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Junior Astronomers: (from left) Elias Pittman, Philip Wheeler, Terrence Richard, Colin Watts (Photo by Nicki Rolloff)

Junior Astronomers: (from left) Elias Pittman, Philip Wheeler, Terrence Richard, Colin Watts (Photo by Nicki Rolloff)

Terrence Richard and His Space Cadets Pen a Love-Hate Letter to Charlotte 

Junior Astronomers blast off

When Terrence Richard and his older sister Crystal were kids growing up behind what was then called Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte's Third Ward, their dad would turn the family's road trips into fun and educational music-trivia games. Billy Joe Richard, a radio disc jockey and son of the legendary Greensboro-based gospel jock Alfred G. Richard, would choose a musical style and stay with it, song after song, throughout the drive, teaching his children everything he knew about one specific genre of music that he loved — until the next outing, when he'd choose another.

"We called them genre trips. We'd have a whole trip based on a different genre every time we'd go somewhere," Terrence remembers. "On one trip he'd play country, and on another he'd play R&B." Songs by artists ranging from Garth Brooks to Stevie Wonder would mesmerize the siblings, who would absorb every nuance until they knew the songs and artists inside out. "I learned a lot about all kinds of different music that way," he says.

His sister Crystal concurs. "We were exposed to all the greats — B.B. King, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder," she says. As the children grew up and graduated from elementary school to middle school and on to high school, they began exploring music on their own.

"I got exposed to Led Zeppelin and all the heavier bands that followed, like Slayer and Metallica," Crystal says. "Terrence didn't really take to the heavier stuff like I did. He was kind of late to that. He was into R&B. He just loved R&B. That was our mom's influence. She really digs that kind of music."

click to enlarge Terrence Richard in Plaza Midwood.
  • Terrence Richard in Plaza Midwood.

Terrence did eventually take to the heavier stuff, and today he fronts the Charlotte post-punk band Junior Astronomers, which has been chewing up and spitting out the last morsels of bratty, in-your-face, emo-tinged rock for nearly a decade. The band is about to drop its second full-length album, Body Language, and after a tour down the east coast — from New York to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Raleigh and Chapel Hill — they'll be back home in the Queen City on June 9, the day of the album's release, to throw a big, celebratory bash at the Neighborhood Theatre.

Crystal, of course, will be there, front and center. "My soul lights up seeing him out there on stage," she says. "Some of the happiest moments of my life have been watching Terrence grow as a musician and seeing him play."

The genesis of Junior Astronomers goes back to Myers Park High School, where in the mid-2000s Crystal Richard was a member of the school choir with future JA guitarist Philip Wheeler and bassist Colin Watts. JA drummer Eli Pittman's older brother Christian was also part of that circle. Though Terrence was a couple of grades behind, he was fascinated by his sister's friends.

"Eli had a band called Landa and Colin had a band called Social Riot, and I used to go see them," Terrence remembers. "But we never really connected fully until we formed Junior Astronomers."

By then, Terrence had been converted to rock via the gateway drug of Prince, ultimately discovering the Strokes. In ninth grade he began venturing out to all-ages punm shows at Tremont Music Hall. He still vividly remembers the night he decided he wanted to be part of the action.

"I had gone to a 'battle of the bands' at Tremont and Phil was playing in this band called Another Day," Terrence says. "I just remember seeing them and thinking, 'I wanna do that. I wanna play music.'"

Within two years, Richard, Wheeler and the others would move into a yellow house off Pecan Avenue in Plaza Midwood, where they partied, played music, partied some more, played more music, and generally annoyed the hell out of at least one neighbor. "We would just throw parties all the time and hang out, talk about music, play music, try to find girls — all that stuff," Richard remembers. "Our neighbors hated us. . ." He pauses, and then adds, "Well, not every neighbor — we had a lot of cool neighbors — but there was one neighbor in particular who just hated us."

Richard began writing songs — like "Neighbors?," a slam-bang punk rocker that eventually appeared on Dead Nostalgia, Junior Astronomers' debut full-length album, in 2013. "That's what all our older music is about, really — those times," he remembers. "Just growing up and kind of trying to figure out what you want to do with your life. The first thing we put out was [the six-song EP] I Had Plans for Us and the second was [the four-song EP] I Just Want to Make a Statement. Those two were just culminations of all these ideas I had at the time because, you know, at that age you just want to be heard."

click to enlarge Photo by Nicki Rohloff.
  • Photo by Nicki Rohloff.

By the turn of the decade, Junior Astronomers' name was bubbling up on the national music scene. "If you haven't heard of Junior Astronomers already... well, you're probably one of many," high school music scribe Joey Dussault wrote of I Just Want to Make a Statement, in 2010, on the New York City-based website Mind Equals Blown. "These Charlotte, North Carolina natives are catchy and calculated, but also loud and impulsive, like Ted Leo being played by Bloc Party."

