More than a feeling

Back in the 1970s, the members of Boston famously built their own basement studio. They wanted to freak out on their own shit, obsess over every nuance, write and rewrite every passage, and finally discover the ultimate sequencing for each song on their album. That was the only way they'd know that it was perfect.

Starling Electric knows that feeling.

The Ann Arbor-based quartet of twentysomethings built a basement studio too, and the result is the long-time-coming Clouded Staircase, one of the most criminally slept-on albums of 2006, local or otherwise. It's a guitar-fueled love letter to the classic Anglophile pop of the 1960s and early '70s, 18 flawlessly sequenced songs that recall an era when listening to an album was supposed to be a journey.

Songwriter, vocalist and keyboard player Caleb Dillon gets cinematic when he talks about it. "The sequencing of Clouded Staircase was like a movie," he says, and he could be describing the process behind anything from early Bowie to Big Star or the Zombies. "I want there to be scenes. I want there to be highs and lows, flashbacks, asides and soliloquies."

"A lot of times I arrange the songs like they're scenes," adds drummer John Fossum. "And if you listen to the album, there are definitely parts of it that reference other songs."

Songs on Staircase end before you want them to. Its dense, inventively arranged pop brims with chiming guitars, sweet harmonies, myriad keyboard sounds and surprising production touches — touchstones similar to what defined the music of their heroes. There's the organ, harpsichord and Mellotron that precede the Beach Boy-ready harmonies of "Clouded Staircase (Part Two)," as well as the banjo, toy xylophone, harp, flute, crickets and Abbey Road guitars of "Camp-Fire."

The curveball in Starling Electric's influences — a list that includes the Beach Boys, Left Banke, late Beatles, early McCartney and Todd Rundgren — is an adoration for indie-rock kingpins Guided By Voices.

Watch Me Jumpstart

The merry GBV men surface in the Starling's backstory too. Dillon met Fossum in 1996 after Dillon's mom walked into New Moon Records in Traverse — where the drummer worked then — to get her son the Guided by Voices box set.

Soon Fossum heard Dillon's early Starling Electric four-track recordings.

"When I first heard it I was like, 'Holy shit! Who is this kid?' Fossum says. "It was mind-blowing that someone I knew was that good of a songwriter."

Fossum and Dillon moved to East Lansing and started the band.

Guitarist (and Grand Rapids native) Christian Anderson came aboard after an earlier, somewhat punk incarnation of Starling stumbled. In 2003, the three moved to Ann Arbor to join another Traverse transplant, guitarist-producer Jason DeCamillis. (DeCamillis landed in the Tree City after a recording school stint in Florida and working at Steve Albini's Chicago Recording Company.)

The band moved into a rambling house on Ann Arbor's old west side, the sort of student ghetto special where beer bottles pile high enough to turn the sunlight bronze. It also had a basement where Starling could build a studio, record and explore its sound recording with no hourly rate.

DeCamillis is a Starling secret weapon. His production on Clouded Staircase evokes a slew of classic '70's records that were definitely not recorded in basements — though his current setup is a humble Pro Tools rig occupying space between the furnace and laundry machines. It's proof that, with the right set of ears, it doesn't matter where you record. (Island Records, in fact, recently tapped DeCamillis to record tracks for Ann Arbor darlings and UK scene sensations Satin Peaches.)

He's a Scientist

Caleb Dillon is a prolific, hallucinogen-free writer of the kind of pop songs psychedelic drugs were invented to create, and he plays guitar, keys, and bass with aplomb. He'll often write songs on cheap guitars in strange tunings without all their strings. (No wonder he loves Joni Mitchell. "She's my favorite person ever," he says.) Dillon prides himself on the fact there are no power chords on Clouded Staircase, and that's a little amazing — given the soaring guitars on "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre," "Black Ghost/Black Girl," and "Death to Bad Dreams/The Black Parade."

It's then up to the rest of the band to "translate" Dillon's songs onto standard-tuned guitars. Then, in the midst of so much writing, arranging and recording, Starling rehearses, because those layered songs must somehow translate live.

With nods to Bowie, T. Rex and the Who, Starling gigs tend toward light shows, smoke machines, freak-outs, outlandish costumes, and drummers falling off of thrones. What's great is the band successfully pulls off the killer harmonies (they all sing) and musical intricacies from the album, but they tear into the songs as well.

"It's definitely a live show and an album," Dillon says, settling back amid the Masters of the Universe action figures strewn across floor at the Starling house. ELO's "It's Over" plays in the background. "They're two separate things. If we were doing a mediocre show, I wouldn't do it. I'd rather spend the time writing songs. And for the last seven years of my life, I've not done things for the sake of having more time to write better songs."

Dillon rattles off a list of things he hasn't done — going out, socializing at shows, girlfriends ...

Motor Away

So where does all this pop asceticism get Starling Electric? The band caught a break back in 2004, when "Camp-Fire" was used in an episode of Veronica Mars. A friend of a friend had passed an advance copy of Clouded Staircase to the show's creator, who loved the album. Dumb luck, essentially, but the residuals from the song's appearance gave the group enough cash to self-release its album last August.

And, in keeping with how things sometimes go in Detroit music, Starling Electric gets more notice and praise from out of town. A copy of their album was handed to Robert Pollard's brother Jimmy at a show at St. Andrews, and their GBV hero subsequently fell in love with it; he asked the band to open for him on an East Coast tour last November. The Posies' Jon Auer is a Starling Electric fan too. He recently raved about the group while guest DJ'ing on BBC6, after having stumbled across their music on MySpace.

Starling Electric is starting work on its next record, Go Flower Peddler. And it's as much a labor of love as Clouded Staircase, so who knows when it'll come out. "I don't regret a thing about Staircase," Dillon says. "I don't care how long it took to make, and I don't care how long the next one takes. It's exactly what I wanted it to be, and I think people can feel that."


Jan. 11 at Blind Pig, 208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555. With Satin Peaches and the Silent Years.

Doug Coombe is a freelance photographer and writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]