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In the past year, Portland's Stars of Track and Field have transformed from a fairly standard four-piece indie rock band into a three-piece act that leans heavily on programmed rhythms and noises. I met with drummer Dan Orvik and guitarist/singers Jason Bell and Kevin Cabala at one of Portland's ever-present hipster hangouts days before they left for a California tour (which stops at Club Fred July 14th) to talk about their musical approach, their reluctant love of jam bands, and Fresno's thriving light aircraft community.
You've gone through a pretty big change in the last couple of years in terms of sound and approach. Was that a conscious decision or more of an evolution?
Jason: Our bass player quit, so that changed things.
Kevin: A conscious evolution, I'd say.
J: Either we were going to replace him or go in a new direction, so we decided to experiment with electronics-sequencing and sampling, that sort of thing-and stay as a three piece. That's how we came to the conclusion.
J: Dan does the majority of the drum machine programming. There's obviously a lot of drum machine stuff. Everyone shares in the programming duties as far as bass lines and noises, but Dan definitely handles the lion's share of rhythm.
How much of that was already in place when you still had a bass player?
J: We had talked about wanting to add more and more electronics, and Dan already had a lot of experience in one of his prior bands programming and playing with a drum machine. It's obviously kind of difficult, because when we play live, Dan listens to a click track, because we have to. A lot of drummers can't really handle keeping perfect time and still playing with a groove. Luckily, Dan can.
Dan: Dude, I had no programming experience.
J: You said you used to play drum machines all the time!
D: I used to play with drum machines and samplers, but I didn't program anything.
Isn't that like lying in a job interview?
D: I had experience playing with them.
J: And working with a click track.
You had seen a drum machine before?
J: He had once heard a band that had a drum machine in it.
D: But I never played with a click track.
Was that a hard change at first?
D: Yeah. You've got to concentrate. It's kind of a compromise, a sacrifice. You don't get to be as free spirited, I suppose. It's a little more restrictive. But it's a good trade off.
You don't get to show up on stage and just jam for a half an hour.
J: There's no jamming.
D: Not in this band. Maybe someday.
J: There's jamming at practice. And there's a lot of counting.
What are your gigs like?
J: When we play live, it's usually kind of a show. At our CD release party we put 150 pianese blooming flowers onstage, and we had some awesome movies projected behind us according to the song. That sort of thing. There's actual attention to wardrobe. A snow machine. It can be kind of a high maintenance affair.
Is that typical of your shows?
J: More or less. That was a bigger brouhaha, but we usually have at least video.
K: We put on an "Alice in Winterland" show at Bossa Nova that was a dress up thing. That was the first time we broke out the snow machine. It was a big hit.
J: People came in costumes and shit-these giant bear suits. Kevin was a glamour rabbit.
K: I got assassinated.
J: We programmed gun shots into the sampler. Seriously. We blasted Kevin. Dan and I jumped off the stage. There was fake blood.
Was this before or after Dimebag Darrell was killed onstage?
J: Right after Dimebag took a bullet, dude. It actually came up that maybe we shouldn't do it because people might really trip out. But then Kevin got back onstage and read this political diatribe about certain issues, and we had sad Civil War violins programmed to play behind him. People were like, "What the fuck? This is a rock show. They just killed that guy and now he's yelling at me." We thought it was fresh.
D: We're high maintenance, but there are other bands that carry more stuff than we do. Like Climber. They carry a piano around to every show. That's high maintenance.
J: The problem is mixing our band. Mixing can be tricky.
It makes the sound guy's job harder. And from what I know of sound guys, they don't like anything that makes their job harder.
J: No. They have a hard enough time just, like, standing up. They're getting constant bass signals and wav files sent at them, so it's a little different.
Do you have to walk them through it if you haven't worked with them before?
K: It depends on where we're at. I won't say any names but if we go to-If we go to somewhere that's very professional, they'll ask what we have and we'll tell them. If it's somewhere else, the sound will come out like shit.
