“Standing at the edge where beauty meets decay
Re-born through death
Time fades away and leaves a memory
But that red sky rests so quite
Upon the ashes of innocence
And some things never really come alive
Until after they have died.”
–“The Beginning Of An End” (ASTORIAN STIGMATA)
Sometimes, engaging in urban exploration is like experiencing an alternative reality. In these abandoned and often beloved structures, ghost-like representations of what “once was” collide head-on with their current state of decay and ruination, representing a dream-like status between existence and non-existence, somewhere in the middle of life and death.
Naturally, a local band with a name based upon the concept of an alternative reality, combined with the imagery of open wounds, and the catch phrase “Stay Dead”, would conclude that one of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s most popular urban exploration sites would be the perfect setting for filming a music video or two!
But according to Astorian Stigmata founder and front man, Dennis Condusta, his hometown, which is referred to as the “Victorian Corner of Pennsylvania” on the band’s Facebook page, always stars in his videos. “I’ve traveled extensively and it has really helped me notice that Wilkes-Barre is a truly unique place in many ways”, Dennis explains, “Most of them aren’t positive ways, but in the architectural sense, it really has a “decayed elegance” feel. Like it was once a prospering place during the coal mine era and now it’s kinda run down, and somewhat dismal. I noticed over the years that the message in my music was very similar to that. I’ve always been drawn to the concept of once beautiful things fading away. I know that they always can return. It’s kind of a positive way to look at decay and things falling apart. And “Victorian Corner” is just a reference to a lot of the Victorian era architecture in the surrounding area of Wilkes-Barre. I’ve always been drawn to its class, and most of our records have Victorian era houses on the cover.”
While discussing the Astorian Stigmata video “Ballroom Dancing”, Condusta said that their European fans often make comments about how much they love the look of the old historical stuff here in Pennsylvania. “Most of those shots (in the video) were right in the downtown area, the apartments across from the River Front, and close up shots of the Sterling Hotel”, he stated, “And the European fans say things like “I’d love to visit Wilkes-Barre!” Ha-ha. I think it has a lot to do with the way it’s represented”, he explained, “We really romanticized the place in all our work. And people from here never realize how truly unique and beautiful a lot of the things we have around here are, mostly things left over from the coal era. If we become a bigger band it’s going to be a good thing for Wilkes-Barre tourism! Ha-ha. It always kinda bugged me how bands move away from their home to embrace the music scene other places or whatever, and that’s all fine. But I see myself as an artist far before a musician who is trying to “make it” or anything like that. So I do my best to represent the area I am from because it has played such a huge part in my artistic understanding of the world around me.”
Condusta came up with the band name in 2003 while watching an HBO show called “Carnival”–specifically, an episode titled “The Road to Astoria”, when he became intrigued by the idea of an alternative reality, but one very similar to the one we know. That “alternative reality” notion is the main reason I chose to write about Astorian Stigmata for my blog about urban exploration, because that is the very concept that urban explorers are trying to capture when they photograph the abandoned structures where people once lived, worked, played, worshipped, dreamed or suffered.
Condusta was drawn to the word Stigmata for its powerful look and strong pronunciation. Which is a relevant choice, because the visual images portrayed in many of the band’s videos are both harsh and destructive. Yet, in listening to the lyrics, you can’t miss the sentimental vibe—like a verbalized wish that life was less fragile and that people, places and things could be more permanent.
Dennis explained that “most of my lyrics are about dualities. Which is also why we use black and white stripes so consistently in our logo and branding—they represent the ups and downs of life, and that they are both equal, and both present at all times.” Many of their song lyrics are quite philosophical, touching upon concepts such as being “re-born through death”, as in the lyrics of the one video filmed at the Huber Breaker. “It refers to an existential death and coming back to life as a better person, but only after your old sense of self has died”, Dennis stated. Fans consider the band’s catch phrase, “Stay Dead” and their entire “death” theme, as a metaphor for the kind of self-fulfillment that leads to happiness by remaining true to yourself.
In fact, staying true to themselves is even embraced by Astorian Stigmata in their business model, because they literally do everything themselves. Dennis explains that being an “indie” band allows you to do things, your way, all the time, when you want. We’re pretty specific about what we are trying to say and do.” According to Dennis, “I’ve always loved design/photography/hand printing t-shirts/video/editing/music recording/writing and production–even the hard work like hand making every CD. Our guitar player, DJ, is the same way. He enjoys it all and we work well together as a team. We don’t call ourselves a “punk” band, but we carry that flag and ethic as hard as anyone. Not because we want to, but because no one is gonna do anything for us. We’ve been offered record deals and things, but we’re not dumb dudes in a band. We understand how business works, and how things happen, and that 90% of the industry side of music is there to fool you into making them money.”
Condusta further explains that as an artist, his focus isn’t the same as that of a corporate business entity, only interested in creating mainstream conceptual “art” that is made popular for the purpose of selling it quickly, “We make lasting art. Songs we wrote 5 years ago have as much relevance now as they did then, and will still be relevant 20 years from now.”
Dennis Condusta became interested in playing guitar at a young age, because his older brother also played. As luck would have it, he won a guitar when he was 16, at a BMX riding contest. He was influenced by the music of Modest Mouse (“Dramamine”) and Taking Back Sunday (“A New American Classic”) plus a strong desire to create his own music. “I have no interest in learning cover songs. I just knew I had a feeling inside me and I wanted to learn to get it out as fast as possible”, he said. Dennis also states that his most important influences are his brother and his friends.
