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The Story of Starflyer 59 (taken from EASY COME EASY GO)

And so this kid is just completely freaking out.  Its my fault, really.  I should have known better than to ask this kid, this kid who paid a total of $75 for Starflyer's notorious Drop 7" (that's $75 for three, count em, three songs, five minutes, working out roughly then to $15 per one minute of music), this kid whose license plate, and I'm serious here, folks, this kid whose license plate is: STARFLYR, this kid Andrew Horton who courted his current girlfriend by giving her a copy of Le Vainqueur, I asked this kid of all people, "What's the big deal about Starflyer 59?"  And now, here he is, completely freaking out.
 
"I don't even know where to start, " he says, spinning dizzily backward into a fifth-gear recollection of buying Starflyer's Silver album six years ago, hating it, mocking it, then breaking up, painfully, messily, with his girlfriend, listening to Silver again, loving it, and finally ending up on the phone with me two weeks from his twentieth birthday.  He talks fast, quick bombs of sound bursting in tight, desperate little groups.
 
"Silver is pretty short, so I just basically ended up putting it on repeat all the time," he rat-a-tats.  "Just this wall of noise constantly for about three months straight."  The unposed, understood, "Do you see how much this means to me?" hangs momentarily in the air before plummeting, unexploded.  He hurries on.
 
Horton's opportunity to meet Jason Martin -- an oppotunity he willingly, giddily blew off finals and drove five hours for -- resulted in the classic sort of fanboy freak out: "I could barely even stand up," he laughs.  "My mom and I ended up cooking the food for the band, which was like the biggest honor for me..."
 
It starts to occur to me, as I listen to Horton talk so frantically, so earnestly, how much he is like so many fans of this band -- memorizing every last looping second of feedback in "The Dungeon," hunting down obscure, limited run 7-inches on the internet.  Then it further begins to occur to me how very similar he is -- how very similar they all are, these pop music junkies, these album addicts -- to the founding member of the band (Jason Martin) they so feverishly revere.
 
Jason Martin had no musical training, not until he began taking piano lessons in his early teens.  His mother (who describes him as a "funny, goofy little kid") was not a music teacher, his father did not pen a series of folk hits in the 60's ("My dad doesn't get much more recent than Bobby Darin", Jason will later tell me).  He didn't spend hours hunched like Leroux's famous Phantom over a piano in his basement.  He didn't have a wild-haired, eccentric instructor who barked commands at him in German during grueling, ten-hour lessons. 
 
What Jason Martin did have were records.  At first, he had records by Christian bands.  Not the hack-job groan-inspiring spandex rock of 80's Christian metal, but bands of substance and vision like The Altar Boys, L.S.U., and Daniel Amos (whom Martin still counts among his favorites).  In High School, a friend loaned him a copy of The Smiths landmark The Queen is Dead album, of which Martin recalls, "I just could not handle how much I loved that thing."  It was this minor epiphany that fostered his interest in bands whose outlooks were decidedly secular, bands like The Pixies, Chapterhouse, and Ride.  When he was fourteen, Jason's friend Randy Lamb began teaching him basic chords on a Fender Squire that Jason's brother Ronnie had purchased with his allowance.  Jason had been playing drums and piano for three years, but hearing the agonized writhe and thrash of guitar on LSU's Shaded Pain piqued his interest in the instrument.  Lamb was his immediate, ideal choice for instructor because, as Jason laughingly recalls, "I thought it was just phenomenal that he could play all the Altar Boys songs."
 
Of the Martin brothers, it was Ronnie who was the more aggressive musician, forming and re-forming countless bands, all of which consisted of essentially the same members -- Ronnie, Jason, and occasionally Randy).  Jason's participation in the perennially mutating collectives was always by default.  "In the early days it had a lot to do with Ronnie," he admits.  "I never thought about being in a band in my life.  He kind of just included me out of mercy."  It is a recollection echoed by Jason's mother:  "Ronnie was always very vocal about [wanting to pursue music].  Jason just sort of quietly eased into it."
 
The Martin's volleyed through a series of names, each smacking of the sort of youthful rock & roll idealism that characterized the brothers:  A Link of the Haunted, Two Lads, Chant of the Flowered Underground, names which Jason rattles through laughingly, lovingly.
 
