May 20, 2020

The four eras of Starflyer 59


Last night my friend Joel tweeted out his thoughts on Starflyer 59’s “three eras.” I loved his concept, but as I thought about it, it became quickly apparent that there are four eras for me.
Joel asked me to elaborate, but as he is on the West Coast, I am on the East Coast, I was headed to bed. But thinking about this kept me awake for a little while last night, and now I am putting my thoughts into words. I’m not going to dive into a ton of detail here, as if you are reading this, you are probably already a pretty big Starflyer fan and know much of what I could include. (And note to you crazy Starflyer fans [like me], I am not including everything below; meaning I have intetionally omitted singles, live albums, demos, etc.)

ERA 1 (1993-1997) 

LPs: Silver (1994), Gold (1995), Americana (1997)
EPs: She’s the Queen (1994), Le Vainqueur (1995), Plugged (1996) 

I was fortunate enough to discover Starflyer just as their 1994 debut album “Silver” was released. I first heard the band (“Second Space Song”) on a late night radio show (“The A-Zone in Nashville), and my brother went out and quickly bought the CD. I had never heard or heard of shoegaze, so it was revolutionary to me. Not only did I love the music, visually it was next-level artwork and packaging.

Musically this era is defined by heaviness and guitars, and visually by solid-color metallic covers. The EPs were equally important (and EPs were a huge part of the Starflyer output for the first decade of the band). “She’s the Queen” introduced the slow-core sound, that while a contrast from the heavy rock songs, was still was a perfect part of the puzzle. My favorite song from this era is the title track of the “Le Vainqueur" EP. I saw Starflyer on the tour in fall of 1995, and Morella's Forest opened. I desperately hoped Sydney would do the "Let's Go" line in the bridge of that song, and while they played it, she did not. :(

For most of the songs in this era, Martin played all the instruments himself. Wayne Everett began drumming on some of the “Gold” songs, and remained the drummer through “Everybody Makes Mistakes”. With the addition of Eric Campuzano on bass, “Americana” was Martin’s first attempt at collaboration with two accomplished other song-writers. However, Campuzano’s stay was only for that one album, as Martin held on to creative control. Martin then turned to Jeff Cloud for minimal, basic bass lines for the next few releases.

 5 songs that define Era 1:
“Blue Collar Love”
“She Was My Sweetheart”
“When You Feel Miserable”
“Le Vainqueur”
“The Boulevard”

 

ERA 2 (1998-2003) 

LPs: The Fashion Focus (1998), Everybody Makes Mistakes (1999), Leave Here a Stranger (2001), Old (2003)
EPs: Fell in Love at 22 (1999), Can’t Stop Eating (2002) 

From the opening synth and acoustic guitar strumming of “I Drive A Lot”, the second era had begun. Gone were the loud guitars and distortion (except for “Too Much Fun”, which is incredible yet somewhat out of place), and Martin had begun his experimentation with “The Fashion Focus”. Honestly, at first I was pissed. I was really into heavy music at the time, and I wanted more. But over time the album grew and grew and I recognized it’s superior song-writing.

This era is defined by the influence Martin’s collaborators, producers, and players had on the Starflyer sound; arguably more influence than any other era. Wayne Everett, Gene Eugune, Terry Taylor, Richard Swift, and Frank Lenz all took part for some of this period, and at times, it is incredibly obvious (in a good way). While Gene Eugene helped produce and played on “Gold” and “Americana”, his stamp first obviously appears on “The Fashion Focus”. While that album is all over the map stylistically and is maybe too long, Martin and Eugune really dialed it in for the laser-focused “Everybody Makes Mistakes.” The songs were better and the album was limited to nine songs.

After Eugene’s death, Martin turned to Terry Taylor to produce “Leave Here a Stranger”. The result is a sound that harkens’ back to the Sixties, which was even more amplified by it being mixed in mono (I think the stereo mixes on the "Can't Stop Eating" EP sound better). For this release Martin had an all-new band of guys whose first names began with “J”.

