Blast from the past: 2003:
This is really the first EVER interview with Stellastarr*!
an interview by Alexander Laurence
Stellastarr* is a veteran band who has risen out of the new rejuvenated NYC rock scene. Their local following is dedicated and obsessive. At clubs like Mercury Lounge and Luna Lounge people have been faithfully attending their shows for several years now. They have unique sound that's part British guitar rock and part 1980s new wave.
Stellastarr* is also an intense live act. Their live shows are special because of their chaotic nature. They have just released an EP on Tiswas Records. I spoke with guitarist and lead singer Shawn Christensen recently from his home in New York City. We all look forward to the new album.
February 7, Friday 8:30pm Bowery Ballroom (New York)
w/ Apples in Stereo, The Orangers
Amanda Tannen - bass/vocals
Shawn Christensen- voice/guitars
Arthur Kremer - drums/keys
Michael Jurin - guitar/vocals
AL: How did you meet the other members of the band?
Shawn: Amanda, Arthur and I went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. It was about five years ago. I studied Illustration and painting. They studied graphic design and advertising. I am from Upstate New York. Arthur is from Lithuania originally. He moved to Pennsylvania. That's where Michael is from too. Amanda is from Fairfax, Virginia. She grew up in New Jersey.
AL: What did you do musically while you were going to school?
Shawn: We has a band then. I wasn't the lead singer. Some other guy was. There was another guitarist. It was a five piece band. It was a rock band but more like grunge rock band. When we left finished in 2000, we got back together to practice. We met Michael and we asked him to join us. We played our first show that summer.
AL: Were all the songs written in the band in the past two years?
Shawn: There were some songs that I had written before we had formed Stellastar*. There was one song that I had written called "Moon Girl." I wrote "The Pulp Song." It's a live favorite. It will be coming out on the album. Most of the songs were written by all the members.
AL: How does the songwriting happen in the band?
Shawn: It happens many ways. Usually I have the format of the song and a vocal melody. We work off of that. Sometimes Michael has a riff. We will then build a song around that riff. That is the main way now how our songs get written.
AL: In some of your songs, everyone plays and sings different parts. It gets busy at the end.
Shawn: That stuff just evolved. We come up with a lot of parts and ideas and line them up in a song. Many song ideas get thrown out. For every three songs we create only one song will ever get played out live.
AL: How did the song "Like Coco" start out?
Shawn: It will be on the album. Michael came up with the opening riff and we decided to go with it. It just stuck.
AL: How did you get the name Stellastarr*?
Shawn: It's spelled as one word with two r's and an asterisk at the end. People have spelled it wrong in the past and I am just pointing this out. It needs to spelled right. We just had a big write up in the Washington Times and it was spelled completely wrong. I got the name from a girl who I went to high school with. I never met her actually. I never knew that I went to school with her. I saw her name in the papers because her boyfriend had committed suicide. I always liked the name. The asterisk is just another confusing way of spelling it.
AL: I just heard the EP and after seeing you guys live I noticed that as a live act you guys bring a lot of energy of the music. You have a lot of sound and feedback going on and you actually engage the audience and have conversations with them.
Shawn: It's a little bit more obnoxious live. It depends on the vibe of the crowd. Only shows at Don Hill's or the Luna Lounge get a little crazy. Outside of there we are more into introducing our music to people in different cities. If there is a great moment, we sit back and enjoy it. Things don't get too out of hand.
AL: What is the song "Somewhere Across Forever" about?
Shawn: It is a very literal song. It's about leaving town with somebody and not coming back. It's an underlying theme to many of songs that will be on the first album. It's an attitude of going away with someone you might not know or who you just met, and never coming back. Or even leaving on your own. It's based on feelings and thoughts that I have had over the years. I just wrote them down. I am not sure if people can relate to that, but those thoughts are important to me. Whereas a song like "No Weather" is a standard song about being dumped.
AL: Are many of your songs about relationships and love?
Shawn: Not really. I never really sat down and said to myself "I am going to write a love song." Maybe "Moon Girl" is the closest thing I have written to a love song. It's bad though because is it about an imaginary alien. It might be a good thing too.
AL: What is the song "School Ya" about?
