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SF59: Band Bio

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SF59: Band Bio
SF59: Short Story by J. Edward Keyes

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 “and don’t forget the songs that made you cry, and the songs that saved your life”

The Story of Starflyer 59

by J. Edward Keyes

 

And so this kid is just completely freaking out.  It’s my fault, really, I should have known better than to ask this kid, this kid who paid a total of $75 for Starflyer’s notorious Drop 7” (that’s $75 for three, count em, three songs, five minutes, working out roughly then to $15 per one minute of music), this kid whose license plate, and I’m serious here, folks, this kid whose license plate is:  STARFLYR, this kid Andrew Horton who courted his current girlfriend by giving her a copy of Le Vainqueur, I asked this kid of all people, “What’s the big deal about Starflyer 59?” And now, here he is, completely freaking out.

 

“I don’t even know where to start,” he says, spinning dizzily backwards into a fifth-gear recollection of buying Starflyer’s Silver album six years ago, hating it, mocking it, then breaking up, painfully, messily with his girlfriend, listening to Silver again, loving it, and finally ending up on the phone with me two weeks from his twentieth birthday.  He talks fast, quick bombs of sound bursting in tight, desperate little groups.

 

“Silver is pretty short, so I just basically ended up putting it on repeat all the time,” he rat-a-tats. “Just this wall of noise constantly for about three months straight.” The unposed, understood, “Do you see how much this means to me?” hangs momentarily in the air before plummeting, unexploded.  He hurries on.

 

Horton’s opportunity to meet Jason Martin – an opportunity he willingly, giddily blew off finals and drove five hours for – resulted in the sort of classic fanboy freak out: “I could barely even stand up,” he laughs.  “My mom and I ended up cooking the food for the band, which was like the biggest honor for me…”

 

It starts to occur to me, as I listen to Horton talk so frantically, so earnestly, how much he is like so many fans of this band – memorizing every last looping second of feedback in “The Dungeon,” hunting down obscure, limited run 7-inches on the internet.  Then it further begings to occur to me how very similar he is – how very similar they all are, these pop music junkies, these album addicts – to the founding member of the band they so feverishly revere.

 

Jason Martin had no musical training, not until he began taking piano lessons in his early teens.  His mother (who describes him as a “funny, goofy little kid”) was not a music teacher, his father did not pen a series of folk hits in the 60’s (“My dad doesn’t get much more recent than Bobby Darin”, Jason will later tell me).  He didn’t spend hours hunched like Leroux’s famous Phantom over a piano in his basement.  He didn’t have a wild-haired, eccentric instructor who barked commands at him in German during grueling, ten-hour lessons.

 

What Jason Martin did have were records.  At first, he had records by Christian bands.  Not the hack-job groan-inspiring spandex rock of 80’s Christian metal, but bands of substance and vision like The Altar Boys, L.S.U., and Daniel Amos (whom Martin still counts among his favorites).  In High School, a friend loaned him a copy of The Smiths landmark The Queen Is Dead album, of which Martin recalls, “I just could not handle how much I loved that thing.”  It was this minor epiphany that fostered his interest in bands whose outlooks were decidedly secular, bands like The Pixies, Chapterhouse, and Ride.  When he was fourteen, Jason’s brother Ronnie had purchased with his allowance.  Jason had been playing drums and piano for three years, but hearing the agonized writhe and thrash of guitar on LSU’s Shaded Pain piqued his interest in the instrument.  Lamb was his immediate, ideal choice for instructor because, as Jason laughingly recalls, “I thought it was just phenomenal that he could play all the Altar Boys songs.” 

 

Of the Martin brothers, it was Ronnie who was the more aggressive musician, forming and re-forming countless bands, all of which consisted of essentially the same members – Ronnie, Jason, and occasionally Randy).  Jason’s participation in the perennially mutating collectives was always by default.  “In the early days it had a lot to do with Ronnie, “he admits.  “I never thought about being in a band my life.  He kind of just included me out of mercy.”  It is a recollection echoed by Jason’s  mother: “Ronnie was always very vocal about (wanting to pursue music).  Jason just sort of quietly eased into it.”

 

The Martin’s volleyed through a series of names, each smacking a sort of youthful rock & roll idealism that characterized the brothers:  A Link of the Haunted, Two Lads, Chant of the Flowered Underground, names which Jason rattles through laughingly, lovingly.

