Camp Tuley is located in a lushly overgrown midtown backyard. Not really a camp, it nevertheless boasts some essentials: a fire pit, bikes, and a Ping-Pong table on which residents Mike Tuley and his wife, Brooke Tuley, participate in tournaments with their Ad Astra Arkestra bandmates Brian Miller and John Nichols.
How have things changed since the days when Mike played with his former bands — the wonderfully frantic Short Bus Kids and, later, the much-loved Ad Astra Per Aspera (of which Brooke was also a member) — at such venues as the Pirate House on Kentucky Street in Lawrence?
He shrugs and serves the ball. "Maybe it's not as urgent as it used to be?"
Brooke chimes in, undistracted from the table-tennis match. "But we're still making music to play for friends and to make friends," she says.
"Ad Astra Per Aspera put forth the effort to 'make it,' " Mike says. "We practiced three times a week pretty strictly."
That band didn't exactly make it, but it has plenty to be proud of, having released a handful of EPs and 7-inches and an excellent full-length, Catapult Calypso, which earned itself a Pitchfork review — no small feat for a band from this part of the country. In 2008, though, Ad Astra Per Aspera lost members Kurt Lane and Julie Noyce to the wilds of Brooklyn. Over time, the band came to feel more like a job, less fun than before. The Tuleys moved from Lawrence to Kansas City. They began playing with other acts, including the Grisly Hand. They knew they wanted to continue making music, but their next move wasn't entirely clear.
The music of Sun Ra's Arkestra gradually found its way into the Tuleys' rotation, and they began to draw some new inspiration from the avant-garde, wildly theatrical, improvisational way that the legendary jazz surrealist and his troupe performed. Soon Mike put together a lineup for a new band, assembled from co-workers and friends, some of whom had played in such local acts as Hairy Belafonte, Muscle Worship and Paper Airplanes. The new group, Ad Astra Arkestra, has the free-flowing feel of a happy family.
"There are not that many bands where you just get to freak out," says Miller, who plays drums.
"It's way fun," says Nichols, who plays keyboards for Arkestra and bass for the Grisly Hand. "There's a lot more room to do what you want, to experiment. I mean, we opened for ourselves the other night." (He's referring to the band's recent show at the Replay, where they found themselves without an opener and spent 25 minutes burning through an epic, improvisational jam.)
"I think, since this is sort of everyone's side project, we're all comfortable in our places," Miller says. The goal-oriented nature of Ad Astra Per Aspera and the more clearly defined roles that exist in the Grisly Hand are absent in Ad Astra Arkestra. The only goal seems to be to have fun. Mike jokes, "We don't practice very much."
And yet Ad Astra Arkestra's new self-titled EP — currently available online and soon to be available on vinyl — doesn't sound like a band that's out of practice. Its four songs clock in at just under 30 minutes, and it encompasses, with seemingly effortless transition, a vast and discordant range of musical styles, including punk, freak folk, country and Afrobeat. Singer Megan Williams' rich alto blends with Mike's screams, and the rest of the band can frequently be heard shouting in the background in response. It's an ambitious, rich work, particularly for a band that keeps it so loose and works so infrequently at its art.
Arkestra is one of the few local acts that can essentially claim both KC and Lawrence as home. "With regard to venues and the community, Lawrence has such a great setup for bands. At the Replay, you can be walking through to use the bathroom and see someone playing and forget that you have to go," Mike says. "I do feel like being more rooted here makes us more of a KC band now, though. It's different now. A lot of us are married."
And the band is about to enter another transitional period. Williams is departing to North Carolina for graduate school, and some new percussionists are soon to be added. But lineup changes are old hat by now. Future plans include the release of two more EPs and scheduling some shows outside the usual club and venue circuit: "I prefer the challenge of an unusual space," Mike says. Brooke agrees: "It's all a big experiment, really."