“What I believe is that you can’t escape nostalgia; nobody can.”
There’s a lot of talk lately about the ’80s sound coming out of New York. You’ve got hype-mongers The Strokes, The Rapture, Interpol, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. On the lesser-known side are bands such as stellastarr*, groups who, like the aforementioned, wear their ’80s influences proudly on their torn-off sleeves. In stellastarr*’s case, you can hear shades of The Pixies, The Cure, Talking Heads, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Joy Division. But don’t stop with the inspirations; this New York quartet breathes its own artistic life and energy into every song they write and perform, resulting in a sound that is at once shockingly unique and comfortingly familiar.
One spin of stellastarr*’s full-length self-titled debut and you’re hooked: catchy pop melodies, synth grooves, dreamy instrumentals, and howling vocals. Singer/guitarist Shawn Christensen provides much of the lead work, his voice alternating between soothing, wailing, or roaring. Playing Kim Deal to Christensen’s Frank Black is bassist Amanda Tannen; in addition to her vocal duties, Tannen lays down a mean rhythm undercurrent. The other half of the rhythm section is Arthur Kremer, an Animal behind the drums who also strokes the keyboards and lends the grooves. Rounding out the mix is guitarist and third vocalist Michael Jurin, the fourth and solidifying member of the group.
The roots of stellastarr* were planted at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, where Christensen, Tannen, and Kremer first formed a band while attending art school. All three were tentative musicians at best: Christensen, whose first love was art (painting, specifically) followed closely by acting, had only picked up his first acoustic guitar months prior; Kremer was a graphic designer; and Tannen was a classically trained cellist, only turning to bass guitar when she joined the band.
Following graduation, Kremer wanted to form another band. Christensen, who was happy paying the rent via commissions on his paintings, held back, stating he didn’t see music as any sort of reliable career. Eventually, he agreed to the band, but only if two conditions were met: one, if Kremer was able to re-recruit Tannen, who’d moved to Los Angeles, and two, if he found them a truly incredible guitarist. Miraculously, Kremer accomplished both, stumbling across Jurin in one of those only-on-TV moments: the former, a previous tenant of the latter’s apartment, returned to check for lagging mail, and the two got to talking.
Ironically, considering his unique voice and strong stage persona, it was never Christensen’s intention to front the band; he didn’t consider himself much of a singer. Instead, he envisioned stellastarr* (named after a high school classmate whom he never met, the asterisk and lowercase both intentional additions) as led by a female vocalist. As the band came up empty in recruiting a suitable vocalist, Christensen reluctantly tried singing the songs himself; Tannen and Jurin soon followed. “She [Tannen] wasn’t singing in the beginning,” explains Christensen. “Once I started singing, then it was like, well, now it would make sense if Mandy would sing. Then Michael would come in some times, and there would be three harmonies.” The fact that Jurin had similar influences to Christensen (he was a Jesus and Mary Chain fan, too) only helped solidify the union.
stellastarr* made its first splash on the other side of the globe. Initially signed to U.K.-based indie label Tiswas Records, they released their debut EP, Somewhere Across Forever, in December 2002. The band quickly received accolades from the British press, including New Musical Express, which proclaimed them “a band with wit, imagination and a knack for hooks.” As for why they broke in the U.K. before their home country, Christensen says, “That’s just how the stars aligned. It’s all about radio play in America, whereas in the U.K., if you were never on the radio and you got nothing but press, I think you could still sell out certain venues.”
Returning to the States, the four, like so many bands before them, made the spring pilgrimage to Austin, Texas, for their first foray into the musical showcase that is South By Southwest. A nearly unknown band at the time, they were one of the highlights of the festival. “The first trip [to SXSW] was pretty exciting in the aspect that we’d never really left New York before, and we’d never been at a festival. So when we went to Texas and [our show] was sold out, and we were approached by all kinds of agents and labels, it was kind of a shock. Also when we went down there, we had a lot of press: we were in the Austin Chronicle, and we were in all these publications, and it was just very odd to us. I guess our view of festivals was that they were just a melting pot of a thousand bands basically just getting lost in the shuffle. We didn’t think anyone actually paid attention.”
