It’s been a rough year for indie rock in Miami. Churchill’s Pub remains closed and without a liquor license; Las Rosas hasn’t booked any new shows; and, let’s face it, missing your friend’s band’s set to smoke outside just doesn’t hit as hard when they’re playing a livestream.
But a few Saturdays ago at Gramps, Miami native Ben Katzman, along with his band, Degreaser, showed us that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and it looks a lot like a mixer in the red.
Katzman took the stage wearing a shimmering black morph suit with a big Aries symbol embroidered on its chest. His hair was long and curly in the back. He wore his goatee, sunglasses, and coke-white Charvel guitar, an '80s hair-metal bastion, with pride. After telling the audience he just got off a “manic bender,” he ripped right into his repertoire of high-octane rock songs, most of which are about astrological signs.
“It was like the cosmos aligned for a perfect shred fest,” Katzman tells New Times. “I was kind of shocked that we hit capacity so soon. I know it’s COVID numbers, but it was still crazy. There was a line outside by nine o’clock. I feel like we rocked hard for whoever was there.”
He did. Never before had astrology rocked so hard, in fact. That Saturday at Gramps served as the release show for Katzman’s new album, Astrology 101. Each of the album’s 12 tracks is devoted to a different star sign, and each sign is given a different style of music Katzman identifies with it.
“Libras are totally fun, totally flirty, and all about adventure, so they got the disco song,” Katzman says. “Geminis have twin personalities; you never know what they’re thinking. It’s such an ethereal vibe, so they got the hip-hop song that has the contrast between the verse and the chorus. Leos are always commanding the party, making people wait on them, trying to be the drama, so they got the new-wave, dance-floor banger ‘Living on Leo Time.’”
For most of us, astrology is a hobby, an ironic semi-truth that serves to make memes and categorize our friends instead of consistent practice. For Katzman, it’s a way of life, something he’s been using since childhood to overcome communication issues and have the world make sense. He’s even studying to become a professional astrologer. His music has always flirted with astrology, with titles like “Venus in Pisces” and “Virgo Babe in a Maiden Shirt,” but, true to its name, Astrology 101 serves as a far more encompassing foray into the subject.
“I had been touring a bunch between 2017-2018 for my last record, Quarter Life Crisis, and things were going great,” Katzman says. “We were playing in Puerto Rico, hitting 48 states, and somewhere in the middle of that, I got an email from Starburns Industries about how they wanted to make an astrology album. Everyone they asked pointed at me. The truth is, I never shut up about astrology, so I wasn’t completely surprised. I said I’d do it.”
Starburns Industries is the production company behind legendary content like Rick & Morty, Moral Orel, and Anomalisa. Its imprint, Starburns Industries Press, puts out physical releases, like comics, art books, and cassettes. Now, Astrology 101 has joined its ranks.
“They flew me out to LA, gave me a week at the Starburns headquarters, and I thought it was so nuts,” Katzman says. “Me and my friends just went in and banged out all the songs. My buddy, Simon Ore, who produced it, didn’t really get super involved in telling me what to do and what not to do. He got involved in the way of being like the number-one supporter, telling me that if I thought it could be crazier, to go all in.”
Regardless of the genres Degreaser plays to on the album, every song retains the erratic energy Katzman has built his music around. Seldom is there a Degreaser song without a face-melting guitar part or lyrics that don’t showcase Katzman’s unique brand of candid, culturally aware humor. “Aquarian Powers” finds Katzman listing history’s most beloved Aquarians, including Eddie Van Halen, Oprah, Mozart, and Jennifer Aniston. “Aries Season” opens with a NOFX-reminiscent riff and the lines "I got people skills/And some people problems too."
“This energy is a blessing and a curse,” Katzman says. “It allows me to navigate through life realizing instantly who’s down to clown and who isn’t. I just want to put it to good use because if I’m not being creative, doing what I love, negative thoughts transpire. I get hypercritical with self-doubt.”
The release of Astrology 101 marks a new chapter in Katzman’s career. Though most artists would probably say that about a new release, Katzman’s case feels different. Perhaps it’s the frankness he gives off when speaking, namedropping bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who most indie rockers would like to scoff at, or maybe it’s the way he tries to shoot the breeze with every fan who approaches his merch table. Regardless, Katzman is focusing on Degreaser more than ever before — to the point where he’s even put his label BUFU, which has released music from indie darlings like Japanther, Mannequin Pussy, and Tall Juan, on hold.
“I just realized that now I want to do my own thing,” Katzman says. “I don’t want to play God with my friends’ careers. The pressure of running a label became insurmountable. It was havoc, almost a depression over having so many options and not knowing which one I want to take. I didn’t really feel like I was being creative anymore.”
Now he's stoked for what’s to come. He speaks about his life post-Astrology 101 with starry eyes.
“The second the release show was over, that whole manic episode was done,” Katzman says. “Shoutout to my friends who were there for me through the whole thing. The energy is real. I don’t do drugs. I only drink socially. I don’t even do caffeine. Within five minutes of waking up, I roll out of bed, ready to rock.”
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