To Kill the Sunflower: An Interview with Cory McAbee

Space is a lonely town, but there's only room for one song-and-dance sheriff in these parts, and his name is Cory McAbee, writer and director of the new space-western musical Stingray Sam.

Space. The big blackness, the place where we keep all our stuff, the final frontier, etc. It may be somewhat quiet out there, so let's jazz up this lonely town with Cory McAbee, the extraordinary singer, legendary writer, and underground director of the new space western musical Stingray Sam, a film that just recently premiered at Sundance.

Perhaps you've seen McAbee, electric autoharp in hand, crooning charismatically about Santa Claus and Gingivitis as front man for the band American Astronaut, formerly known as The Billy Nayer Show. Or maybe you remember him better as Samuel Curtis in the film The American Astronaut, playing the stoic space loner who waltzed into our pop cultural hearts no sooner than when he and the Blueberry Pirate won the dance contest at The Ceres Crossroads. Now, though, in a miraculous feat of musical and cinematic engineering, McAbee is emerging once again as the convict Stingray Sam, bending the cosmos into one celestial balloon animal, he and The Quasar Kid parodying our absurd western culture with futuristic line dancing, their intergalactic freedom staked on the rescue of one curly-haired girl, cowboy hats shading the solar radiation, ready to blast off.

So what is Stingray Sam? The plot is (somewhat) simple: a dangerous mission reunites Stingray Sam with his long lost accomplice, The Quasar Kid. As we follow these two space-convicts, they earn their freedom in exchange for the rescue of a young girl who is being held captive by the genetically designed figurehead of a very wealthy planet. This musical space-western miniseries is designed for small screens but is perfect for screens of all sizes.


So how long have you been making music? What's your musical career look like?

I started playing in my first band when I was about 20 years old, which means I've been making music for over two decades now, not to reveal my age or anything. And you know, we were a playing a weird mix between rock and punk.

Where was that? Where were you guys located?

San Francisco, and unfortunately everyone called us punk cabaret for lack of better titles. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but that was the name we got back then. After that band broke up, I soon realized that I didn't know how to play a musical instrument, but I thought I could play an autoharp fairly easily. My first girlfriend was a preschool teacher back then, and she owned an autoharp, so when I was in high school, I would strum on one, just goofing around on hers. Eventually, I bought one of my own and ended up writing a bunch of songs. I've since had a pickup put inside mine, so it's electric now. I played in bands, recordings, and soundtracks. I even played it at the Lincoln Center Theater here in New York, and once at the Guggenheim as part of a Chinese opera.

And you've used the same one that whole time?

Actually, I have three now, but two that I really use. The one I've had souped-up into my own private electrified rock machine I've probably been playing that for 10 years or longer.

So how did playing the autoharp lead into The Billy Nayer Show and eventually the band American Astronaut?

I started The Billy Nayer Show when I started my first animated film. I just named them both Billy Nayer for lack of a better title. In fact, that animated film was more than two thousand paintings on paper with house paint, so it took a few years to finish as you can imagine.

Which is on The Billy Nayer Show: The Early Years DVD?

Yeah, that was my first attempt. I did that short because I wanted to mix painting and music and writing and performance, and I thought an animated film was the best way to accomplish that.

So that's how The Billy Nayer Show came about?

Like I mentioned earlier, the name was just a random thing, but the band was me and Bobby Lurie, who's been playing drums and producing the music for years. He produced The American Astronaut, and now he's produced Stingray Sam. But we started playing together as The Billy Nayer Show with a few different people, and throughout the years, there have been over 50 people who have come and gone with The Billy Nayer Show.

Fifty? Is that a record?

Maybe, who knows? But it was on stage and in recording mostly that we played with all of them. The Billy Nayer Show was always this ongoing, developing animal. BNS Productions was the umbrella that we used for both music and film, really anything we were working on those years. Finally, we became the band we are today, called American Astronaut, which includes me, Bobby, and Frank Swart, our bassist who's been playing with us for the past few years. Then, we brought Crugie onboard, who did a tour with us years back, and Karl Derfler to engineer, and decided that Crugie should be a member of the band and a musical collaborator, and Karl should be a co-producer.

So you changed the band name to American Astronaut?

Obviously, we took the new record into a different direction, so since we named The Billy Nayer Show after the first animated short, we named our band American Astronaut after the first feature. Luckily, while we were finishing up the album, we had enough time to make Stingray Sam, working on the soundtrack and acting in that, too.

So how did you get into filmmaking anyway?

All of our films are musicals. I guess that I like thinking in terms of musical. When I was young, I discovered Dennis Potter and his work, and I became really excited about the idea of making musicals that weren't like the musicals I had grown up with. I wanted to be able to make musicals into something different than what I had known and thought musicals were.

So your musicals are different how exactly?

The route that I took with The American Astronaut was almost all of the songs in the film were inspired by real things, like people singing to a record or singing on stage, as opposed to erupting into song in any given situation, which happens in your traditional musical. And in my film, the songs also had the same spirit as the scene, but weren't necessary about what was being discussed. In your typical musical, if people were speaking about love, then suddenly they would start singing about it. In my films, I wanted the songs to more reflect the personality of the people singing rather than what they were doing.

And you've used the same mentality for your new film Stingray Sam?

Stingray Sam is definitely its own monster. For instance, one of the things that inspired Stingray Sam was this idea of the small screen. A few years back, I had been commissioned by the Sundance Film Festival to create a short film for mobile phones and mobile phone distribution, which we called Reno. Most of the filmmakers that the committee chose were pretty famous, like the couple that made Little Miss Sunshine and my friend Justin Lin who did a couple of the Fast and the Furious films. And then there was me, this underground filmmaker, but luckily everybody seemed to really like my film. I enjoyed thinking about the small screen, and I really enjoyed watching the films and working on Reno, too.


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