Ask Jay Starr what his musical goal is and you’ll hear lots of talk about capturing the ephemeral. He’ll talk about some of his benchmark albums, like Electric Ladyland, Revolver or Outlandos d’Amour, and he’ll tell you that it isn’t so much the sound of those albums — although it’s that, too — but it’s the fact that the albums caught bands at their peaks: still hungry, yet successful, still young, but accomplished.
Starr is the de facto leader of original power trio the Sons, an act from the southside of Chicago with roots that stretch several years back over several lineups. At times in their history, the Sons sounded reggae (drummer Dan Starr, Jason’s brother, finds influence in dub reggae and ’70s-era funk); at other times, they had a spacey, funk-pop sound based around a horn section. It wasn’t until a year and a half ago, when Starr took over as primary songwriter, that the group began to focus more on a basic rock groove. Though they still incorporate horns from time to time in their live shows, the Sons now sound more Urge Overkill than Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“It took us awhile to get it together; once our singer left, we started writing songs with more of a rock vibe but kept that highly rhythmic reggae feel,” Starr says. “Being a trio means there’s a lot of space to fill, but there’s a lot less hassle. Now, we’re writing songs rather than jams.”
On the Sons’ latest CD, a four-song demo self-produced and released in late 2002, the band flexes newfound confidence on “Custom Made Queen,” delivering lines like “You’re everything I’ve ever wanted / but I can never find the words to say,” against a hybrid of fuzzed-out guitars and clean, acoustic lines. “Mr. Clyde” alternates between a classic early ’90s alt-rock vibe and a reggae groove, while “Beatles Fan” offers up veiled ironic commentary on the scenester posing of indie rock (“Pretty girls doing nasty things”) set against adrenaline-charged guitars and slinky, layered harmonies.
“We try not to overanalyze or dissect what we’re doing in certain songs,” Starr says. “We’ve got that hard groove, but there are still melodies and lyrics, too. When it works, there’s a certain magic. You don’t question it.”
The Sons’ sound is open and fluid, not dictated by the whims and fancies of a test market of 12-year-old suburban girls. Old Led Zeppelin bootlegs are just as likely to influence them as is Funkadelic’s Funkadelic or Frank Black’s jittery sarcasm.
“Music is a form of expression,” says bassist Frank Pratt. “It’s something in you that has to come out. You try to paint with airwaves, manipulate them, but you have to be open for anything.”
As things come together musically for the Sons, the Starr brothers and Pratt are beginning to think about the bigger picture outside of Chicago. “I have a real passion for it to last,” Pratt says. “But some things you gotta make happen and others you gotta let happen.”