April 22, 2011
Continuing on from my last post regarding Portland’s Starfucker, I would be remiss not to discuss the start of the band’s tour, when much drama unfolded after police placed one of its members behind bars. As the end of the longest tour of its career looms (purchase tickets through this link or see the remaining dates at the end of this post), the start of Starfucker’s road trip across the US, did not come without eventful hiccups.
In recent days, the band has posted playful images and videos from the road on their Facebook page. Sure, this indie rock band with origins in space rock and a danceable beat seems to be doing all right. But when I met the quintet in Orlando, Florida, back on March 26, when their tour had barely begun, some members of Starfucker sure could not wait to get back to their hometown of Portland, Oregon. If any one member of the group had a right to feel melancholy, it was Ryan Biornstad (guitar, keyboard, vocals, turntables). The clock had just passed midnight, and he was celebrating his 31st birthday away from his family. He also still seemed haunted by his arrest in Austin, Texas during the SXSW music festival.
Following their debut performance in Orlando, He and the other members of Starfucker stood around in an open-air alleyway in back of several downtown bars, as party music fought for sound wave space in the background. On this warm night that served as a prelude to the many hot days and nights Florida often experiences approaching the state’s seven-month-long summer, Josh Hodges, the main songwriter and multi-instrumentalist behind Starfucker, noted the weather the band was missing out on in Portland. “I miss it, but I’m really happy to be here right now,” he said. “It’s really weird for me. It’s warm [here], but it’s probably 40 degrees and raining in Portland right now.”
Biornstad, his face still smudged with lipstick and bright rouge from his stage appearance, also admitted he was missing Portland. “Very much. I broke down crying last night,” he confessed.
Standing next to him, Hodges could not help but laugh. “Really?” he asked.
“I was,” said Biornstad with sincerity, though he is all smiles and energy, still buzzed from the band’s current conquest of the Orlando crowd … and maybe some beer. “It’s hard being away from them,” Biornstad added about his children and fiancée.
“It’s the most pretty family you have ever seen,” commented Hodges. “Like, all of them, it’s crazy, and they’re good. They’re a good family.”
Though many shows on Starfucker’s tour at that point had so far sold out, none of the band’s three stops in Florida did. However, tonight’s show at the BackBooth gave them a boost of optimism (read a re-cap of the night’s show here). The venue was still packed with a crowd who gave back as much energy as Starfucker threw at them. Toward the end of Starfucker’s set, Biornstad tested the audience’s affection by leaning off the stage to be pushed back up by outstretched arms. At one point, he dove on top of them to crowd surf. See the video captured by Ares27th below showing Biornstad stage diving:
“Tonight was fun,” Hodges said.
“It was great, yeah,” added Biornstad.
“Orlando kind of surprised us all, I think,” Hodges continued. “We played in Tampa last night. It was awful, but it was also kind of interesting,” he added politely. When asked to explain “interesting,” he admitted: “It was just like pretty much a cover band kind of scene.”
Orlando marked the deepest south the band had toured in its career, and after starting off with four sold-out shows in California, the tour took a turn south in another sense, fraught with difficulties that probably hit its lowest point when police arrested Biornstad in Austin, Texas right before Starfucker’s first night of showcases at the SXSW music festival.
Via Twitter, , the band broke the news to followers: “Ryan just got arrested… WTF FUCK THE POLICE… Our show at 6 is canceled…“
Most likely, Shawn Glassford (bass, keyboards, drums) sent that Tweet out. He said he was with Ryan unloading the band’s van for a show when an Austin Police officer approached them. “I was the main witness, actually,” Glassford said. “It was the most bizarre cop interaction I have ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen a lot of them, and that was just like, what the fuck is happening? This just makes no sense.”
Biornstad must have that evening burned hard in his consciousness. He offered a breathless replay of the night: “We were unloading the van, Shawn and I, and this cop came up and said I had to get off the street, and I told him I was unloading the van for a show, and he still insisted I had to get off the street. Shawn handed me some equipment, and I was like, ‘I have to get off the street, fine, but I have some equipment to unload,’ and he blocked the way for me to get off the street, and then he decided he was going to write me a ticket. We go to the sidewalk, I hand him my ID, and I’m like, ‘Fine, give me a ticket,’ and this other psycho cop ran up on me, and he’s like, ‘You’re under arrest!’ and he turned me around, and he pushed me up against the wall, and he put me in handcuffs, and they put me in jail.”
City of Austin Police Corporal Anthony Hipolito, a spokesperson for the department, responded via email to several questions. “[Biornstad] was standing in a lane of traffic in the 700 block E 7th St.,” he explained. “He was not cooperative with police, and did not comply with anything they were asking.”
Hipolito said police booked him on two charges: “pedestrian on the roadway and resisting arrest.”
