When someone tells you their latest tattoo is a quote from Carl Sagan, you know you should sit up and listen to whatever they’re going to say next.
“It says, ‘We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,’” says Simon Collins, leader of the sonic collaboration Sound of Contact, a band that recently released an album called DIMENSIONAUT.
The songs have trance-inducing melodies but are peppered with hard-rock chords and jam-band meanderings. The lyrics follow a human who decides to go off-grid in an extreme way, leaving Earth altogether and traveling through time and space. This person is not an astronaut but a dimensionaut, and the eponymous record takes listeners along for the journey.
Collins, who sings lead vocals and plays drums for Sound of Contact, is a multifaceted man, with an identity equal parts rock star and hobby-scientist. He began his musical career at age eight — precocious, having spent time on tour with his famous father, Phil Collins. “I knew what I wanted to do since I was 12,” says Collins. “I wanted to be in a rock-‘n’-roll band, so I didn’t spend too much time going to school.
Despite his academic aloofness, his parents gave him a telescope. At first, he let it languish. But one day when he was 17, the telescope, like a Toy Story character exhumed from the bottom of the toy chest, became part of his everyday life. “I just decided to take the telescope out one clear night,” he says. “I just pointed the telescope at the brightest object.”
Before he focused the eyepiece, he didn’t know what that object was. But once he adjusted the knobs, Saturn — and its almost-too-perfect-to-look-real rings — popped into view. “It just blew my mind,” he says. “There it is; it’s really out there; it’s not just a picture in a textbook.
Sagan’s television show, Cosmos, similarly tweaked his brain. “I was at my uncle’s house, and I slipped in his Cosmos VHS, thinking, ‘This looks kind of cool,’” he recalls. “It blew my mind. I had no idea. It’s amazing when something like that all of a sudden reflects back and means something to you personally and existentially.
Collins, no longer a teenager, continues his astronomical adventures, at least when Sound of Contact isn’t touring or recording. “In Los Angeles, you can see the Moon if you’re lucky,” he says. But his home is near Stonehenge in the UK, which, as you can imagine, is plenty dark. The history of that semi-creepy place and its black skies lead Collins to deep thoughts about space and time, and they come out in his music.
Sound of Contact, as a band, isn’t afraid to ponder their place in the universe. And they want you to do the same. “There’s so much music out there today that just doesn’t have any substance and doesn’t make you think,” says Collins. “It’s important for me to be positive in my music and to inspire someone to look at things from a different perspective. I’m trying to capture the sounds of the cosmos. … When people ask me about my influences, I don’t always say music. Carl Sagan is a big influence, Brian Greene, Elegant Universe. … A lot of people are calling the album ‘space rock.’”
DIMENSIONAUT and the band in general are new concepts for Collins, who spent years as a solo artist fretting over his personal life through lyrics and percussive beats. He was ready for a change. “I really felt like I wanted to do something selfless, and I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself,” he says. “Sound of Contact made an album that is a combination of all of our experiences. We wanted to explore the farthest reaches of the universe, to help better humanity as a race.”
When Collins is looking up, though, he likes to stay a bit closer to home. “My favorite deep-sky object is the Andromeda Galaxy,” he says. “It’s the most distant object visible to the naked eye. It’s mind-boggling, and I like to inspire people to go out and look. A big part of what I do through my music is provide some inspiration — put the word ‘progressive’ back in ‘prog.’” For those of you not in the rock-‘n’-roll-know, he’s referring to “prog rock,” which is more artsy and nuanced than regular rock (regressive rock?). Like DIMENSIONAUT, prog-rock albums often feature songs whose lengths stretch into the double digits and whose semi-psychedelic riffs convince you that perhaps you are on a journey through space and time.
Sound of Contact’s new album is so captivating partly because of their recording strategy, which was heavy on the digital storage. “We just recorded everything,” Collins says. “We captured every jam, every conversation. Two of the songs were recorded in one take, as they happened.”
But as comfortable as Collins is in the studio, he’s equally comfortable in space-time in general. “The more I understand what’s out there and where we come from,” he says, “the more I feel at home.”
DIMENSIONAUT, which Collins hopes will inspire others to feel the same way, recently won the 2013 Limelight Award at the Progressive Music Awards, where Sound of Contact was also voted Best New Band.
To learn more about the band or the album, visit www.soundofcontact.com. Or check out a video of their first single. Or see if they’re going to be on tour near you. Regardless of how you choose to connect, you and your eardrums will be glad you did.