Within two more years, Junior Astronomers' music was maturing quickly, and the band gained a following far beyond Charlotte and the underground punk scene. As Paste magazine wrote of a session the band did in Nashville in 2012, "There's anger and disappointment. There's pain and there are problems, but Terrence Richard, Philip Wheeler, Jeffrey Saer, Colin Watts and Elias Pittman present these moments like therapeutic lifelines."

When Dead Nostalgia finally appeared the following year, Junior Astronomers had made their statement. Music fans across the country were listening. So now what?

"Now I'm like, 'OK, people are listening, I'm being heard,'" Richard says. "'But what do I want to say?'"

On a scorching weekday afternoon, just days before Junior Astronomers hit the road for their short tour up the coast, Richard is perched on a bench on Pecan Avenue outside Twenty-Two Gallery. That's where he works as a bartender when he's not on the road with his band wailing out "I Just Want to Make a Statement," "Before Crimes," or the more recent "That's Why," from Body Language.

For the new album, Richard dug back to his early memories of those "genre trips" with his family. "My dad didn't really care about genres," Richard says, his sleepy eyes squinting in the bright sunshine through thick, black-rimmed glasses. "What he cared about were the stories the songs told. And that's how I fell in love with music — I fell in love with the stories in songs of all kinds; the lyricism, the way a songwriter builds an image."

If Junior Astronomers' earlier releases were collections of short stories centered on being snotty adolescents coming of age in Charlotte and coming to terms with their political ideologies and the world around them, Body Language is more like the band's first novel.

It's a novel about Charlotte, told through songs that combine the tried-and-true guitar rock of the band's established sound with a broader instrumental palette and more sophisticated lyrics that express his ambivalence about his hometown.

"My whole life I loved being from Charlotte and I always thought I would stay here forever. But it's kind of like the body language of this city has changed," Richard says. "Some days I still love it and then some days I'm like, 'I don't know who you are anymore.'"

Richard looks up, his long black locks resting on the shoulders of a T-shirt that sports the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing logo of a fellow Charlotte band, Modern Primitives. He points down Central Avenue at the brand new condos that tower above the old dive bar Thirsty Beaver.

"Look around Plaza Midwood, look around NoDa," Richard says. "It's unrecognizable in some places. And I mean, change is inevitable. I know that. But I believe you should have respect for what's happened before, and I think we've lost that. It seems like we don't nurture the right things in this city."

The themes on Body Language are bigger and more reflective than what's become expected of Junior Astronomers. Most of the songs ride chunky, sometimes funky riffs that sound more traditional Rolling Stones than sledgehammer Ramones.

And the lyrics come off like love letters — or break-up threats.

There's the stop-and-start discomfort of "Mood Ring," in which Richard confesses: "You've seen me drunk, you've seen me bored, you've seen me throwing up on floors," and later, "I've seen you grow . . . I've seen you move from place to place, building houses into new shapes." There's the darker "Pyramid Party," in which Richard threatens to move on: "I heard your nights have been quiet / Doomed to dance with those less wild . . . Too bad this is my last party / Gonna leave while it's exciting." And then there's "That's Why," in which Richard reconsiders his feelings about the dysfunctional relationship he's been going on about: "I went this long, I'll probably see this through."

Photo by Nicki Rohloff.
  • Photo by Nicki Rohloff.

Richard laughs. "Isn't that how relationships are?" he asks. "You stay with somebody long enough, their body language changes and you start nitpicking and figuring out what you don't like about them and focusing on that. And at that point you have to make a choice: Either you stick with this person or you run away from and find something new."

Writing thematically was new for Richard. "Before we did the first LP, we'd only had two EPs and had never really tried doing the LP thing. So it's been kind of a learning curve," he says. "And while I love all the songs on Dead Nostalgia, there was no break in any of them — it was all in-your-face music the whole time. For Body Language we set out to make something that's a little bit less punch-you-in-the-face."

Richard finally gets around to the "M" word. "I think it's a more mature sound for us," he says, and then laughs, catching himself in the cliche. "I mean, I say 'mature' for lack of a better term, because I know a lot of bands say, 'Oh, this is our more mature record' when they're getting older. But, I dunno... this really is more mature."

During the recording of the album, Junior Astronomers holed up with engineer and local producer Mike Pepe at legenday N.C. musician and producer Mitch Easter's studio Fidelitorium Recordings, in Kernersville, where they lived and breathed the album for an entire month.

"He has a house there that you can sleep in, and you're just surrounded by all his old gear and everything," Richard says. "It's so cool; very inspirational. It was definitely one of my most inspirational experiences recording."

