Tony Cummings traces the intriguing musical history of California's STARFLYER 59
It's one of those strange peculiarities of the world of Christian music that the recording entity known as Starflyer 59 should have such a considerable fanbase - there are at least four websites run by fans devoted to discussing the minutiae of the band's musical activity - yet despite a veritable avalanche of releases since 1994 and despite leader Jason Martin naming in an interview albums by such British acts as The Smiths, New Order and Echo And The Bunnymen as his favourites, Starflyer 59 have never played the UK. But then for an act who've recorded a dozen albums (not counting EPs and side projects) Starflyer 59 are singularly reluctant to play too many live concerts even though they've managed four live recordings down the years (1996's 'Plugged' EP which today astonishingly sells for $700 on eBay, 2002's 'Live At The Paradox', 2005's 'Never Play Covers' and 2006's download only 'Live At Schubas II'). Said Jason, "I'm not very comfortable singing in front of people. In the making of records you can be a lot more creative. It's exciting to see how songs turn out."
Despite the relative rarity of live appearances, Starflyer 59 certainly don't lack American fans. Wrote Mark Allan Powell in the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, "Starflyer 59 feature one of the world's greatest living guitarists and was one of the best alternative rock bands of the '90s, ie, one of the most original, creative and accomplished groups to be making music in either the Christian or the general markets." The group were formed in 1993 by Jason Martin in Riverside, California. Previously Jason was half of a pioneering synth pop/dance band, Dance House Children, founded by his keyboard playing brother, Ronnie Martin. The group recorded two albums for Blonde Vinyl, 'Songs And Stories' (1991) and 'Jesus' (1992). When that group petered out Ronnie went in one direction with the retro synth pop persona Joy Electric and Jason formed a group which would give full reign to his exceptional guitar playing and composing skills. Jason gave a demo of the music he was recording to Brandon Ebel when the two met at a music festival in 1993. Ebel was just starting a record label in Seattle, Tooth & Nail, and shortly after their meeting Ebel contacted Martin and offered him a recording contract.
In truth Starflyer 59 were more or less Jason Martin and musical friends. The original band name was going to be Starflyer 2000 (the name was later resurrected for a short-lived side project between Jason Martin and Sixpence None The Richer's Leigh Bingham). Starflyer 59's first three albums, 1994's 'Starflyer 59' (better known as 'Silver'), 1995's 'Starflyer 59 (Gold)' and 1997's 'Americana (Red)', immediately found a Christian underground following with a sound one could almost describe as very heavy versions of "shoe-gazer" music fused with just a hint of goth. As for the lyrics, Martin said of the 'Gold' album, "I want to be a Christian band, but I want to write about stuff that's honest and legitimate. . . I don't know too many other bands that try to relate on a teenager-in-love kind of angle." By the time the 'Americana (Red)' album came out he was saying, "I feel a little convicted about all the 'woe is me' kind of stuff [on the first two albums]. I felt, like, as a Christian I should try to encourage people and sings songs about the faith and not just sing about me all the time."
With the passing years the three "colour" albums have come to be considered underground classics. Wrote Mark Allan Powell, "Martin typically creates a lush landscape of fuzzy, distorted guitars churning out some of the most amazing riffs ever produced in rock and roll. But unlike most hard rock, the songs are slow and moody, like some kind of hybrid of heavy metal and lounge music." Equally arresting were Martin's vocals which are sung/whispered on top of the walls of distortion. Cornerstone magazine described the band's sounds as "deafening, riff-centred and repetitively dreamy."
By the time the band recorded 'Americana (Red)' in 1997 the line up of SF59 was momentarily something of a super group. Joining guitar virtuoso Martin were Eric Campuzano and Wayne Everett, the bass player and drummer with Christian rock pioneers The Prayer Chain, while the keyboard player and producer of the classic album was the late, great Gene Eugene. Championed by Christian underground magazines, the first two "colour" albums had also been criticised by Christians for their lack of direct Christian lyrics, Martin saying that his main lyrical theme during this period was "a problem I've had since third grade - being bummed out over girls." Spiritual themes did begin to crop up on 'Americana' however. Jason told the Blue Star Journal, "The theme of 'Americana' is basically how unimportant music is, and it should not be your lord - Jesus Christ is. I mean it's hard to explain lyrics because a lot of it is me talking to myself in a song. But, I hope it does encourage people. I'm tired of being sad."
