When pop craftsmen are bandied about in the pantheon of rock’s 50 or so years, you inevitably get the same stock answers: Lennon and McCartney, Brian Wilson, Ray Davies, some would say Mick and Keith—though slinky whiteboy blues is more apt—maybe the odd Roger McGuinn or Alex Chilton nod, or even some voices for Elvis Costello. (And remember this is pop craftsman, not songwriting as a whole, there’s a difference.) In this age of commercial crap and unlistenable dross on the airwaves, all the truly great pop songwriters are buried by the weight of advertising sales and Clear Channel mutiny. But that’s not the end of the three-minute gem, for while the corporate knuckleheads push Christina Aguilera et al. and made-for-the-suburbs nü-metal and pretentious (and just plain awful) post-alt rock, the information highway ensures that if ye shall seek, ye shall find.
Jason Martin of Starflyer 59 would definitely make my K-tel record of top songcrafters, pop or otherwise, in the past decade; after listening to rock ‘n’ roll since I was little, I’m hard-pressed to find music any prettier than the band’s laid-back, diaper-polished pristine conglom. Martin essentially is Starflyer 59, and with the release of this year’s Old, the band’s seventh full-length, he’d like to keep his current group of players around awhile, which include longtime bassist Jeff Cloud and newer members drummer Frank Lenz and keyboardist Richard Swift.
So what’s he doing when I call him? Driving around in the midday SoCal traffic in a truck, and not just any truck. “My old man, we got a small little family business,” he says when asked. Both he and his little brother Ronnie of Joy Electric (on Tooth & Nail Records like Jason’s band) drive for their pop’s trucking company based in Riverside County, California. Riverside sits next to Orange County, a bipolar area to be sure, filled with as many conservative Republican titans on the golf course as orange-haired punks (many no doubt their kids: nothing like trust fund punks, eh? The bastards), giving the place a dichotomy few others have.
And how are the roads out there today?
“It’s not bad out there right now, you know, any time you’re not . . . the mornings or evenings are bad, but in the middle of the day you can reach your destination reasonably quick.”
And it’s that destination I want to talk about, the destination he’s traveled to help Tooth & Nail Records make Christian rock half-cool; and notice there’s no “again” tacked on, cause like Barbara Mandrell once crooned about country, “He was Christian, when Christian wasn’t cool.” Fair or foul, visions of those exalted bumblebees Stryper made ya wanna shout at the devil, something that Martin wouldn’t espouse, Vince Neil Wharton or no Vince Neil Wharton.
Growing up, Martin was raised in a strict Christian household and not allowed to listen to non-Christian music. That didn’t stop him from discovering his pal’s records though.
“When I was 12 years old or something like that a buddy of mine had the Smiths’The Queen Is Dead record, [it] just drove me crazy. Me sneaking over there after school and listen[ing] to that, there was this other world. It’s kind of what made me music obsessive, probably because growing up I had about three sources of music.”
He would also discover the Pixies and New Order, the former’s Bossanova and Doolittle and the latter’s Power Corruption & Lies would compete with the Smiths’Strangeways, Here We Come and The Queen is Dead for his ear. You can also throw in the Cure and Red House Painters as seminal musical influences as well.
“When I actually started listening to more music I think it drove me a little more nuts than the average kid because I didn’t have any, you know? Like I was growing up in Africa or something.”
When I reached him, Martin was gearing up for a 10-show jaunt in the South. And a 10-show stand on an indie label means bringing it mom and pop style: no entourage, no huge label support, it means you do it ‘cause you love it; even if you’re far enough ahead of the game to fly rather than having to get in the van. When broached, Martin claims he’s never even had the chance to jump to a major label, which doesn’t seem to bother him much. “Music’s a crazy business man, you never know what somebody’s thinkin’.”
What they may not have been thinkin’ about is songcraft, breezy soundscapes swathed in dreamy synthetics via guitar, drums and a whisper of someone who’s either shy or artful, artfully shy? With their self-titled debut record, Starflyer 59 was basically lumped in the shoegazer My Bloody Valentine crowd, which itself is a curious nomenclature. Says Martin of the comparison: “I never really understood that too much.”
And here comes the self-effacing diatribe.
“I was totally into that stuff, I just never understood the comparison between us and them, like 10 years ago, due to the fact that they were putting out amazing records and we weren’t. I almost felt embarrassed for their sake, ‘don’t list us with them.’ You know what I mean? What they did on record at that time compared to what we did was night and day, you know? It sounded ludicrous.”
After more of the same fuzzy guitar and buried vocals, 1999’s Everybody Makes Mistakes showed Martin and company starting a breakaway to more sublime airy records, albums so meticulous and crafted that there really wasn’t any denying it: Starflyer 59 was making some of the most exciting pop music around. And it only got prettier with 2001’s Leave Here a Stranger, the songs opening up even further, the studio wizardry warm and at times, downright spooky: bells, angelic background droning, Martin’s breathy vocals as cryptic as ever. Track seven, “I Like Your Photographs”, in particular highlights what was one of the better releases of the nascent century with its eerie moans and groans, loops, loping melody, well-placed strings and the synthetic and organic wrestling for supremacy in guiding this somnambulant thing of beauty to a suitable conclusion.