 

The baffling part about all these non-stop memory-greedy recollections: Jason Martin has the reputation for being a difficult interview.  While he is lucid sometimes to a fault about other topics (he and I have, on one occasion, discussed how much we would pay to see a Smiths reunion for a total of – and I’m serious here – 120 minutes), when talk centers on him, his sentences are slow-to-come and terse on arrival.  He deflects questions with a lazy “Oh, I don’t know,” responds always with the obvious answer (Example: Q:  How was The Fashion Focus different from your other records?  A:  Oh, I don’t know.  Just a different batch of songs.  End Quote.)  His cadence is vintage California cool:  lazy, expressionless.  Yet he recalls his adolescence with the sort of eager relish and flustered laughter that betrays a genuine protectiveness toward these memories.  I get the immediate impression that Jason doesn’t want to avoid or erase these days, these relentlessly optimistic visions of footlights, hit records, rock grandeur…  He wants to relive them.  “Oh, Keyes,” he says, a trace of genuine sorrow coloring his trademark aloofness.  “I could go on and on about the early transitions.”

 

Jason Martin’s first live performance was with The Two Lads at a Mexican buffet for his high school’s Senior Banquet, and despite what snobbish indie-cool kids may want you to believe, no one has a recording of it.  The performance was a success, winning the Martin’s admiration of their peers and the adulation of young females.  Yet the metamorphosis continued: after the high techno of The Lads, the brothers flirted with guitar rock, rotating through another series of prosaic names until finally settling on the C.S. Lewis-inspired Morella’s Forest.  They continued playing small local shows, some of which were attended by Jason’s high-school friend and future Starflyer bass player Jeff Cloud (“He showed up basically to laugh at us,” Jason recalls.  As Morella’s Forest, Jason and Ronnie recorded an entire album for California’s Narrowpath Records, but the label went bankrupt before it could be released.

 

Though their own career was beginning its tentative lurch forward, the Martin’s were still nurturing their own pop music obsessions, attending every area concert by local rock icons LSU.  When the ever-enterprising Ronnie caught word of the fact that LSU frontman Michael Knott was starting a label, he slipped the singer a copy of demo he and Jason had been working on.  An impressed Knott signed the duo (whom he rechristened Dance House Children) to his infant Blonde Vinyl records.  “And that’s when all the guitar rock faded out [of our sound],” Jason sighs.

 

Though Dance House Children was primarily Ronnie’s brainchild, Jason did deliver a short stack of songs for the pair of albums the band released.  His contributions are dizzying, psychedelic affairs, standing in stark contrast to Ronnie’s spry pop.  There are hints of the Starflyer sound in the ominous “Eve Leaf” and the freakout tone overload of “Sea Breeze.”  By the time Blonde Vinyl collapsed in late 1992, Jason was privately working on a handful of songs that would eventually evolve into Starflyer’s landmark Silver.

 

Interesting cultural art artifact: Take a look inside the linear notes of Ronnie’s Rainbow Rider album, released in 1993.  Beneath the recording credits, before the lyrics, nestled squarely within the special thanks, is the following proclamation: “Thanks to Jason Martin and Andrew Larsen and their brilliant new group, Star Flyer 2000!”

 

Jason had been recording material at home with the intention of releasing it on Knott’s next label venture, Siren Records (which, when all was said and done, ended up having the life span of a sea monkey).  His plans altered significantly when he met Brandon Ebel at a California music festival.  Fortuitously, Jason had a copy of his demo with him at the time, and gave it to Ebel, who was himself wrapping up a four-year stint as a DJ at Oregon State.  “I was playing bands like Sonic Youth and The Heartthrobs [on the radio],” Ebel recalls, chattering madly through colorful, cinematic recollections, “so I popped in Jason’s demo, and I was just freaking.  It started with Blue Collar Love, and I was just like, this is over the top.  There is nothing like this in the market.”  Ebel quickly contacted Jason with the offer of a short contract, a proposition that stymied the bashful, introverted musician.  “When he said he wanted to do a record,” Jason recalls, enthusiasm seeping into his voice as if it was suddenly happening all over again, “I was just like, Oh, I can’t believe this!  It was crazy.  I was just so excited I couldn’t contain myself.”

