On hearing "Wrongtime", the Cure-influenced first single from Starflyer 59's new album SLOW, listeners might be inclined to believe that songwriter Jason Martin is a Stanley Kubrick fan - the line "I love you.../Wrongtime" seems to twist an iconic line from Full Metal Jacket. But when asked about it, he says he's never seen the movie: "That was very unintentional."
With thirteen albums under its belt already, Starflyer has had a number of distinct epochs. But since becoming a studio-only project about ten years ago (touring became unfeasible with the demands of raising three kids and full-time management of his trucking company in Riverside, California), Martin has forged a unique style of dense, glassy indie rock. SLOW continues to evolve the sound slightly, with New Order-esque, synth-tinged post-punk as the dominant aesthetic; it's a record is as sleek, dark, and enigmatic as those monoliths in another Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Spirit You All spoke to Martin over the phone about returning to his home label Tooth & Nail, his new project Lo-Tom (a collaboration with Starflyer and former Pedro the Lion members), and what keeps him making music after all these years:
Spirit You All: Tooth & Nail has put out everything of yours apart from 2013's IAMACEO, which you self-released after your contract was finished. Now for SLOW, you're back on Tooth & Nail. Was it a surprise how difficult it is to release a record without the infrastructure of a label?
JM: Yeah, it was a lot more than I'd ever done before. I mean, it was fine, but you work on the things for a long time and after that, you've got to set up somebody to print them up, and somebody to ship them out. You know, try to advertise a little bit here and there... I just like making the records, I don't want to sell them when they're done. So it was a bit more than I intended to bite off.
Spirit You All: There are so few obvious references to your faith on most Starflyer releases that most people could listen to your music and have no idea you are a Christian. Yet because you're on an explicitly Christian label, every secular outlet that covers you makes prominent mention of your faith. Have you ever considered how your career might have been different had Starflyer been on a secular label?
JM: I used to think about that stuff a long time ago, but I just kind of think it is what it is. I don't even know if we would still be going if we were on a secular label. The fanbase that we got in the mid-90s, they're still pretty loyal, and some of them are still actually supporting the new stuff. I can't really complain, I think we've got a really loyal base still left, and I don't know if that would have happened if we were just on some label that would have dropped us after three records and we stopped selling that much. We might not still be doing it if we weren't in the Christian market, to be honest. I had no intention in '94 that we'd be putting out a record in 2016, so that's pretty awesome.
Spirit You All: When [label head] Brandon Ebel signed you back in 1993, was the fact that Tooth & Nail was a Christian label pivotal, or only incidental to you?
JM: Oh, it was incidental. I think he was the first guy who heard our demo, and he wanted to put it out. I'm a pretty simple guy, so that sounded good to me, and that was it.
Spirit You All: Will you ever release music with your side project Bon Voyage [with wife Julie Martin] again? Presumably you still see your main bandmate fairly often.
JM: Yes, I see her very often. [laughs] I doubt it. I mean, we've got three kids. Heck, I barely have enough time to get Starflyer out, you know, I'm kind of a weekend warrior these days. So most likely I would say no.
Spirit You All: At the beginning, Starflyer's lyrics were opaque and rather loose - they weren't an afterthought, but they weren't quite in the spotlight. But there's been an evolution in your songwriting, and beginning somewhere around Dial M, your lyrics have acquired a narrative element, as well as becoming more conceptually dense. How do you explain that shift, and has it been intentional?
JM: I don't know how to explain that shift. It wasn't intentional. I think it's just getting a little bit older, perspective on stuff changes a little bit, and just writing songs for 20 years.. I didn't really know they did change, but I can see how that makes sense.
Spirit You All: The second disc of 2000's Easy Come Easy Go box set collected live snippets, leftovers, and rarities. Have you considered a similar release to collect some of those post-2000 rarities?
JM: I don't know, to be honest we haven't played enough. I mean, we stopped playing live shows officially - man, I think it's been almost ten years now, so there really wouldn't be a lot to grab from. And even the touring after that - I think after maybe '04, we didn't really tour that much, so I don't have audio of a lot of that stuff. Back in the earlier days, there was always someone sending us mixes off the board, it was before everybody had the phones and all that stuff, so there's a lot of access to that kind of material I just don't have right now anyways.
Spirit You All: You're working on an album now with David Bazan, TW Walsh, and Trey Many. Is there a name for that project? What is it going to sound like?
JM: As of right now, I think we're calling it "Lo-Tom". We have eight songs done, and hopefully it'll be out maybe the end of this year or maybe early next year.
It's just really stripped-down, you know, it's just rock-n-roll tunes. We're tracking it live, which is something I usually don't do - there's not really any overdubs. So I'm the guitar in the left speaker, TW Walsh is the guitar in the right speaker, there'll be drums, and Dave is singing and playing bass. Just stripped-down tunes, I think they're good songs, so we'll see what people think of it when it comes out.
Spirit You All: You've been saying for a while that you think you suspect every recent album will be your last, but then you get inspired and find yourself making another record. SLOW is a heavily nostalgic album, but on the last song you ask "Was it really better back then/Were there really less problems/Or was it really that because then you weren't so numb". Is music a way for you to keep those "nerve endings" awake that might otherwise be going to sleep?
JM: That sounds about right. It's just kind of an escape, and it's kind of the last vestige of what I liked doing as a kid - or 18, 20, whatever you want to call that. Every time I say I'm not gonna make a record because I'm working or doing 43-year-old dad stuff, or you-name-it I just like the idea of being in a room and playing guitar and putting chords together... and so every time I say I'm not gonna do it, I'll write a couple licks and go, "Oh, this is pretty cool. Maybe if I do the drums like this it'll sound like this." It's just this fake quest to get something, it's just basically something to do - you've gotta fill your time. Some guys like building tables, I like making records. It's the same idea.
SLOW is out June 17 on Tooth & Nail.