Mars, Microphones, and "Music for Stargazing": Get to Know Jason Achilles
Jason Achilles Mezilis, also known as Jason Achilles, is a composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and space-lover working at the forefront of innovation surrounding musical and extraterrestrial exploration. His work is (literally) out of this world and can be found on digital streaming platforms, the Moon, and will soon appear on Mars and Venus.
Achilles draws inspiration from artists and composers across a number of seemingly opposite genres, such as classical and rock 'n roll music. He recently joined Alice in Chains' Jerry Cantrell as the keyboardist for the first leg of the Brighten US Tour. With his own band, Achilles will be playing a show on May 24th for the Space Tech Expo at the Long Beach Convention Center.
In addition to a number of original classical compositions, Achilles pushes the boundaries of instrumental rock. His latest single, titled "Eurotrash", is a thoughtful nod to progressive rock of the 1970s, and was born out of a live improvisational jam session. A Joe Satriani-style guitar lead replaces vocal tracks, with striking melodies and a deep pocket pulling listeners into the groove. Whether you're boarding a space shuttle heading to the moon or just driving your car to work, this atmospheric prog rock bop is the perfect start to your day.
Although many people here on Earth enjoy Achilles' music, don't be surprised if you find him playing in the moon's first house band in the future. Apart from his many musical accomplishments, Achilles worked with a team of scientists to answer what might be David Bowie's biggest question: Is there life on Mars? As an independent consultant hired through JPL, Achilles assembled an engineering team to help evaluate and inform the final selection of flight hardware for the ELDCAM microphone system on the Perseverance rover.
In 2016, prior to working with NASA/JPL, he began his own aerospace company, Zandef Deksit, which is currently leading the Lunar ExoCam project development, supported by NASA grant funding. Achilles works as Principal Investigator on the ExoCam team, which is in the midst of a rigorous testing and space-hardening process.
We spoke with Jason Achilles about his original music, work in space, opinions on aliens, and plans for interplanetary domination. Read the full interview below and check out "Eurotrash" below. Let us know what you think.
Give a brief overview of the different things you're doing right now.
I’ve been a professional musician for most of my adult life, and then in the last five years, I’ve combined that career with one in aerospace development. I divide my time between being a touring musician and working with space technology. I also have experience in producing for other artists.
At what age did you first start playing music?
I started piano lessons when I was around seven or eight years old, and continued throughout high school. Then, I got a music degree at UC Berkeley.
Who or what first inspired you?
My first inspiration was pianist Vladimir Horowitz. I saw an early T.V. broadcast of him playing what I was really young; he had these huge hands and I was just amazed. I’ve gone back and found that original footage that I saw way back then, and I still think it’s incredible. I had vinyl records and a lot of them were orchestral music, so that was a huge presence in my life. I also really loved the music from The Muppet Show when I was a kid.
What was the first song or type of music you learned to play?
On the piano, I played mostly sonatas and minuets–classical music. The first song I learned to play on guitar was the Van Halen cover of “You Really Got Me” (originally by The Kinks). I was sixteen years old, and if I did a good job at piano practice, my mom would take me to Guitar Center, where I’d sit in the corner and ask the people working there how to play certain things.
At what point did you know that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
I figured it out in high school. We had a career day and there were a lot of pretty interesting options there, but I just kept coming back to music.
Tell us about your original music; describe your sound and songwriting process.
Since I’ve started working in outer space, people have been making space-related comparisons to my music because it has an atmospheric element to it, but it also has a lot of energy. Somebody recently told me that it sounds like “music for stargazing”, which I think is pretty cool.
"Somebody recently told me that it sounds like “music for stargazing”, which I think is pretty cool."
If you were given the chance to go to space, would you?
Absolutely…on the caveat that I’ve got a guaranteed return ticket. There are some people who don’t care about that, but I would definitely want to come back home eventually. I think it would be awesome to be the first bar-band in an orbiting space hotel. I’d have to practice my zero gravity guitar playing–I don’t know how you’d hit the foot pedals. I think there would be a lot of really interesting challenges to Zero-G or low gravity live music.
Share a little bit about your latest single, “Eurotrash.”
My band is a two-piece, but when I wrote it, there were three or four of us. It was a live improvisational jam and the keyboard helped pull in some of the chord changes. It was an inspired live moment in the studio. I came back to it later to add more structure and record it as a two-piece song, but the chord changes and melody basically came from a five to ten minutes of jamming out. The title came a little from the dance groove, but mostly because I thought it was funny.
Some people get a T. Rex inspired groove from it, but melodically it's almost like a Joe Satriani-inspired guitar lead. I ended up following the melodic patterns and doing the slide part rather than shredding a whole bunch on the recording. When we play it live, we have to do a little bit of restructuring, but we’ve found a good balance and it’s a lot of fun to play.
Who are your biggest musical inspirations now?