In the months that stretched between his departure from the Dance House Children in 1992 and his encounter with Ebel in early 1993, Jason had been splitting his time between fits of songwriting and truck driving duties for his father’s company.  It was a commonality in Riverside, California, scores of post-high schooler’s under their father’s employ, hanging out in basements and diners and hashing over the latest records.  On the occasions when Ebel would join them, the discourse would leave him mystified.  “They had their own vocabulary,” he laughs.  “They’re all blue collar workers, you would think these big truck drivers would be into AC/DC or the Eagles, but they’re all into Britpop.  And they all speak the Martin language.”  It’s a scene lifted from Levinson, young Jason and Ronnie and a gaggle of cap-wearing twentysomethings crammed into the rear booth of a smoky diner, each voice battling the other for top volume, for conversation control.  “I’d be sitting there with them,” Ebel continues, “and they’d all be like, Hey, did you get that new Blur album, what’s going on with that?  It was just like this weird little subculture, and I would be sitting there thinking, where did you guys come from?  None of them even liked sports or anything.”

 

One of the few musical members of the Blue Collar Cult was Andrew Larsen, and it was him whom Jason chose to collaborate with for Starflyer’s debut.  Mortal’s Jerome and Jyro, who were at the time operating under the pseudonym Blood, oversaw he album’s production.  The session was frenzied, with only a scant two weeks passing between conception and completion.

 

Jason’s initial expectations for the project were low.  “At the time I was thinking, well, if nothing ever happens after this, it’s cool.  At least now I have something to show my kids.  But when I finally heard the record all mastered, I was kinda like, man, it sounds like we’re a real band.  I didn’t know it was going to sound this good.”  He chuckles, “After all these years, having about eighteen bands and playing in buffets, I just thought it was too much to take.”  Remembering his friend Cloud’s one-time ambition to start a band called Beige and release an all-beige album, Martin nixed all artwork suggestions for the debut and opted for a cover of solid silver.

 

After the record was completed, Jason quietly returned to his home, continuing to drive trucks and hang out with his California circle of friends, unaware of the ripples his record was causing amongst music buyers (particularly Christian music buyers) who had purchased the record and spent the next month trying to pry their jaws loose from the floor.  When Jason arrived with Larsen and Poor Old Lu drummer Jesse Sprinkle to play the Cornerstone Music Festival in the summer of 94, the fan response was sudden, massive, and smothering.

 

“People kept coming up to me telling me how great they thought the record was, and I just kept thinking, you guys are crazy.”  He pauses suddenly, laughter drying up.  His words come slow, deliberate.  “It was just weird because usually I was the guy going up to other people, telling them how much I liked their songs.  And now people were coming up to me.”

 

Starflyer records tend to break up into certain specific categories, making a Cliff’s Notes version of the bands discography read something like this:

 

1.)   Silver: You broke my heart, and I have a record contract.

2.)   Gold: You really, really broke my heart.

3.)   Americana: You’re not as cool as you think you are.

4.)   The Fashion Focus: Man, I’m getting old.

5.)   Everybody Makes Mistakes: Man, I’m getting bored.

Don’t believe me?  See for yourself.  Three songs on Gold contain titular references to being messed up, six on Fashion Focus pine for youth, while half of Mistakes wonders how much longer the band can keep this up.

 

It’s a question Martin has been asking himself since the recording of Gold, a record that, over time, would become revered amongst Starflyer fans.

 

Privately, Jason still wonders whether or not the band peaked in the months following Silver.  After Cornerstone, the band toured with both Mortal and The Prayer Chain, the biggest drawing names in the market at the time.  “I found myself thinking, Oh gee, this rock & roll thing is so easy.  We were playing in front of like 1,000 kids a night.”

 

**[Tangent – and feel free to skip this – it is during this time that I had my first encounter with Jason Martin, an encounter that, like most things in my life, I bungle royally.  Half-delirious because I, yes even I, was one of those starry-eyed youths for whom Starflyer’s Silver record took on religious significance, I approached the ultra-introverted frontman, my mind scrambling like a hobo in a trash can for the ideal introductory line.  And so when I finally get within speaking distance, and Martin is taking in all 5 feet of me with his dark sleepy eyes, I stammer out the only thing I can think of: “I just saw a review of your record in –“ and I’m intentionally omitting the name of the magazine here.  Jason, looking only partially conscious but trying – to his unbelievable credit here – trying to be a good sport about the whole encounter, volley’s back: “Oh yeah?  What did they have to say?” At which point I am completely stymied because the magazine (whose name I have, once again intentionally omitted) hated the record.  So naturally, I parrot out: “Oh, they hated it.  They said it really sucked,” and then proceed to flagellate myself endlessly because here is this guy – this guy I have never met before – who is out hitting endless miles of looping asphalt to play for twenty minutes to a bunch of kids there to see another band entirely, this guy who has a single record to his credit, and in waltz I, nameless faceless teenager #753, stumbling over to tell him that despite all of his hard work and tenacity, there is a music magazine out there who thinks the sum total of his creative output is worthless, and I have separated myself from the crowd and intentionally sought him out to tell him this.  His eyes go bug eyed and I jam my hands into m pocket and shuffle back into the crowd feeling like the moron I know myself to be.  When I relay the story to Jason now, years after the event, he laughs riotously and claims to harbor no recollection of the event.  Between you and me, I think he’s lying].

