Interview: stellastarr*

Having triumphed over a bout of debilitating panic attacks, Shawn Christensen and stellastarr* are back with a new album and a renewed sound.

Photo by Phil Knott

For most bands, the biggest obstacles in the studio are usually personnel issues, uncooperative gear or maybe a bad case of writer's block. But for stellastarr* front man Shawn Christensen, it was something else entirely.

"I had panic and anxiety attacks for a year, and it tightened my throat to the point where it was hard to breathe," Christensen explains. "As a result, I sang in the middle register for most of the record to avoid strain. But my voice is fine now."

Now on the mend, Christensen and stellastarr* holed up at Mission Sound Recording in Brooklyn during the early part of 2008 to record their latest, Civilized (Bloated Wife, 2009), with producer Tim O'Heir and engineer Oliver Strauss.

To capture Christensen's distinct vocals, the team used a Shure SM57 mic run through a Neve mic pre to an Empirical Labs Distressor and occasionally an EMI TG12413 compressor. A Neumann U 149 using a similar chain took on the backing vocals of bandmates Michael Jurin (guitar) and Amanda Tannen (bass). Drummer Arthur Kremer's Yamaha drums employed a variety of mics in the studio, including an AKG D 112 in the kick, Neumann KM 100s on the toms and Microtech Gefell UM 70s on the overheads.

All of this specific mic work went through a Neve 8026 board with 1073 modules (which used to belong to legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin, according to Christensen). O'Heir and Strauss tracked the session to Digidesign Pro Tools at 24-bit/88.2 kHz on a dual/2GHz Mac G5.

The sessions began with Kremer's drum tracks, which took about a week; the rest of the process was "pretty free form" as Christensen puts it, from Tannen's bass lines to Kremer's keyboards: a Casio, a Hammond C3, an ARP Solina and an old Celeste. "We really relied on the console for tracking, as well as the natural ambiance of the room," Christensen says.

As for guitars, Christensen confirms that stellastarr* "is a Fender band nowadays," his main axe a black Telecaster run through a Fender DeVille amp; Jurin opts for a Jaguar through either a DeVille or a Vox AC30. "That surfy, new-wave sound—that's courtesy of Fender," Christensen says.

Once stellastarr* had the album's main footprint solidified, the band sent it to Atomic in Long Island City (Queens) for mixing on a Trident 80B. "Most effects were plug-ins, [with] SoundToys, Digi and Waves being the faves," Christensen says. "There were no samplers or replacers used, with the exception being on the song 'Robot. But robots are not organic." [Laughs.]

In keeping with that more mechanical tone, Christensen says that Civilized is not only more raw musically than previous efforts but also more controlled. "Most of the tracks deal with human issues on a logical, unemotional level&dmash;solving problems through math or technology, not gut feelings or raw emotion," he says.

Technology is something Christensen is also interested in when it comes to stretching stellastarr*'s reach beyond the traditional boundaries of radio. In addition touring behind Civilized for the rest of this year, the band is eyeballing other methods of promoting its music; the band already confirmed the placement of the single "Graffiti Eyes" on the TV series Gossip Girl.

"I don't believe radio will ever die, at least I hope not," Christensen says. "But the amount of rock radio stations in America has been cut by more than half; that's literally half the amount of exposure a band could've received five years ago. It's very depressing. So absolutely we're looking into other mediums: movies, television, video games ... that's the new radio."