Loving The Alien: Getting Down to Earth With Tory Z. Starbuck

No one else in St. Louis is recording stuff like this.


It’s probably about time that Tory Z. Starbuck got a little more respect. The local rock icon has garnered most of his column inches in recent years for his dramatic hairstyles and flamboyant attire (Tory has always sculpted his appearance to suit his mood and aesthetic). But musically speaking, a lot of locals simply shrug Tory off as a quaint Bowie wanna-be or a hopelessly retro ’80s synth player. Their loss. The actual Tory story is a far more intricate one, with the depths of his musical adventurousness seldom acknowledged except by a handful of devotees. With a fascinating new album, Androidal Tissue, now out, several more albums complete but for cover art (more on that later), a growing collection of exotic instruments, and a healthy artistic partnership with wife Venus Slick in his comfortable U. City abode, Tory couldn’t be a better example of an individual pursuing his muse and breaking down creative barriers with enthusiasm and panache.

Far from being a relic from the glam-rock era or “the man who fell to earth,” Tory is, in fact, a well-grounded, articulate, and remarkably focused musician whose recorded output is staggering. Animated and alert in conversation, Tory also has an impish sense of humor and a great passion for sharing his knowledge of all that’s wild and uncategorizable in music. If you follow the streams of his consciousness, you not only learn a lot, you hear some amazing and often profound “tales from a nonconformist’s life.”

It’s difficult to pick one CD that encapsulates the diversity of his music, but Androidal Tissue seems to be a step forward for Tory in terms of overall sound quality. Recorded digitally for the first time (previous discs were from analog tapes done on a four-track Tascam), the album is filled with well-crafted strangeness that should be alluring for listeners with offbeat tastes. The opening track, “Eyes Locked,” begins with a continuous ticking sound that immediately alerts you that you’re in uncharted sonic territory, with a slightly sinister, spacey mood vagely reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” “Walk the Runway” is like the toothy, mutant offspring of Ween and the Legendary Pink Dots (strains of the latter group actually echo through a fair amount of Tory’s work). A key track on the album is “In Orbit,” an instrumental that is honest-to-God, original, locally produced ambient music. The subtle, repeating bass riff and eerie synth playing recall side two of David Bowie’s seminal work Low, and there are also echoes of Pete Namlook’s German electronic label Fax. The fact that Tory is so attuned to the essence of good ambient music alone makes him a musical pioneer in this town. He wields even more magic on the 11-minute “Wet Windows,” on which the spirit of Brian Eno sits in on the session. Tory combines a hypnotic two-note synth drone with a rapid “flapping” sound that actively moves through the mix, while other instruments, including some cleanly played drums, make potent contributions. No one else in St. Louis is recording stuff like this.

Only “Neon Architect” bears any resemblance to “normal” rock music, and might fool the casual listener into thinking that yes, Tory is still paying homage to Bowie. But the more experimental pieces such as “Slow Wires,” “This Chair Is so Noisy,” and “A Parched Specimen” are best described as sound sculptures, in which Tory is clearly fascinated by the nature of sound itself, and the infinite ways to blend various percussive sounds with weird and wacky stuff on the keys. Is some of it self-indulgent? Of course. But does Tory’s extremely high output of recorded pieces result in some truly innovative music? You bet. And spread over his 21 “official” solo albums (not counting compilations and about 37 full-length projects with Next Radio, one of his previous bands) are scores of innovative tracks that show him equally adept at composing vintage “new-wavish” stuff, Middle-eastern-influenced music adorned with instruments like sitar, saz, and zurna, ambient music, and unclassifiable deconstructed electronic compositions.

One of Tory’s other recent albums, Stolen, on which he shamelessly records his own takes on classic songs by Eno (“The Great Pretender”), Talking Heads (“Memories Can’t Wait”), Joy Division (“She’s Lost Control”), Gary Numan (“Films”), and others, says a lot about his musical abilities—and his curious aesthetic. Tory does more than competent interpretations of the “new wave” pieces, but the most telling track is “A Summer Place,” one of the most romantic bits of music ever composed for a film (Max Steiner wrote it in 1959 for the Troy Donahue-Sandra Dee classic). Tory cheerfully reinvents the track as a space age instrumental, complete with a child’s exuberant utterances in the background. It’s completely weird and completely inspired—and most will never hear it. After all, Tory has written in capital letters on the sleeve “NOT FOR SALE-EVER” to avoid copyright problems. (He simply gives this disc away to anyone interested, which says a lot for his generosity as an artist.)

