Starting June 29, label Northern Spy is throwing its second annual Spy Music Festival, a 16-day music marathon in New York that features the likes of Rhys Chatham, Loren Connors, Thurston Moore, Arthur Doyle, Magik Markers, Jason Lescalleet, Diamond Terrifier, and many more. For the next several features, we’ll be posting interviews of artists playing at the fest conducted by other artists playing at the fest. (Read the previous interview, between Loren Connors and Chris Forsyth, here.)
This month, Starring released a new album, ABCDEFG-HIJKLMONP-QRSTUV-WXYZ. It’s a long and unwieldy name, sure, but it also plays to the quintet’s aesthetic approach, which involves not only abstracting from the acceptable parameters of creating music, but also interrogating the expectations of their audience by taking sudden, spur-of-the-moment direction changes. Who better to interview Starring than Matthew Mehlan, leader of Skeletons and collaborator for Congotronics v. Rockers, who was roped in by the band to help produce the album.
Below, you’ll find a somewhat bi-directional interview between Mehlan and three members of Starring, Clara Hunter (guitar, vocals), Peachy (keyboards), and Amy Cimini (viola). Be sure to catch all of them, including Starring’s bassist Sam Kulik and drummer Matt Marlin, at the Spy Music Festival. Starring, on a national tour in August with Guardian Alien, will be playing July 7 at 285 Kent with Dustin Wong and Dan Friel. Mehlan, as part of Skeletons, will be playing June 29 at Union Pool with the Rhy Chatham - Ryan Sawyer Brass Duo.
ABCDEFG-HIJKLMONP-QRSTUV-WXYZ is now available on Northern Spy. Skeletons’ latest, People, is also available via Shinkoyo and Crammed Discs.
People get upset when you get creative with names. Why do you think that is?
Peachy: Like names for songs?
It’s like people take offense to it, as if you are wasting their time. It’s not allowed to be a creative thing.
Clara: If people think they know what the song’s about, then they feel like they have an entry into it. Like if their dog died, and this song is about your dog dying and they love that song. It creates a bond. But if you’re being creative about the name, you’re making a kind of cut.
P: You’re building a wall. You’re shutting them out. People want to identify with things naturally. One of the things I was looking for when we were coming up with names, I was trying to come up with something weird that wasn’t total nonsense, something that looked interesting but you couldn’t ever say it. It was just too big to be said. It was one way of using language to make the album feel un-graspable. And some people find that irritating.
Amy: All of these songs titles have a kind of graphic identity. We wanted titles that would be iconographically interesting on the page, but not completely bereft of meaning. Take “ie,” for example. It’s a tiny little phrase you put into a sentence when you are about to multiply or complexify the meaning of a certain word, concept, or example.
C: Yeah, “i.e.” is an extension of the first song. They are in the same key, and they are both really high energy, and they have really driving bass lines on the organ. I always feel like the first song is “the best,” and then it’s over, and we were like, “i.e.” is the BFF of the first song.
Why the whole alphabet? I like that it is infuriating. I like when you can take something that is taken for granted and put some kind of energy into it. The title of something should just be this “thing” that you use to describe an object, and this adds some kind of extra difficulty when they are trying to describe the “thing.”
C: They have to come up with a new title, but no one wants to say the whole alphabet. You can say the “ABC record…”
P: Its also a song that recites as a learning device. A song that has all the different possibilities for indicating sounds. That reflected an aspect of what Starring was trying to do with this creative record that felt like a totality that had a lot of diversity within it. But it seemed to somehow be exhaustive. It’s not garage rock, it’s not punk music, it’s not metal, it’s not exploring a single idiom; it’s about creating a universe where there are a certain amount of possibilities. So you read the alphabet and you think about all the possible combination of letters, and you get this Borges-style vertigo where you cannot even finish saying it.
C: When we started this project, we focused on what kind of affect we wanted the music to provoke on the particular songs; focusing on what we wanted to sound like and staying away from any kind of expression or content.
And I think what frustrates people is they are like: I want to experience this as a pop song, a rock and roll album, but it is being pushed in another direction. I told Peachy after the first day of working with you guys, I thought it was so interesting that there was a communally lyric writing vibe and it weirded me out.
C: We have an incredibly contentious song writing process. Yeah, we fight about everything, and there are five strong willed writers with different aesthetic directions in mind. But I think we are all pretty happy with the result.
Well, all three of you seem like bandleaders. Or bandleader types at least.
C: Not the other two though! [laughs]
P: [Bassist Sam Kulik] is really like a bandleader. He plays in so many different projects; he’s amorphous. And [drummer Matt Marlin] is a gentle soul.
C: Well Matt, as the drummer, has a lot of control. He doesn’t really have to fight in words.
Matt has such a huge impact on the sound of your band.
A: He has a really unique rhythmic idiom. And unlike a lot of drummers, he has real melodic and harmonic chops which makes him a special musical force in the band.
C: When we all fight, Matt and Sam fight just as much as the rest of us!
A: Every one fights in equal amounts! [laughs]
I wouldn’t make an argument that you can’t understand the music without lyrics. Your relationship with them is optional.
