Dan Weiss’s new band, Starebaby, isn’t quite as new as it might seem: the idea has been percolating in the drummer’s mind for “12, 13 years”, he tells the Straight in a telephone call from his New York City home. And he even had four-fifths of the lineup in place from the beginning, starting with himself, keyboardist Craig Taborn, guitarist Ben Monder, and bassist Trevor Dunn. Meeting keyboardist Matt Mitchell in 2009, he adds, cemented the notion of doing “something that drew on the heavier influences that we’d all had”. But it wasn’t until late 2016—when he finagled a grant from the Shifting Foundation arts agency—that he had time to sit down and write a body of work for the quintet.
It’s been worth the wait.
But then, you’d expect nothing less from this combination of musicians. Trained in jazz and South Asian percussion styles, Weiss is an explosive performer. Monder—who played on David Bowie’s final recording, Blackstar—is a fluent and expressive guitarist who’s as much at home with fuzztones and looping pedals as he is with more traditional jazz sonorities. Dunn is one of the most muscular bassists in any form of music, whether he’s playing electric or acoustic. Meanwhile, Taborn and Mitchell have distinct but complementary styles that balance splashy expression with razor-sharp focus; both can play free with abandon, and both can bring a compositional sensibility to bear on structures that reflect the pulse-driven, modular nature of contemporary electronic music.
Starebaby is as close to a supergroup as it is possible to get in a world that largely resists the spotlight, and the band’s self-titled debut is nothing less than a trip—which is mostly due to Weiss’s intricate, demanding charts. The album’s eight tunes, a couple of which break the 10-minute mark, transport the listener into a place that’s fascinatingly vivid, mind-bendingly complex, and often also undeniably scary.
Track 4, “Badalamenti”, offers a clue to what Weiss hopes to achieve with his writing. “The vibe of the record was really influenced by a lot of music I’m into,” he says, citing technical metal as a particular inspiration. “But it was especially influenced by Twin Peaks. I was watching Season 3 when I was composing this, so that made its way into a lot of the material—just the vibe of the show. ‘Badalamenti’ is obviously for [David Lynch’s in-house soundtrack composer] Angelo Badalamenti, so his world was really intriguing for me as I was writing. It put me in this kind of zone where there’s a lot of pretty stuff on the outside and then there’s this undercurrent of a lot of dark stuff. That made its way into the music.”
What remains to be seen is what else makes its way into the music as the band matures. Weiss’s compositions will remain at the forefront, but all five players are master improvisers, and that’s been written into the plan. “Right now, the blend is probably 50-50,” Weiss says, “but the more we play, the more we get off the page and we improvise.”
Dan Weiss Starebaby plays the Ironworks on Sunday (June 24), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.