Bandella’s cosmic take on folk music is out of this world
You’re in low orbit, 254 miles above the Earth. The world looks small from up here, you’re contemplating human existence and performing science experiments—then it hits you—Greenwich Mean Time is seven hours ahead of the East Coast. You’re late for band practice!
Cue a Huey Lewis and the News riff and a skitched ride off the back of a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.
OK, that’s not really how it works. If you happen to be in space while the band’s on the planet, practice takes place through a sat-link, as retired astronaut and former NASA scientist Cady Coleman explains.
She, along with fellow former astronaut and noted David Bowie-coverer Chris Hadfield play in Bandella, a folk group that’s played the world over and over the world.
“You can actually play together with people on Earth,” Coleman said. “There is a time delay. You basically have to decide: Are the people in space going to follow the people on Earth? Or are the people on Earth going to follow the person in space? And it is easier, actually, to follow the person in space. And so we did that with Chris at one point.”
Another former astronaut plays with Hadfield and Coleman: Steve Robinson. Three astronauts in one band? Isn’t that above average?
Like many bands, Bandella is made up of people who share experiences—experiences that just happen to involve space flight. Hadfield, Coleman and Robinson all flew on the space shuttle and have been to the International Space Station.
Coleman plays flute and Hadfield handles some vocals and guitar. Robinson—a Sacramento native and UC Davis engineering professor—takes lead acoustic guitar and other strings. Micki Pettit, who is married to former astronaut Don Pettit, is on lead vocals. And longtime friend of the band, Dave Webb, will be joining on keyboards for their show at the Palms Playhouse in Winters on July 6. The core members have played together for 16 years.
Coleman has been playing the flute since before she even considered becoming an astronaut, which happened in college.
“Really, it never occurred to me until the women’s alumni association had Sally Ride come and give a talk after her mission.” Coleman said. “I just thought, ’Wow, maybe I could try to have that job.’”
Coleman ended up working at NASA for 24 years. Early on in her career, she started collaborating with fellow “music-stronauts”—or “astrocicians.”
“Chris Hadfield and I started in the same class [at NASA] and started playing music sometime in the first few months,” Coleman said. “It takes a certain chemistry to play … Some people it just works particularly well with, and Chris happens to be one of those people.“
Music is one way to spend the time in orbit, with its zero-gravity challenges. Guitars, like everything else not tied down, tend to float away. A flute temporarily abandoned, Coleman says, once hid itself somewhere in the space station. Despite such setbacks, Hadfield says, “NASA psychiatrists and psychologists realized just how important music is and art is to mental health, and so they put the guitar on the International Space Station in the summer of ’01. So it’s been there for 18 years, so I guess that guitar’s been around the world, gosh … a hundred thousand times? More than Keith Richards, I guess.”
You can put instruments in space ships, you can have astronauts phone music home, but why do it? Space is inhospitable to life, and it seems like it’s fairly inhospitable to jamming out.
“Music, on a spaceship, is mostly solo,” Hadfield said. “It’s also a really noisy place, it’s that level of constant machine noise that’s keeping you alive.”
It’s not the best place to play music, but Hadfield says there’s no better place to go for inspiration, evidenced by an entire album of original work he made on the ISS. There’s a sunrise every 90 minutes, stellar views of the planet and plenty of work to be done.
“I think art helps each of us explain the world to ourselves,” Hadfield said. “That applied while I was aboard the space station.”
Coleman agrees. “I think playing music together is a very human thing,” she said. “There’s some joy that always happens when all of us are together and when Chris and Micki are singing.”
Coleman has also had the opportunity to play lots of music with other humans. She’s performed with the Chieftans, a traditional Irish band, and also played with Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson live from space.
“I think there’s a lot of similarities between being in a band on the road and living in a space station in that it’s not like you can decide you want a different bass player,” she said. “It’s hard to change them, and you have to figure out a way to get over the things you wish were different.”
Imagine being miles away from billions of humans, but you can still be trapped in the close company of a few folks on the ISS. No matter where you go, so much of your life is shaped by the humans you interact with. While Hadfield denied ever getting stage fright—once you’ve gone to space, certain things seem smaller—Coleman finds that the interactions still have an edge.
“One of my favorite quotes,” Coleman said, “is that there’s no way to take the danger out of human relationships—and I would say that applies to musical relationships as well.”