The baffling part about all these non-stop memory-greedy recollections:  Jason Martin has the reputation for being a difficult interview.  While he is lucid sometimes to a fault about other topics (he and I have, one one occasion, discussed how much we would pay to see a Smiths reunion for a total of -- and I'm serious here -- 120 minutes), when talk centers on him, his sentences are slow-to-come and terse on arrival.  He deflects questions with a lazy "Oh, I don't know," responds always with the obvious answer (Example: Q: How was The Fashion Focus different from your other records?  A: Oh, I don't know.  Just a different batch of songs.  End Quote.)  His cadence is vintage California cool: lazy, expressionless.  Yet he recalls his adolescence with the sort of eager relish and flustered laughter that betrays a genuine protectiveness toward these memories.  I get the immediate impression that Jason doesn't want to avoid or erase these days, these relentlessly optimistic visions of footlights, hit records, rock grandeur... He wants to relive them.  "Oh, Keyes,"  he says, a trace of genuine sorrow coloring his trademark aloofness.  "I could go on and on about the early transitions."
 
Jason Martin's first live performance was with The Two Lads at a Mexican buffet for his high school's Senior Banquet, and despite what snobbish indie-cool kids may want you to believe, no one has a recording of it.  The performance was a success, winning the Martin's the admiration of their peers and the adulation of young females.  Yet the metamorphosis continued: after the high techno of The Lads, the brothers flirted with guitar rock, rotating through another series of prosaic names until finally settling on the C.S. Lewis-inspired Morella's Forest.  They continued playing small local shows, some of which were attended by Jason's high-school friend and future Starflyer bass player Jeff Cloud ("He showed up basically to laugh at us," Jason recalls.)  As Morella's Forest, Jason and Ronnie recorded an entire album for California's Narrowpath Records, but the label went bankrupt before it could be released.
 
Through their own career was beginning its tentative lurch forward, the Martin's were still nurturing their own pop music obsessions, attending every area concert by local rock icons LSU.  When the ever-enterprising Ronnie caught word of the fact the LSU frontman Michael Knott was starting a label, he slipped the singer a copy of demo he and Jason had been working on.  An impressed Knott signed the duo (whom he rechristened Dance House Children) to his infant Blonde Vinyl records.  "And that's when all the guitar rock faded out [of our sound]," Jason sighs.
 
Though Dance House Children was primarily Ronnie's brainchild, Jason did deliver a short stack of songs for the pair of albums the band released.  His contributions are dizzying, psychedelic affairs, standing in stark contrast to Ronnie's spry pop.  There are hints of the Starflyer sound in the ominous "Eve Leaf" and the freakout tone overload of "Sea Breeze."  By the time Blonde Vinyl collapsed in late 1992, Jason was privately working on a handful of songs that would eventually evolve into Starflyer's landmark Silver.
 
Interesting cultural artifact: Take a look inside the liner notes of Ronnie's Rainbow Rider album, released in 1993.  Beneath the recording credits, before the lyrics, nestled squarely within the special thanks, is the following proclamation:  "Thanks to Jason Martin and Andrew Larsen and their brilliant new group, Star Flyer 2000!"
 
Jason had been recording material at home with the intention of releasing it on Knott's next label venture, Siren Records (which, when all was said and done, ended up having the life span of a sea monkey).  His plans altered significantly when he met Brandon Ebel at a California music festival.  Fortuitously, Jason had a copy of his demo with him at the time, and gave it to Ebel, who was himself wrapping up a four-year stint as a DJ at Oregon State.  "I was playing bands like Sonic Youth and The Heartthrobs [on the radio]," Ebel recalls, chattering madly through colorful, cinematic recollections, "so I popped in Jason's demo, and I was just freaking.  It started with Blue Collar Love, and I was just like, This is just over the top.  There is nothing like this in the market."  Ebel quickly contacted Jason with the offer of a short contract, a proposition that stymied the bashful, introverted musician.  "When he said he wanted to do a record,"  Jason recalls, enthusiasm seeping into his voice as if it was suddenly happening all over again, "I was just like, Oh, I can't believe this!  It was crazy.  I was just so excited I couldn't contain myself."
 
In the months that stretched between his departure from Dance House Children in 1992 and his encounter with Ebel in early 1993, Jason had been splitting his time between fits of songwriting and truck driving duties for his father's company.  It was a commonality in Riverside, California, scores of post-high schooler's under their father's employ, hanging out in basements and diners and hashing over the latest records.  On the occasions when Ebel would join them, the discourse would leave him mystified.  "They had their own vocabulary," he laughs.  "They're all blue collar workers, you would think these big truck drivers would be into AC/DC or the Eagles, but they're all into Britpop.  And they all speak the Martin language."  It's a scene lifted from Levinson, young Jason and Ronnie and a gaggle of cap-wearing twentysomethings crammed into the rear booth of a smoky diner, each voice battling the other for top volume, for conversation control.  "I'd be sitting there with them," Ebel continues, "and they'd all be like, Hey, did you get that new Blur album, what's going on with that?  It was just like this weird little subculture, and I would be sitting there thinking, Where did you guys come from?  None of them even liked sports or anything."
 
