Celebrating 25 Years of Blue Collar Love: Starflyer 59’s Past, Present, and Future
At one point on Young in My Head, the upcoming fifteenth album from Starflyer 59, Jason Martin sings “It’s been 25 since I wrote ‘Blue Collar Love’ ” — and it’s a line that brings me up short. 25 years?! I’m suddenly transported to the summer of 1994, shortly after graduating high school. I’d just picked up Starflyer 59’s self-titled debut (aka Silver) after reading a review in CCM Magazine that compared it to the likes of Swervedriver and The Boo Radleys.
My first excursions into the shoegaze scene happened earlier that year, after borrowing a copy of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. (Which, coincidentally enough, I’d discovered thanks to Martin. MBV was mentioned in the liner notes of Jesus, the sophomore album by his pre-Starflyer project Dance House Children.) So to see a Christian album compared to that scene by the Christian music industry’s biggest publication… well, I took it as a sign that there was something special about this band.
I’m still surprised that cassette survived the summer. I listened to it constantly, day and night. (I worked as a night janitor, and the thick, distorted roar of Silver’s guitars perfectly complemented the roar of my vacuum cleaner.) But I couldn’t help it; I was still new to the idea of “Christian alternative” music, of music that existed outside the usual Christian praise and worship genres.
I couldn’t believe that it was Christians who were making music this vibrant, intense, beautiful, and dare I say, relevant.
Contemporary Christian music had convinced me that Christian artists played it safe while stuck in the past, doing their best (and failing) to copy whatever had been popular a decade earlier. And then I discovered artists like The Violet Burning, Mortal, and The Prayer Chain, and was pleasantly disabused of that notion. Finding Starflyer 59 was a progression of that. I couldn’t believe that it was Christians who were making music this vibrant, intense, beautiful, and dare I say, relevant.
Jump ahead 25 years, and much has changed. The heady days of the “Chrindie” scene as it was in the mid ’90s to early ’00s are long gone, hastened by the demise of festivals like Cornerstone, TOMFest, and Purple Door, those little parallel universes where bands too secular for the Church crowd and too religious for the secular crowd (like, ahem, Starflyer 59) played to hundreds and thousands of adoring fans (many of whom themselves probably felt out of place in both Church and secular circles).
Even so, Starflyer 59 has kept plugging along through the years, doing their own thing and making the music they want to make — which has resulted in fifteen albums and numerous EPs, singles, and compilation appearances. (When I asked Martin about his band’s longevity and impact, he demurred, in classic Jason Martin fashion: “Oh man, I don’t know… We are a pretty small band, I don’t think that we are too much on the radar.”)
Shoegaze, dreampop, surf, arena and classic rock, new wave, post-punk… all of those genres and more have been applied to the band’s music with equal accuracy. But despite the near-constant change that one hears while progressing through their discography, Starflyer 59’s songs simply can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s. That’s due, in large part, to Jason Martin’s own sense of musical nostalgia. “I have always liked certain guitar tones, certain chord changes,” he says when I ask about the new album’s production. “I don’t like change too much, the things I liked when I was in my early 20s I still like now.”
Despite the near-constant change that one hears while progressing through their discography, you simply can’t mistake a Starflyer 59 song for anyone else’s.
Martin has never been one to hide his influences — The Pixies, New Order, and The Smiths, as well as Christian artists like Daniel Amos, The Altar Boys, and Lifesavers — and after talking to him about the new album, it’s hard not to see Starflyer 59 as Martin’s attempt to explore and recapture the thrill that musical discovery gave him as a kid.
He talks about being fourteen and the impact of hearing New Order’s “Age of Consent” for the first time (“in a rental we were living in for a couple of weeks while our new house was being built”). But at the same time, there’s the realization that the past is ephemeral, unreachable. Or as Martin puts it, rather distressingly: “I don’t think there is the mystery left, the feeling of hearing The Smiths for the first time at 13 years old… You only get that once.”
That doesn’t stop him from trying, however. In light of that, the new album’s title — Young in My Head — seems even more apropos. The last few Starflyer 59 albums (e.g, Slow, IAMACEO, Dial M) featured songs that found Martin waxing nostalgic about his life and career and wondering where time has gone. Young in My Head often feels like the culmination of that line of thinking.
On the Jesus and Mary Chain-esque title track, Martin sings “I remember in 2000 when I was just 28/‘Cause I’ve always been, I’ve always been that age… Now I’m just young in my head/Where do I go to feel like I’m there again?” Later, on “Cry,” Martin hits something akin to an existential rock bottom: “The thought of being alone/Well, it makes me want to cry/And the thought of getting too old/Well, it makes me want to cry.” Finally, album closer “Crash” finds Martin reflecting, while backed by some of the album’s most searing riffs, on past mistakes and broken relationships (“For two long years I thought you ruined my life/And I saw all my mistakes and it made me realize/That everyone can crash”).
It’s hard not to see Starflyer 59 as Martin’s attempt to explore and recapture the thrill that musical discovery gave him as a kid.
But it’s “Remind Me” that serves as the album’s emotional core. At first, Martin seems resigned and regretful (“I had my turn/Stayed longer than most/Longer than I should have/‘Cause I’ve never known/How to let go”) but by verse two, he seems to have found some semblance of peace with his nostalgia.
It’s found, not in continually straining for an unreachable past, but rather, through inspiring the next generation. “I wanna work with my kid/Record all of his songs/‘Cause mine are all gone,” Martin sings against weepy synths; “And when I play guitar/I’ll play it on weekends/Write riffs with my son/Or some of my old friends.”
Those aren’t just words: Martin’s 16-year-old son, Charlie, actually plays drums on Young in My Head. And as Martin puts it, the collaboration just made sense: “Every time I was working out a new tune, me and him would start jamming together, and I just thought why not have him play on the record… He knows the songs better than anyone.” For Martin, music and memory are irrevocably linked, and recording with his son is another powerful example: “I don’t know how many more records there will be if any, so it is something we will always have, the memory of us making a record together.”
Sonically speaking, “Remind Me” is arguably the album’s most somber song, and yet there’s something peaceful about those final images of jamming with family and friends. There’s no sense of settling or complacency, but rather, the sense that Martin has nothing left to prove, and therefore, is perfectly fine with making music just for the simple joy of it.
(Interestingly, that sense of peace also seems to extend to Martin’s older recordings. “I wish I had done a ton of things differently musically,” he says concerning his decades-long career. “But that’s how it goes. You can’t change it, so in the last few years I just accept a lot of my old records which I could never really listen to after the fact as a moment in time and listen to them for what they are.”)
There’s an air of finality about Young in My Head, and if that’s truly the case, then those expecting Starflyer 59 to go out with some big flourish will likely be disappointed. There’s no radical reinvention here, as heard on albums like Americana, The Fashion Focus, and Leave Here a Stranger. But after all this time, is that really necessary?
At its heart, Young in My Head is yet another solid slab of songwriting from Jason Martin, replete with catchy melodies, noisy guitar riffs, and understated vocals. It’s everything you would expect from Starflyer 59 given their 25-year legacy as one of Christendom’s most consistent bands — nothing more and nothing less.