I am 20 minutes late to dinner, held tonight at Loren Wilson's and Sarah Johnsen's 54th and Cornell apartment. I stumble up to the door, two pints of Häagen-Dazs in handhouse-greeting gifts. He scrunches up his long gangly frame, bowing repeatedly while folding his hands over mine. It's an assuring greeting, even if he himself seems a little unsure. His eyes, however, blaze with warmth.
Everything is set up when we sit down at the table. Tempeh-meatballs 'n spaghetti, salad with cheese, and toasted triangles with eggplant dips. Loren is every bit the perfectionist cook as he is the perfectionist, well, everything. It was Sarah, though, who set the table; Sarah is Loren's bandmate and girlfriend. Napkins, plates, and cutlery are aligned perfectly as if from some French etiquette textbook. She and Loren perfectly complement each other, and not only in preparing dinner. The three of us spend the next four hours winding down the hurried Wednesday; we talk, drink, and joke, all in the comfortable kitchen, cooled by a spring breeze.
In this reassuring atmosphere, Loren recounts the story of Starlister. Starlister started out as a project all of his own; it was not so much a collaborative effort as an emancipation of his pop aesthetics. Loren pre-wrote all the tracks in his home studiothe bass, drums, even the piano parts now performed by Emily Bernstein, Becky Stark, and Sarah. Lilting melodies chameleonized as basslines, drums beating a steady bob-pop rhythm, and piano-synth playing infectious riffs all combine to form this sinister yet oh-so-catchy machine. The backdrop sounds upbeat and peppy but when Loren comes in with his soft-voice and dark guitars, an internal contrast is set up that is thematic in his music.
Although deft and imaginative on the self-made tracks, Loren much prefers the "participatory discrepencies" of being in a band. "I like the unevenness between the beats. Imperfection. Gives it that human touch," he explains. The amazing sound of Starlister is like New Order, robotic and synthed-out, yet awash in the dreaminess of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. But, really, Starlister is in a genre all its own, and it's fuckin' fresh. A lot of that has to do with the band's experienceor lack thereof. Loren had never written a pop song before. Sarah had never played a piano standing up. Emily had never picked up a bass before in her life. Becky hadn't played drums since she was a little girlindeed, her past experiences here in Hyde Park have highlighted her operatic twang. They started Starlister as a collective of firsts, a search for new talents within themselves.
But Starlister are more than just beginners. At a Starlister concert, you can expect the crowd to go wild. Everybody's peppy. Whether performing in a bar or at a college coffee shop, the band will inevitably draw roof-raising cheers. Maybe it's because, along with the music, the image of Starlister has a magnetic appealcloser to that of a group-like family than family-like group. The rhythm section is fronted by the cherubic twins, Stark and Bernstein; they've got the pomo glasses, the same hair, the same build, they are roommates now and have been friends since fourth grade, growing up together in Oak Park. Sometimes you mistake one for the other. Becky is a Physics-major who 9 out of 10 people say is "the perfect drummer for this band." She plays with a light touch, just enough. Emily is the cute girl with small hands, which reflects in her slightly unorthodox playing of a such a big bass. Nevertheless, she plays the bassline sweet and ready, deftly linking up the internal melodic structure.
Sarah, pianist and back-up vox, is the quiet and stable anchor, the mother figure of the group. She plays a bargain synth: if a flute and an organ had a baby, this is what it would sound like. And while she plays a simple melody, weaving in and out of silence, her playing is what gives the songs that extra kick.
Playing the roles of guitarist and lead singer on stage, Loren is the Venus-boy dressed in perennial black. Constantly intimidated, and constantly intimidating, he can exude a raw sexual energy even while bowing repetitiously upon meeting an old friend. He is a charming contradiction that makes you feel sorry for him as well as love him for it. He says he "hate[s] rock stars," but ironically, with all his eccentricities, he looks like a '70s Bowie with a head of fluffy locks. He loves being on stage; he makes sick sad love to the mic while writhing like an addict in his second day of detox. His softly sung lyrics hang in the air like a whisper to his love, spiked with the shards from his broken heart. At breaking points, he would do an inspired solo, sputtering in distortion to try to hit a million notes, though physically unable to do so. In a way, the helpless guitar playing mirrors those songs about love's duality (pain and bliss) and the search for abandoned hope. The music, words, and presence of Loren combine into a giant shadow, a battered soul unceasingly trying to stand up.
