It was one of those nasty humid days we experienced all summer, and the sun was setting as I arrived at The Pink Pony on Ludlow. I was there to interview stellastarr, whose sophomore effort (Harmonies for the Haunted—darker, more mature, and more spacious than their debut release) drops September 13.
Their first effort was well received by critics and fans alike, and an underground buzz formed around this band of art-school dropouts. When they attempted to try these new songs out for the first time in public at the Bowery Ballroom on May 20, they went incognito, called themselves the Ligers-—but to no avail. The place sold out.
On a hot, muggy July night, I sat down with Amanda Tannen (bass) and Arthur Kremmer (drums), two of the founding members.
Rail: Let’s start with the new album. Following the success of your first album, how did you prepare to write a sophomore effort?
Amanda Tannen (AT):* There was sophomore pressure, but we didn’t think about it too much. We just wrote where we thought we should go from there.
Arthur Kremmet (AK): *Our first wasn’t a platinum-seller or anything. I don’t know if I felt pressure. I actually thought we still had a lot of ideas, even songs we left off the first album. It never felt like there was a lack of material [to work from].
Rail: Did moving to RCA affect how you approached Harmonies?
AT: No. They didn’t have any input into how we wrote or what was being written. We didn’t feel any pressure to write a hit album. They never sent us back to rewrite. They just took what we gave them.
AK: They were happy with [the album]. I knew for one thing we wanted a more focused sound, a more focused album, both sonically and visionary.
Rail: I noticed this album was more of a consistent album than the first. It was much more straight-through.
AT: It was written in a totally different way, in a short amount of time, all together. The last one was written over long periods of time.
Rail: How long did Harmonies take to complete?
AT: Half a year, from writing to recording.
Rail: With the first album you had a lot of time to play with the songs, take them on the road, and let them evolve into what they became. What’s the biggest difference between playing songs live and recording songs completely in a studio?
AT: You don’t have to worry about the visuals. I think in the studio you can be a lot more moody. You can have a lot more dynamics. You can have that on stage too, but [in the studio] there isn’t that ambient noise, or the crowd waiting for something to explode.
AK: A lot of these songs when we recorded them, we didn’t know what they were going to sound like live. For the first album, all the parts were already worked out perfectly; we had played them live so many times. But this time around, it was, “Is this how this part should really go?” or “Was that the perfect chorus?”
Rail: How does the songwriting work?
AT: It depends on the song. Different songs get written different ways. Sometimes
AK: Everyone writes what they play.
AT: Sometimes it comes out of a jam, all hanging out in a room.
AK: More often than not, [Shawn’s] lyrics come last. I would say 99% of the time the music influences the subject matter. The music comes first. We already have a really good idea of the feel and groove of a song, and the lyrics enhance that in the end.
Rail: Let’s talk about the music. It’s retro, with a lot of early eighties sounds in there. What—between the four of you—made you go down that road, as opposed to the “garage thing” that was happening at the time?
AT: I think it had to do with the music we heard growing up. I think it really has to do with that we love pop songs. The eighties had a lot to do with pop songs. We didn’t do it in any sort of “hey, let’s be retro” way.
AK: We really like the melody-driven music. It was never a conscious thing. We try and write the best songs. What comes out comes out. And in this case, we tried to write the best album we can.
Rail: Are there important things you like to see included in songs?
AT: I love songs I can sing along to, one that grabs me and I’m like, “Yes!” I also love moody songs that I can attach myself to and really relate to.
AK: My rule is not to make rules. Anything can grab me—from a rhythm-primal-scream-driven song to Stravinsky. It just has to speak to me.
Rail: I saw the Ligers show at Bowery in May. It was the first time you had played your new album in public. How did the audience’s reception make you feel?
AT: It felt really good. A live show is so different than playing in the studio—we were still really nervous and still remembering things. “It has been eight months” since we had played live. It was fun having that rush again, getting those butterflies again.
AK: We also had tried something new that we had never done before—running backing tracks during a show. We ran strings, samples, stuff like that.
Rail: How do you feel about file-sharing?
AK: I have very mixed views about it. I think as an idea it’s wonderful that people can share, but they do take advantage. I take advantage. I think it diminishes the music, makes it disposable. You can just download it quickly and move on; there’s no invested interest in going out to get the record.
AT: In a perfect utopia, it would work. It would help promote bands and real fans would download it and then go buy the album. But it doesn’t work that way. When I do download an album, I’ll go buy that album or buy another album by the artist. It works very well for starting bands who need the hype—and it worked for us in that way—but at a certain point it deters.
AK: It’s so easy now that I’m surprised anyone goes out and buys music anymore.
Rail: Where do you go from here?
AT: Tour for one or two years. The United States, the UK, Europe.
AK: Initially this fall we have the U.S. tour. We’re also working on a video for our single [“Sweet Troubled Soul”]. Hopefully it will be very cool.
For more information on stellastarr, visit www.stellastarr.com.
Grant Moser is an art writer and frequent contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.