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.”
You make rock music and the songs are long and it was recorded a certain way — there is an expectation that you would be like, well, no one is making qualms about the Katy Perry song that is about nothing.
C: Her songs are about things! “Come on let your colors burst!” I think it is about believing in yourself.
A: There was also that her collaboration with Kanye, “E.T.”
Maybe I am wrong. I was trying to think of other songs about nothing but most of those songs are about things, those new Kanye songs…
C: They’re all about how he is an egomaniac and really lonely.
They’re about how he is still not satisfied, even though he is awesome. But there was no unifying message in songs like that. Do you think that people care anymore? About “unifying messages” or some kind of personal sentiment? It seems we are in a phase where people aren’t really into sentimental things, there aren’t huge hits like Counting Crows’s “Last December” so much anymore.
C: Such a jam! I think people can’t tell what is real and what is fake. I do think people don’t seem to care anymore. I don’t think anyone cares about band names.
Yeah, and there’s no more liner notes - less than 500 people looking at the liner notes per record probably. It just feels like there’s a lot of music that is now capable of reaching the larger audience that is the idea of an expression of something without really saying anything, or without knowing what they’re saying. Like a Coldplay song. Or a Bon Iver song. Or, non-musically, like a politician.
P: I really like Bon Iver’s new record. I think it is astonishing. I think he trying to relate specific emotions. What is transfixing about that recent record is that the emotions are really complicated? That music really captures certain emotions that are empty in a way that is remarkable.
C: Matt, are you saying Coldplay and Bon Iver both do a sort of contentless, message free thing? Is that really that different than “Take My Breath Away” or 80s ballads about longing?
I think that “Take My Breath Away” has already been sung. Those words, in order. I think there was some level where Chris Martin is trying to write new words that are vague enough. I’m also not making any judgements whether this is a good or a bad thing, just that it’s interesting.
P: These lyrics are pretty limited: Think about the number of songs that really drive the way you listen to it. In “Take My Breath Away” you get a good hook and the rest of it recedes into the background.
I heard this Police song on the radio yesterday. I was like woah, this song sucks except for the hook — there were no good transitions, it’s just a kind of boring verse and then it changes to the chorus.
P: When the hook is so good you just need a break because you cannot do the hook over and over again. On another side, some of Dylan’s songs created lots of words that you would remember - in order for Bob Dylan and even a lot of hip hop to work at all, you have to simplify the beat and simplify the number of sounds that are happening.
C: It becomes more about the words.
P: Matt, this is something you’ve done in Skeletons. Paul Simon is a reference. For you, it’s important to get poetry out there. That’s reflected in the way you produce your records. The vocals tend to be really dry.
I think people can’t tell what is real and what is fake. I do think people don’t seem to care anymore. I don’t think anyone cares about band names.
Ha! I kinda hate the dryness right now. We are trying to find some new effects for vocals. I feel tired of words at the moment actually. I don’t want to just string things together but I’m finding it hard somehow, to know what it is I want to care enough about, vocally, for public consumption.
C: It’s a struggle on either side. There’s one song on the Starring record for which I worked really hard to create lyrics that are evocative of enticing things, with biblical references, sex, and sacrifice. But the way it comes out live, with delay on the vocals, you can’t hear the words. So live people think to themselves “I bet those lyrics are really deep or interesting!”
That was what everyone said about My Bloody Valentine. They thought, well, how much more meaningful it must be when you finally understand more of the lyrics.
P: But sometimes not knowing the meaning is better. That’s something we’re dealing with in Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang. We never knew what Janka was singing about because he was singing in a foreign tongue—Temne or Sierra Leonean Krio. Then we got the translations, and we found out that Janka sings about really complex, weird things. In the end, though, people can hear these songs as they want. They can be summer jams, but if they want that level of narrative underneath, they can look at the songs and start to understand the poetry. I wouldn’t make an argument that you can’t understand the music without lyrics. Your relationship with them is optional.
That’s what is great about the Starring record. There is this beautiful dadaist poetry. I love that idea. It’s like Beckett writing in French so that he wouldn’t have any personality.
A: Right, take “aphonia” for example. Clara’s vocals are such important events in the song — the heavy, unison texture dissipates and the asymmetrical riff simply stops in its tracks to make space for the vocal — and the lyrics are like Freud’s case studies run through a blender. Clara is a really serious Freud scholar and she is really good at drawing inspiration from psychoanalysis, but obscuring her references by alluding to various characters and their pathologies in a really impersonal, almost machinic way, as Freud himself tries (and often fails) to do.