 

Jason returned from these tours elated, primed to begin Starflyer’s sophomore LP (a handful of leftovers and alternate takes from the Silver sessions had been released as the She’s the Queen EP in the months following the debut’s release).  But despite Jason’s initial enthusiasm, he would eventually become disenfranchised enough to scrawl the following verse wearily on Gold’s inside cover: “The Lord is near to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit”.

 

The first inklings of trouble came when Jason entered the studio alone, all prior collaborators conspicuously absent.  Even today, five years later, Jason refuses to discuss the circumstances, chalking up his isolation to “internal tension.”  I don’t push.  It’s abundantly clear that it won’t get me anywhere.

 

Martin entered the studio with engineer Bob Moon – and wouldn’t emerge again for a month.  Not to sleep.  Not to visit friends.  Not for anything.

 

Moon’s recollection is vivid.  “It was just insane.  I remember at one point standing outside the studio with Jason, and hearing him say that it was the first time he’d seen the daylight in seven days.”

 

“I didn’t leave the Green Room for a month.  Period,” says Jason, desperately trying to impress upon me the direness of his situation.  With a slight pause, a change in pitch, Martin dramatically let’s drop his shield of emotional indifference.  “I was having a semi-breakdown,” he admits.  “It was a sick experience.”  Compounding the grueling recording process was Jason’s decision to stuff the songs with veiled references to the disappearance of longtime friends, all of which would later be mis-read by fans as romantic lamentations.  The record’s bleak subject matter and the dark, insistent claustrophobia of the studio took the breath out of the once roseate musician.  “I thought it was going to be so epic, and…” he trails off.  “The whole time I’m thinking: This isn’t even fun. This is stupid.  I don’t have anyone to here to help.  I don’t even want to do this anymore, this is ridiculous.”  He breaks to collect his thoughts.  “But we had all these commitments – we had to go out on tour, we had to play Cornerstone.  It was a mess.”

 

Toward the end of the process, Prayer Chain drummer Wayne Everett, with whom Jason was about to embark on a nationwide tour, began appearing in the studio to assist Jason with drum tracks.  The sessions ground on, deadlines were missed, Jason grew more despondent, and the onset of the tour grew ever imminent.  “It was literally the night before we were going to leave [for tour],” he says, “and we still had five songs with no vocals.”

 

“I was a zombie after those sessions,” laughs Moon – his humor more gallows than glee.  “As soon as the last vocal track was done, it was literally like, OK, lets start mixing.  We didn’t have and break or anything.  We were just fried.”

 

Jason’s initial reaction to the completed record was one of disgust.  Being trapped into making the record alone, he recoiled at how large his shadow loomed over the songs.  “I hated it.  There was just too much me.”  Indeed, Gold does bear the earmarks of a solo record – long, swooping guitar solos; layer upon layer of rhythm guitar; lazy, meandering time signatures.  While over time it is these very aspects that have made the record more enduring, to young Jason in 1995, they seemed nagging, brutal artistic overkill.  “It was just so overindulgent.  The music became longer and longer with those stupid solos because I was in there and I just wasn’t thinking straight.”

 

The ashen aura of doom hovering over the record grew several shades darker when it was finally released.  Fans of Silver’s triple-tremolo-assault retaliated viciously when they heard the muted mope of its follow-up, often vocalizing their distaste to Jason in person.  “Oh, they hated the thing,” Jason says of his acolytes’ initial reaction.  People mistook intentional underproduction for budgetary constraints, criticizing the sound that Jason and Bob Moon had gone to painstaking lengths to capture.  “We had six rhythm tracks going, going through three different amps, getting a low guitar tone, a mid guitar tone, and a high guitar tone, and then doubling all those to get this wall of sound.”  Despite their efforts, the fans were not impressed.  People walked up to Jason at concerts and asked, point blank, “Why does your new album sound so bad?”

