In today’s modern world of music, where computers have replaced both studios and instruments, music of the seventies and eighties seems both quaint and alien. Just as radio stations that played popular music of the fifties and sixties in the seventies and eighties were known as “oldies” music, the circle has come around to once popular artists of the seventies and eighties. Time and history has caught up where a modern cover of a song from 20 years ago can only sound dated if done with too much dedication to the original. Enter Sexton Blake, a pseudonym for Josh Hodges, the man who would go on to found Starfucker (sometimes shortened to STRFKR for politeness’ sake), an odd hybrid of psychedelic rock and new wave that knows how to write a song around a dance beat.
Ahead of the band’s fourth album, Starfucker’s label, the Champaign, IL-based Polyvinyl Records, has just reissued a limited edition vinyl run of Hodges’ second, and most popular, Sexton Blake album. Plays the Hits!covers mid-seventies hits as old and respectable as ELO’s “Evil Woman” and Elton John’s “Daniel” into late eighties horror shows like Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” and Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True.” Though Hodges shows respect to the essence of the music (like the transitional hook into the chorus of Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes”), he incorporates a sonic palette that would become characteristic of Starfucker’s sound. The songs often include the luscious, slurry strum of a processed electric guitar and the soft but terse electro beat of a drum machine.
Released this past Tuesday on 180-gram, gold-colored double vinyl (see picture above) and limited to 1000 copies, this reissuing of Plays the Hits! offers an auspicious re-examination of Starfucker’s origin. The band’s self-titled debut established the Portland, Oregon-based outfit as a catchy, hip indie-pop outfit that gained nationwide popularity after its music’s inclusion in corporate television commercials for businesses like Target and IBM. But Starfucker’s staying power lies in Hodge’s playful but deep lyrical content. Often incorporating samples from the lectures of British philosopher Alan Watts, Hodges’ lyrics have an existential resonance as he often explores themes of life and death.
My conversation with various members of the band last year led to a popular profile on this blog spread across two parts (Exclusive interview with Starfucker [Part 1 of 2]: Philosophy and rock ‘n’ roll). Even in that expansive feature piece I was unable to cover everything we talked about, and that included Starfucker’s formative years as Sexton Blake. The setting was sometime just before midnight, in an alley behind an Orlando, Florida bar called the BackBooth. Starfucker had finished its set (read my re-cap of that night’s show) and everyone had more than a few beers in them.
In 2007, just before he recorded Plays the Hits!, Hodges was trying to survive in New York City as an underground parking valet while recording music. He said, though those years were tough he had not regrets. “It was amazing,” Hodges remembers of his time in the Big Apple. “It was the only thing I wanted to do. There’s nothing else I could have done with my life then. I went there to fuckin’ struggle and I did, but it was good.”
He arrived in New York from a small town in Michigan, around 2004. “There’s nothing going on,” he recalls of the small town he left. “We were in the middle of nowhere.” While in New York, Hodges produced and recorded his own solo record as Sexton Blake called Explosive Motion Picture Score. “It’s not that good,” he admits of the album.
It seemed someone liked it enough to not only release it, but start a whole indie label by releasing it. Expunged Records remains active to this day. Explosive Motion Picture Score marked Hodges’ debut as Sexton Blake. Though the album went nowhere, the label’s founder, Anthony McNamer, had an idea to get Hodges back into the studio. “I was working at a parking lot downtown,” recalls Hodges, “and he was like, ‘Hey, man, what if I give you like a thousand bucks to record all these eighties songs that I like,’ and I was like, ‘Well, that’s better than taking people’s money to park their car or whatever.’”
He says McNamer gave him a long list of songs to cover, and he picked and chose what he wanted to re-envision. As a 32-year-old now, Hodges admits the music predates his cognizance as an aspiring musician. “I didn’t grow up on that stuff … but kind of. My mom kind of used to work out to ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’” he says referring to a song Starfucker would cover on its second album, Jupiter.
