Astral Spirits' Expanding Universe
An interview with Astral Spirits founder, Nate Cross, on origins, current projects, and using your platform.
Astral Spirits has become one of the most recognizable labels in the world of experimental jazz and improvised music. Since starting it in 2014, founder Nate Cross has pushed boundaries and expanded his offerings with the Astral Editions label. Cross is someone after my own heart, always looking forward and trying to figure how much is possible with his labels. When I first learned about Astral Spirits a few years ago, it was overwhelming in the best way. Years later, I still haven’t explored everything.
Astral Spirits has worked with titans like Joe McPhee, Roscoe Mitchell, and Hamid Drake, presenting their work alongside newer artists like Luke Stewart, claire rousay, and Crazy Doberman. With Astral Editions taking off, too, there’s always something new and interesting around the corner. Nate and I talked in early March as Austin was thawing out from February’s polar hell.
Astral Spirits released Nights on Saturn (communication) from [AHMED] this week, an incredible new rumination on the music of Ahmed Abdul-Malik. It’s one of my favorite records so far this year.
Let’s start by going way back and I want to talk about some of your earliest memories with music when you were younger.
Well, it's, it's kind of hard. I kind of look at twofold. So there's the early early stuff when I was a kid. So I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is a weird little town. It’s not a bad place. It was an okay place to grow up when you’re a kid. We had five acres and had animals and stuff. I loved it. But there's not a ton of culture there, at least when I grew up. There’s more now, but not really back then. So the earliest stuff I remember, it doesn't really relate into the label per se. I have two older brothers. And I remember my oldest brother, who's eight years older, went to college, and when he came back - he was 18 and I was 10 - I remember looking through CDs and finding stuff like The Jesus and Mary Chain and Front 242. And I remember thinking, “what is weird stuff? Okay, this is cool.” Then my other brother, he got me into stuff like Neil Young and Frank Zappa and that whole world. So I was always kind of curious.
Then in high school, I kind of got in with the band nerds. I was never great at playing instruments, but I tried, and I really liked hanging out with them. So I joined jazz band even though I was a terrible guitarist. Even in a high school jazz band, I had no business being in it. And then I remember hearing Charles Mingus, and that was probably the first thing that really relates to the label. But I remember a friend giving me Cumbia & Jazz Fusion - which is one of the later Mingus records - but that still blew my mind. I was just listening, thinking, “Whoa, what is this?!” So that was amazing.
Then I ended up going to college in Bloomington, Indiana, at IU which was incredible. Things kind of took off from there. It was the best. There was a place called TD’s CDs and LPs - Tom Donahue, who, funnily enough, ended up in Bloomington, but he had lived in Austin before that. And, this is a little later, but I remember when I left Bloomington and told him, “Yeah, I'm gonna go Austin and see some friends, and live there and go on tour.” And he was just like, “Ah, I fucking hate Austin. Never go there.” He hated it so much. It was so funny.
Did you ever find out why he hated it so much?
No, I never knew. He ended up passing away about five years after I left. He ended up getting cancer, it was really kind of tragic. He was a beautiful man. And I mean, I would go to that store and that’s where I first found stuff on Thrill Jockey and Drag City. That’s where I learned about Fred Anderson and Mats Gustafsson and all these people. This was in the late ‘90s, early 2000s timeline-wise. So that was huge.
The two things that really stick out; first, a friend of mine just bought me a ticket to this show. He was like, “you gotta come to the show. It’s gonna be amazing.” He told me who it was and at the time I didn’t know any of the names, but figured I would still go. So I went and it completely blew my mind. The show ended up being Peter Brotzmann and William Parker and Hamid Drake. It was the Die Like a Dog Trio. I’d never seen anything like that before. That was the first big moment.