I didn’t mean to single them out for not being here. But I will single Matt out because is the only non-musical school graduate of this band. How has attending music school played into your vibe?
C: He brings a different schooling because he is a self-taught drummer, he sang a lot of a capella - he has an amazing harmonic and melodic sense. He writes great harmonies and melodies and his singing voice is beautiful.
What is it like to be in a band with a large percentage of the members having their doctorates?
P: It is not really any different. When you go to music school, art school, or film school you get trained in certain tasks then you leave and you realize you want to do something else. Many people making rock music or pop music have dabbled around in different media. Some people were in high school musicals and people went to band camp and played flute. Regardless of music school, in order to make an album like this, you have to be self-taught in some way. I think it is, regardless of background, that you have to teach yourself from the ground up. On the first record, we were trying it for the first time, grasping about what we wanted to say. This record is more of a personal statement. I think that it is typical. Going to music school, you learn a narrow set of skills that are great, but they don’t translate easily to something else. You want to forget them and rely on intuition.
Skeletons is all music school folks. The problems that I think do arise are at 18 or 19, you get to music school and you are all of a sudden exposed to so much new music. It was such a fast-paced thing for me; I heard so much so fast. It really changed my perspective on the world very quickly. Now at any given moment we can be doing something in a rehearsal or writing process, and instead of going with our intuition, we stop and decide this sounds too much like this or I hate this for this reason - some deep seeded reason you hate it that is way miniscule compared with someone who might enjoy the music in a more casual way. You might throw away a great song idea that everyone would have understood.
A: You know, I have to say, that we don’t run into that problem all that often — that sense of paranoia that comes along with referencing certain styles or genres. I’ve experienced those kinds of musical avoidance-games most powerfully in improvised music, where reference to a tonal progression or diatonic melody can be the kiss of death. I’ve found ways around that in my own improvising, but Starring’s more referential moments — like, oh, this sounds like an Iron Maiden riff (and I am gonna double it in thirds to make sound MORE like a Maiden riff!) or, oh, this sounds like a Pere Ubu song — tend to be very inspiring because they ground the songwriting process in a historical and aesthetic context.
P: Listening to music is always a very personal experience - people develop very personal relationships with certain styles - when you go out to make music, there’s a minefield of different kinds of things that you identify with and that you have to navigate during the creative process.
A: The fact of being “music school dudes” means that we often have to find ways to discipline our soloisitic and virtuosic impulses. A lot of our songs are layered grooves that we develop over time. In some of our early songwriting efforts, those grooves would get super-complex, because everyone wanted to play something really interesting and rhythmically intricate as part of the groove. Unfortunately, all that aggregated virtuosity usually left us with a really gooey mass of sound that lacked clarity or definition.
We do that all the time! We come up with a groove and spend the next 2 years trying to undo it.
C: You get bored playing it every night. One thing that is so pleasing to me about the record is that it has a lot of clarity. When you were mixing with that, how did you deal with that?
Well, you are very much a live band. There was something special to say about being a good live band today - the way people create music now sometimes seems based somewhere else. What gets you going about making music together? It doesn’t seem like it comes from a desire to make a record but rather the desire to make sound in a room with the 5 of you.
C: That’s definitely the case. In a lot of our other projects, we always confront a problem when we go to record, do we do things live or do we just go straight to overdubbing and multi-tracking? But in Starring, that’s never been a question. It’s always been a live thing.
You also have a confident way of working - I noticed that ideas would come and if they were going to get shut down, they got shut down immediately. And if you want to do the idea, the group says yeah, and it was really quick to lay down the tracks. I love that. Sometimes my band plays loops over and over and we end up making really dense things. We fall in love with lots of stuff, end up with 8 layers, and keep it all. You guys are a certain type of thinkers and musicians and composers - you could make any type of music and you do in a lot of different groups. You could do any number of things. Why a loud rock band playing live?
P: I make music because I love creating happiness. That’s one of the reasons I was drawn into playing in a band like Starring. I felt like if we could do it right, we could connect.
C: Well, people come to music for a variety of reasons, but I definitely play in this band because it feels so good to make music together. I remember one practice before one of our first shows we played a song together on a broken, out of tune piano, and it felt really good! It made me so happy to play this dumb riff on a piano with Peachy.
A: I definitely agree with these guys that, well, it feels good to make music together, and that our riffs are sometimes a little dumb. But, seriously, I treat playing in this band as a chance to practice a way of making music that actively rejects an understanding of musical expression based in revealing secrets, inner truths or personal testimony.
It makes it non-exclusive to people. I don’t get the feeling that Clara, when you are singing, that you are expressing a pain or even a joy. You are just there.
C: That’s right! I am just there! That’s what this review that hates us said! That the songs are formless and the singer is just…there. [laughs]
P: That whole review was spot on. This band isn’t about relating any type of emotional message or telling a story. It’s abstract.
C: What they thought was frustrating is that we will get to these soaring pop hooks or metal hooks. Then the review was like, “but then they are like WHATEVER and they just do something weird.”