Starcadian on creating 'ear movies', his love of the 80s - and Grimsby
Starcadian is primarily a musician and music producer, but as you’ll read in this interview he’s also a writer, movie maker and special effects guy. Not only that, his albums have got me through a whole number of my scripts. I crank up my wi-fi, which is easier said than done in rural UK, and we get cracking.
It was my absolute pleasure to do this interview (I may have even done a little excited jig), as I’m a huge fan and have been watching his progress over the last few years. All the way from Brooklyn (via Grimsby), I’m delighted to present; Starcadian.
How do you view your unique style of music?
I like to describe it as ear movies. I basically make soundtracks to imaginary movies that I wish I had seen when I was younger. I like to visually, aurally and slowly tell a story with every lyric in every song.
And where did the idea come from?
As everyone wants to do when they're younger, I always wanted to get into music, but the realist side of me was like, "Okay, you should pick something more realistic to study and do that for a living." Stupidly enough, I picked visual effects, which is just as volatile as the music industry. I never let go of the music stuff and slowly but surely, I did my first album around 2010, after a long gestation period. It was okay. It wasn't quite me. Then, I just went back to the board and tried to figure out what exactly made me and what informed me when I was younger. I basically ended up with a really pastiche, '80s cheesy album. Then, I played it for my brother and he's like "That's a little too '80s. Where's the new stuff?" That blew my mind at the time. That's always been a driving factor to me. Take what I loved when I was young and try to propel it into something new and interesting. It might work, it might not. That set me on this path.
You mentioned your work in visual effects. Can you tell me a little bit more?
Yes, still got to pay the rent. I work on cool stuff from visualizations to commercials, some TV shows, some movies here and there. It's exciting, it’s fun work. It’s not as creatively free as music.
Moving back to music. You have recently released new album, the exceptional Midnight Signals. I have to say (again), I like it, a lot. How has it been received?
Thank you. I was actually very surprised, I guess, by the reaction because as I said before, I really wanted to push forward and to not do too much of an '80s thing this time. I was a little bit worried it was going to be taken the wrong way and people would drop like flies, but the complete opposite happened. I've pushed for this for two and a half years to make it as seamless as possible an experience and people seem to actually get the things that I was trying to come across with. It really moved me, so I couldn't be happier. I really wanted to dig into what makes a composition, what makes a song and what makes a narrative. Really pick it apart and try to put it back together in my own way. As always, with every album, every song, every remix, I'm learning more and more about production. After four years now, I think I'm at a point where I can say I think I understand what I'm doing. I think, at this rate, when I'm about 70, I'll be like, "I'm pretty good at what I do." Right now, I'm content being in a stage where I think I suck at everything I do, and I just bang myself up until the song gets really, really good. It is to my detriment, but as long as good sounds come out of it, I'm okay with it.
There's a lot of music and film influences in your music - can you talk us through some of these?
Music, at this point, I would say the biggest influence has been Sebastian, this French artist, that is just mind blowing to me. I think when I was younger my biggest bands, most important bands to me were Queen, Mr. Bungle and Soundgarden. They just all had this weird edge in them. I know a lot of them are played out now but when you're young and you're just a sponge, it doesn't matter if they're overplayed. The one movie that really shook me to my core lately has to be Mother!. I just have not seen a movie like that before, and I think, I won’t ever see a movie like that again. There's also a director called Jeremy Saulnier who makes amazing movies. One called Blue Ruin and the Green Room. They're just master classes in intention, anticipation, framing. It's one of those movies that you watch and you're like, "Okay, I remember when movies were good" rather than The Hornet Man Five of whatever the f*** is out at the moment.
In the music videos for He^rt, Chinatown and Interspace, there are reoccurring characters, who are all part of the extended universe of Starcadian’s grand plan – a feature length movie based on the story that takes us through the albums.
That evolved from a lot of brainstorming sessions with my co-director Rob O'Neill. We basically fleshed out a complete mythology. We wrote a script to Sunset Blood and we basically put together the story for Midnight Signals, which is a prequel to Sunset Blood. It all ties together and it is all one character. I want to slowly drip out what the whole universe is about.
It's a pretty interesting premise, but I don't want to just put it out there, I want people to discover it slowly and have their own ah-ha moments. Because, to me, art that does that, I appreciate the most. Art that does that without a master plan, I loathe the most. Because everyone can be cryptic and not have any substance, that's the easiest thing in the world. That's called surrealism. It's irrelevant to art. The trick is to make the great concept and then tease it and then have people find it by themselves and realize, "There was something there all along, it's not just made up on the spot," or as we go along.
Eventually there will be a movie.
Yes. Basically before every album, I sit down and I write the premise. Then, me and Rob flesh it out and we make sure that it's all kosher and it all ties in together. Then, the songs are written to complement scenes or characters or situations. Pretty much all the hints that one needs are in the album covers, in music trailers. It's all made purposely. It's not just bundling together resources.
As many of you reading this will know, sometimes writing a script is the equivalent of staring at a wall while someone flicks your ears, so how does script writing compare to that of writing music?
I actually find that much more enjoyable than music writing. It’s a lot easier not to be on the nose with script writing, I feel, believe it or not. I think there's a lot of potential with music, to sing something just so cringe worthy and cheesy and not know it. I think, with dialogue, at least you have at least one collaborator to be like, “That's a little stupid. Maybe we should not have him do a Mr. Exposition dialogue for three pages.” When you talk it out with someone, you can make something feel more naturalistic, more cohesive.