Era 2 ends with “Old”, which in my view is the first Starflyer 59 album that features true collaboration from the players. Cloud was still playing bass, and Richard Swift (keys and vocals) and Frank Lenz (drums and vocals) joined the band. Swift and Lenz are both accomplished solo artists, and their contributions were not only strong, they were obvious. Martin also used Aaron Sprinkle for production, which resulted in a crystal-clear sound that was quite a bit different than “Leave Here a Stranger.”

5 songs that define Era 2:
“I Drive A Lot”
“Fell in Love at 22”
“No New Kinda Story”
“I Like Your Photographs”
“Underneath”

“Delimiter” (thanks Ryan), no era:
 I am the Portuguese Blues (2004) 

First off, this is my least favorite Starflyer album. Honestly, I find it strange that it even exists. The story from my perspective is this: Martin had continued pressure to return the original Starflyer sound (and a return to the original look with another solid metallic cover), resurrected some old demos and unfinished songs from the mid-90’s, and went into the studio to record this album as an appeasement to fans. For one, he was so far past this as a musician and song-writer, and secondly, while it was heavy, it is over-produced. While Sprinkle’s crisp production was perfect for “Old”, he is far too much of a perfectionist for this release. All rawness and needed “sloppiness” was lost, and it just doesn’t sound right.

ERA 3 (2004-2015)

LPs: Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice (2005), My Island (2006), Dial M (2008), The Changing of the Guard (2010), IAMACEO (2013)
EPs: The Last Laurel (2004), I Win (2006), Minor Keys (2009) 

Era 3 is defined by Martin taking complete control. While Lenz was still in the band, Martin began self-producing his albums, and has ever since. This era begins with the fantastic independent “Last Laurel” EP, which was strangely released around the same time as “I am the Portuguese Blues"; They are polar opposites musically. “Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice” followed, built around the “Last Laurel” song “Softness, Goodness,” which is a top-5 all-time Martin tune for me.

“My Island” is distinct because Martin brought a new bass player into the fold- Steven Dail. Dail was in Project 86 and he had a noticeable style that for the first time brought the bass to the front of the Starflyer mix; and was a major shift from the bass minimalism of Cloud. Dail has played bass for Starflyer ever since (15 years!), but his work stands out the most on “My Island”.

 “Dial M” was an interesting album for me because Martin did a project with Burnt Toast Vinyl in which demos from the sessions were released a couple at a time for nearly a year before its release. That 10 7” box set remains one of my favorite pieces of my vinyl collection. However, when the album finally dropped, I already knew all the songs, and the studio versions, while better, didn't blow me away.


My wife and I had our first child in 2008. I bring that up because we had two more in 2009 and 2012 and that was a CRAZY time for us. During my years of fathering babies and toddlers, Starflyer put out “The Changing of the Guard” and “IAMACEO”. While I pre-ordered both albums on vinyl, they did not get listened to much. I find these two of the weakest releases in the Starflyer catalog, and I am not sure how much that is because they actually are--or maybe it was just that I was distracted. This era is arguably too long, but it did feel like it drug on for me before era 4 began with a bang.

5 songs that define Era 3:
“Softness, Goodness”
“I Win”
“Mic the Mic”
“Minor Keys”
“Bicycle Rider”

 

ERA 4 (2016-present)

LPs: Slow (2016), Young in My Head (2019)
EPs: Miami (2020) 

During the break between eras 3 and 4, I honestly wondered if maybe Martin was done with Starflyer 59. I don’t remember any news for a couple years, and who could blame him if he was “retired”. So with that in mind, I didn’t expect another Starflyer album.

Then “Slow” dropped, and I was blown away. For me it was the first time Martin had actually blended his original sound with his current work--two decades later. The title track reminded me of the “She’s the Queen” slowcore. I spun “Slow” more than I had any new Starflyer album in over a decade. Martin seemed re-energized, and he had brought in his son as the drummer to play with him and Dail.

And then before I knew it, ANOTHER Starflyer album was out-- “Young in My Head.” Martin’s output and brief time between releases was reminiscent of the Nineties. And now, only a year later, we have a new EP on the horizon! “Miami” drops June 19 on Velvet Blue Music. While EPs were frequent in Starflyer’s early years, this is the first one since 2009.

 5 songs that define Era 4:
“Slow”
“Cherokee”
“Remind Me”
“Smoke”
“This Recliner”

 


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