Starflyer 59's plainspoken words are the window into Jason Martin's old soul
Starflyer 59's Jason Martin was born to be old. Drop the needle anywhere on the band's discography — 16 albums, several EPs and singles since 1994 — and the withering and enlightening effects of time emerge as a singular theme across heavy shoegaze, hazy California-style Britpop, and dreamy rock and roll.
"I've always been kind of an old soul," Martin, 48, chuckles in his Southern California accent. "Even when I was a kid, I would rather hang out with my dad and his cronies talking about the Navy in the '50s than hanging out with my current buddies. I always thought I was older than I was."
Even the band name recalls a bygone era: raised on '50s nostalgia in the '80s, "Starflyer" sounded like something Martin might find on the cover of a classic comic book. "Plus I was into bands like Galaxie 500," he adds. "It was like, 'You gotta put a number next to the name.'"
After a decade settling into a stripped-down sound — and collaborative detours with Pedro the Lion's David Bazan (Lo Tom) and Demon Hunter's Ryan Clark (Low & Behold) — Starflyer 59's 16th album released this month, Vanity, takes Martin's plainspoken lyricism and makes it far more intimate by bringing his voice to the front of the mix. "Life In Bed" revisits a younger version of himself with a plodding melody that crests with distorted guitar bends, while sustained piano and dreamy guitar lift "Like to Lose" out of endless defeat. On "Hey John," he sings directly to his dad, a blue collar trucker who inspired Martin, and died a little more than a decade ago. Time, mortality, and nostalgia come into sharper focus on the album in a way that, Martin admits with typical self-effacement, makes him uncomfortable, but helps him process life, faith, and purpose.
As someone who's been listening to Starflyer 59 ever since I hit play on the band's feedback-ridden, bummer 1995 B-side "Next Time Around," with Vanity, I know more about Jason Martin now than I ever have. After sitting with the band's music for so long, I picked five songs that show how Martin's relationship with time has changed — from musing on youthful waste and taking in fatherly wisdom to reflecting on how time is spent and the responsibilities that come with its passage.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
"Stop Wasting Your Whole Life / Messed Up and Down" from Gold (1995)
You got old, Now don't die
I'm leaving tonight, I'm leaving tonight
Lars Gotrich, NPR Music: You were 23 when you released this record. What were you listening to?
Jason Martin: I liked the riffs of Black Sabbath and the melodies of the Boo Radleys — kind of a goofy combo. I just wanted heavy music with prettier chords, so that was what I was attempting to do. I don't know if I actually did it, but that was the idea back then.
The way you wrote about time during the '90s was more concerned about space ... taking too much time to do something or think about someone or some idea. It's self-absorbed in the way that a young 20-something is self-absorbed.
[Laughs.] Yes, correct. That is correct.
How did you think about age as a young man?
I've always felt kind of out of my age group. I had buddies in high school — it's really silly when I look back on it, but we'd all meet in my garage and I'd be telling them all this fake wisdom, pretending like I was the 60-year-old guy. It's pretty funny. I've always been an old soul. I can't remember pretending like I was young, like even when I was ten. [Laughs.]
Feedback and distortion were such key elements of this era. This music is heavy, loud and smothering, yet tender. But listening back now, I wonder if those layers of sound were a cloak or a comfort for whatever was going on in your life.
It was for sure a cloak to cover my lack of ability. I never wanted to be a singer. I don't know if I can even call myself a singer, and I'm not trying to sound fake humble; it's never been something I've loved doing. I think all the layers were just a way to get the vocals part of the music. But I understand, [if] you're a band, you've got to have vocals. So it was never really my intention. I just wanted to play guitar.
"Fell in Love at 22" from The Fashion Focus (1998)
This is our life, our old times
For years, I thought this song was about falling in love. It wasn't until I got older that I realized "Fell in Love at 22" was essentially a song about your dad, John. Tell me about your dad.
He was 22 when he married my mom. She was 16. They were married for 50 years. It was just me hoping that I could have the same thing: me being a young guy wanting a wife and kids and all that kind of stuff and seeing how it worked out for my dad. I always looked up to my dad. It wasn't that he was anything so special; he was just a blue collar guy, and I thought he was really funny. And, I don't know, just a guy I wanted to be like.
Your dad started a trucking business in 1976, and you started working for him as a teenager.
I mean, it wasn't really by choice when I was 16. I remember sleeping in during the summer and he's like, "No, you're going to take this box to LA." [Laughs.] I didn't really choose it; it chose me.
My brother Ronnie and I took [the business] over 15 years ago or something. Then my brother moved to Ohio to be a pastor, so now it's just me. Maybe I'll get a couple of dudes, but yeah, I took it over. It's one of God's greatest miracles, man — water to wine — and the fact that this crummy company is still around is kind of unbelievable, to be honest, but pretty funny.