Junior Astronomer's guitarist Wheeler says he felt like a drunk in a liquor store. "Fidelitorium is one of those places where you can tell he's been recording for the past 40 years, because there's just so much great equipment in there," Wheeler marvels. "Like, there was this first-generation Mellotron and Wurlitzer."

Wheeler is referring to the early effects machines often used on classic psychedelic and progressive-rock tracks such as the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever," David Bowie's "A Space Oddity" and Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" (in the case of the Mellotron) and Queen's "You're My Best Friend" (in the case of the Wurlitzer, which gives the song's piano intro its distinctive "bark"). JA used the instruments on the gentle and spacey "Exit Policy," a moody song about halfway into Body Language that finds Richard reconsidering his plan to leave his dysfunctional relationhip, "Maybe I'll stay here for a while," he sings amid the warbling music.

Junior Astronomers' ace in the hole was Pepe, who'd recently worked with Charlotte rockers Adam Lazzara and John Nolan of Taking Back Sunday on that band's game-changing 2016 album Tidal Wave.

Lazzara remembers Pepe bringing a sense of levity to the sessions and creativity to the album, which was a departure for the legendary emo band in terms of its musical sprawl, from the full-on punk of the title song to the sweely delicate acoustic gutiars and electronics that color "I Feel It Too."

"There aren't a lot of people captuing the tones and feelings Mike is able to capture these days," Lazzara says, adding that Pepe's "unwavering positivity makes the time in the studio fly by faster than it typically does, which is saying a lot."

Richard agrees. "He's just one of the happiest, most passionate music lovers you'd ever meet," he says. "Mike has been a homie for quite some time, and initially he was just going to engineer. But we gave him producing credit because he came up with so many ideas. He helped steer a lot of the stuff. He was an extra ear and we trusted him and knew he wasn't going to try and change anything completely."

click to enlarge Photo by Kevin Condon.
  • Photo by Kevin Condon.

For instance, the band had planned to include a track that Pepe suggested just didn't work on the album.

"So we cut it, based on his input, just for flow of the record, and it was the right thing to do," adds Wheeler. "He's just really encouraging voice, He's really easy to bounce things off of. His strength is to encourage you to try everything and see what happens." For Richard, expanding the band's sound was sometimes scary. "This is the first record we've ever done where we've added more instruments than just guitars," he says. "Because earlier, I always felt that a lot of music was going away from guitar rock and so that's what I wanted to stick to — just guitar music. But as I've gotten older, I've kind of accepted that music can be bigger and more vast.

"And we have bigger ideas," Richard adds. "I mean, the next record may have horns on it. And after that, we might have strings or a symphony on it. There's no limit, really, and there shouldn't be. But I want us to do it slowly, just so it doesn't shock people who've been following us for a long time."

He grins. "Like, don't expect us to be coming out with a full-on electronic record or anything like that."

The doors at the side of Twenty-Two Gallery open up, which means one thing: It's time for Terrence Richard to go to work, mixing drinks for Plaza Midwood's bar rats. In all of his talk and all of those songs expressing his disappointed in the direction Charlotte's going in, Richard leaves on a note of optimism. He's probably going to stick around. At least for now.

"We're at a tipping point in this city," Richard says. "We have all these people coming here, we have all these transplants coming, and we need to figure out a way to grab these people and bring them into a culture that's already here. You look at the breweries and see how successful they are, and it reminds me so much of a music scene. You support a local brewery because it's local — you like it and you know it and you enjoy it and it makes you feel good about being from Charlotte.

"So when all these new people — when they get here and they ask, 'Where should I go?' And you say, 'Go check out this local brewery. You're going to meet local people, you're going to support local business,' that's great. But you should be saying the same about the local music scene."

He dismisses the idea that Charlotte is not a live-music town. "It's not that people in Charlotte don't like music," Richard says, "it's that they don't know about it."

Richard points to the explosion of underground hip-hop scenes and other kinds of music, like the panoply of Latino bands, coming in to play at Plaza Midwood clubs alone.

"There's more kinds of music and stuff to do here now than there ever was, and more people feel comfortable coming in here and doing it because they see people like themselves," he says. "And that's the upside of all the growth."

He just wishes folks would talk about it more.

"Yeah, I just don't think the local music scene gets as much love as it should," Richard says. "I mean, there's bands like Foreign Air, Shadowgraphs, Modern Primitives, Cuzco, Patois Counselors — all these bands that are making brilliant music. And you don't hear enough about it. To me, Charlotte is the music city in North Carolina now. It used to be Chapel Hill, but now it's Charlotte. I guess it's going to have to take somebody huge, somebody really blowing up, for anybody to notice it."

Junior Astronomers could be that somebody.

Watch the first video from Junior Astronomers' Body Language, "Laid Out"
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