The Rejuvenation of NASA’s Proud Father

The Rejuvenation of NASA’s Proud Father: Gregory Adams chats with Proud Father's Brendan Chamberlain about his music, and of course NASA
Interview with Proud Father

Few musicians are as qualified to weigh in on the state of space rock as Proud Father’s Brendan Chamberlain. While David Bowie used to ponder whether or not there was “Life on Mars?”, Chamberlain’s astonishing day job at NASA literally has him navigating both the veteran Curiosity rover and the more recently-landed Ingenuity helicopter on the Red Planet in an ongoing attempt to map out the unknown. In a truly bizarre reflection of how far space exploration and technology have come, he actually gets to drive the rover remotely from the comfort of his Los Angeles bedroom—on the same desk where he tweaks the shoegazing textures of his music as Proud Father.

While Chamberlain has worked on his Proud Father project for a number of years, concurrent to his time at NASA, his new The View of Earth from Mars album is the first to properly entwine his two chosen paths. Sonically, Proud Father submerges listeners beneath soothing waves of guitar effects and vocal harmonies on “Yaw/Pitch/Roll,” while “Cruise Stage” is a funky, fretboard-exploring rip through the cosmos. Thematically, the record concentrates on the first astronaut to land on Mars, and the seemingly unlikely malaise that seeps in after extraordinary feats like space exploration become, over time, ordinary.

Speaking with Northern Transmissions, Chamberlain got into his role at NASA, and how his new album helped him rediscover his passion for both music and space exploration.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Northern Transmissions: Working for NASA is definitely one of the wilder day jobs a musician could hold down. Were you driving the Curiosity or piloting the Ingenuity this week?

Proud Father: Both, actually.

NT: What’s your set-up like while doing this?

PF: The set-up is different, on a permission basis. Basically, the Curiosity landed in 2012, and we’re in what we call “extended mission.” We did the job that we set out to do in the original mission plan, and we’re just getting extra returns at this point. The original mission was meant to be two years, and it landed in 2012. We’re well beyond that. In comparison, the Ingenuity landed on the surface of Mars this past February— they‘re still in prime mission.

It’s interesting, because the actual work you’re doing on both of these missions is fairly similar, whether it’s driving the rover that landed in 2012 or flying the helicopter, but one of the missions [Curiosity] I’m doing from my bedroom in pyjamas, and then with the other mission, I’m going into this fancy facility. It’s funny to have both of those jobs.

NT: So you’re doing this extraordinary work form your bedroom. That’s also where you’re making your music, correct?

PF: Because I live in L.A. and its expensive here, the desk where I work and the desk where I make music are the same desk. I have my Mars stuff up top, and as I’m driving the rover, literally at my feet are all my guitar pedals. I don’t have another place to put them!

NT: While The View of Earth from Mars unites these two passions, being a musician and being a NASA employee seem like disparate paths to choose. That said, did you have dreams of both from a very young age?

PF: Very much so, yes. I had wanted to work for NASA since I was five; I think that was probably the earliest and most singular goal for me. But I have also been a massive, massive music fan from a very young age. Like you’re saying, I’ve historically thought of those as parallel threads. For a long time, I identified as someone who was working towards space exploration in a professional capacity, and someone who was a music fan. Music felt more like my personal life. It felt bifurcated, in that way. Something satisfying about this project was realizing that they played off of each other really beautifully.

NT: Are you ever working on them concurrently? As you said, you’ve got your Mars gear up top, guitar pedals below. Were you ever listening to these songs, as you were demoing them out, while working on the rover missions from your bedroom?

PF: I wish I had the cool answer, which is ‘Totally; All the time,’ but not really, because it’s a technically intense job. You’re super dialled-in. I don’t have the bandwidth for it [listening to music] when we’re doing the Mars surface ops. The other thing is this: I’m either in the lab where it’s a very collaborative job, or I’m driving the rover from home and have two Webex meetings going on at once [through my headphones]. In one ear I have what we call the tactical room—which is the broader rover planning operation—and then in my other ear I have a smaller group of people that is specifically focused on the rover planner problem, like ‘this is where the rover should go.’ It would be a bit of an assault if I also had my own music coming through. I only have two ears, unfortunately.

NT: Since part of the album revolves around an astronaut on the first mission to Mars, and all that he sees out there, what can you recall about how you felt the first time you got to see an image you’d pulled from a mission?

PF: It’s obviously a very interesting thing to feel. Very, very few people have a job that is really anything like what mine is. Really, what the album is about is my inability to grapple with that. When I thought about the prospect of doing this for a living, and working for NASA, I think that in my mind it was the kind of job where you’re connected to this feeling of purpose, this feeling of meaning, and this sense adventure all the time. You’re steeped in it, and it’s un-ignorable. I felt that to not be the case, though. I don’t think that’s how our brains work.

When I first started driving the rover, I began to feel the magnitude of it. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking back to my own car, after driving a rover on mars for the first time, and welling up. To check that box is a crazy, crazy thing to do.