 

“I’d hear stories funneled through friends,” Jason says, “people saying, man, Starflyer really choked on this second album.”  Defiantly, Starflyer embarked on a second tour that year with the heirs to an old Martin moniker, fledgling Tooth & Nail act Morella’s Forest.  Knowing that Gold was the last record he contractually owed Tooth & Nail, Martin recorded a series of those concert dates to release as Plugged on the independent Velvet Blue Music label to keep remaining fans satiated until the next Starflyer release.

 

And that’s when a strange thing started happening.  People started liking Gold.  No one quite knows when it happened or how, but suddenly sales of the record began jumping, and fan defense of the songs became more ardent, more impassioned.  Jason’s cryptic lyrics began resonating with disaffected teenagers, and the mammoth, almost supernatural guitar sounds started seeming more calculated, the shrieking solos more tortured, more precise.  Gold went on to nearly triple the sales numbers of its predecessor, and take solid root not as a failed follow-up, but as a triumphant return.  By the time all this finally happened, however, Jason was contemplating his next venture.

 

It is the habit or fans to attach tremendous significance to Starflyer’s lyrics, when the truth is that roughly half of them are, by Jason’s own admission, meaningless.  Although Gold was littered with references to betrayal, it was balanced with just as many lyrics that were the artistic equivalent of empty calories – words without weight, happenstance afterthoughts.  Jason has made a habit of this – sprinkling just the right amount of significance into his songs to give each album a sure, specific theme [See above], while simultaneously keeping other compositions blissfully duty-free.  Behold the origins of the following Starflyer classics:

 

-“The Dungeon” is the nickname given to a shadowy backroom in the Green Room studios.

-“Blue Collar Love” is a reference to the Martin’s middle-class roots.

-“One Shot Juanita” is the nickname of a girl Jason and Cloud went to school with.

-The lyric “express the world on time” in “Card Games and Old Friends” was written after Jason saw a Federal Express box sitting on his kitchen table.

-The opening line of “All The Time” was lifted from a MasterCard commercial.

-“We Want It Bad” was inspired by Jason’s tube compressor.

 

If there is any one Starflyer album whose lyrics are disproportionately important, it is Americana.  Having completed the agonizing, endless tour cycle in support of Gold, Jason began work on Americana almost immediately.  He had made a series of personal vows to prevent the sort of creative melt down that occurred during the Gold album’s recording.  Chief among them were:

 

  1. Not to play every note of every instrument on every song.
  2. Not to produce the record himself.

 

Wayne Everett had been playing with the band on several stops of the tour supporting Gold, so it was the next logical step for him to begin playing drums in the studio.  At a California stop on the Gold tour, Jason was approached by Eric Campuzano, at that time bass player for The Prayer Chain.  Campuzano informed Jason that the Prayer Chain was planning to dissolve within a matter of months, and that when that happened, he would be interested in playing with Starflyer 59.  Jason quickly agreed, and the trio began work on Americana in mid-1997.

 

In an attempt to undercut the lack of perspective he felt while making Gold, Jason contacted veteran producer Eugene to oversee the recording of Americana.

 

Listening to the record now, it is easy to see it as a direct reaction to the excess of Gold: songs on Americana blast from verse to chorus to verse with the little dalliance for solos or feedback.  Jason had skillfully woven wobbly synth leads through nearly half the compositions, and where Gold had favored languid, loping ballads, Americana was all pomp and swagger, with Jason transforming from the teary, abandoned boyfriend to the smirking, confident frontman.  It is difficult to imagine that just a few months prior, Jason was considering exploding the whole enterprise, that he was laying nerve-frayed and exhausted on the floor of the Green Room.  It is also difficult to imagine that just beneath Americana’s self-assured veneer the band was coming apart at the seams.

 

Though the cliché has been exercised to the point of exhaustion, it is nevertheless accurate to call the dissolution of the Starflyer trio a case of artistic differences.  Songs were pulled taffy-like in trillions of directions, pulled almost to the breaking point, three sets of hands tugging from decidedly different angles.  Members would leave the studio only to come back and find songs completely re-worked, which led to frequent, highwire-tense debates.  A fiery disagreement over the best possible approach to “Help Me When You’re Gone” only exploited the tensions the members had been working furiously to suppress, and the three realized that this would be the first, last, and only studio project they could collaborate on.