This was followed by 2002’s Can’t Stop Eating EP, which saw the band a little louder, but no less spic and span. The effort featured a sad one, “Happy Birthday John”, written by friend and fellow musician Damien Jurado, and even a self-referential cover of “West Coast Friendship”, a song from he and wife Julie’s band Bon Voyage, who’ve to date released two records of sugary synth-pop (they say). Meeting in the Orange County music scene, he and Julie have been married for almost eight years and have two kids, Sadie and Charley.
Far from being a liberal Christian (see: euphemism for secular humanist), Martin has always laced his songs with opaque references to faith and the struggles of living his faith in a world of sin and everyday minutia. Old ‘s first track, “Underneath”, seems to be a not-so-subtle stab at the unclean masses, with lines like “When you lie / There’s a trail where the dead speak / Of things they’ve done / And how they always won / We know they never won / We know who’s number’s done”.
We also learn that Martin’s not perfect on “Passengers”: “I give in to the damage to my lungs fairly often,” Martin concedes when I mention the line about nicotine.
Of course, as with most of his records, the lyrics are hard to decipher on first listen. Reaching an ethereal apogee with Leave Here a Stranger, Old is more a return to Everybody Makes Mistakes , laced with lazy-fuzzy guitars, harsher rhythms and dreamy-yet-dark synthetics.
When asked about Old, he basically concurred. “That Leave Here a Stranger record [was the most we] could do with that kind of record and I didn’t really see a point with continuing with that, it’s like, you know, just rehashing the same record. On the Leave Here [a Stranger] record I just felt that we kinda peaked in doing that and I wanted to play some more rock ‘n’ roll.”
Though not quite the Brian Wilson-esque studio tyrant many believe him to be, Martin and the band did spend about 35 days with producer Terry Taylor making Leave Here a Stranger, the most time they’ve spent recording an album. This time out they cut it down to three weeks, co-producing with Aaron Sprinkle. “The point of the new record was to strip it down, [to] basically [make it] more [of a] rock’n'roll record.”
When pushed on where their sound is going, not surprisingly, Martin (who probably dreams heavenly-crafted studio gems in his sleep) has his ideas. “I’ve written a few new songs, I don’t know I just want it to be. I think right now the next record is gonna be a lot more guitar driven, it’s almost like I’ve been avoiding a lot of layering of guitars because I was tired of it in our early days. Now I’m kinda back into that. We’re gonna have a lot of geetars on the next record, you know?”
I do now.
The themes on this record focus on getting older (really?), the epidemic of divorce (“New Wife, New Life”—When queried about his own situation, Martin joked, “Old Life, Old Wife” for me, there you go”), dislocation and ultimately death.
“When I was doing the record I’m thinking about something and that’s what decides what direction the record’s gonna be. You always try to have a certain kinda theme for the record.”
For a band that’s been turning out album after album of consistently polished and challenging music that would make even Radiohead perk up, there is indeed a longing for the major recognition that continues to elude them. Old‘s (No) “Major Awards” addresses this, in what he calls a boo-hoo song.
“Here I’ve been 15 years with no major awards. It’s gets depressing, you pour out a lot of time and years of your life, and it’s like ‘jeez’, you know? It’s been so long we’ve been doing it hoping for something to break, it’s almost like we can’t stop now,” he laughs. “When I get out of the boo-hoo mode, it’s like ‘Hey man, we’ve done okay’, you know and we’re still trying to move forward, so the story isn’t over yet.”
While Old may not take them to the heights of Leave Here a Stranger, it shows they’re not spinning their wheels either. But given his chosen profession’s decidedly decadent underpinnings, you still feel compelled to ask him how far he’ll go to express himself in regards to the humanistic/spiritual tightrope, about how he deals with the temptations in this Sodom and Gomorrah wasteland of bars, chords and ah . . . barre chords and bar whores. Not surprisingly, he says these issues have never been a problem.
“I don’t want to take the name of Christ in a trivial manor, to me His name is holy; I don’t want to throw it in to feel like I’m being religious in a song. My faith has to have everything to do with my life. We’re just playing shows. We’re just doing the same thing we’ve always done, we’re just not playing at the stairs of the church building. It’s not really any different, we’re just getting up there and doing our stuff and taking off for the next town.”
Anyone ballsy enough to reference the Apostle Paul in Leave Here a Stranger‘s “Give Up the War” better keep his chops in line, but his themes are human enough to connect to anybody, be they sad, lonely, happy or angry.
“I’m not saying I’m old, I’m 30 now. But the way stuff looks when you’re 21 and the way stuff looks later on when certain things unravel and things don’t go as what you think they seemed, that’s what a lot of the songs are about.”
Human songs for humanoids in a desperate, lonely, crazy world. I’ll take it, and so do legions more, recognizing Starflyer 59’s Martin for what he is: an ethereal pop songsmith easing our pain.
// Notes from the Road
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