w/the Killers, Evening
Sat April 24, Crocodile, 9 pm, $10.77 adv/$12 DOS.
It's not necessarily that big of a deal when bands parade their influences as prominently as a teenager with a button-and-patch-trimmed backpack... provided they at least own up to it. For example, the Walkmen will be the first to tell you that there's a lot of U2 in what they do. Likewise, Radio 4 never try to downplay their Gang of Four appropriations. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Music isn't created in a vacuum, and most artists use their stylistic inspirations as a springboard to discovering their own identities.
But then there are those who react all huffy to the mere mention of their work containing obvious nods to other bands. Like that chump from Interpol getting all bent out of shape because people keep comparing him to Joy Division's Ian Curtis. Dude, please.
I was starting to catch that same vibe from New York City's stellastarr* (that's right: asterisk, small "s"), based on a handful of articles I'd read in which some members of the quartet seemed pretty annoyed by suggestions that their self-titled 2003 debut owes a lot to the Pixies, the Cure, Talking Heads, and Pulp. In fact, it does--no doubt the album's full of great hooks and intriguing textures, but you'd really have to be in denial not to get Surfer Rosa flashbacks from "Jenny" and "No Weather," or not have the lipsticked-and-white-high-topped Robert Smith dancing in your head to "Somewhere Across Forever." The Jarvis-ified final track is even called "Pulp Song" fer chrissakes!
So when I got on the horn with drummer/keyboardist Arthur Kremer, who's wedged in the back of the group's tour van somewhere on the outskirts of Cleveland, I was fully expecting an irritated sigh and testy rebuff to the subject I simply had to bring up.
"You know, you guys do sound like a lot of other bands...."
Maybe he's having a good day, or perhaps he's one of stellastarr*'s more affable members, but Kremer actually begins to laugh. "Yeah, maybe, but it's definitely not a conscious thing," he says. "It's hard--sometimes we're in the studio and we're like, 'Wait a minute, that sounds exactly like this song I just heard... shit, we gotta change it around a little bit!'"
"I think in today's age, there're so many bands, it's hard to make truly original music," he continues. "I don't think a revolution is possible anymore. When the Beatles started out, they were creative guys in a world of uncharted territory, but nowadays... I mean, there's only so many chords and combinations you can put together."
What seems to get Kremer really riled, though, is the equally persistent and far more insidious accusation that the band and its handlers have calculated their rise to cash in on the "New York hype" instigated by the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the aforementioned Interpol.
"None of us were ever scenesters," he says. "And we take steps to protect our credibility because at the end of the day that's all we have. We've turned down certain offers or situations we didn't think were appropriate. No one's waving millions of dollars at us anyway, so you gotta think, is this money worth all the backlash you're gonna get?"
Not exactly an overnight sensation, stellastarr*'s roots extend back to the late '90s, when Kremer, singer-guitarist Shawn Christensen, and bassist Amanda Tannen (then a classical cellist) met at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute for the Arts and formed the short-lived outfit Ghistor. In 2000, the trio linked up with guitarist Michael Jurin and rechristened themselves stellastarr*. Two years of gigs around town--many of them free--helped spread the word about their music and electrifying stage presence, eventually leading to the independently released Somewhere Across Forever EP, a major-label contract with RCA, support slots with the Raveonettes and Jane's Addiction, and now their first headlining tour.
"We're very grateful for what's happened," says Kremer, "but we feel like we deserve our success and recognition because we've really worked hard to get where we are."