Alternative rock group
Though he has enlisted the aid of several collaborators over the years, Starflyer 59 was basically the creation of a single individual, Jason Martin. Unusually durable for an independent rock act that has never broken through to national success, Starflyer 59 is notable for the degree to which it has appealed to both Christian and secular audiences. Starflyer 59 has been listed under various rock subgenres, from shoegazer to Beatle-esque pop, to space rock to synth pop, to alternative Christian. What ties Starflyer's ten years of music together has been Martin's constant curiosity and ability to improve on his past efforts.
Martin grew up in Riverside County in southern California, where his father owned a small trucking company. Even as an adult musician, Martin continued to help support himself as well as his family by driving trucks for the family business. The family adhered to strict Christian practices, and as a child Martin was forbidden to listen to anything other than Christian music. But when he was 12 he discovered secular rock music while visiting a friend who owned a copy of the Smiths' The Queen Is Dead. "Me sneaking over there after school and listen[ing] to that, there was this other world. … When I actually started listening to more music I think it drove me a little more nuts than the average kid because I didn't have any, you know?" Martin told PopMatters.
Martin's parents needn't have worried, for alternative rock didn't drive Martin away from Christianity. "I made my commitment to Jesus Christ when I was about 15 or 16," he told the lollipop.com website. "I was brought up with it, and it finally made sense." Good-natured about friends who took a more rebellious attitude, and in general nonjudgmental about music fans with points of view different from his own, Martin added, "I wanted that mohawk, but my hair just wouldn't do it."
Martin began playing keyboards and writing songs while performing with his brother Ronnie in a band called Dancehouse Children. He struck out on his own as Starflyer 59, writing, producing, singing vocals, and playing most of the instruments on Starflyer 59's recordings himself. Martin recruited other musicians mostly for live performances, a musical context about which he remained unenthusiastic. Over the years, however, he developed close working relationships with a few other musicians, including bassist Jeff Cloud.
Martin signed with the small alternative Christian label Tooth & Nail in 1993 and released the album Starflyer 59, also known as Silver. That album showed the influence of the primarily British "shoegazer" style, so called because of the tendency of its adherents to remain almost motionless while performing; specific influences came from the band My Bloody Valentine. Instrumentally the Starflyer 59 debut album featured walls of guitar sound modulated by effects such as reverb; Martin's distinctive and rather quiet vocals, which remained a constant through Starflyer 59's diverse output, also made their first appearance here. The album garnered praise from the influential college radio magazine CMJ, and Martin was on his way.
Layers of guitar sound and a strong melodic sense that deepened with each successive release continued to figure in the next few Starflyer 59 albums, including 1995's Starflyer 59 (Gold ) and 1997's Americana (Red ). The latter album veered in the direction of classic rock, with prominent guitar solos from Martin. But the real shift in emphasis was 1998's Fashion Focus, an album that served notice that Starflyer 59 might have more staying power than many of the usually short-lived acts in the indie rock field. That album, which remained enconsed on CMJ 's airplay chart for several months, scaled back Martin's big guitar sounds in favor of an array of keyboard parts and a generally more delicate feel.
Another factor that contributed to Starflyer 59's ongoing success was the rise in the late 1990s of a network of independent Christian-oriented clubs that served as gathering places for mostly Christian young people devoted to alternative rock music. Starflyer 59 moved easily between these clubs and the circuit of secular rock clubs, partly because Martin was so successful in straddling the line between Christian and secular music. In interviews Martin has been straightforward about his religious orientation, and many of his songs allude to biblical stories or themes. He has also avoided the references to violence and drug use that appear in the music of some of his more secular counterparts.
Martin has also largely eschewed the language of praise and worship, a stance that has drawn some criticism from conservative Christians. Partly it was a matter of personal conviction on Martin's part. "For me personally, to take the holy name of Christ and throw it into a song to look spiritual—I can't do it. I'd be blasphemous," he told the Cleveland Scene Entertainment Weekly. The effect of Martin's decision was that he attracted fans of equal devotion in both Christian and secular circles.
Starflyer 59's style continued to evolve in subsequent albums. They performed at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, in 1999. They had nibbles of interest from major labels, but nothing came of it. Undaunted, Martin forged on and experimented with such styles as Beatlesque pop and surf music. Most eclectic of all was Leave Here a Stranger in 2001, which PasteMusic.com called "a bug-eyed, jaw-dropping revelation of a record, a record that defies classification. Simply put, a masterpiece." Recorded in mono sound, the album features such novelties as orchestral effects. Martin got the idea of doing the album after listening to Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys' classic of surf experimentalism.
By the early 2000s Starflyer 59 had released albums of a sort rarely encountered in the fast-changing and youth-oriented indie rock scene. Easy Come Easy Go (2001) was a two-disc retrospective of the band's earlier material, and 2003's Old focused lyrically on the sensations of approaching middle age and mortality. Married and with two children, Martin showed no signs of wanting to withdraw from the music scene, performing in side projects in addition to Starflyer 59. With his wife, Julie, a musician whom he met while both were active on the Orange County performance scene, he formed the duo Bon Voyage. In 2004 Starflyer 59 released the album I Am the Portuguese Blues. In All Music Guide Tim Sendra noted that in this album the group has retreated "to the noisy, almost grunge sound they exhibited on their early albums." Clearly, Starflyer 59 is an alternative rock band that has plenty of alternatives to offer.
For the Record …
Members include Eugene Andrusco (deceased), keyboards; Jeff Cloud , bass; Frank Lenz , drums; Jason Martin (married; wife's name Julie), bandleader, vocals; Richard Swift , keyboards, vocals.
Group formed in Orange County, CA, early 1990s; signed with Tooth & Nail label, 1993; released debut album Starflyer 59 (also known as Silver), 1994; released nine albums on Tooth & Nail, including I Am the Portuguese Blues, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Tooth & Nail Records, P.O. Box 12698, Seattle, WA 98111, website: http://www.toothandnail.com.
Starflyer 59, Tooth & Nail, 1994.
Gold, Tooth & Nail, 1995.
Americana, Tooth & Nail, 1997.
Fashion Focus, Tooth & Nail, 1998.
Everybody Makes Mistakes, Tooth & Nail, 1999.
Leave Here a Stranger, Tooth & Nail, 2001.
Easy Come Easy Go, Tooth & Nail, 2001.
Can't Stop Eating, Tooth & Nail, 2002.
Old, Tooth & Nail, 2003.
I Am the Portuguese Blues, Tooth & Nail, 2004.
Anchorage Daily News, January 15, 1999, p. H8.
Cleveland Scene Entertainment Weekly, March 3, 2004.
Houston Chronicle, June 21, 2003, p. 1.
Orange County Register, March 28, 1999, p. F9.
Pittsburgh City Paper, February 26, 2003, p. 68.
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"Starflyer 59," All Music Guide,http://wwww.allmusic.com (July 1, 2004).
"Starflyer 59," Christianity Today,http://www.christianitytoday.com/music/artists/starflyer59.html (July 1, 2004).
"Starflyer 59," PasteMusic.com, http://www.pastemusic.com/artist/10121 (July 1, 2004).
"Starflyer 59: An Interview with Jason Martin," Cornerstone Magazine,http://www.cornerstonemag.com/pages/show_page.asp?38 (July 1, 2004).
"Starflyer 59: Artist Bio," Tooth & Nail Records, http://www.toothandnail.com/artist_bio.php?id=45 (July 1, 2004).
—James M. Manheim