Even Playboy Spaceman’s Bridget Cross Kuhar admits that keeping track of the music projects she and her husband George Kuhar are involved with can be slightly confusing. In addition to Playboy Spaceman, the Kuhars make music as Maybe It’s Reno and with the B-Team All Stars, a collaboration between them and Tiger Pilot (Morgan Deering and Nick Wagner), as well as carrying out their own solo projects and managing a record label they founded together, Shadow Island Records.
Linking all these things is a commitment to making original music and an innovative approach to collaboration that seems less about genre and more about finding a way to make the most of a particular body of work. For their latest project, a new album of songs by George Kuhar called “One Heart Army,” the couple expanded their electronic duo Playboy Spaceman by three more members, hand-picked by Kuhar to give him the sound and the feeling that he wanted.
“I made a list of every musician that I know. .... and I got all my first picks. It felt, what’s the word -- auspicious.”
Intrigued by the idea of multiple percussionists, he corralled Tiger Pilot’s Wagner and local drummer Jason Messing, as well as bass player Simon Taylor. Kuhar plays guitar and sings on the album and Bridget Kuhar is on keyboards. George Kuhar has been writing the songs on the album over the past five years and assembled the band in April. An album release party is scheduled for Friday at Rockwell, which will also mark this group’s first live local appearance.
In addition to getting the sound he wanted, Kuhar considered the impact each band member would have in terms of their presence. He already knew Wagner, but with Taylor and Messing he relied on his overall impressions: Taylor struck him as “solid and peaceful” and Messing as “the kind of person that you feel better about yourself being around.”
The fact that he considered what could be called the soulfulness of other band members fits with the overall feeling behind the album, which he describes as a kind of meditation on the human heart, as evidenced by the album title and art work he created. He said he didn’t intend to make an album that was cohesive in this way, but that after he got it finished, he realized it had a common thread.
“I didn’t intentionally set out to make an album about the heart, it just became apparent, ‘Oh that’s what this is about,’ kind of recently, even. Somewhere in the past year.”
Kuhar said he felt compelled to meditate on his heart after learning about energy centers in the body from his wife, a yoga instructor.
“You can be centered at any given place in your body at any time but with the heart -- you live until your heart stops beating. It’s like the king of the body. The brain would like to think it is,” he laughed, “but your brain can stop working and you’ll still live. I just felt completed to meditate on the heart. All of these songs are coming from that place.”
That said, he hopes to leave any interpretation of his songs up to the individual listener.
“I like that in songs when anybody can apply it to whatever they need to apply it to, it’s not too specific.”
Those who’ve heard Playboy Spaceman’s music in the past may be surprised by how different this iteration of the band sounds (see "Playlist" review by Libby Stringer in this week's Arts).
Drummer Messing, who also plays with a band called Disco Punch and with a family band called The Messing Link, said his expectations for the project turned out to be pretty far off course.
“I bought the first Playboy Spaceman EP, and I like it, but it’s different from this one. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I came in. I had an idea -- but it wasn’t the right idea. It was a pleasant surprise.”
Messing, who grew up in Juneau, said he’d had his eye on the Kuhars and their music since they got to town and was really excited to be part of the project.
“I kind of targeted them right away and offered up my services.” He laughed. “I’m glad George called.”
Longtime local bassist Taylor, who also plays with Susu and the Prophets and was formerly an original member of Peabody’s Monster, was also familiar with the Kuhars’ work, and said his response to being asked to join the band was: “Absolutely.”
Recording sessions for the album at Studio A came after the newly-formed band had only a couple months of practice.
“I made lead sheets with the words and chords and said ‘OK, here’s the song, what’d’ya got,’” George Kuhar said.
Bridget Kuhar had more experience with the songs, having heard her husband working on them for the past several years.
“It’s different for me -- they’re not my songs but I feel very close to them because I’ve been with the songs for a long time now,” she said. “They’ve been coming out slowly over the years.”
Throughout the process she said she tried to provide encouragement and feedback when needed.
“Hopefully, usually, maybe not always, encouragement.” She laughed. “And for the recording I focus on trying to give him some ears.”
“Also in the song selection too, because I have a whole lot of songs,” George Kuhar said. “I really do depend on you to be like, ‘That’s good.’”
Though she likes all the tracks on the album, Bridget Kuhar said strong tracks include “Everything I Was (Or Ever Will Be)” and “Right in Front of You.”
She sings harmony on “Sonneman,” a song inspired by the memory of longtime Juneau resident and political activist Joe Sonneman, who died in 2009. George Kuhar got to know him while renting a room in his house on Willoughby Avenue soon after arriving in Juneau.
“That song was inspired by a visit to his house after it became the (Twilight) cafe,” he said. “His place looked like 30 years worth of accumulated living, so it was interesting to be in there in a totally transformed place. Apparently there was a heavy trace of him still left there because after I left, I got in the car and wrote those words down. I feel like he gave me that song.”
As an album, “One Heart Army” also owes its existence in part to a 2012 Individual Artist Award Kuhar received
from the Rasmuson Foundation. The project award was given to help support his work in combining his music with video, and allowed him the space to consider putting together the album, something he’d always wanted to do with a band. Video work continues to be a strong interest as well; his music video “Mysterious” garnered him an F’n Accolade in F Magazine’s “F-Action!” statewide music video competition in November, and his work was also included in this year’s JUMP festival of locally-made shorts. Friday’s album release party will likely feature a video component, he said.
Playboy Spaceman’s first EP, “Tokyo,” was released on their record label in October 2012 and featured just the Kuhars. George Kuhar’s solo project “Live at the Rookery” was also released that year. Now in the works is a solo project by Bridget Kuhar that features her nephew on clarinet.
Though they eventually hope to produce the work of other musicians through their record label, the Kuhars aren’t rushing it.
“Right now, where we’re at is learning how to make records and put them out,” George Kuhar said. “We’ll build ourselves up and learn how to do it for ourselves, and then maybe be able to do it for other people. And we’re willing to be patient during that process. It can take a while to learn these kinds of things.”
Before coming to Juneau, Bridget Kuhar was based in Washington, D.C. She played with well-known indie bands including Velocity Girl, Unrest and Air Miami. George Kuhar arrived in Juneau from Austin, Texas, where he was part of a rock-soul band called Basin Street. Members of some of those bands are still an active part of the Kuhars’ musical life.
As for what’s next for Playboy Spaceman, George Kuhar takes a wait-and-see approach,
“Ultimately I want to play this show and see how it goes. One step at a time,” he said.
The album release party for “One Heart Army” will be at 9 p.m Friday at the Rockwell Ballroom. The opening act will be the Wool Pullers, a duo consisting of Liz Snyder and Alex Kotlarsz. (Read more here: http://juneauempire.com/local/2013-10-24/wool-pullers-build-local-following-original-music-unusual-sound). Admission is $10.