But pay attention they did, and stellastarr* soon found itself being courted by record labels and industry press. They signed to RCA Records and in September released the self-titled ten-song gem. In that month’s Playback St. Louis, I offered the following observation: “The sounds aren’t entirely new; they’re familiar, put together in a new fashion. The voice is strong and reminiscent of many who have come before—Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, Russel Mael of the Sparks. The music is exquisitely strummed or keyed or drummed or otherwise coaxed.” Alternative Press named stellastarr* as one of the 100 bands to know in 2003.
Though the band has been accused of being too “retro,” Christensen insists it wasn’t intentional; it’s just what he grew up on. His theory is that the influences of childhood are the ones that remain, whereas other phases in your life merely burn bright and then fade away. “What I believe is that you can’t escape nostalgia; nobody can,” he told me. “Ultimately, songs you heard when you were five or six or eight or nine, however old—when you’re in the car, on your way to school, or on the bus—those kinds of things, bad or good, they’re going to stick with you. If you’re keen enough to weed out what the good aspects are, you can be really on to something, because you can’t really escape those things; those are subconscious, I think. Since all of us were that age growing up and listened to similar music, I think we subconsciously write those kind of passionate songs.
As for where the band is headed—or if they’ll even know what it is when they arrive—Christensen is vague. “I still don’t know what ‘made it’ means for me right now,” he admits. “But where I felt that we had really broken some ground was when we got some radio play in the U.K. and we started selling out shows over there. And then when we signed over here to a label, I think that’s when we realized that, OK, this is something that we’re going to be doing for the next few years, and we’ll be happy doing it.”
In the end, the conglomeration of art and music has resulted in a sound that is at once unique and familiar and catchy as hell. The stars fell into alignment with this group; truly, there is no better configuration for this band. Indeed, it’s impossible to imagine the band led by anyone other than Christensen, with his distinct, defining voice and commanding presence. Still, I asked him to imagine what stellastarr* would be today if they had found the female singer they’d been seeking. “I think it would actually be too similar to a lot of other bands,” he says. “Now there are so many bands with female singers in them…so maybe it was better that we didn’t go that route.”
He won’t get any arguments from me; I wouldn’t change a thing.
Check out stellastarr* for yourself at the Gargoyle on April 17.
A Portrait of the Artist: Shawn Christiansen
“I didn’t really listen to [music] until the early ’90s,” Christiansen confesses. “I just wasn’t into it; all I was into was drawing, really.” In fact, Christensen set out to be an artist, attending New York’s Pratt Institute to further his art skills. If not art, then he figured he’d fall back on acting, finding music to be so uncertain. “I never could take it seriously as a career because it’s such a shifty industry,” he says “How can I ever feel secure in this industry?”
Asked how much time he still has for art, Christiansen admits, “I still get commissions from people to do things. I’m painting the Libertines right now for somebody, just because that’s a lot of money right there and I’m not doing anything anyway besides rehearsing. It keeps me with a paintbrush. I don’t really do much of what I want to do—I did the album art, and I do some things that deal with the band here and there, but that’s about it.
“I had to make a conscious decision to sort of combine acting and painting and music,” he continues. “Before that, I was sort of splitting myself into thirds, you know? I was sort of a jack of all trades but a master of nothing. It didn’t really work out until I realized that I had to combine them all together in order for anything to really be prosperous.” Hence, the effervescent stage persona was born, wherein Christiansen combines his acting and artistic qualities with his music.
Regardless of his creative talents, Christiansen has a strong work ethic and manages his gifts with an eye toward the business end of things. He sees his “job” as a combination of fun and work: “It’s like fun work. Since I’m doing what I want to do, the creative thing, the answer is yes, it’s fun, but also I’m very, very, very frugal about the business side. I really pay attention to that thing, and I can’t afford not to. And it might be a little bit of a pain in the ass for maybe our manager or people on our team for me to know everything that’s going on, but that’s the way it’s gonna have to be.”
See for yourself: www.shawnyboy.com.