When our second round of beers appeared, Dan got distracted by an impossibly hot girl three tables away who may or may not have been glancing at him. During the interruption, Jason began talking about his new favorite band, The Frames, and their use of odd rhythms.
J: and I realized they're playing in five, but not a wanky five. Which I think is fucking cool if you can do it without sounding like Phish. If you can still construct a cool, interesting pop song but you're playing in five or seven-
K: "Billy Breathes" is one of my favorite records ever, so this isn't anything against Phish.
D: I don't know. I never even heard that record for years and years. I like their earlier stuff. My favorite was "A Picture of Nectar."
J: I don't want to get into the Phish discography.
D: "Give the director / A serpent detector." You know? "Picture of nectar."
J: Do you like Phish?
No, but I'm enjoying this.
D: Those guys are so good, their theory and everything. Listen to their chord structures. Listen to their arrangements.
J: I think the most admirable thing about Phish is that they're taking money from hippies.
K: That, and they're about 15 times better than the Dead was.
D: It's so obvious. Why does anybody ever debate that?
K: I'm not sure that's a debate.
D: But it is for so many people. I've seen so many people get really upset over which band is better. There's a rivalry between these fun-loving hippies. They're spitting at people and ready to throw punches. It's like, "Where's the love, hippy? It's just music. But by the way, Phish is better."
What about Widespread Panic?
D: I never heard them.
J: Let's get off of jam bands.
D: What about that band from Colorado, Leftover Salmon? Those guys are good. What about Aquarium Rescue Unit, ever heard of those guys? They have a drummer named Apartment Q248 or something. They're so good.
K: At a certain point, you want to move on. If you don't, you're not a connoisseur of music.
J: You're a pot head. And you've got 15,000 Grateful Dead CDs of the same fucking show.
D: You have 30 versions of the same song but with different solos.
Have you ever heard the band-I can't think of the name-that picks a Grateful Dead show from history and recreates it in its entirety, from the lineup to the instrumentation?
D: That's insane. I can hardly think of anything more obsessive.
J: Darkstar Orchestra?
J: They play the Crystal Ballroom all the time. And they sell that shit out.
K: They probably kick ass, too.
D: Do you think they'd still do it if they weren't making money?
They started for a reason, and it wasn't because they thought it was going to make a shit-ton of money. I have to imagine they're the world's biggest Deadheads; they just happen to be making a bunch of money doing it.
D: Can you imagine? Taking a moment in time from 30 years ago and recreating it?
J: That's just too obsessive.
D: I understand the whole Civil War reenactment thing, but I really don't understand that.
K: Reenactments of anything are obsessive.
J: Yeah. It already happened. Why are people so obsessed with repeating things?
D: Have you seen the movie "Brain Candy"? It's exactly what we're talking about. This company markets this drug and if you take it you get stuck in your favorite memory, and you just freeze there. You're the happiest person ever.
J: Rad. That's a great idea.
D: It has problems.
Have you ever been to Fresno?
J: I've been through there. I mean right through. I think we stopped for a few hours.
D: I remember going there once and there was an airstrip right next to the freeway, and then a bunch of houses with airplane garages. I was fascinated by that. You can just fly right to your house. You just roll right into your automatic garage. If you want to go somewhere, you just get in your plane. Fresno seems pretty hip.
Except your destinations are somewhat limited, because you can only go to a place that has a runway.
D: But there's quite a few runways out there. And you can go quite far. You can get to Tahoe probably in a half hour or 45 minutes. Make a good night out. If you can afford the gas.
And the plane.
D: And maybe a designated driver.
So if you had your own plane, and your own hangar, and your own pilot?
D: It has to be a girl, too.
J: A hot girl. Who knows kung fu.
D: If you can throw all these things together, I'd say Fresno's not a bad place to put down your airplane. That's the only thing I remember about Fresno.
The Stars of Track and Field play Club Fred Thursday, July 14th.