Live on KEXP, Day 3: Stars of Track and Field

photos by Doron Gild
review by Sheryl Witlen
interview by Jim Beckmann

One of the truly lovely aspects of CMJ madness is the beauty of having so many different styles of music within a few blocks of each other. You can go check out the electronic stylistics of Crystal Castles, the manic dance movements of Fujiya and Miyagi or Soulwax, the moody toils of Deerhoof or Wye Oak, the fresh new talent of Ponytail, Passion Pit, Crystal Stilts, Starfucker or Bang Bang Eche. Then there are the bands like Stars of Track and Field who have been around the block and still find a way to keep us all coming back for more and making it fresh and enchanting all over again. For them CMJ is just another showcase for them to display what Illinois Entertainer stated as being “An inventive hybrid of evocative and blissful tunes with phases of puzzling despair that is simply a light and lovely collection.” Kevin Calaba (vocals, guitar), Jason Bell (guitar, vocals) and Daniel Orvik (drums) have recently left the dew covered streets of Portland, Oregon, for the congestion of New York City and have plans for an upcoming album hopefully to commence within the next year.

In the beginning, it was a bit of a struggle for the band who could have called it quits after the loss of a bassist, but instead they took the arduous and artist route armed with a positive outlook and creative minds they decided to go digital. Their self-released debut EP, You Came Here for Sunset Last Year, gained the attention and support of Tony Lash (previously worked with Dandy Warholds, Elliot Smith) and Jeff Saltzman (Stephen Malkamus). Pacific Northwest Radio was not far behind Tony and Jeff and helped promote the band with extensive air time turning fans onto their unique passion and crowds out for their live shows. Their debut album, Stars of Track and Field, was released on No Logo Records in 2003 to massive critical acclaim, but it was not until Centuries Before Love and War that their pure adroitness in adjustment to the changing music stylistics and curious enthusiasm really shone through with bristling clarity. For this 2006 release the band had help from Wind-Up Records after releasing their second album, You Came Here for Sunset Last Year (2005) with Mad Recordings.

After their performance, Jim snuck into their borrowed studio at the back of the Gibson showroom, where Kevin and Jason were rehearsing. Justin tagged along, videotaping for KEXP:

(Kevin holds up a small video camera)

Jim: So you’re going to film this also? That’s very “meta.” (To their confused looks) You know, when you become aware of something as itself, like when you’re reading a book and the author points out that you’re reading a book, or like when Ferris Bueller starts talking to the camera.

Jason: Is it short from “metaphysical”?

Jim: No, “metatheatrical.” Shakespeare did it, but it’s in a lot of theater, when somebody onstage would talk to the audience. So, filming each other. It’s enlightening, isn’t it?

(When Kevin points his camera at the KEXP camera, it shuts itself off.)

Kevin: It overloaded!

Jim: Just from doing that. It was too much to take.

Jason: Amazing. It’s like Schrödinger’s Cat.

Jim: Um, kinda of. I guess. What?

Jason: The cat’s in the box but you can never justify it. You can never watch something in its own behavior because once it realizes it’s being watched it changes its behavior. That was the physics proof, right? But the second the cat realizes it’s being watched, it immediately changes its behavior, so you can never watch anything in its natural state.

Jim: But what if it’s unaware?

Jason: It’s always aware.

Jim: Um… I don’t know…

Jason: Well…

Jim: But there could be a hundred people watching right now. You noticed the cameras in here, right?

Kevin: In this room? Our drummer thinks so.

Jim: What drummer? You don’t have a drummer. Maybe there never was a drummer. Perhaps it’s one of you, like a Fight Club kind of thing. Maybe one of you takes on a multiple persona.

Jason: I’m alone, actually.

Jim: This is a good way to start the interview… But we can’t really talk about the interview, that’s the first rule…

Jason: We can start it any time you like.

Jim: (referring to the studio) Right, bandwise, you guys are here, doing something, making music, somehow.

Kevin: (pointing to a marker board) Yeah, it’s right here.

Jim: What is it?

Kevin: This is our set for tomorrow.

Jim. How many new songs do you have worked out?

Kevin: “Worked out” is a very subjective term.

Jim: That you’re ready to roll tape on.

Jason: We recently rolled tape.

Kevin: Fifteen?

Jason: Fifteen, give or take 10 or 20.

Jim: Over the time that’s occurred since your last album came out, your debut, has much changed? You are obviously playing some songs from before, like you did today, and some new songs. Has much changed in the way you think about your music in the last year or so?

Jason: I think so. I think in the last six months things have changed, the process has changed. Moving to New York and the new experience of being here has factored into that. We’re more streamlined. We’re like a song factory right now. It’s really about getting great melodies and good solid rhythm tracks. We can sort out all the music and get everything sorted. It’s really about lyrics and the melody and the right feel. Before, we were like, “We have to get all the guitar parts correct, we have to get the piano parts correct,” but it turns out, that’s easy. We can do that. We’re actually musicians and I just learned that a little while ago, so we can get down to the real creativity and the rest will fill itself in.

