Back in high school, Shawn Christensen became fascinated with a girl whose name was all over the local newspapers. Though his "lawyer" won't let him give out all the details, her story was loaded with all the drama of an after-school special.
Years later, he decided to name his band after her.
Simultaneously innocent and dark, wide-eyed and angsty, Christensen's band Stellastarr* does capture something of teenage tragedy. But while their namesake's tale is one of rashness and confusion (ending with her boyfriend's suicide), Stellastarr* the band takes a brighter path. With elements of power-punk and New Wave, the four New Yorkers take the energy of frilly '80s pop and mix in darker strains that call to mind the Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen.
"I think there are a lot of bands that are influential as far as our sound goes, a lot of New Wave bands. It's not really the emptiness of New Wave that we're interested in, not really the negative space. It's more of the sort of the synthy sounds and the guitar sounds that they got out of there, even though we don't have a synthesizer," said Christensen, the lead vocalist and guitar player, in a phone interview. "At least, we're subconsciously influenced by those things because we were kids in the '80s. We grew up on it."
Negative space? It should be noted that they've all got art-school backgrounds. Amanda Tannen (bass, vocals), Arthur Kremer (drums) and Christensen met while they were studying at the Pratt Institute in New York City.
"We're snobby artists," Christensen said sarcastically. "We're opinionated. We're constantly taking perfectly good pop songs and fucking them up. Sometimes we fail; sometimes it comes out like a pop song anyway. Sometimes we really do a job on it.
"When we formed a couple years ago, we used to write these huge six-minute epic songs, gigantic opuses. We kind of grew and understood our limits after a while. When we originally started out, we could have played a five-song set and it would've lasted forty-five minutes."
Michael Jurin (guitar, vocals) studied film at Temple University and walked into their lives at just the right time, when they were forming in early 2000.
"Michael lived in Arthur's old apartment," Christensen recalled. "He just came out of the sky, like a gift from heaven. I refused to start a band unless I found a good enough guitarist. I'm really picky with this sort of thing. It's like, if you have a guitarist who's jamming with you and all he listens to all day is Van Halen, that's great and all, but I'm not going to exactly vibe with that guy. I do own a couple Van Halen albums, but that's not exactly what I'm looking for. Michael's huge into Jesus and Mary Chain; he's huge on the Pixies. I knew that when he was going in there. And it just fit."
Plans to add a keyboard player - to fill out their New Wave sound - are, at least for now, on hold.
"I tried to bring a keyboardist in last year. She was a hot chick. It was great," Christensen said. "They turned me down. I think they knew I was dating her. They kind of caught me and I was like, 'Ah, whatever. Fine. Fuck it.' Definitely later on down in the game there will be keys, but not necessarily for all the songs."
Their delicious, catchy sound is not what you might expect from a band based in garage-rock-central New York. Three-way vocal harmonies, massive, intricate compositions and bright, jangling guitar lines are trademarks of their sound.
"We're not really like a fucking, Hey, man, this is such a New York-sounding band or whatever. We come from New York, but we've been on a couple of these garage-rock bills [with bands like the Mooney Suzuki] and we don't quite fit - kind of like the round peg in the square hole."
Christensen's not complaining about any associations with the New York scene, though.
"I think it's fucking fantastic. I mean, I think it's great in theory. I think it's great for someone in fucking Omaha to be like, Oh, there's this New York scene and Stellastarr*'s a big part of that.
"The reality is that I don't know any of these other bands people talk about. I've seen maybe three out of the, I dunno, maybe twenty or thirty that people talk about, and out of the twenty or thirty, I'd only heard of maybe one or two of them before they started getting a lot of press. It's such a huge city."
Playing in New York and other East Coast cities, they've garnered a small and loyal fan base. They've even got their own New Wave guy, complete with sunglasses, skinny white tie and all black outfit, who pogo-ed around in front of the stage at their Dec. 20 show at the Knitting Factory. Christensen's got his share of girl fans, too, like the decked-out threesome that stood in front of me at the same show and giggled when one giddily recounted, "I saw him! I looked up and he was right there!"
They've just released their official debut, a teaser three-song EP, Somewhere Across Forever, which should keep their fans satisfied for a while. They've also put out a few EP's themselves. But Stellastarr* completed an album last June with producer Tim O'Heir, who's worked with Sebadoh, Juliana Hatfield and Radio 4.
"We've had an album in the can for a few months and we're really disappointed that the album hasn't been released," Christensen explained. "Tiswas funded the album, we cut the album. [Tiswas owner Nick Marc] blew his load on the album, and the second we were done, there was no money to release it, distribute it, promote it, publicize it, or anything. We were basically just in no man's land. Tiswas had enough money to release this tiny EP, and we went for it.
"We did an industry showcase [in August]...and industry people just came out of the walls. Luna Lounge was packed; there was a line out in the street. And ever since then, we've had meetings all the time. We're shopping it, and we have plenty of choices. It's not going to be on Tiswas Records. We love Tiswas, but they don't have the funds, and ... people are offering us much better, brighter, colorful deals."
With the future glimmering before them, what's next for the foursome that is, at least according to their press release, about to go supernova?
"Ideally, we'd like to pen a deal with another label that's gonna promise to push [the album]," Shawn said. "We'd like to get it out by at the latest late spring, early summer and before it comes out, basically go on tour and just never come back. We want to leave New York, go on tour of the US and the UK, and just not come back for a long time."
Stellastarr* is on the bill with Apples in Stereo at the Feb. 7 show at the Bowery Ballroom. In the meantime, check out Christensen's artwork at www.shawnyboy.com. Some of his portraits of rock stars were on display at the Luna Lounge earlier this year. "I'm pretty infatuated with rock," he said.