I first saw ASTR, a New York City dance/soul/crazy-jump-around-music duo, during this year’s CMJ. I’d already endured a few days of dispiritingly mediocre bands, and wasn’t expecting much as I made the trek to Westway, a former strip club on the far west side that’s left the glitter walls, stage, and stripper poles of the old establishment intact, to see a different act. I caught ASTR totally by accident and was blown away. It seemed like they’d come out of nowhere, extremely talented and impossibly fun. In fact, they have one of the most twisty and complex backstories of any new band I’ve ever come across.
That night at Westway, their singer Zoe was dressed like the toughest and sexiest girl at your 1990s high school: a see-through tank top, a pony tail that sprouted from the top of her head and snaked halfway down her back, a flannel around her waist, and an aggressive, self-confident energy. Their music was incredibly loud, thumping, old-school dance music produced, I imagined, by the man standing in a shadowy corner of the stage behind a keyboard (it turned out I was right).
In a way, my favorite thing about them was how excited Zoe seemed–she danced like a maniac the entire set, flailing her arms in the air and yelling things like “YO! It’s Friday night this is my favorite club THIS SHIT IS DOPE!!” as red and green lasers shot through the smoke above her head. Her unbridled enthusiasm made her seem as much like a fan who’d clambered up on stage to sing without anyone’s permission as an actual member of the band. It was funny, it was dumb, and it was ridiculous. Everyone in the club lost themselves dancing. Strangers touched each other, men took off their shirts. It was a huge amount of fun. I felt like I’d discovered a small band I never would have heard of otherwise. This is supposed to be what CMJ is about.
A few days later, lounging in the recording studio the band uses as a practice space, Zoe was a bit more shy. “I don’t really go out that much,” she tells me, laughing. “I’ve really only been to Westway a few times. I said that because I’m friends with the owner.” It’s when we start delving into where she goes when she does go out that things get a bit odd. Here are the shows Zoe saw recently: Drake, Lorde, Rhianna. Here is the show Adam brought up: Prince. They have a long discussion about the benefits of being in VIP boxes. In fact, they seem to spend so much time in VIP boxes that when they first start talking about “the box,” I’m wasn’t sure what they were talking about. To them, it’s normal, everyday stuff. What exactly is going on here? How is this brand-new band lounging around Drake’s VIP box? In fact, how do they have a gigantic Manhattan recording studio to hang out and listen to records in?
The answer involves some stuff the band would rather not talk about. Zoe the singer and Adam the keyboardist and composer prefer to go by the names Zoe ASTR and Adam ASTR, Ramones-style. At least, that’s what Zoe says when I press them for their full names (Adam just sits behind the keyboard, seeming like he might say something, but then thinking better of it). In fact, their names are Zoe Silverman and Adam Pallin. They’re both consummate industry insiders, but they come from very different directions.
Pallin is a film and television composer and occasional professional songwriter who’s had works on the scores of Final Destination and Mirror Mirror, as well as writing a song for Taylor Dane’s 2008 album Satisfied. Also notable: his last band Little Jackie was a reasonable success, scoring hits in Ireland and Japan (where they even broke into the top 100), and playing Conan.
This wasn’t a natural path for Pallin, obviously a passionately dedicated musician who can’t keep his hands off the keyboard during the hour I spent with him.
“I was strongly discouraged from being a musician,” he told me. “My father used to take me on drives, and he’d point out people’s houses. ‘See that? He’s a tenured professor at Berklee. He’s doing OK,'” the implication being that there were only a few paths to success in music, and performing in a band wasn’t one of them. Pallin didn’t let himself be deterred.
Zoe Silverman had a very different life. She’s the daughter of Tom Silverman, the founder of Tommy Boy Records, an extremely influential 1980s and 1990s hip-hop label (early signees include De La Soul, Queen Latifah, and Prince Paul). To say she’s grown up in the industry is putting it mildly. Throughout our conversation, she half-jokingly drops stories about the adventures she’s had already in her young life: the time Mack 10 took her to a party in a Rolls Royce; hanging out with Cam’Ron; the time she was in a teen pop group; the time she told a room full of executives “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to be on your fucking reality show!” When I point out that they might have actually paid her a million dollars to be in a reality show, she doesn’t seem to care.
“They were like, what if the show is all about you, and all the other characters are like, the people who didn’t make it, and you do make it? And I was like NO! I DON’T WANT TO BE ON A REALITY SHOW!” she yells, getting a little worked up. “No matter what! It’s not a good look.” It’s easy to see that she’s had to fight against this kind of thing all her life. In fact, she skipped going to the prestigious Berklee College of Music to be in a female teen pop act. It’s hard to imagine it was her idea.
“I hated it,” she tells me. “The whole time, I wanted to do something different. Something cool. Like I liked Santogold, that’s what I listened to.”
So, here we have two people, Adam Pallin and Zoe Silverman, both with a degree of success and opportunity most baby bands could only dream of. But these successes weigh on them. They want to distance themselves from that life, and escape into something more creatively meaningful. It’s the kind of thing you hear about teen stars wanting to do, running away from an early fame they couldn’t control. Except you’ve probably never heard of them before. They want you to meet them for the first time as ASTR, without baggage. They don’t even want to tell me their real names (Silverman, in particular, never mentions her father or her last name).
So, they’ve been reborn, as Adam ASTR and Zoe ASTR. If their music is any guide, they’re happy to be alive.
ASTR’s just-announced EP Varsity is scheduled for release January 21st.