Space exploration is a common element of fiction, and narrative art more broadly. I don’t need to give relevant examples, to prove this point, because you all already have your favorites. Most of us have looked up at the stars and imagined ourselves among them.
Whether we saw ourselves either living on another planet and farming exotic alien vegetables, exploring new worlds, and encountering new varieties of sentient life, or fighting for space justice against a galactic empire, space is an environment deep and wide enough to contain any flight of fancy, no matter how outlandish. It is, in human terms, infinite. We only know of its boundaries and limits because of complex mathematical equations. As far as you and I are concerned, though, it is the definition of eternity.
Because of its vastness, space is often therefore used as a metaphor for possibility, mystery, and transcendence when discussing music. Calling something spacey is usually a compliment, as denoting its pleasant ephemeral quality. At least when it comes to the music of Hum, Cave In, or Spiritualized. Music described as spacey, or cosmic even, unless you’re talking about someone like Angels & Airwaves, usually doesn’t refer to the content of their music.
Surprisingly, most space rock actually has pretty grounded content, even if it is often open to interpretation, such as Failure’s Fantastic Planet, which is, supposedly, a long and tortured metaphor for struggles with drug addiction. Similarly, most of Cave In’s discography is also centers on hard truths obtained through mistakes, misfortunes, heart-wrenching dilemmas. Generally, space rock has a reputation for being deep and sad, but very seldom actually about space itself.
Now, it has probably occurred to you that there is an exception to the above rule out there somewhere. That there is an artist who makes music about space, that sounds spacey, but that is also about real-life problems. Well, you’re in luck, because there is. Brendan Chamberlain-Simon, aka Proud Father’s, debut LP The View of Earth From Mars is set in the not-too-distant future, when the first human cosmonaut takes those initial steps onto the virgin surface of Mars, and imagines said space explorer feeling absolutely defeated afterward.
It’s a story about ambition obtaining its end and finding itself cut adrift as a result. The mood of this realistic portrayal of space exploration is set to a highly rhythmic score that feels like a Brian Eno, David Byrne, and John Cale collab, drafted and performed in a space orbital after all three had spent a dedicated period of time imbibing the Beatles entire discography in a single sitting. It’s incredibly light, impeccably balanced, powerfully personal, and, of course, spacey.
The narrative of the album matches Brendan’s own career arc to a degree. Having achieved a lifelong goal of working for NASA piloting a Mars rover at a fairly young age, Brendan felt a momentary loss of purpose in his life. It was a crisis that led him to throw himself into music, a decision that eventually lead to him making an album about his feelings, motivations, and love for space. Hopefully, it will help you find a way out of whatever rut you’re currently in. Use it the North Star. See where it takes you.
You can check out our entire interview with Brendan and a track-by-track breakdown of his space odyssey below:
Interview was conducted via email on July 29, 2021. It has been edited only slightly for clarity.
What got started on your journey towards working JPL & NASA?
I had wanted to work at NASA ever since I was a little kid. I was really into space growing up, and was totally captivated by the stories of space exploration, especially the Apollo and Voyager Programs. I starting working towards a job in NASA in earnest as early as middle school, and was very narrowly focused on that goal. It just … stuck. I essentially had the same goal for my entire life.
Over time, that interest bloomed into more specific appreciation for what NASA represented. The thing I value most of all is the clash between the idealized and the technical. We’re working on these endeavors that are so head-in-the-clouds and romantic, but the way we approach them is anything but. There’s something really powerful about that to me.
What is the learning curve like once you arrived at NASA? What was the hardest part of adapting to the work and culture there?
I got hired by NASA when I was 22 years old. I watched Curiosity land on the surface of Mars when I was in college, as like a NASA fanboy, and then 4 years later I was driving it. The timeline of that arc was really challenging to wrap my head around. I certainly had my fair share of imposter syndrome. Especially considering I was suddenly working with all of these brilliant people with PhDs and decades of experience working on missions I had grown up revering.
So there was this funny feeling where I’d reached the goal I had been striving for my entire life, but I absolutely don’t feel worthy of reaping any of the fulfillment or pride from NASA’s successes. With that being said, I attribute a lot of success to a preference to be the dumbest person in a room. Fear of embarrassment is a great motivator for me.
What did they not teach you in school that you wish they would have?
I think Columbia (my alma mater) actually took a pretty wise approach to things—they conceded that they wouldn’t be able to teach me everything I needed to know, so instead, a lot of my education was focused on teaching me how to learn. That’s what really makes me qualified to do what I do. I’m something of a professional learner. But who knows, maybe I’m giving both of us too much credit.
The thing I wish I had learned earlier is that fulfillment isn’t some benchmark that automatically comes with a certain level of success. Fulfillment comes from within, and requires energy to maintain. It’s not just checking boxes—it’s taking the time and effort to connect those checked boxes to the values that originally drew you to them. It’s funny; it sounds so obvious now, but it really took me years after graduating to figure that out. I think that can be a really difficult lesson to learn amidst a flurry of test scores and report cards.
When did Proud Father start?
Music has been a part of my life for a really long time, but I didn’t work up the courage to write and record until college. It’s funny because I had the drive to pursue a job at NASA when I was a kid, but the dream of making music seemed impossible.
Once I was in college, a lot of friends starting making albums of their own that I really loved. It was really inspiring to watch them take on these projects, and to realize there was nothing stopping me from doing the same. Something clicked, and I’ve been in love with it ever since. I owe a lot to the friends that paved the way for me. One of the great joys of my life was showing up to college and realizing how many people cared about music in the same way that I did, and just how much music I had yet to discover.
