of whack, and the group has to reform in a way that subsumes the new person, but the long held individual roles slightly change as a result, which can be a little settling or challenging for individual members. I think its called, storming, norming and forming. Does any of this ring true to your experience? Or is it just that jazz dudes adapt?
Alister Spence: When I first asked Ed it was because I wanted to make a new trio album and I thought it could be something very special with Ed’s contribution. By 2020 I’d had quite a few chances to play with Ed including two tours with the re-formed Laughing Clowns, then the Aints! And we had gotten to know each other and each other’s way of doing things quite well. With Lloyd and Toby that trust and adaptability was already there, established over a long period of time: we are life-long friends. I think trust, respect, and a sense of perspective are key..
Cyclic Defrost: Is Ed’s presence going to continue, are you now a band? And if so what are the plans?
Alister Spence: Yes. Right from the start it was obvious that Asteroid Ekosystem is its own distinct project. We will play more, record again in 2024. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we come up with!
Live @ The Great Club is out now. You can find it here.
Asteroid Ekosystem return to Sydney’s The Great Club on October 21st for their only Australian appearance this year playing two sets. You can find tickets here.
Band photo credit: Anna White