'The Fashion Focus' set from 1998 introduced a new era with Jason's smoky vocals suddenly put forward in the mix and the distorted guitars greatly reduced. New influences began to emerge too, with Radiohead a seeming influence though Jason told HM magazine, "I do like Radiohead, but that isn't what I tried or am trying to do. I just got tired of seeing what I could do by laying down so many guitar tracks. Basically, I'm trying to stay reasonably new, keeping it interesting for myself. If I had kept putting out the records we did five years ago, it would be pointless. I don't want to stay in 1991." Around the time of the album's release Jason also issued a side project with his new wife, Julie, under the name Bon Voyage.
In 2000 a compilation 'Easy Come, Easy Go' was released which Jason described as "basically a best of with b-sides and some live stuff." It did contain their American alternative radio hits like "No New Kinda Story", "A Housewife Love Song", "Fell In Love At 22", "Monterey", "I Drive A Lot" (a Cross Rhythms turntable hit too) and "Duel Overhead Cam". It was SF59's next album in 2001 which heralded another change of stylistic approach. Jason allowed his compositions to be produced by another of America's great Christian music cult heroes, Terry Scott Taylor. 'Leave Here A Stranger' has a lot of Taylor's trademark Beatlesque flourishes while Martin's vocals had little of the mumbling miserablism of old.
From 2003 to 2006 SF59 released one full length album a year, all of them produced by Martin. 'Old' had a more pop orientated sound that had begun with 'The Fashion Focus' but also featured more of the guitar than heard on 'Leave Here A Stranger'. In 2004 the oddly named 'I Am The Portuguese Blues' was released. With this set Jason returned to the layers of heavy guitars from the "colours" albums era. 2005's 'Talking Voice Vs Singing Voice' saw the band with an official line up of two members, Jason and drummer Frank Lenz. It was the first album since 'Americana' to be recorded without bassist Jeff Cloud.
The next release was 2006's 'My Island' while the following year Jason took time off from SF59 to renew his musical collaboration with brother Ronnie. The resulting album 'The Brothers Martin' produced a Cross Rhythms turntable hit with the retro-sounding "The Behaviour Explains". Also in 2007 Jason began a special release for the Starflyer 59 cognoscenti consisting of 10 seven inch vinyl records released over a period of months. The 10 vinyl records known as 'Ghosts Of The Future' came with a custom-made wooden record box. In 2008 Tooth & Nail released Starflyer 59's 'Dial M' album which consisted of remixed versions of the first track of each of the 10 records from the 'Ghosts' collection. Today the official line up of Starflyer 59 is Jason Martin (guitar, vocals), Steven Dail (bass - previously with Project 86 and Crash Rickshaw) and Trey Many (drums - previously with Velour 100 and His Name Is Alive). Several critics have suggested that 'Dial M' stands as one of Starflyer 59's finest creations. Martin agrees. He told HM magazine, "I have been doing this for a long time. An unbelievably long time. An unfortunate amount of time. I'm always going for something and I think I got pretty close on ['Dial M'] as far as what's in my head. But there's always something on every record you put out that you want to change. You say, 'Oh, I should have put in this song or taken this song in a different direction.'"
He continued, "I'm really happy with the way this one turned out. There's not nearly as many electric guitars and everything is really spread out. There's a lot of acoustic guitars and piano. It still sounds like Starflyer, but I was trying for a slightly different vibe on this one than we've done as far as spreading out the instruments. There's just a lot of space on this record, especially as compared to the other ones. That's really hard for me to do. I usually want to cram up every area with 50 parts. There are aspects to this that are crammed, but for the most part, I was really trying to have a lot of space on this one. There are still a ton of tracks, but I like the thing to build. So there are different ways of doing layers, letting the song build to a lot of things at the end."
'Dial M' became a therapeutic outlet of sorts, allowing some of Martin's most impactful lyrics to come through. He said, "My dad passed away about a year ago and I usually don't write personal records, but this one is slightly more personal than anything I've done. I hate giving those lines, because it's really typical for the rock guy to say, 'Yeah, this album really means something.' My album might not mean anything to anybody, but there are songs on there that do really mean something to me. I really shy away from those kinds of things. Is this the deepest record to come our ever? Not at all. But there are some personal aspects on there."
Over the years Jason has been quizzed many times about Starflyer 59's lack of specifically Christian references in his songs. Probably his best response was to journalist John Sant in HM magazine, "We are commanded by Christ to go out and preach the Word, but I don't know how that relates to Starflyer, though, I really don't. Hopefully we've been used by God in certain situations and if we haven't, I need to pray for forgiveness, because I struggle with that all the time. I just don't want to abuse the name of Christ, I don't want to use the name of God in vain, using it like it doesn't mean anything. What bands do is between them and God, but personally, if I did it just to cram it in, then that's exactly what it is. Cramming."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.