Ready to Kill Mice:
The Starlite Desperation
Nathan T. Birk
Seemingly wishing for the cherished form to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, rock ‘n’ roll’s one-time proponents have increasingly waxed cynical about how “rock is dead.” And, for the most part, this is sadly true, but it also depends on how you define “rock” and “dead.” With the former term, there’s really no shortage of bands playing rock in the structural sense: from the Goo Goo Dolls to the Estrus Records stable, people are still writing and playing songs that utilize rock’s components (chords, tempos, etc.), by extension being rock bands. But with the latter term is where things become complicated. On one hand, you have the revisionists/retreads — bands who milk a given idiom (e.g., garage rock) for all it’s worth, merely copping a sound and style that guarantees the credibility of cool; essentially, scant homage paid to a now-tired tradition. Then, on the other hand, you have the crass pranksters/ironicists — tongue firmly planted in cheek, bands who cop the ethos and clichés of rock ‘n’ roll as some sort of postmodern in-joke; essentially, pissing on a shallow grave.
However, one band is currently proving to be rock ‘n’ roll’s life support: the Starlite Desperation. Formed in 1995 in Monterey, California, the Starlite Desperation have been quietly perfecting their craft over the course of three singles and two albums (’98’s Show You What a Baby Won’t ; Go Kill Mice , released this past February), not so much fumbling upon a sound as subtly tweaking it during that time. And in the context of rock’s history, no word was more appropriate than “tweaked” when the band released their debut album as a two-guitars/no-bass trio. Skeletal for sure, that album none-too-quietly displayed a band in full grasp of their aesthetic, subtly referencing rock’s good past (the Scientists, Television, pre-’75 Rolling Stones) while injecting unfathomable amounts of charisma, cleverness and élan into it. Between vocalist/guitarist Dante White’s slyly acid-tinged lyrics and desperate ghost-town crooning, his dynamic Tom Verlaine/Richard Lloyd-esque interplay with guitarist Dana Lacono, and drummer Jeff Ehrenburg’s muscular, sweaty throb, there was little room for improvement.
Or was there? Beginning the new millennium with the proverbial bang, Go Kill Mice proved there was even more gunpowder left in the Starlite Desperation’s can(n)on. In the between-album interim, Lacono departed due to familial obligations but was replaced by bassist Yasmine Smith, and the band subsequently relocated to Detroit Rock City — a fitting move, indeed. Though her entrance could’ve begot an aesthetic redirection, Smith instead gave the band’s sound the low-end punch in the gut it didn’t necessarily need but could only benefit from, in turn becoming the logical co-conspirator with Ehrenburg’s already weighty pulse; add to that a heightened sense of dynamics, and there’s absolutely nothing to fuck with. Doubtless, Go Kill Mice will stand as one of the year’s finest albums.
Once again teaming up with the Make-Up for a guaranteed-to-be-raucous tour (this time, of the Southeast), the Starlite Desperation stand poised for the supreme, ever ready to kill mice — the slack competition, that is. Before heading off for that tour, the soft-spoken, infinitely nice White took time out to discuss life after showing you what a baby won’t.
First off, how’s Detroit treating you guys?
They’re treating us much better than we expected.
Would you say they’re more privy to rock ‘n’ roll than California was?
I guess. I mean, they’re more privy to the kind of rock ‘n’ roll we play, that’s for sure. Our following in San Francisco was getting pretty good. And we went back to play there around New Year’s Eve — that was a full show and everything — it’s just the same as we are treated here [Detroit]. We’ve been getting a lot of good press and respect, and we’ve made a lot of friends. They’ve been treating us rather nicely.
So, how would you compare the West Coast rock scene to Detroit’s? Granted, Detroit has that legendary tradition of the Stooges, MC5, and what not…
I don’t how much that tradition affects their perception of us, but it almost seems like it does. It seems like there would’ve been a stereotype, and it seems like it’s true. But I don’t know; maybe it’s another thing. Maybe it’s the Midwestern mentality or something, it seems like audiences are a lot less self-conscious here, and you feel more of a direct connection to who you’re playing to, I’d say.
Did the move to Flapping Jet Records [the band’s newest label] necessitate the move to Detroit, or vice versa? Or are the two not related at all?
I’d say the two aren’t really related at all. GSL wasn’t able to do it at the time and Flapping Jet was — they were two completely independent decisions.
Relatingly, how did you feel about being on GSL? A great label, mind you, but it’s predominantly an artsy hardcore label. Did you ever feel like you didn’t “fit in” there? Or, considering most of the people who buy everything on the label buy it just because its name is on the record, did you feel like your band was viewed as something of a “novelty”?
Both. I mean, I don’t think we really fit in on that label, even though I like Sonny [Kay, owner of GSL] a lot. And I thought that the people that did like our record liked it for… odd reasons . Y’know, like “they’re making fun of rock” or something (laughs) — “isn’t that cool?!” Sonny actually voiced that pretty strongly. He said, “I think you guys could do much better on another label.” He actually said that before he put out that last 45 [“Hot For Preacher” b/w “(I’m Gonna) Waste Your Train” — highly recommended], so he wasn’t saying that as an excuse to get us off his back — he was just being honest.
With that in mind — because I’ve read some pretty ridiculous things in the shitty fanzine world about the first album — what were some of the most ignorant reactions the first album received? Do you think the GSL stereotype had anything to do with those reactions?
Probably, because if there’s some permanent label out there for us, they probably wouldn’t have sent records to a few of the zines that reviewed it. I forgot what this one review was, but it seemed like they missed the mark so much . I guess I didn’t read a lot of them, because most of the ones I read were pretty good.