There’s a mountain of really amazing orchestral music that inspires me–I’ve recorded a couple of symphonic arrangements that are available online. Composer Sergei Prokofiev was probably my first inspiration, but I later discovered rock ‘n roll and Steve Clark (Def Leppard). What was important in the band was what he didn’t play…there are a lot of brilliant guitarists out there who come up with some incredible material, but they just don’t know how to filter out the crap. Being a good filter for what you shouldn’t release is almost as important as the talent to create the good stuff.
I’m also a big fan of Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen) and Stewart Copeland (The Police). Even though I’m not a drummer, he’s one of my favorite musicians in existence. He and Eddie have this energy–Eddie once described it as “falling down the stairs and landing on your feet"–and I feel like they both have this ability to throw themselves musically off a cliff, but somehow land on their feet every time… there’s an innate musical brilliance that they both have as players.
"Being a good filter for what you shouldn’t release is almost as important as the talent to create the good stuff."
Talk about the Lunar ExoCam; what was it like developing that? What roles did you play on the team?
I came up with the idea in a discussion I had with a friend about a microphone we sent to mars with JPL. The microphone project was not my original idea, but it was awesome to be a part of that team. I was able to leverage the professional rapport and relationships I had made with scientists to get enough support for my ExoCam. Eventually, we were able to win a funding contract for it. Just a few months ago, we attached this payload to a test rocket on Earth, and we found that it works! There’s still a lot of development that needs to happen before it’s ready for a lunar deployment, but we’re making a lot of good progress.
What other developments are on the horizon (literally) for this project?
We’ve proven that we can eject this sensor payload from a rocket here on Earth, which was a huge first step. Now we need to develop the avionics and space-hardening capabilities for it to actually function in outer space. We’re seeking the next funding cycle for the project right now; we’re ready to take the next big step.
What are some of the technical adaptations that the Cam needs in order to be functional in space?
Astronauts are currently utilizing GoPros during space walks around the International Space Station, so we’re hoping to learn from the research that has already been done and expand upon it. Nobody has ever utilized WiFi connections on the surface of the moon before, and because our camera is remote, we will need to achieve that for the first time ever. There are also concerns about how large of a video file can be captured and returned to Earth in an allotted time without posing a risk to adjoining systems on a spacecraft. We need to be able to prove not only that our technology will work, but also that it won’t interfere with any other communications or functionality of a lander.
One of the most expensive aspects of developing a space-bound payload is the extensive testing process. There’s this thing called a Vibe Test where you just shake the living shit out of the model–to the point where screws are literally flying out of it–because it’s better for it to break here on Earth, where we can fix it, than in outer space. Basically, space hates you and anything you want to send into it has to be able to withstand pretty much anything. Space is like an album release… once it’s out there, you can’t take it back and fix it.
"Space is like an album release… once it’s out there, you can’t take it back and fix it."
Tell us about the microphone you developed for Mars.
It’s up there and as far as we know, it’s working. My involvement with that technically ended after it landed, so the operations being run with it now are out of my hands. (I check in with my friends at JPL often, though.) They’ve recorded a bunch of stuff that hasn’t been released yet, but my audio engineer and I process the files that are public and really clean them up, so you can hear just how good the audio quality on those recordings is. A lot of people are really surprised by how clear the sound is when they first hear it.
(Click here to find out what Mars sounds like.)
Do you think we’ll start making technology for other planets?
Besides the current plans for lunar and martian human exploration, I think it would be fantastic to examine the possibility of humans existing in the upper atmosphere of Venus in a hot air balloon version of the Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back. If you’re about 50 kilometers above the surface, the air pressure is almost the same as on the surface of Earth. The temperature is about 70℉; the only problem is that you can’t breathe in the gasses (sulphuric acid clouds) there, but it would be an otherwise relatively comfortable place to live.
I’m currently working with a new mission to send a microphone to Venus with Rocket Lab, which is the first privately developed interplanetary exploration ever.
"I think it would be fantastic to examine the possibility of humans existing in the upper atmosphere of Venus in a hot air balloon version of the Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back."
As an expert in your field, do you think aliens exist?
Absolutely! Whether they exist probing us in Montana farmlands or not is another question, but I have no doubt that there’s alien life out there. The fun part in saying so is that it can never be disproven, you can only continue to search space. I would not be surprised if we found evidence of past microbial life on the surface of Mars within the coming decade. It would be more surprising if it was still alive, but I think the odds largely favor life in past martian history.
"I would not be surprised if we found evidence of past microbial life on the surface of Mars within the coming decade."
What’s next for Jason Achilles?
On the music end, I’m developing a tour that combines a science lecture and a live music performance. I’m working with a promoter overseas; we’re going to try it out in the UK–hopefully before summer.
On the space side of things, I’m working on the Venus microphone with Rocket Lab and things seem to be going really well. With the Exo-Cam, we’re reviewing data from our last flight test and continuing development for that. I’d love to be able to send that to the moon in the next few years if possible.