But there are other times when you come in to work and you look at the images— you have this black and white, 3D mesh that looks kind of video game-y. There’s nothing unusual about it. ‘This is the work that I do today,’ and that’s that. What the album is really about is trying to understand why I felt the way that I did, and finding a lot of clarity through allegory, which is to say through the story of this first person to go to Mars. I really took the time to put myself in the mindset of, ‘Ok, I’ve just made it to
Mars. How do I feel?’

When people think about the idea of being an astronaut, they think about that really, really inspiring feeling of exploration, but what I wanted to explore was what comes after that. What happens on the second, twentieth, or two hundredth day on Mars, where you find yourself thinking, ‘God, I’m just walking around kicking rocks. This planet beneath my feet no longer feels exceptional or extraordinary to me, because it has become, by definition, ordinary.’ It was a way of piecing together why there were some days [at work] where I felt aimless, despite having this job that I had worked towards for a very long time.

NT: How does that tie into the music itself? Maybe there’s something to connect to there—in terms of that two hundredth day of the mission— in that you’ve been making music as Proud Father for a number of years. How did combining the music with your experiences at NASA for the first time alter the path?

PF: I think that I care a lot, as a musician, about creating sonic landscapes that match the lyrical experience. I knew that I wanted to tap into feelings of width, lushness, and magnitude to create this sort of space-y palette, if you will. I also knew that there was more of a nuanced emotion that I wanted to communicate than just ‘we’re floating in space!’ The actual emotional through line is this looming sense of existential dread and aimlessness. ‘I’m at the other side of a goal, and I’m bored.’ At the same time, something that feels really true to the character—and to me— is that they’re not someone who is content with those feelings of stagnation. The character saw a tremendous amount of beauty in the world around them, and is going to fight tooth and nail to re-discover that feeling. I think the album is meant to thrive in this space of, “I’m feeling trapped and confused, but I don’t want to be.”

NT: Can we talk about some of the sounds of the record? It’s obviously a guitar-based record—you’ve got those pedals to work with, after all—but is that a true marimba on “The View of Earth from Mars”?

PF: I wish it were a true marimba. I’m glad that you think it could’ve been, but it’s digital. I was working with a fairly limited amount of resources. I made the entirety of the album myself, in my bedroom. I used what I had access to. A lot of that is me spending so much time tweaking digital samples to get things to sound the way I want them to. I was pretty precious about the sounds I had in mind, and did whatever it took on the production side of things to make it sound like that, even if it meant layering 20 tracks on top of each other.

NT: What’s the most densely layered song on the record?

PF: I think the one you hear the density on the most is “Yaw/Pitch/Roll.” There are five-part vocal harmonies; multi-track guitars beneath that; and then synths beneath that. That one was getting up into 50 or 60 tracks.

I think “Victoria Crater” is another really good example of that in two ways. That song is the most lyrically cogent for the themes of the record. That’s the one that has the line, “All I’ve ever known is keeping pace with parts of me that run away/How long can I run victory laps before it feels like I’m justrunning?” In the beginning, it was meant to have this sort of muted instrumentation to capture the sensation of an internal monologue. And then there’s that moment halfway through where just the narrator just loses it. You know the feeling when you want to cry, but there’s the part of your brain that’s just like, ‘Hold it together’? I think the first part of the song is holding it together, and the second half is just letting it go. ‘I’m going to lose it, let me live in this feeling.’

Ironically, the first half of the song uses a lot of tracks in subtle ways, just to give it warmth. Hopefully it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. The second half is me throwing as many tracks out as possible to create this total wall of sound that [conjures] the narrator being swallowed by this emotional experience.

NT: Did finishing this record ultimately help you work through those feelings of uncertainty and existential dread?

PF: Yes. When I started the project, I was genuinely feeling lost. I had this idea in my head that I accomplished this goal of working for NASA—and driving a rover on Mars— but because I accomplished it, I no longer had any goals. The one goal that I had for 18 years—I was 23 when I started driving the rover— was now gone. I was psyching myself out. I was genuinely fearful that I would not experience the feeling of striving for something ever again. That was a really scary thing to go through; it was hard for me to process. I still felt ultimately lucky to be there [at NASA]. I felt extraordinarily privileged, and, you know, it felt strange to be like, ‘Wow, I’ve been given this amazing opportunity, and I’m going to let myself feel crappy?’ It felt so stupid.

This album started as catharsis, but became something closer to therapy. I basically put these emotional experiences onto someone else. I could just let this character be as sad as they wanted. That was rewarding, because it was a safe space for me to push these emotions as far as they can conceivably go. That felt extraordinarily therapeutic, and the reality of how that went is I got better over the course of making the record. The therapy worked. So this album about purposelessness ended up being a cure for my own sense of purposelessness.

This was an important thing to happen to me. I’m very grateful to the record, because it made me better. I’m a better person for having made it. There’s a lot of me [realizing] things in real time on the record. I hope people can hear that.

Pre-order The View of Earth From Mars HERE