Loren, Sarah, and I talk more about the past and the future of Starlister as we dig into the two tubs of Häagen Dazs, Macadamia Nut Brittle and Vanilla Bean. Here's when I politely tell them that I am lactose-intolerant, and would they please excuse me if I can't hold in the gas. As if to change the subject, Loren brings up "Slapping My Dick on Your Forehead," a song he wrote with the Rapping Mantis, a.k.a. Paul Francke, a Hyde Park musician. It's a song influenced by booty music, a kind of hip-hop with excessive references to sex, mirrored in the music by pounding beats (that are purportedly of great utility while "getting it on"). One day, he hopes to do booty remixes of Starlister songs.
Booty music, however, is more like a trip to the local park than a defining influence in Loren's life. His major influence is the Cure, though when you listen to Starlister, there is only a faint trace of Robert Smith. What the two bands do share, however, is a romantic defeatism (à la Disintegration), a tautness of songwriting, and a layering of composite elements and basic instruments. The key to this has been using melodies as hooks within themselves, hooking onto one another throughout song. Everything from the voice to the bass to the piano is an interladen alchemy of melodies. The overall approach is one of an outsider looking at pop.
Expanding on this outside view, Loren's never heard of Coldplay, but then he's listening to the type of indie-rock and experimental music that most of the WHPK DJs probably wouldn't even know (Loren is himself a WHPK DJ). He has a fervent distaste for what's out there at large, on the national scale, of what The Man puts out there for consumption by little kids. Beyond The Man, Loren hates rock stars, saying that attention and fame can often bring out a person's worst. He met Billy Corgan way back when, in a North-side practicing space. From outside the room, Loren could hear Corgan's high-pitched yelp, throwing a star tantrum against his own band members, the Smashing Pumpkins. From then on, Loren has had post-traumatic stress disorder and has sworn off the rock star path.
Back in the early '90s, when Loren was still a freshman in this college, he metand was sickened byattitude-heavy musicians even in the Hyde Park scene. At the time, WHPK bands and other underground apartment bands fueled an unhealthy division; the scene was crawling with "scenesters and assholes." Other events, like the Battle of the Bands, prompted a further gap between who was cool and who was not. After 1996, when the pertinent people graduated and moved away, the scene vanished with them. But Loren is still haunted by the ghost of it.
Music never really goes away though. As long as people listen to music, people will play music. Willing and able to build the scene back up again, Loren looks to have made a good start. Creating the on-line Hyde Park Musicians List (musicians.uchicago.edu), Loren hoped to create a forum where people can communicate and help each other out rather than compete with one each other. The list alone takes Loren at least 10 hours a week to manage. Along with that, Loren helps record and produce other area bands. Call him up, and he's willing to do it all for free, providing that you're nice. He's learning from history and trying to safeguard the community from spiraling down the pipes.
After dinner, we listen to a song in progress entitled "Your Perfect Voice Says Goodbye." It marks a new direction for Starlister. It's going full throttle indie-rock. With more emotional singing, more varied sections, and an intro and outro, it's a leaning toward a full-fledged emo-ballad. Starlister may have outgrown their simple 1-2-3 formula of pain-veiled fun, and are moving toward the emotional core of Loren's heart. It's dark, and it's the type of music that Loren is dying to write, but sadly it lacks the pop immediacy that he's done so well with on the seven other songs Starlister has been performing. Starlister, just like other Hyde Park bands, is constantly evolving, and one wouldn't want to have it any other way. It's more than just beginner's luck that they have come this far. Trust me that one day they will be among the list of stars.
Upcoming shows for Starlister
Friday, May 3rd, 8pm, Beat Kitchen, 2100 West Belmont (at the "Hyde Park Music" showcase).
Thursday, May 9th, 8 p.m., Fireside Bowl, 2648 West Fullerton (all ages show).
Friday, May 10, 9 p.m., live on WHPK, 88.5 FM.
Tuesday, May 14, 5 p.m., Lollapalivingroom festival at Reynolds Club (a two-day festival).