The other big one that changed my trajectory… so there was a venue there called Second Story, which was beautiful and amazing. And this was around the time that Magnolia Electric Company was about to start, and John Wilkes Booze was around. There was a little scene there. Secretly Canadian was just coming up. I wasn't cool enough to hang with them, and I'm okay with that. But I always went to shows and I loved it. So Second Story had shows all the time and I'd go there constantly. In 2001, I was really into American Analog Set. And randomly Oneida was opening on that bill. I didn't know anything about them. I’d never heard of them. I was a little stoned at the time and they started with “Sheets of Easter.” You know, 20 minutes, one chord. I had never heard anything like that before. I didn’t even want to listen to American Analog Set after seeing that. I’d never been into super rock music like that before, but something the repetitiveness blew me away. Yeah, so those are the two really formative experiences that were game changing.
So then, what made you want to start doing a record label?
I've always loved labels and the idea of record labels. The main impetus, honestly, was that I'd played in bands for a while, and done the touring thing. It was around the time when my wife and I were starting to thinki about starting a family, and touring wasn’t really paying the bills. And I was thinking, “Okay. maybe this isn't my future.” It was fun. It was kind of like a good vacation. I was trying to think of ways to stay a part of the scene in a way. I mean, I still play music and it's still a thing that's never gone away. But here in Austin, it's just not my career. So I sort of wanted to figure out how to stay in the scene in some way.
And at that same time, I had gotten more and more and more and more into improv. Right around the time I started the label, I'd met Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, who'd just moved here. And I’d seen The Thing a bunch of times and got to meet Joe McPhee. At the same time, meeting people like Chris Cogburn, who runs the No Idea Festival. And PG Moreno, who does Epistrophy Arts and most of the jazz shows here. So meeting those folks, I started thinking I really wanted to do something like that. I came up with this harebrained scheme, thinking “I'm going to get grants from the city and do shows. And the thing that's going to make me different is I'm going to do a tape release of the shows I put on”! Something like that.
Then I talked to Morgan Coy, who ran Monofonus Press here in Austin. I told him,”Hey I want to meet and pitch this idea to you.” I’m thinking maybe I can hit him up for some investment money - not a lot - I was hoping he’d give me $500 or something. I met with him and told him the idea. And needless to say he was really nice. A couple of days later, he just emailed me back and said “Hey, why don't you just start a label under Monofonus Press? I’ll fund it at the start, and we'll just go and we'll talk in a few years and see what happens.” And so that's when I realized I wasn’t going to do shows, I was going to release records and go from there. That’s sort of it where it began.
And that was in 2014 sometime, right?
Yeah, I think I went and talked to Morgan around then, maybe 2012 or 2013, but around that time period.
I'm really curious about the art and design aspect of it. First of all, where did the font come from? Tell me about the font.
The font was from my friend MasonMcFee, who can be found at https://hellomaseman.com. He was the first person I went to about design because he was a good friend, and I asked him to design a logo. He also came up with the original template of the first tape - that had the symbols on it. So he's the one that came up with this font. For the first few years, people would ask about the font we use and I have to search my email real quick because I didn’t even know that it was Cooper Black. He just picked it and it became this thing. Mason is the biggest reason why Astral looks like it does. When I went to him, I told him the main thing I wanted was for it to look like Impulse, basically. The spines - the record spines and even the tapes, I pretty much lifted that from Impulse, just with different colors and the logo… maybe a little different placement.
Well, I mean that's a good place to lift it from. Those have always been some of the best covers.
Exactly. When I think of all those old jazz labels, like Prestige, Impulse, Blue Note, hell even Riverside - they all had their own unique look. I was kind of hoping that it would be that thing where when you’d see a record, you’d know what it was. I’ve always loved that kind of thing, like in high school or college if it was on Thrill Jockey, you’d know it because it kind of looks the same. That’s kind of what I wanted to create.
So then a few years in, you had the shift where it went from the symbols to something a little more image based.
