Ready to pop

We've all danced around in front of the mirror with tennis rackets for guitars and hairbrushes for microphones. We've all, for at least a moment, become do-it-ourselves rock stars. Kelley Stoltz did too. But the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has taken it further. After a youth spent killing time in the Detroit suburbs, Stoltz has found a home in San Francisco and a fervent supporter in Sub Pop Records. Over the last six years he's refined his curious, crafty pop, releasing three albums and an EP that were all recorded right there in his bedroom studio. He's made the momentary fantasy a rock 'n' roll reality, even if he's barely left his apartment.

Below the Branches, Stoltz's latest and first full-length for Sub Pop after debuting on the Seattle label with last year's Sun Comes Through EP, features a few friends on guitar, clarinet and piano. "But I'm still pretty selfish," Stoltz says sheepishly via phone from his Bay Area place. He's no doubt surrounded by the tools of his trade — guitars, organs, drums, mics and reel-to-reel recorders. Despite the slight assistance with Branches, it's still a Stoltz statement, a reflection of both his easygoing manner and manic pop music jones. He's a record geek's record geek, a guy who loves music and gets to play it too. Underneath the other credits in the album's liner notes is a simple, straightforward phrase: "Kelley Stoltz plays all other instruments."

It wasn't always like that. Stoltz bashed around in various teenage rock bands while growing up in Birmingham, rocking high school talent shows and the occasional house party. But making music for a living was the last thing on his mind.

"I spent a lot of time pretending to be a rock star," he says, describing nights spent lip synching to David Bowie records while his parents were out. Still, he was drawn to a pal's secondhand guitar, and found himself learning to play while figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. He figured a guy like Bowie was a double threat — he was cool and he had marketable skills as a musician. "I wasn't that cool to begin with, so I knew I couldn't rely on that alone," Stoltz says.

An early '90s stretch in New York City convinced him to give music a try for real. He was working for Jeff Buckley's management, filing press releases and responding to the mercurial, ill-fated singer's fan mail. "At first I figured getting that close to the industry would be good enough," Stoltz says easily, chuckling a little at the exploits of his youthful self. But he realized if he was going to be involved in music, he might as well be the one to make it.

Stoltz ended up back in Michigan, working at the Magic Bag and, on off nights, using the theater as a practice space. With friend Gus Walgren on drums and various others, he'd play "spaced-out rock jams" for hours on end. "We were learning how to jam, how to play our instruments even." The songwriting came later. Realizing in 1996 that Michigan is cold in the winter — and that maybe there's more to life than pounding back 40s and losing your hearing in an empty rock club on Monday after midnight — Stotlz and Walgren headed west, two Midwestern boys with a car full of instruments, records and a dog. They ended up in Berkeley, Calif., and as Walgren drifted toward punk and garage rock, Stoltz began to discover his inner pop songwriter. He also started making recordings on an acquired four-track, deciding it was easier just to play it himself than to convey to someone else the sounds he heard in his head. And with that, Kelley Stoltz's career as a home recordist began.

His 1999 release, Past Was Faster, was a rambling, lo-fi gem, with Stoltz as a bedroom-musing, would-be Ray Davies at its center. References to '60s pop and folk abounded. Critics and obsessive pop fans alike noticed. When Stoltz self-released Antique Glow in 2001, it caught a quick buzz. Dirtbombs drummer and avowed vinyl freak Ben Blackwell was an early supporter (Blackwell has since released a Stoltz 7-inch through his label, Cass Records), and with his help Glow found its way to the English imprint Beautiful Happiness. Critical applause for Stoltz's gentle blend of jangly, Kinksian pop with Lennon and Wilson flourishes followed, and the easygoing, ex-Bowie lip-syncher found himself with a (well-deserved) deal on Sub Pop, a label with more promo pull and higher exposure.

With Below the Branches, Stoltz delivers on the promise of his lo-fi past. While the majority of it was still recorded on his trusty eight-track reel-to-reel, you might not know it from the album's rich sonic quality. A thumping bass line matches little swoops of electric guitar in "Birdies Singing," and it starts to sound a little like McCartney fronting the Velvet Underground. Top shelf reference points, to be sure. But there's an endearing and very personal sardonic lilt to the best of Stoltz's material, and that's something that can't be borrowed. "Jesus Christ, what you been doing all this time?" he asks at the outset of the Beach Boys-y romp "Ever Thought of Coming Back," going on to thank the son of god for all the pretty clouds before suggesting now might be the time for him to make another appearance.

Melodies and feelings on Branches can be simple, like in the loopy, triangle psychedelia of the brief "Mystery" or in "Wave Goodbye," which urges us to "Find a thing that makes you happy/Find a thing that gets you high." But "The Rabbit Hugged the Hound" is as charmingly weird as its title, with sitars that whine and a piano that bonks along drunkenly. Stoltz gives the songs whatever they need. After all, his tools surround him. But in their varied feel is his knowledge that, home studio or no, there needs to be some restraint. He references his eight-track reel-to-reel again. Barring the occasional, computer-aided overdub, he enjoys the "math" involved in recording to a finite number of tracks, the craft that goes into making everything he wants on the album fit. That it was recorded piecemeal in a San Francisco apartment with one guy playing most of the instruments isn't what stands out most about Below the Branches. It's that Stoltz makes it sing like the best studio pop.

Stoltz and his touring band begin a round of shows this month that will bring them to the Lager House in early April. But there's still a little bit of amazement in his voice as he describes how he went from messing around in Birmingham to his initial forays into four-track recording, to making a gorgeous album for Sub Pop and touring in support of it to Australia, Detroit and beyond. But in his typically unassuming fashion, Stoltz figures that validates the "anyone can do it" sense of his story. He might not ever return to the D. But maybe there's a lesson here for all the would-be rockers dancing in mirrors.

Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]