 

Having nowhere to funnel his frustration, Jason poured most of his feelings into his songwriting, resulting in, up to that point, his most lucid lyrics.  It is a bitter irony, then, amongst fans who clamor feverishly for the slightest morsel of meaning in Jason’s songs, Starflyer’s most autobiographical album is also its most overlooked.  Given the benefit of distance, Jason notices only the album’s strengths.  “I like that record,” he says, satisfied.  “It was the first time we had a real band on the record, and it sounded like it.  I wasn’t embarrassed about my vocals.  It wasn’t mechanical.”  Indeed, Americana may be the most successful of the band’s noisy records: Tracks like “The Voyager” and “You Don’t Miss Me” effortlessly merge rock’s cocky preen with Starflyer’s wall-of-guitar sound.  Where past Starflyer songs quaked violently but ultimately stayed in one spot, the songs on Americana stalk and strut freely and feverishly.  An off-the-cuff comment from Jason during recording sessions would lead to the record being permanently branded.  “Somebody asked me, what have you got on this record?  And I said we’ve got a couple Black Sabbath riffs, and the next thing I know everyone’s calling it The Metal Album.”  Though fans are still reticent toward Americana, Jason defends the record staunchly, calling it “Ten times better than Silver,” the debut he admits he can no longer listen to without cringing.

Faced with a touring obligation, Jason needed to find musicians to fill the gaps left by Americana’s fractious recording sessions.  “And that’s where Cloud came in.”  Jason speaks the words as if they should be preceded by the word “Finally,” as if Cloud was always meant to be a member of the band, it merely took Jason four years to figure it out.  Until that point, Cloud had been acting as the band’s touring manager, so he was familiar with the band’s catalog and work ethic.  Despite this, the initial tours were tense and difficult, with Jason having barely enough time to teach Cloud the songs before they began their two-month stint in support of Americana.

 

“When he first approached me, I said, Jason, no way,” admits Cloud.  “I played guitar real badly, and I didn’t even know how to play bass.”  But Jason persisted until Cloud reluctantly decided to grapple with the instrument.  He has no illusions about his first time on stage: “It was just really horrible.  Wayne even chewed me out after the show.”

 

Their performances would steadily improve, but by the close of the tour, Jason’s endurance and enthusiasm were miserably deflated.  He had endured two demoralizing recording sessions to find himself in sudden, dire financial straits.  The promise dangled at Cornerstone 1994 and in early tours seemed distant, mirage-like.  The erstwhile fan was becoming the perennial skeptic.

 

I am going to say something here, and feel free to disagree with me, but I am going to split up the center of and combust if I don’t vent some of this volatility.  And the thing is, Jason will never say this himself – he’s too humble, too polite.  But after paging through hundreds of Starflyer reviews and seeing one single descriptor appear to with the frequency of a smack addict in an indie film, I feel this needs to be declared once and for all: Starflyer 59 do not now, nor have they ever, sounded like My Bloody Valentine.  The description is a lazy one, resulting only in boosted sales of Loveless amongst Starflyer fans too young to have bought the record when it was released in 1991. Though Jason deflects the label with trademark modesty (“We’re not nearly as brilliant as they were”), he admits that by the end of the Americana tour he was beginning to feel a bit pigeonholed.  Having found his work with Gene to be the most beneficial of his career (“Working with him, I knew I never wanted to do my own record again”), Jason contacted the producer to collaborate on its follow-up, a follow-up that would feature the new lineup of Martin, Cloud and Everett.

 

“I felt Americana was the last time we were going to rock,” Jason admits.  “In my head I was thinking, I don’t even know if we’re gonna keep jamming like this.  So before we went in to do The Fashion Focus, I talked to Gene and said I just don’t want this to be the same record [as Americana] at all.  It was kind of reinventing the whole band.”

 

Cloud remembers the conversations that would eventually inform their approach to the album.  “We were on tour, and we were trying to figure out what kind of record the fans would most want to hear.  Finally we just said, this is stupid, let’s just make a record that we would like to buy ourselves.  And if it has no rock and roll, so be it.”

 

Jason turned the entire Starflyer formula inside out for The Fashion Focus, slashing away with broad razor strokes at the thick coating of noise the band had worked for four years to create.  The record would have to announce the transition from the get-go, its first song kicking off with not a guitar, but a keyboard, a sure, bold, and calculated denial of every notion about the band that had been circulating since its inception.  Jason worked closely with Gene, dismantling and reassembling songs, perfecting melodies, knocking down walls within the three-minute mini-masterpieces to allow ample breathing room. The sessions pumped new blood into Jason’s hollow veins, renewing his optimism and his commitment to the band as quickly Gold and Americana had destroyed them.

