One afternoon several years ago, Mike Bachman sat at the desk in his south Florida home where he produced the rich, multilayered electronic soundscapes of his music project Astrea Corp. He opened one of the tracks he was working on. His girlfriend Carly looked over his shoulder.
"I remember sitting there and she was behind me and she started singing. My jaw dropped," he says. "I was like, 'Holy shit!'"
Bachman, who goes by the name Mike Astrea when he's making music, had been creating beats for years. In the early 2000s he worked at Definitive Jux — the New York hip-hop label started by El-P of Run the Jewels — and later began making his own experimental music back home in Lake Worth, Florida, north of Miami. He began dating Carly Garrett in 2004 after the two met on Myspace, but had no idea she sang so well. It wasn't until that fateful day at his work space more than five years later that he heard Carly's voice, which can purr moodily like Beth Gibbons of Portishead, dance mischievously like '80s art rocker Kate Bush, or let out blood-curdling wails like Bjork.
"Her family had mentioned that she could sing, but I was just like, 'Oh, that's cool,'" he says. In other words, Mike didn't take them seriously.
Not that Carly had ever pushed the point. "I never mentioned to him that I sang," she says. "I had never said to myself, 'I want to be a singer.' That just wasn't something I'd dreamed of doing. I was teaching art and I enjoyed it and that's what I did."
- The couple onstage in 2011. (Photo by Ian Whitlen)
Mike Astrea had already formed Astrea Corp in 2009 along with percussionist Sandor Davidson. The group initially performed live improvisations, with Davidson on drums, Mike on a laptop and a pair of Music Production Controllers, or MPCs, and a guitarist named Frank Banisi. Eventually, guitarist Julian Cires joined, followed by Carly, who had come of age listening to the more straightforward emo and post-hardcore of acts like Thursday and Save the Day. But she had grown intrigued by the music Mike and his crew were banging out.
"At some point I just thought, 'Let me try this,'" Carly remembers. "I loved the music he was making, because it was nothing like anything I had ever heard before."
The music Mike Astrea was making is rooted in the trip-hop that came out of Bristol, England, in the early '90s — Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead — but with a more austere vibe informed by the dystopian urban soundscapes of El-P's 2002 solo album Fantastic Damage. Astrea would pluck from the early-'70s Krautrock of Tangerine Dream and Can, but he also found inspiration in such pioneers of the avant-garde as Karlheinz Stockhausen, who was employing electronic tape music in his musique concrète as far back as the 1950s.
By 2011, the Astreas had compiled a 37-track project — a clash of crisp beats, wobbly synth lines, video-game sounds and other jarring effects that Mike, a sci-fi lover, called Disposable Orwelle. He posted it online. Astrea Corp followed up shortly thereafter with its first official release, Third String Asimov. Since then, the crew has released some of the more mesmerizing dark electronic sounds to come out of south Florida's rich electronic scene, from the big, warm, epic music on their 7-song EP of 2014, paradise oscine, to the bare, frigid and more minimal sounds of last year's a/d, produced in Charlotte by Justin Aswell.
The Astreas already had friends in Charlotte when they decided to relocate here two and a half years ago. Mike first gained attention for his collaboration with former Queen City rapper Shane on their much-lauded Deep 6 Division EP of 2016. It featured cameos from local luminaries like rapper Elevator Jay, Junior Astronomers singer Terrence Richard, pedal-steel guitarist Wes Hamilton, as well as rapper Jabrjaw, a friend of the Astreas from their Florida music collective Black Locust Society. Carly sang on one Deep 6 cut, as did guitarist Will Gilreath, who is now an official member of Astrea Corp's Charlotte-based line-up.
In the next two weeks, Astrea Corp will perform two area shows, one at Snug Harbor on January 13 with Boulevards and Miami Dice, and another at Petra's on January 25 with FLLS and Deion Reverie. The trio is also working on a new album to be released later this year.