In retrospect, Hodges actually holds a pretty harsh view on the original versions of the songs he covered for Plays the Hits!. “All those songs kind of suck, in my opinion,” he says, “like the music does, and so I’m trying to make something listenable out of it.” But maybe it’s the beer talking. He says he has a soft spot for Supertramp’s “the Logical Song,” admitting: “That’s actually my favorite song on the album. I mean the lyrics are amazing. It’s a really great song, but the way that they perform it is just kind of cheesy.” For its version on Plays the Hits!, Hodges removes all the quirks of the song like the song’s pulsing organ, castanets, hand claps, flourishes of bombastic electric guitar and, of course, the sax solo. Instead, he slows the tempo down and plays the melody on a solitary acoustic guitar in a somber, almost tired voice, which helps to highlight the lyrics. There is one break in the song to allow for a quiet, sparse piano solo, which is soon joined by the acoustic guitar for a minimalist union of density for the chorus before the song comes to sudden flourish and end.
But as he strips back “the Logical Song,” he knows where to fill in the gaps in other songs. Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” and the Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” are dense affairs that beef up the airy, dinky synth-based quality of the original pop songs. “Rush Rush” starts with the persistent plucking of a single note on a guitar and ends in a wash of screaming cymbals. “Life in a Northern Town” dives deeper into noise. He almost imperceptibly mumbles its famous jubilant chorus of “Ah hey ma ma ma/Ah hey ma ma ma hey,” and coats it with a layered, chaotic guitar solo mostly composed of feedback that still grooves along inventively, recalling middle-period Yo La Tengo. It offers a brilliant, haunting moment rarely even heard in later Starfucker music.
Sexton Blake would carry on as a live act in the Portland area for several performances, as Expunged Records was based there. He arrived with a musician friend of a friend who would later continue working with Hodges in Starfucker: keyboardist Ryan Biornstad. What began as a visit to support Sexton Blake’s releases on the label with live shows turned into something more permanent, and they just decided to stay there. “We were like, let’s stay in Portland and put a band together,” Hodges said. “Portland is a really good place to be a new band because it’s real easy to get written up. Even if you suck, you can get written up in the local media.”
As Hodges gradually came up with new tunes, the band, which also featured Tom Homolya on bass and Tim Edgar on drums (according to Wikipedia), morphed into something else. Biornstad, who was part of Starfucker during this interview*, says, “It all just progressed naturally on its own. It just grew into its own thing, and it just wasn’t happening anymore, so Sexton Blake died. We played like 14 last shows ever.”
Hodges laughs. “Yeah, we dragged it out for a while.” The band would never exist beyond a string of shows in the Northwestern part of the United States. Though Sexton Blake seems a footnote in the evolving legacy of Starfucker, it did release a noteworthy album in Plays the Hits!. It’s a welcome release finally on vinyl LP by Polyvinyl Records.
Finally, seems the next generation is already covering Starfucker. Here’s The School of Rock performing “Florida:”
*Biornstad would depart the band after the tour where I met him as part of Starfucker. He reportedly announced plans for a solo record, but that has yet to materialize. He also continues to be a wanted man by Austin City Police. It all stems from an incident well-documented in the second part of my Starfucker story (Indie Ethos exclusive [Part 2 of 2]: From rough start to triumphant tour, Starfucker head home). A recent email to Austin’s community court revealed Biornstad has an active Failure to Appear Warrant after he allegedly skipped his court date in May of 2011.
At the time of publication of this post, Starfucker have only about a week left in its nearly two-month-long US tour (purchase tickets through this link or scroll to the bottom of this post to see the remaining dates). In recent days, Starfucker has posted news of one sold out date after another (they are going on 19, at this point), plus details about a growing overseas tour and additions to giant music festivals on their popular Facebook page.
For a band with a name too naughty for radio and most commercial publications, this group with neo-psychedelic space rock leanings and a taste for dance music, has done all right for itself. Though the band still might be sitting in the shadows of a pair of groups they are often compared with: MGMT (read my lengthy review of MGMT’s last album) and Passion Pit, they seem to be signaling their own breakthrough without major TV appearances (pesky dirty name).