Shawn: It's about how I felt in high school. It has a darker tone because it's about feelings about not fitting into high school. I don't think that you get that often in pop songs about high school. They are general songs about relationships and breaking up. Songs about how a boy didn't say "Hi" to them in the school hall. When I was in high school I felt extremely rejected. I didn't understand anybody in my class. I didn't get what they were saying or what they were into. I didn't get along with other people.
AL: You didn't understand high school politics?
Shawn: Basically, yeah. I always related to kids younger than me. When you go to high school, you are thrown into this environment where you are with hundreds of students and everyone is trying to be the most popular person. They are not trying to be who they really are. I never understood that. Maybe when I was trying to be popular it didn't work out for me. It's sort of a black hole. I didn't wake up till college. I didn't play guitar, or paint, or act, until I got to college.
AL: With teenagers they express themselves to the outside world through fashion: what clothes they wear or what music they listen to. That stuff is important because it defines the self. What music did you grow up listening to?
Shawn: When I was a kid I just listen to the Oldies. I didn't know anything about contemporary music until 1990. Up until then, I didn't know anything but "Splish, Splash" or Jerry Lee Lewis. When I listened to the radio, I just listened to what you were fed, which was a bunch of hair metal bands.
AL: People compare your band to some of the new wave bands of the early 1980s.
Shawn: Maybe those were things that I heard on the radio when I was a kid driving in a car and didn't quite remember. So maybe it's a subconscious influence. Everyone in Stellastarr* was a kid in the 1980s. Maybe everything you hear as a child sticks with you forever.
AL: Since you have a girl bass player, people might think of you as being like The Pixies or Luna.
Shawn: I know both of those bands. Those bands are great so it makes no difference being compared to them. Maybe it's more common for a girl to be on bass guitar than other instruments? Maybe not? Maybe those bands are the only bands that people can think of off the top of their heads besides The Smashing Pumpkins. I don't know why that is. I don't think it's a problem. Amanda is an interesting case. She had musical training. When she played in the first band she didn't know how to play bass guitar. Nobody knew how to play anything. She played upright bass or cello before that.
AL: What else do you guys do besides music?
Shawn: I am a painter. I make paintings of musicians and barely make a living off it right now. Michael went to film school and he is still interested in doing films. Both Arthur and I were actors before we were in Stellastarr*. This band took over and we don't do it anymore. Arthur will audition for something once in a while. Amanda is an art director where she works. She does graphic design.
AL: What is your favorite part about doing music?
Shawn: Writing a song is an awesome thing to do. I really like to do it. I write about two or three a week. To see a song make it to the band, and make it on the stage, and on to an album: that's awesome. I have been an actor for years, and there's something about music that is more appealing to me. With acting, you have to read a script, and work with a director, and you are at the mercy of the editor, and you have to look beautiful: all that bullshit.... I am not down with that. In music, there's all these rules that can be broken. Especially now, where there's a bunch of walls behind put up. It's going to be fun trying to take some of these down.
AL: Are there any bands that you like?
Shawn: The bands we are listening to are Interpol and The Faint. Lately I have been listening to a lot of musical scores to movies.
AL: What did you think of CMJ?
Shawn: This year was great. We didn't even know it was going on. Last year they didn't accept us. This year we played two shows during CMJ. It was a blast. There was a lot of excitement this year because it was during Halloween. It felt like a lot of people were interested in the festival this year.
AL: What was it like recording with Tim O'Heir?
Shawn: He is pretty amazing at recording. One thing about him is that he has patience. He'll listen to things over and over again. He never got angry. He stays in the studio for twelve hours at a time. He loves being in the studio. He came and saw a song of ours back in April. He said he wanted to record us. He has done a few albums in my record collection. One of my favorite records of all time is Bake Sale by Sebadoh. When I found out that he produced that, I said "Let's get this guy to produce or album."
AL: Did he record a full album of songs?
Shawn: Yes. We did it this past summer. We have been ready to release it for a while, but our record company, Tiswas Records, couldn't afford to put it out. So we have put out this EP now. Hopefully early in Spring 2003, Tiswas can collaborate with a bigger record and put it out with full distribution. It's been a while. We are already halfway into a second record. We have released the EP now because we wanted something out there. If they want to buy the EP they came come to our shows or go to our website.