Since the start, this "band" has always been a collection of four artists who met while studying at the Pratt Institute of the Arts, and came together to form this music project they call stellastarr*. After the release of two highly acclaimed albums that took them around the world and back, the band longed to return to their everyday lives and pursue other artistic endeavors Shawn splitting his time between LA and New York, painting and penning screenplays (the second of which he sold in 2008 to Warner Bros. pictures and will be directed by Tony Scott), Mandy doing graphic design at various fashion magazines, Arthur working as a freelance Creative Director, and Michael scoring independent short films, and playing live: either with solo songs or sitting in with various fellow bands.
The step back was a deliberate one. The band wanted to make an album their way the only way they knew: by experimenting, playing with songs, recording on their own in their rehearsal space; each one doing their own thing on a daily basis and then coming together at night in their rehearsal space to bring each one's ideas and lives into the project. This was a return to their roots with the intent of making music for music's sake. Almost four years since the release of their last album, the band's third album, Civilized, will appear in stores on July 7, 2009, catapulting stellastarr* back into the spotlight and reminding the world why they received so much critical acclaim in the first place.
Every aspect of the process was collaborative and group-oriented, with a particular band member assigned to spearhead the songs they felt most strongly about. The lack of a deadline meant that the writing process was slower and more deliberate. Their goal on this album was to have fun writing songs, and not to think of where or how they fit into any format. After writing sets of songs, the band would road test them by playing sporadic shows in New York, Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco, letting the crowd reaction dictate the direction of the record.
In early 2008, the band went into Mission Sound Studio in Brooklyn with producer Tim O'Heir, the same person who produced their debut album (as well as albums by Dinosaur Jr, Superdrag, and Sebadoh), and finally laid down these experiments on tape. In the studio, stellastarr* kept exploring the songs they'd written over the previous two years, considering new sounds and allowing the tracks to expand and shift to reflect the distinct mood of each tune. Arthur's drumming started to make the songs dance, and Mandy's driving bass lines allowed Michael to generate some purposefully messy and distinctive guitar sounds. Shawn wrote many of the lyrics right in the studio, improvising wordplay on the spot.
"Robot," a song written in the 25th hour of the recording process, is unlike any previous stellastarr* number and fittingly opens the album. "Freak Out," a fast-paced number that surges with urgency, is defined by Shawn's staccato vocal delivery, propulsive rhythms and soaring chorus, while "Graffiti Eyes," the disc's first single, jumps with energy and swirls amidst dynamic layers, all coming together with an anthemic chorus of 'Whoa-oh's'. "Move On," a song that took a year to arrive at its current formulation during the writing process, is affecting, coursing with emotive urgency. "Prom Zombie", with Mandy singing lead vocals in tandem with Shawn is stellastarr* at its most playful, capturing their animated, live energy. The entire record represents the cohesion of individual ideas and reflects the band's individual personalities.
"We need all our voices," Michael says, of the notoriously democratic band. "We get this result that not one person could have come up with on their own because it needed all those elements and changes to come to that conclusion. That's with the decisions, that's with the music, that's with the artwork, everything. It's an amalgamation of different thoughts and ideas."
Civilized has emerged from this lengthy series of evolutions a better, more thoughtful creation, harkening back to stellastarr*s debut with its raw, charged aesthetic and a sense of each track's unique mood and tone, while also taking steps forward with a spirit of experimentation that keeps everything fun.
"This album was in reaction to a lot of the stuff we did in the past," Michael says. "The first record was fun and bouncy. The second record was atmospheric and moody and had a very specific vision. On this one, it felt right to make upbeat music. We wanted to have a little more fun with it, although an undertone of darkness is there as well."
"I think ultimately we were just writing riffs and seeing what happened with them," Shawn says. "Doing what we did a lot of on the first record, which is changing moods from song to song. I think it's the best music we've ever written."
The decision to release Civilized on the band's own Bloated Wife Records was an easy one. Creating the label Bloated Wife, which references the first song the band ever wrote and was featured on a t-shirt Michael made for fun back in 2003, allowed stellastarr* to retain control of their music and their vision and gave them an avenue to dive back into the fray on their own terms. Out of the chaos and struggle of the past several years, stellastarr* returns: recharged and reinvigorated.
"Releasing this album on our own label feels like a new start," says Amanda. "We broke everything down and built it back up. I really feel like we all relate to each other in a new way and we've all grown up a lot. It feels different and that seems like a good thing."
** Shawn Christensen (lyrics, vocals, guitar) **
** Amanda Tannen (bass, vocals) **
** Michael Jurin (guitar, vocals) **
** Arthur Kremer (percussion) **