- The Astreas party down in south Florida in the early days. (Photo by Ian Whitlen)
The Astreas were at the top of their game when they left Florida in 2015. After releasing paradise oscine and two other EPs — asomatous and the instrumental panther modems — the previous year, the south Florida alt-weekly New Times named Astrea Corp one of the "Top Female-Fronted Bands in Broward and Palm Beach Counties." It wasn't the first time the group had received accolades from that media outlet. In 2012, the New Times named Carly "Best Female Vocalist" in its annual Best of Broward-Palm Beach issue.
Astrea Corp had become a darling of the south Florida music scene, appearing in numerous features and spotlights. But by July 2015, they were ready for a change, and bolted to Charlotte, where they promptly released the 8-song durban poison.
- Gilreath (left) with Mike and Carly Astrea at Soul Gastrolounge. (Photo by Mark Kemp)
"We were just kind of burned out on south Florida," Mike Astrea says. He's sitting at Soul Gastrolounge in Plaza Midwood on a frigid weeknight wearing a black beanie and long-sleeve shirt emblazoned with a triangular Astrea Corp design. Next to him, Carly is bundled up in a blue and white sweater, her ringlets of reddish hair bouncing just above her eyes. Gilreath sits across from the couple, talking about how he ended up playing with them after having put down his guitar to be a DJ in more recent years.
"It was the most romantic way I've ever been asked to be in a band," Gilreath says, with a laugh.
There's a story behind Gilreath's comment: He had gotten to know the Astreas during the recording of the Deep 6 project, and immediately hit it off with the couple. "I had legitimately very serious respect for what they were doing," Gilreath says. "But being a DJ at the time, it didn't really cross my mind to ask them be a part of the group."
That happened later, when Astrea Corp was on the road, about to perform at Terminal West in Atlanta. Mike got a case of the pre-show jitters. "After sound check I was sitting there thinking, 'Will should totally be here,' so I texted him and said, 'You should be here with us.' Now, it's become this running joke among us that it was this kind of romantic invitation to join the group."
- A mysterious Mike and Carly. (Photo by Digital Cypher)
It made sense that Astrea would want Gilreath in the band. After all, guitar had played a role in Astrea Corp's sound from early on. In the track "Frequency Lust," from paradise oscine, Carly's voice flutters Kate Bush-like over a bouncing electronic melody, shimmery beats and a mantra-like guitar line. The instrument plays an even bigger role on the track "Simian," from asomatous, which gets a turbo charge from the tangled riffs and feedback.
Even on a/d, which has a comparatively more minimal sound, the guitar remains a key part of the vibe. In the track "Rusted Jux," which opens on a bleak industrial landscape, with harsh clicking and thumping sounds crashing into a wistful, almost serene melody, it's the haunting guitar line that colors in the spaces between the beats and Carly's voice, which serves more as texture than a vehicle for her lyrics.
"Will just kind of fills in the gap from the guitar player we'd had before, but he brings in his own voice and writes his own parts," Mike says. "And that was always the thing before: I would just kind of write a skeleton and then bring it in and say, 'Do whatever you want here.' I've never said we're going to sit down and write a song this way or that way. It's always been collaborative."
That's true. As far back as 2011, Carly had characterized Astrea Corp's recording process as "pretty relaxed and stress free." She told the New Times that year, "Mike is constantly working, experimenting and fleshing out basic skeletons. Just noodling around until something clicks. We'll sit down and listen to all these demos and I basically have free range to do with it what I please."
- Blowing digital smoke. (Photo by Digital Cypher)
When she's not singing as Carly Astrea, the 32-year-old Carly Garrett runs a children's art program at Bright Horizons Family Solutions in Charlotte. She worked for the same company when she was in Florida. And though it would be tempting to assume she brings the creativity she encourages in the classroom into Astrea Corp's music, she told the New Times that she keeps her creative outlets very separate.