Yeah, Jaime Zuverza took over because it basically just got to the point where Mason was getting a little too busy with other freelance design work and he just didn't have time. And I was - and still am - doing way too much. And it's cool - I get it. But I’ve known Jaime for a while through bands he’s played in here in Austin, and he does amazing work. He's kind of one of those guys. Sort of like a Robert Beatty or something where he does a lot of really big stuff like Wooden Shjips or something, where he's getting paid more, but he gives me a great deal because he knows it's gonna be an insane amount of stuff. It’s basically a steady paycheck.
So Jaime’s always been game. I love his art and what he’s done, and it also seemed a little out of place for jazz and improv stuff, which I also liked. I’m not anti-records-with-people’s-faces on the cover, but it can get a little too intense. But Jaime took over after a couple years and has really just rolled with it.
Now that I’ve been doing more LPs, I’ve been more willing to let people do what they want with it and open it up a little more. But I do try to stick the font, Cooper Black, and the spine is the one thing I won’t budge on.
I was looking at some of the recent ones and thinking about how it’s started branching out a bit. Like the Roscoe Mitchell and Mike Reed cover - it’s like nothing else. Totally it’s own thing. It’s amazing.
Yeah. I mean, when Roscoe Mitchell wants to do a record, you say “Yes, please.” And then when he wants to put his art on the cover, of course! It’s amazing
So how’d that record (Roscoe Mitchell and Mike Reed The Ritual and The Dance) come about?
That one - it’s kind of amazing. So that one came from Mike Reed, the drummer. I've known him for many years through event production work and my day job at South by Southwest. Mike runs Constellation and The Hungry Brain in Chicago and he’s also the main guy that runs the Pitchfork Festival. He owns the production company. So when I was still working seasonally for South by Southwest, I was trying to pick up extra work outside of the November through April season. So I’d go to Chicago and work Pitchfork Fest. It was always a blast because it's all these jazz dudes like Mike Reed and Dave Rempis and Quin Kirchner. I met a lot of people that I released records for from being stage manager for a Pitchfork Festival But that's sort of how I got to know Mike.
We’d always talk about doing a record and he’s always sitting on a bunch of music, but he’s always busy running venues. With the pandemic, he didn’t have as much to do so he finally came to me and said, “I have a few records. Maybe you want to do ‘em?” And I said, “Sure, let me take a look!” And now I’m doing four records with Mike this year.
There’s the Roscoe one. There’s the album with Wadada Leo Smith and Douglas Ewart coming out soon. And there are two more and the one that’s coming out last is the first one he pitched to me. The Roscoe album had been at two other labels at various points, but Roscoe didn’t like the contract with one and the other was just kind of sitting on it, I guess. So Mike asked if I’d want to do that record and I said of course. I figured that would be one of the later ones, but it was crazy. As soon as the contract was signed, he sent me the artwork the next day and I sent it to my friend. Then about two weeks later, we had a record going off to the pressing plant. It was crazy, but it was great.
That’s wild, wow! And that record is so good, so good. I’ve listened to it a lot in the last few weeks and it basically blows my mind every time.
What I love about it - it’s so insane. He’s in his 80s and it’s basically 30 minutes of non-stop going off.
That’s what really got me. I’m sitting there thinking, “jeez I’m exhausted just listening to this!” And I’m half his age! It’s almost superhuman. He’s one of the best that ever will be.
Yeah! And I knew it was good when I was listening to the test pressing, and my kids were just like, “Can you please turn that off, dad?” I knew then just how good it is.
So when did Astral Editions come about then? And what was the reason for doing a sub-label like that?
The reason I started that... in my head right now, I’m like, “Why did I start that?” [laughs]
I mean, I love sublabels and side labels and all of that. All you’ve got to do is look at Digitalis and the 1800 offshoot labels to realize that.
[laughs] When I started it, in my head, the reason was because Astral Spirits was picking up steam and it was going well. It was great. And I was getting to the point where I was getting too many demos. I mean, I’m still there, but it was like getting kind of ridiculous. But there was a lot of really great stuff. So I’m thinking, “Damn, I wish I could do more because a lot of this is really good.”. So I thought, “You know what I'm going to do? It’s 2018. We're in modern times. I’m going to start a digital only label. It's gonna go great.” And it was slow.