Jim: That seems kinda interesting because New York is so full of musicians, and if you come to New York, you could have the opposite reaction, and say, “How can I be a musician when there are thousands of musicians already in this area.” But you had a good reaction, it sounds like.

Kevin: We were really fortunate. A lot of people back home were like, “Oh you’re moving to New York. You’re really fortunate to have something to do there already. You’re not moving there for the dream or to break through. You’re not moving there to do you’re thing. You’re doing your thing and you’re moving there.” And I haven’t met a single musician since I’ve been here.

Jason: We’ve been in this room for ten hours a day for six weeks in a row.

Kevin: I haven’t really met anyone. Well, I’ve met you.

Jim: I’m not a musician, though.

(awkward silence)

Jim: But, how do your Portland friends react to your moving? Are they cool with it? Do they think you have left the Portland scene?

Jason: I don’t know, I don’t think so. After we were finished with our show today, I was walking around the studio and I heard the DJ say, “That was Portland band Stars of Track and Field.” I think we’ll always be “the Portland band Stars of Track and Field.” Which is great. Portland is an awesome city. We didn’t leave Portland cause we got run out of town, like Pitchfork is saying. Portland’s great, and I think we’ll always be considered a Portland band, despite if we live in New York for ten years or five years.

Jim: What does your MySpace page say?

Jason: I don’t know. What does it say?

Jim: Portland.

Jason: I haven’t been on our MySpace page in months.

Jim: Isn’t that how people define a band?

Jason: I guess we can say we’re from New York now too.

Jim: Anyone who does even a little bit of research will find that it says Portland.

Kevin: Where would you consider the Shins are from? They’re a local band but they are from New Mexico.

Jason: I think if they weren’t good or they weren’t cool, Portland wouldn’t claim them. Portland’s like, “We got the Shins, we got the Decemberists.” Colin Meloy is from Montana.

Kevin: Where is [John] Roderick from? Pluto?

Jim: He may be watching!

Kevin: I love that guy.

Jim: Do you guys think you are going to stay here for a while?

Jason: I think so, we’ll see, we’re going to tour. When we finished Centuries Before Love and War, we toured something like 70,000 miles in the van. We did seven or eight US/Canadian tours. I think it was a little over a year and a half of touring. Hopefully with this next record we can do more touring, maybe get across to Europe or at least Russia.

(conversation devolves into imitations of Sarah Palin)

Jim: One question about your band name: Did you take that directly from the Belle & Sebastian song?

Jason: That’s actually not true.

Jim: Let’s clear the air, here.

Jason: Let’s clear the air about the name Stars of Track and Field. Although it does appear everywhere that we have taken the name from the song…

Jim: Because it seems unlikely with the sound of your music.

Jason: We sound nothing like Belle & Sebastian.

Kevin: Which would make it actually a good thing to do, if we were going to do that.

Jason: It would be cool then because it’s an homage thing, like “Oh, we’re Black in Black even though we don’t sound like AC/DC.” But actually it comes from Kevin’s uncle, who was a German decathlete, and he was in… what was it, the Munich Olympics?

Kevin: München.

Jim: Isn’t that Munich? That’s German for Munich. In America, we say Munich!

Jason: And he had those cool short shorts. Anyway, he was a fantastic athlete, Kevin’s whole family are German, obviously, and are all athletes, all track and field athletes. So, “Stars of Track and Field.”

Jim: But that’s been riding you for a while, I would assume.

Jason: People get it wrong and we don’t even bother to correct it. Most people think it’s cool. They just say, “That’s cool. I love that song.” We say, “Yeah, that’s a great song…. Now fuck off. Get out of here.”

Jim: Potentially, people who do like the sound of Belle & Sebastian might actually like the sound of you as well.

Jason: I think so, that would be cool. I think they are a great band.

Kevin: There was a man who sent us an email that was at least a page long. He was from here, from New York, discussing the “disgusting” over-the-limit use of that name that we had taken part in, that we had taken this name. He was really mad.

Jason: It broke his heart, really.

Jason: It affected me in turn.

Jim: Why did he care?

Kevin: Why isn’t he reading the newspaper about really important stuff?

Jim: Was he a fan of your music and couldn’t take the name?

Jason: He did not like the music.

Kevin: There was another guy on iTunes that kinda did the same thing. He said, “This is an awesome record, but I don’t know about these guys. They seem a little anti-American.”

Jason: Yeah, we were in Canada, doing a show and Kevin was saying to bring the troops home. This was right in the thick of things, but it’s always in the thick of things when there is a war going on, and Kevin said something like “Bring the troops home” and this guy was a Marine, and I guess he had listened to us in his Humvee in Iraq and was totally offending and that thought we were anti-American. In fact our label guy called, we were told, “You gotta be careful.” They got all worried because we had already been mugged and shot on different tours and they thought this guy might come for us.

Jim: Let’s clear the air here — you guys are not anti-American.

Kevin: No, we love this country more than anybody. We claim it as our own… but it’s a mess. And that’s how it goes.

Jason: Someone needs to clean it up.

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