During the early part of their tour, while visiting Orlando, Florida, all five band members indulged in a little chat about their music and their experience so far. The gang from Portland, Oregon talked about specifics in their lyrics to their genre stylings to how this tour had so far treated them.
When I met them after a performance at the BackBooth (read my re-cap of that night’s show), much drama had already unfolded after one of the members’ arrest at SXSW, among other things, details of which I shall save for part 2 of this story. But, first thing is first, what musical stylings define Starfucker?
“We’re apparently following-in-the-footsteps-of-Passion-Pit-vein,” said Josh Hodges, the band’s songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist, with a laugh. “Even though we’ve been around longer than them.”
Hodges, wearing horn-rimmed glasses from out of the fifties, and the other four members of Starfucker stood around in an open-air alleyway that served as a cross section of back doors to several bars in Downtown Orlando, as music like Jay Sean’s “Down” blared out of a nearby club.
“Well, people have said it’s ‘future pop,’” said bassist Shawn Glassford, and they all laughed.
As for the MGMT reference, Ryan Biornstad (guitar, keyboard, vocals, turntables) said, “We didn’t follow after MGMT cause we were around at the same time. They blew up before we did. We’ve never blown up; that’s the thing.”
The group, which also includes Keil Corcoran on drums and guitarist Ian Luxton, does show a sense of frustration with it all. Though they stare into the dark abyss of possibilities with a smile and a laugh, they remain weighted by a name that seems an obstacle to further success. During research on the band, I learned Hodges chose the name Starfucker to purify inclinations to create music chasing after notoriety with other projects that never came close to the popular fruition Starfucker has so far achieved. His motivations for creating Starfucker came from a pure place of art, as no one could market a band named Starfucker in the puritanical US, he had no pressure to create music aiming for popularity.
The problem was the music that resulted was so catchy it even made it to mainstream TV via commercials for products like Target and IBM. “It was totally luck,” Hodges said about his music’s appearance in some popular TV ads. “The ad agency that made the Target commercial is in Portland, and then, Badman [Records], the label who put out the first album, somehow organized the ‘Holly’ song being in the IBM commercial, so I had nothing to do with it.”
The songs featured were pulled from the band’s 2008 self-titled debut, recently reissued on vinyl (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon.com). IBM used the mid-tempo and wistful track “Holly” while, according to Hodges, a friend working at the advertising agency hired by Target, suggested the bouncy “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second” for its ad.
The exposure in television not only saw the band earning royalties from airplay that never needed to identify the band by name, it also upgraded its exposure, and Starfucker soon moved on to a larger indie label, leaving Badman for Polyvinyl Records. At the end of March, Polyvinyl pressed the band’s second album, Reptilians (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon.com), which the band is currently supporting with this tour.
With Reptilians, Starfucker has certainly shown it has grown since its first album and an intermediate 8-song mini-album in 2009, entitled Jupiter (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon.com). “Our previous album was very electro poppy, kind of like light and fun,” noted Biornstad, “and the truth is, it’s like been a few years since our first album, and we’re at a point now where we’re getting older and touring a lot, and we’re staying true to what we feel is our sound, and it’s growing, and it’s evolving, and we’re not interested in making an album that’s just like the first one. We’re making it as an evolution.”
With the first album, Starfucker gazed up at the heavens and offered a grounded, but dreamy, view from below. But with this recent release, the band sounds like it has floated up to exist among the stars. Take the back-to-back moment of “Bury Us Alive” and “Mystery Cloud.” “Bury Us” 0pens with a twinkling electronic sample and zipping sounds that could have easily been lifted from a cheesy science fiction flick. On the chorus, Hodges sings in hushed, breathy tones as the song bursts with harmonizing electronics that buzz and screech only to melt away to the twinkles that opened the song. As the song fades away with the noises tightening around each other and drifting apart, the pace picks up with “Mystery Cloud.” With Hodges’ singing mixed even lower, decorated with echoing effects, he references desires to be a spaceman, as the drums pummel along and the synthesizers layer up from whining peels of noise to Moog-like burbles.