The idea was, though, that it would be digital only but then eventually, that group will have a physical release later on Astral Spirits. So I was thinking of it in terms like that because I wanted to release more. It started great, but there were only actually a couple things where that ended up happening. So I sort of pivoted after the first year because it was just... it was fine. But it didn't really do anything for the artists themselves. I didn’t feel like it was helping them, so I wasn’t sure what the point was.
So in the second year, I thought I’d try some limited tape pressings and we'll just go with that. Because I knew from Astral Spirits that I could sell tapes and then I’d also have a built-in audience. I started there and it sort of started working and kind of took off. And then at that point, it really became its own thing rather than a ‘sub-label’ or whatever.
Then the John Kolodij and Andrew Weathers tapes from last year - those were the ones where I realized with Astral Editions, I don’t have to do jazz or even improv. I can do whatever.
You know, I would honestly say a lot of the impetus for starting the label was seeing a lot of the Digitalis stuff. And kind of those themes, like Emeralds - like I was obsessed with getting every Emeralds tape I could in the late 2000s. I just loved all of that. So I thought, “you know, I can do weirdo stuff that doesn't even have to be jazzy. And this thing can be a different world.” And so this year, I'm gonna push it out . I've already started a little bit with Hali Palumbo, which is incredible. And Montgomery and Turner. I’m going to do stuff more in that vein, and then get weirder too. The next couple of things that are coming up are sort of improv-based, but still weirdo stuff. And then I'm doing a couple LPs this year on Astral Editions. There’s one with Jen Powers and Matthew Rolin - the Powers Rolin duo. Then I'm doing a record for Equipment Point Ankh.
So that’s kind of why I started that label. I’m not sure why I felt like I needed something more to do, but I’m happy I did because it has really morphed into its own thing.
Yeah, it definitely seems like it’s taking on a life of its own, which is great.
It's like a cool way to explore non-jazz and other kinds of stuff I've always loved.
Speaking of sub-labels, let’s talk a little about Thollem’s Astral Traveling series. Where’d the impetus for that come from?
So that's another one where he kept sending me stuff to release, and I just couldn’t figure it out. He always had a lot of thingsand I was always backed up, and I just couldn’t figure it out. Then he sent me a handful of the sessions that have been part of the series and they were really great. I was trying to think of what I could do with it and then it became this very COVID idea.
Thollem’s kind of known as a nomad. He doesn't really live anywhere. He travels all the time and plays with people wherever he goes.. And it was beautiful - he had a year of recordings and I thought it’d make for a great series. It was kind of picking up off the digital-only idea because Bandcamp days have been doing well and this seemed like a good fit for it. Now we're doing some more physical stuff, which we’d always planned on too. We have a couple CDs and there'll be a couple compilation tapes and other things coming up. It’s been great, though. He's a very interesting guy.
Every time you announce a new one it's kind of fun. I’m always wondering, “who’s it gonna be this time?”
I’m trying really hard to get it to land. And it’s done great. It's not gangbusters or anything, but it also makes me a little self-conscious in the sense that I do too many releases and people literally can’t keep up, and the press can’t keep up. But it’s been great and I’m really happy with it. It’s a fun experiment.
Yeah, if there was ever a year to experiment, it’s been this past year… the longest year ever. I really love the Susan Alcorn one especially.
There’s more coming up obviously, and a lot of music I’m really excited about.
Okay, let’s talk about a couple other recent releases. So that Luke Stewart Exposure Quintet record from last year is just unbelievable. I was thinking about this the other day - arguably my two favorite albums from last year were that and the Irreversible Entanglements record on International Anthem and he’s a major part of both of those. He did so much amazing stuff in 2020. He’s everywhere, but everything he does is great and feels important. Anyway, how did you meet Luke?