What about the audiences with your last tour with the Make-Up — would you say they were the scene-y indie kids or people just generally interested in rock ‘n’ roll?
Both. That’s one of the good things about the Make-Up — they draw from so many different cliques. They draw from the scene-y indie kids who buy every single 7″ ever made to record collectors who are 50 years old. Their audience liked us a lot, but obviously I don’t have the conscious — or at least I haven’t attempted — the conscious mind-control powers Ian Svenonious has [laughs]. As far as the responses go, a lot of people were going for the Make-Up — that’s one of the things they’re going for. A lot of their music is much more “dance” oriented. They’re drawing from rhythms that were designed for dance parties and such — I mean, rock n’ roll is, too, but it’s a different feel.
Granted, much has been made, or will be made, about your move from a drums/two guitars lineup to guitar/bass/drums. Did this move affect how you wrote the new album, or were the songs already there and then altered for the new scope?
Well, if you listen to [the new] album, there’s at least two guitars on every song. From an album point of view, the only thing that’s different is that the bass has been added. The only thing that’s drastically different in terms of two-guitars-and-no-bass versus one-guitar-and-bass is our live setup right now. At least for the first leg of this tour, it’s still going to be that way — one guitar and a bass. It makes me a lot busier, that’s for sure. I have to pick and choose, make it sound as full as possible. Which is weird, because it seems we’ve been getting better responses than we’ve ever gotten before with this lineup, live. I wouldn’t be opposed to having a second guitarist with us for this tour — I just find it fun to play with another guitar player.
Now that the low-end the bass provides has been filled, do you like that freedom to multi-track the guitars on record?
Oh, yeah — I do.
Basically, was the album written before Yasmine joined the band?
No. I can see the song “Go Kill Mice” before she joined, but it didn’t really achieve fruition until after she joined.
How would you compare your satisfaction level with the first album to that of the new one? Anything better, worse? Change of aesthetic?
As far as the way it sounds, I think I definitely like [the new album] better — it’s fuller sounding. I think there’s a lot to listen to, as far as first impressions go. It can be felt more immediately — I think the low end has something to do with that. It’s hitting the low end and the high end at the same time, so I have more freedom to play higher notes. In terms of the way it sounds, I think I like it better. I think there’s still variety in terms of the way the songs sound. Maybe not as much as the first album, but then the first album, that was the culmination of two years, too, and most of those songs weren’t written with an album in mind and this one was, so it’s going to sound more unified. But I still think there’s enough variety in there. I don’t know — I think I like everything about it more.
At this point in time, do you think you’ve achieved the fullest fruition of the Starlite Desperation sound?
[Long pause] No, there’s still a lot of things I want to do.
[Longer pause] I want to become a better songwriter and have more sounds on the record — experiment with more, also experiment with less. I want to do things that are more minimal, and I want to do things that are more a wall of sound. And so far, everything I’ve done is pretty much in the middle.
What about lyrically — any new themes you want to explore?
Hmmm. No, the lyrics I write are pretty unconscious until the very last minute. I really don’t have any kind of agenda when it comes to lyrics.
Relating to that, I read somewhere that if you spoke the way you sang, you’d get arrested. Care to elaborate on that?
Oh, yeah. I said that when I was laughing [laughs]. The interviewer made some comment about how calm I spoke or how mild-mannered I sounded when I was speaking, which he said, “That’s not at all the way you sound when you’re singing.” I mean, you could probably say that about most singers. If I walked around, and for every single word I spoke at work or at a restaurant or bar, with a different note or I was screaming — that’s where that came from.
How about the origins of the band name? I find the desperation aspect really comes through in your vocals and the sheer drive of the music. Any tangible origins?
It’s kind of a juxtaposition of opposites, where there’s a whole lot of different meanings, like spleen and ideal — something that’s sought after and then the raw human emotion that accompanies that longing. Just something perfect and imperfect, something beautiful and something painful put together.
Do you think that juxtaposition comes through more pronounced in your lyrics and guitar style, consciously or unconsciously?
Probably, because I think the music is the truest expression of what I’m capable of expressing right now. I think, for the most part, the name is a pretty good summary, as far as a band name can be, of what we’re all about. Sometimes, the band name seems to be wearing a bit too much on the sleeve, y’know? At times, I think the name should be a bit more understated, but it’s too late to change it now [laughs]. Say you had a job, and you’re coming back to the job and your boss asks, “What did you do over the weekend?” Instead of saying “I went out, had a good time, felt kind of sick on Sunday,” or “I went out, got in a fight, had sex, and then I threw up” [laughs]…y’know, it’s too much description.
And relating to origins, I’m curious about the origin of the title Go Kill Mice . I see the metaphor in the title track about the girl “who eats up boys” — is this some sort of vindictive theme?
I suppose it touches on that because if I saw a human killing a mouse, I’d probably… throw stuff, and I have no reason to kill a mouse. But at the same time, I love cats and I’d never hurt a cat, but if I saw a cat killing a mouse, I wouldn’t stop it. So, it’s like certain things are acceptable at certain levels of life that are not at other levels. But overall, essentially it’s just a sexual, kind of predatorial-sexual metaphor, and it did originate from something I used to yell at my cat. I use to have this really cute cat — really fluffy, big eyes, and everything in the world was the craziest thing. Sometimes I used to yell at her in this insane voice “Go kill mice!” [laughs] It seemed like the most absurd thing for someone like that to kill a mouse, but I’d seen her do it before. Y’know, it’s just crazy that something that’s so stuffed-animal-esque to us could be this terrifying menace from hell to another creature, which is a mouse. And then the whole “are we mice or are we men?” thing. So, it’s just an ode-to-a-dangerous-woman kind of tableaux.