Biornstad called the first charge “retarded” and the second “bullshit.” He said, “I did not resist arrest. They never told me I was under arrest. They never read me my rights… They didn’t say anything. They ran up on me and put me in jail. If they had said, ‘You’re under arrest, put your hands behind your back,’ I would have done so. They didn’t say anything of the sort. They just turned me around, fuckin’ cuffed me and put me in the car.”
When asked whether the arresting officer read Biornstad his Miranda rights, Hipolito stated, “I do not have any evidence of his rights being read. You will have to get with the Judge who set his bail.”
After a couple of emails were sent to Austin’s, I was redirected to Downtown Austin Community Court. Chief Prosecutor Bianca Bentzin responded by email to say she will examine the court file to see what information the APD have provided on the incident as far as whether Biornstad’s Miranda Rights were read to him during his arrest. She stated she will have a response within a week. The spokesperson for the APD did note, however, that the confrontation was non-violent. “No one was injured,” Hipolito stated.
Finally, one concertgoer posted an account by a bouncer on YouTube after he noticed the signs outside the venue declaring: “Starfucker has had to cancel. Sorry. Fuck the police”:
Starfucker would not perform its scheduled shows for that night. “We missed two because of it,” Glassford noted.
“I was in jail for 10 hours in prison stripes,” Biornstad said, adding that he found some way to wile away the hours behind bars. “I worked out a little bit … I was in jail, fuck it. I did some push-ups, did some sit-ups, slept a little bit, and then they let me out at 4 in the morning.”
The band, in the meantime, had appeared at their scheduled venues to watch other groups perform and do— what else— some networking. “These guys represented,” Biornstad noted. “They went to the shows we were supposed to play at, and fuckin’ got everybody hyped up, and they met some people, and they met a lawyer that got me out of jail because everybody knew it was bullshit.”
With Biornstad out of jail, Starfucker went on to play two shows at SXSW. Here’s the band at one of those gigs playing “Rawnald Gregory Erickson The Second” (which happens to be the song featured on the Target ad mentioned in Part 1 of this piece):
Though Biornstad’s jail stint proved the band’s greatest challenge, the omen of bad things to come first crept up on Starfucker as the band headed out of California. On March 12, the band posted this message on their Facebook page:
OMFG our trailer just fell off the van. Holy Fucking Shit that was scary… Thankfully we had emergency chains, or else we would have just either lost all our gear or killed someone… Whoa! Crazy shit…
To top it off, on their way out of Austin, the band suffered a second problem with their transportation and had to get the van towed to its next gig. “All 6 of us in a tow truck with our van and trailer getting pulled behind!!! Crazy shit right now… Houston, here we come!!!” read the Facebook update posted on their way to Houston on March 20, Sunday night, at 10:54 p.m.
But since then, things seem positive from there on out: “Thanks to everyone in Houston last night! We’re so happy we made it (even if it was via tow truck) … Hopefully our curse is lifted…” read the band’s post on Facebook, the day after the show.
Soon after, someone in Starfucker would note the new album’s appearance on the CMJ Charts at number 11 thanks to college radio airplay. The last bit of exposure gained for Starfucker was when their name appeared on the latest creation by gourmet coffee company Intelligentsia. You can buy a 16 oz. bag of the STRFKR blend via Polyvinyl’s website.
The band is now very close to a triumphant return home for a series of intimate shows in their hometown of Portland. All of the group’s members hail from the Northwestern city, which has its own unique metropolitan quirks. During the interview, I had to ask the members of Starfucker what they thought of the IFC-produced sketch comedy Portlandia, a show that parodies the lifestyle of those living in Portland. It features comedian Fred Armisen, most famous for his work on Saturday Night Live, and Carrie Brownstein, probably best known as a founding member of nineties riot grrrl group Sleater-Kinney. She is now an active member of Wild Flag, a new band based in Portland that has been around for just under a year. As Wild Flag is part of the same music scene as Starfucker, the members of Starfucker know her particularly well. “Ryan and I have played foosball with Carrie,” Hodges said.
“Yeah, I know Carrie pretty well,” added Biornstad. “She’s been living in Portland for 10 years.”
Biornstad and Hodges agree that “Portlandia” has its witty moments, and, they said, it even paints a pretty accurate picture of life in Portland, but when it comes to the Armisen-lead music video that declares “the dream of the nineties is alive in Portland,” the pair beg to differ.
“I feel like Seattle is stuck in the nineties,” Biornstad said. “Portland is very much more forward-thinking than the nineties, I think. But I can see some value into their humor for sure. Carrie is awesome. Fred’s awesome. I hung out with him for a little too. He’s rad. He’s a really nice, kind of shy guy.”
Asked if the band would ever entertain an appearance on the show, Biornstad said, “I’ve been talking to Carrie about it, and I think, at some point, what I’d like to do is kind of like a spoof on the Portland music, hipster scene and make fun of ourselves, make fun of Starfucker a little bit.”
Biornstad better watch what he says about Seattle, though, as the band stops there for a few days before their finale in Portland. Here are Starfucker’s last up-coming tour dates:
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
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