The way I first heard about Luke was sort of through Black Spirituals. And if you remember that group,
Incredible band. I don’t know Marshall Trammell personally, but Zachary [James Watkins] and I go way back. He wrote for Foxy Digitalis back in the day and my wife actually did a really early solo tape of his on her label in maybe 2008? But yeah, Black Spirituals were legitimately one of my favorite bands of the last decade.
Yeah, they’re great. I had just found out about them from the record they did. I listened to it once and emailed them immediately because I had to do something. Zach’s brother lives near Austin so he actually comes through here pretty often and I’d see him a lot. But yeah, anyway… Luke. I think it was just something that Zachary had told me about or he posted an article about the DC scene maybe five years ago. And this was when I was first starting the label and I'd read about Ancestral Duo with Jamal Moore and TrioOOO with Aaron Martin (Editors note: since conducting this interview, Aaron Martin passed away. It’s a major loss to his family, to his friends, and to the larger scene he was a major part of and inspired. Read Luke Stewart’s beautiful remembrance here). I listened to that and it was incredible, so I started researching it and found out a little more about Luke and what he does in DC. And he also had a radio show in DC at the time and he reached out about getting some Astral Spirits tapes on his show. Also, when I first put out the first Icepick record, he had them play in DC. So that’s how I met him and then everything went from there.
Eventually he suggested we do a tape. He sent a few things and nothing really clicked or worked until he sent me that first solo tape. Immediately I loved it and thought it was incredible. I loved it because it wasn’t what I expected. It was perfect. So we did that and after that I said we had to keep doing something, and he kept sending me stuff.
Soon after he sent me early live recordings of the Exposure Quintet pieces and blew me away. I knew I wanted to do that. It turned out he was going back to Chicago to record with them again, though, and that's actually what's on the record. So it took a little time to get it together. It was so good, but it was a double LP and that was a little intimidating. But it’s gone really well and I had to do a second pressing, so… This year we’re going to do Works For Upright Bass Vol. 2 and we’re going to do a reissue of the first one on LP.
But Luke is a very special person. He deserves all the attention he gets.
That’s amazing. That’s super exciting news.
Yeah, I’ve been bugging him for a while now. I love the quintet record. It’s such a special, incredible album and I really love what he wrote about it and the communal idea behind it. It’s brilliant. But at the same time, I’ve kept saying that I really want another volume of solo stuff. I kept telling him, “If you’re ever ever going to do that and go that route again…” And he was just like, “Oh yeah, I’ve been thinking about it.”
I get it. I love the solo works because it’s so different from the ensemble work or the bands. I’m going to change gears again a little bit, but one of the things I wanted to talk about is with running what is, ostensibly, a jazz label, how do you make sure to use that platform to lift and promote diverse voices?
That’s something I've thought about a lot. You know, when it was starting, It's not that that was as much in my brain because it’s harder when you’re just starting and you’re just kind of going and trying to find your little space. But at the same time, you’re still trying to make sure you're representing the actual people involved. So you have to ask yourself, “Are women involved? Are there black people involved? Are all genders being represented?” You want everyone to be here. And so now that I have my space, my little corner, I really am trying to be more conscious about it.
This year is gonna see a lot more diversity. It’s not just going to be a lot of white people, which I'm very excited about. Part of it for me, from a very basic level of how I run my label is that it's not it's not my job. It’s not about the money. It's not how I’m feeding my kids and stuff like that. I run it because I love it. Because I want to support people and try to help people’s music be heard. So I try to be very, very artist friendly. And mostly now I want the artists and the records I release to empower or give a platform to folks who might not get as much attention otherwise.
And I've tried to do this in general for all people across the board. So, for instance, I did this Roscoe Mitchell album. And Roscoe Mitchell is incredible. But then, I’m also trying to put Luke in a place where he's standing next to him because he deserves to be there. There shouldn't be a hierarchy. And there’s so many others like that. I’m doing a record this year for Konjur Collective, which is related because it's actually Jamal Moore, the sax player, and Bashi Rose and a couple others. It’s this Baltimore group that my friend Gabriel brought to me. And it's so amazing, but not a lot of people outside Baltimore know who they are. And to me, this needs to live next to Roscoe Mitchell, to Joe McPhee.