According to Polyvinyl’s bio on the band, Hodges wrote almost all of Reptilians by himself, just as he did the two earlier releases by Starfucker (save for the cover songs on Jupiter, of course). Whereas Hodges, Biornstad and Glassford all contributed drum work on the first album, Corcoran, who joined the band in 2008, took that primary duty in the studio for Jupiter and Reptilians. Luxton only recently joined the band as an extra guitarist for the band’s current tour, but has yet to record with the band, which is now focused on the touring and promotion cycle, which will soon see them on stages overseas in Europe, Canada and Mexico.
Polyvinyl made an exclusive variant of the album on clear vinyl limited to only 700, which sold out very soon after its release, at the end of March. The label is currently offering “Bury Us Alive” as a free download, to entice potential buyers. Polyvinyl already offered the band’s first single totally free for a limited time, the spacey “Julius,” reviewed in this blog last year, after it was released as a 7-inch single (The song is currently in the works of getting the music video treatment, according to Glassford).
Though I go into the single’s merits in depth in that aforementioned posting from October 2010 (the first and so far only 7-inch I felt inclined to review on this blog), here was my chance to settle a doubt I had about the lyric, as the new album features no lyrics on the jacket or inner sleeve. As a matter of fact, the LP record includes a poster of the album art formatted to look like a blank coloring book page, offering some insight into the band’s aesthetic sensibility inviting interpretations from fans. “It’s a mystery,” said Biornstad with a sly smile. “Mystery’s important.”
On “Julius,” Hodges’ voice is so affected by reverb, it makes it hard to tell if he sang, “Picture your body/Hearing your voice/Fall into your eyes” and not “Fall into your arms,” as it might have more rationally sounded to many fans. “That’s what a lot of people think it is. It’s ‘Fall into your eyes,’” said Hodges. “I actually wrote the lyrics to that song on our Facebook page because people kept getting it wrong.”
Hodges’ assurance that the lyric is indeed “Fall into your eyes,” is more than an artistic validation but also validates the philosophy that informs the album. In my review of the single, the lyric brought to mind the image of a lover conjured up by the mind’s eye that in turn sucks the dreamer back in, in an ever evolving loop. Sure, it makes for a surreal— and maybe unreal— image, but it also comes from a metaphysical place. It’s an interpretation that not only compliments the layers of noise and melody that wrestle with each other over the course of the song but also the album’s theme. Hodges offers his inspiration behind the track: “It’s about my grandfather waiting to die after my grandmother died,” he said. “He’s still around. There’s like all these old pictures of them at their wedding and stuff at their house. That’s the whole thing about looking at a picture.”
As an album obsessed with death, following Hodge’s grandmother’s passing, Reptilians is incredibly light for an album exploring such dark subject matter, but that maybe because Hodges has a clear handle of the roll death plays in life. Cementing the theme beyond Hodges’ sometimes obtuse and surreal lyrics, are the words of British philosopherAlan Watts. His lectures are excerpted at various moments within several songs. In the particular choices Hodges made for this album, Watts’ statements describe death as an integral part of life. “Mystery Cloud” ends as the song unwinds from a noisy clash of synths to a throbbing burble with Watts talking about that entwined cycle of life and death:
“We all just love him,” said Hodges about Watts. “For me just Eastern, and specifically Buddhist, philosophy is just very much influenced and changed my life, and Alan Watts is one of the most colorful and articulate speakers on the subject and one of the first people to bring it to the West, and in a cool way. He has such a playful way of talking about that stuff.”
