Q&A with Shawn Christensen of Stellastarr*
Stellastarr* (due at the Larimer Lounge with Transfer and Le Divorce on Wednesday, December 9) emerged onto the national music scene at the turn of this past decade in the musical milieu that gave us fellow New York acts like The Strokes, The Rapture and Interpol. While clearly influenced by the downcast atmospheres of early post-punk, the band's songs have always been informed by an energetic pop aesthetic that makes even its most overtly gloomy material glimmer with warmth and hope. If anything, Stellastarr* writes catchy pop songs with an unabashed flair and confounds many of its critics by not trying to fit the preconceived mold of what an underground band from New York City should be. While earlier albums were criticized for being somewhat derivative, Civilized, Stellastarr* most recent album, finds the band not only aiming to have fun with the songwriting but writing its strongest set of material to date. We recently had a chance to talk with frontman Shawn Christensen about the new album, the process of his various creative endeavors and how having lived life and experienced rejection is key to staying grounded.
Westword (Tom Murphy): Why did you call your latest album Civilized?
Shawn Christensen: We had a song called "Civilized." We didn't put it on the record, but we liked the name, and we also had that artwork that Amanda Tannen had done already. We demoed the song -- I don't know why we didn't include it. We just liked other songs better. I guess the title suits the album in kind of an ironic way. A lot of the record is sort of faster and more aggressive than our previous releases, and a lot of the lyrics are about being uncivil so it works in that context.
WW: You bio says that with this latest effort you were able to write the songs the way you wanted to. Did you feel constraints or pressures from your old record label in putting out your previous two albums?
SC: The first record we recorded before we signed to RCA. On the second record, we didn't feel any pressure from the label, except for in terms of time constraints. We wrote that record in four months, whereas the first record, we wrote over a period of two years. So we didn't get a lot of pressure from the label in that respect. Our issue with the label was in terms of how they released that second record. The third record, because we didn't have a deadline or any pressure, we sort of took our time. We should have maybe given ourselves benchmarks, but in the end, most of the material came out later, because it took us a while to figure out what we wanted to do.
WW: The song "Graffiti Eyes" has a really breezy and playful feel like a '50s pop song or something by one of those new wave rock bands like The Cars. Can you tell me a little bit about that song?
SC: That song kind of came together in the rehearsal space, as opposed to someone bringing in a riff to work on. Mandy was just playing that beginning bass line, and then I just starting singing over it, and I wrote what I thought would be an apt chorus to it. It came together in the middle of all these other songs we were writing.
WW: How would you characterize your lyrical content for this album as opposed to your lyrical approach on previous releases?
SC: On the first record, I wrote about the past -- my childhood or my teen years. On Harmonies for the Haunted, I started writing about the present day. I started developing this system of having each verse in each song be about a different subject, a different story and a different time of my life. For example, on "On My Own," each verse is coming from a different person's perspective to different situations. On the current record, I wanted to make the lyrics more about -- as with "Numbers" -- losing our human aspect due to technological enhancements. That's sort of been done before, but it kind of came into a lot of the lyrics on this record for me.
When people do write songs about inhuman things, most of the time, they use inhuman techniques -- auto tune, robotic or electronic or trance or techno music. But here it's more rock music with the same context.
WW: I don't mean to suggest that your other albums aren't excellent, but it sounds to me as though this album was more enjoyable for you to make than the others. How did you all decide to come together to write the album the way you did, and how would you say it affected your songwriting?
SC: It took longer to write this record, as we were going through changes behind the scenes. We made a conscious decision to write a fun record, but it took us a long time to do it, because we were starting the record label, and I was having throat problems for a while. We got through that stuff, and we just wanted to make a record we knew would be fun to play out. You know, it was the most fun to record. We came to Tim O'Heir, who recorded our first album, and we recorded a lot of it in our rehearsal space. It was more fun, in that respect, and it's a lot more fun to play the songs live.
WW: You're a painter and a screenwriter. Can you tell me how your creative process for all of that is similar to your process in writing music and how they're different?
SC: As a painter, it's similar in that you use measures of negative space and positive space. As a painter, I tend to do very sloppy and unorganized paintings, where my problem comes in not knowing when it's finished or trying to finish it before I overwork it. That's directly in tandem with music. Sometimes songs can get too polished or too overdone and lose that glisten and the spark that you had when you first were writing them. So those two are definitely linked.
As far as screenwriting is concerned, it's words. I write all the lyrics in Stellastarr*, and I write screenplays, so the attraction there is that I like words. When I write a screenplay, I really am truly at home when I'm writing the dialogue. Writing three pages of action is boring to me, and I want to get back to the dialogue.
WW: Would you say your screenplays are character-driven?
SC: They are definitely character driven. No matter the genre for me, it's characters first. Again that's because I like to write dialogues, and I like the way people can interact with other people and have different phraseology.
WW: What music inspired you to play music in the first place, and can you tell me about how you got into doing music that is a bit out of the mainstream?
SC: I was more inspired more by folk stuff like Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel -- a lot of that '60s music. I started learning to play an acoustic guitar in college. Then I got into the Pixies -- they became one of my favorite bands. When I switched to electric guitar, I started to listen to all kinds of underground bands. That's where I come from, and I would say that that's where my bandmates come from as well.
WW: Had you played in the underground scene in New York?
SC: We did. We played in the East Village and Brooklyn when we were starting out. I got exposed to that world because of the indie rock dance clubs in the Village, the lower east Side, lower west side. We would go out to those places and there would be bands that would open up before the music with the DJs started. We formed a band, and we were in that scene, and we would get gigs in those places. We played this night called Tiswas and clubs like Mercury Lounge, CBGB, Luna Lounge -- you saw a lot of the same people at those club nights.
WW: Certainly you have other options than the fickle world of music. What keeps you coming back to doing that?
SC: Well, I like writing songs and playing shows. When you have fans who write and tell you how much a song means to them, it's a very special thing. So it's hard to walk away from that stuff. But I also have a very even balance of doing my writing and being in the band at the same time. There's not a lot to do on tour besides setting up your equipment and sound checking. You have a lot of downtime.
WW: You've had a great deal of success of various kinds with your band over the course of the last decade, including world tours and critical acclaim: How do you keep things in perspective?
SC: I would say that we've blown up to the degree that we wouldn't have perspective. We've been successful on a small level, I would say. Sometimes it becomes humbling when you release a record and a certain country doesn't want to release it and that sort of thing. I don't think we're big enough stars to have that problem. But if we did blow up on a large scale, it's always important that, when that happens, that you're already an adult. When you're fifteen or younger and you become a megastar, it's very hard to keep perspective on anything. You haven't really experienced life yet. When we formed our band we were twenty-one years old, and when we signed to RCA we were 24, so I think we'd already experienced tons of rejection before we signed with a label.
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