I'm trying to create a space that’s very artist-forward. I don't want to be the face of it. The one thing I've been trying to do a lot is to make it very plain, especially in contracts, is that I don't own the rights to the music and I will never own rights. I've been very forward about that. Because in jazz, still to this day, there’s some arguments to be made that it’s been predatory. Like Blue Note still owns all of that music of those artists. So I make that very plain that they’re letting me put this out. It is your music. If, in two years, you want to take it elsewhere and do something else with it, that’s fine.
I really like what you said about how this hierarchical aspect doesn’t need to be there. I don’t think that’s been used often to help people.
Yeah, and that’s a big thing that’s really ingrained in jazz and improv. Iit kind of ties in with the whole museumification of it. It's hard. I mean, I've always been a DIY kind of dude, and I sort of look at my jazz label as being a weird, DIY jazz label. [laughs]
I get it. That was a big thing for me when I did Digitalis. I didn’t want to differentiate between doing a record for someone who’s been around and everybody knows versus someone that nobody’s ever heard before. If it’s great, it’s great.
Yeah! And they should live next to each other. I think the one thing, to kind of bring it back to having more diverse voices and artists on the label… I really want to give a space to artists like Luke because he can do everything. And I think that’s the point. Just because of your background, doesn’t mean people should assume you are in this certain corner of jazz music, like a ‘groove influencer’ or something. I want to give space to people like Luke to do something weird and to just try to do what they want to do and not have to worry about it so that more people can see that anything is possible with this.
I did an interview recently with Yasmin Williams, and one of the things that she talked about that I think is so important is how so many people have these preconceived ideas that because she is black, she’s expected to play some kind of urban music, and how she wants other young black artists to see that it’s possible to make any kind of music. And I acknowledge that we’re two white people with a lot of privilege having this conversation, but...
Right, but these are things that we should be talking about. It's hard to talk about as a white guy that owns a label, right? There’s ownership involved already. Sure. It was already uncomfortable to talk about that. But we're supposed to be making sure we have a diverse roster and we have to make sure we’re inclusive. They’re things you should be doing, but you aren’t necessarily supposed to talk about, on some level. So I think two white people should be having this conversation.
Absolutely. Back when Foxy Digitalis has 25-30 writers, I tried to have a more diverse staff, but I didn’t do a good enough job. Our staff tended to be heavily cis, white, male leaning. That’s on me. So yeah, I think there need to be more of these conversations and so I appreciate you going there with me. On a totally different subject, there’s an Astral Spirits beer now! How did you end up collaborating with Unseen Creatures Brewery?
Yeah, the beer thing is funny. The brewery approached me funnily enough. I was flattered but also was kinda like "what business do I have doing a beer collab."
So we did a little Zoom meeting and tried to think of ways to make it a bit more unique, the main guy is just a huge fan of the label and kept mentioning these albums he loved to listen to while brewing etc, so I just casually mentioned the idea of a playlist and the QR code on the beer can itself and we were ready to go! I LOVE that he wanted to make it look like an astral spirits release....we used his art guy and my guy to do the layout.
We'll see what happens from here, we've talked about a few other future beer/label collaborations with some physical releases. We'll see if that happens. I'd love to do it again obviously if you know of any free jazz loving breweries! Ha!
Last thing… what have you missed most the past year?
Traveling to shows, honestly. I think that regarding the label, that's the stuff I miss most. Like, In 2019 I did the Astral Spirits night in DC at Rhizome. It was incredible! I had Luke play, and Crazy Doberman, Claire Rousay, and Spires That in the Sunset Rise. Just being able to put something like that together and travel somewhere and make those connections. I miss that so much.