"When I leave each day, I try to leave everything job-related in the classroom," she said. "I do agree that creativity is a very important part of teaching, but my creative mindset when working with children differs widely from what I create personally." As a musician, Carly said, she's able to let herself go to places she could never go as a teacher. "I enjoy having the freedom to expand my vision through the art I create in ways that many times defies this reality, almost in an intangible way, to a certain degree."
Likewise, when Mike Astrea is not making beats, the 34-year-old Mike Bachman is a sheet-metal worker. Unlike Carly, he does bring his work into his music. It would be shocking if he didn't. After all, the sounds of metal against metal fit perfectly into the industrial aesthetic of Astrea Corp's music.
"There's stuff all the time at work where I'll pull my phone out and record things, for sure," he says, adding that his coworkers have become used to his idiosyncrasies.
From as far back as he can remember, Mike always heard sounds differently from his fellow hip-hop heads.
- Mike Astrea in a mellow mood. (photo by Ian Whitlen)
"I have an art teacher to thank for that," he says. "I was just a snooty rap kid growing up, heavy into Wu Tang and everything New York East Coast — you know, Gang Starr and all that stuff. And my art teacher during class would play Tricky and Bjork and Massive Attack, and this weird French rapper called MC Solar, and then she'd also play the Smiths and Tangerine Dream."
It blew his mind.
"Something about all that stuff just kind of grabbed me," he says. "Instrumentally, everything was fantastic. The beats were amazing. So I was like, 'What the fuck is this?' And she said, 'Oh, here, take this CD home,' and it was [Tricky's] Maxinquaye and [Bjork's] Post. I took them home and would just lose my shit. And then I'd take them back and she'd say, 'If you like that, check out this.'"
Mike suddenly had the key to standing out in the crowd. "You know, coming from hip-hop as a teenager, you go record-digging, so I started looking for other stuff," he says. "Instead of sampling the jazz and funk breaks that everybody else sampled, I got into Tangerine Dream, because it was just so different and there was something to be had there, and I was just enamored by that kind of music. I mean, obviously I had a love for jazz and funk breaks, but something about this old electronic music just spoke to me a little differently.
"And of course, you're always trying to one-up everybody else, because that's the hip-hop thing," he adds. "You don't want to be like the next guy. So you say, 'Why am I going to sample Miles Davis when there's all this other wild shit?' I probably have a couple of album's worth of stuff that's just Tangerine Dream samples, and that spring-boarded me into like Can and Ash Ra Tempel and all that other Krautrock stuff, and Silver Apples, and Stockhausen, and even Bruce Hack — all that crazy early electronic stuff."
Carly had no idea where Mike's aesthetic came from at first. She just thought it sounded good — like film music. "But I eventually wanted to challenge myself, and so I started learning about it," she says. "And it was funny how organically it came about and how well it worked with my voice. It was meant to be."
She grew up in a devoutly religious family and sang in the church choir as a little girl. "I knew I could sing, and there was, you know, somewhat of a spiritual connection that I associated music with," she says. "So when I heard his stuff, I kind of felt that. By then I had turned my back and gone my own way in terms of the religious stuff, but this music seemed to have some of that."
When she first started performing with Astrea Corp, people assumed Carly was a trip-hop expert. She laughs. "I had no idea who Portishead was before we started working together," she says. "I honestly did not listen to any of that stuff at all." In 2011 she told the New Times, "After our first couple of shows, I was getting a lot of compliments on my voice and how it reminded people of Beth Gibbons [of Portishead]. I literally had to ask Mike who that was."
She glaces over at Gilreath, who'd begun his own music life as a rock guitarist in post-hardcore bands. "I was just very much into rock," Carly says. "Not into hip-hop, not into R&B, not into any of that stuff. Like, rock was my thing." But her church singing had stuck with her, and that's what came out when Mike first heard her sing over that early Astrea Corp track so many years ago.
"I guess because of my religious background, certain things are just kind of embedded in me and it comes out naturally," she says. "It really works for the music we do."