Condusta, a life-long resident of this region, known for its working-class sensibilities, which are often hallmarked by the suppression of individualism, did note that this area sometimes has a lack of respect for a broad variety artistic expression. Still, he credits this area for helping him to form his artistic vision, and openly accepts the responsibility and challenges required to act as the ambassador of his own vision, “I do not see that as their fault for misunderstanding me, I see it as my own fault for not doing a good enough job at being understood. I am not afraid to dress strange or to wear two different shoes, it reminds me not to take life too seriously. You’d probably be surprised at how little people notice/care about how crazy someone looks if you do it confidently. It’s when you feel uncomfortable or out-of-place that people can sense it, then they insult you.”
Much of our local history is dark and reflective of the oppression of the human spirit, because for a long period of our recent history, the area was monopolized by an industry that told people daily that they did not matter. In fact, the mules that worked in the anthracite coal mines were insured, while the humans laboring there were not! Local workers had to resign themselves to the fact that they were being exploited, just for the opportunity to earn a paycheck. “That coal miner mentality is still engrained in the people from this area. I think it plays an enormous role in the art I create, so I respect it very much and choose to embrace it”, Dennis said, “There is a dark cloud of oppression that just sits over this valley, although it’s not strong enough to keep me down in any sense. I find it comforting– in a totally sick and twisted kinda way. Ha-ha”
One of the prominent remnants of the coal mining era, the Huber Breaker ruins, has a starring role in two of Astorian Stigmata’s videos. (For those of you outside of Northeastern Pennsylvania, a coal breaker is literally a place where the coal that was brought up from the mines was broken into smaller pieces using machinery.) This location is popular with urban explorers because they love to photograph the machinery and vanishing points that are contained within the decaying walls of this now obsolete industrial complex. I asked Dennis to explain the inspiration behind using this location for these videos. “It’s one of a kind”, he said, “And it’s in rather good shape for how old it is. That place has a feeling and a beauty to it I’ve never felt anywhere else. It’s special in that sense and it’s really inspiring in many ways. It’s hard to explain.”
I asked Dennis if he thought that exposing non-history buffs or individuals unfamiliar with our local history, to our historic locations in a non-traditional artistic context is a good way to inspire an interest in the subject matter. “Yes, I do”, he responded, “Our target audience has never been local. We’ve always strived to appeal to a worldly audience. Most local people think the Huber is played out, ‘cause they’ve seen it so many times, but there’s a person sitting in Norway right now watching that video thinking that’s the coolest place they’ve ever seen.”
And believe me, he’s not kidding! One of my personal, most interesting experiences with the Huber Breaker includes running into a group of students from Germany, taking pictures of the Breaker, as one of their stops on an “Urban Exploration” tour of the industrial ruins along the east coast of the United States!
I asked Condusta, a descendent of coal miners himself–both of his great grandfathers were employed by this industry–if he had any thoughts about using a place where men, and even little boys, were oppressed and exploited to express himself artistically. He said, “Yes, I always think of that. And sadly the world still works that way. I always kinda wished people knew the background on the industry and of that place ‘cause it would add a whole new dimension to the message I’m trying to send.” Although Dennis maintains that the videos and pictures are primarily for aesthetic purposes, and produced for a world-wide audience who does not see such places as they go about their daily lives. “While I understand and respect the history personally”, Dennis explains, “I don’t expect someone in Spain to think of that.”
Of the two Astorian Stigmata videos filmed at the Huber Breaker, “The Beginning Of An End” is the most artistic in nature, and therefore open to individual interpretation. I thought it would be interesting to analyze the video/lyrics within the context of the historical setting with Condusta.
The start of this video features a guy in a camouflage suit collecting water samples from this industrial site in a post apocalyptic world. I found it somewhat poetic that in the beginning of the video you hear “stay safe”, because the irony is that for the men who worked at that dangerous site, in such a high-risk industry, that’s what they, and their loved ones, were thinking every day. Dennis found that interpretation interesting, but said that it wasn’t quite what he was thinking while creating that scene for the video. The video also features a vampire, which I interpreted as a representation of the coal company literally feeding off of the coal miners to turn a profit for themselves, while their employees often lived in impoverished conditions.
The song lyrics contain the phrase “where beauty meets decay”. I asked Condusta if he thought there was something tragically beautiful about this specific abandoned industrial site. “Yes, most certainly”, he said, “It’s symbolic of what was once flourishing, busy and a source of life and jobs for an entire city. And now it’s pushed aside and forgotten. That’s the central theme of my artistic being.”
I asked Dennis why he chose to end the video with the sound of a laughing child. “That was just to provide and exaggerate the feeling of unease that I was attempting to convey”, he explained.
The video “Strange Nights (Live From The End Of The World), was also filmed on location at the Huber Breaker. I asked Condusta if there was something about the location that promoted an “end of the world” feeling. “Yes”, he responded, “It reminds me of what the world would look, and feel like if it were to suddenly end. I found a worker’s time card in the breaker dated from 1962. It’s just interesting to think about how so much of that place seems like the workers just walked out at the end of the shift, and didn’t come back. It doesn’t feel like it ever planned to close–it has a feeling of unrest.”
In conclusion, I asked Dennis if there was anything that he wanted people to know about himself or Astorian Stigmata. “Myself personally? I’m not a terribly interesting person”, was his response, “I put my life into art and I ask for nothing in return. I don’t do this for money/fame or reputation. I was just born with a soul that needs to express itself, and I hope somewhere along the way someone else gets some enjoyment from the work I do.”
You can find more information about Astorian Stigmata by visiting their official website and Facebook page .
Maximilian Aladar was born on May 28th 2005. He is the creation of Dennis Condusta who was in need of someone to play the drums for his band, because at that time, he was playing all of the instruments himself on the recordings. Dennis made Max that very night, never finishing his legs or giving him a mouth. This way, Max could not talk back (using words) or run away. Today, Max serves as the guide for Astorian Stigmata. He is the puppet master who is a puppet…..
Cheri Sundra © 2012
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