Pale Blue Dot makes the unknown beautiful

Pale Blue Dot (from left: Darby Wooten, Drew Pompano, Peter Balogh and Tony LaRocco) opens for the Skip Castro Band at Fridays After Five. Photo by Eze Amos Pale Blue Dot (from left: Darby Wooten, Drew Pompano, Peter Balogh and Tony LaRocco) opens for the Skip Castro Band at Fridays After Five. Photo by Eze Amos

Ever since he was a kid, Tony LaRocco has been enamored with cosmos—both the Carl Sagan show and the concept powering it, seeing the universe as a “well-ordered whole.” It’s an obsession that permeates his musical life, from lyrics to sound choices to the name of his band, Pale Blue Dot, a reference to a 1990 photo of Earth taken by a space probe.

LaRocco and his mother bonded over their love of the final frontier. “She raised me on the old Carl Sagan videotapes,” he says. “We plowed through a big box set. When The Daily Progress ran the pale blue dot story, my mom cut out the picture and stuck it to our fridge. It’s something that’s always been very poignant to our family.”

Though LaRocco founded Pale Blue Dot, he calls it a “socialist” group in which every member has equal say. Drummer Darby Wootten and bassist Drew Pompano huddle with LaRocco around a tiny table at C’ville Coffee. Guitarist Peter Balogh is absent, but there wouldn’t have been room for him anyway. The tight setting feels even more intimate thanks to LaRocco’s sudden, infectious laugh, and his passion when talking about his music.

Just a few years ago, LaRocco thought he was done with writing and recording. In 2011 Charlottesville, he says there wasn’t an audience for his type of music. “Rock was dead, and I was still writing these rockish tunes.” But then, creative inspiration struck in the way it often does, without source, explanation or timing, and LaRocco got back to making music.

As is the case with many bands, the guys who make up Pale Blue Dot all have separate day jobs. LaRocco and Pompano are music teachers, while Wootten works at several local businesses. Balogh is a stem cell researcher.

This level of maturity is reflected in the band’s music. Its most recent album, Anatomy, released in May, is a tour de force with lyrics centering around turmoil and stress, both personal and political, and powered by a clean style of rock rarely heard in modern music. Cosmology is at its center, giving the LP a timeless, existential twist that’s both uncomfortable and somehow comforting.

As with many bands based in Charlottesville, PBD spends time contemplating August 11 and 12, and the group’s impressively uplifting single, “Only Love,” takes a direct look at the topic. LaRocco attributes the hopeful mood to Yolonda Jones, a local photographer, musician and activist (described by LaRocco as the “bee’s knees”), who provides some of the vocals and influenced the songwriting.

LaRocco says that a few of the original words were “get out of my town and don’t come back,” but Jones found the message too aggressive. “So I asked her what she would want to do and she said she would want to talk to them. I said, ‘Come on inside and let’s find a path?’ Boom. Perfect.”

Other tracks on Anatomy are political on a larger scale, with the moody, guitar-heavy “Stained Glass Window” referring to the 2016 election, and “Yesterday’s News” in direct response to the rise of fake news.

As for the sound of the album itself, Pompano explains that the songs were recorded in three different studios—in Nashville, Washington, D.C., and Nelson County—and that this resulted in a distinct sound for each set of songs, attributing “emotionally draining tunes,” “angsty” ones and “pensive, technically ambitious” songs to each respective studio.

Wootten emphasizes that songs can change from day to day, defining it as a strength. “In the recording studio, we just make a picture of that song at that moment,” he says. “The songs will warp down the road.”

While LaRocco stresses that Pale Blue Dot isn’t a political or protest band, he acknowledges that some of the songs on Anatomy skirt these themes—he even admits that the style of the band’s music is tailored to these ideas. “I don’t feel like you can get angry and scream at someone like Donald Trump without an overdriven guitar and drums,” he says. “I love Joan Baez and I love Bob Dylan, but I don’t think an acoustic guitar has the same effect. Sometimes, you just gotta yell.”

To the beat of his own drum

When he’s not drumming for Pale Blue Dot, Darby Wootten has an unusual side hustle—he manages the Putt-Putt Fun Center. Opened in 1966, it’s located on Rio Road and is the oldest of its kind in the country. The course features a safari theme with several wildlife statues, including its iconic giraffe, which is visible
from the street.

“My friend got me a job at the Putt-Putt place 12 years ago,” Wootten says. “I was 19 then, and now I’m manager. I thought putt-putt would probably suit my lifestyle well.”

Cosmology is at its center, giving the LP a timeless, existential twist that’s both uncomfortable and somehow comforting.

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