 

“It was probably the most fun record we’ve ever done, and I was certainly the most excited I’d ever been.”  He glows even still, talking about The Fashion Focus, the songs (those with meaning) were focused instead on aging, grappling with the loss of friendships and yearning for youth.  Jason sounds nostalgic about his adolescence, the days in diners discussing the Charlatans, even the awkward performances at buffets with his older brother.  For the first time since Silver, the musician was, paradoxically, the fan once more.

 

“My brother has this syndrome, too,” Jason explains, “for some reason we both live in the past.  I’m only 27 but I feel like I’m 80.  Three years from now I’ll be looking back on this period like it was the best ever.”

 

In some ways, it was.  Fan reception to The Fashion Focus was the warmest it had been since silver.  Rather than rejecting the bands new, pop-friendly approach, Starflyer’s disciples embraced it as the next logical progression.  The Fashion Focus garnered the band the best reviews of their career, and restored some of the magic that had grown faint and dusky after four years of strain.  Four albums into their career, Starflyer 59 was debuting again.

 

I harbor and nourish a series of apprehensions within my cramped, haunted psyche, but none is bigger than the fear that I will wake up one day, sit at my computer, and the words won’t come.  The thick, damp terror that I will pound my fingers into the keys, that I will pace the floor and tug at hair, but for all my efforts, the screen will remain bare, blank, threatening. That overnight my ability to summon words from the air will leak out of my fingertips, through the floorboards and into the dirt.  When I mention this dread to Jason he laughs riotously. 

 

“Oh, man, I worry about that all the time.  It’s not as easy as it was for me a few years ago, you know?  It’s more work than it used to be for me to come up with an album.”

 

Jason spent the months preparing for Everybody Makes Mistakes dodging the same demons that haunted the Gold sessions:  fear that the follow-up would not surpass the original, worry that his ability to write had become crippled.  But this time, he was not stranded in the studio alone.  His friendship with Gene was growing steadily, the trio of Jason, Gene and Cloud becoming almost inseparable.

But because emotions were running so high after The Fashion Focus, and because Jason feared driving himself into the same rut he had with Gold, the sessions for Everybody Makes Mistakes felt strangely anti-climatic.  “It seemed strangely routine,” Jason admits.  “It was the most routine record we’d ever done.  We started recording it nine months after The Fashion Focus, and at the time it just didn’t seem too special.”  Jason concedes that part of the problem was that, due to the short span of time between the records, Everybody Makes Mistakes became viewed as a sort of partner record to The Fashion Focus, the second half of a double-album coming one year after the fact.  “After it was done, I thought it was great, but I remember in the middle of it the whole thing seemed standard.  I kept saying, Gee, I don’t know, Gene…”.

 

Despite Jason’s reservations, Everybody Makes Mistakes garnered even greater praise than The Fashion Focus.  The band received glowing write-ups in CMJ, Magnet, and Alternative Press, the latter of which blessed the record with a perfect 5 out of 5.

 

By this point, Starflyer had established a pattern of alternating recording with touring, and they wasted no time in embarking upon a cross-country jaunt in support of Mistakes.  Due to prior obligations, Wayne Everett decided not to tour with the band in support of the album.  Jason recruited Joey Esquibel to assume percussion duties.

 

The band was at their peak, reaping the benefits of two brilliantly executed records and enjoying the adulation of the pop music press, even if only within the splinter-size independent market.  Jason’s own enthusiasm about the record swelled in proportion to the accolades it was receiving, and by the end of the tour, he felt decidedly enthused.

 

It was a high that would come to an abrupt, tragic end in mid-March of that year.

“I was in my truck making a delivery,” Jason recalls.  He is speaking slowly now, somber, wrapping words in low sorry sighs.  “I just couldn’t believe it.  I was in my truck and Tim Taber called me.  He said, Jason, Gene is dead.”

 

Gene “Eugene” Andrusco died during the night of March 19th, 1999, at the age of 39.  He had been working in the studio until late in the evening and passed away peacefully in his sleep.

 

Jason’s first reaction was one of disbelief.  “I just couldn’t believe it.  I said to Tim, what are you talking about?  Are you kidding around?  And I didn’t feel anything until that night.  I was standing outside, and it just really hit me hard.  And I broke down.”