One of the few musical members of the Blue Collar Cult was Andrew Larsen, and it was him whom Jason chose to collaborate with for Starflyer's debut.  Mortals Jerome and Jyro, who were at the time operating under the pseudonym Blood, oversaw the album's production.  The session was frenzied, with only a scant two weeks passing between conception and completion.
 
Jason's intitial expectations for the project were low.  "At the time I was thinking, Well, if nothing ever happens after this, it's cool.  At least for now I have something to show my kids.  But when I finally heard the record all mastered, I was kinda like, Man, it sounds like we're a real band.  I didn't know it was going to sound this good."  He chuckles, "After all these years, having about eighteen bands and playing in buffets, I just thought it was too much to take."  Remembering his friend Cloud's one-time ambition to start a band called Beige and release an all-beige album, Martin nixed all artwork suggestions for the debut and opted for a cover of solid silver.
 
After the record was completed, Jason quietly returned to his home, continuing to drive trucks and hang out with his California circle of friends, unaware of the ripples his record was causing amongst music buyers (particularly Christian music buyers) who had purchased the record and spent the next month trying to pry their jaws loose from the floor.  When Jason arrived with Larsen and Poor Old Lu drummer Jesse Sprinkle to play the Cornerstone Music Festival in the summer of '94, the fan response was sudden, massive, and smothering.
 
"People kept coming up to me telling me how great they thought the record was, and I just kept thinking You guys are crazy."  He pauses suddenly, laughter drying up.  His words come slow, deliberate.  "It was just weird because usually I was the guy going up to other people, telling them how much I liked their songs.  And now people were coming up to me."
 
Starflyer records tend to break up into certain specific categories, making a Cliff's Notes version of the bands discography read something like this:
 
1)  Silver:  You broke my heart, and I have a record contract.
2)  Gold:  You really, really broke my heart.
3)  Americana:  You are not as cool as you think you are.
4)  The Fasion Focus:  Man, I getting old.
5)  Everybody Makes Mistakes:  Man, I'm getting bored.
 
Don't believe me?  See for yourself.   Three songs on Gold contain titular references to being messed up, six on Fashion Focus pine for youth, while half of Mistakes wonders how much long the band can keep this up.
 
It's a question Martin has been asking himself since the recording of Gold, a record that, over time, would become revered amongst Starflyer fans.
 
Privately, Jason still wonders whether or not the band peaked in the months following Silver.  After Cornerstone, the band toured with both Mortal and The Prayer Chain, the biggest drawing names in the market at the time.  "I found myself thinking, Oh gee, this rock and roll thing is so easy.  We were playing in front of like 1,000 kids a night."
 
**[Tangent -- and feel free to skip this -- it is during this time that my first encounter with Jason Martin, an encounter that, like most things in my life, I bungle royally.  Half-delirious because I, yes even I, was one of those starry-eyed youths for whom starflyer's Silver record took on religious significance, I approached the ultra-introverted frontman, my mind scrambling like a hobo in a trash can for the ideal introductory line.  And so when I finally get within speaking distance, and Martin is taking in all 5 feet of me with his dark, sleepy eyes, I stammer out the only thing I can think of:  "I just saw a review of your record in--"  and I'm intentionally omitting the name of the magazine here.  Jason, looking only partially conscious but trying -- to his unbelievable credit here -- really trying to be a good sport about the whole encounter, volleys back: "Oh yeah?  What did they have to say?"  At which point I am completely stymied because the magazine (whose name I have, once again, intentionally omitted) hated the record.  So naturally, I parrot out:  "Oh, they hated it.  They said it really sucked," and then proceed to flagellate myself endlessly because here is this guy -- this guy I have never even met before -- who is out hitting endless miles of looping asphalt to play for twenty minutes to a bunch of kids there to see another band entirely, this guy who has a single record to his credit, and in waltz I, nameless faceless teenager #753, stumbling over to tell him that despite all of his hard work and tenacity, there is a music magazine out there who thinks that the sum total of his creative output is worthless, and I have seperated myself from the crowd and intentionally sought him out to tell him this.  His eyes go bug eyed and I jam my hands into my pocket and shuffle back into this crowd feeling like the moron I know myself to be.  When I relay the story to Jason now, years after the event, he laughs riotously and claims to harbor no recollection of the event.  Between you and me, I think he's lying]. 
 
Jason returned from these tours elated, primed to begin Starflyer's sophomore LP (a handful of leftovers and alternate takes from the Silver sessions had been released as the She's the Queen EP in the months following the debut's release). But despite Jason's intial enthusiasm, he would eventually become disenfranchised enough to scrawl the following verse wearily on Gold's inside cover:  "The Lord is near to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit". 
 
