Music: Way ahead of the game

In the 1980s Pete Astor's Weather Prophets were Britpop before the term was invented. Now he's back again.
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If Pete Astor's Eighties band The Weather Prophets had emerged five years later they would each have a yacht, a house in Belgravia and be be quaffing gin-and-tonics in the Groucho Club by now. Their guitar- based, retro leanings would have put them in direct competition with the likes of Blur and Oasis; they were even signed to Alan McGee's nascent Creation label, now the home of the Gallagher brothers.

But instead, the band went their separate ways in 1991. One member joined the marginally successful country outfit The Rockingbirds, another became a music journalist and Astor embarked on low-key solo projects. Astor's first act The Loft were the first band on Creation's books.

"McGee was still working as a clerk in Euston when he got interested in us," says Astor. "He put us on for a few nights at a north London club and later asked us to do a record."

It wasn't until he was in The Weather Prophets that industry giants Warner Brothers put McGee in charge of a subsidiary label, Elevation. The first band McGee signed were The Jesus And Mary Chain, who were a resounding success in indie circles. Next up were the Prophets.

"Warner seemed to think he knew something that they didn't - which he probably did - so they allowed him to put out whatever records he wanted," says Astor. "But we were entering a race we were never going to win. They wanted us to sell lots of records and we weren't able to do that."

If Astor's vision didn't fit in with the musical climate back in the Eighties it was because it was so vastly ahead of its time. Early Nineties shoegazers Ride cited

The Loft as a source of inspiration - notably their 1984 single "Why The Rain?" - while The Weather Prophets are widely believed to have established the Creation label's sound. But, to the band's relief, they were dropped from Warners and eventually split in 1991.

"The Weather Prophets would seem quite normal now but then it was deemed too unusual," says Astor. "At that time, the status quo was, well, Status Quo."

As Britpop gathered pace, Astor resisted the urge to run riot in the corridors of Warner shouting: "I told you so!" Instead, he quietly set to work on different projects.

He recently re-emerged as the brains behind two experimental outfits, Ellis Island Sound and The Wisdom Of Harry. The first successfully remixed a Regular Fries single while the latter has just released States Of Super 8, a compilation of singles and EPs released over the past few years on indie labels Wurlitzer Jukebox, Motorway and Static Caravan.

Part Underworld ("Shotgun" and "23 Say"), part Primal Scream ("Disney Queen") and part Pole ("Samovaar"), Stars Of Super 8 is an intensely ambitious album, a multi-textured creation that leaps through genres as if it were playing hopscotch with your ears.

And with titles including "Hansa Toy Corporation" and "Sports Pod", the instrumental tracks turn out to be as unexpected and humourous as their titles, taking in minimalist sampling, melodramatic strings and oddball electronica.

To Astor's immense amusement, his recent endeavours have seen him thrust into the "post-rock" bracket.

"It's a hideous phrase," he says. "I think what we do is pretty easy to listen to, yet post-rock has always been deemed `difficult.' But if it sets us apart from solid songs played by sensitive, white, grown-up males, that's fine."

So what prompted such a radical change? "Technology has allowed me to make music in a completely different way. For example, if I had wanted to do something with a string section I would have had to get a string section. Now I can do it on a computer. To me music is now more about textures than sculpting solid songs."

Despite the best tracks on the album being those with Astor's distinctively haunting vocals, he is wary of songwriting these days.

"There is a lack of generosity in singer-songwriters and their endless feelings. It's like, `Here's another one about me'. I think I've done it too much already."

Though he insists he doesn't regret The Weather Prophets, there is a hint of derision in his voice as he remembers his early years.

"I was too lazy to bother learning new things. On the one hand, I liked the Beatles and the Stones and on the other I liked Can. In retrospect, I think I got too much into the Beatles and not enough into Can."

Astor is now preparing to sign a deal with Matador records, whom he describes as "a pretty smart label", though he prefers to downplay his past.

"The fact that I have been on the cover of the NME doesn't make me inherently marvellous. I've been Mr Nobody as well as Mr Terribly Important and it does make you look at it all with a bit of a raised eyebrow."

The Wisdom Of Harry's `Stars Of Super 8' is out now on Faux-Lux