 

Jason is fast and furious in his praise of Gene, spilling out coveted memories of afternoons spent at racetracks and inspired lunacy within the studio.  “Man, that guy was so talented.  He was it.  He was the best guy to work with.  When he was laying down keyboard parts, I just let him do what he wanted.”  Coming from a perfectionist as notorious as Jason, this decision to remain laissez-faire is praise of the highest caliber.  “He had a lot of impact on me.  I learned so much just staring at him in the studio.  I was so excited to give him the next batch of songs, and then…” he trails off, and the silence that follows is awkward, painful.  “I don’t know.  It kept making me think, man, I wish I would have hung out with that guy more, or, I wish we would have started the next record sooner, I wish I knew that the last time I talked to him would be…”

 

Silence again.

 

“I think about that guy a lot.”

The thing about being a rock star, besides the privilege of being paid to play guitar, beyond the teeming droves of froth-mouthed followers, is that eventually you get to meet the people you grew up admiring.  Faced with the challenge of filling a producer’s role so adroitly executed by Gene, Jason’s thoughts returned to the records that had monopolized his turntable for so long as a teenager, and placed a nervous phone call to Daniel Amos founder and frontman Terry Scott Taylor.

 

“He was real eager,” Jason says, himself near-to-bursting at the prospect of working with his personal icon.  His words rattle with laughter, spinning off into tangential whirlwinds on potential album titles and packaging concepts.  “This is the most excited I’ve been about a record since The Fashion Focus.  This could be huge.”  As he spills forth endless confidential detail, it becomes clear that the vivacity that he felt as a young man hearing silver for the first time, the zealousness with which he reinvented the Starflyer formula four years later – all of these are returning.

 

Jason Martin is falling in love with music again.

 

I have just finished interviewing Jason for the third consecutive night when I decide to conduct this little experiment.  And it was probably a stupid idea, because it is basically grounded in deceit and double-dealings, and unless certain people have a mammoth sense of humor, I am setting myself up for a kind of artistic defenestration.  But, see, I have been nurturing this sort of hypothesis, and it goes roughly as follows:

 

That Starflyer fans compensate for their small numbers with big guns, and that anyone who raises a finger against any past or present member of the band might as well mock Heston before a gaggle of NRA members.

So this is what I do:

I creep on the the Velvet Blue Music website during what pioneers and puritans used to refer to as The Witching Hour, that pitch-black, graveyard-silent half acre of time sprawling out past the boundary of slumber.  And I am all strung out and delirious on Dark Roast and two clicks past exhausted when I invent a false name for myself (LisaMetChelsea – Glasgewains of the world unite), and post the following curiosity:

 

Did I see someone post on here that there was going to be a starflyer box set??...that seems kind of weird to me, because they’re not really that good…

Exactly five minutes elapse between my post and the first seething retaliation.  Within 24 hours, there are a total of 25 posts, each either dissecting me or defending Starflyer [some of them really kind of cunning and priceless, like: “I know you’re kidding, Lisa-person.  Or you’re on crack.  Hey, do you have a box set? Probably not,” and “If you don’t like them, they are above you,” and my absolute favorite: “Hi all…just a word for ya:  I seriously doubt that LisaMetChelsea has a clue – probably some 12 or 13 year old kid who listens to N-Sync, Spice Girls and such and has nothing better to do than get kicks from poking fun at Starflyer where she knows it will get a rise out of everyone.  LisaMetChelsea – maybe when you get a little more mature (or get a clue) you’ll understand why we all love our beloved Starflyer – until then, stick with what you know, i.e. cute 13 year old guys, giggling, and really bad commercial pop music”].

 

It’s fascinating, scrolling through, these responses, each testifying to the effect Starflyer had on their lives.  And it’s not too hard, really, to find within these posts the shadow of two young boys in Riverside, California, trying to perfect Alter Boys covers as their parents smiled and covered their ears upstairs.  It would be easy to be sarcastic about these Starflyer fanatics, but ultimately cynicism would prove mean-spirited and ill-advised.  Because the simple fact is that the love of music breeds reverence, and that reverence spawns emulation, and all too quickly the tables are turned, the roles are reversed, and adorer becomes adored.  And it’s hard to tell, scrolling through these endless posts, if their veneration is hunched over his desk in 1985, stringing exaltations together on loose-leaf to mail to Daniel Amos.  And sitting here in the past-midnight hush, reading these hymns of the faithful, I can’t help but smile.  Because who knows.  In five years, I may be writing their biography.

 

~Fin~

 

The author wishes to thank: J. Martin, B. Ebel, J. Gockley, C. Keyes

Special thanks to: A. Horton, J. Edwards, N. Perreault, and J. Chiebowski

For allowing me to quote them.

This bio appeared in the Starflyer 59 double disc release "Easy Come, Easy Go"

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...and this tank keeps rolling...