For a certain contingent of music fans, there will never, ever, be anything better than ‘90s alternative rock (or indie rock or college rock or whatever you want to call it).
While Nirvana & Pearl Jam grunged their way to the top of the charts, slaying all of hair metal in a single “Spirit”-ed riff, there was that weirder, stranger offshoot of ‘90s rock groups that found the Pixies more enlightening, and before long, Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, the Breeders (how apt), and Guided By Voices mixed catchy melodies with lo-fi production, each album feeling like an artful world unto itself. Although this era feels long-lost to some, there’s a litany of younger bands who are lighting up smiles all up and down the blogosphere with albums that are very much indebted to the wiry jangle-pop of yore.
While Yuck have already made commercial inroads with their very Dinosaur Jr.-indebted sound (and that’s nothing next to the revived Dinosaur Jr. that’s still playing), bands like Speedy Ortiz and Popstrangers have done an excellent job of reviving those open-air melodies of the past and giving them a modern twist. True fans would know when to call it derivative: this new crop of young’ns are very much proving their worth with their unique take on a genre we all know too well.
Enter the Starfolk: Brian Tighe, best known for his worst in the Hang Ups and the Owls (which features his wife Allison LaBonne), has gathered a group together that not only knows their ‘90s counterpoints, but freely acknowledges them on their eponymous debut, each song completely changing the songwriting style to reflect a different moment. The band goes through these styles with ease, roping influences together while still keeping things grounded with their acoustic sensibilities and all-around great tunes. To help celebrate the pending release of the band’s debut album, the group is sharing “Sleeping Without Dreaming” with PopMatters readers exclusively. Stream the track, and read below Tighe’s own thoughts on the journey the band took to get here, the power of Jacqueline Ultan’s cello to the mix, and how it all ties back to Carl Sagan (as always) ...
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So first and foremost, it just needs to be asked: what lead to the transition between The Hang Ups and The Starfolk?
The Owls were a big part of that transition. Seven years into our relationship, Allison first revealed her songs to me. I started arranging and mixing them and the project eventually grew to involve our friends Maria May and Stephen Ittner. The Hang Ups had just finished promoting that our fourth full length, and we all needed a break. The Owls were there to carry the torch and I started adding my own songs to those of Allison, Maria, and Stephen.
Having four songwriters in The Owls was exciting, but it meant there wasn’t room for all the songs I was writing. After a few years I craved an additional outlet, and rallied Allison and Stephen. We played as a trio a couple times, but felt we needed another element. We asked Jacqueline Ultan if she would join us on cello for our first radio performance and something really clicked. The sound of her cello has become a major identity of the band.
After achieving some degree of commercial success, especially with that song in a film like Chasing Amy, do you have expectations for the commercial prospects of Starfolk? Artistic ones?
I really believe in this record. As far as commercial success, I think expectations are dangerous. The industry has changed radically and I have no idea what to expect. It does bring artistic closure to have your work find its audience. My artistic goal is that anyone who would be touched by this record will get the chance to hear it.
After being into visual arts for so much of your life, what can you tell us about the simple photograph cover for the album?
Allison snapped that photo of her shadow when we were staying with family on Orcas Island. I like how it combines earthiness and ethereality—looking straight at the ground, bathed in this light that comes from a star—which we call the sun—100 million miles away. The shadow has a mysterious quality, it could be anyone and everyone. After we named the band we discovered that Carl Sagan refers to the human race as “starfolk,” because of the astronomical notion that the matter that makes our bodies once formed the body of a star.
One of the things I like most about the album is how it just careens wildly between a lot of ‘90s-bent tropes, like you’re deliberately trying not to repeat yourself, making each song different. What lead to the creation of “Sleeping Without Dreaming”? What makes that track special for you?
It is true, music from the ‘90s has had a big influence on me. Things like My Bloody Valentine, The La’s, and Dinosaur Jr. hold high places of honor in my brain. The unusual chord progressions, bold melodies and dream reality those bands worked in hit me when my interest in songwriting had become total obsession, at the very beginning of the nineties.
I think “Sleeping Without Dreaming” is one of the tracks that best defines the sound of The Starfolk. The guitar work of John Crozier and the wordless sighing choruses hearken back to The Hang Ups, and it also introduces new elements like Jacqueline’s pulsing cello and Allison’s breathy harmonies. It deals with the subject of insomnia, a problem for me for many years, and captures that feeling of floating between two worlds.