Hodges said the band often listens to Watts’ lectures on the road and credits Bionstad for bringing Watts into his life. “It’s really inspiring,” Biornstad added. “Plus, I would say the way Eastern culture’s evolved in western culture is a lot of people have become extremely dogmatic about it, but I think Alan Watts is amazing because I think he was the forefather of bringing Eastern philosophy into the West, but he didn’t try to make it dogmatic … He got to the core of it, and he was like, you know what? You can apply this to any part of your life.”
Watts, who died in 1973, could almost be considered the band’s phantom member. His voice not only appears in several songs on Reptilians, he has appeared on all of Starfucker’s prior albums. The band’s debut album opens with “Florida,” a song Hodges insisted has nothing to do with the US state his band was visiting during this interview (“It doesn’t have anything to do with the state. It’s just a nice word”). Appropriate to the conversation about this seemingly randomly titled song is what Watts says at the end of the track:
This world is a great wiggle-effect. The clouds are wiggling. The waters are wiggling. The clouds are wiggling, bouncing. People— but people are always trying to straighten things out. You see, we live in a rectangular box, all the time; everything is straightened out. Wherever you look around in nature you find things often straightened out. They’re always trying to put things in boxes. Those boxes are classified. Words are made from some boxes. But the real world is wiggly. Now when you have a wiggle like a cloud, how much wiggle is a wiggle? Well, you have to draw the line somewhere, so people come to sorts of agreements about how much of a wiggle is a wiggle; that is to say a “thing.” One wiggle. Always reduce one wiggle to sub wiggles, or see it as a subordinate wiggle of a bigger wiggle, but there’s no fixed rule about it.
But do not confuse Starfucker as taking itself too seriously. The band does dress in drag upon occasion, after all. Also, Hodges’ lyrics do seem to start from very concrete sources of inspirations. When asked to explain “German Love,” to a part German, such as myself, he comes clean. “There was this girl that I was obsessed with, and that’s just how it goes,” Hodges said, at first.
“I’ll tell you the real story,” offered Biornstad, lighting up at the opportunity. “This is what really happened: Josh was super into this girl, and she was German. She was living in the United States, and he started dating her, and they were just hanging out for a couple of weeks, and he was really into her, and she was kind of not… She was into him at first, but then, with the touring and all that stuff, she kind of started getting some distance, so he got a little insecure, a little bit obsessed— sorry, no offense,” he added, looking over to Hodges.
“No, it’s OK,” Hodges accepted.
“But he got a little bit obsessed … She kinda didn’t want to be hanging out with him anymore, and so anyway, it was kind of like a Say Anything moment when he was going to her house late at night and playing songs for her, and he wrote ‘German Love,’ and he played it in the speakers for her and bringing her flowers and stuff, and she didn’t want anything to have to do with it, and he actually ended up with a restraining order against himself for this woman.”
Asked whether there was truth to this story, including the restraining order, Hodges admitted, “Yeah, actually I’m not supposed to be telling anybody about this, but we’re both kind of drunk, I guess,” Hodges added, excusing himself and Biornstad.
“Long story short, everything worked out fine,” Biornstad summed up.
“It’s fine, we’re friends kind of,” Hodges said of this German girl.
“She was a little bit sensitive to the whole thing,” added Biornstad. “What he was doing was actually kind of romantic, and she was just not getting it.”
“She was definitely not feeling it,” added Hodges, “but, you know what? There’s like so many different girls out there.”
Well, at least Hodges never went to jail over it. However, under very different circumstances, Biornstad did wind up behind bars, on this very tour. He and the arresting police department offer their stories in the second part of this artist profile. Update: Here is a third post on the pre-Starfucker, Sexton Blake years: Starfucker frontman recalls early years as Sexton Blake (an Indie Ethos exclusive)
In the meantime, here are the remaining dates on Starfucker’s current US tour:
04/19/11 Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
04/19/11 Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
04/20/11 Boise, ID @ Neurolux
04/22/11 Vancouver, Canada @ Biltmore Cabaret
04/23/11 Seattle, WA @ The Vera Project
04/26/11 Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile Cafe
04/28/11 Portland, OR @ Holocene
04/29/11 Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
04/30/11 Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios