nzoa july 2019

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by Amanda Mills

Asta Rangu: Spiritual Cartoon Music

by Amanda Mills

Asta Rangu: Spiritual Cartoon Music

Having worked his way up the musical (snakes and) ladders board since boyhood, Richard Ley-Hamilton is by now an integral part of Dunedin’s indie music scene. You might know him from Males (who are on extended hiatus) or Space Bats, Attack! Amanda Mills reached across the water to talk with him about his latest project, Asta Rangu.

Richard Ley-Hamilton describes Asta Rangu as a right turn from what he was doing with Males.

Ley-Hamilton has a long musical background, playing piano from childhood, moving to guitar as a teenager, and playing in bands during high school. At Otago University he studied music and contemporary composition with Graeme Downes and Ian Chapman. Although clearly having different attitudes and approaches to composition, Ley Hamilton says they “definitely helped crystallise a lot of processes that worked really well.”

Asta Rangu is his newly current solo project which evolved out of making demos for what might have been further Males songs, before realising that the kind of songs he was writing were very different, as he explains.

“From there, it got to the point where I had fully fledged ideas, and I had a vision for how I wanted the songs to sound. The only thing I thought I wouldn’t be able to do justice for was the drums.” (Drum duty was taken on by Koizilla and Space Bats, Attack! drummer Josh Nicholls.)

The ‘spiritual cartoon’ character of Asta Rangu emerged from Ley-Hamilton drawing lots of images. He explains it as personifying the “spirituality… and imaginary figures below the surface, not quite in the physical realm, sometimes in the metaphysical.”

At the same time, he was reading about creating alternative identities or characters.

“Those you can kind of converse with… I thought, who better to be like a name or philosophy to work towards than this kind of new lens or perspective that reflects where I was in my life, looking at a different direction.”

The debut Asta Rangu EP, ‘Plasticine’, is released on Trace/Untrace, a fledgling label Ley-Hamilton established with friend Julie Dunn. The label also has fellow Dunedin bands Koizilla and The Rothmans on the roster.

“Dunedin seems to have lots of fleeting moments when things are beautiful for a short period of time, and then they evaporate, or retreat… it was a good cataloguing of what was happening at The Attic as well.”

Asta Rangu is a different creative outlet for Ley-Hamilton.

“I think it gives me the feeling that I can go in any direction,” he says. “I don’t feel tied to just simply doing guitar, post-punky rock, noisy pop songs: from now on, I’ve got songs that are purely synth-based, or songs that would do well just being [with] an acoustic guitar, and vocals. Or, ones without vocals at all! I like the idea of it being a catch-all for anything I do.”

Trace/Untrace terms Asta Rangu ‘fidgety pop’, begging the question of what exactly that might be?

“Fidget-pop is… there’s a lot going on. It’s still energetic and it’s still garage in a sense, but I think there’s a lot more dense layers and noise,” he explains. “It’s more about creating a mood, or atmosphere around the songs.”

First song, Skip On Trak One, is unconventional melodic alt-pop, with a featured scale passage that Ley-Hamilton thinks recalls Split Enz.

“One of those dramatic musical techniques that don’t really serve anything, but show off some notion of flair,” he describes it.

Recorded with Tex Houston at Ley-Hamilton’s parents’ home and Burns Hall at First Church in Dunedin, the songs on ‘Plasticine’ were started a while ago.

“Melancholics we actually played one or two times with Males, it was the last one added to the set when we were playing our last shows, but it just didn’t quite fit.”

The song proved a turning point for Ley-Hamilton’s songwriting, with open tunings used for a clean slate approach, while also using the

“Same writing processes as before, but I constructed it in a… less guitar environment,” he explains. “I practised them a lot on piano as well to get a different feel for them, because I knew that there would be a greater use of keyboards.”

The songs are thematically holistic, as much of the EP is about trying to look at yourself from many different angles, as Ley-Hamilton enthuses.

Skip On Trak One is [a] desperate look at not going anywhere… I think it was about meeting my place in the world, and whether it was Dunedin or not. All of the songs have a universality… people have tough times irrespective of background and situations.”

Ley-Hamilton is currently on his OE.

“I want to come back [to Dunedin] and continue to be involved with the musical community. Seeing bands over here, I still believe New Zealand’s got something special, we seem to be world class without knowing it.”

He does have further upcoming releases, as Space Bats, Attack! have a new album slated for release in the second half of 2017, as well as a forthcoming Asta Rangu cassette. For the time being, though he’s keen for people to become acquainted with Asta Rangu and ‘Plasticine.’

“Hopefully people can have a listen to the EP, enjoy the songs, and see the tangent I’m going on – if they do, that’s wonderful. I’m very grateful to be making music.”