The first inklings of trouble came when Jason entered the studio alone, all prior collaborators conspicuously absent.  Even today, five years later, Jason refuses to discuss the circumstances, chalking up his isolation to "internal tension."  I don't push.  Its abundantly clear that it won't get me anywhere.
 
Martin entered the studio with engineer Bob Moon -- and wouldn't emerge again for a month.  Not to sleep.  Not to visit friends.  Not for anything.
 
Moon's recollection is vivid.  "It was just insane.  I remember at one point standing outside the studio with Jason, and hearing him say that it was the first time he'd seen daylight in seven days."
 
"I didn't leave the Green Room for a month.  Period," says Jason, desperately trying to impress upon me the direness of his situation.  With a slight pause, a change in pitch, Martin dramatically let's drop his shield of emotional indifference.  "I was having a semi-breakdown," he admits.  "It was a sick experience."  Compounding the grueling recording process was Jason's decision to stuff the songs with veiled references to the disappearance of longtime friends, all of which would later be mis-read by fans as romantic lamentations.  The record's bleak subject matter and the dark, insistent claustrophobia of the studio took the breath out of the once roseate musician.  "I thought it was going to be so epic, and ..." he trails off.  "The whole time I'm thinking: This isn't even fun.  This is stupid.  I don't have anyone in here to help.  I don't even want to do this anymore, this ridiculous."  He breaks to collect his thoughts.  "But we had all these commitments -- we had to go out on tour, we had to play Cornerstone.  It was a mess."
 
Toward the end of the process, Prayer Chain drummer Wayne Everett, with whom Jason was about to embark on a nationwide tour, begain appearing in the studio to assist Jason with drum tracks.  The sessions ground on, deadlines were missed, Jason grew more despondent, and the onset of the tour grew ever imminent.  "It was literally the night before we were going to leave [for tour]," he says, "and we still had five songs with no vocals."
 
"I was a zombie after those sessions," laughs Moon -- his humor more gallows than glee.  "As soon as the last vocal track was done, it was literally like, OK, let's start mixing.  We didn't have any break or anything.  We were just fried."
 
Jason's initial reaction to the completed record was one of disgust.  Being trapped into making the record alone, he recoiled at how large his shadow loomed over the songs.  "I hated it.  There was just too much me."  Indeed, Gold does bear the earmarks of a solo record -- long, swooping guitar solos; layer upon syrupy layer of rhythm guitar; lazy, meandering time signatures.  While over time it is these very aspects that have made the record more enduring, to young Jason in 1995, they seemed nagging, brutal artistic overkill.  "It was just so overindulgent.  The music became longer and longer with those stupid solos because I was in there and I just wasn't thinking straight."
 
The ashen aura of doom hovering over the record grew several shades darker when it was finally released.  Fans of Silver's triple-tremolo-assault retaliated viciously when they heard the muted mope of its follow-up, often vocalizing their distaste to Jason in person.  "Oh, they hated the thing," Jason says of his scolytes' initial reaction.  People mistook intentional underproduction for budgetary constraints, criticizing the sound that jason and Bob Moon had gone to painstaking lengths to capture.  "We had like fifteen mikes up for guitar, different types of mikes in different positions," remembers Moon.  "We had six rhythm tracks going, going through three different types different amps, getting a low guitar tone, a mid guitar tone and a high guitar tone, and then doubling all of those to get this wall of sound."  Despite their efforts, the fans were not impressed.  People walked up to Jason at concerts and asked, point blank, "Why does your album sound so bad?"
 
"I'd hear stores funneled through friends," Jason says, "people saying, Man, Starflyer really choked on this second album."  Defiantly, Starflyer embarked on a second tour that year with the heirs to an old Martin moniker, fledgling Tooth and Nail act Morella's Forest.  Knowing that Gold was the last record he contractually owed Tooth and Nail, Martin recorded a series of those concert dates to release as Plugged on the independent Velvet Blue Music label to keep remaining fans satiated until the next Starflyer release.
 
And that's when a strange thing started happening.  People started liking Gold.  No one quite knows when it happened or how, but suddenly sales of the record began jumping, and fan defense of the songs became more ardent, more impassioned.  Jason's cryptic lyrics began resonating with disaffected teenagers, and the mammoth, almost supernatural guitar sounds started seeming more calculated, the shrieking solos more tortured, more precise.  Gold went on to nearly triple the sales numbers of its predecessor, and take solid root not as a failed follow-up, but as a triumphant return.  By the time all this finally happened, however, Jason was contemplating his next venture.
 
MORE COMING SOON!  (I'll try to finish this sometime.)

Jonathan Dogey  dogeymon@gmail.com