stellastarr* Is a Group

by John Davidson


For those who reside in the city of Williamsburg, in the state of Brooklyn, in the country of New York, to be found walking the streets before noon is a tacit admission of failure. To be up and functioning through the a.m. hours is to court the idea that you aren’t fully living the life. Possibly you’re still making your way home, the previous night a trail of hedonism and debauchery you’re already unable to recall; beyond that, what excuse is there? What else might you be up to?

Well, does interviewing a “hot” blonde bass player count for something around here?

My initial meeting with Amanda Tannen takes place on a street of derelict buildings, on a day of scorching heat. It remains morning, albeit barely. Blinding white light rises up from the road, and the still heavy air sits thick with humidity. The streets are broiling as summer approaches its apogee. What with the hour, what with the heat, as well as the fact that nobody knows who we are or what we’re doing—she’s a rock star! We’re drinking a.m. beer!—it’s possible that our quota of cool is already exhausted.

Then, as if to maintain some sense of fashionable proprietary, Ms. Tannen arrives dressed in all black, and does so having walked 20 minutes from her apartment in marginally less hip East Williamburg. By now she’s beyond hot, and yes, it’s easy to observe that she’s strikingly pretty, or, hot in the more contemporary American sense of the word too. A thin film of sweat covers her lightly tanned skin, and even if she’s wearing but a light ribbed tank-top, the black ensemble strikes me as bold on a day such as this.

For all of that, de rigueur black attire is the one glance Amanda Tannen will make all afternoon towards a “rock star” pose. Once we’ve found cool shelter in a deserted diner, I order a draft beer and she orders a chocolate shake. It immediately becomes apparent that if this place is going to be torn up, I’ll have to do it myself.

Mandy, as she cares to be known, plays bass and sings in the band stellastarr*. As it turns out, she’s dressed not to impress, but rather to conduct press. Her stylistic choices are revealing, representative of a nod towards duty, an awareness of the responsibility that comes with being in a band. If fortifying the image means dressing incongruously, then so be it. But really, the whole “cool vibe” thing is not something she’s too concerned with.

In fact, Mandy’s nature is more accurately that of a sweet, shy suburban girl living well in the city. For someone who regularly sings and performs in front of a couple thousand people, there are times when she appears ill at ease with the process of talking about herself, about her band. She is gracious and polite, and she laughs a lot—if not always comfortably—but you get the sense that too much talk of bands and heroes and influences is faintly absurd to her. It’s for the birds, or more specifically, the geeks. It’s something she can do if she’s pressed, but it’s not who she is. Mandy Tannen is playing a role, and in a sense, it’s one that she fell into.

The prototype for stellastarr* was originally formed at Brooklyn’s Pratt College about five years ago. Shawn Christensen (lead vocals, guitar), Arthur Kremer (drums, keyboard), and Tannen (bass/vocals) met in school whilst studying illustration, computer graphics, and advertising design respectively. Christensen and Kremer were also studying acting together, and Christensen was exhibiting artwork in galleries. The band project was considered an outlet for creativity within a group framework, certainly more so than any serious career aspiration.

“When I was a kid I learned to play cello,” Mandy says, explaining her involvement. “And then later I played upright bass in the school orchestra. Playing professionally never occurred to me because I was never even first chair in the orchestra, and more usually I was only second chair. When I left for college I had to give my upright back, and so I bought an electric bass to make up for it. I was actually playing classical music on my electric bass when Shawn, who’d heard about this girl who knew how to play bass, he came to my room and was like, ‘Look, we need you to play in our band!’ And I said, ‘I have no idea how to play bass!’ I knew how to read music, but that was about it. I was a pretty shy person, and I had no idea how to improvise or make music up in front of total strangers. So at first it was a huge adjustment.”

Once the group members left school, the band disbanded. For her part, Mandy pursued a career in advertising and graphic design. Soon she came to dislike her nine-to-five desk job lifestyle, and came to dislike what it was she was doing. Then she met Shawn again on the street, purely by chance, having not spoken with him for almost a year. He suggested the three of them—Mandy, Arthur and himself—get together and play. Soon, the band reformed, this time with new recruit Michael Jurin on guitar. Ironically, Jurin is the one member of the band who did profess a desire to be a musician from an early age. Mandy’s main hope for the project was that it might provide creative release from her stifling design career. Still, the band’s ambition quickly grew, and Mandy was forced with a choice.

“I was ready to leave New York City,” she says. “I’d already interviewed for four jobs in California when the boys asked me to make a commitment. I said to them, ‘Look, I’ll be in the band if I don’t get any of the jobs, but I’m planning on moving out to California.’ But then I didn’t get any of the jobs and I thought, well maybe being in this band will make me happier where I am.”

Since California didn’t come calling, the band set about a grass roots campaign. They played lots of gigs, executed flyer and sticker campaigns, and networked vigorously.