One might be forgiven a case of nerves at the prospect of visiting Tory’s University City home, which surely would be filled with eclectic junk and all manner of weirdness, befitting the image perpetuated through the years in the local media. Right? Nope. Tory and Venus, his statuesque wife, live in a sparsely furnished abode with lots of windows that allow light in from all directions. It conveys an impression of spaciousness and elegant simplicity. The walls are white, and there are colorful paintings hanging here and there—but not that many. A sculptured lamp here, a few stacks of CDs, an unrecognizable instrument over there…but overall, there’s a Zen-like minimalism to the place. The big windows make it easy to watch what’s happening outside, and a woodpecker on the tree in Tory’s front yard draws some attention during our visit. The basement is where Tory does most of his music-making, and one’s eyes grow wide upon reaching the last rung of the stairs. There are at least a dozen different keyboards lined up along the wall, all with different functions or sounds, Tory explains (in the manner of one of his inspirations, Eno). There’s a portable four-track deck, a tall metal stand with various pieces of ADAT equipment, a saxophone and scattered exotic instruments which Tory can simply pick up at will, when the impulse strikes. And there’s enough room for other musicians to gather here, which they do, in the different band configurations Tory uses to record his numerous projects. Everything the dedicated musician needs.

“We do everything by hand, in real time—we’re like the Keebler elves,” says Tory of the space he and Venus have created. “It was a revelation that I could record at my own house. Previously, I always had to rely on the availability of other band members. But once I discovered I could record right here, the sky was the limit."

The former Robert Tory Peniston grew up in Warrenton after moving from Hazelwood when he was a youngster. His dad had been an angry sort, he said, and believed that if the family moved out to the country, he’d relax more.

“He wanted us, my brother Eric and I, to be athletes, and to be into the military and stuff. But we just weren’t interested in that. We had all these acres of woods, and we’d walk through them. But we weren’t interested in hunting or farming…those were the options that kids out there had.”

Tory was not destined to be simply “one of the guys” at his school in Warrenton. He had the typical problems being picked on that anyone who’s different can attest to. And to quote an old Neil Young song, “the punches came fast and hard.” Tory was, in fact, whacked around on a regular basis.

“Just the fact that I even brought a record to school…you know, that wasn’t Conway Twitty or Waylon Jennings or something. I’d bring Three Dog Night or Elton John records, and they’d go, ‘You’re a fag!’ In fifth grade, I wanted to look like the lead singer of Iron Butterfly. So I’d wear one of those German crosses, that I probably got out of a bubble gum machine. And sunglasses that were way too big for me, ’cause they were made for an adult, you know, like yellow- or orange-tinted sunglasses. I’d come to school with a different wardrobe than when my mother let Eric and I off to get the bus. I would change between the time she would leave; I’d put on platform shoes or something."

What would make him do this, knowing the kind of response it would provoke?

“My dad wasn’t a good role model,” said Tory. “The people I wanted to emulate were people I saw on TV playing music. They had Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert then, and so you’d turn it on and see people like Kraftwerk and David Bowie. And it was like ‘That’s what I wanna be.’ But I couldn’t just walk around the house that way. I’d sneak my mom’s makeup out—I started doing that in seventh grade. I would bring food coloring to school and put it in my hair.”

Such behavior was certain to get a rise out of the “normal” kids, but amazingly, it never caused Tory to stop. Obviously his fearlessness started early.

“Some people thought I was doing drugs, but it was the opposite…’cause I didn’t like any of the kids that were doing drugs. I didn’t think that was cool. I built up a stereotype that the people that were beating me up, that’s what drug addicts acted like. Because it’s what I saw them doing. They were all into anything from speed to smoking pot, to bringing alcohol to school. And I looked at them and thought, no, that’s not what I want to be like. I didn’t figure out till later that…I mean, I’m glad I had that stereotype even if it was far from the truth, because it kept me from getting into it. And that would’ve messed everything up. I was already on enough medication anyway."

The medication was due to a condition that Tory described as an “overactive vagus nerve.” The nerve, which runs from the brain down through the neck to the abdomen, could cause severe reactions when overstimulated. Tory had spells of passing out at school every day.

“I could be sitting or standing and I’d just go whump and fall over,” he said. “Like in gym, if I was running too much, I would first get light-headed and get a stomachache, then I’d start hyperventilating, then I’d be gone, on the floor. And I usually threw up blood. That was in sixth grade, the first time it happened. I spent half a year in seventh and eighth grade in the hospital. They kept me in a wheelchair cause I would pass out while I was walking in the hospital.”

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