Starflyer 59: Hey, Are You Listening?

For more than 25 years, Jason Martin has been writing songs about writing songs in Southern California. As the principal member of Starflyer 59, his MO’s been direct: treats songs like math: chords + melodies and riffs + tasteful orchestration=albums. On paper, that might sound droll and workaday, but in practice, it’s anything but. While Starflyer’s early, reverb-drenched albums, named Silver and Gold for their monochromatic album covers, fit neatly into the shoegaze movement, it didn’t take long for Martin and assorted company to outgrow that mold, blooming into one of the truly essential—if largely unknown—forces in indie rock. With 1996’s Americana, Martin began incorporating elements of traditional hard rock, before taking an extended detour into new wave and retro-pop bliss, a path which culminated with his masterpiece, the Beach Boys and Byrds evoking Leave Here A Stranger in 2001, mixed in period-accurate mono.

But it’s 2003’s Old (which featured the keyboard work of the late Richard Swift) that most directly ties to the Young In My Head, the band’s new album, due out April 26. Like that record, it finds Martin exploring faith and the passing of time via honest and searching lyrics. “I remember in 2000/When I was just 28/Cause I’ve always been that age/Moving on and moving forward/Cause I know someday I’ll be gone,” Martin sings on the title track. Though members of his dedicated cult fan base, obsessives who treasure every alternate cut, side project, and obscure single, won’t be surprised to hear him reflecting on age yet again, the record finds Martin speaking more bluntly about the subject than ever before. “I had my turn/Stayed longer than most/Longer than I should have/Cause I’ve never known how to let go,” he sings on “Remind Me.”

All that might sound dire, but for those accustomed to Martin’s fatalistic melancholy, it’s business as usual. Which isn’t to say the record sounds rote. Recorded with bassist Steve Dail and keyboardist TW Walsh (with whom Martin plays in the band Lo Tom alongside David Bazan of Pedro the Lion), it’s a vital sounding addition to the band’s catalog. From the slippery guitars of “Junk” and “Cry,” to the charging “Smoke,” and the harmonica-led new wave of “Wicked Trick,” Young In My Head finds new relevance in treasured sweet spots. And decades in, SF59 still surprises: Charlie, Martin’s 16-year-old son shows up to provide drums.

Though Starflyer’s discography mostly speaks for itself—it’s had to, as Martin is not a fan of giving interviews—we caught up with him to discuss the new album, making music after all these years, and what keeps him from feeling “young.”

Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve been releasing music as Starflyer 59 for 25 years. In “Hey, Are You Listening,” you sing that you’ve worn your heart on your sleeve that whole time, but it’s hard not to read the lyrics as a comment on the act of putting music out into the world and not necessarily feeling like it’s being received. You’ve got a cult fanbase, one that hangs on your every musical note, but I get the sense you do this for yourself first and foremost. When you sit down to write a song in 2019, what’s your motivation?

Jason Martin: Yeah, it’s been a long time doing this. It wouldn’t be completely honest for me to say I write songs just for myself. Obviously, it’s nice for people to like what you have worked on. My main motivation, though, has not really changed much over the years, I just like the process of writing and recording and for better or worse I get satisfaction from hearing the end result.

AD: Has it changed over the years since you started releasing records?

Jason Martin: It’s a cycle. When I was young I was just glad somebody wanted to release the record. A few years in, you get caught up in wanting to be more successful, and then now being older, it’s kind of back to where it started, just happy someone wants to still put out the record.

AD: There are these phases in the SF59 discography — the early shoegaze stuff of Silver and Gold, the retro-pop of The Fashion Focus and Leave Here a Stranger, the almost prog vibe of Old, and then a long period of beautifully streamlined rock songs. I hear little traces of all of those sounds on this record, minus the extreme distortion of the early records. Putting this record together, did you find yourself going back and revisiting the records you’ve released in the past?

Jason Martin: Not really, I don’t think our records have really changed that much over the years, they have just gotten more polished. Not sure if that is better or worse, but I don’t really have too many tricks up my sleeve. There are chord changes that I like and have always liked, but if this record has more of an old Starflyer feel to it. I’m into that.

AD: What influenced you in regards to those chord progressions? Beach Boys? Surf? Pixies?

Jason Martin: I grew up listening to Christian bands like Daniel Amos, then discovered bands like the Pixies, the Smiths, and New Order, obviously many others…but when I started writing tunes, I always leaned in that direction with chord changes and melodies and don’t think I’ve moved much past that after all of these years.

AD: Listening to “Remind Me,” perhaps the most autobiographical song I’ve ever heard on a SF59 record, you sing about all your songs being “gone.” Does hearing this record, and hearing your son playing on it, remind you why you play music?

Jason Martin: Absolutely! He was excited to play on the record, and it is almost a snapshot of myself 30 years ago when I started recording. When you do something this long you forget that the reason you first started doing it in the first place was to have fun. Going full circle, having my son be the young excited one to be playing, really made the process enjoyable for me.

AD: Age has long been a theme in SF59. This record makes a number of references to the passing of time, but what does “Young In My Head” refer to? Are you talking about feeling younger than you actually are? Does making music put you in touch with your youth in some way?

Jason Martin: It’s not that I feel so young, but time goes by fast. I would have thought by now I would have more things figured out, but I really don’t feel much different than I did 20 years ago…Head is the same, body is just older.

AD: Recently, you started Lo Tom a band with old pals of yours, David Bazan, TW Walsh, and Trey Many. Did playing with those guys influenced this record?

Jason Martin: I think it did a bit. Bazan and TW Walsh are more minimalists as far as tracking, less is more…There are still layers on the record because it wouldn’t be a Starflyer record without that, but I did keep certain parts to a minimum, which definitely was something I liked from the Lo Tom recording experience.

AD: In “Smoke,” you sing, “Why do I do/what I do/I don’t know, man.” That’s a perfect SF59 lyric. One of the most interesting things about your records from the last decade is the way you’ve really begun to “say things” with your songs; there’s a focus on lyrics that isn’t necessarily there on the early albums.

Jason Martin: Thanks man, early Starflyer was instrumental music with vocals in a way…I think as I’ve gotten older I have focused on the “song” more than the music.

AD: You’ve always sung about making music—it’s meta-commentary on the practice of being a band. Why do you think this thematic lane has been so appealing to you?

Jason Martin: Because I’ve often wondered in my mind…. why am I doing this?

AD: What answers do you come up with when you ask yourself that?

Jason Martin: I guess I just like the idea of the process, but every time I’m working on a record I say to myself, “This is the last one, it’s too tedious”…then time goes by and I forget and then I say to myself, “I should work on another record.” words/interview/j woodbury

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