“When we went looking for a label, people wanted to create one hit wonders out of us, and we didn’t want that. We wanted a career, and we really wanted to put a strong album out. We went touring for a year before the album was even released with RCA. We played all across the country, because we wanted to get our name out there.”

stellastarr*‘s debut of vibrant indie pop surfaced at the height of the New York new wave revival. The album was sharp and punchy and sounded very much of its time, yet it wasn’t burdened by the stale whiff of opportunism, as too many of the albums that followed seemed to be. Unsurprisingly, the album played particularly big in Britain, a place where they tend to have a nose for such stylings. Once they returned from Europe, stellastarrr* played domestically for four months, traveling with fellow Brooklyn-based band Ambulance Ltd., and with another up-and-coming new wave revival act. The Killers.

Remarkably, it was little more than a year ago that the Killers were opening for both Ambulance Ltd. and stellastarr*. Since that time, of course, they have become international stars of significant proportions. When I ask Mandy how it felt being so close to the process, and how galling it was not to have it happen to her band, her reaction is pretty much as you’d expect; she’s free of false bravado and keen to be diplomatic, yet she pauses long enough to let you know that it’s a delicate matter.

“It’s kind of weird,” she says and then pauses. “But, I look at it as a really good thing that they’ve done so well. It’s nice to see good songs go so far, and especially music that’s in our genre. When I look at it I think, ‘Good for them’. And it was really exciting to be a part of it.”

stellastarr*‘s second album, Harmonies for the Haunted, will be released by RCA on September 13. The band have chosen not to adhere too closely to the new wave sound this time around, which is probably just as well given the shelf life of the contemporary pop culture moment. If anything, there is an element of the New Romantics to this record, a more decidedly pop instinct that shifts the focus away from the art-college essence of its predecessor. This marks a subtle, though not always convincing departure for the band, and my own sense of the work is that it lacks some of the characteristic fizz and much of the pugnacity of its predecessor—some of which might be explained in Mandy’s remarks about the album, even as she’s unlikely to agree with my assessment.

“This album is much more cohesive than the last one,” she claims. “The last group of songs was written over two or three years, whereas these were written over a solid two month period. We didn’t let any loose ends go this time, we really went over it with a fine-tooth comb. The question this time around was always, ‘What’s best for the song?’ And whereas before, everyone played whatever they wanted to play and we made it work, now we all have a say in each other’s parts. The writing’s more of a group effort.”

Certainly the new album appears more carefully controlled, more precisely constructed. It features both bolder and more plentiful vocal contributions from Ms. Tannen herself. Indeed, the album is most successful when she enters the fray and plays full counterpoint to Christensen’s more mannered vocal musings—specifically on songs such as “Damn This Foolish Heart” and “Love and Longing”. Tannen brings a natural ebullience to stellastarr*, and the band works best when they embrace their more anarchic spirit, a spirit that clearly resides within them (see “Jenny” and “Pulp Song” on the first album), but one that seems to have been suppressed somewhat in the name of craft and careful composition on this album.

“You know, Shawn actually wanted a girl lead singer originally,” Mandy tells me. Apparently though, she wasn’t interested in volunteering for the job herself. “Erm…no! On the last album I was very timid about singing, because I’d never sung before—and definitely not in front of people. With this album I knew I really enjoyed it, and I really wanted to put myself into the songs, push myself out there. Now I love singing.”

Given the fact that Mandy is female and attractive—and also given that this is America we live in—I wondered whether there’d been pressure, most specifically from outside the band, to feature her more prominently, either in performance or through the press?

“I’m not gonna say it’s not a marketing point, because it is—but I’ve never been pressured. It’s never really been an issue, and if anything I’ve tried not to single myself out. Like when we tour, I share a room with the guys and I don’t get treated any differently. I grew up with two brothers (just outside of South Orange, in New Jersey), and I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy anyway. On tour I’ve gone practically two months without talking to another girl except to say ‘Hi, I’m Mandy’, and that can be a little hard. But really, it’s not much of an issue.”

She smiles again, a smile she alternates with a slightly furrowed brow—the absurdity of it all. Whatever force it is that drives Tannen, however, it certainly isn’t angst. Currently she’s looking forward to touring domestically through the autumn months, and then it’s off to support the album in Europe upon its release in the new year. Beyond that, her main goal is to get out of the city, somewhere she can enjoy the calming effects of open water. Ultimately, California may yet figure in her future plans.

We leave the diner dutifully intact, and settle up for beer, fries, and a shake. As these things go, it’s a pretty cheap date. Mandy’s heading for the gym next (chocolate drink be damned), and we say our goodbyes on the street corner. The sun remains merciless in its intensity, and the streets are still stark and empty. And then a lone straggler comes into view. His hair is disheveled and he stumbles blindly along, chin resting on his chest. Sunglasses were evidently left home last night. He’s wearing an ‘80s-vintage Bowie T-shirt, and beneath his shorts are pallid legs that evoke two bottles of spoiled milk. His sagging frame implies that the gym is an alternative lifestyle. He, meanwhile, is clearly rock ‘n’ roll.

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