When did you feel like Proud Father was ready for prime time?
This album is different than anything I’ve ever made. It felt urgent. It was more of an act of self-exploration than self-expression, but I knew I had something to say. I really wanted to do those ideas justice. It’s also an album born out of a feeling of purposelessness, so I was searching for a project to put a lot of meaning and faith into.
That’s sort of the meta-narrative of the record: this album about purposelessness ending up being my cure for purposelessness. It’s a quasi-autobiographical story about rediscovering fulfillment from within—giving this album the prime-time treatment felt like a necessary part of that arc.
My roommate is a professional musician, so I got a feel for the kind of requisite steps needed to take a project from a thing you make in your bedroom to something that’s heard by a lot of people. It was really
satisfying taking those steps, and learning how to take myself seriously, especially since music isn’t supposed to be my lane.
What are your hopes for The View of Earth From Mars? What does success look like from your vantage point for the album?
In a way, it’s already been a success. I came up with the concept for the album because I was having trouble processing an emotionally complicated experience. I was feeling these profound senses of dread and purposelessness, but I also couldn’t ignore how lucky I was to be in position. So every time I would begin to unpack those emotions, another voice in my head would cut things short and ask me to be grateful for what I had.
The story of the first person to go Mars ended up being a sandbox for me to process my own emotions in really superlative ways without the need to qualify them. And in that sense, the album was a really effective form of therapy for me. I owe a lot to this album. The end result, ironically, feels super autobiographical and vulnerable, because it’s me working through things in real-time.
As far as future successes for the project, I’m very eager to see what conversations this album starts. Although my particular story is unique, I think the experience is actually something a lot of us have felt at one point or another—trying to figure out how to be happy and fulfilled once you no longer have a specific path pointing you in the right direction.
I feel lucky that I work in space exploration because it forced me to confront these feelings head-on, all at once, with the biggest and emptiest backdrop imaginable. I’m hoping that my view from Mars can lend clarity or inspiration to other people’s views of Earth.
What does your Dad think of the project?
Ha! My Dad loves to claim his role as Proud Father’s proud father. He says that he can feel the music “in his bones.” My Dad is a hero of mine, and was my first-ever guide into the world of music obsession. It’s really cool to have this project that my Dad can engage with so meaningfully.
Whenever we would listen to music together, my Dad would always ask, “How the heck did they make that sound?” and I loved throwing out guesses. Now my dad is asking, “How the heck did YOU make that sound?” and I get to tell him exactly how I did it. That maybe makes me the proudest of all.
Track-By-Track for The View of Mars From Earth:
“The View of Mars From Earth”
We meet the narrator, who will later become the first person to land on the surface of Mars. He marinates on the times when he feels lucid, the times he feels featherweight, and the times when he feels resolve. He finds a profound solace in the pursuit of the unknown and the grace of the unknowable. The vastness of the night sky doesn’t intimidate him—the smaller he feels, the easier it is to squint his eyes and mistake the lights of his own life for burning stars.
The narrator’s decision to go after receiving the call. It doesn’t feel how he expected, but he’s gone through these motions so many times in his head that there’s a certain muscle memory to it. At the crossroads of thinking, feeling, and knowing, every former version of himself understands exactly what he needs to do.
“I know there are things I’ll never know / I feel discontent with the ideal / In spite of myself / I know I’m in pursuit of something real.”
The narrator’s meditation on launchpad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center. His feet have already left the ground for the last time, but he feels the pull of the Earth below as he lies on his back. It’s a moment he’s anticipated for nearly his entire life. And yet, for the first time in a long time, the
best thing he can do is nothing at all.
The journey to Mars. With no planet in the way, the familiar rhythm of sunrises and sunsets fades to a strange combination of total blackness and brilliant sun. As the spacecraft spins, he can’t decide if he should spin with it, or stay fixed about the sun and the earth. Would celebrating holidays bring him joy or just an unwelcome sense of longing? He is caught between conflicting feelings of total freedom and total confinement, crashing silently at 24,600 miles an hour (going, something entirely else coming).
Entry, descent, and landing onto the surface of Mars. After a long period of feeling the same thing, or nothing, or everything, he is jolted back to the lucid version of himself. Though this time, the feeling isn’t one of being featherweight. Each of his one million separate realities of the past six months weave into a single, reinforced thread.
“I know I can’t turn back, I’d rather crash and burn / The thing that scares me more is if I do return / Spare me the facts at hand, we’ll never truly know / It’s when I’m by myself that I don’t feel alone.”
After safely landing on the surface, the narrator’s extraordinary journey begins to feel definitionally ordinary. The planet that was once a distant glint in the night sky now lives beneath his feet. For the first time, he meaningfully must confront the question—how long can I run victory laps before it feels like I’m just running?
“What’s eluding me is relief / I’m here and I know I can breathe / All I’ve ever known is keeping pace / With parts of me that run away.”
“The View of Earth From Mars”
The narrator admits to himself a profound feeling of aimlessness. He tries to rediscover what it feels like to pursue a goal, to click with the beauty of something bigger than himself. And, against his better judgement, he finds himself looking back at Earth. From this perspective, Earth appears to be the same size as the stars that surround it: smaller and larger than it’s ever been.
In an attempt to feel close to the people he left behind, the narrator decides he will send a message at Mars’ close approach to planet Earth. He finds meaning and optimism in the celestial progress towards perigee. But just as he sends the message, he soberly confronts the fact that he’ll have to wait eight more minutes just to know if anyone’s listening. And in the meantime,
he’s only started to drift further away.
“I’m glad I made it here / But sad that I arrived.”
Photos by Maya Wali Richardson.