On the Congotronics v. Rockers, there was this pressure on some of us to write words to songs that we were doing - we had no translator and didn’t know what the Congolese were singing but the organizers were saying it doesn’t really matter, just sing something. We did this whole tour and I ended up writing about the music. I wish I spoke some language that no one else would understand so I could have sung and no one would have understood the meaning but instead I had to write something that was coherent as the English part of this song. After playing it for a couple weeks, we were eating dinner with the guys from Kasai All stars talking about this song called Calemagne and it was about this uncle whose nephew wants his inheritance and doesn’t get it - and there was another song I was singing a part on where at the end of the tour in Tokyo we found out was about this girl who had sex before she was married and so her father found out and wouldn’t let her get married. She became an old maid.
C: Heavy stuff!
So we were singing “What if I stayed the same?” [singing] It created a weird thing where we felt early-80s-bad about singing on top of this African music. Thinking about the criticism of Graceland. It felt a little like we were committing cultural appropriation, despite sharing the stage. Maybe they felt the same way! But we were reaching a way bigger audience than Kasai All Starts had reached yet, so having people singing English could help their music become hugely popular. Whenever the bands from New York were doing High Life, there was that band from Chicago with two African dudes and two dudes from Chicago, Extra Gold. They went around touring playing smaller gigs, or the only gigs they could get were World Music gigs. They got put into a different realm than the all-white indie rock bands who appropriate High Life to much success. I wonder that about Janka. Janka is enough in the “Indie Rock” scene right now that he seems to be staying there and not ghettoized in the world music scene.
P: One question you can ask about the music you are making, is what is it meant to “do” or “say” to people. Starring plays in DIY clubs with other loud bands. I don’t know how much we have to say to these people. We are creating an event and we are participating but there isn’t a large amount of complex translation happening. We are there and we all catch a couple songs of one band’s or maybe we all buy each other’s merchandise. With an African singer, what’s there to be communicated? Music is not a universal language.
Money is the universal language. The guys in Konono taught me “mbongo de boso” which is Lingala for “Money First.” They love playing music but they are not at the gig to hang out with other musicians. It is a job.
P: After two years with Janka, he has assimilated himself with the way we do things. We have to get a job and do music and find time to tour and balance that with the rest of your life.
With Starring, you guys are good performers, I seen you be pretty crazy, maybe you could take that to the next level and really put yourself out there as these mega performers.
P: We’ve kind of decided to do the opposite: We’re going for a more restrained approach to live performance lately. It helps me play a lot better.
A: Yeah, our live shows used to be wild.
C: We’re still refining the new live set, we did a tour with Bobby Conn to try out the new material and put it into this more restrained thing - we tried to make it more of an evening length type show that begins and ends with concentrated quiet jams. But it definitely gets loud and has an arc. We’re refining it, making it more of a show.
When you try too hard to keep it an intense thing, then you can’t get it to calm down and feel right, or you don’t get attentive listening. Then every show can feel like a letdown since you’re not reaching the ecstatic, transcendental high.
A: You can channel a lot of intensity with stoic, statue-like vibes. It’s important to keep in mind that there are other ways of rendering intensity. Someone once compared me to a Sphinx during a Starring show, a comparison which I have really taken to heart: Still, riddle-like, confusing, and majestic.
P: The show at the Empty Bottle was great - you were great, Amy. We’re doing this tour with Guardian Alien in August. They all go nuts and we will bring our vibe. We’re co-headlining and we’ll have to create a show together. We’ll let it develop, but we’re sharing an aesthetic message. My mom always thinks of every show as a competition!
I feel that way for every show. Every show is a disappointment and I feel like we sucked and got defeated by the other bands. There are those fantastic occasional shows where we win, at least in our minds for that moment.
P: Sometimes that happens!
I’ve been trying really hard to be more focused and to contain my energy, focus in on the words, but there are times when I can’t help it and move my body. And then I see video and get embarrassed because it looks like I’m either a boring stiff or doing some awkward nerd movement that just comes natural to me. I wonder if I should come up with more rock star posturing.
P: You could practice in front of the mirror.
C: It has a lot to do with the audience. Playing an introverted set to an inattentive room to 20 people chatting and a couple watching isn’t fun, but when you have a really big crowd with people focusing, it feels good.
P: If the vibe is quiet, just the right turn of phrase between songs or something can get the crowd going — there’s not a lot you can do you just have to let the vibe be the vibe. You can switch up the set or something.
But that usually doesn’t actually work: It doesn’t always change the event. We just played this show at BAM. Our crowd left after 10 minutes because Atlas Sound started playing in another room. It was an embarrassing moment, like I came to school with no clothes on.
P: That’s just part of how the bill was structured: Tickets were expensive because the headliners had a lot of power in terms of the draw.
C: Dude, this has been a soul-searching interview, Matt! I’m sure we’ll solve all these problems when we’re making our next record together.
Yeah, once I stop embarrassing myself in public! [laughter]
P: We’ll have to stop doing that first.
A: Speak for yourself, Peachy.