OSHKOSH - They were “two goofballs” in middle school jazz band in Fond du Lac when they became friends, and now Michael Stensland and Ben Baker sometimes text one another just to remind themselves of how far they’ve come.
As alt-pop duo The Astronomers, they’ve gone from FaceTiming one another in dorm rooms on two University of Wisconsin campuses 160 miles apart as they worked to get the band off the ground in 2019 to hearing their music on WIXX-FM, talking to record labels and watching their monthly listeners on Spotify surge toward 700,000.
“It has grown fast,” Baker said. “There never really was an end goal. It’s just always been how far can we take it.”
They released their debut full-length album, “The Occasion,” on Nov. 4. In December, they purchased their first van, a 1999 Ford E-150 van with when Stensland calls “a vintage look and sound.” They named it Howie (as in “how we get places”) and with tour manager Jack Rindahl behind the wheel, they kicked off 2023 with their first tour outside Wisconsin, playing primarily 200-person venues in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Iowa.
The round of dates included three shows on The Rock Boat XXII, a voyage that set sail from Miami and traveled to the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas. Passenger votes secured The Astronomers a spot in a lineup that also featured such national acts as Sister Hazel, Needtobreathe and Neon Trees.
In Minnesota, they played the 7th St. Entry, the smaller, more intimate venue connected to iconic music club First Avenue.
“We’ve never been to Minneapolis before, so it was just crazy to see 200 people who knew the lyrics and were fans,” Baker said. “People coming up to us and telling us they were going to get tattoos of our lyrics and showing us drawings that they made for us. All these cool stories of fans telling us what song is their favorite or how they found our music.”
Songs like the infectiously catchy “Overthinking,” which helped launch The Astronomers when it went to No. 1 on the Top 9 @ 9 on powerhouse northeastern Wisconsin radio station WIXX during Christmas 2020, has cultivated a fan base that’s all ages.
“It’s not just a younger crowd,” Baker said. “We have moms and dads come with their kids, and they’re fans. It’s wild.”
In advance of their April 1 concert at the Meyer Theatre in Green Bay, where they'll be joined by Ike Holzmann on bass and Josh Guy on drums, Baker and Stensland talked about making their hometown proud, their UW-Oshkosh roots and why they click as a duo.
The dorm year beginnings at UW-Platteville and UW-Oshkosh
Their first musical connection came in middle school jazz band, where they both played saxophone.
“We were kind of two goofballs in the sense where we just liked to play whatever sounded good and not really care too much about anything else, but we really bonded over that,” Stensland said.
They were in a cover band together in high school called Orange Afternoon, but when Baker went to the University of Wisconsin-Platteville to study construction management and Stensland to UW-Oshkosh for radio TV film, the band eventually went by the wayside.
Baker, who had done some solo work work in high school creating copyright-free instrumentals for the gaming community, decided he wanted to start a duo and make music with lyrics. He reached out to Stensland and The Astronomers were born. They took their name from a 2018 solo song Baker had put out on YouTube and Spotify titled “The Astronomer.”
They worked on their music over FaceTime that first year, until Baker transferred to UWO, they became roommates and set up a studio in their dorm. It was a game changer for them. Music became a daily endeavor.
The secret to their success as a duo
"We work well together, because we both know what we are good at," Stensland said.
They learned as they went when they were starting out, but Baker honed in on his production skills behind the computer with Logic Pro software. Stensland focused on writing songs and lyrics. They worked hard on both for a long time.
“It led to just so much fluidity in the group, where we were just able to get into a studio session and just kind of know how we wanted things to go and how things were going to happen," Stensland said.
That creative process has evolved over the years, where now they both feel comfortable on each side of the process. Sometimes Stensland will start a song on a minimalistic level from the production end and then Baker will take over and offer insight into the lyrics.
They released two EPs, "Sinking Ships & Story Tales" and "Guess It's Just Life," before "The Occasion" album last year.
Making music and make their hometown of Fond du Lac proud
They often see comments on social media or their YouTube channel about how The Astronomers are putting Fond du Lac on the musical map and making their hometown proud. While they didn’t go into the project with that intention — it has always been about making music because they love it, they say — it has been rewarding.
“If there’s enough people that are going to support us and think of us that way, we’re truly going to be thankful and humbled by that," Stensland said. "We don’t try to hide that we’re from Fond du Lac. We very much honor that and make that part of who we are.”
A busy summer of shows ahead, but first, a graduation
A year ago, The Astronomers had roughly 30,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. That number has ballooned to 692,000, thanks to songs like "Skywalking," "Hotel Rooms" and "Bad Type." They recognize that's a lot of people to keep happy. Baker graduated from UWO in May 2022 and with Stensland graduating this May, the two look forward to focusing full time on their music.
“To really put our heads down and really start going hard at making this happen,” Baker said.
They anticipate a full summer of shows in Wisconsin, the Midwest and possibly the West Coast, but have not yet released their schedule. They’ve also been meeting with record labels and have had other parties express interest — a far cry from those early FaceTime days.
“It’s cool to see how far it has come,” Stensland said. “It’s very full circle.”
Catch them at the Meyer Theatre with Arts Fishing Club
The Astronomers, with openers Arts Fishing Club from Nashville, Tennessee, will perform at 7:30 p.m. April 1 at the Meyer Theatre, 117 S. Washington St. Tickets are $20 in advance at ticketstaronline.com, 800-895-0071 and the Resch Center box office; $25 day of show.
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This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Alt-pop duo The Astronomers: From Fond du Lac to UW-Oshkosh to WIXX