I think the one pitfall or the one difficulty with script writing is to write to your budget. Rob's fantastic advice is, "Don't worry about the money. Don’t worry about the song. Don't worry about anything. Just write what you want to write, what's great, what's a good idea, what flows and what’s correct for this. Just don't worry about that stuff." I tend to be more of a count how many light rigs I have and which one of my friends can be an extra that day? I tend to sometimes write very conservatively for visuals. Then, for music is when I go crazy. Because, well, there's no budget. I've already bought the plug-ins. It's all dependent on how long can I tolerate this song for. That's when I go fully theatrical.
[We talk about how I go all out on my scripts and sometimes go a bit wild, not even thinking about budget (any agents reading this – it’s just me flexing my writing muscles – honest!)]
It's such a tricky one. Also, at least with the music videos, the extra difficulty is, I have this mythology that I want to keep to. I also have to, basically, think on the fly with locations that just come to me. Like, for the Interspace video, we found this random rundown building and we broke in and shot this thing. The night before, I had to stay up all night and come up with why it's there, what's happening, how it connects everything else and work it out on the spot. That happens more often than not. When you don't have a location, it's very hard to come up with anything in a realistic, "I have to get this done in a month" kind of way.
Back to visual effects. You've made some awesome videos, really enhancing the world you are building with some amazing FX work.
Yes. We basically shot Interspace in one day and then, I edited the whole thing at night just to see if it holds up. We were like, "Okay, there's a big hole here." Then, I came up with the idea of a scavenger, which ties into some other stuff. We edited the whole thing really fast. Then, I basically came back home to New York and for a month straight, I slept like three, four hours a night and just manually tracked every CG shot, because the footage was a little - It had too much depth of field so I couldn't automatically track the face. I had to hand-animate and hand-match move the 3D face. It was a little bit of a hassle, but once you get into the routine, you just get faster and faster.
I first heard your work on the Channel 4 show – Sunday Brunch. They showed the video to He^rt as they went into an ad break – I was like, oooooo I like this – the rest is history. What happened there?
They contacted me out of nowhere [laughs]. It was so bizarre. They were like: "We would love to show your video, I’m like, "Okay. Have at it." God bless them.
Moving away from Tim Lovejoy, how would you feel about writing music for the movies?
Oh man, oh God, absolutely. Yes. I think there's something karmic about the way, sometimes, your passion project works. I think I've reached a point where I really want to concentrate just on music. I was at that point years ago, but I think I'm actually ready now, skill-wise. Everyone's their own worst critic and I could savage any song that you put in front of me of my own. I could tell you exactly why it's a complete failure. I think that the best place to thrive is in musical scores, thrive professionally and learning wise. There's so many opportunities for improvisation and learning new techniques and combination, new instruments that I just think it's going to be whole world for me to explore. Yes, I would love to jump on that.
Next year is going to be another big year, with another album and the possibility of some live shows.
Yes. It was 10 songs now and then 10 songs next year and maybe some other musical surprises between the two albums. Actually, today I'm working on one of the last few live show songs. It's not completely official yet but I will be starting with a show in Europe next year. I'm looking to start playing a lot of live shows.
[Okay, and now we finally get to talk about Grimsby – yep, that small coastal village up north]
Do you know where you might tour?
I can't quite say yet. It's going to be official in the next few days.
Okay, cool. I'll be there, if it's in the UK of course.
I'll let you know. I would love to. I actually lived in the UK for five years. If you can guess where, I'll send you the next album right now, and like express.
No, a lot more northern than that. Grimsby.
That was my second choice!
Grimsby and then Lancaster. Very, very strange choices but met a lot of lovely people and have a lot of great relationships from back then. I think I'm the only person that ever said, "I miss Grimsby."
I think you might be, actually.
I really think I’m the only person.
Even the people that live in Grimsby.
Have you seen any good films recently?
Yes, actually there's this new director - well, he's not that new, but I really think there should be a lot more fanfare behind him and I'm shocked that he's not on the tip of everyone's tongue. He's called S. Craig Zahler, and he directed Bone Tomahawk. Recently, he just released another one called Brawl in Cell Block 99 with Vince Vaughn.
I shudder at the thought of that scene.
It's fantastic, right? It starts and it's a little strange and theatrical and you're like, "I don't know if this is good," or "Is this abstract?" Then, it lulls you and then it just shocks you beyond belief. The tension, it's just amazing. Same thing with Brawl in Cell Block 99. I knew that it was two hours and 20 minutes. I knew how they were going to play the tension and it worked out beautifully. That movie is fantastic. I like Quentin Tarantino fine, I think he's a little bit overrated. I think, if anything, a movie like Brawl in Cell Block 99 is actually a five-star exploitation movie. That's actually how you do a five-star exploitation movie.
And it’s at that moment the 50p runs out on my wi-fi meter. Everything grinds to halt in rural UK and Skype freezes. So, I would like to say a massive thanks to Starcadian for taking the time out to speak to me and for appearing on the Exit 6 blog. If you haven’t checked him out yet, do, you won’t be disappointed.
You can follow Starcadian on Twitter: @SunsetBlood
Or for more information visit his official website.