Has your son joined the trucking business?
You know, [my son] Charlie's a lot like me. He's going to college right now, so trying to have him finish that up and if nothing looks better, the grass is greener somewhere else, you know? We'll see about him coming on board. I don't know if I want to put him through that. [Laughs.] It's been there to take care of my family and stuff. I shouldn't complain.
"All My Friends Who Play Guitar" from Leave Here A Stranger (2001)
So this is what you do for a name
You wanna waste your life in a country and fly around on a plane
I did the same, I drove in cars and flew around on planes
Leave Here a Stranger turned 20 this year. It was recorded in mono, like Pet Sounds, which is something that folks always like to point out, but I've forgotten why you made that decision.
Every album I've got to have some reason to want to make another one. There's got to be some challenge of some sort. Our first few albums were heavy and we started getting out of that and I thought, "Man, let's make this one really, really not heavy at all," you know? Getting all '60s and stuff like that. So that was the mode, just trying to try to do something different for us to make the process of recording exciting.
"All My Friends Who Play Guitar" announces the album with such a flourish, but also lays out the theme: You've been in a rock band for all of your 20s, and now you're wondering why you're still in a rock band. Did you see burnout in your friends who made music and think, "This is who I am or will be"?
Half of your year is spent, you know, "When's your next fly out? When's the next time you're going on tour?" For me, it was kind of overwhelming. I just personally never loved doing it. When that album came out, I had my first kid. I was like, "Oh, man, I really don't want to go driving around New Mexico for the next two months." But this is what you do when you're putting things out. You look at it like a snapshot and you're like, "God, this is my year." It kind of bummed me out a little bit.
The guitar slide that sounds like the end of a Looney Tunes cartoon always makes me laugh, as if to say, right from the start, "That's all folks!"
[Laughs.] Funny stuff, to me, is the best stuff. The whole idea of doing music is just kind of silly. It's hard to explain. I'm the last guy that should be putting myself out there, like, look at my art or something. It's kind of narcissistic of me to want people to like my music. I just like making it.
But does writing songs help you process life? Does it help you to make sense of how you're thinking about your family or about God?
Yes, it talks my way through it. I like getting together with a couple guys, making something and hearing it go through its stages. But most other things with it, I don't really like that much. I like the process. That's why, I guess, after 100 years, we're still doing it.
"I Love You Like the Little Bird" from Ghosts of the Past (2009)
Sometimes I feel, I feel so obsolete
Because the kids want a faster beat
And if I was free, free to leave
But it's my kids, they need to eat
Who is the little bird in this song?
Um [clears throat], I am the little bird. [Laughs.] Don't print it like that, for gosh sakes!
I'm a man of faith, I believe in Christ. I think it's in Matthew 6 when Jesus is telling the people, don't have anxiety. And there's the thing about the birds. [Eds note: "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" — Matthew 6:26] A lot of songs that I write are kind of that theme: I'm just trying to believe what the Bible would say about "Fear not, little flock."
It's a slow song about adapting to faster times, but it's also about coming to terms with responsibility as you age. I never knew that the coda at the end was essentially a reassurance.
Sometimes when I feel like I get too dark on something, I gotta bring it back to my faith. I'm not trying to preach to anybody or anything like that. But, yeah, I get anxious about things, and that's kind of the basic theme of that song.
"Sunrise" from Vanity (2021)
I'm usually happy in the morning time
Because the day's problems fill up my nights.
I've always liked your singing voice, but it's usually mixed low or, in the early days, completely buried. What changed for this record?
[Our producer] TW Walsh did that. I didn't really sing any differently than I've ever sung, but when he started sending stuff back, the vocals were very present, so it kind of threw me off a little bit. The songs were built around the vocals this time instead of the music. That makes me uncomfortable, but that's something that a Starflyer record was never really about until this one.
TW Walsh is on keyboards. Steven Dail's back on bass. That's a few records that your son Charlie's drummed on now.
He's great, man. I can't beat the convenience and the price.
This is your version of making your son become a trucker.
[Laughs.] 100%. He loves doing it. But yeah, I guess it is my version of like, you know, there's not really a choice in the matter. It's just a built-in drummer. You know, what am I gonna do?
"I'm usually happy in the morning time / Because the day's problems fill up my nights." This hit me like a ton of bricks. Like you, I am also older now: have a family, have a job, have responsibilities. The thing that resonates most about this lyric is that it's not a young person's perception of time but that the weight of time now is cumulative.
I'm always trying to talk to myself in all these songs; I get a tad of the blues sometimes. It's kind of been that theme forever: This is the way I feel, and this is the way I don't want to be. I'm trying to have the right perspective, which I don't have most of the time. I hate being too Christian and preachy, but this is a new day that the Lord has made. I'm just trying to make the best of it.
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