In 2010, Colonizing the Cosmos — a shape-shifting indie-pop outfit centered on Michael Savisky and Josh Moyer — burst onto the local music scene, releasing its debut album and getting the nod as WYEP's local artist of the year. The band played unconventional shows, like a circus-style event organized at the West End Overlook.
Then ... it got quiet again.
"We were working on the second album during that year," recalls Savisky, "but we realized there was a lot more we needed to put into it. Out of necessity, we had to balance out — if we put all our effort into these elaborate live performances, we might not get the next album done for five more years."
They weren't just working on an album: The band's new full-length, The House of War Is a House of Peace, comes with an accompanying novel, co-written by Savisky and Moyer. It's quite an undertaking.
"I think we began to realize that it was going to take much more time than we originally intended," says Moyer.
The album has seen the band both expand and pare down. While live shows used to involve a full choir sometimes, and strings and horns, it's a more conventional lineup now. (Though some members of the Oakland Girls' Choir do appear on a track.) Colonizing used more experimental techniques, and a space-travel theme, on its upbeat, poppy debut, The First Frontier, which called to mind acts like Sufjan Stevens and Danielson.
"These songs started to take on the theme of space," says Savisky. "Everything from outer space, to people giving each other space in a relationship, to the way that we occupy land — space on a very large scale and small scale."
For the second album, they kept it conceptual, but changed things up a bit. The book component of House of War is a 300-page novel, a fantasy written whimsically and featuring some anthropomorphic elephants, butterflies, storks and the like. The music goes along, though not always in a literal, linear fashion.
"We wrote them side-by-side," says Savisky, "so sometimes a song would influence the direction of the story, and sometimes the story would dictate what songs we still needed to add to the album. The whole time, we kept reminding ourselves that we wanted people to be able to find the album on its own and be able to enjoy it on its own, and we thought the same thing about the novel.
"A character, a personality, the setting of a scene — we'd start writing a song like we were writing a score to a scene. The album starts out with this cold, eerie synth-piano thing happening, and the novel starts out with a cold, sort of wintery feel. There are elephants in the novel, and I think some of the songs on the album have this stomping-around feel, and those songs have something to do with those characters. There are some darker songs, and there are some dark magician characters in the novel."
The resulting album sounds slightly less poppy, slightly more arty than the first. The concept seems tighter, and each story seems to represent a different scene or idea more concretely. The band itself seems more grounded, too, which might be because Moyer and Savisky are more confident in what they're doing with the group.
"We kind of moved through this collection of musicians [who played with the band early on], and we began thinking about what Colonizing the Cosmos is, and I think at its core, you see Michael and I," says Moyer. "Because we're writing and recording all of the music — though we have brought in some different people to record with us. Then there's this collective of musicians, people we just run into and say, ‘Hey! Would you be interested in playing with us?'" (The band's live show, he says, will still include eight people, give or take.)
The pair is benefiting from sharing a space — they and their wives live in apartments in the same Shadyside house, which makes collaborating easier than it was early on, when they lived across town from one another.
Savisky and Moyer chose to set the House of War release show in an unconventional spot, in keeping with the band's general style. The show will take place in the performance hall at the Carnegie Library in Homewood — fitting, since it's also a book release.
"We pretty quickly narrowed down the possibilities to two or three, and where we settled was probably our number-one choice," says Moyer. "We thought a library was a good fit since the novel is involved with this project. We'd both been to the Homewood library before, and it's pretty spectacular."
"And [it goes] back to how we've always liked doing performances," says Savisky. "We want people to come to a new space and experience something a little bit different."
"I think there's been a common thread throughout with this band," adds Moyer, "a pretty strong theme of community. Having this release at the public library — it's kind of the cornerstone of community and access and free speech in the United States. It fit for all of those reasons."